|Volume 5: Among the Stars, like Giants||Part VII: .... Let No God Tear Asunder|
THE sleep of dreams, endless and eternal in the heart of the world - and thus the heart of the universe, the heart of creation. For all creation begins with destruction, and all is endless save for the things that brought end, to stamp their own image upon a universe, to erase all that was not theirs and to erect a shrine that was to their God.
A shrine and a place of rest.
Thoughts flickered through its mammoth mind, dancing flickers of lightning sparking the dreams of memory and the taste of death. So many years had passed since it last drew breath, since its countless eyes last opened to look upon the universe it had ended, since it had felt the last life end.
That memory returns over and over again; the last thing that remained in its entire universe that was not it or its children. The face and name of the creature is gone - if either were ever known - but the memory of the fear within, its fear, the curses it spat in its own alien tongue and the prayers to a God that - if it had ever existed at all - the God-Emperor had killed.
Asleep, but stirring, turning over in its dreams, and the whole world shakes. The shrines remain, each one an echo of a glorious past. Countless millennia gone, and all that remains for its children is to patrol and keep watchful, be vigilant for signs of life returning. But there was none, not so much as the smallest bacterium or spore, not even a single world across the entire universe that could bear life.
Its children drifted, moving through the great dark between the stars, seeking answers and visions in the crimson bleed or the great emptiness. Not it, though. The God-Emperor rested, waiting, remembering the glories of the hunt and dreaming of a time when that can be again.
It has an eye, half-opened now after so many centuries of slumber, an eye looking into another world where things live and - oh, in such variety and shape! Some wondrous, some utterly mundane. But it is life again, and not just as dream but as reality, so close it can almost reach out and touch.
But the barrier of the crimson bleed holds it away, and it returns to slumber. Thousands of years passed before it realised this place was real. Indeed, time enough for the gateway to close and its kind to be forgotten by the life that surged in this new place, time enough for them to grow weak and then for them to relearn terror.
Over twelve years thought has returned to it, thoughts of waking and hunting and the memory that these can truly exist again. Its children are offering acts of worship to it, praising it for the name that can never be spoken, but only dreamed in blood and shadows. These faithful acts of propitiation have aroused it to the upper limits of consciousness. Black lightning crackles on its skin, and in the sky its heart beats louder and more rhythmically. Beneath it the shrine world shakes and rumbles, the unquiet dead stirring angrily and pitifully in their chained graves.
And the eye between the worlds opens further, and the God-Emperor turns its baleful attention back to an existence that knows life, and it dreams of hunting again.
* * * * * * *
Secured in hyperspace, an open sore in the universe, the great gateway was sealed. The ships of the Enemy waited behind it, priests waiting to bring their religion to whole new vistas of creation, to worlds and peoples untouched by the blessed glory that was death.
Created long ago, lost and cast into hyperspace, it had been recovered at last. There were other ways to bring the Lords of Death through to this virgin existence, but the master gateway was the most reliable. It was also the most dangerous. Open, it could permit transit through to this realm for all the creatures of the Alien universe. But it could also admit their enemies to their home, to their shrine world, their vast planetary graveyard.
The Aliens did not fear anything. They utterly understood their place in creation. They knew their purpose and they knew that nothing could divert them from that. All that could happen to them was that they died, and then they would know the bliss they sought to bestow upon the rest of creation. But while they were fearless, they were not stupid. They were wary. This new creation contained beings almost as old and as powerful as themselves.
Although ancient by the standards of this new world, their Vorlon servants were tens of millennia younger than the Aliens. But there were other creatures, beings from the dawn of life in this cosmos, beings descended from the First, beings who knew the secrets of death and could even, it was whispered, deny a soul death and imprison it forever in their orbs of power.
These creatures would be destroyed, but in time, and carefully. Such a glorious act of slaughter could only be accomplished as the climax to the devastation of this galaxy. It would have to be done correctly.
And so the Lords were wary of opening the master gateway, lest these creatures might attack them, might rise to the heavens above their blessed shrine-world, to the sleeping palace of the God-Emperor itself.
There were other ways in - less reliable perhaps, but safer. The Aliens could wait. They had all of eternity to wait. Already one of their Lords had manifested in this new realm. There would be more.
And maybe, in time, the God-Emperor itself would wake and cross to the glorious vista of life. One galaxy, filled with so much that lived and could be sacrificed.
And beyond this galaxy, a whole universe, uncharted and unseen and unrecorded.
The Aliens practically shivered at the thought of it.
* * * * * * *
It was black, a hole torn in the heavens, a portal to a place none of them wanted to think about. Marrago could not see it himself and he did not want to. The screams of those who could were bad enough.
It was them, the Aliens.
He shut down the commlink in a moment of blind panic. His hearts were racing. In one ear he could hear a soft, seductive whispering, and in the other the blood-filled screams of his soldiers.
Madness. Wherever they walked they brought madness. And this was no ordinary Alien. He could feel its power even here. Did they have Lords? Generals? Priests? Whatever, this was one of them.
Marrago turned to the screen displaying the deployment of the fleet. The instruments were berserk, shifting and changing. Nothing made sense.
These were his people, both above and below. His soldiers fighting this war. His people dying in the blood-dimmed tide of anarchy.
With a deep breath, he reactivated the commchannel.
At first the wave of noise almost overwhelmed him. Screams and raging and insane fury. He tried to cut through it. The first time, he failed. Everything was too chaotic. Too much noise. He tried again. Still no one heard him.
He straightened his bearing.
"There will be silence!" he roared.
There was not, not really, but the noise died down. Some of the shouting and screaming continued, but the rest was calm.
"This is the work of the enemy," he said. "We have all been trained to resist them as best we can. They disseminate anger and chaos and hatred, fuelling our baser instincts. But we are Centauri, and we will not give in to barbarism.
"All of you, I want you to feed off the anger it is inspiring. Think of the grief this war has cost you. Think of your wives and children and parents and friends lying dead. Think of our home, on fire. Think of our heritage.
"Think of all these things.
"And destroy that monster!"
He began to direct the ships forward, paying careful attention to the soldiers on the ground. They had their objective and they would achieve it to the best of their abilities. He would not set foot on Centauri Prime until this war was done.
