Ode on Shadow and Form (I)

By Aris Merquoni

** Disclaimer: Almost all places and characters herein were conceived by J. Michael Straczynski, Great Maker of all things Babylon 5, and were brought to my attention by dramatazations owned by Warner Brothers and Babylonian Productions, and also TNT. Additional books by Peter David, Kathryn M. Drennan, J. Gregory Keyes, and Jeanne Cavelos also contributed. And I stole a bunch of ideas from Fredrick Pohl and Stephen Baxter. And there are only seven plots in existence, meaning that I probably stole even more than I intended from Aeschylus, Euripides, Sophocles, Plato, William Shakespeare, and Tom Stoppard. Given all that, I am disclaiming any and all intent to profit by this misuse or this missive, I intend no offense or decrease in intellectual property value.

** Thank yous: MASSIVE props to Shadur, Adi, and Patrick, for reading this over and over again in all its iterations and giving me tons of great advice. Thanks to Sarah and Gillian for being interested enough to hang out while I should be thesisworkingon and watching the show with me, again. And thank you Noah, my ex-boyfriend and now Professional Screenwriter With Own Blog (noahbrand.blogspot.com) for offering me suggestions with this while we were still dating (and even after!)

** Spoilers: As you might have guessed from the gigantic list above, I can't be responsible for the state of your knowledge about the Babylon 5 universe if you read this story before watching every single episode of Babylon 5 and Crusade, as well as all the TV movies, and reading all the books (Well, all right, not all the number books from the old days. But at least The Shadow Within and To Dream in the City of Sorrows, which have both been re-released with new cover art, and... yeah.)

So, uh, this took me about a year to write and a few months to polish into shape. It's long. Quite long. Novel-length, basically. It's filled with in-jokes and my own personal skew of things and a big universe filled with strange people and coincidences and quite a few references to other works of literature, none of which you should feel obligated to understand in order to enjoy the work. But one thing I would like to clarify in advance. An ode is a poetic form, originated by Pindar, in Greek, with three sections performed by a chorus. The first section was called a strophe and the chorus sung it while dancing a pattern. The second section was the antistrophe and the chorus would reverse their pattern of dance while singing it. The third section, the epode, was sung with the chorus standing still.

More recently, poets used the odic form to ask questions about life, the universe, human nature... questions similar to those asked by all philosophers and artists. These questions can't get answered in a poem. Or a fanfic. Or a philosophical screed like The Republic. And getting out of the cave to see the Good doesn't always mean you get a free pass on the answers.

So buckle up, here starts the ride...

(Aris, Feb 2006)

******

Act 1: Strophe. 2261.

Centauri Prime had at one time been the toast of an empire, a glimmering jewel in the vast velvet firmament, surrounded by the comet-tails of proud capital ships bearing the purple-and-gold crest of a nation supreme. But the decay of easy success had started to grow, corroding the great empire from within. Its people settled for decadence instead of delight, entertainment instead of excellence, and pompousness instead of passion. Recently the empire had attempted to claw itself back to supremacy by launching its navies into battle again, but despite the help of its allies, its internal rot had been too strong to allow Centauri Prime to pull itself back onto its pedestal.

For the alien being roughly escorted to the throne room of the palace, the disappointment was something personal. He had been specifically selected as a representative to the Centauri from their allies, had broached the initial agreements, and had used every skill at his disposal to bring their leadership around to a complementary point of view. He'd cajoled, intimated, lied, and arranged everything from small-scale murder to the destruction of a major colony to bring the Centauri into the fold. He'd suffered personal indignities, a prison term without sentence or trial, and a nuclear warhead dropped on his back, and all, it seemed, for nothing. They were going to lose here, and lose badly.

It took him a few seconds to regain his balance and his dignity after he was manhandled into the throne room. "Ahhh, Mr. Morden," he was greeted, "I see they found you. Good, good. You're looking well. All healed now, I take it?"

Morden straightened himself and glared. Standing before him on the raised dias of the throne was Londo Mollari, the man he'd thought he could trust to hold up his end of a bargain. Or at least cling to ideals of a bright, shiny new Centauri Republic. "I'm fine," he spat. "What the hell is going on, Mollari?"

As if he didn't have any idea. As if his ever-present guide hadn't been hissing in his ear about the assassination of Emperor Cartagia and the incoming, infuriated Vorlon fleet for the last three days.

"A number of Vorlon ships are on their way here," Londo said, "Accompanied by one of their planet killers. They will arrive in a matter of hours. They have been wiping out any colony, world or outpost where your... 'associates' have influence."

Morden waited.

"Cartagia gave your associates the island of Celini as a base for their ships. Now that Cartagia is dead, I am ordering you to remove those ships. At once."

"There are three billion people here," Morden said. "The Vorlons would never attack a civilian population that big." He grinned. It hurt. "The ships stay."

For just a moment, he thought he'd gotten away with the bluff. Londo stared at him, expressionless, then raised a finger. "You're afraid, aren't you?"

Yes, everything was falling apart.

Mollari turned around and gestured into thin air. "*They're* afraid," he said. No need to ask who he was referring to. He turned back to Morden. "And speaking of your associates, we need to be sure we can talk privately."

The guards stepped back. Morden watched them with a cold feeling growing at the base of his spine. Londo raised a hand, an earnest expression on his face. "Do not move."

Mollari gestured, and the guards on either side of the throne opened fire.

Morden flinched from the heat, but he wasn't the target. The whistling scream from his left let him know who was, and that the guards' aim had been good enough to take his companion out of the picture.

He could still feel the scream through the implant in his head as Londo stepped forward and surveyed the damage. "I will have to get that painted over, I suppose," the Centauri said.

"You're insane," Morden growled.

"On any other day, Mr. Morden, you would be wrong. Today, today is a very different day. One last time. Remove your ships!"

Morden thought, for one fleeting instant, that it might be nice to do just that. It would even be nice to have the power to give the order. But he didn't, so he drew himself up and said, "No. You don't frighten me, Mollari. If you try and attack our forces you'll lose."

"Yes, your ships are very impressive in the air, or in space," Londo agreed. "But at this moment they are on the ground."

"Right. They're on the ground." Morden raised a hand and snarled. "But they can sense an approaching ship miles away. So what're you going to do, Mollari, huh?" Another grin. "Blow up the island?"

It was the last moment when he thought he might maintain control, any control, over the situation on Centauri Prime. "Actually," Londo said, turning away, "Now that you mention it..."

He held up a small transmitter.

Morden knew what was going to happen when Londo pressed the button. He also knew what, personally, it was going to feel like.

"NO!" he screamed, frozen between leaping for the transmitter and running, and he heard/felt his voice break, and then heard/felt Londo press the transmit key, and then heard/felt the Shadows scream IN HIS MIND--

(here it comes)

--and there was an ice pick jabbing him in the brain through the spinal cord and out through his forehead, or at least that's what it felt like as the scream went on and on and on and finally died when the last Shadow on the planet was consumed by fire.

