Volume 5:  Among the Stars, like Giants Part VII:  .... Let No God Tear Asunder


.... Let No God Tear Asunder



Chapter 1


IT was the perfect night for him to arrive.  Afterwards she claimed to have had a premonition that something was about to happen, but there was really nothing particularly unusual.  The rain was bad, but it often was at this stage of the moon's cycle.  The lightning storms were no worse than they had been many times before.  The place she had chosen for her retreat was an inhospitable one.
      The patients were affected too.  One of them had just died, a young Minbari warrior who had pleaded with her for absolution.  He had told her the things he had done in the war and they had almost turned her stomach, but she had listened and whispered long-forgotten prayers to him.  He died talking to someone else entirely that only he could see.
      That was tragic, but not unexpected.  His wounds had been extensive and most people would have succumbed within hours.  It had taken a great deal of willpower for him even to have survived this long.
      Such effort, and in such a wasted cause.
      Another two patients had died earlier, a Brakiri who had spent the last three weeks in and out of a coma, and a Drazi escapee who had literally died of fright.  The whole building had heard his screams for the last few days, and he had lashed out at everyone he saw.
      All three deaths were expected, as were many more.  It saddened her that so many came here simply for a place to die.  She should have been able to provide more than that.
      She herself had slept badly the night before and woken up in the middle of the night, staring blankly at the walls.  It was cold, uncomfortably so, but then the whole building was cold, and whatever resources she had to spare for heating went on the patients' rooms.
      She often went days without sleep and with little food.  The others worried about her, but sleep seldom brought any rest.  There were too many old ghosts waiting for her in her dreams.
      She had been snatching the briefest moment of rest when Dasouri had come to find her.  The big Drazi moved slowly, and always would.  His legs had never recovered from the injuries he had sustained at Frallus.  He could have returned to the war, but he had chosen not to, telling General Marrago that he felt he could serve better here.  She was not aware what reply, if any, the General had given.
      "You should be in bed," Dasouri said, not unkindly.  "It is not good for you to go without sleep."
      "I will rest shortly."
      "I thought your people did not lie."
      She smiled, sadly, a little pathetically.  "I wish that were still true."
      "You are no good to anyone if you collapse from exhaustion."
      "There is a fine line between exhaustion and simple tiredness.  I know very well how to remain on the right side of that line."
      He looked at her, and she was struck again by the compassion in his eyes.  He was a strange Drazi.  Most of them had embraced the war wholeheartedly, and it took something truly dreadful to make them realise that anything else existed, like the prisoner with the dreams.  Their world had been lost to them early on after all, before the war had even really begun.
      Dasouri was different, though.  Compassionate, and filled with a conviction that life was worth preserving.  He often quoted from G'Kar, but while he spoke of his dreams for his people and his world, he never referred to his own past.  She was happy with that.  She never referred to her past either, although he would of course know most of it.  Little of what she had done remained a secret from anyone.
      She had risen to return to her work when Cathrenn entered the room.  The room was small, and not really designed for three people, let alone when one was a Drazi, but Cathrenn still managed to maintain a space of several feet around her which nothing could violate.  She hated being touched and always protected that space even with the patients.  Her dreams were sometimes heard at night, but it would have taken someone truly perceptive to separate them from the screams of the patients, and no one had spoken to Cathrenn about it.  Sometimes it was better to leave people alone with their pain, especially when there was no way of healing it.
      "Cathrenn," she said.  "Is something wrong?"
      "There is.... someone to see you, Satama."  Cathrenn spoke nervously, more nervously than usual.  The visitors must be male then, or at least intimidating.  Perhaps Drazi, or some of the more militant Narns.
      Satama.  The title was an old Minbari one, very old.  It meant 'Blessed Guide'.  She had tried to discourage its use, but no one had listened, and even the non-Minbari such as Dasouri had taken to using it.
      "Another hospital freight?" she asked.  There was nothing due.  Maybe there had been a battle?
      "No, Satama.  They.... he.... said he wished to speak to you personally.  They.... he.... was.... insistent."
      "Oh," she said.  She had a feeling she knew who this might be.  She suddenly felt very cold, although she hadn't noticed the cold earlier.  "Where is he?"
      "The Sky Room, Satama.  Did I.... do the right thing?"
      "Yes," she reassured her.  "Very fitting.  He always liked high places."
      "Oh....  Good.... good."
      Besides, it would keep him, and consequently those with him, far away from the patients.  She did not care to imagine how they would react to the sight of her visitors.
      "Cathrenn, can you ask one of the others to tell him I will be along shortly?"
      "I.... I can do it."
      "You do not mind?"  She felt wretched.  Cathrenn was so desperate to please, so pathetic in her desire to be useful, always terrified she would one day be thrown out, back into the galaxy.  As if she would do that.  She nodded.  "Very well, Cathrenn.  If you can tell him I will be along shortly.  Offer him and his guests some refreshments.  He will not accept, I am sure, but some of his companions might."
      "Yes, Satama.  Offer him drinks.  Should I offer food as well?"
      "Yes."  They had little to spare, but she was confident the offer would be refused anyway, so what did it matter?  "Cathrenn, do not let him touch you.  Even if he asks, say no.  Do not look at his eyes, whatever he offers you."
      "Yes.... Satama.  Is he truly so evil then?  I had always heard...."
      "Evil?  No, he is many things, but evil is not one of them.  I fear, though, that his touch or even his gaze would burn you.  You do not have to do this.  I can ask someone else."
      "I would do it," Dasouri said.
      "No," Cathrenn said, staring at her wide-eyed.  "I will do this.  I will do this."  She left quickly.
      "Do you want me with you when you see him?" Dasouri asked.
      "No," she replied.  "Better that I see him alone.  It must be important for him to come here.  I am almost afraid to wonder why."
      "That is why you want him to wait?"
      "Why else?"
      "I did not think you simply wanted to make him wait for you."
      "No, of course not.  He might do that sort of thing if the situation were reversed, but I doubt it.  He knows that power is not to be wasted on petty games.  I merely need time to think and prepare myself.  This will not be an easy meeting.  Besides, I have to complete my rounds of the patients, and I will not let him stop me."
      Dasouri nodded, and fell wordlessly into step behind her.  He came with her more often than not, and she was grateful for the company.  He knew when to be silent and when to speak, which was a rare skill, and a very underrated one.
      There were some improvements and some deteriorations, but most patients remained the same.  The young Narn girl seemed to be recovering, although her shattered leg would probably never fully heal.  The Drazi pilot was worsening, slipping into delirium.  He would probably not last the week, although she hoped she was wrong.  She had been wrong before.  Dasouri's people were tough and resilient.
      The human was last, as usual.  His ravings tended to disturb the others.  Ranting and screaming were not uncommon - the Drazi who had just died had been proof of that.  But this man seemed more.... intense than the others.  He rarely shouted, and tended mostly to whisper.  The sincerity and conviction in his voice were chilling.  Simply being near him was enough to make most people feel uneasy.  Even Dasouri did not like being around him.
      He had been here for several weeks now, and at first she had thought he would die within days.  His physical injuries were not especially severe, and were concentrated on his face.  His eyes had been torn out, and there were deep gouges and scratches all over his face, which had destroyed his appearance and rendered him unrecognisable.  All those wounds were clearly self-inflicted, as the marks on his hands demonstrated.  His right hand in particular was badly injured, the fingers broken and distorted.
      No, he would probably recover from the physical wounds, although he would always be blind and would possibly never use his hands again.  The real damage was to his psyche.  He had seen things he was not meant to see, and his mind had been unable to accept them.
      "Greetings," she said, as she walked into the private room that had been allocated to him.  Sometimes she talked to the patients, sometimes not.  This one seemed to like being spoken to.  He at least replied, and even tried to make conversation.  She did not know his name, and she hated that, but sadly that was not unusual.
      "Oh," he replied.  "It's you.  I thought you had gone."
      "I am still here."  She began checking him over as best she could.  The wounds on his face were free from infection.  The bones in his hand were beginning to set.  "I will always be here."
      "No, not always.  But you will not leave yet.  I keep telling myself you will leave one day and I will never know you again, so that I will be resigned on the day you do leave, but of course that is why you stay.  You will only leave when I don't want you to leave."
      "I will never leave."
      "You will.  You may not want to, but you will.  You won't be able to help yourself."
      "What do you mean?"
      "You're a ghost.  Everyone here is a ghost, apart from me.  Everyone's dead.  They all went off and left me, and maybe I left them as well.  You see, I can't remember their names."
      No sores were developing.  His bedclothes were clean.  There was nothing untoward.
      "I will not leave.  I will always be here.  The buzzer is still beside your bed.  Press it, and I will come to you.  Do you still know where it is?"
      "I know.  I can reach it, but I haven't needed to call you, which is why you keep coming.  When I do need you, you won't be here.  It's not your fault.  I don't blame you.  It's my fault for believing anything could be different.  It was always my fault.  They all left me, but it was my fault.  Good night.  Is it night-time?"
      "Yes."
      "Oh.  I thought so.  Good night.  Will you come back tomorrow?"
      "Yes."
      "No, you won't."
      She left.  It was hard to turn her back on him, but he was just one of hundreds, and she had greater responsibilities.  She would feel better if she could actually do something to help these people.  A few recovered, but they were never the same again.  Never.  The war had taken everything away from them, and it fell to her to pick up what was left.
      Her mind was far from clear as she began to climb the dark stairs to the Sky Room.  It was on the top floor of the building, and in theory it was accommodation for the administrator and his or her family.  She had no family and she did not want to be so far from the patients anyway, so it was usually reserved for the occasional guest.  G'Kar and L'Neer had stayed there when they visited, but neither had liked it much.
      But her new guest?  Ah, it would probably suit him perfectly.
      She reached the top of the stairs to find two people standing guard outside the door.  Silently, with perfect precision, they stepped aside to permit her to enter.  Following her own advice to Cathrenn, she did not look at them.  She had thought they might not unnerve her as they once had, but now they had appeared from nowhere she still trembled when she saw them, all the childhood tales and horror stories coming back to her.
      He would be inside.  There was only one man in the galaxy who kept Soul Hunters as bodyguards.
      And sure enough, there he was, looking out through the large windows over the desolate, storm-racked world where she now lived, largely to escape him and those like him.  His back was to her.  She looked at him.  She could still turn her back and leave, have nothing to do with him, let him return to his war and his crusade and all his dead soldiers.
      But he turned, and looked at her.
      "Delenn," said Sinoval, Primarch Majestus et Conclavus.  "You look well."
      It was the first time she had seen him in twelve years.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *

The precise date of the beginning of the Great War is of course open to interpretation.  Some authors maintain it began with the Death of Hope.  Others go back to the Drazi Conflict.  Some contend that the Great War includes the Shadow War, and therefore, taking into account various other conflicts, must date back to the beginning of the Earth / Minbari War.
      Some put the start of the War considerably further back than that, even claiming that it has always been, and has simply been punctuated by periods of relative peace.
      But whenever it began, the date it ended is beyond dispute.
      The Earth Year 2275.
      As with any conflict, the preceding twelve years included periods of inactivity and periods of open warfare.  The bulk of 2269, for example, was largely uneventful, a time of consolidation and increasing hope that the situation might be resolved, until the Aliens from Elsewhere emerged through a portal hidden in the Brakiri colony of Kara and destroyed the entire colony world and the Brakiri / Drazi fleet stationed there.  Space prohibits comprehensive coverage of such a complex time, but we can chart in summary the major incidents and battles leading up to the climax in 2275.
      2264, of course, was the first time the Aliens appeared openly in battle, although they only emerged in force at the end of the year.  Early skirmishes were with the Vorlons and the
Dark Star fleets, and focussed largely on Minbar.  The Grey Council had formally seceded from the Alliance during the month of the Death of Hope, but they did not defect to Sinoval, preferring to take their own path under the forceful leadership of Satai Takier.
      They repelled the initial attack, but at great cost.  Detailed study of the battle demonstrates that the warship
Tsudao takes credit for the turning point.  The Tsudao's captain was killed, and it appears that one of her lieutenants took command and was responsible for the victory.  Tirivail never received any formal acknowledgement, however, so this remains largely conjecture.
      Minbar, like several other worlds, was also racked by internal tension at this time.  There were riots, ritualistic murders, arson attacks and similar incidents.  It is now known of course that this was the result of the growing influence of the Aliens, focussed through the channelling device the Vorlons had placed in the tomb of their ancient leader Ra-Hel, beneath the Temple of Varenni.  It is not known how much Takier was aware of this, but he did, through Tirivail, have access to the findings of the Council of Sinoval.  His response was typically draconian - the institution of martial law across the planet, together with curfews and house arrests, brutally enforced by the warrior caste.  However, fifteen years of war had resulted in a shortage of experienced warleaders, and his pride forbade him from asking for Sinoval's help.  Still, whatever his faults, he did well to hold Minbar for so long against a seemingly unstoppable invasion force.
      There was similar internal tension on the Centauri worlds, in particular the Gorash and Frallus systems.  The Centauri were more than familiar with planetary madness, after the depredations of the Shadow Criers and the Shadow-creature that had attacked the capital on Centauri Prime during the Shadow War.  In the Centauri case, however, the unrest was far more natural.  There was widespread famine, the Alliance was extremely unpopular, and the Inquisition had recently cut through both systems with all the subtlety and finesse of a butcher's knife.  In addition to this, the separate forces of former Lord-General Marrago and the Lady Consort Timov were fomenting unrest and rebellion.
      Marrago finally took the Gorash system towards the end of the year, in a typically superb campaign.  He seemed invigorated and refreshed after his personal problems of 2263, although his friends and acquaintances privately commented that he was still prone to maudlin moods and bouts of bitter self-loathing.
¹  Still, his attack was classic in its efficiency.  He isolated the jump gate, had the key Alliance and Inquisition personnel assassinated by Moreil of the Z'shailyl and his associates, and the Alliance ships taken apart in raids of near-suicidal bravery performed by the Tak'cha and their leader, Marrain.  An attempt was made to retake the system, but it was driven back with heavy losses on the Alliance side.
      There were other minor skirmishes in Drazi territory, mostly land-based, but these were soon bogged down, the rebels unable to leave the mountains where they had taken refuge, and the Alliance unable to locate them in their hiding places.
      And then, at the end of the year, the Vorlons unleashed the Aliens in force, at the Minbari colony world of Tressna.  The complete destruction of the world took until the middle of 2265, but the consequences were terrifying.
      By the time they were finished, not a single living thing remained on the planet.
      And that was only the beginning.
Williams, G. D. (2298)  The Great War: A Study.

¹ L'Neer of Narn, Learning at the Prophet's Feet.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *

General Jorah Marrago rose to receive his visitor.  This was rare in itself, for his legs were often too weak to support him these days, and he preferred to sit.  Still, this visitor was special.
      Unique, it could be said.
      Marrain knelt before Marrago, extending his dechai in a formal gesture of service.  Marrago, who had long since given up trying to dissuade Marrain from this, took it, and passed it back.  Then Marrain rose, and nodded once.  Marrago returned to his seat.  Marrain did not sit.  He hardly ever sat, but then he was a young man - in a sense - who had not been all but crippled in battle.
      "I had thought you were busy on Minbar," Marrago said.  "This must be important."
      "The Primarch's word."
      "Ah, then it is important."
      "We are expecting another visitor soon.  We can talk then."
      Marrago spread his arms wide.  "News to me, but then I am not surprised.  Sinoval has always kept his own council."
      "In truth, he could not risk the transmissions being intercepted.  He spoke to me through.... dreams, through the Well of Souls."  Marrago shivered, and Marrain smiled.  "Are you still not comfortable with the mystical?  After all this time...."
      "It's cold in here," he replied.  "These old bones don't seem to hold much warmth any more.  And no, I'm still not comfortable with mysticism."
      "Even after all you've seen."
      "Even after all that.  I'm a simple military man.  I like things simple."
      "Hardly simple, my friend.  I suppose we can talk of other things while we wait.  How have you been here?"
      "Consolidating.  Tolonius has always been harder to defend than Frallus or Gorash, but harder to control as well.  Too many damned mountains and rivers, and too many Inquisitors here when we arrived.  Still, we're doing well enough.  It should be all under control by the end of the year."
      "And then Centauri Prime."
      "Yes, and then Centauri Prime."
      "It's been a long road."
      "I always knew it would be, but recklessness and speed would have got us nowhere.  We took Gorash and Frallus and the Beata system and the others slowly and methodically.  I always knew it would get harder as we went along, but a least we didn't lose any of them again."
      "I wasn't criticising."
      "Nor was I.  You have your ways, and I have mine, and I am hardly one to blame you for what has happened.  I just want it over."
      "You could retire, like G'Kar.  No one would blame you.  You have already done more than enough."
      "I will give this up when I return to my garden on Centauri Prime and not before.  I've been away for fourteen years.  I don't want to die anywhere else."
      Marrain nodded.  "I can understand that.  When I die.... again.... I want it to be at Shirohida."  He grinned.  "Or in the company of many beautiful women young enough to be my daughters."
      "You remind me of a friend of mine."  Marrago coughed violently, and paused, wiping the blood from his lips.  Marrain refrained from comment.  "You would have.... liked him, I think."
      "I was not always like this.  But I died, and if there is one thing a thousand years of death has taught me, it is to appreciate what is important.  I still value all the things I valued then, some of them even more so, but I can see the wisdom in enjoying life while I have it."
      "Very wise, and speaking of women, how is your lady?"
      Marrain grinned, an expression that seemed completely unnatural on his face, but oddly contagious as well.  "Still not mine, alas."
      "Still?  Not even Londo courted a woman this long."
      "I have patience.  It cannot be easy for her, even without matters as they are.  I do not love her as I loved Derannimer, but she knows that.  Ah, sometimes I feel as if everything I did then was unreal, half dream and half story, but sometimes I see someone or something and I know it was true.  I went to Shirohida a few months ago.  Nothing remains but a few slabs of rock.  It survived a thousand years alone, only to be destroyed by rocks from the heavens.  Ah, such is fate, I suppose."
      "The past is.... like that."
      "Do you still remember her?"
      "Every day.  Sometimes I think I have forgotten her face, but then I dream about her again and wake with my face wet with tears.  There is another reason I cannot rest.  Not until the man who killed her is dead."
      "He could have died at any time over the last twelve years.  Shingen knows, that man has the luck of nine."
      "Morden still lives."
      "I understand vengeance.  Yes, I understand that if nothing else.  Well, had I drink, I would drink a toast to you."
      "Did I still drink, I would accept it."
      The door opened, and Marrago's young aide entered.  He looked at Marrain and bowed deeply, looking more than a little scared.  The Minbari was fairly notorious.
      "There is someone to see you, General."
      "Ah, thank you, Luc."  He turned to Marrain.  "Our.... mysterious guest, I suppose."  Marrain said nothing.  "Send him in, Luc."
      "It's a.... her.... General.  A human.  She's.... strange."
      "Have no fear, little child," Marrain said, turning to face him.  "She is a spirit I have summoned from the realms of the dead with my sorcerous powers.  She does not harm anyone without my command."
      The boy gulped and backed off quickly.  There was the sound of running feet.  Marrain laughed.
      "You realise you have terrified him utterly," Marrago sighed.
      "I seem to have that effect on children.  I remember the first time I saw L'Neer.  She was almost petrified."
      "You do have a certain reputation."
      "Fear brings its own rewards."
      The door opened again, and in walked their guest.  Marrago looked at her, certain he had seen her somewhere before.  She was human, fairly tall by their standards, with long blonde hair and....
      And she was floating a few inches off the ground.
      Humans did not normally do that.
      He looked up at her, and saw little bolts of lightning crackling inside her eyes.  Humans did not normally do that either.
      She stopped just in front of the desk, and looked at him.
      "You must forgive me," Marrago said.  "I have a feeling we have met before, but I cannot remember when.  It may have been some time ago."
      "Twelve years, General," she replied, her voice.... almost echoing, as if it were coming from two places at once.
      "Golgotha, of course.  You do not seem to have aged particularly."
      "No, but I have tapped into new sources of power since then.  I am not surprised you did not remember me."
      "Nor do I remember your name, alas.  The weakness of an old man."
      She smiled, slightly.  "Younger than Marrain, in a sense.  My name, General, is Talia Winters."
      He nodded.  "Of course."

