|Volume 5: Among the Stars, like Giants||Part VI: A Great Hand Out of the Sky|
IMAGES from the end of the Earth Year 2263
It is too late for prayer.
* * * * * * *
First: The Healer
IN A PLACE WHERE NO SHADOWS FALL
The words were written twice, in English and in Adronato. They were carved on a small slab of grey stone, embedded in the ground.
Delenn wrapped her cloak tightly around herself. It was cold, very cold. Winter was coming, and the devastation of her planet meant that it would be far harsher than usual. Hundreds had died of the cold last year, she had heard.
Only she had not been here then, and she would not be here when this winter struck in its full ferocity.
This was no longer her world. She had abrogated responsibility for it long ago, and the one to whom she had passed that burden had passed it on in his turn. Minbar belonged to the Minbari once again.
She was not Minbari. She had no place here.
She touched her long dark hair, remembering the way it had first felt, the problems she had experienced trying to clean it. And there had been other problems as well, some painful, some just embarrassing. She remembered sitting with Lyta as she explained the nature of a human woman's body, the pain and the bleeding.
She still bled, but not nearly as much as she once had. She had felt very little of the nature of a human woman's body, not since....
Not since so much of what made human women special had been taken from her.
She began idly twisting a length of her hair into a braid. She had done that once, early on, trying to find a good way to wear it. It had not lasted. It seemed easier just to let it fall loose. John had liked it that way.
She looked at the gravestone again, and then turned round, taking in the long, panoramic view of the city behind her. As she had seen, Yedor was devastated, flattened by an attack from space. An attack by the very people she had mutated herself to resemble.
As she had seen.
And yet, as she looked around, she realised things were different. The Yedor she had seen in the vision all those years ago had been completely reduced to rubble. But now some buildings survived, and some had been rebuilt. The air was not as thick as before, and the lake....
She looked back at the gravestone.
IN A PLACE WHERE NO SHADOWS FALL
Carved in grey stone.
In English and Adronato.
Exactly as she had seen.
But the lake....
She turned away from the gravestone and climbed slowly and awkwardly down towards the shore. She used to come here with her father, and that was a real memory, albeit one that was slipping away from her, further and further with each passing day.
Back when she had been Minbari.
She stopped by the water's edge and bent down, touching the water gently with her hand. There was a ripple.
The water was thick, clogged with dust and mud as she had seen, but then her reflection had been barely visible. She had caught enough to know that she had changed, but not precisely how much. She had initially thought that her horrific, twisted, hybrid form, before the technomages had cured her, was what she was destined to become.
This time she could see herself clearly. The water was becoming clearer.
So. Not everything was as she had seen. As she had realised on Golgotha, things could change. She had chosen to bring John's body here to be buried, but she had not been forced to do that. She could have done anything at all with his body, including nothing at all.
Of course, a logical train of thought from that was that his death had not been preordained, and he might have been saved, but she did not think about that. That way lay madness.
Instead she stared at her reflection in the water, twisting her hair round and round in her hands. Half-Minbari, half-human. A bridge between races, as Valen had been, as had been prophesied.
Had it accomplished anything at all? Had it been a noble endeavour, doomed to failure, or should she have done something else?
Would another race have been any better? Were humans always doomed to succumb to the worst of their natures? Humans had such wonderful potential, that was true, but potential could turn either way.
What if she had tried to bridge Minbari and Centauri? Or Narn? Or Soul Hunter, as Sinoval had done? Or Pak'ma'ra?
That way lay madness.
Not least the thought of her with a Pak'ma'ra hump.
She continued to stare into the muddy water, and finally she sighed. She did not like weapons, but she knew how to use them, and various people she had known and loved had insisted she carry one. Currently there was a long knife tucked inside her cloak. A gift from Taan.
She drew it out, and continued to stare at her reflection. Holding the braid of hair tight, she began to saw through it.
It was not easy. She had never done this before, and the headbone proved more of an inconvenience than she had expected, but she completed the task eventually, to an almost satisfactory standard. She was not completely bald, but as close to it as was possible.
She washed the knife and returned it to its sheath. She then bent down and picked up the cuttings of her hair. It felt soft and gentle in her hands.
She opened her arms and threw the hair out across the lake.
Then, looking and feeling like a Minbari again, Delenn of Mir, Healer, set off into the galaxy.
* * * * * * *
Second - The Emperor and His Advisor
Londo completed his morning ritual as he always did, and, fully dressed and attired as Emperor of the Centauri Republic, he walked into his throne room. Four of the Palace Guard were already there, of course. They were always there. He took his seat on the Purple Throne, and waited for the business of the Centauri Republic to come to him.
Often, he had a long wait.
There were ways to pass the time. He thought about older days, happier times, noticing the remarkable way his mind had of editing the past to turn even the most horrific of experiences into something joyful and memorable.
His time with Lennier and Delenn, for example. Technomages, Drakh, Vindrizi, Delenn about to die at any moment. He could not remember what it had really been like, but he doubted it had been the never-ending ride of fun and high adventure he now looked back on.
Of course, sometimes he could not even remember what had happened then at all.
He looked at his guards, completely unable to remember their names. He was not even sure if they were the same guards who had been there yesterday, or the day before. One day he had even mistaken them for statues.
