A Day Late: Choices
Standard disclaimer applies; not my characters or settings or backgrounds. But they are my words.
"Maybe the greatest challenge now is to find a way to keep independence while also committing ourselves to the ties that bind people, families, and ultimately societies together."
Michael Garibaldi sat in his quarters, his head cradled in his hands. Things had finally seemed to be going his way, and now this. When everyone found out about his new-found friend, he'd end up back in his own cells, and this time they'd throw the key out the nearest airlock. He couldn't blame them either; since it seemed he was carrying around one of their mortal enemies in his head.
A shadow of a Shadow merely, came the dry whisper he'd already come to loathe.
"Shut up!" he shouted to the empty room. He got up and started to pace the room, pausing only to knock over a chair that got in his way. Kicking it across the room gave him some satisfaction, but it didn't last. What was he going to do? He couldn't in good conscience keep this to himself. Who knows how long the thing had been influencing his thoughts, and his behavior?
I have no power over you. I am here because I have no other place to be.
He hated that wistful note. "You can't make me feel sorry for you, you know. You're the one who's out of place. I want you out of my head!" He slammed his head into the wall in sheer frustration.
You will injure yourself, and I will still be here.
"Yeah, well, maybe you're just saying that! How do I know whether you're telling me the truth?" Michael thought longingly of going out and getting blisteringly drunk...but Jenkins or his replacement wouldn't take kindly to that, he imagined. He was trapped in here with this...thing. He was used to feeling trapped, and afraid. The booze helped with that, at least for a while. Slumping back down onto the bed, he laid back against the pile of pillows, feeling the softness of the silk and velvet squares of the quilt cushioning his weary body.
I could tell you why I am here, came the voice, again sounding almost hesitant.
A shy Shadow, Michael thought bitterly, then, well, why not? It wasn't like he was going anywhere. "Go ahead. But don't expect me to believe you."
I expect nothing from you. I am your prisoner.
Michael felt an unexpected stab of sympathy. "I'm listening," he said, settling back against the headboard with his hands behind his head.
Zack stopped by the main offices of Security and made sure there was someone on duty there who could cover for him. He tried manfully not to notice the whispers and smiles that attended his announcement that he was taking off early. A couple of the guards started commenting on the unusual amount of traffic and the number of ships arriving, new and different ones all the time. "Aw, give it a rest," he finally exploded when one of the men casually mentioned that Zack was out of uniform. "I'm just going out for a little bit. A man's entitled to some time off, isn't he?" He stalked out of the room to the general laughter from his men.
Tugging on the jacket he'd pulled over his cleanest civilian shirt, he walked to Red Sector, where Lyta's quarters were located. She was near the diplomatic sector, but not in it, and he wondered briefly if he should have picked up some flowers, or even some takeout. That would be pushing it, he decided. She'd asked him to stop by, not stay over. He felt the heat rise in his face at the thought, and wondered if everyone passing could see the blush spread over his cheeks. Sighing heavily, he wondered if he'd ever get any further with someone like Lyta; smart, beautiful, talented. She always seemed so lonely, though, and she seemed to appreciate his friendship. He supposed it was her psychic powers; he knew it discouraged some people from even making friends with teeps, but he couldn't see that it mattered. They took vows, like priests, and kept them, most of 'em anyway. He knew Lyta did. She was a wonderful woman, he thought, and then he realized suddenly he was there. Swallowing his nervousness, he hit the door chime.
"Come in, Zack," came her voice over the 'com. He wondered briefly how she 'knew' it was him, then shook himself. He'd told her he'd be over as soon as he could; what was he thinking? She wouldn't even casually scan someone without their permission. She was too straight up for that. Entering the room, he saw her standing by the only furniture in the room, a mattress on the floor. He hated that she was still living this way. Crossing to where she stood, her arms wrapped around herself, he cleared his throat and said, "You wanna go out somewhere? Get some dinner? Catch a show at one of the clubs DownBelow?"
