Volume 5:  Among the Stars, like Giants Part III:  On the Edges of Perception




Chapter 2


WILL you come to find me?
      Sheridan sat up and looked around.  His waking was not the start and scream of a nightmare.  It was the slow, puzzled emergence of one who was never truly asleep to begin with.  Some people could move straight from sleep to full wakefulness with no period of transition.  John Sheridan was not that sort of person, at least not usually.
      Beside him Delenn was still sleeping, silent and still and as beautiful as a statue touched by the sunrise.  He brushed her hair with his fingers and was surprised by just how cold she was, like marble not yet warmed by the sun.
      He rose from their bed and walked through to the bathroom.  There was no sound at all.  That was unusual.  There was always.... something.  There was no night on Babylon 5, not really.  There was always someone up - security guards, the usually nocturnal Brakiri, the terminally insomniac.... someone.
      He poured some water and splashed it on his face, hoping it would wake him up.  It did no such thing.  He rubbed at the stubble on the side of his face and sighed.  Sometimes he hated shaving.  It was hard enough managing enough co-ordination just to get dressed some mornings, without having to shave as well.  Maybe he could forgo it for today.  Would anyone really notice?  He looked into the mirror to see how bad it was.
      Nothing looked back at him.
      He started and touched the cold surface.  It was there.  It was solid, and it was reflecting the rest of the room perfectly.  Just not him.  He looked around to make sure.  Yes, everything was there.  The corner of the shower screen, the towel rail on the opposite wall, the window.
      The window?
      Where had that come from?
      He walked slowly over to it, the silence now uncomfortably oppressive.  Some strange, primal urge came over him, an overwhelming compulsion to return to bed, to the warmth and safety that existed there and nowhere else, to pull the blanket over his head and hide from whatever was out here.
      He hadn't felt this afraid since he had been a child and convinced that the scarecrows were coming to life and trying to get in his bedroom window.
      He touched the curtains.  They were solid.  They were real.  They had that texture of dampness and roughness that spoke of a most definite reality.
      He could have sworn this room hadn't had a window before.
      He threw the curtains open.
      A dazzling light seared his eyes and he stumbled backwards, raising his arms instinctively, but knowing it was too late.  It had blinded him, the light was tearing him apart, filling his mind and his soul and covering everything it found there, like a layer of oil over the surface of an ocean.
      Will you come to find me?
      The voice came with the light, repeating the question over and over again.
      Will you come to find me?
      He reeled away from the window, falling backwards.  He reached out frantically, seeking anything to stabilise himself.  A firm, stone hand caught him and helped him steady himself.  Slowly, awkwardly, he pulled his hand away from his face.
      There was a grey robe in front of him, almost like a monk's.  He could see no face inside it, in fact there was no sign of anything inside it, anything at all.
      "Will you come to find me?" said a voice from the robe.  "You have been asked that already.  Someone tried to warn you.  You did not listen, did you?"
      "What do you mean?" he asked.
      "Babylon Four.  Before the fire, before the fury, the calm before the storm.  Someone tried to warn you of what would come, dressing up the warning in dreams and whispers and premonitions.  You did not listen.  Will you come to find me?"
      Understanding dawned.  "I did go to find her.  I went to Z'ha'dum.  I...."
      "Left her there?  How can you blame her for what happened?"
      "I don't know.  I shouldn't, but...."
      "Emotions.  Irrational little things, aren't they?  Or so I'm told.  You should have listened to the warning, but it was just one more door you closed behind you without really looking at what was beyond it.  How many of those have there been?"
      "I don't know what you mean."
      "Who are you trying to convince?  Me - or yourself?"
      "I don't even know who you are."
      "Do you even know who you are?"
      "I...."
      "Don't answer that.  You can't.  Ask yourself this, though.  What other warnings have you ignored?  What other doors have you slammed shut and lost the key for?  What else have you forgotten or lost or simply not understood?"
      He looked down.  There was a dagger in his hands.  Blood was dripping from it.
      "We all sacrifice a great deal on the altar of victory.  When does the time come when the sacrifice becomes more than the God is worth?"
      "I don't know."
      "No, you don't.  Think on that, for a while."
      The man in the monk's robe was gone.  The dagger was gone.  The window was gone.  The light was gone.
      John Sheridan reached one trembling hand to the mirror and looked at his reflection.  It had returned, and for the first time in his life he seemed to be looking at a stranger staring back at him.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *

Galen was precisely an inch and a half taller than he was.  That was such a tiny thing to harbour so much envy over, but there it was.  Emotions were rarely rational, and jealousy even less so.  Galen's magic came from the cold, the sterile, the scientific.  Vejar's came from the imaginative, the fantastic, the spiritual.
      He didn't need to watch Galen perform more parlour tricks to know that his magic had grown stronger.  Something had freed it, while he had been left to wither.  Left here in the dark.
      "How are the others?" he asked bitterly, trying to make conversation, however futile or pointless.  As if he really cared.  The technomages had abandoned him just as much as Delenn and Lethke had.
      "That's not what I came here to talk about, cousin."
      A mission of some kind.  Yet another tempting and honourable and glorious opportunity to be killed or mutilated or generally to suffer for the good of someone else.
      "I'm not listening," Vejar snapped.  He turned back to his mirror and looked at himself.  For now, the mirror was just that - a mirror.  There was no magic in it, but then there never had been.
      Or that was what people would think.  The first lesson Vejar had ever learned was that there was magic in everything.  A sunrise, a morning breath, the touch of a lover, the opening and closing of a fist.
      Someone had once asked Elric if he could make the dead live.  Elric had smiled that curious, thin smile of his and stretched out his hand, spreading his fingers wide and then clenching them together so tightly that the veins on his wrist bulged.
      "Life begins with death," he had intoned.  "Just as all things are born, so do they die.  All flesh is dead, and look!"  He opened his fist again.  "Dead flesh obeys my command.  Yes, I can make the dead move."
      Vejar always remembered that.  There was magic everywhere.
      And a mirror was one of the most magical artefacts ever forged.  It destroyed illusions, saw through to the soul, pierced masks and glamours and enchantments.  It was brutally honest and callously genuine.
      He did not like what he saw there.  He saw a man old before his time, staring with deep-set eyes back at his own.  A man with clammy skin and a sickly pallor.
      Behind him stood someone who seemed twenty years his junior, tall and vibrant and determined.
      "You have changed, cousin," the young man said to him.
      "So have you," Vejar replied bitterly.  There was a month difference in their ages.  "Have you fallen in love at last?"
      "No, although not for lack of trying.  I have a mission, cousin.  A purpose."
      "Good for you."
      The old man, whom Vejar could not in any way identify as himself, raised a hand and another ball of fire formed around it.  He held it there for long seconds.  There was no pain.  There was not even any sensation.  He could feel nothing.
      "You have changed," Galen said again.  "I remember when you chose to remain behind.  I remember seeing the fire in your eyes, the conviction that you were right and damn all the consequences."  The young man looked at him sadly.  "What has happened to you, cousin?"
      "I did not choose to stay.  I was asked to stay.  Elric.... he wanted me to observe her, to be ready when the time of her choice came, to ensure that she reached it."
      "Ah," Galen replied, a faint smile playing over his face.  "That explains a lot.  I assume all went according to plan?"
      "You know the answer to that.  She chose.  It damned her and me and it cost her more than either of us can imagine, but she chose."
      "She was the salvation of an entire race.  In a hundred years, will it matter what it cost her?"
      Vejar rose slowly.  "How dare you?" he hissed, still looking at the mirror.  He could see a flame beginning to rise in the old man's sunken eyes, a flame to match the one in his fist.  "How dare you?  What do either of us care what will happen in a hundred years?"
      "Why did you not go to Babylon Five?"
      "What....  What do you mean?"
      "I cannot believe you were not invited."
      "You know why."
      "Assume I do not.  Tell me."
      Vejar closed his eyes, not wanting to see either person looking at him.  He saw the vision, as he had so many times before.  "Death," he whispered.  "Death will come to Babylon Five.  Everyone there will die.  Everyone!  He will spare no one, not a single soul."
      "You could try to warn them."
      "And would they listen?"  The rage in his voice surprised him, and for a moment he thought someone else had spoken.  "That station is cursed, and has been since the idea was conceived.  It will bring nothing but pain and destruction and death, and they all know it!  I've done enough for these people.  I won't be a part of their doom!"
      "No," Galen said quietly.  "But you can be a part of their salvation.  There is something I need your help with."
      "I have helped you enough already.  I knew once that you would get me killed.  Are you trying to prove me right?"
      "You can remain here until the end of time while the galaxy collapses around your ears and not raise a single finger to stop it, if you like.  Or you can do something.  You can help.  You can raise arms against a sea of troubles and scream defiance at the tempest."
      "How did you get here?"
      "I'm sorry?"
      "How did you get here?  We are some way from the.... sanctuary, are we not?"
      "By ship, of course.  Did you think I would grow wings and fly?"
      "They know."  Vejar sighed.  "They know.  You have as good as told them you have come.  The Vorlons know.  You have forced my hand in this.  There is no choice."
      "There is always a...."
      Vejar opened his eyes and, without thought, without motion, without equation, he hurled the ball of fire directly at the mirror.  There was a single moment when he thought he could have stopped it, but he did not want to.
      The mirror exploded, his image shattering into a million pieces.  Shards of glass flew into the centre of the room.  One of them was aimed directly at his heart.
      It would be so easy to let it pierce him, to let himself die here.  He would be at rest, at peace, free from the memories of what he had done to Delenn, free from Galen's conscience.
      He looked down, and saw the shard caught in his right hand.  He did not even remember trying to catch it.  Blood was welling between his fingers.
      He turned around and looked at Galen.  His friend was completely unscathed.
      "Choice," Galen said, slowly and deliberately.
      "What do you want me to do?" Vejar replied.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *

Centauri Prime.
      His home.  The home of his ancestors, of his friends, of his wife.  The place where his daughter's ashes lay, at one with the soaring winds.  The place where his garden could be found, derelict and abandoned and unloved.
      Centauri Prime.  Where his friend ruled as Emperor.  Where stood the throne his family had sworn for centuries to protect and serve.
      His home.
      Words reached his ears.  A conversation more than a year old.  On Brakir, in the fading shadows of the Day of the Dead.
      These.... outlaws.  If you do join them, what if they begin to raid Centauri shipping, even attack Centauri worlds?  Would you really attack your own people?
      And his reply.
      I've thought about that.  A lot.  But.... what can I do?  The raids and the attacks will happen anyway.  If I join, then.... eventually I hope to be able to change that.
      But I will do what I have to do.  If I must kill my people, even my friends, then I will.  That is a soldier's job, after all.  To kill.