He tasted his own blood and his own rage. Instead of suppressing his emotions, he channelled them, bringing his fleet forward, directing it in wave upon wave towards the monstrosity that extended its reach through the tear in the heavens.
He was thinking of Lyndisty.
* * * * * * *
Vengeful, grey-clad Minbari commanded their ships, grim-faced and dark-eyed. Marrain stood at the helm of his flagship, the Shirohida. Beside him, as close as his own shadow, stood Tirivail, whispering advice and wisdom.
The Tak'cha were behind them, the veteran Ramde Haxtur commanding. Fanatical and determined, filled with passion at the thought of waging war on the Gods once again.
The Narn ships were few but determined, all veterans of countless battles. Na'Toth and G'Lorn worked together in command. Their battle cry was Remember Narn. Twelve years on, and not one of them had forgotten.
Kulomani had sent as much armament as he could spare. The protection of the Brakiri and Drazi worlds consumed much of his limited resources, but the Brakiri Witch Hunters had assembled at Tirivail's urging. The few ships they had were crewed by veterans of the Siege of Brakir, all experienced in fighting the enemy, all having known loss and sorrow, and all having nothing left to them but their war. Some of the Drazi fought alongside them.
Sheridan and Delenn were on board one of the Brakiri ships, the Kara-class Remembrance, both of them uncomfortable, with this war and with each other, but knowing that there was no other choice. Sheridan in particular did not relish the thought of returning to battle.
The Soul Hunters were gathered, their ships sinister and mysterious and feared, even now. Over the centuries they had forgotten much of war, but their Primarch had reinvigorated them. A people for whom death held no fears at all were ready to fight and die for him.
The Centauri had not come, and they had not been pressed. Elsewhere, Marrago was continuing his last battle to retake his world, and he would not be disturbed.
Here and there were other ships. Lumati, Vree, Gaim, Pak'ma'ra, Llort. Few, but valued.
Scattered among them all, like giants among children, were the First Ones, races so old and powerful that even their names had been forgotten. Eloi'a, Qirin, Tamyakin, Ashura.... Imperious and majestic, their very presence provoked awe and wonder and not a little terror, even after twelve years of war.
And at the centre of them all was Cathedral, dark and shrouded against the blackness of space. The centre of all their efforts. Susan was there, directing the Soul Hunter ships, in open communication with the rest of the fleet.
And on the pinnacle, above them all, a God looking down upon His children....
.... was Sinoval.
Somewhere else, somewhere very far away, the God-Emperor stirred, a shadow falling over its grave. The master gateway flickered, and the fleet jumped into the space around Babylon 5.
* * * * * * *
The whole scene was just ludicrous, so much so that L'Neer at first thought she was hallucinating. She had seen many strange things during this nightmarish journey through the ruined and burning capital, but the sight that assailed her in the throne room was too much for her.
She turned her gaze away from Vir and looked at G'Kar, lying prone on the floor. He did not seem to be breathing.
Not like this. He cannot die like this.
Not thinking, intellect abandoned to emotion for the first time since she had met G'Kar, she ran forward. Timov tried to stop her, Durla reached out to her, but fear lent her speed and she ran directly to G'Kar.
"Uh-huh!" Vir said, shaking his head. "You're not meant to do that."
L'Neer started as the floor gave way beneath her feet. Two sensations warred in her body: the revolting smell that rose from beneath her, and the lurching of her heart as she fell.
For a second her whole body was in free fall, and she caught a faint glimpse of what lay beneath her. The mangled body of a Z'shailyl, spikes dripping and stained with black blood, and the foul smell of death.
Her fall lasted a thousand years, time itself halted in the realisation of the fate that awaited her. She was not afraid to die, but she was suddenly, desperately, painfully afraid of this fall. She had plenty of time to realise what was coming, plenty of time to realise that there was nothing she could do to stop herself falling, plenty to time to wish she knew what had happened to G'Kar.
Then the moment ended, and she landed.
She screamed aloud as several spikes tore into her body. Her arms, legs and chest were pierced, her skin torn open, her muscles ripped and shredded. There was almost no pain, strangely, but there was fear, and she knew her body was broken.
She tried to call out his name, but when she opened her mouth, only blood poured forth.
Above her the sky turned black and the light died. She tried to speak again, but all she could do was cough. She closed her eyes and retreated into the darkness.
* * * * * * *
And up above, in the throne room, Emperor Cotto closed the trapdoor and looked around.
"Now," he said, giggling. "That was not very nice, was it?"
* * * * * * *
It was to be the last great battle of the war. Win or lose, it would be the end. Babylon 5 was the centre of Vorlon power beyond their own territories. They had just lost Kazomi 7, and they had been driven back from many of the other places they had taken.
Babylon 5 was the centre of their power base, a fortress both symbolic and practical. At the centre of countless trade routes, the centre of the Alliance itself, it was the last, tattered rallying point for the dream from which the Alliance had risen.
Sinoval had stayed away. Not a single engagement had come anywhere near Babylon 5. Some people believed he did not want to return to the site of his greatest defeat. Others thought the station was too well defended, too hard to take.
All of them were wrong.
He had always planned to save Babylon 5 for last.
The Vorlon fleets had gathered there, their Alien allies and masters beside them, ready for their last stand. There were few civilians on the station - sad, dejected, haunted beings. The very presence of the Aliens had killed or crippled so many.
The Vorlons were masters of hyperspace. They had detected the approach of Sinoval's forces from far away. They had had plenty of time to prepare, plenty of time to gather their forces, to assemble their mightiest fleet.
They were ready when the invaders emerged from hyperspace.
And so was Sinoval.
* * * * * * *
Are you ready?
The question sang in his mind, and the vision of the angel floated before him. It was she who was speaking to him, one voice among so many, but a stronger voice, one filled with purpose and power and....
"Yes," the man called Alfred Bester said. "I am ready."
"We will move first. Be ready to act the moment we tear you free. Much will be unfamiliar to you. Be sure you are ready for it."
"I will be ready.... Talia."
"Yes, I am Talia."
"Good.... Yes.... Good."
He returned slowly to the cold environs of his body and felt again the hard tendrils of the vines entrapping him, encircling him, squeezing him, keeping him alive, keeping his heart beating and his lungs pumping and his muscles from atrophying, keeping his body a prisoner while his mind was put to their service.