Lyta wondered if there was something wrong with her. Zack was still acting like a high schooler on a first date. She'd thought they had progressed beyond that, beyond being just casual friends. When he'd said good-bye to her, when she'd left the station...surely she hadn't imagined the longing in his eyes, the fear in his voice at the possibility he'd never see her again. She'd felt it herself, to her intense surprise. It was easier with fellow telepaths; you could subtly reveal how you felt, mind to mind, and you ended up with a pretty clear idea of each other's feelings. With normals it was all so much harder.
Zack looked at Lyta, really looked at her, beyond her good looks and surface poise. She looked scared, and nervous, as nervous as he felt. Maybe it was time to take a chance, he thought, and he moved closer to her, and put his arms gently around her, "I missed you. When I heard you'd gone back there, back to Vorlon space...I thought I'd never see you again." He ducked his head awkwardly, avoiding her glance, but then met her eyes again, struck by how beautiful they were- pools of blue the color of the sky. Been a while since he'd seen the sky. Clearing his throat, he went on, "And I wanted to see you again. I wanted to tell you..."
"What?" Lyta asked, a little breathless. Whatever she had expected, it wasn't this, not exactly. She was trembling from the force of her emotions; how had she gotten so close to this gangly, gentle, funny man? She'd never had a relationship with a non-telepath before; it a way it was exhilarating, not knowing what he was going to say, what he was thinking. She shifted a little, fitting herself into his loose embrace. Watching as his eyes widened, she tilted her head up to his, and half-closed her eyes, wondering if the signal would be understood. As his arms tightened around her, and his lips finally touched hers, she knew it had been. Clearly, and completely, understood.
Standing outside the Captain's quarters early the next morning, Michael Garibaldi was trying to work up the courage to do what he had to do. He hit the door chime, and when he heard the invitation to enter, he hesitated one last time. This was going to be hard, really hard. Stepping inside, his Security guard behind him, he said, "Captain. I need to speak with you, privately."
Sheridan looked at Michael's grey and weary face, and considered the request. Before he could answer, Michael spoke again.
"Alone, but I want you to make sure you're armed." At Sheridan's look of consternation, he went on, "I'll explain in a minute, but just do as I ask. Please, it's important."
John nodded, and went to a drawer in a chest along the wall. Pulling out a PPG, he inserted the clip and powered it up. "Wait outside," he told the guard, overriding his protests. "Now, what's this about?"
Michael took a deep breath, checked that John was holding the gun ready, and said, "I've got a Shadow in my head."
John stared. "In your head?" Then he muttered, "I'll be damned. So I'm not the only one."
Now it was Michael's turn to stare. "What?" he sputtered. "You've got one too?"
"Well, a Vorlon. Or a piece of one. How did you find out...when did you find out? What's it doing there? Is it controlling you, advising you, or just...there?" The questions came rapid-fire, and the gun was now held steady, and pointed directly at Michael's torso.
"I saw it in a mirror...last night, in my quarters." Michael watched as recognition flooded John's face. "It says it's just observing, not controlling, that it's not able to take over or anything like that. Can't be sure of course. I've done a lot of strange things lately. Then again, I've been known to make my own mistakes. It doesn't have to be as case of 'the alien made me do it' for me to pull something stupid." He swallowed hard, "I can't be sure, and I wanted you to know. I don't think I can be trusted, and I want you to put me back in the brig. Don't tell me anything of your plans, not another word." He looked down at the floor. "I'm sorry, I thought I could help, maybe make up for some things, but it doesn't look like that's in the cards."
John looked thoughtfully at Michael, then lowered his weapon, slightly. "How did this happen? Do you know?"
"It happened while you were gone. I was captured, during the battle; the Shadows took my ship inside one of theirs. Looking for information, I guess. Vash...that's the thing's name apparently, says he was part of some sort of rival group. Anyway, they got into the area where I was being held, and he got into my mind, to do some recon. Know your enemy. Vash says the Vorlons do this all the time, but they've just learned how themselves.
When the main group of the Shadows got wind of the rebel faction, they went after them. It was the rebels who came here, looking for you and Lorien after the attack on Z'ha'dum. They didn't want to try to convince you to go along with them. They just wanted you dead. I think attacking Lorien was the last straw for the old guard. The Shadows caught up with the rebels and killed them; all of them.