At that point, he wasn't really listening as Londo told him about the ultimate sacrifice required of Celini's populace. He was more concerned about his legs holding him up after what felt like being disemboweled with a rusty spoon as the pain drifted down from his head toward the vicinity of his navel.

"Take him to a cell. Keep him there," Londo ordered.

The guards tugged him backwards, and Morden realized they'd been keeping him standing. He struggled back to his feet and kicked out, but they were pretty good at dragging. He screamed threats, curses, anything he could think of, until they were out of sight of the throne room and the guards dumped him unceremoniously on the floor.

"Do you want us to keep carrying you, or will you walk?" one asked as he pointed his sidearm at Morden's head.

He scowled and got to his feet. "I'll walk."

He no longer had any delusions of getting off Centauri Prime alive. There had been something in Londo's eyes, something that said this whole affair was personal.

History and tradition were big in the Centauri Republic. The cells were very traditional, which meant they were small, cramped, and damp. One bench, a hole leading to the sewers in the corner, and a fair supply of mold. Morden sat on the bench, leaned back against the cold stone wall, and crossed his arms.

He didn't have too long to wait. The pain technician was ushered in after a few minutes. The man didn't look the part; a round, cheerful Centauri with a briefcase and an effusive smile. Even his eyes twinkled all too much under eyebrows like forgotten bird's nests.

"Well, we don't have all the leisure one wants for this sort of thing," the torturer said as he sat down next to Morden on the bench and opened his briefcase, "So we'll have to make do. Can I have your left wrist, please?"

Morden held out his left arm stiffly and ignored the sensations of a thin cuff being strapped around his wrist. "Oh, jolly good," the torturer said, or the Centauri equivalent. "Now your right, please."

Another wristband, and then a U-shaped device that fit around the back of his neck and rested on his shoulders. Centauri pain-givers, smaller, more efficient, and easier to transport than the Narn knockoffs. Of course, not many people knew about the Centauri technology, because anyone who was exposed to its effects was on the short list for execution.

"Oh, lovely," the torturer said when he'd finished fitting the last piece. "Now just a test, try and hold still..." he stood up and gestured with the transmitter.

Morden's wrists and neck began to feel warm, then hot, then painfully seared. He gritted his teeth and tried not to give away any indications of pain.

The torturer wasn't even watching him. He watched his instruments and nodded happily, eyes twinkling. "Wonderful. Everything seems to be in working order." The pain faded, faded, vanished. Morden rubbed at his wrists, which didn't help very much. "I don't suppose you'd care to make a formal apology to the Centauri Republic?"

"I'm sorry the Narns didn't get a chance to grind your collective skulls to powder," Morden said.

The torturer's face crumbled. "I wish you would at least be polite," he said as he pushed the button.

It wasn't quite as bad as being burned alive in a nuclear explosion. When Morden's vision cleared from grey, he was lying on the floor staring at the torturer's shoes. He slowly turned his head and looked up into the frowning Centauri face.

"Feeling more reciprocitory, Mr. Morden?"

"Go strangle yourself with your dicks," he croaked.

The next burst *was* as bad as being burned alive in a nuclear explosion. Morden had long minutes to compare his present experience with his memories, so he was quite certain he wasn't exaggerating.

Then they hauled him to his feet and started hitting him, which was such a relief he asked them to keep going and they ended up breaking several of his ribs. He didn't have much time to complain about that, though, because after the torturer turned on the pain-givers for another shot, someone in official Palace livery was announcing his immediate execution.

They had to drag him to the chopping block, where they strapped his head down and adjusted a cutting laser to sweep across his exposed neck. His last sensation as the laser started to hum was not one of terror, but of overwhelming disappointment.

After that short, sharp shock, there was blackness.

By all rights, that should have been the end of it. He'd expected that to be the end of it. He'd saved his own skin on Z'Ha'dum, done a slew of things he'd be ashamed to tell his wife, made some errors of judgment, and been killed. Things should have ended there. He'd either stop existing, or go to some celestial registry to have a form of divine punishment bestowed upon him for his actions. He was ready for almost anything, up to and including a light bulb Jehovah condemning him to hell not for killing a planet-load of sentient beings, but for failing to accept Jesus in his heart.

He wasn't prepared for the blackness to go away and reveal the interior of a Morden-sized fishbowl.

At least, that's what the bubble felt like. To an extent, because he didn't have a physical form, and everything was dangerously metaphorical all of a sudden. He could... see, a sort of distorted image of the outside world, and if he concentrated he could make out details. He could hear, whispers and murmurs, mostly in languages he didn't recognize, occasionally in a dialect of Minbari he thought he knew. Other than that, he was alone with his thoughts, unable to close his eyes or shut out the outside world. Through a growing headache he desperately searched for information, straining at the limits of his bubble to see what was outside. Was he dead? Was he waiting for some sort of sorting to take place? Had he been ground up and used as mortar in the wall of the third temple? At this point he was willing to believe just about anything.

When he finally grasped what had happened, he reeled with the realization, then berated himself for not figuring it out sooner.

He was sitting in a Soul Hunter's collection, inside a collection sphere, in a 'library' of other collected people. He was on a shelf in a stone rotunda; he could faintly make out an imposing door across the way, more shelves lining the walls. There were uncountable soul spheres on those shelves, starlike points of orange in the dim, sourceless light, stretching up overhead until he could only see shadows.

There were worse places to be, he consoled himself after a while. He could be back on Z'Ha'dum. He could be back in his cell, being tortured. He could be actually dead.

He tried to think about legends he'd heard about Soul Hunters, which was all he had to go on. They captured souls... and didn't let them go. They claimed to talk with them.

Talk. That was an idea. He turned to his left and tried to make out the next sphere over.

"That was quick," the denizen of the other globe said, sounding surprised. "I was worried that you'd be out of it for months and I'd have nobody sane to talk to."

The sudden jarring presence left Morden a little shaken. He thought through a number of replies, rejected them, and said "Huh?" with as much conviction as he could muster.

"The Narn on the other side of me hasn't spoken in years. I think he's lost inside himself. And he just moved Jaddush, you see, the Drazi who used to be where you are now."

This was a little much to take. He pulled his concentration away, hoping that even if he couldn't close his eyes he could do something to help the headache.

"Oh, don't go!" the voice called. It echoed slightly in the space between them. Morden sighed and reached back; the person was bound to start making sense eventually, and it was better than staring at the other wall.

It took him some effort, but after a few tries he figured out the trick to seeing into the next sphere. Inside he saw a portly male Minbari, wearing fairly standard Religious caste robes. The Minbari smiled and waved. "Ah, good. Hello. A human!" He blinked. "I'm surprised to see you here. Last I heard we were still at war."

Morden rubbed his temples. He didn't know Adrenato, more than a few words, but the meaning was coming over in English. Unsettling. "And when was the last you heard?"

"Oh, when I died and came here. Our convoy was shot up by some retreating human fleet. I'm not exactly sure how long ago that was."

"Mmm." Morden thought about the unchanging view of the gallery and didn't comment. "Well, when I bought it, the war had been over for something like fifteen years."

"Incredible!" The Minbari started blinking altogether too rapidly. "And some of your species still exist? What tenacity!"

