Author's Note: This is all Wanderer D's fault. It will be a while until the next chapter also, because I have to watch B5 again to be sure I'm really getting the characters down right. I can't rely on the wiki for that when the last time I watched the show was three years ago. But in the meantime, enjoy, and know that I do have plans for everyone left behind in the ME-verse … it'll just be quite a while until you see them.
Staring at the Catalyst, Andrea Shepard swayed on her feet as she considered its words to her. It was an impossible choice, and every second she took thinking about it, tens of millions of people were dying across the galaxy. Nodding weakly to herself, she took one step forward.
"Zathras thinks this game is rigged," a new voice said from behind her. "Zathras thinks it is time for you to be moving on now."
Computational cycles inside the Catalyst sparked up with concern. Shepard had stopped, staring in confusion over her shoulder. No organic lifeforms existed anywhere in this half of the station. None of its keepers or husk-forms were nearby. Given her injuries from Harbinger's near miss, there was a twenty-seven point four percent chance that she was hallucinating or suffering from some other manner of cognitive damage. Even if she had managed to convince the indoctrinated human downstairs to kill himself rather than continue to act for the Reapers.
Thus, it came as a complete surprise when Shepard went flying sideways as though shoved, and then vanished. All sensors recorded her disappearance identically, as though she had fallen through a doorway, only that doorway was apparently something that could conceal her utterly from every form of surveillance.
There was no sound. Optical sensors on every frequency of the entire electromagnetic spectrum came up empty. Even a quarian in a suit had to have oxygen exchanging, yet chemical analysis of the air showed nothing. But with the sudden and unexpected disappearance of Shepard, the Crucible solution was no longer valid.
A tiny vibration shimmied through the walkway leading to the upload link, courtesy of a construction bolt just slightly loose. It was enough. Wordlessly the Catalyst sent word to one of its Reaper children exterminating the organic ships outside. A scarlet beam ripped through the chamber, shattering nothing but windows and a few secondary supports. Atmosphere ripped out of the station. Whoever or whatever had been present, the explosive decompression had sent them spinning out into vacuum.
The Catalyst turned its attention back to the battle against the organic forces.
Sinclair, Sheridan, and Delenn smiled at each other. As two of them turned to leave Babylon 4 forever, the door to the Command and Control opened. "Damnit, Ivanova, I told you," Sinclair started to say. But the sight of the woman in the doorway stopped his tongue.
She was human, and looked a whole lot closer to death's door than he felt, even after the accelerated aging from the unstable time field. She wore body armor, charred and blackened, though the untorched shock of auburn hair made him sure she'd lost a helmet somewhere. "Uh-oh," Zathras said.
One hand raised a pistol, pointing it straight at the elderly alien. "You brought me here. Where is this? What happened to the Catalyst? What's happening to Earth?" she demanded.
"Zathras will have to give Zathras a serious talking-to about this," Zathras said.
"There's no time for this," Sheridan said, taking a step forward. The gun moved to track him, but he kept his empty hands up. "We've only got a few minutes to get off this station, or we're never leaving it at all."
She stared at him, brilliant blue eyes haunted and fighting back tears. "What about the Alliance? What about Earth?"
"Last time I checked, Earth was just fine," he said.
"Fine? What about the Reapers? What about the billions dead or harvested?"
The two human men exchanged a worried glance. "I don't know what a Reaper is," Sinclair said. "But there's never been anything on Earth that's killed a billion people, and there won't be if I have anything to say about it."
The gun halfway tracked to him before it started to tremble, and the scarred woman sagged against the doorway. "Never heard of them?" she whispered to herself. A laugh bubbled up, harsh and broken and hopeless. "I lost. After all of that, I lost." The gun tumbled to the floor a moment before she did, ash flakes spraying from her armor.
"Zathras does not have time to explain, so Zathras will sum up. Zathras hopes you know Earth card game of poker?" The alien's taloned fingers wrapped around the bar surrounding the pit as Delenn and Sheridan crossed the room to check on her. "She is the joker, the wild card." He paused, tapping his chin with one nail. "Of course, jokers usually come in pairs."