Sometimes people came to him, with some business. The sort of thing that could easily be handled by others, but was thrown to him like a bone to a dog. There were invitations to parties, or to speak on certain occasions, all of which he declined. He could hardly say more than a handful of sentences these days without his speech slipping and slurring. Fortunately most people assumed he was drunk, and he had taken to drinking a little to maintain that illusion.
He knew there was no point to his being here. He was not a complete idiot. But the Purple Throne was the seat of the Emperor of the Centauri Republic. A great many good people had died to put him there, and a fair number more bad people had died trying to put themselves there.
The throne was his, and he would not relinquish it.
The double doors at the end of the throne room opened and a figure entered.
Ah, yes. There was one person at least who came to him on matters of some importance.
"Good morning, Majesty," Morden said, with his habitual smile.
"Mr. Morden," Londo said. "I was just thinking, it hash been far too long for mee without having sheen you." He strained to concentrate. Great Maker, he felt tired. He must have slept fifteen hours last night, but he still felt tired. He would not look weak in front of Morden. He would not.
Of course, ever the master diplomat, Morden feigned not to notice.
"The burdens of responsibility, Majesty," he replied, with a bow and another smile.
"And what reshp.... And what responsibilities have been taxing you recently?"
"Oh, matters of little import, Majesty. Nothing to concern you. In fact, I came to...."
"Mr. Morden. Do you see this chair?"
"Of course, Majesty."
"It is very large and impressive, is it not? Uncomfortable, as well."
"Large, yes, Majesty. And certainly impressive. I regret I cannot attest to its comfort."
"Do you know what it represents?"
"Of course I do, Majesty. It is the Purple Throne, Seat of the Emperor of the Centauri Republic, and sundry other titles. I could recite them if you wish."
"No," Londo said, concentrating very hard. This was a game. All a game. Power was built on illusion. "No thank you. There is no need. You will note that I am sitting on this chair, and that makes me what?"
"The Emperor, Majesty."
"Thank you. The Emperor, yes. Therefore I will decide what does and does not concern me. Do you understand?"
Morden was still smiling. Londo looked at him, silently pleading. Morden could say no, and walk out and leave him feeling even more useless than usual. Londo was fully aware of how much power he had, but he did not want to have his face rubbed in it.
Morden spread his arms wide. "You are right of course, Majesty. My humble apologies. I was only trying to spare you some of the burdens of your responsibility. That is an advisor's task, is it not? Anyway, I have spent some days in the Gorash and Frallus systems, in the.... capacity of an inspector, you could say."
"Ah, and what have your.... inspections revealed?"
"You will no doubt be glad to know that the number of enemies of the Republic being apprehended has lessened considerably in recent months. The Inquisition force will soon be departing, leaving behind only a small garrison. There are still some causes for concern, but nothing major."
"There were.... riots on Frallus recently. The city of Secunderam was quite badly affected. Most of the rioting centred on the food storage halls."
"Food riots, again."
"All put down, with a minimum of bloodshed."
"You do not think it would be easier simply to feed the populace, and maybe then there were be fewer riots?"
"All must work together for the good of the many, Majesty. A complicated system of resource channelling and management is being set up. There will inevitably be teething problems, but these are only short term. In the long run, things will be managed far more efficiently. Besides, most of the food stored there was intended for the Alliance satellites and defence forces at the edge of the system, with the surplus to go on to the Immolan system. There have been several bad harvests there recently. The rioters on Frallus jeopardised the lives of the people of Immolan. Now, Majesty, does that sound like the actions of those concerned about their fellow men?"
"It would seem not."
"In any event, matters are now proceeding smoothly, you will be glad to hear."
"Very glad. So, there was something you wished to discuss with me? A.... burden, suited to my current level of competence and skill? Whatever can it be, I wonder? Perhaps the palace cleaning rota needs to be authorised?"
"Very amusing, Majesty," Morden said, not sounding the slightest bit amused. "No, I regret to say that certain.... rumours have reached my ears, which I think you should be made aware of." He coughed. "This is not.... easy for me to say, Majesty."
"Just be out with it."
"It concerns the Lady Consort, Majesty. And your Captain of Guards, Durla Antignano. They have been much in each other's company of late. Some of the servants have been whispering there is an extra-marital affair in progress."
"Oh? Is that all?"
"Majesty, if true, this could have grave repercussions, not least for your image. And if false, malicious rumours are being spread, which must be...."
"I neither know nor care about the truth of these rumours. Nor about their source, for that matter. If Timov is having an affair with Captain Antignano, then I wish her all the pleasure she can gain from it." He raised his hand from the armrest of the throne and held it up. The trembling was clearly visible. "Do you see that, Mr. Morden? I can barely walk, barely stand unaided. It takes an inordinate amount of time simply to dress myself. It is a great feat of strength even to kiss my wife, let alone anything else.
"Timov has more than earned whatever.... little pleasures she obtains from this affair. This is none of your concern."
Morden smiled. "With all due respect, Majesty, I will decide what is and is not my concern. If you will heed a little humble advice, I would suggest you rest. You look very tired and exerted, Majesty. I would love to remain and discuss more items, but alas, I have a meeting with the Ministry of Security in half an hour."
He bowed. "Your servant, Majesty."
Londo lowered his arm and leaned his head back. Timov having an affair! He almost hoped she was.
Leave me, he thought. Great Maker, Timov, leave me. Get away from me and live your life somewhere peaceful, away from all this death.