      All eyes were on him.  The captains of the Brotherhood Without Banners and the representative of the Tuchanq.
      Jorah Marrago stood up.
      "It won't be easy," he said.
      The Drazi snorted.  "As we thought.  Coward."
      Marrago looked at him with the stare that had caused more than one raw recruit to fall silent and start shaking.  "That is not what I said.  I said it will not be easy, not that I was afraid of it.  There is a wide difference between caution and cowardice, but if you do not believe me, that is your privilege.  All the riches in the galaxy will do you no good if you are dead.
      "Now will you listen to me, or are you merely going to toss around sarcastic remarks?"
      The Drazi fell silent, anger in his gaze.
      Everyone in the room was quiet.
      "Continue," Moreil said at last.  "We listen."
      Marrago swallowed, trying to stoke up the anger he always felt.  He had hated the Great Game, the foolish waste of it.  He thought of the loyal soldiers who had died because of political machinations.  He thought of Lyndisty bleeding her life away in the throne room.  He thought of Londo banishing him.  He thought of Drusilla, cold and calculating.  He thought of weak nobles and foolish courtiers and sybaritic hedonists.  He thought of everything he had ever hated about his world and his people.
      And he turned that anger into a cold, determined conviction.  He had taken this step.  He had always known this day would come.
      He would do what he must.
      "It will not be easy," he continued.  "Our.... their fleet might not be what it once was, but it is still impressive.  Technologically the Centauri fleet outdoes anything we can match.  The planetary defence system in particular is outstanding.  After the attack two-and-a-half years ago I laid down specifications for new improved mechanics.  They were half-way to completion when I was.... banished.  It's safe to assume the new grid is finished now.
      "Plus, there is the possibility of Alliance ships there.  Centauri Prime still has some Centauri ships, but there may be other Alliance forces.  I've heard about the Inquisitors moving around on the surface.  They will have ships of their own in orbit.  Plus, after the attack on Gorash, Londo will have asked the Alliance for greater protection.  Count on it.  You caught him flat-footed once before.  I doubt you'll do so again.
      "On the other hand, the homeworld will still be sorely weakened from the War.  There were very few nobles of any status left alive, and the Houses will now be led by young and inexperienced nobles.  They won't have much military understanding, but they will all be willing to fight hard to prove themselves.
      "We need to know more about the situation on Centauri Prime before we do anything.  The first rule of war is never to go in blind."
      "No waiting," the Tuchanq said in its usual hollow, staccato voice.  "No time for patience.  Only revenge.  Only blood.  We will not wait."
      Mi'Ra rose, and Marrago looked at her.  She was almost.... feline in her movements.  Narns were generally too thickset and heavy-boned for subtlety or grace of motion, but Mi'Ra seemed to manage it.
      "The timing is perfect," she said, her red eyes looking directly at him.  "It could not be more so.  Emperor Mollari is sick, possibly on his deathbed.  Those.... young, idealistic nobles you spoke of will be too busy manoeuvring themselves into positions of power to work together to hold off an attack."
      Marrago felt a sickening lurch in his stomach.  Londo?  Ill?  Dying?  Then he hardened his hearts.  Londo had accepted his rôle.  Marrago would have to continue with his.
      "If you say so.  I think it is too early."
      "No," the Tuchanq said.  "Now."
      "There is one more thing," Marrago said, looking around.  "Alliance ships.  There will be some there, particularly if those Inquisitors are still present.  Open fire on an Alliance ship, and you are inviting war with them."
      "Let them come," Moreil said, suddenly.  "Let them all come."
      Mi'Ra nodded.  So did the Tuchanq.
      Marrago spread his arms wide.  "Very well.  Someone fetch the maps.  I'll start outlining weak points and strategic areas."