Apparently they didn't know about the piece left inside of me. Vash's body is gone, so he has nowhere to go. At least that's what he says. Took me a while to decide I wasn't just going nuts. But there's no way I'd come up with this sort of crazy story myself." Michael looked at John, and said, "Better get that gun back up. I have no idea what this thing is up to, beyond what it told me. It's probably just a ploy to get close to you; then 'boom'."
John said, "Sit down." He pointed to a chair in the living area, and waited until Michael sat down, then walked over towards him.
Michael grimaced, wondering if John was going to solve the problem the quick way. People were suspicious enough of him now that if the Captain said he'd been attacked, few would doubt him. "I wouldn't blame you, you know. And frankly, if we can't get this thing out of me, I think I'd rather be taken out clean."
John sat down on the couch opposite Michael. "It's not so bad. Sometimes you get some good advice. The dreams aren't so great." He continued staring at Michael, as if trying to see inside of him, holding the PPG loosely, but still pointed in the right general direction. "I think we need to get some advice on this, from some experts. Meanwhile, I'll leave you under guard and confined to your quarters. I'll have to continue to restrict computer access, of course." He watched as Michael nodded, his eyes still wary. "It might be a good thing...it's possible..." His voice trailed off. "We'll get it fixed, Michael. Don't worry." He called for the door to open, and instructed the guard to take Michael back to his quarters. After they had left, he said softly to himself, "Set a Shadow to catch a Vorlon. Now there's an idea."
John walked into the meeting with a grim expression and a distracted air. Everyone was there except for Lyta Alexander. Zack sat, loose-limbed in his chair, trying to look alert on too little sleep. Delenn was there, talking quietly with G'Kar, her voice low and calm. Susan was tapping a stylus on a datapad, obviously trying to get some work done while she waited. Marcus sat quietly, hands folded in his lap. It almost looked as if he were meditating. Perhaps he was. Lorien was listening to Delenn and G'Kar, but saying nothing. He always had the air of someone who was observing rather than participating. Lyta entered the War Room, and Zack leapt out of his chair to escort her to the table, pulling a chair out for her, and sitting back down beside her.
John began, "I have a plan to get the Vorlon off the station. I'll need a squad of men under you, Zack, and Susan, I'll need you to set up an electrical cross-fire, somewhere big, where we have room to set up a Security team, and maneuver a little. We need to pin him down, and get him out of that suit. Lorien and I will deal with him after that." He looked at Lyta, "I need you to lure him out of his quarters, and maneuver him into position. Can you do that?"
She looked at him, startled. "I'm not sure. He doesn't exactly follow my direction, Captain."
"I have some...information that you can use. I'm pretty sure he won't be able to resist. You'll have to shield your knowledge of what's coming, as best you can. Once we have him in position, we'll attack with all we've got. It won't be enough, but that's where the next part comes in." He exchanged a quick glance with Lorien. He saw that Delenn was watching carefully but she said nothing. "I'll need this all in place by this afternoon. Lyta, Lorien, stay behind. I need to speak to you, and then there's someone I want you to meet."
Zack looked as if he was about to explode. Military hierarchy kept him silent for about a minute, then he managed to say, "Captain, how dangerous is this going to be? For Lyta, I mean? Should we be involving civilians?"
Lyta started to protest, but her words were overridden by John's. "Ms. Alexander is being asked to volunteer, Mr. Allan. I would say it's up to her. We need her to do this, but no, I don't plan to force her. She knows what's at stake as well as the rest of us."
"I'll do it," said Lyta. "I'll be fine. The Vorlons never discard a useful tool," she added, with a touch of bitterness. Zack looked as if he had been slapped, but stayed silent.
Susan rose from the table. "If that's it, Captain, I need to get back to C&C. I've got work to do. I'll arrange the grid, down in the warehouse area, by noon today. Link in when you're ready to do it." She gave John a stern look, "We'd better start this party soon. The fleet's ready; it's been ready. If you want to hold them together we have to show them some action plans. Sitting around is just making everybody nervous."
"I agree," said G'Kar. "Delenn and I plan to do the rounds this morning, speaking to representatives of all the races in the fleet. We will do our best to reassure them that our plans are progressing."