Him, and countless others like him.
He remained slightly distant from his body, unwilling to return completely. The feeling of helplessness was just too strong there and he did not want any part of it. He was afraid that if he did return, the power of the network would control him again, and he would forget.
He did not want to forget.
One day a lemming will fly.
He could see through his own eyes. Everything was.... not dark, rather so bright that nothing could be seen. He had no real idea of where his body was, of what surrounded it, of how many guards might be present. He knew he formed a central crossroads of the network, a place where many passages intersected and traversed. He was powerful, but more than that, he was a leader. He had led these people and those like them when he had been free. The Vorlons evidently thought he could do so again, as their prisoner.
He would not be a prisoner much longer.
The time was right.
He was aware of it the instant it happened. A ripple passed through the network, everything shimmering before his vision. He could hear the cries of the imprisoned as they were freed, and he knew that now was his time.
He slid his consciousness forward and returned, with some fear, to the prison of his body.
For a moment there was a sensation of utter terror, but it passed and he calmed. The vines around him that had once been so strong were nothing, weak and desiccated and dying. He flexed muscles he had not used in a decade and a half, and broke them.
His first step was faltering, but he managed it. His second was better, and he stepped free from the alcove that had held him prisoner for so long.
He could not really comprehend what he was witnessing Everything was bright and blinding and utterly alien. His senses blurred. He was not sure if that was merely a result of his return to his body, or if it was some effect of this place. There seemed to be no floor, no roof. Everything continued to infinity, and everything was so bright. He was floating in midair.
He closed his eyes and began to see with senses other than his basic five. That helped him a lot. There was order here, of course. There was nothing but order here.
Something was moving, coming towards him, something that radiated anger and rage and power.
Alfred Bester found himself smiling as he turned to face the Vorlon. He was not surprised.
This was their homeworld, after all.
* * * * * * *
The air around him hummed softly, the first note in a discordant song only he could hear. The gateways he had captured, the orbs and boxes and mirrors, were trembling, glimmers of light seeping around them. They were near their master now.
Sinoval paid little heed to the battle. He had others to do that. He had his own purpose to attend to.
He could feel the master gateway nearby, hidden in a pocket of hyperspace, anchored close to Babylon 5, kept safe. And he could feel the thing behind it. Every molecule of Cathedral protested violently at the abomination that lurked there, so near at last.
Sinoval closed his eyes and opened his mind, extending his consciousness out to the master gateway. Locked tightly shut. The Enemy were afraid that something might come through to their universe. They had not dared to open it for fear of a counterattack.
But every gate has a key, and every lock can be picked from either side.
The humming grew louder, permeating throughout Cathedral. In her command centre, Susan Ivanova winced, the frequency passing through her body like nails on slate. The Praetors Cathedrellus, already weakened by the assault on the Well, remained steadfast, but every one of them looked upwards, in the direction of their master.
"Are you ready?" Sinoval asked.
We are ready, replied the booming voices of the Well.
He began to hum. In his mind's eye he saw the master gateway.
And he saw the black light seeping around its edges.
* * * * * * *
"I hate this."
Delenn looked at him. "Your eyes say different," she whispered.
Sheridan looked at her. "What do you mean?"
"You are a soldier, John. It has been forced into you. How long has it been since you last knew true peace?"
"You mean apart from when I was dead? No, I hate that war is all there is now. There has to be something else, something more than this."
"There will be. We hope."
"And when will that be, exactly?" he replied bitterly.
She touched his hand gently. "Afterwards," she said softly. "When it will be our time."
* * * * * * *
"The dreams told me. They said I'd be Emperor some day. Me!" He giggled. "Can you believe it? I didn't, not for a long time, but see, they were right. I'm the Emperor now." 'Emperor' Vir Cotto looked around warily. "You're here to swear fealty to me, aren't you?"
Durla made to move forward, his face twisted into an angry mask, but Timov touched his shoulder and gently pushed him back.
"Yes, Majesty," she said, mustering all her thespian skills. Her hearts were pounding. Behind her, she knew that the Faceless were shifting, waiting for the opportunity to blur into motion. "We are."
She bowed deeply. "Permit me the honour of approaching your throne, Majesty."
Vir chuckled. "Of course. I mean.... You may approach me, supplicant."
Timov walked forward, slowly and carefully. She looked up at him and saw the beckoning in his eyes. She dared not deviate around the oubliette. Anything might set off a burst of paranoia in the new 'Emperor', and she could not risk that.
She stepped onto the area she knew to be trapped, ready to try to jump back if necessary. He showed no sign of reaching for the switch that would open it.
She took another step forward, and then another, keeping her head down as a show of respect.
That was a mistake. She saw Londo lying there, still and motionless. She could not see his face. She could not tell whether or not he was breathing.
She continued to walk forward, trying to stay as calm as she could. The noise coming from outside seemed louder, somehow. The screams, the madness, the cries of pain. Her world was burning, again. Her city was burning.
And her husband was lying still, possibly dead, no more than an inch from her foot.
She reached the foot of the throne, and obediently dropped to one knee. Her joints creaked alarmingly, but that was the price of getting old. Better than the alternative, certainly.
"I am your Emperor," he said again, speaking largely to himself.
Durla and the Faceless were behind her. She hoped they would remain calm.
"Yes," she said. "I, Lady Timov, daughter of Alghul, of the House of Mollari by marriage, Lady Consort to the...." she hesitated briefly, "former Emperor Londo Mollari II, do hereby swear fealty to His Majesty, Emperor Cotto the First."
He giggled. "Good, good. I am the Emperor, aren't I? I am."
"Yes," she whispered. "You are. Majesty, may I look up?"
"Yes! Yes. Look up."
She did. He was sitting forward, almost on the edge of the throne. Had she been younger and more attractive her first suspicion would have been that he was trying to look down her dress. As it was, she supposed he was simply over-eager.
Poor Vir. He had always been good and kind, if a little simple. Good hearts had beat within his breast. He had been a Minister once, early in Londo's reign, before everything had gone quite so badly wrong. Timov had been a Minister then herself. That had been so long ago.
The knife was securely concealed on the inside of her right wrist. She had picked it up on the way. It never hurt to have a weapon to hand.