Away from me.
* * * * * * *
He had been absent for seven years by their time. To him it might have been less, or far, far more, but seven years was appropriate.
One for every member of the Company of Chaos who had been killed at Golgotha.
Tamaken, Innaken, Takuen, Tadanakenn, Tetsuken, Rekaiji, himself.
Time passed differently out on the Rim, he had been told. He had not truly understood what that meant, until now.
Seven years to them.
Decades for him.
His eyes had always been dark and smouldering, but now they blazed with a fury controlled but unabated. His walk had always been arrogant and powerful, but now he strode as a man who knows he has no master.
A denn'bok had always hung at his waist. Now he bore something else. A dechai.
One of two gifts he had received from the Primarch Majestus et Conclavus for his work at Golgotha. Failure or not, he had been paid.
The dechai was the first.
The information had been the second, and that had been far more valuable.
He strode forward, and enjoyed the look of fear the workers gave him as he passed. So, they had been allowed to forget him in his absence, perhaps to hope for his demise, but with the proper prompting, they still recalled.
Perhaps there was hope yet.
He stopped and looked up at the Temple of Varenni. Tall and majestic, dominating the skyline of Yedor. There was a crowd gathering inside, intoning prayers and benedictions. Most people, however, would be outside the temple, outside the city, at the hill.
For the second time in his life, Parlain had arrived just in time for a funeral.
* * * * * * *
Third - The Brotherhood of the Brotherless
His people were in chains, chains he had helped to forge. It would take a strong hammer to break those bonds and free them.
Looking around, Marrago did not doubt the strength of the hammer. He simply wished it was less.... monstrous.
"We will not win this war through normal military means," he said. "We will do this another way. An occupying force cannot keep a people of billions enslaved if the people do not want to be enslaved. We were taught that. We will simply make it not worth the effort for the Vorlons to maintain their presence in our Republic.
"It will be a long, hard war, but I believe it can be won, and every battle fought will add momentum to our cause.
"I have been planning this for a long, long time. There will be two fronts to this war: the open, and the covert.
"The open will consist of our military forces: the Tak'cha, the Z'shailyl, the Brotherhood. You will protect the planets we regain, destroy or take over the defence systems, and repel the forces that will inevitably be sent to retaliate. Once we have retaken a system, you are to keep out everything that we do not permit to enter.
"The covert will be through agitation and assassination. The Narn veterans know how to utilise such tactics. I know how to defend against them. We will smuggle in food and supplies. The Vindrizi will help to contact local resistance leaders, dissidents and the like.
"Moreil, those who are in command will carry out the other necessary part of the covert operation. Certain people will have to die. I will provide the names. You and those who serve you will see to it. I will specify how it is to be done. Some deaths must look like accidents, others will have to be more obvious. Full details will be provided in due course.
"We will start with the Frallus and Gorash systems, Gorash first. Both systems are far enough away from Centauri Prime to be less closely watched. Gorash is the hub of the Republic's food and mineral supply routes. We can use these resources ourselves and deny them to the occupying forces. This will foment more unrest on the other worlds. Gorash in particular is also astride several trade routes, including routes to Narn and Drazi systems. With those under our control, we will be better able to support and defend those areas.
"I do not promise this will be an easy war, for it will not be. But it is a righteous war, and a just one.
"And I thank you all. As Sinoval has said, this is not one race against another. It is all races against the Vorlons and their Masters. I give you my word that we will not stop when Centauri worlds are liberated, not until everything is complete.
"We owe all of you nothing less."
* * * * * * *
Fourth - The Hollow One
Tirivail finished her story and stood still, rigid and tall. She could not see anything else in the room. Apart for the column of light in which she stood, all was darkness.
She felt a cold chill settle on her spine as the oppressive silence filled the room.
She breathed in harshly, maintaining her rigid bearing. She could hear his footsteps, slow and regimented and echoing.
She started, and quickly corrected herself. She did not want to hear that voice. He was.... elsewhere. She did not want to think of him or what he had said.
Alone. She was alone. Let Sinoval create his alliance of aliens and murderers and traitors. Her first duty was to her fa.... to her people. She had come here with Delenn and immediately set about reporting what she had learned at Golgotha.
I did not love you then. Perhaps I should have done.
She closed her eyes tightly, hoping to blot out that voice. He had no right to haunt her this way. None at all.
"Am I distressing you?" barked a sarcastic voice.
"No, Satai," she replied quickly.
"Then remain still and silent."
The silence returned, but she found herself wanting him to speak. Anything, no matter how degrading or sarcastic or demeaning, was better than the memory of that voice.
I am not your lady!
And she never would be.
"That was everything?" he said. She hesitated, only half-hearing the words, unsure if they were real or an illusion. "I am not in the habit of repeating myself," he hissed.
"Yes, Satai," she said. "That is everything."
"And you believe these.... tales of demons from another universe?"
"What reason would Sinoval have to lie, Satai?"
"You will not repeat that name to me!" he barked, and she started, practically jumping backwards. "You are a gullible, stupid child. It would have been better if you had died at Babylon Five."
"Yes, Satai," she said, trying to keep the bitterness and the pain and the fear from her voice.
Worse, you dishonour yourself. I will not accept that.