Zack got up without speaking, merely nodding briefly to the Captain. Lyta put her hand on his arm, and mouthed the words, "Don't worry." Her smile was bright, but taut with a barely hidden fear. Zack's eyes softened as he looked down at her, but he still said nothing.
The group broke up, with Lyta and Lorien still seated; Lyta talking with G'Kar. John took Delenn aside to confer quietly with her, and Marcus waited patiently. He planned to accompany Delenn on her errands, a self-appointed bodyguard. His eyes half-closed, looking to the casual observer as if he was barely paying attention, Marcus watched Susan leave the room. Once she was gone, he walked over to speak with Zack, who was lingering near the door, also watching, seemingly reluctant to leave.
"She'll be fine, you know," he said, jerking his head towards Lyta. He looked towards the door where Susan had exited, then back at Delenn, and then at Lyta. "Scary and strong, those three. I'm just glad they're on our side."
"Lyta shouldn't have to do this; she's no soldier. The Captain shouldn't put her out there on the front lines like that." Zack was quietly fuming. "It's not her fight!"
"Of course it is," Marcus looked at him in surprise. "It's everyone's fight now. Lyta knows that, and so do you when you're thinking clearly. And she has her own abilities to draw on, possibly more than we understand. Still, I know how you feel. If I could knock Susan out, hogtie her, and leave her behind when we finally go into the battle, I would. She'd kill me, of course, assuming I made it back. Love makes cowards of us all, Mr. Allan. Welcome to the club." He looked over at Sheridan pointedly, "And there's the club president."
"No way the Captain's a coward," said Zack quickly.
"He is when it comes to her," said Marcus, looking at Delenn. Then quietly, he added to himself, "I can't quite blame him, but he's wrong not to tell her."
"Tell her what?" asked Zack, and then, at Marcus' look of admonition, he sighed and muttered, "I know, none of my business. I'd better go get that team together, and break out the heavy weapons. Something tells me we're gonna need some major league firepower."
John waited until only Lyta and Lorien were left around the table. He got up, asked them to follow, and then led them to Garibaldi's quarters. The guard indicated that Michael was inside, and all had been quiet since he'd gotten back early that morning from his meeting with Sheridan. John asked the guard for his weapon, and after checking it was armed, used his card to open the door. He went in first, PPG raised, and Lyta, her expression confused and worried, and an impassive Lorien, entered behind him.
Michael was sitting at the dining area table, a glass of water in front of him. He looked up as they entered, and rose to his feet, his hands at his sides, his fists open and slack. "Come to see the show?" he quipped, looking directly at John, who held his weapon casually, but to Michael's eye, in readiness. He saw Lorien advance closely, and look at him up and down, then shake his head. Lyta just looked impatient.
"Why are we here, Captain? Is Mr. Garibaldi part of your plans for this afternoon?" She looked at Michael with suspicion. "Why should we trust him at this point?"
John replied, without taking his eyes off Michael, "I think he has something unique to offer in this situation. I told you that I had some information that might entice the Vorlon to leave his quarters." He paused to indicate that they should all be seated. Lorien sat next to Garibaldi in one of the chair around the table. Lyta took a more comfortable seat on the couch in the living area. "You can tell him that there is a piece of Kosh still here, on the station. That you can lead him to it. I know they wanted everything back, all the clothing, all the personal effects, all the pieces we could find...but we kept one."
Lyta looked at him speculatively. "He was traveling, wasn't he? Not with me this time."
John nodded, "He came to me just before he died. Part of him stayed."
"It might work, " Lyta said thoughtfully. "He's asked me about it before. What do you plan to do once he finds out it's you?"
"We have a plan," said John shortly. He didn't have to look at Lorien for Lyta to understand who he meant.
Lorien had been staring at Michael since he had sat next to him, "Are you coming with us?" he asked. "You and your...friend?"
Michael swallowed convulsively. He hated that unblinking stare. "I don't know. Whatever the Captain needs me to do, I guess."
John said decisively, "I think two lures might be better than one." Looking at Lyta, he asked her. "Do you think the Ambassador would like a chance to confront Kosh's killers? Or one of them at least?"