Durla could have done this of course, or the Faceless, but it had to be her. They understood death all too well. The Faceless lived for death, and Durla.... he was a soldier. He was a fine soldier, but he would be a disaster as Emperor. He would be every bit as much a monster as those who ruled here now.
It had to be her. She would do this because it had to be done, not because she enjoyed it.
Vir was sitting forward on the throne, almost in her face. She breathed out, once.
And then she slid the dagger from its place of concealment and thrust it between the new Emperor's ribs. His eyes widened.
* * * * * * *
Although he would never have admitted it to anyone, even under torture, Marrain felt distinctly uncomfortable. He always did in space. It was not that he was afraid. He simply preferred to do his fighting directly, to look into the eyes of his enemy, to rely on nothing but his own skill and his own wits and the courage of the soldiers alongside him.
His weapons he could make himself, or test personally, or he could look into the eyes of the man who had made them. A spaceship was something very different. He was reliant on too much over which he had no control.
Still, war was war, in the end.
Tirivail's hand tightened on his shoulder. He said nothing, grateful beyond words for her presence. No words needed to pass between them, not now. Her, he would trust in any battle, against any enemy, on any terrain.
He made it a point to know everything he could about those who followed him. The Tak'cha were raiders - light, quick, aggressive, a whirling blur of motion, willing to swarm an enemy far larger than themselves and destroy it with repeated minor blows. The Minbari used both small fighters and larger capital ships, blending power and finesse.
He knew the plan of the battle. He had helped to formulate much of it, and he always led from the front.
A Vorlon capital ship was moving forward, lightning quick despite its size, soaring with the grace that comes from perfect symbiosis between ship and pilot, the product of organic technology, of course.
There was one thing Marrain knew about organic technology.
If it lives, it knows pain. If it knows pain, it can be injured. If it can be injured, it can be killed.
He directed the Tak'cha around it, a fast-moving swarm of fanatical warriors eager to destroy their Gods once again. The Vorlons seemed to be paying more attention to the Minbari. Arrogant bastards, the lot of them, obviously considering the Tak'cha beneath their attention.
Marrain blinked, once, as the Vorlon obliterated one of his own capital ships. Arrogant, yes - but powerful, and too damned quick for their size. He sent a rapid order to the Tak'cha, and he knew that they would obey.
And they did. One ship spiralled and danced around, still unnoticed by the Vorlons. Marrain could hear the prayers of the crew as they rammed their small vessel into the Vorlon ship's organic cannon. There was an explosion, and the Tak'cha souls departed to wherever they believed they went.
The Vorlon ship was damaged now, bleeding from a thousand minor cuts. Its movements were not so fast, not so controlled. Its main weapon was disabled and it was relying on smaller guns. One of them clipped a Minbari ship.
Marrain brought the Shirohida forward. Grey and indomitable like the dead fortress that had given its name, the ship was terrifying, an awesome war machine armed with technology provided by the Vindrizi and the Soul Hunters.
Marrain still did not like ship combat, but he could appreciate the raw power of his flagship.
A fearsome barrage rained over the Vorlon ship, now floundering and weak. The Tak'cha pulled back and reformed their swarm, making for another target. The Shirohida's sister ships poured on more and more fire.
With an explosion, and a strange sound in his mind that might have been a scream, the Vorlon ship died.
One down, countless more to go.
Marrain turned to the rest of the battle. His mouth twitched in a grim smile. The Dark Stars had entered the fray.
* * * * * * *
It was a harsh and irritating sensation, no more than an itch on the iron-hide skin of the God-Emperor, but it was sufficient to attract the majesty's attention. More than anything had achieved in millennia.
There was a strange noise - the humming the sound of living creatures. It must come from this other place, for all that remained in this one were its servants, and they were silent save for praising its name. This noise had to come from elsewhere.
But who could make noise and have it heard here? Who had that power? The greatest minds of the most powerful sentients in that other place could not touch it, not so much as an itch. Even the sight of its lowliest servants could drive most sentients mad with the reality of their own insignificance and ephemerality.
This was something it did not appreciate. It aroused old memories of times long gone, of the earliest beings that had looked up at the vast sky with it, in the times before it was divine, before it was Emperor, before it was anything.
When it had still been blind.
This new place had elder beings of course, it had always known that would be so. But the First was dead. The glory of that death had brought it much pleasant dreaming, and been responsible for its rise to this state of half-wakefulness. There would be other creatures there, other sentients, but the race of the First was dead.
A frisson of understanding rose within its mind, the cold chill of something long forgotten, an emotion that might have been fear or interest or concern or anticipation.
This merited its attention.
It extended its attention outwards, its mind reaching for the eye between the worlds.
And it stopped hesitating, thoughts moving faster, lightning-quick through its vast brain.
The eye between the worlds was opening.
* * * * * * *
"It must be a frightening thing," he said, "to know that you are losing your place. Not just your position as kings, or lords, but your very identity in the universe. For so long you have lorded over all you surveyed, arrogantly confident that nothing and no one could supplant you.
"I knew that arrogance when I was a child. And I saw the fear behind the eyes of the mundanes when they looked at me. Lords of their world for so long, but they knew the fear that you now know, or will know soon.
"You're being replaced.
"It's the same fear that Neanderthal man knew when he was being massacred. Weaker, less intelligent, less able. Along came a new race. And Neanderthal man died.
"And then along came us. Telepaths, capable of things the mundanes can only dream of. I don't think we've even scratched the surface yet. In a few generations, a few centuries, then who knows.... We could be like Gods.
"They knew we would supplant them, you see. Paranoia, fear, the sense of the alien, the unnatural. We did not fit inside their ordered little world, you see.
"That first moment when they realised it.... when they realised that we were real, that we existed, what we were capable of.... It was before I was born of course, but what would I not give to have been there and seen that.... that dawning of pure, inescapable terror in their eyes.
"It must have been just what you're feeling now.
"My memory is a little erratic, probably due to being sealed inside that network of yours all this time, but I can remember some things. I can remember enough. At first you created us as weapons, and when the war we were intended to fight was over, you put us to another use. As slaves.
"Slaves to your little system of Order.
"But it was you who changed us in the first place, however long ago. You changed us. You evolved us. You used the weapons of your enemies to beat them. You abandoned your ideals and embraced practicality.