For a moment he couldn't figure out what the Minbari was talking about. Then he sighed. "We didn't lose."

That earned him a disdainful stare. "Preposterous."

"Well, they got you, didn't they?"

"That was a lucky shot. And I'm sure the humans who fired it were killed soon after."

Morden groaned and shook his head. "Look, uh... what's your name, anyway?"

The Minbari straightened himself up to his full height. "I am Kelonn of the 9th fane of Prashmael. Who are you, human, who presumes to tell me the entire fleet of Minbar could not deal with your species' unforgivable actions?"

"I'm Mr. Morden. I worked for the inhabitants of Z'Ha'dum."

Kelonn's eyes went wide, then his presence abruptly vanished. Morden chuckled to himself, then sighed. He was still stuck in the damn bubble, and he didn't have any more information than before.

Cautiously, he peered out the other side of his sphere. The bubble on his right was murky, dark. "Hello?" he asked. When he didn't get a response, he reached out and metaphorically tapped on the glass. "Hey? Anyone alive in there?" He paused. "Anyone dead in there?"

He waited. It took a long, boring period of studying his fingernails before he started hearing a response. There was a low moan, followed by a babble of words that he couldn't understand, and another long silence. He almost thought he was imagining things. He was about to give up and go back to pestering Kelonn when he heard a woman's voice ask, "Human?"

Well, there was only one real answer to that question, provided it was a request for identification. "Yes."

"Human..." the voice breathed in surprise. "Another..."

"My name's Morden," he offered. "Who are you?" He rolled his eyes as he realized what he'd said.

"Lieutenant Henrietta Greylark, United States Air Force," the woman snapped with surprising intensity. Morden blinked a couple times as she continued, "We got there first, we beat the Chinese out, damn straight we did. Launch worked, and the drive worked, and... and..." her voice faltered. "And the a...air was... I wa... th... the air was running... I was running out... I didn't... did..."

Henrietta didn't get much more coherent over the following span of subjective days. Morden waited, stretching thin his patience, as she stuttered out fragments of her life between long periods of dull moans and singsonging chants just loud enough to hear. If the dates she gave were correct her spaceship had launched over a hundred and fifty years ago, and she'd spent the years after her death here, staring at the unchanging room. She would sputter out a few facts, an opinion or two about politics centuries out of date, and then start sobbing again. Still, she was better conversation than Kelonn, who when Morden checked had shut himself up so tightly his sphere had turned black.

She'd been stuck in one of those incoherent moods for a very long time when she suddenly snapped, "Do you understand?"

"Huh?" Morden said, startled out of his reverie. He'd been wishing for coffee. He'd always liked coffee, but the prices had been prohibitive everywhere he went until he started working for the Shadows. Now, of course, he was no longer working for the Shadows, and dead besides. "Understand what?"

Henrietta sighed, frustrated. "How do you expect to bend space if you don't know where the mass is?"

He shrugged. "Mass is in matter. At least, that's what I learned in physics." He didn't mention that he'd flunked physics. "So you have to watch out for stars and planets, right?"

"No, no, no, no!" Henrietta's bubble swirled with angry colors. He hadn't yet been able to get a clear image from her. "That's only part of it. The smallest part. We're only the smallest part of the universe. Don't you know that? If you don't take dark matter into account, you're lost."

"Um," Morden said. "Dark matter?"

"It's there! It's all there! And here, and everywhere, and we're on it, and in it! We can't touch it, but we can sense it, there's too much mass, too much, and it's all around us!" She broke down sobbing. "And the air was going, I didn't know what to do, it was leaking out and I... the recycler I'd tried to patch it but everything was black, black..."

Morden backed away. She'd be reliving her death again and he really didn't want any part of that process. He'd resigned himself to another study of the floor when he heard Kelonn clear his throat.

He turned to his left. Kelonn was out of his self-imposed fugue, nervously rubbing his hands. "Ah... Mr. Morden..."

Morden raised his eyebrows and waited. Kelonn licked his lips, then said, "Ah, are you really the servant of... of the Shadows?"

"Well, I was, until I got my head cut off."

Kelonn frowned. "And so... were all humans working for the Great Enemy? Is that how you defeated us?"

The comment startled him into laughter. He realized Kelonn had been dwelling on his disparate remarks and had created a whole new conspiracy theory to torment himself with. He stopped laughing when he saw how quickly Kelonn crumbled. "No, not at all," he said. "And we didn't defeat you. The Gray Council called a halt to hostilities."

"Oh." Kelonn furrowed his brow. "Whatever for?"

"Well, the story I heard was they figured out that Minbari souls were being reincarnated in humans."

Kelonn completely stopped moving, staring with his mouth agape. Morden spread his hands. "So the war stopped. It had nothing to do with the Shadows."

The Minbari was still lost in surprise. "Our souls..."

"Mmm-hmm." Morden risked a glance at Henrietta. Still going on about her air supply. "Everybody knows Minbari don't kill Minbari. That one's right up there with 'Minbari don't lie.'"

"Minbari do *not* lie," Kelonn snapped, though more reflexively than anything.

"Of course not." He didn't feel like arguing the point. He'd just spent however long he'd just spent coaxing Henrietta to tell him about anything, and gotten a lecture on physics, and now Kelonn wanted to argue about the war. All in all he wished he'd had a little more input on his choice of companions.

He was pulled out of his thoughts by Kelonn again. "So the humans were not working for the Great Enemy?"

"Not all of us, anyway. Just the people who decided it was a good idea to go digging on Z'Ha'dum."

"You decided to WHAT?"

Morden would have answered, and he would have even answered politely, but Henrietta said from his other side, "Photinos, Mr. Morden, photinos are important. Are you listening?"

"Hold on," he said to Kelonn, and turned back to Henrietta. "Photinos?"

"Yes. Photinos. Haven't you listened to anything I've said?"

"Only about dark matter."

"That's it." She seemed calmer now. He pressed to try and get an image of her, but saw only static. "Photinos are dark matter. They're the elementary particles."

"Oh." He risked a guess. "Like protons and neutrons?"

"Absolutely unlike," she snapped. "Those are baryons. We're all made up of baryons. Baryons and leptons... Light matter's all baryons, though, the mass, that's what it is, what we work with."

"Sorry."

Henrietta sighed. "The important thing is that we know where the clouds are."

Morden blinked. "I think you just lost me. Clouds?"

"Photino clouds!" She was raging again. "They were moving! Don't you understand? They were moving under me! They were looking at me!"

Morden backed away slowly. This was worse than her death fantasies. He wondered fleetingly if she'd had some encounters with his associates when she'd been on her trip; that might explain some of her story. Dark matter indeed.

"Are you quite finished?" Kelonn said irritably.

"For now, anyway." He looked askance at the Minbari. "I didn't know dead people were so chatty."

Kelonn shrugged. "I have not been dead that long, and I'm sure you've noticed there's little else to do except sit and think. Though I'm not sure we're actually experiencing the full flow of time. For instance, I don't believe I've felt the passage of a full fifteen years, though you say--"

"I don't need the metaphysics."