Lyta stared at him in shock, then looked over at Garibaldi, almost unconsciously backing away from him, shrinking back against the couch cushions. "He might. But they're not much for direct confrontation."
Lorien asked John, "Shouldn't we ask it if it wants to help us?"
John looked uncertainly at Michael, "I suppose. But how do we do that, exactly?"
Lorien also looked at Michael. "I can bring him forward, and let him speak. With your permission, of course. There is rather more of him left in you, than of the Vorlon inside the Captain. Still he is weaker. I do not believe the Shadows, as you call them, are adept at this type of 'travel'."
"He said they were new at it," answered Michael. "His name is Vash, by the way. And I think you should talk to him. Still, this is my body, and it's my decision where it goes. If I can help, then we're going with the Captain...to do...whatever it is we're going to do." He looked at John, and said, "You really shouldn't tell me any more about this. Just point me where you need me, and I'll be there."
John nodded. "I appreciate that, Michael, and I think it'll help or I wouldn't ask." He looked at his friend, reassuring him, reclaiming him, "I trust you." He said with a slight smile, "I think any stupid mistakes you made were your own."
Michael swallowed hard, and said, "Gee, thanks." Then he turned to Lorien, "Go ahead. Ask him. Ask Vash what he wants."
Lorien nodded, and focused his suddenly bright and penetrating gaze on Michael, who stared back, his blue eyes fixed and unblinking. His mouth opened, his lips didn't move, and yet words emerged from his throat. The voice wasn't his, it was barely a whisper, with an odd metallic twang underlying the dry tones.
I want nothing. Perhaps to go on living. That is all, but I know that it is a great deal to ask.
John held the PPG steadily aimed at Michael, his face grim. "We want you to act as bait, Vash. It's not you we're after, it's the Vorlon ambassador. You just have to let Michael stand there and wait. On my signal, he'll dive for cover. It'll be over soon after that."
Vash laughed, a hoarse dusty sound. Soon? I am afraid you are over-confident, Captain. Michael turned to face Lorien. We looked for you when you left us. Swiveling his head back to John, Michael's blank expression didn't reflect the curiosity and disbelief behind the words that seemed to come from somewhere deep inside him. He came with you willingly, after you had killed so many of us. He left us to go with you.
John could hear the rage behind the voice, and he said calmly, "Yes, he did. He wants to stop all this, and so do I. And you can help, or you can stand aside. It really doesn't matter to me."
Vash laughed. The sound was disjointed and disconcerting, coming as it did from a slack-jawed and blank-eyed Garibaldi. You are bold. You know what you want; that is good. I will not interfere.
Early that morning, Lennier had received a message from Minbar that a new leader of the Rangers would arrive that day at Babylon 5. Shocked at first, he was not surprised once he stopped to consider it. He called ahead to see if Delenn was available to speak with him, and found that she had returned from a round of morning meetings she and G'Kar had held with the fleet captains and ambassadors. She and Sheridan were both in her quarters at the moment, which was fortuitous timing.
He approached Delenn's quarters with some hesitation, anticipating her, and the Captain's, reaction. Marcus was at the door, apparently just leaving. Lennier touched his sleeve, and said, "I think you should stay a moment, Marcus. This concerns you as well."
Marcus shrugged and replied, "All right, Lennier. Let's go in and hear what you have to say." He remained concerned about Lennier's reaction to Sheridan and Delenn's relationship. There was definitely potential trouble there. He watched as Delenn happily welcomed Lennier, who couldn't conceal his discomfort. Uh-oh Marcus thought to himself. He leaned against the wall, nervously extending and retracting his denn'bok, and awaited whatever bad news Lennier was about to break to them.
"Neroon!" exclaimed Marcus and Sheridan together. Delenn looked a little unhappy, but also thoughtful.
Lennier nodded, and said, "Yes, apparently they feel the Rangers would be better with a warrior leading them in the war effort, and Neroon was chosen…"
Sheridan looked as if he was about to explode, "Do they really think I'd let a warrior caste Minbari onto Babylon 5 right now? And Neroon! He tried to kill Delenn before..hell, Marcus, he almost did kill you!"
Marcus was watching Delenn's reaction carefully, then he looked at Sheridan and replied, "We did come to a meeting of the minds, you know. One warrior to another, as it were. He's not such a bad fellow, really."