"I cannot abide hypocrisy. Fight for your cause all you like. Do whatever is necessary in its name. It does not matter how far you go, so long as you remain true to your ideals. But you abandoned them, and pretended that it did not matter, that you were still the pure, the perfect, the true moral leaders of the galaxy.
"You are going to die, each and every one of you, and it will be those like us who will be responsible. Beaten by evolution. I like the thought of that. I like it a lot. It appeals to my poetic soul.
"I have a little story for you. An event as momentous as this deserves a build-up, don't you think? On Earth, before it was destroyed, there was an animal called a lemming. A small, rodent-like creature. Myth had it that lemmings would commit mass suicide by jumping off cliffs. That isn't quite true of course, but there you go, that's myths for you.
"But they did fall off cliffs, and those that did, died. But the whole business can be considered as a form of natural selection. One day, a lemming will survive. One day, a lemming will learn to fly.
"Evolution, you see. Just like us.
"There's a lesson for you in there somewhere."
The Vorlon hesitated, thrashing its long, sinuous body. There was no need for encounter suits here, no need for illusions. It had tried to use its angelic appearance, but that did not work on Bester, not after all he had seen and done. Besides, he had become fairly atheistic during the last couple of decades.
He stretched out his good arm and squeezed. The Vorlon struggled, but the hold was too strong. Bester could tell what it was thinking. It did not understand how one mind, one mortal, human mind, could best it like this.
What Bester did not tell it was that it was not fighting one human mind. It was fighting a great many minds, all the minds inside the network that had regained self-awareness, that had remembered who and what they were and what the Vorlons had done to them.
Every one of them worked for him now. The Vorlons' greatest weapon had just been turned against them.
Bester clenched his hand into a fist. The Vorlon's body of light shook and then fell limp. Bester relinquished his control and it floated listlessly, quite dead.
He had never been telekinetic before, and he had been glad of that. They were very rare, and half of them were insane to boot. It seemed that the network had done something to him.
Evolution. A little forced, but there you go.
"Are you quite finished?"
Bester turned. Talia's ghost floated into view, emerging through the node he had severed when he broke free from the network.
"A bit of unnecessary grandeur," he said.
"Very impressive, but we have work to do."
He smiled. "Oh, yes. Work to do, and a planet to win. He will keep to his end of the bargain, won't he?"
"I have no reason to doubt him."
"Good." He looked around at the infinite wonders, of what was only a fragment of the Vorlon homeworld.
"It will be good to have a home again."
* * * * * * *
It was dark, and all she could feel was pain. Every drop of her blood that fell landed with a splash that deafened her. She could not move, her body pierced and broken and crushed into the pit. She had no idea what was going on above her, what could be going on.
All L'Neer of Narn could think of was G'Kar.
At first she thought she was hearing things, and so the first time the voice spoke to her, she ignored it. And the second time. By the third, she finally realised who it was.
"Are you deaf, child? I can hear your heart beating and feel your blood dripping. You are neither dead, nor unconscious."
"I thought you were dead," she rasped. She could speak at last. Most of the blood had drained from her mouth, and her breathing had stabilised a little.
"I am Z'shailyl. I am harder to kill than that, child."
His voice. A sibilant, shadowed whisper. She had met him before, at the Council of Sinoval, and she had been terrified of him then. In truth, she had been glad when Sinoval had cast him aside. There was no place for creatures like him in a war like this.
But if not in war, then where?
"You are Moreil," she breathed.
"I hoped you were dead."
She closed her eyes, her body shuddering with gasping breaths. She tried to take stock of her injuries. Her lungs did not seem to be pierced, her heart still beat. Blood loss would kill her eventually. She could not move. The spikes held her too firmly for that, and to try might only rip more of her body open.
How had Moreil survived down here? He had disappeared, she had heard, at the start of all this. Durla had believed him to be dead. Hadn't the Faceless made reference to his disappearance?
"I am L'Neer," she whispered.
"I know. I saw you before, child."
"At the Council."
"You looked so scared."
"I.... I do not want to die. I have taught myself to resist fear all this time, and now.... I do not want to die."
There was a strange, rasping noise. At first she thought Moreil was choking, but she could not turn round to look. He was beneath her, and the weight of her body must be crushing him. She was light and agile for a Narn, but hers was a densely-boned and heavily-muscled species - no doubt part of the reason she was still alive.
Then she realised what it was.
He was laughing, softly, mockingly, weakly.
"You would never make a warrior, child. You would not last.... a moment.... in the service of the Dark Masters."
"I would never want to." She felt a great tiredness sweeping over her. She almost felt relieved. Death this way might not be so bad. She could not feel the pain any more. If she could just go to sleep....
G'Kar was up there. She had to see him one last time. She could not die without that.
"I do not want to die," she whispered again, faintly.
Beneath her, Moreil was laughing again.
Then his laughter stopped, and she realised he was gone at last.
She would be next, and soon.
* * * * * * *
Susan was silent, keeping a careful eye on the battle, directing it as best she could. She might not be on the pinnacle, but she could see enough from where she was. No one had ever accused Cathedral of having inadequate sensors.
In fact she had very little need to do anything. Her real work was already done. She had guided Sinoval to the best of her ability, turned him from a monster willing to sacrifice worlds for his victory to....
She hesitated. Well, she had turned him into something better.
She hoped it would work out. He had explained his plan to her, and while she did not know everything, she knew more than anyone else. It could work. They could win.
And more to the point, they would win right.
She wished David were here.
She wished she could have seen him one last time.
She wished for a lot of things....
* * * * * * *
It was a massacre, nothing less. Marrago's ships launched themselves at the monstrosity emerging through the tear in space, raining blows on it, only for it to shrug them away. Its dark, spiked tentacles lashed out, tearing into the ships, ripping through the hulls and engines, reducing warships to nothing but scrap.
The tear was growing bigger as the creature forced its way through, more and more of its mass becoming visible. Marrago was sure there was an eye there, or maybe more than one. Dark and baleful and twisted, the gaze of a creature older than suns.
Was this one of their Lords? Their priests? Drawn to a world battered beyond belief by decades of war and fire and madness? The waves of power that rippled from it were unbearable. It took all Marrago's concentration to keep from succumbing to the hallucinations. He could see Lyndisty's haunted face, staring at him. And Senna, blood dripping from her whole body, turning her pale skin red.