Kelonn's sour expression darkened. "I am only trying to be helpful. And what in Valen's name were you doing... 'digging around' on Z'Ha'dum?"

"Archaeology." Kelonn looked startled, but nodded slowly to show he understood, if not approved, the idea. "Our team was looking at the remains of the civilization there. We didn't know we'd be there when they woke up. When they did... we pretty much had to choose between working with them and being put into a ship."

He remembered that choice all too clearly. He remembered watching when Sheridan had chosen the other way...

** She is held by two of the servants, the ugly, blue humanoids, so she cannot run. The ship is before them, gaping open in a hungry yawn, a human-sized nook at the center of twisting black... surface. He watches as she struggles, as the servants turn her around and push her backwards into the opening, holding her. He twitches involuntarily as the black material wrinkles around her, slides over her arms and wraps tendrils around her forehead.

He has to stand there watching as she starts screaming. At first her screams are animal cries of pain, and that's bad enough, but then she starts sobbing, "John... John..." her breath coming in gasps, the blackness almost completely engulfing her. The last thing he sees of her are her eyes, terrified, looking to him and past him as the ship closes around her.

He feels an immense, stabbing pain, then, that has nothing to do with his body or the twisted bit of metal wrapped around his own brain. "Penthesileia," he mutters, and is glad when nobody asks him why. Then he leaves, and the ship sits, quiet as death... **

"Penthesileia?" Kelonn asked.

Morden started, then glared. "What the hell did you see?"

"Ahh... you are aware that the collection spheres in which we are contained are meant to facilitate the retrieval of memories and experiences of the--"

"What. Did. You. See?"

Kelonn coughed. "You watched a young human woman being absorbed into a vessel. Your own feelings were mixed, due to your friendship and yet your respect for her strong principles, which--"

Morden didn't want to listen any more. He reached out and pulled a curtain of static around the edge of the sphere, then sat down in the center and held his head. Or at least, that's how he thought of it. He'd just been reminded that everything here was dangerously metaphorical.

He hadn't thought about Anna Sheridan in a while. He remembered John Sheridan interrogating him about her, of course. He'd gone in knowing that he'd probably get drilled on the subject, which was the only reason he'd been able to keep his composure when he'd seen the picture. Good thing, too. Good thing...

He tried to meditate. It didn't work. He tried to figure out what Henrietta had been talking about. That didn't work, either. Finally, he decided to just confront Kelonn and get as much information as he could out of the damn Minbari. He didn't like being caught off guard.

He brought down the static to face a very bemused Minbari. "I've never seen anyone do that before," Kelonn said.

Morden frowned. "Do what?"

"What you just did, with the screening there. I've never seen that happen."

"Oh, come on," Morden said. "When I first said I worked for the Shadows, you clammed up and didn't come out for... for however long that was."

Kelonn shook his head. "No, that isn't the same thing at all. These globes are quite amazing. Even when the inhabitant is hiding, it's possible to get a glimpse of their memories, if one makes the mental effort. It's the only way I get anything out of Du'Nen, the Narn over there. With you..." He spread his hands in surrender.

"Hmm."

"How did you do it?"

He didn't know how he'd done it. He just had. He got the sinking feeling that the Shadows may have done more than just install new hardware in his head. They might have tinkered around with the existing software as well. And not just to update the drivers, either...

"Sorry," is what he ended up saying. "Trade secret."

And he was going to ask Kelonn more about how the spheres worked, and if he could gain any control over it, but something was tugging on his attention. He turned from his conversation to try and figure out what it was, but the tug had turned into a strong, steady pull, and before he realized what was going on he was spinning, spinning, and the sphere and everything around him disappeared. It was a very specific day in 2262. He was being directed to a purpose.

He knew more than he had a few moments ago. That was his first thought when the power that held him let go, though he was also filled with a sort of muted joy at having a physical form again, being able to breathe real, if recycled air, feeling the solid weight of his pendant and reveling in the touch of the world, running his hands through hair shorter than he'd had it in years, enjoying the rustle of newsprint as he scooped the copy of Universe Today off the table. He knew, with the same utter certainty he had about the Shadows being *right*, that he had a mission here, on Babylon 5, in these quarters, on this night of all nights.

At any other time he might have been more distrustful of being yanked around by forces he didn't have a name for, but at this point he wanted out of that sphere so badly that if the Shadows had shown up and asked him to march into Vorlon space wearing a sign that said "Shadowminion, please kill slowly" he'd have actually considered doing it.

He sat down without looking at the room's inhabitant and opened the paper. "Good evening, Ranger Lennier," he said.

The Anla'shok training was doing Lennier some good, anyway. The Minbari had the pike open and at Morden's throat bare seconds later. Well, at the newspaper, which was close enough for the purpose. Morden put down the paper, took in the confused and concerned expression on Lennier's face, and smiled.

"I know you," Lennier said after a moment of hesitation.

"I should hope so. When I was alive I was known as Mr. Morden."

That got a reaction. Lennier twisted his wrists so the tip of the pike flipped closer to Morden's throat. The threat made him grin. "It's always nice to be recognized."

"You worked for the Shadows," Lennier accused.

Well, at least he didn't have to break the news. And Lennier didn't seem ready to bash in his skull quite yet. "I did a lot of things, yes. Looking back on it, though, I think I just tried to make people happy." He focused back on Lennier. "Anyway, it's all just history now, and I've paid for all my crimes, eh?" He drew his finger across his throat. "Skkkkkkkk."

Lennier wavered in his balance a little. Morden grinned. Lennier didn't seem all that amused, though he backed off enough to stand and lower his pike to a guard position. "Why did you come back here?"

"I'm dead." Morden shrugged and pushed himself to his feet. "It's my job." At least for this night. He knew that. It wasn't important, though. It was Lennier who was the center of attention. He pretended indifference and asked, "Why'd you come back here?"

That wasn't a hard question, but he wasn't going to get a straight answer. He knew that already, knew a lot about Ranger Lennier that he hadn't known before he stepped into the room. Briefly, he wondered if this was normal.

"I came for wisdom," Lennier said, which was half-true at least.

"You don't come to the dead for wisdom, Lennier." He finally looked at the Minbari, who was making nervous passes with his pike. "My head was cut from my body. Even now it rots on a pole outside the Imperial Palace. Birds have taken the hair for their nests. Maggots ate my flesh. And you want wisdom?" Not that he was bitter at Londo Mollari. Not at all. Not until he'd get a chance to haunt the bastard until the end of his remaining life.

Lennier managed to meet his gaze. "Yes," he said quietly. "I do."

'He told me what he wants,' Morden thought giddily. 'That's a first, from a Minbari.'

It was all he could do to keep from grinning. "Wisdom," he said. He mentally ran down a list of everything that Lennier should know already, but was ignoring or oblivious to. "Let's see..."

The blindingly obvious one struck him as a good idea. "Delenn does not love you as you love her." He looked Lennier straight in the eyes. "And she never will."

"I know that," Lennier said bravely.