"Her pulse is weak. Are the doctors on board the White Star versed in human anatomy and medicine?" Sheridan asked. Getting his arms under the mystery woman, he barely staggered to his feet. "Damn, this armor is heavy!"
"They should be able to care for her until we can get back to Babylon 5," Delenn said. "Here, let me help."
Carrying the unconscious body between them, they rushed through the corridors of the station, back to the waiting Ranger ship. "Marcus, we need help!" Sheridan shouted through the access hole.
The bearded ranger appeared a moment later, staring up. "Where did you find her? I thought everyone was evacuated off the station!" Carefully gripping her by the arms, Sheridan and Delenn started lowering her down through the hole to him. "And what kind of armor is this?"
"We do not know. She appeared at the door as we were about to leave, spouting madness about billions of dead on Earth," Delenn told him. "If the Shadows are already attacking worlds, we must return to Minbar at once."
"But why would they attack Earth? They already control Clark, and who knows how many others in the government," Sheridan said. "It doesn't make any sense. And why would Zathras refer to her as a wild card?"
They dropped into the ship, carrying her quickly between the three of them to the medical ward. Laying her down on one of the tables, Marcus began examining her armor. "I think we might have to cut this off of her, Delenn. This looks fused. I don't know what happened to her, but she must be one hell of a survivor."
"Help the doctors care for her. We need to get moving and out of the time rift," Sheridan said, turning for the door. "But let me know if she wakes up. I've got a lot of questions for her."
"I don't doubt it," the ranger replied. As the door swished closed, he tested the tip of his knife against the charred, flaking armor bracer. "Amazing."
The Normandy flew through the relay tunnel, racing for Eden Prime. They had been one of the last ships in the task force to make the jump out following Hackett's order to retreat. The Crucible was in place, Shepard was on board, and if it worked they could regroup and repair there. If it didn't work, well, it didn't really matter where they went. It was only a matter of time.
"Jeff, I'm picking up Shepard's transponder," EDI said.
"Uh, EDI, we're in a relay FTL. And her transponder went offline before she reached the Citadel, right after we yanked Garrus and Javik out of the fire," Joker said, his hands yanking every microwatt of power from the engines.
"I am still receiving the signal. In approximately twenty-seven seconds, we will pass it. It is coming from somewhere just outside of the relay channel." One corner of the pilot display shifted, showing their course and a blinking dot. It didn't need to be labeled.
Garrus came running up the neck of the ship from the holomap. "Go to it," he ordered.
"Damnit, we don't know if you even can exit a relay mid-transit," Joker protested. But his hands were already shifting on the controls, adjusting thrusters and engine control. "Just for the records, this is a really fucking stupid idea!"
Two seconds later, the Normandy lurched sideways and pierced the wall of the relay transit. Right as the ship hit the halfway mark, a wave of green-tinged energy blasted past them, and the ship tumbled into freefall, engines dead.
"EDI? EDI, talk to me!" Joker said, already stabbing at the manual controls and ignoring the cracking sounds from his fingers.
Picking himself up off the floor, Garrus swore in turian and put one hand over his bandage to hold it in place. "Someone get down to engineering! We need power back now!" The lights and ventilation flickered back on before he could turn away from the window. "Good. Uh, Joker, I'm not an astronavigator, but where the hell are we?"
"How the hell should I know? Ow, that fucking hurts! Tell Chakwas I need some finger splints ASAP." The pilot continued to mutter to himself as he turned the ship around, orienting it towards the fading transponder signal. "Shepard's a thousand klicks thataway. EDI?"
"She is onboard a ship, currently travelling at sublight speeds. An unknown energy wave disrupted the relay channel as we were exiting it, but based upon star configurations, we are in an unexplored region of space approximately forty light-years from Earth," she said. "The ship does not match any known configuration of vessel in my records."
"Six months from Earth. Wonderful," Garrus growled. "Traynor, give me a picture of this ship on the holo."
Nodding, the specialist fiddled with her controls for a minute before the ship appeared. It resembled an asari ship in some ways, and a turian on others. But what he didn't see was any sign of mass acceleration cannons, nor Thanix cannons. "Joker, can you get us in front of them?"