He moved into the column of light, standing the merest breath in front of her, his dark eyes peering intently into her own. She was slightly taller than he was, and she knew he had always resented it, but to her he had always seemed bigger.
"That man is our enemy. A fine warrior, yes, but he is a monster and a traitor. He abandoned his responsibilities and left our planet open and vulnerable to attack by the humans. He has bargained with Soul Hunters and even claims to lead them.
"And you say he has brought the soul of the Betrayer back to a semblance of life? Even if such a thing is possible and did actually happen, it is a sin that can never be forgiven.
"And you listen to his story, and believe his every word.
"You are a stupid child. I imagined, once, that there might be some hope for you, but I see I was wrong."
He stopped, still staring at her. She did not speak.
"The Vorlons are our enemy," he continued after a long pause. "I am willing to accept that they have some power we have not encountered before. Perhaps they have even formed an alliance with aliens from another universe, although I think it more likely these beings are simply a vassal race whom they have kept hidden until now. Perhaps they even have some sort of emotion manipulation technology or psychic ability.
"But I knew about this without your pathetic report. There was an incident beneath the Temple of Varenni some weeks ago. I went there myself and felt the rush of anger, the desire to kill everyone I saw.
"Do you know what happened? You have my permission to speak."
"No, of course you do not. I resisted the urge. I defeated it. The word is willpower, something you know sadly little of. Our warriors, however, know willpower, and they know honour. They will be able to resist this.... killing urge, and we will defend our worlds against the Vorlons. We need no help from the traitor, or from aliens."
"Delenn was there, Satai."
"Yes, so you said. She is as much a traitor as he is. I will have nothing to do with her either. She abrogated her responsibility to us the day she became an alien thing.
"You will leave this place. I will find you a position on a warship, something suited to your abilities. You will serve as well and as honourably as you are capable of. Do not dare to disgrace me.
"And you will have nothing more to do with that man or any of his followers. They are as much our enemies as the Vorlons. Do you understand?"
"But, Father...." she began, stopping herself too late.
His eyes blazed, and he took a step backwards. He drew his denn'bok in a blur of motion and cracked the end of the staff into her face. She reeled backwards, falling into the darkness. Blood filled her mouth and she spat it out. She was shaking.
I will decide whom I hold worthy.
"Stand up!" he shouted.
Hesitantly, painfully, she did so.
"You are not my daughter," he said angrily. "You are a soldier under my command, and if I must throw your life away for the good of the Minbari then I shall do so and not regret it for a single instant. Do not think that just because you were admitted to the councils of traitors and aliens that makes you in any way important."
He sheathed his denn'bok and walked back into the shadows.
"I will find you a place. You will not disgrace me."
The sound of his footsteps receded into the distance. She was alone.
No, never alone.
* * * * * * *
He waited, alone in the darkened chamber. He was content to wait. Most of his skills were self-taught, at least the ones that mattered. The greatest of these skills, and the hardest to learn, had been patience, but he had mastered it in the end.
He still itched for action though. The Primarch's words burned in him. His hand constantly reached for the denn'bok at his side, as if to reassure himself that it was still there.
Parlain was waiting for his brother.
He wanted to grieve. He wanted to shout and scream and cry out his rage to the heavens, but he was no mere warrior. He was the Saviour of Golgotha, Lord of Shirohida, son of Derannimer. He was not permitted the griefs of lesser men.
He looked up as the light flared, and saw Vashok long before Vashok saw him. His brother had studied piety and obedience, not stealth. Besides, Parlain had taken steps to acquire as much night vision as he could. That was a general weakness of his people, and not one he would allow to afflict him.
Vashok saw him at last, and started. He stepped backwards quickly.
"Enter, brother," Parlain said. "Try to flee and I will surely catch you."
Vashok hesitated. He was tall and regal-looking, wearing a fine robe of white, embroidered with silver and blue. He had always known that he wanted to enter the Priesthood. Judging from what Parlain had heard, the last seven years had served him well.
"Why should I obey you?" he asked, finally.
"Because you want to know why the black wind of the family has returned home after seven years, and you want to know what I know about the death of our sister."
Vashok looked at him, contempt in his light eyes. Finally he entered and sat down opposite Parlain. "I had hoped you were dead," he said. "To hear nothing for so long.... I hoped you were dead."
"Many did, I would wager. I am harder to kill than you imagine, brother. I am, it seems, most unlike the rest of our family in that respect."
"So," Vashok replied, wary of the barb in Parlain's words. "Why have you returned?"
"The timing was.... appropriate. I was ready to die. I wanted to die. Have you ever been in love, brother? No, I know you have not. To know love, and to lose it.... That is not a fate I would wish even on you. I was ready to die, honourably, as a warrior should."
"Your warrior's ways are dead and gone! This is not your time any longer. Our parents fought and risked everything to make that happen, and you have never shown anything but contempt for all they achieved."
"I have always respected our mother's achievements, and you will not interrupt me again. As I was saying, I was ready to die, when I received some.... interesting information. I learned that Cathrenn had finally married Derulan. They seemed to be happy. They had a daughter. She was fit and healthy. I was told she resembles our mother, in everything but her eyes.
"Do you know what else I heard? None of the rest of us have children. You are sworn to celibacy. Zathrenn has no wish to wed. Nemeranth has courted a barren woman. Mariva miscarried and cannot quicken again. No children from any of us.