Delenn broke in, "I will speak with Neroon about this, John. I think we may be able to turn this to our advantage."
"I don't want you alone with that maniac, Delenn! What if he's been sent to finish the job this time! And leading the Rangers! Who do they think they are?" continued Sheridan in a rage stalking around the room.
"Marcus will be with me at the meeting. And Lennier, if he will. I will be well protected." Delenn said calmly. "This is an internal Minbari affair, love. You must leave it to me."
"I thought we had joint command of the Rangers, Delenn," Sheridan said with a hint of danger in his voice, "Or was that just for show?"
Delenn laughed quietly, "Not just for show. My command of military tactics is limited, although you are an excellent teacher. But I am Entil'zha, and the Rangers are my special responsibility. I must deal with this myself."
Neroon stepped onto Babylon 5 with some trepidation, although it was completely concealed. He didn't know what kind of reception he would get; from the station's command staff, the Minbari living there, or the Rangers themselves. He didn't even know if the Rangers had been informed that he was taking command from Delenn. What he didn't expect to see was Lennier, flanked by a squad of Rangers, awaiting him in the reception area.
"Follow me, Shai Alyt, " said Lennier with a bow. Neroon fell into step with him, and the Rangers took up positions in front and behind the two of them.
"And where are we going, Lennier?" asked Neroon.
"Entil'zha Delenn wishes to see you. To discuss your new assignment. Among other things," replied Lennier.
"The outcast Delenn should no longer be considered Entil'zha, " began Neroon. Instantly two denn'boks were at his throat. Lennier gestured to the two Rangers, who withdrew their weapons, but remained close on either side of Neroon.
"Entil'zha Delenn will speak to you of this as well," said Lennier calmly, as he continued to lead Neroon to Delenn's quarters.
When they reached the door, the Rangers pivoted and stood at attention. Two stayed on either side of the closed doorway, and the others bowed to Neroon and Lennier, then marched off. Lennier hit the com link and the door opened. Delenn sat on a couch facing the doorway. She was in Valen's robe, upright and regal, with her hands clasped in her lap. Marcus stood to her right, denn'bok in hand. Lennier took his place at her left.
Delenn inclined her head, and spoke, "Sit down, Neroon. We have much to discuss."
Neroon sat in the chair facing Delenn, and spoke "You know why I have come?"
Delenn answered deliberately, "I know what they have told Lennier. Will you tell me now?"
Neroon smiled, and said, "I am come to see whether this situation can be salvaged, Delenn ra'Ell. And what purpose I can fulfill, and what position you should hold."
Delenn smiled back, and looked up at Marcus and Lennier, "You may leave us now. Wait outside until I call."
Lennier remonstrated, "Delenn, Captain Sheridan charged us with your safety. I think he meant us to guard your person, not your door."
Delenn looked at Neroon, and asked "Can I have your word that I will be safe with you, Neroon?"
Neroon nodded, looking first Lennier, then Marcus, in the eyes, "You have my word as a warrior and a Star Rider."
Marcus bowed to Delenn, and said, "We will wait, Entil'zha," and left the room. Lennier hesitated, then bowed and left as well.
"Does this mean you trust me, Delenn?" asked Neroon.
"After a fashion," replied Delenn enigmatically, but she smiled as she said it. "I have a proposal for you, Neroon. I hope you can find it in your heart to accept it. We are approaching a crisis in the war against our Enemy, and we need to be united against them if we are to survive, and to win. My situation threatens our unified front; even the Rangers are falling prey to division and doubt. Your taking command would only accelerate the process, splitting our forces when we need to act as one."
"What do you suggest, Delenn? I have been sent to take command of the Rangers from you. I cannot go against the dictates of my clan and the Council." replied Neroon.
"Command them as Anla'Shok Na, Neroon. The position is that of first among equals. You are that and more. However, you will have to accept Captain Sheridan's and my joint authority. We have laid out a strategy to engage and defeat our enemies, but we need seasoned warriors to lead, and help in the implementation. I will remain as Entil'zha; that position is an honor bestowed from within the Anla'Shok. If you try to change this, I do not believe the Rangers will accept you." said Delenn.