You could see it in his eyes, that he'd been denying it. That the gnawing had just needed a nudge to surface.

"No," he confirmed. "You don't. Not in your heart. That's the problem, y'see?" He leaned in confidentially. Lennier flinched. "No one should want to talk to the dead."

He reflected briefly that he might be projecting. He liked to think he was just being honest. Giving Lennier a warning, so to speak.

Lennier glared at him, and snapped his pike closed with undue force. "Go away."

"Oop, sorry, doesn't work like that. You raised a ghost, now you gotta listen to what he tells you."

"Really?"

Lennier started for the door. When it swung open, he regarded the shimmering boundary for only a moment before pressing forward and into the corridor.

Morden wanted to laugh. When Lennier had been collapsed on the floor outside for a few seconds, he walked out, grabbed the asphyxiating Anla'shok by his shoulders, and dragged him back inside.

When they were back in atmosphere he dumped Lennier on the ground. "Come on, you won't get there by walking," he said as he reflexively picked up the paper. "The other side of that corridor is over two hundred million light years away. And the air is spread a little thinly in the middle." Was that right? He'd been given lessons in this one Minbari, not astrophysics. It was impressive enough, anyway.

There was a kitchen counter he hadn't noticed earlier on the far wall, with what looked to be a functional coffee pot sitting on it. God, he could use some of that. He glanced at Lennier. "Think there's any coffee in this place?"

Lennier spent a few seconds hyperventilating before gasping, "Why did you help me?" He took another breath and continued, more steadily, "I know what kind of a man you were."

That was Lennier to the core, all right. No place for good old human compassion. Shame.

"Give a dog a bad name and you can hang him with it," he observed. He flipped open the cabinets, glanced at the empty shelves. "You shouldn't believe everything Sheridan tells you. Actually, I'm surprised he's not here tonight, since he died at Z'Ha'dum." There was nothing--*nothing* in either cabinet. "Is there any coffee here or not?"

Lennier wasn't happy to be badgered about coffee in the midst of his breathing. Or at least that's what the glare he sent Morden suggested.

"Suit yourself," he said. He sat down where he could keep a watch on Lennier's reactions. He had work to do.

"So. You like being a ranger, Lennier?"

That got his attention, anyway.

"Would you like it any better if I were to tell you that *you* will betray the Anla'shok?"

"You are lying," Lennier said, after the briefest hesitation.

"I wish I were."

"No?" Lennier turned to look at him. "Sheridan did not die at Z'Ha'dum. If you do not know the present how can you claim to know the future?"

Now that was interesting. Didn't Lennier know the truth of the matter? But challenging him wouldn't make him accept the warning. "I'm talking about the future--so what if I'm not up on recent history? I'm prophetic. Not infallible."

He smiled and picked up the Universe Today. If he wasn't going to get any coffee, he might as well get the news.

"I think you are neither," Lennier said. "But at least you have shown me there is truly life beyond death."

"Not necessarily," Morden said. He didn't know, and hadn't been told. If he thought about it, he might be frustrated. "But you'll find that out soon enough."

Let Lennier chew on that one for a while. The poor bastard was getting rattled. It showed in his eyes.

The Minbari bravely sat up straight in a meditation position. "I am Anla'shok," he declared, "and shall remain so until I pass beyond. I could no more betray the Anla'shok than my fingers could betray my hand. Our talk is done."

"Your loss," Morden said.

He studied the newspaper and waited. Lennier's breathing evened out as his training took over. Occasionally he looked up to check, but the ranger didn't move.

He toyed with the idea of asking, "Delenn?" just to get a rise out of him, but he controlled himself. He listened to Lennier's breathing and wondered for just how long he'd have to read Universe Today's predigested analysis.

It turned out that Lennier ignored him right up to the deadline. He was startled when he felt it; in fact, he was impressed with Lennier's repression of what must have been burning curiosity for so long.

He stood and folded the paper. "Well. Time's nearly up." He looked down at Lennier and smiled. "When you remember me, Lennier... think of me as a brief electromagnetic anomaly that told you some true things for your own good."

Lennier started to turn, but he was already gone. Gone, spinning back toward the collection globe, back to--

--no. NO!

He grabbed something and *pulled* with all his strength. The universe crystallized, sharp, jagged edges of color/feeling/emotion/memory, and then he felt like he was sliding, sideways, down, away. For a moment, he thought he'd lost, and he was slipping back into the sphere, the cage. He flailed at the invisible forces surrounding him, then snapped into consciousness, in the collection chamber, most decidedly outside the ball of glass he'd been in the last time he'd seen that view.

He steadied himself with a few breaths and looked around. Now that he was outside the bubble he could see better how large the room was, plenty of room to stretch his arms out and not hit anything. It was impressive, especially since it seemed to be carved out of a solid pillar of rock. The points of light that were the soul spheres dwindled into the vertical distance far above his head.

Morden turned around and spotted an empty bubble--his. He smirked. Such a little thing. He wrapped his fingers around it, intending to keep a souvenir, but he couldn't get a grip. He watched his fingers sink through the glass, the cushion it rested on, the shelf... he snatched his hand back and shuddered slightly.

This was inconvenient. Also possibly dangerous. He didn't have any plans for what he was going to do now, but floating around like a ghost wasn't what he'd had in mind, haunting Mollari aside.

He stared down at his hand, eyeing the interference fringes where he could just see through the tips of his fingers. He thought about the time he'd screened his sphere from Kelonn, and what that meant about the Shadow technology he'd been wired up with. And about how he could remember what being alive felt like, and how somehow he could remember what all the parts of his DNA looked like (Had he ever *known* what all the parts of his DNA were?) and how DNA was just carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen, plus trace elements, and there were enough of those floating around in the air, so if he just decided to--

"I don't suppose you'd mind explaining just what you think you're doing."

Everything was grey and tasted like dust.

Morden blinked his eyes a couple times until he could focus. He was staring at someone's feet. For a few seconds that fact drifted around in his mind, unconnected to anything. After a few more blinks he realized it meant that he was on the ground.

He tried to talk, but when he forced air out of his lungs the only sound he could make was "Nnnh." His vocal cords hurt, he was surprised to feel. And, now that he was taking stock, he found that everything was hurting. His hair was hurting. He found that extremely clever, but laughing hurt, too, and got dust in his eyes, so he closed them and coughed.

"I'm not used to members of my collection taking it upon themselves to rematerialize in physical form. As far as my recollection goes, it has never before happened to me or to any of my brothers."

Morden tried moving one of his arms. He flailed for a little before he figured out he was lying on it. Too exhausted to be annoyed, he concentrated on his other arm, reached up and rubbed at his eyes. It felt good, even though it hurt like hell. He realized the Soul Hunter was talking to him, decided it wasn't important. He'd deal with it later.

"Are you even listening to me?"

"Mnngh," he said, which was slightly closer to speech than his first attempt. He reached out and grabbed one of the shelves, hauled himself up until he was slouched against the wall.

He stayed there for a few minutes, remembering how to breathe, as the pounding in his head slowly diminished and the aches in his joints seethed quietly. When he thought he'd regained control of his vision and his voice, he opened his eyes.