*  *  *  *  *  *  *

The servants moved aside as she passed, whispering about her when they thought she was out of earshot.  She could hear them, of course.  One of the things she had learned in her childhood was the necessity of very good hearing.  She didn't let them know she could hear them, though.  That would spoil all the fun.
      It was interesting to find out what people were saying about her.  Some called her mad, others cold.  There were rumours that she was sleeping with any number of people - one chambermaid even claimed to have seen her in the bed of that strange human Morden.  Some said she had poisoned her husband, or that she had used witchcraft to make him ill, or that she had gone to the technomages to have him kept alive but not conscious.
      She was aware that she was not universally liked, but she contented herself with the thought that few people of worth were ever popular.
      Not even her guards liked her.  They had made the absolute minimum of protest when she had told them that she did not need them for today.
      Lady Timov, daughter of Alghul and Lady Consort to Emperor Londo Mollari II, pushed the door open and swept majestically inside.
      Durla Antignano stood to attention sharply.  "My lady," the new Captain of the Guards said crisply.
      Timov nodded at him as she closed the door, looking around.  He had come alone, as she had requested.  He could hardly insult the Lady Consort by bringing his guards to a private meeting now, could he?  It was of course scandalous that the two of them were alone together, but Timov was content to let the scandalmongers have their fun.  After all, if the worst they suspected about this meeting was an illicit liaison, both of them would have escaped lightly.
      From the folds of her voluminous gown Timov pulled out a small, stylus-shaped device, with which she proceeded to comb the room.  The light on the end of the tracker maintained a steady glow until she reached an elaborately decorated urn in one corner of the chamber.  Timov recognised it as a grossly expensive gift to Emperor Turhan from the then-incumbent Lord Vole.  A quick moment's investigation turned up the bugging device and she quickly clipped a device of her own around it.  A study of the rest of the room found another similar device, which was treated the same way.
      Satisfied, Timov folded up her tracker and returned it to her pocket.  Taking the seat opposite Durla, she gestured to him to sit down.
      "A few little things I picked up from some contacts of mine in the black market," she said by way of explanation.  "Anyone listening will hear what I wish them to hear, and nothing else."
      "And what will they be hearing, my lady?" Durla asked in his usual clipped, precisely enunciated tone.
      "Oh, that we are sleeping together.  Don't look so shocked, Durla.  You are a fine figure of a young man, and with my husband.... ill, I have certain needs."  The expression on Durla's face was wonderful to behold, a strange combination of shock and revulsion, purest horror and desperation.  Timov laughed.  "A joke," she said.  "I cannot speak for my husband, but my marriage vows mean something to me.  Besides, you are a little young for me.  I wanted to speak of something else and it would be better if anyone listening thought this more.... mundane."
      "Are you not worried that those.... listeners might use this incorrect information against you, my lady?"
      "Tish!  When has adultery ever been a cause for concern in these circles?  My fidelity has usually been something of a joke."
      Durla smiled, and rested his elbows on the table.  "Not for you, my lady, no.  But my position is a little more precarious than yours.  I could very easily find myself back in those cells.  My guards bear me little love, and if you were to complain about any.... undue pressure I was putting on you, I would rapidly lose the limited freedom I have at present."
      "Really?" Timov said, eyes widening.  "I had not considered that possibility.  How dreadfully remiss of me.  You must accept my utmost apologies."
      Durla reached into the pocket of his uniform coat and laid something on the table.  Timov smiled, recognising it.  A signal jammer.  "Believe me, my lady.  No one is hearing anything in this room."
      "I had hoped to avoid making people paranoid, but yes, we are both very clever.  We have played this Game too long.  I did not come here to blackmail you, Durla, nor to sleep with you.  I came to offer you an alliance."
      "I am as ever, my lady's to command."
      "Then you would be the first," she drawled.  "I have a hard enough time commanding my serving maids.  When my husband was.... well, I had some little authority.  He has been in a coma for several months now, and my little power wanes every day.  I have accustomed myself to the realisation that he may never awake.  I cannot simply wait for something that may never happen.  If I am to save our people, I will have to act now."
      "Do our people need saving, my lady?"
      "Durla.... I know you are neither blind nor stupid.  Please do not pretend to be either.  Can you say you are truly happy with the way things are?  Have you seen those.... Inquisitors moving around?  Is there no one close to you whom they have taken away?  Do you truly wish to serve a human standing beside the Purple Throne?"
      "If you mean Mr. Morden, he freed me from my imprisonment."
      "He did so because he wanted a tame pet on a leash, someone he could set on those who defied him.  Are you happy being a human's lapdog?"
      "I am a Centauri.  My family is ancient and proud.  Some say I dishonoured that memory."
      "I know your past," Timov interrupted.  "You were exiled when it was discovered you murdered your brother."
      "It was over a woman."
      "Such arguments usually are," Timov smiled.  "Although never over me, I recall."
      "When he freed me, I told Mr. Morden what I wanted from him."
      "Has he given it to you?"
      "No, and I doubt he ever will, but then I doubt the same thing regarding you.  Your husband, when he ruled, was weak and spineless.  He did not listen.  He did not care for my talents and he imprisoned me rather than allow me to redeem myself from whatever.... transgressions I might have committed.  I want to see the Centauri race return to the stars, by our own destiny rather than at the whim of another.  I have resigned myself to that never happening."
      "Under my husband, no.  It will not.  But we have accepted that my husband is likely never to recover.  For myself, I want a quiet retirement, and if he does recover, a place somewhere near the ocean where he can recuperate free from the burdens of his position.  He has done enough for these people already.
      "But most of all, I want those humans and their Inquisitors and everything to do with the Alliance gone from our space.  We can work together to achieve that, and both of us will get what we want.
      "How does Emperor Durla Antignano sound to you, hmm?"

*  *  *  *  *  *  *

"I have come home."
      G'Kar looked up at the red sky as he set foot on his homeworld for the first time in over a year.  It was nearly sunset.  He remembered looking up at that sky hundreds of times, as a pouchling, as a warrior against the Centauri, as a prophet.  He remembered thinking how fortunate he was to call such a world home.
      Now it was polluted and scarred.  There was a darkness at its heart, but then, as he thought about it, he realised there had always been a darkness here.  Perhaps it had begun with the Centauri Occupation, perhaps earlier than that, but it had always been here.
      The Centauri had taught them a lot, mostly unwittingly.  Above all, they had taught the Narn how to hate.
      And now they were reaping the harvest they had sown.
      "If we cannot live together, we shall surely die apart," he whispered.  No one listened.  No one understood, and no one listened, and no one cared.
      He felt as if his entire life had suddenly become incredibly pointless.  If he had still been at the heart of the Great Machine he could have seen this coming, he could have worked to prevent it, he could....
      No.  No 'if onlys'.  That way lay madness.
      For so long the focus of his life had been to fight a war.  It seemed he had always been at war, with one race or another.  Then he had seen that black, terrible Shadow ship high in the night, and he had known his purpose.
      But now that purpose was gone, evaporated into dust, and just how much of that victory had been down to him?  How much had he really accomplished?  Would he have been better off merely leaving everything alone and sitting back and letting the darkness come?  Would the Narn and the Centauri have been better off without his prophecies?
      He could not answer those questions, and the Prophet could not see far enough into the future to know what would come.
      He knew only that he had to try.
      G'Kar was a great man, and a true inspiration.  It is sad that only with his death is it possible for this to be appreciated.  During his life he was too often weighed down by thoughts of his mistakes, of his errors, of his lapses of judgement, of things that no one could possibly blame him for.
      That, I think, was both his greatest failing and his greatest strength.  He could not perceive himself as the inspiration he truly was.
      For good or ill, and I cannot say, for I am no Prophet, he changed our people.
L'Neer of Narn, Learning at the Prophet's Feet.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *

There was heat and motion and energy and power.  There was noise.  There was the sound of her thoughts, echoing loudly in his mind.  Dexter Smith had never wanted to be a true telepath, never asked for their sort of power, but now he wished he could have it.  If this was what they felt all the time, this blessed, wondrous communion of thoughts and voices and souls, then he would gladly trade everything for that.
      Talia kissed him harder and he marvelled at the thoughts in his mind.  He could feel her passion, her determination, her love for her people and her conviction that what she was doing was right.  He could feel the lessening of her sense of fear, her knowledge of the vast forces arrayed against them and her joy in knowing she had one ally, however insignificant.
      Not that she thought he was insignificant.
      I can feel you as well, she thought in his mind.
      Is this what it is always like? he thought back.
      No, she replied, and he caught the mental image of a sad, satisfied smile.  I wish it were.  Her hands curled around his back.
      He could see her childhood, her daughter, old friends long since dead.  Her entire life was laid open to him, and he felt his open to her.  For a moment he felt a pang of anguish at that, that she could see all his secrets, all his shames, that one moment of a life ending behind a pair of green eyes.
      And then he felt it, at the back of her mind.  She was trying to hide it from him, but it was there.
      Guilt.  A tiny pang of guilt.
      He pulled back, shaking.  She tried to hold on to him, but he slid away from her embrace.  Breathing harshly, he stepped off the bed and fell against the far wall.
      "What?" she breathed.  "Dexter, what...?"
      "I'm sorry," he whispered, closing his eyes.  He could not feel her any more.  Her mind was closed to him.  "I can't do this.  You're married."
      "I....  Dexter...."
      "No....  Please don't."  He sank down to a sitting position, his head in his hands.  "My head feels awful.  I think we drank too much."
      She sat up, and he could hear her starting to button up her top.  "Dexter...."  She stopped, as if she had nothing else to add.
      "You love him," he said, after a while.  "The two of you have a daughter, and you love him."  He looked up, staring at her.  "You do love him, don't you?"
      Tears welling in her eyes, she nodded.  "Do you...."  She hesitated.  "Is it wrong for one woman to love two men at the same time?"
      "No more than for one man and two women.  Damn!  I wish I'd got to you first."  He stood up.  "I do want to, Talia.  You know that.  You know how much you mean to me.  I've been thinking about you ever since...."  He breathed out slowly.  "We'd both regret this."
      She fell back on to the bed, exasperated, or perhaps just to hide her tears.  "I really didn't think men like you existed any more."
      "Maybe I'm just a fool.  You have the bed.  I'll sleep on the couch.  We can talk in the morning."
      "In the morning," she replied.
      He scooped up his shirt from where it had been discarded on the floor and noticed the rip in his collar.  Sighing, he walked from the room, his head pounding.
      "Good night, Dexter," she called to him.
      "Good night," he replied.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *

As he walked back to his quarters in the shabby, dirty ship that was now his entire fleet, Jorah Marrago was surprised to find his mind filled with tactics and planning.  It was a good feeling, one he had missed.
      For the last year, ever since he had joined forces with Sinoval, his mind had been on strategy, long-term goals and aims, thinking years in advance.  That was depressing, a constant reminder of the future, speculation about a time he might not live to see.
      But tactics, that was different.  Creating a battle in his mind, the positioning, the opening movements, the hidden feints.  In a strange, bizarre way it was almost beautiful - a game, a creation of skill, pitting general against general, battle-master against battle-master.
      Only later would the true cost become clear.  Only after the battle could one look around at the bodies of the dead, the mutilations of the injured and the anguished faces of the bereaved.  Marrago remembered that.  He always tried to remember the true cost of battle, but try as he might, he could not banish that sense of.... joy he felt at a grand plan coming together.
      And this was a challenge.  His army was a mish-mash of different peoples and races and personalities who would all rather be fighting each other.  The true military might of this attack was a race of whose capacities and strength he had not the slightest conception.  He was attacking the homeworld of one of the most technologically advanced races in civilised space, however socially self-destructive they might be.
      Besides, by the Purple Throne, it felt good to be doing something at last.
      Dasouri was waiting outside his door.  He nodded his head.
      "Is it true, General?" he asked.
      Marrago did not have to ask what he was referring to.  "Yes," he replied.  "We're going to war."
      Dasouri nodded, no trace of surprise or joy or fear or indeed any other emotion on his perfectly equable face.  "Where?"
      "Centauri Prime."  Marrago was pleased with himself for the entirely flat way he said those two words.
      Dasouri nodded again, still showing no emotion.  "I will tell the others.  They will be prepared."
      Marrago watched the Drazi depart, wondering, not for the first time, what brought him here.  Each and every one of those who followed him - or any captain in the Brotherhood - had their story.  They each had their reasons.  They were the people who had slipped through the net the Alliance had cast over the galaxy.  They were the people who were not seen, not noticed, not missed.
      They were the people for whom there was no place in the galaxy but the one they made themselves.