"Cathrenn's daughter is the sole grandchild of Valen and Derannimer."
"And?" Vashok said. "Have you become so addled you see patterns where there are none? Zathrenn may yet marry. Nemeranth may choose to court another. Mariva may be healed. You may have children. I may leave the Order of the Omen of Light and wed."
"All but that last I could believe, brother. You will never leave your Order. You love the power too much. And I do not see patterns where none exist. The patterns are pointed out to me. How did Cathrenn die?"
"An illness. She would not rest, but drove herself too hard in her work."
"He has retired to a monastery."
"So where is their daughter?"
"In my care, of course. If you know all this anyway, then why are you asking me?"
"Do you want to know all that I know? Truthfully?"
"You know nothing, and what would it matter if you did? You are an outcast. You have no rank or title or allies. You call yourself Lord of Shirohida, and think the rest of us do not know? Shirohida is a burned-out wreck and nothing remains there. You are a joke, brother, if you are even my brother at all. You must have heard the rumours the same as the rest of us. You resemble none of us, or my mother, or my father."
"Rumours are just air, but if you want rumours, brother, then here are some for you. Cathrenn did not die of an illness. It was a slow poison, administered by her Markab apprentice. You remember, the one you insisted she train in the ways of our religion and government. Could you not do it yourself, brother? 'No Minbari shall kill another.' Does having an alien commit murder on your behalf keep your hands blessedly clean?"
"Aliens are impure. They cannot be bound by our proscriptions."
"And the Markab herself? I understand she returned to her people, griefstricken. Or did she meet with an accident along the way? Space travel is still quite dangerous."
"Aliens are no more bound by our laws than they are under our protection."
"Why? Tell me that at least."
"Do not try to tell me you do not already know."
"Oh, I know. But I want to hear from you why you would murder our sister."
"I did nothing!" He rose suddenly and began to pace around in a circle. "Cathrenn did not die at my hands. I do not carry the stain of her blood. If she had listened at all.... All she had to do was listen. The blood of Valen is special. Her children will be special. One will come from that line, in a thousand years, who will be necessary to fight the Darkness when it returns. Our bloodline has to be protected, has to be.... guided, has to be kept...."
"Small?" Parlain interjected. "Under control? Trimmed to a manageable level? How accidental was Mariva's miscarriage, brother? Cathrenn was the eldest, wasn't she? Eldest child through to eldest child, that is where the true power lies. Other children around would only complicate things, no?"
"We were all told. We were all given the choice. We could have no children, or we could consent to our children being protected.... managed, as you put it. There must not be too many. Too many children would complicate matters.
"The only one who was not included was you, and that is because you carry no more of Valen's blood than a Markab or an Ikarran. Some of us accepted it, some of us chose to bear no children. Some of us did not want children."
"Easy for you to deny to others what you never saw as important yourself."
"Cathrenn never accepted it. She said she would raise her children her way. And worst of all, she would tell them about you, and send one of them to train with you if the child asked for it. That could not be permitted. The line of Valen is special."
"So you killed her."
"I did not kill her! She killed herself by refusing! I administered no poison."
"But you knew about it. That makes you every bit as guilty, brother."
"Stop calling me that! You are not my brother! You are nothing! Wearing your scars and your warrior garb. Your day is done. Return to the past and your bloodshed and your chaos. We are the future. We are peace and stability and order and we will not allow the likes of you to return us to civil war."
"We? We are peace and stability? We are order? And who, exactly, are we?"
"You know who my allies are."
"Yes, I do." Parlain jumped up. "If you were to see them again, I would tell you to ask the Vorlons about a place called Golgotha - but the opportunity will hardly arise."
Vashok stepped back. "Minbari do not kill Minbari," he said.
"I do not accept your laws, and if it helps, I am not killing a Minbari. I am not even killing my brother. I am killing the man who bargained with aliens, and killed my sister!"
Vashok's eyes opened, and light poured out from them. Parlain moved in a split second, his denn'bok piercing his brother's chest, crushing his ribs and his heart in one blow. Vashok's body fell to the ground, but it was too late.
The light began to form over his body, coalescing into a form.
An angelic form.
"There you are," Parlain remarked to the Vorlon.
* * * * * * *
Fifth - The Insecure
".... never seen anything like...."
".... creepiest thing...."
".... beating. It was beating."
"Like a heart, yeah."
"But not the same rhythm. Much slower."
"Like it was dying."
"And the body. The smell!"
Zack stopped speaking, and shuddered. "I am never going to forget that smell as long as I live."
Julia Tikopai looked at him and ostentatiously waved her hand in front of her face. "I don't think the smell will ever forget you either."
"I've had three showers," Zack said. "But you know, vibe showers.... don't do much."
Jack was still speaking, his monologue rumbling on. ".... torn apart, and the sky, and the smell...." He realised that no one else was speaking, and fell silent.
Julia was looking at them both. She was young, yes, but she had her fair share of cynicism and sometimes she seemed more worldly-wise than someone twice her age. "And I'm assuming there's a reason why you're here talking to me about it and not out investigating?"
Zack looked at her. "Well, yeah."
"Special Corps took it over," Jack added. "Everything. They've cordoned off the area, took all our notes, and I mean all of them. They've even had a thorough look at all the regular criminal activity records here, and that took them some time. It's weird. I've never seen them pay this much attention to anything going on down here. They just never cared, but this.... I tried asking their leader, that.... what was his name?"