He'd had never met a Soul Hunter before. The hairless humanoid was wearing brown robes made from some kind of leather, and had a bony protrusion like a third eye in the center of his forehead. He stood with his arms crossed, staring down at Morden with a disapproving frown. "Well?" he said when he saw he had Morden's attention.

"Mmsrrwha..." Morden swallowed, ran his tongue over the inside of his mouth a few times, and tried again. "I'm sorry. What were you saying?"

His mind was turning over, slowly coming up to speed. He was surprised to find that he was back in the clothing he'd had before he'd died. His hair was back to its normal length, and his pendant was on its chain around his neck. He touched it for good luck.

"I am saying," the Soul Hunter said disapprovingly, "That this is most irregular."

"I'll bet," Morden said. He struggled to remember what had just happened that was so irregular. It had something to do with being dead.

"Our collections are meant to be permanent records of the best of the sentient beings of this universe. You are not supposed to get up and walk away."

Oh, yes. He'd decided to stay out of the collection sphere. No wonder the Soul Hunter was mad. And, he suddenly realized, frightened.

"I decided I didn't like the accommodations," Morden said, trying to keep his head steady. Was the headache something to do with having a head again? Or maybe he'd just cracked it on the floor when he'd... done whatever he'd done and passed out.

"You're not supposed to have a choice in the matter! We are preservers. We keep knowledge, dreams, memories. Being unable to capture certain important souls is bad enough. But what happens when you decide on your own to leave?"

Morden made up his mind. "I don't think... you'll have that problem with anyone else," he said as he struggled to his feet. He didn't know exactly what he was going to do, but he wasn't going to sit here and be lectured at.

The Soul Hunter watched him stand, then put a hand to his head and sighed. "This is a delicate situation. You are dead, you know."

"I figured that part out."

"And yet it would be an unspeakable crime to kill you in order to recapture your soul."

Morden took a couple of steps, supporting himself on the wall. A little shaky, getting better all the time. "Glad you feel that way."

The Soul Hunter went silent. Morden took the reprieve and continued pacing out the chamber. When he'd made it around to the doorway, the Soul Hunter said, "But if you die in the desert outside, I will make no special attempt to save your life."

"Just my soul, right?"

"Of course."

"Mmm." His sense of balance was settling in, and even though everything was still hurting and he felt like he'd mixed up the composition of blood with drain cleaner, he felt well enough to make a good show of walking away without collapsing. He spared the Soul Hunter a glance and crossed the chamber to his empty bubble.

"Ahhh..." the Soul Hunter said when he picked it up. Morden turned to look at him. "Those spheres are delicate, and do cost us to produce..."

"I'm sure you get a bulk discount," he said, and slipped the sphere into his pocket. After a moment of thought, he grabbed Kelonn and Henrietta's spheres and pocketed them, too.

"Now that is quite unacceptable!" The Soul Hunter started forward to restrain him. Morden looked up and glared, which brought the alien up short. He recovered and said, "I can understand your own concern, but this moves beyond into the realm of property theft. The collection I maintain--"

"This is a personal interest. They have some information I want to learn." He turned up the force of his glare, and suddenly knew how to be more effective and decided to and just *pushed*, deepening the shadows in the room until the soul- spheres were tiny pinpricks in the well. "I wouldn't suggest interfering."

The Soul Hunter couldn't agree fast enough. He was still staring as Morden made his way out the door, up the stairway beyond, and into the dying sunlight of the rocky wasteland outside.

Morden picked a direction where he wouldn't be facing into the sun and started walking. He wished he had a ship, or a map. He wished he knew how he'd done... whatever he'd just done. But he didn't know; he knew a little about dark matter, and a lot about Anla'shok Lennier, but he didn't know how he'd just reconstructed himself on a molecular level or how he'd played with the light in the room. If he knew that, maybe he'd know how to tell what planet he was on, or if there was any chance that he could walk to a starport. Or if said starport was in the direction he was going. Or what he was going to do even if he could get off this planet.

The day dimmed. He looked around, startled that the sun had passed the horizon so quickly. He couldn't even see the Soul Hunter's tower from here; he must have been walking longer than he'd thought. The desert spread out in crags, canyons, and dry stream beds in every direction, and with the sun down the heat was fading from the air. He found a good-sized rock and sat down on it, pulling out Kolann's sphere.

"You in there, Kolann?" he asked, holding up the bubble.

He saw a swirl of thoughts, memories, flashes of words... but no coherent presence.

"Kolann?"

Nothing. Certainly not the testy voice he'd come to know. Frowning, he looked deeper into the sphere... and *reached*.

Kolann's presence snapped into view, the Minbari looking more startled than ever. "How did you manage *that?*" he asked.

"I don't know," Morden answered. "I don't know how I'm doing a lot of things. Look, Kolann... I know the Minbari's dim view of Soul Hunters, especially the Religious caste. Do you want me to break this thing and let you out?"

Kolann's tiny image opened his mouth in surprise, then closed it again. After blinking in shock a few times he asked, "Why should you do this?"

"Why shouldn't I?"

"You are a human. You worked for the Great Enemy. You have no reason to wish me well."

"Except that you're the most coherent person I've talked to in the last year. Not counting Lennier." He shook his head. "The war is over. Both of them are. Neither one ended with one side destroying the other." He *knew* that, knew the Shadows were gone and the Vorlons, too. "I just want to get back to being a decent sentient being and forget all this nonsense."

Kolann gave him a long, calculating look. "I think, Mr. Morden," he finally said, "That you will find that a most difficult endeavor." Before Morden could respond, the Minbari nodded sharply and said, "Thank you for your offer and for your companionship, Mr. Morden... I would very much like to rejoin the rest of my generation in the place where no shadows fall."

Morden nodded and held out his hand, concentrating. The walls of the sphere crumbled, and for an instant, Kolann's spirit balanced on his palm, a warm ball of light, brilliant in the twilight. Then it vanished, whispering up and away into the upper atmosphere of the planet.

He got to his feet and started walking again.

In a couple of hours he was cold, tired, and hungry. The desert was empty of any other structure, or life. Everything he saw was brittle scrub or rock. He sighed. It would be his luck to get away from the Soul Hunter and then die of exposure.

There was a large outcropping of rock to his left. He made for it, climbed through a couple of shrubs, and found a perch that wasn't too uncomfortable to rest in. He was asleep only moments after he got settled.

When he woke, it was after dawn, and hot. He swallowed against a taste in his mouth that tasted like the unholy spawn of old carpet and looked around for anything that resembled a water source. Nothing. And the temperature was climbing fast.

He knew he wasn't going to get far by walking into the desert, but he didn't have any other ideas. After a few moments staring out over the miserable terrain, he fished into his pocket and brought out Henrietta.

The glass pulsed with an irregular orange glow. Morden held it up to his eyes and tried to see inside...

** She smiles and says, "So explain it to me." She's leaning back in the visitor's chair of Dr. Terre's office, while the relatively young astrophysicist on the other side of the desk is paging through simulation records on his computer. He looks up and gives her a mocking glare.