*  *  *  *  *  *  *

L'Neer looked up from her writing an instant before she heard the knock at the door.  Some people maintained that she had psychic abilities, an allegation she always denied, but she had always been very perceptive.  She was not sure what subliminal sign had alerted her, but it would have been something natural.
      They still had visitors occasionally, perhaps once or twice a month.  Most of them were pilgrims, seeking the wisdom of the Prophet G'Kar or his 'daughter'.  That appellation had stuck, and she had accepted it.  G'Kar was far more of a father to her than her natural sire had ever been.  Sometimes General Kulomani sent people to check that they were well, or to warn them about any engagements in the area.  He had come himself once, although the long walk had been hard for him.
      L'Neer rose and went to the door.  The last twelve years had been kind to her.  She had grown tall and slender, almost willowy.  She had spent time with some of the most powerful and influential people in the galaxy, and had learned a great deal from them.  The grace with which she moved and acted was a legacy from the months she had spent with Marrain, training with the dechai, denn'bok, barrken and various other weapons.  She had never beaten him, but she was skilled enough to hold her own in most fights.  She rarely carried a weapon, though.  Her training with G'Kar had purged that need from her.
      She opened the door, and a broad smile lit her face.  She was pretty, almost delicate, and when she smiled, which was often, she seemed almost a child again.
      "Ta'Lon!"  She threw herself forward and embraced him tightly.  He held her and squeezed hard, forcing the air from her lungs.  The years had cost him none of his strength.
      "You look well, princess," he said, a slight twinkle in his one eye.
      "You are the only person who calls me that," she rebuked him lightly.  It was a human term he had picked up from David Corwin.  "Still," she added pointedly.
      "The privileges of age," he replied.
      She turned to look at his companion.  She had not seen him before.  A Centauri, who looked older than perhaps he should.  His hair indicated a respectable rank, perhaps even a Minister or a more junior Lord.  His clothing was ragged and torn, but L'Neer knew not to judge by that.  She herself rarely wore anything more than a simple white robe.
      "An associate," Ta'Lon said.  "Better perhaps if we talk inside."
      L'Neer's good mood faded slightly, to be replaced by wary caution.  Isolated as they were, the outside galaxy still sometimes involved itself in their lives.  There was no other habitation for hours in any direction, and their nearest neighbour was the military barracks where Kulomani was based.  There was little danger of anyone overhearing, but one could never be too careful.
      She bowed and stepped back into the hut, gesturing to Ta'Lon and his associate to enter.  The Centauri seemed a little nervous, looking around carefully and paying a lot of attention to the furniture and decoration, such as they were.
      "Would either of you care for something to drink?  We do not have much, I am afraid."  She gathered up her notes, bundling them together carefully.  The ink was still wet on some of the pages.
      "No thank you," Ta'Lon said.  The Centauri just waved his hand, still looking around.  He noticed a picture hanging on the wall, and stopped.  Ta'Lon and L'Neer followed his gaze.
      "Did you know him?" L'Neer asked.
      "Um, yes.  Yes, I did.  A long time ago.  The galaxy was a simpler place then.  I wasn't aware that you and he.... um.  I knew the name, but I thought...."
      She smiled and walked over to the portrait of Lennier she had drawn from memory over five years after he had died.  "I only met him once, but he did something for me that I will never forget, and that I strive to remember every day.  The knowledge that someone has given his life for you is a very humbling thing.  I am reminded constantly that my life is not simply mine to throw away, and that I have a responsibility to use my time constructively."
      "It's.... um.... very good."
      "Thank you."
      Ta'Lon slapped her on the arm.  "He'd be proud of you, I'm sure, princess.  Is the Ha'Cormar'ah here?"
      "He went outside to meditate.  He should be back soon."
      "How is his leg?"
      "Better, although it still pains him.  He tries to hide it."
      "But he could never hide anything from you."
      She smiled again.  "He hides enough.  We have not really spoken for some time.  I spend most of my time writing and meditating."
      "Your book?  How is it going?"
      "Slowly.  Sometimes I feel I am making progress, then I realise everything needs revision.  I feel it will take the rest of my life, and even then it will never be truly complete."
      "He always used to talk about writing a holy book.  It looks as if you will do it for him."
      "I never intended to write a holy book, but if it encourages some people to look at things differently, then that will be for the better."  She sat back down at her desk, and gestured to Ta'Lon and his guest to take a seat.  The other chairs were rarely used.  They had not originally had any, but when Kulomani had visited and she had seen how awkward it was for him to get up from the floor, she had carved two herself.
      She had seen so much of the galaxy, and spent time with so many of the people in it, but she had never felt happier than in this quiet, isolated place.  The Brakiri colony world of Dorac 7 was about as isolated as it was possible to get and still remain in touch with the rest of the galaxy.  It had been a sleepy backwater, mainly frequented by retired merchants and politicians.
      Then, with the War, it had become more important.  The vast expanse of empty space around it could easily have become a focus of attack from the Aliens, and so Kulomani had garrisoned the planet.  He had even moved his own base here, after the Battle of Brakir in '71 had all but turned that planet to ash.  It had been a victory, but at horrific cost.
      Like so many other 'victories' of the War.
      Still, Dorac 7 was so far entirely unscathed.  The planet itself was a near-paradise.  Mountainous and heavily forested, with a breathable atmosphere and good weather, it had been the perfect place for G'Kar to come to recover from his injuries, and to meditate.  For three years they had lived in tranquillity, isolated from the rest of the galaxy, with only the occasional visitor.
      L'Neer had always suspected that one day soon the rest of the galaxy would come to find them.
      They made small talk for a little longer, sharing stories of old friends and, although she did not really want to, of the War.  L'Neer was relieved to hear that Marrain and Marrago were both well.  The Minbari had broken the Vorlon blockade of Zhabar a couple of months previously, allowing supplies and trade to reach the beleaguered colony.  Zhabar had been suffering ever since Vizhak and Kulomani had liberated it from the Alliance in '68, so it was good to hear that something was going right.
      Ta'Lon said little about Marrago, other than that he was well.  No doubt he was still pursuing his quest to liberate the Centauri worlds, and looking at her other guest, L'Neer supposed this visit was connected to all that.  Still, worries aside, she was glad Marrago was well.  She liked the old Centauri.  He had told her once she reminded him of his daughter.
      And Sinoval, of course, was the same as ever.  She did not press that avenue of conversation.  She liked Sinoval, but she had long ago given up trying to redeem him.  He was a man who knew he was doomed and damned, and he seemed focussed on embracing that fate rather than trying to avert it.
      She looked up again at the sound of footsteps outside, and smiled when G'Kar entered.
      Ta'Lon rose instantly, bowing deeply.  The Centauri followed suit, albeit more slowly.
      "Ha'Cormar'ah," Ta'Lon said.
      "Visitors," G'Kar said.  "Welcome."  He crossed his hands on his chest and bowed his head to Ta'Lon, then took his hand and smiled.  "You look well, Ta'Lon."
      "And you, Ha'Cormar'ah."
      "You lie as badly as ever."  G'Kar turned to the Centauri, and looked a little puzzled.  "I have a feeling I should know you," he said.  "Alas, my memory is not what it once was."
      "Time changes many things," the Centauri said.  "We did know each other.  It's Vir.  Vir Cotto."
      "Ah, yes.  Vir.  I'm sorry.  I should have known."
      "No.  It has been a while."
      "So," G'Kar said, walking further into the hut.  "I assume this is important, unless the two of you simply came for some words of wisdom from the Prophet.  I know they call me that, Ta'Lon, but be warned, I cannot see into the future, and could not even if I had both eyes."
      "We do not seek prophecy, Ha'Cormar'ah.  Minister Cotto has a proposition for you."
      "This place is.... ah.... secure?" Vir asked.
      "As secure as anywhere short of Cathedral itself."
      "Cathedral was infiltrated a few months ago," Ta'Lon obligingly supplied.  "Some Vorlon agents attacked Sinoval."
      "Then this place is probably more secure than Cathedral," G'Kar said with a sigh.  "There are no surveillance devices here, and the nearest neighbours are some thirty miles away.  You can speak freely."
      "I have been sent to find you, specifically.  It wasn't easy."
      "It is not supposed to be.  Who sent you?"
      "Ah....  His Majestic Highness, Emperor Mollari II."
      G'Kar leaned forward.  "Ah.  Well then, Minister, speak.  You have my undivided attention."
      And speak he did.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *

They moved in silence, no jokes or jests or friendly badinage.  This would seem strange to those who had known them in earlier years, but such silence was not unusual on Proxima since the Great Darkness.
      Ten years it had been, for those who kept count.  Ten years.
      The group fanned out, moving carefully and stealthily.  They looked scarcely human in the shadows of the looming buildings.  The alleyways were dark and empty.  In many places buildings had collapsed, forming tunnels that seemed to stretch to infinity.  Several domes had been pierced and opened to the unforgiving sky, allowing black dust into the cities.
      Not here.  Here it was dark enough.
      Zack went ahead alone, ensuring he could always see at least one of his companions.  Losing contact with the rest of your group was an easy way to die around here.  His breathing apparatus was working fine, although the endlessly recycled oxygen smelled foul and tasted almost as bad.  His goggles were also in working order, although they did not quite fit.  They shielded his eyes and provided some clarity of vision in the dark environment, but they were uncomfortable.
      Nothing seemed to fit him right.
      Still, he would much rather have badly fitting equipment than none at all.
      He glanced around carefully.  Nothing was moving apart from Julia further down.  Not even any animals.  Good.  That was the way he liked it.
      Found it, spoke the voice in his mind.
      He had got used to that by now, but it had taken a while.  He had almost jumped out of his uniform the first time.  It was.... unpleasant, and profoundly irritating.
      It was not that he disliked the man.  Chen had proved himself often enough on missions like this.  So had the others, Lauren and.... the others.  And as for Susan, well, he couldn't think anything wrong about her.
      It wasn't that he was a bigot, he just didn't like teeps.  Especially not after the Great Darkness.
      He looked at Julia, who was already moving forward.  He raised one hand and clenched it into a fist.  She responded, and they moved on.  Radio comm or links tended not to work here, and when they did, they picked up.... feedback.  Zack couldn't bear the sight of a link after the last time, when the signal had been overwhelmed by an endless stream of screams and wailing.
      He should be dead.  He thought that every day.  All of them did.  Everyone who'd survived the Darkness knew it.  He had no idea how they had hung on long enough for help to come, but it was when he saw that help he had finally realised they had a chance.
      He'd been there.  Him and Jack and Julia and David and Susan, standing by helplessly as Sinoval fought the thing that had emerged from the globe.  It was like watching Gods fight.
      But Sinoval had won.  Barely.  It had almost crippled him, but he had won.
      The monsters could be beaten.
      Sinoval had not returned to Proxima since, but he did not need to.  He had proved it to them all.  The monsters could be beaten.
      Besides, he had left behind certain.... resources.
      Chen sent directions to his mind, and everyone else's, and he followed them, arriving at the place just ahead of Julia.  It was underground, a space formed by the collapse of the buildings either side, the weight bringing down the street into the underground tunnels.  This had probably been a storage area of some sort.
      Chen was there.  He wasn't wearing the breathing equipment, or the goggles, and he wasn't carrying any weapons.  He didn't need them.  From what Zack understood, he didn't need to breathe, he saw with something other than his eyes and his mind was a weapon in itself.
      And he was floating a few inches off the ground.  That was what really did it.  Julia swore there were flashes of lightning crackling in his eyes, but Zack hadn't looked closely enough to see.
      They fanned out into a defensive semi-circle around a point on the wall, weapons ready.  Chen moved up to the wall, pushing at it with his hands.  Zack was sure he saw parts of it give way at his touch, as if the stone were nothing but a sponge.
      Chen seemed satisfied, and, finding a spot, pushed harder.  Some of the stones crumbled.  There was a creaking noise and the ceiling began to buckle.  Zack looked up sharply, but Chen had it in hand.  Or in mind, as the case might be.  The ceiling sagged, but did not fall, and a minute or so later a hole the size of a door had been forced in the wall.
      It was dark on the other side, even with the goggles, but Zack could see just enough.  There was someone on the other side.  It was an old man, with dark, leathery skin and long black hair trailing almost to the ground.  He was covered with filth and lice.  The smell was revolting, almost overpowering.  Zack felt a rush of nausea.
      The old man turned and looked in their direction.  His eyes had been closed, but he opened them, and bright light streamed out.
      "Visitors," he rasped harshly.  "Rare now.... or are you nightmares?"
      Don't speak! Chen hissed at them.
      "No," the old man said.  "Murderers.  That's what you are."
      The old man's mental scream was simultaneous with Chen's cry of warning, drowning out whatever Chen had to say.  It was a scream which seemed to pierce Zack's mind, high-pitched and shrill and agonising.  He only realised a few moments later that the scream was a word.
      One word.
      Help!
      Zack regained his balance and looked up, ready to open fire, but it was too late.  Something had appeared, manifesting literally from nowhere.  It looked human, at least vaguely, but Zack knew what it really was, and it wasn't human.
      He had first seen one long before the madness - before the Great Darkness, even before the war.  They had called themselves the Hand of the Light.  Dex had explained that they were just modified human telepaths, designed to track down renegade teeps, an extension of the old Bloodhound units.
      Well, the Great Darkness had modified them a bit more.  Their near-insubstantiality, for one thing.  They had always looked like humans taken apart and crudely reassembled, but now it seemed as if the wrongness was deliberate rather than accidental.  They were still bathed in light, but now the light appeared to cast deeper shadows, which seemed to dance around it.
      It glided around the gunfire as gracefully and sinuously as a dancer.  It came up to one of the soldiers and reached out gently.
      Zack wanted to turn away from the sight, but he didn't.  He simply kept firing.  He didn't know who had just been torn apart and he didn't want to know.  Better that way.  It wasn't Julia, which was all that mattered.
      The creature ignored the gunfire, either dancing around it or simply absorbing it.  Zack thought it was moving more slowly than usual.  He fell back gradually, still firing.  He risked a glance at Chen, but there was no help from there.  The teep was standing still, as if in a trance, whispering something under his breath.
      The creature turned to Zack and moved forward.  Even through the haze of fear Zack could appreciate the fluidity of its movements.  It was as if it had no bones at all, its body held together by pure willpower.
      Of course, it was still going to kill him.
      Suddenly another figure appeared from nowhere.  It was a woman, middle-aged and disfigured by numerous scars, but still possessing a haughty beauty.  She was wearing black and carrying an ethereal, ghostly metal blade.
      In fact, the woman herself was ghost-like and insubstantial.
      The creature hesitated when it saw her, and that was enough.  One movement and she struck it with the blade.  It reeled, and appeared to become more solid.  The blasts from the plasma rifles seemed actually to affect it now.  It fell back, and Zack remembered he was carrying a weapon.  He fired, the woman struck it again, and with an anguished scream that rattled the inside of his skull, the creature disappeared.
      So did the woman.
      Let's do it quick, Chen said.  There might be more nearby.
      Zack did not have to be told twice.  He shouldered his rifle and drew his pistol instead.  The old man was still muttering to himself, and did not even look up as Zack approached him.
      One shot to the side of the temple, and the old man was dead.
      Done, Chen said, with an air of satisfaction.  Let's get out of here.
      Zack was inclined to agree.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *

He had not changed much in the last twelve years.  Tall, regal, with those deep dark eyes and the powerful bearing.  He seemed hardly to have aged at all.  The gemstone in his forehead glittered with a faint light, matching the darkness in his eyes.
      He was wearing a combination of his Primarch's robes and Warleader attire.  A black-and-silver tunic over a red-and-gold robe.  The effect should have been ludicrous, but Sinoval carried it off.  The only thing that looked wrong on him was the absence of a weapon.  Delenn had heard he had not wielded a weapon of any kind since Stormbringer had been broken.
      "Delenn," he said.  "You look well."
      It was a lie, and she knew it.  The face that stared back at her from the mirror did not look well.  This was a hard life and a hard task, and she often pushed herself for long hours without sleep.  Her hair, which she kept as short as she could realistically manage, was showing traces of silver.  Her eyes were worn and drained.  She looked ten years older than she was.
      "So," she said, with a sigh.  "You have managed to find me, then."
      "Give me more credit than that!  I have always known where you were.  You would be surprised at what I see from Cathedral."
      "I would not wish to know."
      "No, I am sure you would not."  He looked back out at the planet before them.  "I like this place you have chosen for your home, although I would not have thought it to your taste.  Desolate, grey, storm-racked.  The perfect place for a warrior on a pilgrimage of meditation, perhaps.  But a hospice?"
      "The Norsaii worlds are near several trade routes, none of which were important enough to be affected by the war.  This is the nearest place I could find to the major theatres of operation, and the Norsaii had no objection to me setting up here."
      "I would say not."
      She looked at him.  "You?" she said coldly.
      "I may have arranged for a word or two to reach the appropriate ear.  Or relevant auditory organ, at any rate.  There is little point in having all this power if it is not used."
      "All this time?"
      "I have been keeping a careful eye on this place, Delenn.  There is a small fleet of ships stationed just outside the jump gate and two Vindrizi are working here."
      "Who?  No, it doesn't matter.  You cannot let me do anything alone, can you?  You always have to involve yourself."
      "You are providing a valuable service to my war effort, and one which must be allowed to continue.  Of course I know that is not why you are doing this, but the effect is the same.  Besides, this place is vulnerable.  So much grief, and loss, and madness.  It is practically a beacon to the Aliens.  I have to ensure that no gateways are smuggled here, and none of their ships come through."
      "Ever the pragmatist."
      "Always."
      "You should not be here.  This is not your place."
      "Delenn, I understand your reasons, but...."
      "You understand nothing!  You have no children, do you, Sinoval?"
      "You know I do not."
      "Yes, but you do have children.  Thousands of them.  Perhaps millions.  Walk through these halls, and you will see them.  Dead, or dying, and insane.  They have seen and felt things no one should ever have to see or feel.  Cathrenn?  The acolyte who greeted you?"
      "The one who almost jumped out of her skin when I spoke to her?"
      "She was on Kazomi Seven when the Aliens attacked, working at a small shrine to Valen.  She was caught in the riots that followed, and raped.  Twenty times at least.  That was seven years ago, and she still dreams about it."
      "And that is my fault?"
      "I did not say that.  But that is part of the face of war, something you have been only too happy to embrace.  You think of war as glorious deeds and heroism and epic last stands, and you never see the death and the suffering and the grief."
      "The Aliens would have come through anyway, with me or without me.  Had I not been prepared, she would still have suffered, but now she would be dead, and you, and everyone else here, and everyone else in this galaxy.  I told you once, this is a just war.  Do not let your hatred of me blind you to that."
      "I do not hate you because you fight a just war.  I hate you because you enjoy it."
      "Ah.  Well, perhaps you have a point there, but I did not come to bandy insults with you.  I have left you alone all these years without troubling you with my presence.  I would not have come now were it not important."
      "I have no interest in what you think is important."
      "Oh, you do."
      "And what is it?  Tell me, and then leave."
      "Sheridan."