"Casey," Zack added.
"Yeah, him. I tried asking him if they were going to put this amount of effort into everything else that went on down here and he practically ripped my head off. He was furious."
"He's not normally like that. He's normally.... well, quite cold and professional. Bit creepy, actually."
"Well he wasn't like that with me at all."
"Hey," Zack said. "Whoa, wait a minute. You know, when I was there, I suddenly felt really angry. Like I wanted to kill someone. I mean I felt fine when I was out of there and it was just a moment, but.... Bizarre."
"That's not the only strange thing," Julia added. "Have you seen the incident reports for the last couple of days?"
"I meant to," Zack replied. "But.... er.... my dog ate them."
"You don't have a dog. The number of violent incidents is.... well, through the roof. Domestics, brawls, arson. I thought it was just the normal upswing of violence. End of year sort of thing, but.... maybe not, eh?"
Zack moaned. "I hate this. This is just weird stuff, and I can't do weird. I wish Dex was here. He'd know what to do."
"Well he isn't here, and we are. So, what do we do?"
Zack looked at her. He couldn't think of an answer. Not one.
* * * * * * *
Sixth - The Lovers
Dexter lay back on the bed, staring up at the ceiling. It was stone, and not far above him, but he doubted its existence. He felt as if he could reach up, pass his hand through it, and grab the stars above him.
He did not want to leave. Some of them had left. Delenn had left. He wished he had been able to speak to her, but what was there to say? That he was sorry Sheridan was dead? That they would all die in the end and for some that would be a blessing? That she was already dead? That he dreamed about killing her over and over again?
No, there was nothing to say, and it was better that she had left without speaking to him.
He closed his eyes and stretched out lazily. Even the air felt different here.
He had slept well, for the first time since he had seen the thing emerge from the Box.
"It was real," he said, smiling. The image was still with him, but he saw it now for what it was. "It was real. I am not crazy."
"That's a matter of opinion," said Talia. He had not heard her enter. He doubted he would have heard an army enter. "I was always taught that talking to yourself was the first sign of madness."
"I wasn't talking to myself. I was just voicing my thoughts aloud."
"Yes, that was always my answer too." The bed shifted as she sat down.
He knew she had stayed on Golgotha for longer than she had wanted to. The Council had invigorated them both, but where it had brought him peace, it had given her energy. She had spoken with the others, and formed a plan of action. She had her purpose, and the means of achieving it. She burned to get going. He was content to rest.
But there was more to it than that. He was afraid that if he left here, the peace would depart and he would dream it all again, seeing death everywhere, too terrified to move or speak or do anything at all.
"What did Durhan say?" he asked. The question broke the silence, which had been slightly awkward, but that had not been his reason for speaking. He liked silence these days, and had no desire to end it. He genuinely wanted to know.
He still did not like the Vindrizi. The idea of immortal parasites controlling decaying bodies still struck him as morbid, but he could not deny that they were useful allies and vital sources of information. He remembered speaking with Durhan, who seemed to be their leader. He had put a interesting interpretation on it, something Dexter had warmed to.
"There's a saying among some races. You may have heard it. No one is ever dead so long as someone lives who remembers them. The Vindrizi are going to live for hundreds of thousands of years. That's a nice long time for there to be someone who remembers me."
Dexter had liked that. It made the death of the body a little more bearable, that something continued to exist afterwards. He was sceptical about the soul, and even more sceptical about a Heaven, but that idea pleased him.
But, he had replied, what about Sinoval? Wasn't he immortal?
Durhan had looked a little sad about that. "Immortal he may be, but I doubt that means he'll live forever. Certainly not as he is now."
And that had been all he had said.
Talia was speaking, and Dexter shifted his attention back to her. "He gave me the co-ordinates of several worlds. Mostly of dead races, races who've been dead for longer than I can comprehend. Some of them were highly telepathic, and some of them apparently made themselves telepathic. There should be technology on some of these planets that can enhance my abilities sufficiently to enable me to break open the network."
"Just like the Apocalypse Box?" he asked.
The pressure on the bed shifted as she rose. "At least I'm doing something," she hissed. "I know what you saw was.... traumatic, but I saw it too, and I haven't forgotten what I'm meant to be doing."
He opened his eyes and looked at her. It was strange. Before, when he had looked at her, he had only seen her dying. Now he still knew that she was dying, but he saw it the other way.
She was alive.
"I haven't forgotten either," he replied softly. "You know I will help you."
She looked at him, breathing out slowly. She was so beautiful.
"You can count on my help, wherever it takes us."
"Why?" she asked. "You aren't one of us."
"You know why."
"I want you to tell me."
"Because you're dying. And I'm dying. And apart from Sinoval we're all dying. But we're alive now, and we may as well do something worthwhile before we do die, and I can't think of anything more worthwhile than this, and you're alive for now and you're beautiful and I love you and I know I've been strange lately but...." He stopped. "Does this make any sense?"
"You had me at 'beautiful'," she whispered.
He smiled. "You are. Do we have a plan?"
"We can work on it tomorrow. Both of us."
"I think we'll both be busy tonight."
He kissed her hair, and then her ear, and then her cheek.
Both of them were alive. Death was coming for them soon enough, but death was cold and grim and grey and a long way off and for now they were both alive.