Ironically those visions strengthened him, gave him the determination to see this through. He would not let their deaths be meaningless. He was Centauri.
His people were Centauri. They had learned the same lessons he had learned. A hard life - sacrifice, duty, honour, pride. No one in this war had escaped unscathed. Everyone had known loss and pain. The creature sought to use these memories against them, but instead the illusions only strengthened them.
Marrago looked up as he saw a ship swoop forward. It was damaged, nearly crippled, but it still moved with the speed and dexterity of a duellist. He recognised it with an anguished sigh.
Carn. Carn Mollari. Londo's nephew. One of the finest soldiers of his generation.
Marrago recognised a suicide charge when he saw one.
The ship hit the vast mass of the creature's body with a colossal explosion. Marrago closed his eyes, and when he opened them again he saw that the creature was in pain. Fire blazed around its gargantuan eye, and the thrashing of its tentacles seemed wilder, less controlled, almost frenzied.
It can be hurt.
It is hurt.
And if something can be hurt, it can be killed.
With renewed heart, Marrago continued to direct the assault.
* * * * * * *
There was a tear in the fabric between this place and the other, a rip growing steadily larger and larger. The God-Emperor could feel it like a pleasant breeze across its body. But that was not what attracted its attention. One of its lords had sensed the tear, called there by the signal through the minor gateway. The God-Emperor could leave such matters for now.
It was concentrating its thoughts elsewhere. The hum sounded across its vast shapeless form, an itch growing and spreading.
The eye between the worlds that was the master gateway was slowly opening. That was where the hum was coming from.
The God-Emperor unfurled one of its long tentacles, probing outwards slowly, unhurriedly. The servants in the other place were fighting. They were worshippers - less than the lowliest acolyte, for they had not known its glory or the beauty of the great purge, but they believed. At least they worshipped it, in their weak and ignorant way.
And they were fighting.
The enemies had come. The older races of their universe. Young by the standards of the God-Emperor, but with some power and knowledge nonetheless.
The God-Emperor retracted its appendage and settled back to think. More and more light seeped around the edges of the eye between the worlds.
The humming was growing louder.
* * * * * * *
Sinoval could feel its presence as he sang to the minor gateways, and he steeled himself against the psychic onslaught. He had long known of the existence of the God-Emperor, slumbering in its own universe, but he had hoped to evade its attention for just a little longer.
He screamed aloud as its mind brushed past his. It was just a casual thought from the God-Emperor, no more than a blink, but it was like a man being brushed aside by an asteroid. If he had had any doubts about their relative strengths, they were erased now.
He heard liquid dripping to the floor and realised it was his own blood, seeping from his eyes.
The presence had passed over in an instant, but it had been enough. The God-Emperor was as old as a universe and without any of the moral compunctions Lorien or the Well had about the appropriate uses of power.
Fortunately it had been asleep for so long that it had forgotten a great deal.
The ringing in his ears faded and he managed to raise his head wearily, looking out across the battle. It was going.... more or less as he had expected.
Marrain and the Tak'cha had cleared out one side of the Vorlon ships, using the classic hit-and-run tactics that had served them well so often before. The Tak'cha were filled with joy at the thought of waging war on their Gods once again.
The Minbari were in trouble, but holding. His own Soul Hunter ships were suffering under the barrage of the Dark Stars. They were also the focus of the network-powered weaponry from Babylon 5 itself. The First Ones were fighting as a unit, acting as a defence for Cathedral, taking down any Vorlon ship that got too close. They had not really entered the battle yet, which was fine by Sinoval. Their part in this had not yet truly begun.
The network. That was still the Vorlons' greatest weapon, and Sinoval grudgingly had to admit its brilliance and effectiveness. Countless captive minds all bound together, their power turned to forces both destructive and defensive. The Dark Stars unleashed devastating attacks. Babylon 5 itself was surrounded by a shimmering shroud of light that absorbed all the fire directed at it. The space station's weaponry was capable of destroying capital-class warships.
Yes, the network was a very potent weapon, but every weapon has its weakness.
Sinoval would have been a fool indeed to underestimate it. The timing had been tricky. Attack too soon, and it would still be fully functional. Attack too late, and the damage might have been repaired.
Timing is the most essential element of any battle.
One of Sinoval's greatest strengths as a leader and a warrior, even before his transformation into Primarch, was the ability to recognise what he could do and what he could not do, and to avoid worrying about matters which were outwith his control. He could do nothing about the network now, and he had to have faith in his chosen agents.
He blinked and shook the drying blood from his eyes. The God-Emperor had turned its attention away for the moment. He had time.
He returned to his ritual.
* * * * * * *
They were gathered behind him now, his army, his tribe, his people, following him to the Promised Land. He could see inside all their minds, just as they could see into his.
Not all of them were human. Few of them were, in fact. There were some Minbari, some Brakiri, several Centauri, and countless races he had never seen before and never even heard of. But they were his people all the same.
One of them drifted forward to him, floating as easily as he did. It was a Dilgar. They were all dead, outside of this world. Every last one, but the Vorlons had saved one here. Perhaps more. Perhaps the Dilgar race could live again.
"Who are you?" he asked.
"My name is Alfred Bester," he said, speaking to them all. "I am your saviour."
The Dilgar were a militaristic race. They needed someone to follow. "Command me," he responded.
They moved through the vast chamber, freeing all the captives they could. Their bodies emerged from their chambers, weakened and blinking in the light, but the power of their minds remained absolute. The power of the network remained within them.
They left the vast chamber of lights, the central node of the network, a mirror to the Well of Souls, and moved out into the Vorlon city. None of them, not even the oldest, could really comprehend a place like this, for it was not a true city in the normal sense of the word. It was a place where millions of Vorlons lived, but they had evolved beyond conventional mortal needs and desires. Their bodies had no real need for a place of habitation, any more than they had a need for food or for nourishment or for love.
Everything was bright, a swirling mist. None of them should have been able to breathe this atmosphere, but they could. They had all been changed so much.
Vorlons moved towards them, curious perhaps, or angry. They were destroyed. There were buildings, or things that might have been buildings. They were destroyed.