Neroon sat back in the chair. "It could work, I suppose, if the Rangers will work with me. And if I can work with Sheridan. That last is a rather large 'if', Delenn. When it gets back to Minbar that I have been taking orders from Starkiller, it will not go down well."
Delenn nodded, her expression serious, her tone urgent, "I will send Marcus in to talk with you of the Rangers' feelings in this matter. Then I will send Captain Sheridan. Talk with him, Neroon. Work with us, rather than against us. If we do not find a way to work together, we shall surely fail in this war, and Minbar will suffer with all the other worlds that fall into Shadow." Delenn rose and opened the door, "Marcus, please answer Neroon's questions, openly and freely, to the best of your ability. Then let Lennier speak to him of the local Minbari and their opinions. I will back with an hour with Captain Sheridan."
Marcus entered the room, and as the door closed behind him, Lennier spoke, "Do you think he will agree, Delenn?"
"I think so. Neroon has always put the best interests of Minbar foremost. I think he will see he can obey the dictates of his clan, and follow his heart, without contradiction or conflict." Delenn bowed slightly, then left in search of Sheridan, to update him on what had happened, and what would be expected of him.
When Delenn returned to her quarters later, she entered to see John and Neroon bent over a list of available ships of the line, pointing and arguing vociferously. A holographic star map hung over a low table. Papers were scattered on the table, the couch, and even the floor.
"You simply do not have enough forces to attack the Enemy, Sheridan! Face facts, man, you are out gunned! You don't even have an idea where they will strike next. It's hopeless!" shouted Neroon.
"We will find a way to engage them! And we are adding ships all the time! It's not like Delenn doesn't spend all her time and more cajoling them into adding to our forces. We've sent out missions to seek out any remaining First Ones as are willing to help. And there's Draal and the power of the Great Machine on Epsilon 3…I mean, what do you want from us!" John spoke forcefully, raking his hand through his hair, leaving it standing straight up.
Delenn smiled, "I see you two are getting along splendidly." Both men looked up, startled at her approach. "How can you expect to hear someone entering the room when you won't stop shouting at each other?" she laughed at the expression on their faces. "I certainly hope we will have better look-outs when engaged in battle!"
The com sounded with a familiar phrase, "Captain, Ivanova here."
John looked up at the screen, and said, "What is it, Commander?"
"Everything's in place for the operation we discussed this morning." She pointedly avoided details, with Neroon standing in the background. "We're waiting on you now."
John looked at Delenn and Neroon, and said, "There's something I have to do at this moment. If you'll excuse me." His glance lingered on Delenn, and she nodded to him. He said, "I'll be back soon. Stay here; Neroon can fill you in on what we've been discussing. Maybe you can convince him we've got a chance."
The door had barely closed, when Delenn walked towards it. Neroon watched her impassively, then said, "Would you like company, Entil'zha?"
Looking back at him, considering the offer, she said, "You haven't been offered a tour of the station yet, have you, Shai Alyt? It is remiss of me. Would you care to come with me now?"
He cocked his head, "Are you sure this is a good idea? I am not sure how much he, or anyone, trusts me as of yet."
"Is your concern that I am going, or that I ask you to accompany me?" She challenged him, tilting her chin in defiance. "Are you questioning my judgment, Anla'Shok Na?"
"Either. Both. Perhaps neither. And my concerns are legion." replied Neroon, walking to her side. "While I do not promise to never question you, it was not my intention this time." He gestured towards the door, "Lead, and I will follow."
Delenn walked out the door, with Neroon close behind her.
The players were all assembled and in their places, when Lyta entered from one end of the central passage through the storage area, with the Vorlon gliding behind her. Zack's men were in place, hidden on catwalks above the largely empty space, and behind pillars at floor level. Zack bit his lip hard when he saw Lyta; she looked like it had been a rough sell, getting the Vorlon out of his lair. They should have sent him in; he'd have gotten the alien out of there, even if he had to throw things from the corridor and call him names. He hoisted the rifle in his hands, wishing they were less sweaty. The last thing he wanted to do was miss his aim, especially with Lyta in the line of fire.