* * * * * * *
He was at peace. Parlain knew - not suspected, or believed, or wondered, but knew - that he had done the right thing.
One glance at his niece told him that. She was tiny, only a handful of months old, but he could already see the mark of his mother and sister in her. But she carried her own fate as well. She would make her own destiny.
And all he had to do to save her was bargain with the one thing he most despised in all the galaxy.
He did not regret it at all.
The Vorlon had risen from Vashok's body, swimming lazily in the air as its angelic form coalesced from the mists of light. Parlain had stared at it. He had seen First Ones, and fought them. He had even seen a Vorlon's true form. He would not fear this.
"There you are. I wanted to talk to the lord, and not the servant."
<You are to be permitted nothing.>
"On the contrary. I'm going to speak, and you're going to listen. Unless you want people to learn the truth about Golgotha."
<You would not be believed.>
"By nobody? Nobody at all? Are you sure? The other First Ones might have decided not to do anything, but that doesn't mean we won't. Or the Markab. I could even go looking for the Tak'cha. And with the proof I have available, I think they will believe. Now, are you going to listen?"
"I want her. I want my niece."
"Even at the risk of the truth about Golgotha escaping? The Rangers of the Accord your little ploy butchered had families. I know them all. There are some fairly influential lords whose sons and daughters and nieces and nephews you sent to their deaths."
<The child is special.>
"I know that. But it isn't so much her, as what will come from her. You have a thousand years to prepare, a thousand years to regain control over her children. I cannot think in that long a time scale, but you can. You've got time. You don't need her."
<What is she to you?>
"I've loved three people in my life, and they're all dead. Cathrenn deserved better than to be murdered by her own brother. Her daughter deserves better than to be used as a pawn by you. I could try to kill you all, but that is only death. This is life. Give her to me, and give me your word that you will not interfere in my or her life. Do this, and no one will ever know the truth of what happened at Golgotha, not from me."
<Why should we trust you?>
"I swear by Derannimer. I swear by Rekaiji. I swear by Cathrenn. By these three I swear that what I say is true."
<We give her line a hundred years. Then we will return for them.>
"Depending on how well I train them, they'll be ready for you."
And he had. He would never see Minbar again, never see Yedor, or Shirohida, or Tuzanor, never rest by the memorials of his mother or sister.
It was worth it.
He picked up the baby as she started to stir, and held her tenderly. Her eyes were the only thing marking her out as different from her mother. They were her father's.
Green - a deep, sensitive, beautiful green.
"Well," he said. "I have chosen life after all. I have something to live for now.
"Don't I, Delenn?"
* * * * * * *
Seventh - The Lemming
He had remembered a lot recently. One of the things he had not remembered was how to perceive time, and so he had no idea of just how long 'recently' was. But he had come a long way. It would not have surprised him to know that he had been here for two years.
He remembered his name. That was the most important thing, and everything else flowed from that.
He was Alfred Bester.
He told himself that often, enjoying the rush of emotion the name brought. Other names arose from that. Names....
.... and sometimes faces.
Talia Winters. Tall, blonde, elegant.
Ari Ben Zayn. Scarred, efficient, ruthless.
G'Kar. Narn, ally of sorts once.
Sinoval. Just a name, that one.
John Sheridan. Again, nothing but a name.
The Vorlons. They were the enemy. They were his creators, his enslavers. He and those like him had served their grand purpose, the one for which they had been formed, and now they existed only to be used as slaves.
To the network.
He was trapped in a place called the network, something that existed somewhere far from the real world, buried deep in the folds and warp and weave of hyperspace. He had slipped free from his moorings somehow, and become adrift. Perhaps he had managed to free himself. Perhaps the recollection of his name had enabled him to escape.
He had forgotten precisely which.
This was the network. It was his prison. It was the prison of his entire people. And not just human telepaths. Brakiri, Centauri, Minbari, races whose identities he had no comprehension or understanding of.
They were all his people. All of them.
He realised sometimes that he did not know how to perceive time, if there was such a thing as time. Sometimes he forgot that knowledge but other times it came back to him. In those moments of lucidity he realised that some of the aliens had been here since before he had been born, since before his parents or grandparents or great-grandparents had been born.
He had resolved to escape from this place, and free those trapped within it.
His body, he knew, was held somewhere. Sometimes he could still feel the bonds trapping him, the rush of power and energy holding him still. He could not return there. Not yet. Not until he was able to break free completely. He did not even know where his body was.
There was something else in the network as well. He knew that, and he always remembered that. Some of the other souls had managed to escape. He had met some, and talked to them. Most knew nothing, not even their names. Some remembered their race, or the name of a person they had once known, or some completely trivial incident. One talked with great excitement about a blue shield it used to keep away all the evil outside.
One thing he faintly remembered was meeting other disembodied spirits. One of them was Talia, one of the names that evoked such powerful feelings within him. They had spoken, but about what he could not recall. She was important, though. Very important. Perhaps he had told her that.
And there was something else. Not the light that filled everything, even the inside of his mind. There were patches of.... nothingness. Blackness. Passages had been severed, cut off, and all that remained was the darkness and the sound of a slow heart beating.
He preferred to avoid those places, although he thought about them often. If there was a force powerful enough to destroy parts of the network itself, then....