"You bet your ass," the pilot said. With a lurch, the Normandy jumped to FTL, dropping out a second later and rolling over to face the other ship. It fired thrusters, slowing down as they faced each other, bow to bow, over a mere kilometer of distance. "We got their attention. Now what?"
"This is Garrus Vakarian of the Normandy. You have Commander Shepard on board. Return her at once, or I will disable your vessel," the turian growled.
"What the hell?" Sheridan said, as a ship leaped into view, appearing on sensors backwards as it loomed before them. "Slow down before we hit them. Where did they come from?"
There was a startled silence on the bridge for a moment before Ivanova spoke. "Sensors report they just appeared out of nowhere, on the other side of the tachyon field. Then they somehow moved faster than light without using hyperspace. I've never seen this type of ship before."
"They are broadcasting an unknown signal on a microwave frequency, as well as some other kind of energy signal we've never seen before," Lennier added.
"Can we hail them? Find out who they are?" Sheridan asked.
"I've already sent a standard hailing request," Ivanova said. "Either they don't understand it, or they're ignoring us. But I have to guess it's the second one." She changed the view on the screen, zooming in on a battle scored but still readable Normandy along one side of the bow.
"Why would they ignore us? Try using other frequencies," Sheridan said.
"John, could this have something to do with the woman we rescued on Babylon 4?" Delenn asked.
He mused on that for a moment. "Maybe. I can't rule it out, anyway. Please check with the doctors, see if it's safe to wake her up. Maybe then we can find out what the hell is going on."
Right as Delenn set foot into the hallway, the gun slung turret-style beneath the Normandy's bow opened fire, a brilliant white-blue beam shooting below the White Star only meters away from the hull. "Heat readings are off the scale! Commander, we don't want to be hit by that weapon," Lennier said. "Even with Vorlon armor, three or four shots from that would cut the ship in half."
"Ivanova, I don't care if you have to resort to standing by a window and using a flashlight to signal morse code, we need to talk to them now!" Sheridan said. "Lennier, back us away, slowly. No weapons yet."
"That was a warning shot. If you do not respond and surrender Commander Shepard, the next one will not be so lenient!" Garrus snarled. "Damnit, Traynor, why aren't they responding?"
"I don't think our communication modes are compatible," she said. "EDI, back me up on this?"
"They are broadcasting on a different wavelength, using a different format than any communication used in Citadel or Terminus space. I am attempting to gain access to their computer systems, but I have never hacked a computer that operates on a base-twenty-seven processor before," EDI said.
Restraining the urge to punch the guard rail, Garrus forced himself to take several deep breaths. "Any other bright ideas?"
"If I thought they might understand English, I'd have already resorted to using the approach lights to flash morse code at them," Traynor muttered. "It's a pre-flight binary alphabet," she explained.
"Turians have one of those too." The hand not holding the uncomfortably damp bandage tightened on the railing. "Did you try asking Tali for ideas?"
"Yes, and, um," Traynor trailed off, staring at her terminal in shock. "EDI, have I gone crazy?"
"The opposite vessel appears to be transmitting in Earth-standard morse code," the AI responded. "If accurate, the message is, 'Normandy, cease fire. We come in peace. Please respond.'"
Garrus and Traynor stared at each other for a moment. "You have got to be shitting me," Westmoreland muttered from her post next to the war room doors.
"Responding back. 'Return Commander Shepard or we will disable your vessel.'" Traynor typed it into her console, letting EDI control the lights. "Alright, now we're getting somewhere. 'We have unidentified human female on board, being treated for injuries. Please accompany us to Babylon Five.' The number, not the word, which is then followed by a list of coordinates. Oh wait, 'Current location' with another list of coordinates."
"Joker? Where are they trying to get us to go?" Garrus asked.
"Well, assuming they use Earth-standard lightspeed measurements – which I'm going to go with since they're using Earth morse code – about three light-days away from here. And sensors are picking up ship traffic in that vicinity," the pilot said. "We can get there in two, three hours."