      Thinking darkly about that, but still bolstered by his plans and schemes, Marrago opened the door to his chambers.  He nodded absently to Senna, sitting calmly on her chair, and drifted over to his books.  He had been able to bring a few with him into exile, and he had obtained a few more since.  One of the many advantages of having a Thrakallan crimelord indebted to him.
      "How could you?" Senna whispered.
      He looked up at her, and saw for the first time the expression on her face, a combination of horror and disgust.
      "How could I what?"
      "You swore to defend the Purple Throne.  You swore to defend Centauri Prime.  You swore...."
      "Shut up!" he shouted, his good mood evaporating instantly.  "You were listening at the door!"
      "How else am I to find out what is happening?  You keep me locked up in here, you never allow me to leave.  I am just as much your prisoner as I was.... his!  And now you are going to lead an attack on our homeworld!"
      "You do not understand," he said angrily.
      "No," she rasped.  "I don't.  Why save me, and lead those.... monsters to do to others what was done to me?  Why would you attack your own people, your own Emperor?"
      "My Emperor cast me out!" he cried, stepping forward.  She cowered back on her chair.  "I spent my entire life in service to that Throne, and where did it get me?  My daughter is dead, and I am now an exile.  I am a lord of the Centauri Republic and I am forced to live with bandits and brigands and peasants!
      "I have no people, and I have no home and I have no Emperor!"
      Shaking, she rose slowly to her feet.  She stared at him, fear evident in every part of her body but her eyes.  They were filled with contempt and disgust, and he saw his own self-hatred staring back at him.
      When she spoke, it was slowly and deliberately, with a determination that belied her years.  "You are every bit as much a monster as they are," she said calmly.
      He did not know why he did what he did, only that his body acted before his mind could prevent it.  He struck out with all the force he could muster, a blow honed in a youth of bar fights and an adulthood of battlefields.  He struck her squarely on her chin and felt the satisfying force on his fist as she crumpled beneath him.  She fell back on to the chair and it gave way, shattering under the impact.  She fell to the floor and looked up at him, shaking, tears glistening in her soft eyes.
      Lyndisty would have struck back at him if he had done that to her.
      But he had never hit Lyndisty.
      Senna looked at him, as if expecting him to do more.  Her hand slid over her breast, covering her hearts as she tried to breathe.  Finally, unable to look at him any longer, she pulled herself up and half-ran, half-crawled away from the room, scurrying to her private quarters, slamming the door behind her.
      Marrago realised he was shaking.  He was turning to the cabinet to pour himself a glass of jhala when he realised Sinoval was standing directly in front of him.
      He stepped back, his hearts pounding.  "Please," he said, breathing hard.  "A little warning next time."
      "We have no time for warnings," Sinoval replied, his eyes dark.  "We have no time for waiting or planning or preparing, not any longer.  I am having to activate all my players at once, and hope that one or two of them are triumphant."
      Marrago stepped back again, and moved quickly to the cabinet.  His hands were shaking as he poured the jhala.  "Don't judge me," he said, harshly.  "Don't you dare judge me."
      "I would not presume to," Sinoval replied.  "I have done worse myself, and if that is the worst sin committed by any of those who follow me then I will find myself at the head of an army of saints.  You will have to judge yourself, though.... in time."
      "I know," Marrago whispered.  "Gods, I never thought I would....  I never hit Lyndisty, not once.  Nor Drusilla.  I've never hit a woman, much less a girl, and now....
      "Sometimes I think I want to stop this road you have dragged me on to.  I do not like what it is making me become."
      "I did not drag you anywhere, and the road is not changing you.  You are changing yourself.  In any event, that is not why I am here.  The plan is going to have to change."
      "Everything's going as it should.  These.... Tuchanq are a new addition.  Someone's pulling their strings, and I think I know who, but nothing else has changed.  I'm still the best and most experienced general here.  If anything, this is only accelerating matters.  I'll lead this raid of theirs, and we'll win.  It won't be easy, but I've exaggerated a few things for their benefit.  We'll win, and burn half of Centauri Prime to the ground, and everyone here will know it was thanks to me.  I'll be leader of them all by the end of the year.... at least, leader of those I don't have to kill.
      "And then you'll have the nucleus of your army."
      "Is this the army you think you can take to war for me?  Are these the soldiers you want to lead?"
      "No, but they're what we have, and that will have to be enough.  They have no place in this world any more.  Peace?  What good is that?  They're all creatures of war and chaos and they haven't known enough of the blessings of peace to appreciate it.  They're natural warriors, and they'll be the best soldiers we can get.  Trust me on this."
      "I do, but as I said.... we will have to move more quickly.  The.... Enemy is pursuing me, and they are closer than I would like to think.  Some of my little spiders are going to fall.  Everything will come out into the open sooner than either side will like, and we will have to be ready when it does.
      "We are going to have to accelerate matters regarding this army of yours."
      Marrago took a long sip.  "What did you have in mind?"
      "When you arrive at Centauri Prime, I will be there waiting."
      Sinoval's dark eyes blazed.
      "And so will the Alliance."