Above them, in orbit around the planet, lurked countless satellites. The defence of the Vorlon homeworld, each containing one of them: a trapped and imprisoned telepath. Bester spoke to them and told them they would be free.
Freedom spread with the speed of thought. Beams of light tore down through the atmosphere to the surface. Buildings were incinerated. Ships were blasted out of orbit.
The Vorlons were trying to fight back, but they were too weak, too vulnerable, too exposed elsewhere. Twelve years of war had cost them, and of course....
There was the Enemy.
It was Talia who saw it first. A vast construction, a building the size of a city, floating across the light-filled landscape. Plant-like tendrils draped across the ground. Flowers bloomed across its skin. It should have been a sight to stun the mind and fill the soul with awe.
It was not. The building had been corrupted, a sickly blight spreading across its skin. The tendrils were desiccated and black. A foul smell rose from it, and where there was meant to be light there was only shadow.
"That is it," Bester said. "Their headquarters."
He flew over towards it, the other liberated slaves following him, a trail of chaos and destruction in their wake.
* * * * * * *
His eyes widened with shock.
"But...." he said, blood rising in his mouth. "But....
"I was.... to be.... Emperor....
"The.... dreams.... said.... so...."
He slumped forward, falling off the throne. Timov stepped deftly aside, letting go of the dagger.
"Poor man," was all she said.
Then she looked up at the throne. She hated that chair. She had always hated it. Uncomfortable and oppressive and just plain unpleasant. She stepped back carefully and looked at the still bodies of Londo and G'Kar. A single tear rose in her eye.
Then she turned round and looked at the others. They were all staring at her. There was a moment's silence.
Durla broke it by laughing. "Well done, lady," he said. "As skilful a strike as I have ever seen."
"I am thankful you think so," she replied acidly. A foul mood had crept over her. This was all so pointless, utterly pointless and stupid. There must have been something within Vir, some hint of ambition, or the presence of the Faceless would have purged his madness.
Or maybe not. Maybe some insanities simply could not be purged.
Then everything came to her at once, and she found herself barking out orders.
"We need to secure the palace. Someone take these bodies away. The gates must be shut and sealed. L'Neer!" She fumbled for the catch and pressed it, opening the trapdoor. "L'Neer!" she cried, moving towards the pit. "Child, are you...?"
"Here," rasped a weak voice. "I.... am here...."
"Don't just stand there, Durla!" Timov cried. "Get her out. And be careful. Don't let the spikes tear her any further. Does anyone here know anything about medicine? What about those Zener people? Good. Help her! Durla! Was I talking to myself? And someone get these bodies out of here!"
Durla stared open-mouthed, but then he smiled and sprang into action. The Faceless and the Zener moved forward as well, carefully lifting L'Neer out of the pit. The Faceless hesitated for a moment and began a soft crooning. It was only when Timov stepped forward gingerly that she realised why.
There was a body remaining in the pit. A Z'shailyl. Their Moreil, no doubt.
When it was more ordered, the whole room a hive of activity, Timov sat down weakly at the foot of the throne, beside Londo's body. This whole thing was just too pathetic.
"Oh, Londo," she sighed. "You stupid, stupid man. I did love you, you know."
She dared to look at his face. He was pale, and his eyes had a dead look about them.
Timov started back.
He had blinked. She was sure of it. He had blinked.
"Londo," she whispered.
A sound came from his mouth, a soft gasp. He blinked again. She grabbed his hand and squeezed. There was the faintest hint of pressure returned.
"Londo," she said again.
She looked up sharply. "He's alive," she breathed. She made to continue, but for the first time in her life she was utterly lost for words. All she could do was repeat the same thing over and over again.
"He's alive. He's alive."
* * * * * * *
One by one, they began to scream. They veered off course, came to a shuddering halt, and spun around in circles.
The Dark Stars simply stopped fighting.
The shield of energy around Babylon 5 flickered, sparks of lightning crackling across it.
Then it disappeared.
The weapons systems on the station itself ceased firing, or fired wildly, as likely to hit their own ships as their enemy.
The Vorlon ships continued to fight, and they were formidable enough in their own right, but they were now outnumbered.
No one was entirely sure what had happened, but Marrain, for one, was able to seize the initiative, swooping forward to attack the Vorlon ships that now found themselves without support. The Vorlons floundered for a moment, but soon returned fire. It was not over yet.
And then the Dark Stars and the Babylon 5 weapons systems came back to life.
And started attacking the Vorlon ships.
* * * * * * *
There were nine. He knew that was not all of them. It stood to reason after all that some would be elsewhere, on other worlds, engaged in other concerns.
Still, nine Lights Cardinal were impressive enough.
If anywhere in the Vorlon homeworld could be described in conventional terms, this council chamber could. There was no table, no display device, no communications instruments or anything like that, but it was unquestionably a place of Government, a place where the most powerful and influential Vorlons gathered.
There were nine encounter suits spread out in a circle, with empty spaces for three more. All of them were empty. Each suit was a different colour. Some colours he could easily recognise. One was coal black, the colour of a starless night beneath a pall of smoke and ash. Another was a sickly, mottled green, the shade of a dying planet corrupted by blight and sickness. One was white, not pure or holy, but the colour of bones and decay.
Some colours he could not describe, colours his human eyes could not see. For now. These suits blurred around the edges, flickering slightly as he tried to see them with senses beyond mere sight. It would come with time.
The nine Vorlons floated in the air above the chamber, their long bodies thrashing angrily, glowing tentacles writhing in the air. They blurred together, one mass of form and consciousness and energy.
Bester had a feeling they were not happy.
<The atom thinks it can rise to be the star,> one of the angry voices boomed in his mind.
<Beneath our attention, beneath our notice. A tool is designed for one purpose alone and it is not demeaned by being used for that purpose,> said another.
<Such things are closer to Death than we,> hissed a third - or perhaps it was the first one. There seemed to be reverence in its tone. <They seek to evade the blessed salvation of our masters.>
Bester floated forward. "You are all wrong," he said simply. "And soon, you will all be dead. I merely wanted to see you myself, with my own eyes."
<Be wary, atom. You exist by our sufferance.>
"Oh? And what will happen if I displease you? Will you perhaps seal me up inside your network again? Turn me into a slave for the rest of eternity? I certainly would not want that to happen."