"You don't really need to know any of the theory behind this, you know. If the drive doesn't work in the first place, you won't go anywhere."

"I still want to know." And she does. She leans forward, pressing her hands on the desk. "C'mon, doc, you're strapping me to this widget, you might at least help me understand how it does its magic."

It's fortunate that Dr. Terre isn't so serious about his work that he lets a fighter pilot get his goat. He shrugs, turns off his computer's monitor, and straightens into lecturing mode. "Well, it basically works by folding space. You're aware that natural folds in the fabric of space-time exist around gravity wells?" When she nods, he continues, "Well, with the right materials, angles of shielding, and energy output, we can convince a body to funnel the force of gravity until a greater fold is achieved. Actually, by that point it's less of a fold than a wave. We've had the technology to create gravity waves for decades now." He folds his hands over each other and waits, smiling.

"You're waiting for me to ask you why we haven't done this before. I'm going to answer you. Money."

"Actually, no." The doctor grins. "The biggest problem was that we didn't have sensitive enough detectors to compensate for the presence of dark matter."

"Now, remind me. Dark matter..."

"Is what most of the matter from the Big Bang formed into. Clouds of it. Over time, our kind of matter, baryonic matter, condensed on top and formed the paint-splashes of stars and galaxies we see today." He smiles softly. "We are froth on a sea of photinos, Lieutenant Greylark. Truly a precarious miracle, far outnumbered by that which lies beneath us in the vasty deeps."

She is startled by his sudden poesy, but smiles gamely. "But you've gotten good at seeing what it looks like, right? So I'm going to be fine in my little silver surfer?"

"If all goes well, you'll be just fine..." **

Morden blinked and put the sphere back in his pocket, shaken. It was disconcerting to see... to *remember* through Henrietta's eyes. He wondered how much Kolann had figured out about *him* in his own little memory flash. Then he realized it didn't matter any more. Kolann was dead, and he didn't have the option of coming back.

"Gravity waves, huh?" He looked around, then shielded his eyes against the sun and looked into the sky. Dark yellow, no help. He closed his eyes and wished he was... well, anywhere else, almost. Back on Babylon 5. Back on Centauri Prime before things went to hell. Back on Mars, before he'd ever heard of the Shadows or their blasted Z'Ha'dum. For a fleeting moment he even wished he was back in New Jersey, but stopped that thought before it got too depressing to contemplate.

He was starting to doubt he'd find anything else on this planet, starport or settlement, but at this point he couldn't think of anything to do but walk.

The sun rose another five degrees in the sky. The rocks and dirt were starting to find their way into his shoes. He ignored them, resolute, determined to keep walking until he found something worth investigating or he thought of something better to do. He was feeling particularly proud of his physical stamina when he happened to look down and see, not five feet from where he was standing, a line of footprints crossing his path at an oblique angle.

He took a few steps forward and stared dumbly at the tracks. No doubt about it, they were his footprints. He walked in a circle a few times to be sure. Yep. His footprints.

Morden was very good at not panicking. He'd been working for the Shadows for six years straight; he'd had his share of bad news and tense moments and nuclear explosions. He didn't panic. He started walking again, quickly, and when he was out of sight of his earlier track he started running. He'd find something, dammit, he wasn't going to spend the entire day running around in circles, he was not going to wait for death out in the desert, he was going to run until he found something because there was something for him to find and he was going to find it before it killed him and the Soul Hunter found him and took his soul and put it back in the little crystal ball that he had in his pocket and he was choking, stumbling, and he had to stop running before he killed himself.

He looked around. The land was barren, with no friendly boulders to sit on to catch his breath. He decided to not sit on the ground and concentrated on taking deep breaths to speed his recovery. He walked in a small circle, rubbing his fingers through his hair and breathing the air, which was--

Which was almost completely devoid of oxygen, now that he stopped to notice it.

Apparently, he mused, he now had a small chemical testing facility somewhere inside his skull. He took another experimental whiff of the air. Mostly carbon dioxide, nitrogen, and sulfur dioxide, his brain told him, and it occurred to him that he shouldn't even be able to breathe the last without going into some sort of spasm.

Morden walked in another small circle, rubbing absently at the back of his neck. He needed to think. He needed to relax. He needed some water, he was going to get heatstroke if he continued like this, and...

He supposed that after learning he didn't need oxygen it shouldn't have come as such a shock that he wasn't thirsty. But that realization was the one that shook him, heart-fluttering panic that had him collapsed on the desert floor, shivering and staring down at the ugly, rust-colored dirt.

He needed help.

He needed... someone. To talk to someone. He'd never been much for talking with people, but he needed someone else to be the voice of reason. He'd just found dormant Shadow technology in his head, that he didn't have because Londo had cut it off--no. This was not the time to panic. He needed to go over what had happened to him before it scared him to death.

He needed someone who had an idea what had happened, or could at least wager a few guesses. And someone who wasn't mostly insane, inside a bubble, and named Henrietta Greylark would be a wonderful start.

Picking himself up from the ground, he tried to make a list of people who had the necessary background. It was a very short list, and he'd have a hell of a time talking to most of the people on it. John Sheridan, Delenn, G'Kar, Londo, Vir, Lyta Alexander, and Lennier pretty much all wanted to kill him for one reason or another. Galen had probably died on Z'Ha'dum, but if he was alive he'd likely vanished to wherever techno-mages vanish to when they don't want to be found. And all the people working with the Shadows had either been driven insane or killed. Not that he could imagine having a useful discussion with, say, President Clark.

Why did all the pleasant people have to be working for the bad guys? He brushed off his hands and tried to think of someone, anyone else. Well, there was...

No, that was suicide. And the Shadows had never confirmed it, anyway. But... if it were true, he'd have enough firepower to blow Morden out of the sky, which would hopefully be an asset and not a problem.

Morden even knew where to find him. Really, the biggest challenge was that he had no idea how he'd cross unknown light years of vacuum without a spaceship or any idea of where he was starting from.

Well, he thought irritably, he'd done enough miracles recently without having any idea of how he'd done them.

And if all he had to do was reach--

** He remembered pressing his hand to the side of the ship, listening to its song, hearing it tell of its adventures tumbling into the void... **

And if he could listen--

** He remembered listening as it told him about that journey into hyperspace, the smooth feel of the layers of space folding across its skin, the murmur of information stretching between the stars... **

And if he just took a couple steps across the gap--

The surface of the planet slammed into him like a speeding car. He stared at the dusty ground for a few seconds, breathing in the grey-orange grit, and slowly realized that his left arm was broken.

"Definitely some work needed on canceling velocities," a voice said from somewhere above him, "But not a bad first attempt. And please, never, ever do that again."

Morden rolled over onto his side, then onto his back, and blinked up at the softly glowing figure above him. "I broke my arm," he said dumbly.

"Yes, you did. You should be more careful when attempting to use hyperspace for your own purposes. There's a reason that the younger races are still confined to starships and space stations." The figure leaned forward until it resolved into a Minbari male, in robes and build both lighter than Kelonn had been, with an expression of mild concern on his features.