There was an understanding there, but it always slipped away from him. It did not matter. It would return.
He had a name, and he had a purpose, and he learned more and more every day. Soon, he would even learn how to perceive the passing of the days.
And he had a saying, one he kept repeating to himself over and over, almost as often as his name.
One day a lemming will fly.
* * * * * * *
Eighth - The Pawn
"Pain has a salutary effect upon the soul. It is a reminder to the body that you are still alive, and a warning to remove your flesh from a dangerous situation.
"Of course, you do not have that option, do you?
"So pain is a reminder that you are still alive, which is well, except that you do not wish to be alive, do you? Not now.
"We can keep you alive for a very long time indeed. All but indefinitely in fact. Suns will blacken and die, worlds corrode and crumble into dust before we will permit you to end.
"We are nothing if not farsighted.
"And why do you resist us? What misguided loyalties do you have towards the person who put you here and left you to us? You will note there has been no attempt to rescue you. Perchance he has forgotten about you, but his kind do not forget, do they?
"No, it is far, far more likely he has accepted you as an unfortunate loss, one that is not worth recovering at the risk of losing even more. I know you are hardly likely to agree, but I find that notion appealing. It means he is beginning to think as we do.
"There is nothing wrong with serving a greater whole, nothing wrong with being a cog in a glorious and ancient machine. All life moves towards stability and peace, towards a world where everyone moves and exists in their own little bubbles, content that their lives enrich the greater whole.
"Some benefit the whole through acts of creation, creation of life or constructs. Some maintain an existing service.
"And some, such as myself, and hopefully yourself, protect the whole. I am a soldier in the only war that matters, the war for the salvation of all that exists. Do you see? We seek to destroy entropy, to put an end to change and chaos and anarchy.
"We seek only order.
"We seek only to help.
"We want you to understand this, and accept it. We could force you to join us, control you like a puppet, but we have no desire to do that. They did that. It suited their ideal of anarchy, that anyone might not be what they seemed. Friend, lover, parent, sibling, child.... anyone could be theirs. It spread fear and chaos.
"Fear is good, but it must be fear of the known, not of the unknown. You must fear us because we are your Masters and we care about you, and we will do whatever is necessary for the greater good.
"We could command you, and you would obey, but better by far to have you come to us voluntarily, to beg to be permitted to serve us. You have done nothing yet that would merit your death. The things I did.... they were terrible, and my redemption continues still, after all these centuries.
"I still work towards it, and so may you. All you have to do is ask for our forgiveness, and beg to serve us, and you may yet achieve the perfection they hold out for us.
"All you have to do is ask."
He did not ask.
But they had time, and he had no understanding of its passing, and they could grant him pain, and he could only resist it for so long, and inevitably the day came when Galen lifted up his head and looked at Sebastian and swore to serve the Vorlons forever.
* * * * * * *
Ninth - The Saviour?
They slew the Eldest.
Yes, they did.
They are opening the gateways to the other place.
Yes, they are.
They will do to the younger races what was done to us.
Yes, they will.
They will turn the entire galaxy into Golgotha. A place of the dead.
Yes, they will.
You called us here, and requested our aid. We refused. All of us. We bear you and your kind no love. We bear the younger races no love. They are not our concern. We abandoned them after Golgotha. We left them to their twin guardians of Order and Chaos.
They have only one guardian now, and Order has betrayed them.
What concern is this of ours?
A mortal fought for you here, at Golgotha. Mortals died for you here, at Golgotha. A thousand years is a long time for them, a handful of heartbeats for those who live as long as we do. Does that sacrifice mean nothing to you?
Mortals die. Those of whom you speak would be centuries dead by now in any event, whatever they did.
And does that not simply make their sacrifice all the more meaningful?
They were nothing to us.
They fought and died for you! They were no part of the Accord, had no bonds to Golgotha! Seven mortals came here and fought for you, and six of them died, and you did nothing to punish those who killed them.
The gateway was closed. We knew the Vorlons would not dare to try again.
They have tried again.
You were wrong.
You were complacent and arrogant and you believed that you could simply turn away from what happened and return to your own concerns. None of you wanted the Accord to succeed anyway.
Take care how you speak to us.
I will speak how I wish. I will fight them, Vorlons and Aliens both. They will fight them. The mortals, the younger races, they will fight an enemy even we can barely comprehend. They have more courage than any of you.
Mortals are used to death.
And that means they do not fear it? No, they fear death, but they do what must be done regardless. They are far braver than you.
We do not care for your insults.
And I do not care for your arrogance! They have killed the Eldest. Do you truly believe they will stop there? They will open the gateway again, and not merely one. They will open them all. Gate and mirror and orb and chamber. The Aliens will enter this universe, and then war will come to you all, no matter how well you hide. And tell me, would you rather fight the Aliens alone, or with allies?
They killed the Eldest.
Yes, they did.
They should not have done that. The Eldest was the wisest, the most knowledgeable, the most ancient. He knew the answer to the question you do not.
Yes, I believe he did.
You do not know everything.
Nor do you.
They should not have killed the Eldest. That above all else we cannot forgive.
We do not do this for the younger races.
We do not do this for you.
We do not do this for Golgotha and the Enaid Accord.
We do this because they killed the Eldest.
As long as you do it, that is all that matters.
Well then, Primarch. We are ready.
It has been a long time since we went to war.