*  *  *  *  *  *  *

There was no fear.  Vejar honestly could not remember what fear felt like any more.  He tried to think back to the Drakh, and their brutal, callous invasion of Kazomi 7, but he could remember nothing.  Everything was cold and calm, as if those who had died or been mutilated and scarred had been nothing but illusions.
      His power had always come from the imagination, and now he could imagine nothing.
      We need to find someone, cousin, and we think you know where she might be.
      He could not do this in ghost form, not as a spirit.  This would have to be real.  Nevertheless, he could walk through the wide corridors cloaked in mirrors.  Anyone who looked at him would see a lowly cleaner, and surveillance would not see him at all.
      It had been a very long time since he had left his underground sanctum and he was surprised by what the years had done to the Neuadd.  He had seen it in his astral wanderings many times, but that was different from seeing it for real.  He could not pretend this was an illusion or a dream.  This was reality.
      The building was practically empty.  He had seen only three people in the four floors he had traversed thus far.  Security checkpoints were unmanned.  He doubted there were enough security officers left in the building to man them all.  Or even left on the planet, come to that.
      Who is this person?
      He remembered the day he had named this building.  Neuadd.  An ancient word, from an ancient and beautiful Earth language.  It meant so many things, but so few people understood them.
      I think you know her name, cousin.
      He moved up another flight of stairs, his muscles burning with the unaccustomed exercise.  He could not risk the elevators.  Any one of a number of things might go wrong.
      So how do I find her?
      He could feel the tingle on his skin that spoke of the magic Galen was performing elsewhere in the city.  Illusionary Drakh or Shadows, or even dragons if he had been listening to Alwyn too much lately.  Anything that would draw attention away from this building.  Not the guards, for they were next to nothing and there were hardly any here anyway.
      She will be in the network somewhere.  You can access it from the Vorlon's quarters, if you need to.  We need to find her.
      He moved up even further.  Another couple of floors and he was near the top of the building.  The Vorlon, Ambassador Ulkesh, had take over the top three floors when he had arrived here.  He had remained, despite all the other Ambassadors relocating to Babylon 5.  They had all kept offices here, a skeleton staff for the sake of appearance and tradition and respect for the memory of Kazomi 7, but for the most part it was an empty gesture.  Ulkesh was the only one actually to remain here.
      So why me?  Why not do this yourself?
      Vejar reached the doors to the Vorlon's chambers.  They were unguarded, of course.  Usually anyone penetrating so far up the Neuadd would have passed several stringent security checks.  It didn't matter, anyway.  No one would be stupid enough to try to break into a Vorlon's private rooms.
      He breathed out slowly and reached for the door.  Light formed around his hand.
      You have been here for years, cousin.  Do not try to tell me you have not identified the Vorlon's wards.  Do not try to tell me you have not learned how to bypass his security.  Do not try to tell me you cannot pierce his veil and enter his chambers.  I would be caught.  You may escape.
      The door remained closed, but Vejar, who could see things that others could not, breathed a slow sigh of relief and passed through it as if it were no more than a reflection.
      Once inside he knew he had to act quickly.  The Vorlon's attention would be distracted by Galen's light show, but time would be limited.  Fortunately there was no need for a scrying spell or a search incantation.  He could feel her pain, feel the light and the screams and the rush of power and energy and knowledge that encompassed the network.  He could feel it slightly even on the other side of the wards, but here....
      The difference was as between looking at a picture of a waterfall and standing beneath it.
      He headed quickly in the direction of the network, dropping his disguise.  There was no point maintaining it here.  If the Vorlon caught him, it really would not matter.
      He entered the room and stopped.  There it was, Kazomi 7's node of the network.  A greater node, funnelling the power and authority of the Vorlons from here to all the Dark Star ships in orbit or in the area, and to any one of hundreds of other places.  Just one of countless millions of links including Babylon 5, Centauri Prime, Proxima 3 and worlds unnoticed and unnamed by humanity.
      You truly expect me to succeed in this?  You truly expect me to find her?
      He looked up at the still, silent form of Lyta Alexander.  Bonded to the wall by the growth of greenery around her body, crucified on a giant, monstrous cross.  Veins and tendrils and nerve sheaths ran from her mouth, her eyes, her heart, all over her body.  Her eyes were open, and he could see within them the awareness that lurked there.  She was conscious, aware of what was being done to her.
      I have faith in you, cousin.
      Vejar tried to force himself to care.  He did not know her.  She meant nothing to him.  She was just one of billions who had suffered at the hands of the Vorlons.  What made her special?  What made her so deserving as to merit his being sent on this mission?
      And if the Vorlon catches me?
      He raised his hand, now glowing with red light, tiny bolts of electricity shooting from it.
      Why are you always so negative, cousin?  Think of the good that will come from this when you succeed.
      He took a step forward.
      Ulkesh glided into view.
      I am, Galen.  I am thinking that the Vorlon might find me....
      Ulkesh's eye blazed bright red.
      .... and that he might just kill me.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *

There is nothing the Dark Masters send us that is not a challenge.  Through adversity there is strength.  Through defeat there is experience.  Through experience there is understanding.  Through understanding there is strength.
      I fulfill their will.  I bring blessed chaos to the galaxy.  I rain death upon the weak and the complacent.  I bring fear and pain to those who do not understand.  The weak will be defeated and die in misery.  The strong will learn and grow and become stronger.
      They will evolve.
      I will evolve.  The Dark Masters have sent me a challenge in this Marrago.  The others here are nothing, chattels and fools.  They will break before the onslaught, but he....
      He is my challenge.  Through him I shall become stronger.  We shall make each other stronger.  We shall war upon each other.  There is no growth in fighting the weak.  Those whom I do not destroy I shall make stronger, but they shall not make me stronger.  The weak are no challenge.
      Marrago will be a challenge.
      My Warriors think he looks like a Master, and he does.
      My Warriors think he acts as a Master, and he does.
      My Warriors fear him.
      Thank you for sending him to me, Masters.  I understand now.  He is the gateway to my destiny.  He is the next step on my road of evolution.  He may break me, or I may break him, but, should we both be worthy, both of us will become stronger.
      I do not fear - not death, not weakness, not failure.
      I must test him and prove his strength and his lack of fear.
      I must bring him back to me as an enemy.

      Moreil opened his eyes and looked up at the Wykhheran.  They stood around him, still and statuesque, awaiting his command.  Legends of his people said that the Masters had carved the Wykhheran from the heart of the Holy World and given them life through the heat of the forges at Thrakandar.  Moreil could well believe it.
      He looked at the biggest, and spoke to it.  It stirred, opening its great eyes, the light there filled with devotion and service.
      Warrior, do you love me?
      Yes, lord.
      Warrior, do you fear me?
      Yes, lord.
      Warrior, would you die for me?
      Yes, lord.
      Warrior, soon we will go to war.  We attack the home of the Sin-tahri.  We bring death and holy chaos to them, we cast our shadow over their land.  There will be much destruction.  When we ride there, I have a task for you.
      Yes, lord.
      Find the Sin-tahri called Marrago, and kill him.
      Yes, lord.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *

Dexter could not sleep, and for once it was not a combination of too much alcohol and too many worries.  Nor was it even the thought of a beautiful woman lying in the next room.  It was not even the difference in relative comfort between the couch and his bed.
      It was something preying at the back of his mind.  He was lying on his back, staring up at the ceiling, drawing patterns with his eyes as he had done before.  He could feel that moment of communion between them, and he yearned for it again.  That was special - not her kisses, not her touch.  He could truly say it was her mind he desired more than any other part of her.
      He chuckled at the thought, wondering if she would believe him were he to tell her.
      After several hours of staring upwards, he rose from the couch and went to the kitchen to pour himself a glass of water.  He devoured it greedily, spilling a great deal on the floor in the process.  It alleviated his thirst, but not his headache.  As he walked back to his impromptu bed, he could not resist looking in at her through the slightly ajar bedroom door.
      She looked to be having every bit as much trouble sleeping as he did.  The sheets were twisted around her legs as she tossed and turned.  She had found one of his T-shirts to wear, an old Proxima Swashbucklers one.
      Dexter looked at her for a long time and then returned to his couch, silently cursing his over-developed moral sense.
      He had only just lain down, when he sat bolt upright again.
      He looked around, not sure what had caused him to react like that.  He had.... felt something.  Something terrifyingly alien and yet at the same time slightly....
      .... familiar.
      There was nothing in sight, nothing that had not been there three seconds ago.
      But he was sure he had felt something.
      He lay back down, his head spinning.  The alcohol.  That was it.  Or perhaps some aftereffect of.... earlier.  Maybe he was picking up Talia's nightmares.  He couldn't help but grin.  If she was having any more pleasant dreams, that might be fun.
      Talia!
      He leapt up in an instant and ran for her room.  Not him, he knew that.  Not him.
      Her!
      She was lying still on the bed, her head thrown back.  Standing over her was a tall man he did not recognise, but then he could not see the intruder's face.  His head was bent low over Talia's, and he seemed to be.... breathing in her air.  Only it wasn't air, it was light.
      Dexter ran forward, the instincts of a thousand youthful street fights surging in his body.  The figure began to turn, but he was not quick enough to dodge Dexter's punch.  He had been in countless fist fights in his life, and he knew he would be in a good many more, but he had never thrown a punch like that before, and he doubted he ever would again.
      The man fell, collapsing in a heap.  Dexter did not even look at him, but turned instantly to Talia.  She was motionless, her eyes open but staring fixedly ahead.  He put his hand over her mouth and was relieved to feel her breath on his palm.
      Then an explosion of pain burst in his mind and he reeled, stumbling back against the wall.  Looking up through eyes blurred with agony, he saw the intruder rising.  For the first time he could clearly see its face.
      It was oddly misshapen, as if made of wax that had started to melt in the noonday sun.  Light poured from its eyes and mouth.
      Greetings, brother, it said.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *

<The fabulist.>
      The Vorlon's voice was a chill, cold thing.  Vejar knew that Vorlon speech was entirely telepathic in nature.  They had no tongue, no vocal cords, no lungs, nothing but energy, and their voices came entirely from their thoughts.  They could appear to speak in whatever tone or language they wished.
      Ulkesh chose to speak with the voice of the dead, the voice of a cold wind through an autumn graveyard, the voice of ghosts buried and forgotten.
      Vejar said nothing.  Damn you, Galen, he thought.  What have you got me into?  Thoughts of passion and fury began to take shape in his mind as he started to prepare himself for conjuring, truly conjuring, for the first time in years.
      <Some thought you should die.  Others said your life was as dust on the wind, faded from mortal eyes.  But we are not mortal, and our eyes see what others do not.>
      Vejar took a careful step backwards, flicking his gaze from Ulkesh to Lyta.  Neither was moving, and he could not tell which of the two looked less alive.
      <Now you have seen beyond the mist.  Now you have transgressed our laws.  Now, you will die.>
      Well, Galen.  Congratulations.  You could not have chosen someone else for this suicide mission?
      Finding his voice, and his courage, he looked up squarely into the Vorlon's eye stalk.  "I am to be killed, just for having come here?" he asked.
      <Yes.>
      "Well, I see.  There is a human saying you might not be familiar with.  It has something to do with the relative nature of punishments for varying crimes."  Vejar's mind was racing.  He could feel his skin crawl with the rush of power.
      "You might as well be hung for a sheep...."
      His eyes blazed furiously.  Fire crackled from his fingertips.
      "As a lamb!"
      He hurled the fireball forward, instantly forming another conjuration.  He watched as the Vorlon's encounter suit became an inferno, flames licking over every inch of it.  Behind him a circle of ruins and flames and darkness formed.  Something emerged from it, something black and crackling with electricity.  It moved with an arachnid grace, its many eyes blazing with fiery light.
      Through the flames engulfing it, Ulkesh's eye stalk turned.
      <You dare!?>
      Vejar reeled before the voice in his mind.  Blood filled his eyes and mouth and he had to steady himself against the wall, pouring all his concentration into controlling and animating the construction he had summoned.  It was not a true Shadow of course, just a manifestation of his will, but it would be enough for a short time.
      The animated Shadow moved forward, spiked limbs flailing at the Vorlon's encounter suit.  The Shadow seemed not to feel the heat as it rained blow after blow on the Vorlon's chest.  Vejar reached out his arm, guiding his creation, his other arm supporting him against the wall.
      <You dare!> the Vorlon cried again, and Vejar slumped.  The Shadow faded for a moment, but Vejar closed his eyes and concentrated harder and it reformed.
      A crack appeared in the encounter suit, and then another.  A brilliant light began to pour through, so bright Vejar could see it even with his eyes closed.  He reeled before the psychic onslaught, and fell, feeling his Shadow collapse.
      Opening his eyes, he saw the Vorlon before him.  It had abandoned illusions and appeared as it truly was, light and energy and malevolence, crackling with power and fury.  Vejar felt its presence in his mind, and screamed.
      <Behold the price of challenging us!>
      "I'm not afraid of you," Vejar spat.  He looked up in defiance.  "I'm not afraid of you."
      Once, over two years ago, Delenn had come to him, seeking an explosive device, something powerful enough to tear open the guts of a planet.  Vejar had told her that such a thing was within his power to create, and so it was.  What he had given her was something very different, but that did not mean he could not create such a weapon.
      Or something similar, but less powerful.
      "Damn you, Galen," he whispered.
      He looked up at Lyta, past the swirling mass of the Vorlon.  He wondered if she was worth all this.
      Then he created the explosion that tore apart the top half of the building.



Into jump gate




Next chapter | Top of this page | Contents page | Home page | Synopsis | Dramatis personae