"You're Draal, right?" Morden asked, ignoring the criticism for the moment.

"Yes, I am. And you are Mr. Morden, liason between the Shadows and their allies among the younger races."

"Right." Holding tightly to his left arm, he rocked himself forward until he got his feet underneath him and staggered to an approximation of vertical. Draal watched, still with an expression of haughty concern. Morden cleared his throat. "Uh, if you don't mind..."

"You'd like some explanations or speculations on your current state, as you find yourself in with many new abilities you are not used to?"

Morden blinked a couple times. Draal's expression had been replaced by one of smug satisfaction. "Is it written on my back or something?"

Draal laughed. "No. But it is somewhat obvious from your presence here, not to mention your unorthodox and quite noisy method of transportation. I myself have been tracking your progress for a while, and I think I can tell you a number of things about yourself that you may not have been able to figure out." His face turned suddenly grave. "I suggest we adjourn to the inner parts of the planet. I have advice to give you, and if you do not heed it, you may end up destroying a good part of the universe... and yourself along with it."

With that cheery statement, he vanished.

Morden stared at the spot where Draal had stood for a moment, then sighed and looked around for some way to get under the surface of the planet. He knew about the five-mile-deep chasm and the landing pad, but he hoped he'd be able to find a service hatch or something. He really didn't feel like climbing down five miles of canyon with a broken arm. He didn't feel like doing much with a broken arm, actually. He stuffed his wrist into his jacket and grabbed his fractured humerus to keep it from shifting, then started walking in a likely direction.

His sense of likely direction was improving. There was an elevator shaft, with a working elevator inside, not fifty feet away. He kicked a loose rock aside and stepped into the tube. Draal must have been paying attention, because the elevator sprang to life, shutting Morden inside and whisking him off to what he hoped was close to his destination. He leaned his head against the side of the elevator and tried to block out the pain in his arm.

Sooner than he thought feasible, the car came to a stop and the doors slid open. Morden stepped out, looked around the lushly furnished sitting room he'd been deposited into, and cocked an eyebrow at Draal, who fuzzed into visibility just inside the door on the opposite wall. Draal smiled and spread his hands. "I thought this might be more comfortable than the physical space I reside in."

"I didn't know this place had guest suites."

"Oh, yes. The Great Machine was not initially meant to run without maintenance. Though only a skeleton crew remains, this planet was once a bustling center of activity, tended to by the race that made this planet their home."

Morden listened with half an ear as he collapsed in one of the chairs and attempted to not jar the break. Gritting his teeth against the stabbing pain he growled, "Fascinating. Can you do anything about my arm?"

Draal looked at him with that amused superiority he seemed fond of. "No, but you can."

"Ah." He grimaced. "One of those things, then. Well, if I had any idea how I made the damn arm in the first place, I wouldn't need to ask you for help."

"No, you wouldn't. But I am glad that you did. It gives me the chance to impart several pearls of wisdom that you will need if ever you wish to lead a relatively normal life."

Morden looked up, met Draal's concerned gaze. "You mentioned something about destroying the universe."

"Yes." Draal smiled darkly. "You are a weapon, Mr. Morden. You were rebuilt after Z'Ha'dum was hit by Captain Sheridan's atomic explosion, and were meant to be a last resort weapon against the Vorlons in case they broke the ancient agreements on which the War was based."

"Ah." Morden looked down and tried to fit his mind around this... news. It didn't want to fit. There were too many sharp edges. "And they never told me because..."

"It wasn't necessary for you to know. As long as they held the controls to those powers they had granted you, and never allowed you to disturb matters beyond your ken, you had no need to fully comprehend the abilities you might one day have access to." Draal's aspect turned ponderous again. "But the Shadows have gone, Mr. Morden. They have left, and are now beyond the edge of the galaxy with the other First Ones, exploring the dark spaces between. And all of the old rules have been swept away."

Morden realized a minute later that he'd been staring at Draal in shock for about a minute. "Um." He swallowed against dryness and groped for something to say. "Do you have any coffee? I think I have a caffeine withdrawal headache."

"There is a lot to understand," Draal said in what he probably thought was an understanding tone of voice. "Fix your arm. I'll try and figure out how to make... coffee."

Draal fuzzed out of existence, leaving Morden to gingerly rub his eyes and listen to the throbbing pain in his left arm. Wonderful. He was left to his own devices, with instructions to fix his arm without blowing up part of the universe, and his reward would be a substance that a mummified Minbari considered an analogue to coffee.

He sighed and turned his attention to the broken bone. Gingerly probing it with his fingers, he determined that the bone wasn't shattered or suffering a compound fracture, it just had a large number of cracks running its length and a nice, clean break. He closed his eyes and pinpointed the calcium growths he'd have to stimulate in order to--

Wait a moment.

He opened his eyes again and reached around to the back of his neck, right at the base of his skull, and felt under his hair. The micro-port the Shadows had installed was still there, just tactile enough for him to feel the difference when he was searching for it. Even after a total body reconstruction, the machine was still in his head. And it was still feeding him information.

At least he knew where all the strange instructions were coming from. The thought sat uneasily in his mind as he fixed the break, then moved on to other, minor concerns. He'd removed the remaining dust from his suit and some small scrapes from his hands by the time Draal reappeared.

"Ah, good," the Minbari said. "I've found the relevant information. Your, er, 'coffee' should be ready in a minute or so."

Right then, coffee was the last thing on Morden's mind. "The machine, the implant the Shadows stuck in my head. It's still there."

"Mmm, yes. Their use of organic technology is most impressive."

"I thought..." Morden shook his head. "I thought I'd just used my own DNA as a template. I didn't know I'd remade their machine."

Draal smiled. "The Shadows work in mysterious ways. I daresay that without the knowledge contained in their machine, as you call it, you would have had no control over your new powers at all. And that would have had grave import for all of us."

"Wonderful." He watched Draal fiddle with one of the panels on the wall until it opened to a kitchenette. He assumed the fiddling was for his benefit. It wasn't relaxing at all. "So what now? I can't exactly go back to my old job. Either of them."

"No, but you don't have to eat, drink, sleep, or breathe either. That makes your necessary income somewhat lower."

Morden considered that. "True."

"If I may offer another suggestion?" Morden nodded. Draal crossed to the table, bearing a tray with a pitcher and a cup of something that smelled like coffee. "The First Ones left a great deal of information behind in various places. The younger races are still in discord. You are probably the best-equipped, and one of the best-trained, to go after that information."

"Hunh." Morden stared through the cup of coffee on the table. "Well, it's closer to my old job. Sounds..."

It sounded like fun, actually.

"Try the coffee," Draal said anxiously. "Tell me if I got it right."

He picked up the cup absentmindedly. Yes, it sounded like fun. And say what you would about working for the Shadows, it hadn't actually been a lot of fun. But digging up ancient civilizations was what he'd gotten into archaeology *for.*

The coffee was brilliant, as good as the best he'd ever tasted back on Earth. He burned his tongue on the second sip and started to laugh.

To Be Continued...

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