Squeezing his eyes shut, Garrus considered it. "Tell them we'll agree to that, but only if they'll send someone over in a shuttle to ensure we can match coordinates." That way we have a hostage of theirs while they've got Shepard, he thought. He could tell Traynor followed his line of thought, but she said nothing as she typed out the reply.
"They want a hostage," Ivanova spat. "It's like they don't trust us!"
Sheridan shook his head. "I'm not sure I can blame them. They're clearly human, but here they are, faced with a ship they don't seem to recognize, can't communicate with, who's seemingly holding one of their officers hostage."
"Fine. I'll go over, and I'll straighten this out," she said. "Tell them to expect me."
"Susan." She stopped, no more than one pace from her console. "Try to play nice. But make sure you're armed just in case." She sniffed in amusement at the advice and stalked off the bridge. "Lennier, what do you think?"
"I think we want to find out who they are and how they got here, but most importantly, how they have weaponry like that. By the same token, their ship appears to be comparatively unarmored."
They fell silent as both Delenn and Marcus returned to the bridge. "How is she?" Sheridan asked.
"She's asleep now. There's only so much our doctors can do for her, because she's got almost as many synthetic parts as she does natural ones," Marcus said. "She's been through heavy combat, and recently. Underneath her armor she's got over a dozen bullet wounds, partly healed, and that armor. Once we cut the seals we were able to peel most of it away. From the looks of it, someone dunked her in a plasma bath."
"Her ship gave us a warning shot hot enough to cook the hull from a dozen meters away, so it wouldn't surprise me. They've agreed to meet us at Babylon 5, so we can hopefully get Franklin to take a look at her with her full medical records along." Sheridan shook his head. "What I can't figure out, is where the hell does a human warship like that come from?"
"I don't know," Marcus said. A smile slowly spread across his face. "But if we don't know, then neither will the Shadows." Sheridan's smile grew to match it as Ivanova's shuttle raced across the gap between vessels.
The shuttle barely fit into the bay, between the stacks of supply crates and the other shuttle. It was boxy looking and crude, something Ivanova was quite familiar with before the White Star. Standing at the far end of the bay were two people in armored suits, guns attached to their hips but hands empty. How reassuring, she thought, shutting down the shuttle engines and listening to the whistle of air filling the bay.
When the indicators at last read green, she opened the door and stepped out. Crossing the cargo bay at her usual stalking pace, she stopped exactly three meters away. "Lieutenant Commander Susan Ivanova, Earthforce."
The larger man to her right reached up, removing his helmet and giving her a better look at his face. "Lieutenant James Vega, N7, Systems Alliance."
"Don't you mean Earth Alliance?" Ivanova asked.
"Nope." She waited, but he said nothing further, so she turned her attention to the woman standing next to him.
When her helmet came off, it proved that her helmet visor wasn't tinted after all. She really was blue-skinned, and that wasn't a strange hairdo. "Liara T'Soni, information broker."
"I haven't met your species before," Ivanova said. "Have you ever come to Babylon 5?"
"I've never even heard of it, and I know every major space station in the galaxy," Liara said. "Which implies a number of possibilities we can discuss later. The bridge is this way."
The elevator behind them would have fit perfectly in almost any office building on Earth if it only had abysmal music piped through a cheap speakers on the ceiling. A minute later, her escorts stepped out onto the bridge as Ivanova paused, staring at the other alien present on the bridge. "I would definitely remember meeting your species before," she said.
"Garrus Vakarian. It's kind of difficult to make sure we're following the same measurements in morse code. Is this the location of Babylon 5?" He waived a three-fingered hand at the holographic display behind him, and she slowly stepped up next to him. The display quality was amazing, even the now-closed temporal rift illustrated with a faint cloud of charged particles.
"That's Babylon 5. It's just under three light days. Earth days, that is." She reached out one hand, passing it through the light and making the image shimmer.
Garrus nodded. "Traynor, signal the White Star we are leaving for their station. But we expect to see Shepard when we get there, and I don't really care how good they say their doctors are. Joker, soon as they acknowledge, punch it. I want to see who gets there first."
"You got it." Five seconds later, the Normandy leapt into FTL. Only a moment behind them, the White Star opened a jump point and slipped into hyperspace.