*  *  *  *  *  *  *

The dream was the same.  Every night for over five years, the dream was the same.  Ever since that day at Immolan.
      He was old, dressed in white, standing before the Purple Throne.  He was old.
      Old inside, not just aged in years, but aged in experience, in deeds.
      A figure stepped out from the shadows.  Dark and imposing, almost a creature of nightmare, one red eye glaring at him with baleful fury.  A figure he knew.
      Silently, they moved towards each other, the intruder grabbing his neck.  He responded, hands locked in a death grip around his enemy's throat.
      And they both died.
      And he awoke.
      Every night the same dream.
      For five years.
      Londo rose from his bed, and the first thing he did, the first thing he had done every day for five years, was walk to the mirror and stare at the face that stared back at him.
      Did he look like the dream?  That wrinkle, that lock of hair, was it as he had foreseen, or did he still have some time?
      He was not sure.  He was never sure.
      But the time was getting nearer.
      He looked back at the bed.  It was empty of course, and big, and cold, and terrifying.  And then back at the mirror.
      Almost there.
      He could deny it.  He could avoid wearing white.  He could burn the formal insignia of the Emperor.  He could do any number of things to avoid his destiny.
      Centauri legends were full of stories of people who had tried to do just that.  Legend had it that the first Emperor Mollari had tried to evade his death, and had failed.  Badly.
      No, Londo thought.  I will accept what is to be, and spit at Fate as I die.
      Strong words, but strong words were all that were left to him these days.
      He looked at himself in the mirror, the aged spectre who look back at him all too familiar.
      "Hurry up, G'Kar," he whispered.  "I cannot do this without you."

*  *  *  *  *  *  *

Proxima 3 had been used to conflict since the beginning of the Earth / Minbari War.  The shelter and final resting place of humanity, it was a world filled with refugees and soldiers, people who had seen and known war.  The planet saw battle directly on more than one occasion - the attack by Primarch Sinoval in 2258 that became the Battle of the Second Line, and of course the long campaign to retake the world from the Shadows that culminated in 2261.
      And yet, after the victory of the Alliance in 2261, Proxima was largely peaceful.  There had been general peace and prosperity under President Clark, but the threat of war had always been there, and of course humanity remained technically at war until the formal surrender was made to the Alliance.
      After the war humanity was not treated as harshly as some of the other races.  The Centauri in particular were very severely dealt with for allying with the Shadows, even after it was conclusively demonstrated that the alliance was never authorised by either the Emperor or the Centarum and had in fact been conducted without their knowledge.
      In contrast humanity had clearly and explicitly allied with the Shadows, an alliance which had lasted almost four years, and which had been made with the full co-operation of the Government.  Shadow technology was used to enhance human warships which were later used to attack the Minbari and the Alliance.  The human liaison to the Shadows, Ambassador David Sheridan, commanded high status and influence.  The Proxima Government continued to fight the Alliance through to the very end.  Nevertheless they never suffered from the sanctions which were imposed on other races such as the Centauri and the Drazi.  It was initially believed that this was a consequence of General Sheridan favouring his own people, and this led to some understandable resentment among those peoples who were being harshly punished for much more limited involvement with the Shadows.
      The truth about the Vorlon involvement on Proxima, in particular that President Clark had been controlled by a Vorlon for much of his term and had set up a doomsday device to punish Proxima for its actions, only emerged much later.  The involvement of Interplanetary Expeditions, William Edgars and Mr. Morden also remained secret for many years.
      Irrespective of the reasons, Proxima enjoyed relative prosperity following the end of the Shadow War.  Human soldiers, such as Captain Bethany Tikopai and of course General Sheridan himself, held high office within the
Dark Star fleet.  Proxima was already controlled by the Vorlons, and thus experienced very little of the horrors that afflicted the Centauri, such as the Inquisition.
      Humanity also survived the early years of the Great War.  Humanity in force had never aligned with Sinoval, and the few humans who did, such as Senator Dexter Smith and Captain David Corwin, abandoned their public positions first.  Sinoval had few agents on human worlds, and the strength of the network there, particularly the major node at IPX head office on Proxima, meant they were fairly secure.  Indeed, there were no engagements of any description around any human worlds in 2264.
      2265 was a different matter.  There had been incursions from Aliens into Proxima earlier than that, the first recorded incident being at the end of 2263.  There were sporadic episodes in 2264, but these were largely kept secret, and where word did leak out, official statements blamed the grisly murders on Sinoval or Shadow creatures.
      But by the middle of 2265 the Aliens had completed their work on Tressna, and were clearly exerting greater and greater influence on the Vorlons.  Desperate, and perhaps hoping they could be controlled, the Vorlons opened a gateway on Proxima, relying no doubt on the strength of the network to hold back the Aliens from anything too drastic.
      The results were.... unprecedented, and unexpected on all counts.
      The network proved wholly inadequate to the purpose.  Indeed, parts of it collapsed.  With the death of William Edgars in 2263 and with Mr. Morden busy on Centauri Prime, there was no one of sufficient competence to maintain the major node on Proxima.  It fell apart under the strain of trying to hold back the Aliens.
      The effects were drastic.  Power was shut off for weeks.  Riots were stirred up by the psionic influence of the Aliens.  Suicides reached a high of over a thousand a day in Main Dome alone at one point.  The
Dark Stars on patrol over the planet experienced inexplicable malfunctions.  At least three self-destructed without warning.
      The Vorlons' first attempt to control the power and wrath of their allies had gone badly wrong.  Sinoval, monitoring the situation, had to intervene.  With the bulk of his army busy elsewhere - the Brotherhood at Gorash, the Drazi and Brakiri at Zhabar and the Tak'cha trying to prevent breakout from Tressna - he could rely only on the Soul Hunters and the First Ones.
      The battle over Proxima lasted for weeks, as Sinoval fought the Aliens and the Vorlons at the same time.  Eventually he won, if it can be called a victory.  The Aliens were driven back beyond the gateway.  Sinoval himself led a daring raid into Proxima and captured the gateway - a giant, jet-black globe - which he presumably destroyed.
      But some of the Aliens had escaped, in the last direction anyone would have expected.
      Into the network.
      Sinoval was by all accounts ready to pursue them, but an Alliance and Vorlon fleet arrived.  Exhausted, drained and severely outnumbered, he had no choice but to retreat, handing Proxima back to those who had almost destroyed it.
      But he kept a very close eye on the world, and on humanity.  The Vorlons never opened another gateway there, and they paid very close attention to other portals they did open.
      But they had no need to do anything else on Proxima.  The touch of the Aliens was still very much present.
      And would remain so, until the very end.
Williams, G. D. (2298)  The Great War: A Study.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *

"Job done," Susan announced with a hint of satisfaction.  "They're on their way back."
      "Losses?"
      "Just one.  One of the Bloodhounds was in the area.  Or Hand of the Light, or.... whatever they call themselves.  I managed to destroy it."
      "Just one dead.  You don't know who?"
      "Zack's fine.  Julia too.  No, I don't know who died.  I'm not even entirely sure who was there altogether."
      "Someone's dead.  And I'm supposed to accept this as a victory?"
      "Hey.  We won.  People die.  That's what war is."
      "It doesn't mean I have to like it."
      "I'd be worried if you started to like it.  I've been around Sinoval too long.  He loves this sort of thing.  You don't."  She shrugged.  "It's one of the reasons so many people trust you.  It's one of the reasons I trust you."
      David Corwin looked at her.  He was about to speak, but then he stopped.
      They were in Sector 301, commonly referred to as the Pit, in a building which in a former life been had been a pub known as the Pit Bull.  Neither of them had frequented this area of Proxima before, but those who had, such as Zack and Julia, appreciated the irony.
      Main Dome had collapsed, as had the Meadowhall shopping dome and most of the business districts.  Sector 301 had survived much as it always had, and the resistance of Proxima had centred there.
      The hope for the salvation of Proxima lay in the hands of the very people the world had once despised.
      Ever since the Great Darkness ten years ago, the planet had been a dying world.  The Vorlons had tried to hold it for as long as they could, but eventually even they were helpless before the pollution of the network.  Telepaths were driven insane by the furious rush of emotions.  The Hand of the Light had all been driven mad within days, fleeing into the hidden places of the world.  They existed as half-ghosts, living in and out of the network, calling on the spirits of the Aliens who now ruled it as twisted Gods.  Dark Stars ceased to function around the planet, and even the Vorlons themselves grew sick and weak there.
      Finally the Vorlons and the Alliance had abandoned Proxima.  They had sealed off all the nodes, closed the jump gate and left.  There was a patrol of Vorlon ships in hyperspace just the other side of the jump gate, preventing any traffic from entering or leaving.  Sinoval had tried several years ago, according to Susan, but had been beaten back.  Engagements in hyperspace were tricky at the best of times, and these were far from ideal conditions for either side.
      So, Proxima had been abandoned and its people left to die, enslaved by the insanity and anger of the Aliens.
      David, for one, had other thoughts on the matter.
      There was a large map on the wall, showing all the domes and passageways of Proxima.  It was covered with various markings.  No one but David or Susan could actually make head or tail of it, but David knew it backwards.  Walking over to it, he erased and amended some markings, updating it to account for the latest developments.
      Things were looking better, but not much.  He wondered if Proxima would ever be completely cleansed.
      "It's looking up," Susan noted.
      "You think so?  No, it is.  Things are looking better."
      "Don't lie to me," she reproached him.  "I was trying to cheer you up."
      "I can't help but wonder if we'll ever win this, and what if we do?  Another war after this one?  Humanity's been at war of one kind or another as long as I can remember, almost as long as I've been alive.  There are children growing up who know nothing but war."
      "But children are still being born.  There's life there, in the midst of all this horror - there's still life and hope."
      "Is it enough?"
      She shrugged.  "It'll have to be."
      "There must be a way to end it.  There must be."
      "Sinoval has a plan, of a sort.  Another one.  Yes, I know, but I think he's ready for whatever they can throw at him this time.  He was talking to the Well non-stop for days, and then suddenly he upped and disappeared.  He's been in contact with everyone, drawing everyone together.  He's got a plan."
      "Will this one work any better than the last half dozen?"
      "This is what he does.  Much as I hate him, I can't deny he knows his stuff when it comes to war.  I don't think he wants this ever to end, but he'll do all he can to win it."
      David shivered.  "Cold," he muttered.
      "I wouldn't know.  Can't you get the heating working?"
      "Very funny."
      "I wish I could hug you to warm you up."
      "So do I."
      "I mean it, David.  One day soon I'll be here in person, and then.... well, we'd better not be interrupted for several days."
      He smiled.  "I miss you."
      "If you mean you love me, say so."
      "You know I do."
      "I know.  I have to go."  She raised her hand.  He reached out to her, and his hand passed straight through hers.  He sighed, and she smiled, blowing him a kiss.
      Then she disappeared.
      He turned back to the map.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *

Delenn stopped as if she had been struck.  She struggled to find the words, the feelings.  Twelve years since that name had been spoken to her.  No one at the hospice would have dared to mention it, not in her hearing.
      Twelve years.
      And he had to return.
      "He is dead," she whispered, her voice hoarse.
      "You of all people should know that is not the end."
      "No.  Oh, no, you would not dare."
      "You will find I will dare a great many things."
      "He is dead!"
      "Yes, you have said that."
      "Dead for twelve years!  What possible gain could there be from involving him?  For anything?"
      "You do not know my intentions."
      "I do not need to."
      "This war has dragged on for long enough.  It can be ended, and soon.  I need to force a confrontation with the Vorlons.  My agents have done what they can, set a great many things in motion, and it is almost done.  Time to end it."
      "You don't want the war ended."
      "Well.... no, but I will end it anyway, one way or the other.  As I said, I need to force the Vorlons into a meeting.  They've been avoiding me ever since the First Ones and I defeated them at Minbar three years ago.  They've settled for a guerilla war, smuggling gateways into various worlds, unleashing the Aliens where they can.  Foolishness, of course.  They can't control the Aliens once they are here.  But when has logic ever stopped them?"
      "Or you."
      "I think I can deal with the Aliens, but I need the Vorlon fleets dealt with first.  I can't let them threaten me while I'm distracted."
      "What does this have to do with John?"
      "He fits into my plans."
      "He is dead."
      "You keep saying that."
      "His death had meaning.  Do not dare to invalidate that."
      "I will dare a great deal."
      "How could you restore him?  His soul will have passed beyond long since."
      "Ah, in the normal course of things, yes, but his soul was not allowed to pass beyond.  The Vorlons took it."
      She closed her eyes.  "You enjoyed telling me that, didn't you?"
      He continued as if she had not spoken.  "His body will not have decayed.  I took care of that on Golgotha.  Simple enough, really.  All I need to do now is to free his soul from where it is trapped.  I have.... some assistance already in that department, but the soul needs something to come back to.  I cannot think of anything more appropriate than you."
      She was shaking.  "You know nothing."
      "Then you will not help me?"
      "You know I will not!  We had quarrelled.  It was bitter and painful, and it cut me to the quick.  I have already acted to keep him alive when he should have died.  I will play no part now in bringing him back from his rest."
      "If you think he is 'resting' then you are far more romantic than I gave you credit for.  You will not help?"
      "No."
      "Ah, well, so be it.  I will have to employ another method.  Less reliable perhaps, more cruel certainly, but what other option do I have?"
      "You will not do this!"
      "And how do you plan to stop me?  Delenn, you could have been a leader.  You could have wielded influence.  You could even have commanded this war in my stead.
      "But you abandoned all of that, to hide here.  I do not mock what you do, or what you have achieved, but do not forget that you have chosen not to exercise power, and power not used is soon lost.  You cannot stop me doing anything at all."
      "Then go.  Do not return here."
      "I have no intention of doing so.  Good day, Delenn."
      She only opened her eyes when she was sure he had left.  Then she looked down and realised where the pain in her hands was coming from.  She had dug her fingernails into her palms so tightly that she had drawn blood.
      Three drops on each palm.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *

L'Neer looked up at the crimson sky, and sighed.  Peace would not come to her, not now.  She often came outside to meditate before the setting sun, and the sight never failed to bring her content.  It reminded her of two things that always renewed her faith and purpose.
      First, that mortal beings were ephemeral and transitory.  Whatever great deeds she performed, whatever acts of wonder, whatever supernatural powers she possessed, the sun would still rise and set as it always did.  There were some beings, such as the Aliens and perhaps the Vorlons, who could stop that, but she could not, never would be able to, and never wanted to be able to.
      And secondly, those with the power of Gods needed to be reminded that they were not Gods.  Sinoval had learned this lesson, although she had no doubt he tended to slip from time to time.  The Aliens.... well, she pitied them.
      "Do you.... um.... come up here often, Princess L'Neer?  The Ha'Cormar'ah said I would probably find you here."
      It was the Centauri, Vir.  She had heard him coming for quite some time.  The path up the mountainside was steep and rocky and he was unfit.
      "Quite often, yes.  Please sit."  He did so, breathing harshly and holding his chest.  He looked at her and shrugged.
      "Too much to eat and drink, and not enough exercise," he said simply.
      "I was told that many of the people on your homeworld have nowhere near enough to eat or drink.  Certainly not enough to make them fat and unhealthy."
      "Ah.  Well, yes, that's true.  There's always enough food for the Government though, and the nobles.  Always has been.  And I eat it because, well.... it would be wasted otherwise, and that seems worse somehow.  Eating the food is one thing, but turning it away...."
      "I am sorry.  I am afraid you do not find me in good humour."
      "No, Princess L'Neer.  Was it the message I brought?"
      "Please do not call me that," she said tiredly.  "That is Ta'Lon.  It is a human expression which he finds amusing.  I have no title."
      "Hmm?  That is not what I heard.  Some of your people are apparently calling you the messiah."
      "And that is even worse.  I am no messiah, or prophet.  I am just a woman."
      "A very wise one.  I listened to what you were saying earlier.  I wish I had been so wise when I was your age."  He sighed.  "Or was now, for that matter."
      "I have no special wisdom, Minister."
      "That's just what His Majesty told me the Prophet said, when they were both younger.  I'm.... sorry I had to come here, drag you both away."
      "No, your cause is just, and if G'Kar has agreed, then so will I.  Besides, I have my.... own reasons for wanting to see your Emperor Mollari."
      "Oh?"
      "An old promise.  A very old promise.  As old as I am, in truth.  I have a message for him I can only deliver myself."
      "Is it an important message?"
      "More than either of us can know, but not in the way you think.  I do not speak of military secrets or political knowledge.  No, it is something more.... personal than that.  But it can wait."  She looked out across the valley beneath her.  "No, in truth, I am afraid."
      "Afraid?"
      "I have seen something in G'Kar's face recently.  He is preparing himself to die.  When you came here.... I saw him.  He was expecting you, I think, expecting your message.  I am afraid he will never see this place again."
      "He is still young and healthy.  There is danger involved, yes, but he has faced worse."
      "He is sick, Minister.  Sick in his heart.  I think he has only kept himself alive for so long because of unfinished business.  This will, I think, finish it for him."
      "I am sorry.  I should not have...."
      "No, do not apologise.  We have hidden here long enough.  It is time to return to the galaxy.  There will be other such events happening.  I can almost see them, the threads winding their way through our lives.  We are all still alive, you know.  All of us.  After twelve years of war, after assassination attempts and illnesses and battles beyond number, all of us still live.  I would think it miraculous if I did not see the hand of destiny behind it all."
      "All of us?  Who is.... 'us'?"
      "We at Golgotha."  She looked at the sunset one last time, and then rose, brushing the dust from her gown.  "We of the Council of Sinoval."
      Then she began to walk back down towards the hut, Vir following her.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *

All things die.  Everything is dead.  Dead.  Dead.
      My daughter dead, before she was even born.

      He stared up at the black ceiling.  He could not see it, having clawed his eyes out of his head rather than see that horrific image, but he knew what was there.  Cold stone, colder stars, empty space.
      And beyond that.
      Them.
      It had been so bright at first, the light opening up before them, issuing forth paths into another universe, corridors through time and insanity.  The network, wide open before them.
      And open to Them as well.
      The light had blinded him, but not her.  She had been able to face it without fear, but then she had undergone the meditation and the transformation.  He had been too afraid to do that.  He had not wanted her to do it either, but she had, and she had changed.
      If he had changed as well, he might be sane now.
      The doorway had been filled with light, blinding him.  He had reeled from it, only to look up when he heard the noise.  It was the whispering, chittering, clicking sound of millions of insects.
      The pathways of infinity had opened up and They had come through.  Not as flesh, not here, not just for the two of them.
      They had come as voices.
      Now he was singing softly to himself, although he did not realise it.  He was singing in a language he could not speak, a language only a handful of people in this universe could speak.  Insane ramblings were not unusual here, but his were different.
      His were real.
      They were whispering to him, and all he was doing was putting those whispers into song.
      A twisted song of murder.
      And madness.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *

"All was, and all is, consigned to death.  To ashes and smoke.
      "The black heart beats in the sky."
      Obediently, the other fifteen voices repeated the refrain.
      "The black heart beats in the sky."
      They were all dressed in black robes and hoods which completely covered their bodies and faces.  If anyone could have caught a glimpse beneath the hoods, all they would have seen was a flash of white, the white of bone and porcelain.  The mask of a dead man.
      They were called the Morr'sechara, at least on this world.  They had companions on other worlds, among other races, to a greater or lesser degree.  The groups had different names, but all translated to the same thing.
      The Cult of Death.
      It had been their brethren who had opened the gateway at Kara six years ago, an act that had taken three years of planning and preparation.  Although there was no strict affiliation between the disparate sects, the Cult on Minbar had rejoiced at their brethren's triumph.  Returned to ashes along with the rest of their world.
      It had been an honourable death.
      After all, had their ancestors not sought death with honour?  The Morr'sechara was made up of members of different castes and fanes and stations, but none of that mattered.  All were equal.  All brought something greater to the whole.  The retired warrior told tales of their ancestors, and the glorious deaths they had attained.  That had inspired them all.
      "All things die," said the leader.
      "All things die."
      "All is dust, and ash."
      "All is dust, and ash."
      Religion had failed them.  Religion had not saved the inhabitants of Kara, or Tressna, or any of the other worlds devoured by the Lords.  Religion had not saved Minbar from the humans, or the Tak'cha, or Sinoval's heresy.
      Faith had done none of these things.  What was required, then, was a different faith.
      The worship of death.
      They had no real leader, not as such.  Each fulfilled a function in the greater whole.  What was the point of leadership?  The dead were all equal.  All that mattered was the manner of death, not the status beforehand.  A peasant who died with glory was greater than a lord who died in his bed.
      But there was one who spoke, one whose words could fire them, and so he spoke.
      "Soon," he said.  "Soon our Lords will come and scourge life from this world, and we, their chosen, will be honoured with glory in death."
      "Glory in death."
      "Soon."
      Behind him stood a mirror, twice as tall as the tallest Minbari, its surface covered with a sheen of obsidian.  Nothing could be seen there yet, but they could hear it.  The black heart beating.
      "The black heart beats," they whispered.
      Opening the gateways was not easy.  Each one required a special trigger, a special key.  The Lords could move in dreams and visions and illusions, but only with the gateway open could they come through in all their glory.  There were some gateways already open, but Sinoval the Accursed - damn his soul to torment beneath the black heart for a million years - had found and closed most of them.
      It was the duty of the Morr'sechara to bring death to the galaxy.  Death, and oblivion, and silence.
      And equality.
      True equality beneath the second black heart that would form.
      "The black heart beats," whispered the preacher.
      And elsewhere, asleep in his private room, Takier, Satai, Holy One and Warleader, opened his eyes from fitful slumber.
      "The black heart beats," he whispered, without knowing why.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *

It was dark, but he had no fear.  He feared nothing at all now.
      He was sitting quietly and calmly, remembering the moment of his death.  It was his finest hour.  His enemy's would not be so memorable.
      Nothing remained of the man he had been, the dreams he had known, the love he had touched.  Nothing remained of the man called Galen.
      Nothing save a desire to serve his masters.
      Twelve years had passed.  Twelve years it had taken to break him.  It had seemed longer.
      He looked up as the door opened.  His chamber was black, small and spartan.  It contained nothing.  No bed, no chair, no window, no light.  It was a place of calm meditation and reflection, nothing more.
      There was light outside, and a figure stood silhouetted in the doorway.
      "Come," Sebastian said.
      Galen nodded, rose, and followed.
      Twelve years.  He had no idea what had happened in the galaxy outside.  Sebastian had come and gone, occasionally disappearing for months at a time, but mostly he had been here.  Wherever here was.  Sebastian had one, very specific, very detailed mission.  He was inclined to leave the lesser missions to his subordinates.
      Sebastian's concern was Sinoval.
      And Sinoval had been hard to get hold of.  Galen knew that much at least.  Sinoval had encouraged the First Ones to enter the war.  While his subordinates had waged their own wars, their own little battles, Sinoval and the First Ones had faced the Light Masters directly.  There had never been an opportunity to confront him.
      Galen was not impatient.  Time would bring them together again soon.  He tried not to feel emotion; such things were a sign of weakness.  But sometimes a tinge of anger crept in.  Sinoval had abandoned him to this.  Galen had forgotten the details, the whys and wherefores.  He had even forgotten Vejar, but he did remember the rôle Sinoval had played.
      Sinoval had abandoned him.
      So yes, Galen would rejoice in destroying the enemy.  If that was weakness, then so be it.
      Sebastian led him in silence through darkened corridors.  Occasionally they heard screams, or pitiful pleas for mercy in various languages.  Sebastian paid them no attention, and nor did Galen.  If he contemplated the thought that until recently he had been the one screaming, no flicker of emotion showed on his face.
      Galen did not know where this place was, but back when he still remembered, he had thought that if there was a Hell, then this was it.
      This was simply a place.  That was all.
      Sebastian led him through an archway, and into a blazing inferno of light.  Galen bowed instantly.  The light did not burn him or hurt him, although it was uncomfortably strong.  Sebastian bowed in front of him.
      The Light Cardinal was speaking to him.
      The words could not be expressed in human language, but neither he nor Sebastian were truly human any more.  In any event, the words themselves did not matter.  Only the meaning mattered.
      And when he understood, Galen found himself smiling.



Into jump gate




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