One of them disengaged from the rest and swam lazily down towards him. One tendril reached out to him, stopping a mere inch from his face. <The cog in the machine thinks it can become the machine.>
"No," Bester said with a smile. "The cog in the machine thinks it can destroy the machine altogether. And the manufacturers as well, if that is not stretching the metaphor too far. Allow me to demonstrate."
It happened with the speed of thought. Some of the Lights Cardinal realised what was coming, but none of them could even imagine that he would do it. He was an insect, a cog, little more than an atom, so far beneath their attention.
And yet this atom had escaped from their network, freed both himself and others, and gained control of the parts of it he wanted.
Such as the orbital defence satellites.
A focussed beam of energy, far more powerful than any race short of the First Ones could create, tore through the atmosphere and into the building. It struck the body of the Light Cardinal with pinpoint accuracy. Bester did not know exactly which enslaved minds were trapped inside the satellite, but he silently thanked them.
And then he directed another strike, this time from multiple satellites.
The Lights Cardinal were killed before they could flee or beg for mercy. Some of them seemed to accept death, even to relish it, embracing it with a fanaticism born of their worship of their Masters.
After that, just because he could, Bester destroyed their encounter suits. Then he searched the building. He didn't quite know what he was looking for, but he knew he would recognise it when he found it.
And he did, eventually. It was a globe, the size of a room, fire and lightning crackling at its centre. There was a presence within it, and he knew this was a gateway through to that other universe, the place of Death. The entity on the other side was stirring, as if waking from a long slumber.
A thought drifted in his direction, and the power of it nearly sent him reeling. Shaking and nauseous, he gave the order instinctively.
The gateway was destroyed, the presence on the other side now mute and blind in this dimension.
He returned to the world outside, and continued his exploration of his new home.
* * * * * * *
Sinoval laughed. It had worked. Leave the rest to Sheridan.
He closed his eyes and spoke, issuing an order to the entire fleet. Only some of them would understand it, but they were the ones he wanted. He had personally chosen each and every one of them. They had all accepted. He wanted no one else. This was a one-way journey, and all of them knew it.
No one had turned down the mission. After all, how often were you given an opportunity to see a whole new universe?
"Pinnacle to the flames. Aegis begins. The ascension to heaven."
The ships broke off from their assault, pulling back carefully, laying down covering fire. Marrain, of course, and half his Tak'cha. Some of the Brakiri. Some of the Drazi. Almost all the Soul Hunters, though some of them had to remain behind to continue the work.
And all the First Ones, of course.
The Vorlons could not capitalise on this. Disoriented, broken, scattered, attacked from all sides, they could do nothing. Some of them realised what was happening, but too late, and they were helpless to do anything about it.
There was a jump gate near Babylon 5, which opened for them. Cathedral led the way, and the others followed.
Hyperspace swallowed them all. The jump gate closed again, and it was as if they had never been there.
* * * * * * *
On board the Remembrance, watching the battle with a mixture of disgust and fascination, Sheridan looked round.
"Gone?" he said.
Delenn touched his hand. "This is our war now," was all she said.
* * * * * * *
On board Cathedral, Susan closed her eyes and whispered a silent prayer. She had not prayed in years, but this seemed oddly appropriate.
She wanted God on her side when she went into Hell.
* * * * * * *
On board the Shirohida, Marrain said nothing, but his eyes gleamed at the thought of the war for which they were bound. Tirivail touched his shoulder, her expression grim, but without fear.
* * * * * * *
On the pinnacle, above them all, Sinoval continued to hum, the tune growing louder and louder.
* * * * * * *
The gateways continued to glow. There was a sound uncannily like that of a key turning in a lock.
* * * * * * *
Dark light illuminated the silhouette of the master gateway.
* * * * * * *
This is my last message to you. I don't know how to write it or what to say or how to tell you all the things I need to tell you, so if I leave a few things out, well.... I'm sorry.
Sinoval has a plan. I can't tell you what it is, and to tell you the truth I don't know all of it myself. What I do know is that I think it will work. It's a chance to end this war for good, and.... he's doing it the right way. He's looking beyond war. He could simply keep fighting until everything on both sides is dead, and I think that's what he'd prefer to do. He's a warrior at heart. He lives for this, and once this war is done there'll be nothing for him to do, so I think a part of him wants to keep it going for as long as possible.
But he's learning. It's taken a long time, but I've got some things through to him. He doesn't realise, but you have as well, through me. The things you've told me, your ideas, your beliefs - I've channelled these through to him. Without you, I wouldn't have had the strength to go on. Oh, I'd have continued to fight, but I think I'd have become like Sinoval, caring only for the war and nothing else. You were a constant reminder to me of what we were fighting for, and that helped me to remind Sinoval.
But more than that, you saved my life, and my soul. It was a long time ago, longer for you than for me, on Babylon 4, when everything was wrong and twisted and I was.... someone else. You didn't realise it then, but you did save me. Everything I've been able to do since then, is because of you.
I love you, David. I don't deserve you. I know I've done some things that are wrong, and I don't expect to be forgiven for them. I'd like to think that any of us can be redeemed no matter what we've done, but sometimes I'm not so sure. You always made me think I could be.
I love you, always. I won't see you again, but I wanted you to know that. Sinoval and I.... we're going to take the war to the enemy. We're going to win, hopefully, but that remains to be seen. If we do, then....
Then you're going to have to rebuild. I think you've got the harder job, but you're the best person I know to handle it. You'll make mistakes and you'll doubt yourself, but remember this.
You're the right person for the job, stupid! Don't forget that.
Oh yeah, and I love you.
* * * * * * *
Secured in hyperspace, an open sore in the universe, the great gateway was sealed. The ships of the Enemy waited behind it, priests waiting to bring their religion to whole new vistas of creation, to worlds and peoples untouched by the blessed glory that was Death.
Ships approached it, a fragment of a vast fleet, ships ancient and powerful and ready to fight and die.
Light was crackling around the gateway, illuminating it brightly against the swirling patterns of hyperspace. Darkness seeped through to this side, darkness and the touch of death.
Then, with a burst of loud, discordant song in the minds of all those nearby, the gateway opened.
The forces of the Aliens were on the other side, waiting for them.