"Your mind is closed. What are you hiding?" The Vorlon's voice rang like a tolling bell through the open space. The iris in his helmet opened, and started to glow, first red, then white, like a fire reaching blast temperatures. Lyta had turned and was facing him, transfixed by what she thought might be her last view, but before Ulkesh could do anything, Garibaldi stepped out of the shadows at the far end of the corridor.
"Hey!" he yelled, "Over here! Come see what I've got for you!" Then as Ulkesh turned his attention to Michael, Zack raced out and grabbed Lyta by the arm.
"Get the hell out of there!" he shouted, as he half-pulled, half-threw her behind a pile of crates. Ulkesh fired at them as they ran, and Zack scrambled back up, raising his rifle to his eyes. He was so ready to take out this guy.
John, meanwhile, coldly and calmly gave the command to both the guards in the room and Ivanova in C&C to attack at will. The idea was to pin the Vorlon down, destroy his encounter suit, and then unleash their ultimate weapon. Lorien was in place, hidden on the other side of the room, and would emerge when John went out to confront the Vorlon. Michael was still standing in the center of the room, unprotected, but dove for the floor when the shooting started. Caught by a stray blast from one of his own men, he fell to the floor, then began to slowly pull himself towards cover, dragging his injured leg behind him.
Delenn and Neroon had come up behind Lorien, who was watching the whole scene with some concern. "Too many," was the First One's only comment.
Neroon stared at him, then at Delenn. "What is he?" he whispered to her, pointing to Lorien.
She shook her head, then drew in a breath as she saw Michael fall, and then start crawling towards them. Delenn started out into the field of fire to help him, and stood for a moment transfixed, as Ulkesh turned his sights on her. There was a loud whirring noise, like the engine of a small flyer starting up. There was weapons fire all around them, but nothing reached through Ulkesh's force field. The Vorlon was starting to shake as if he was coming apart, but it didn't stop his aiming his power directly at her. She stood erect, facing him, defiant if terrified.
John was still shouting into his link, ordering the guards to ramp up their fire, when he saw her standing there, like an angel of the battlefield. He yelled at her to get down, and started across the room to where she stood. Ulkesh took his chance, and directed the full force of his blast at John, who was caught in the light like an insect at a street lamp. At the same moment the Vorlon's encounter suit finally gave way to the combination of withering PPG fire and the force of the electrical net set up by Ivanova. As the Vorlon rose up in a fiery column of light, John writhed in the force of the continued assault. He turned his head towards Delenn, gesturing her to get to safety.
Neroon reached out and yanked her backwards, placing his body between her and the Vorlon, while keeping a tight hold on her. Lorien rushed up to the two of them, and then gestured towards John, who turned back toward Ulkesh, and arched his back in agony as light shot out of him.
"Kosh," said Delenn, her voice wavering between awe and fear.
"Yes, and a bit of him, and a bit of me," answered Lorien, who was focused on the effort to allow Kosh to exit John without harming the human. The two Vorlons' energies twined together and rose up, the two of them obviously vying for supremacy, while John slumped to the floor.
Delenn struggled in Neroon's grasp, then snapped his hold and rushed towards John. She watched as the Vorlons left the station, straight through the walls. She felt the tremors as the Vorlon ship tried to join its masters, and heard the far-off explosion as the end came. Looking down at the man in her arms, she realized in horror that he was not breathing. Her mouth worked but nothing emerged; not a scream, not a whimper, not a sound beyond the hollow echo of his name, which pealed in her heart as she struggled with the concept that she might have lost him again.
Lorien knelt beside her and laid his hand on John, who stirred and coughed. She clutched him tightly, smoothing his hair, feeling his warm breath on her hand, dizzy with relief. She barely heard Lorien's words, but could not block out their implication. "How long?," she asked, looking at the alien as her throat tightened on the words.
Lorien didn't answer at first, simply looking at her with a mix of compassion and intense interest, as if she was a model on exhibit, demonstrating feelings he had long forgotten existed. Then he said, "Long enough."
The medical teams had taken everyone away; Michael for treatment, Lyta for observation. Zack had a slight shoulder wound, and refused to go until Lyta laid her hand on his arm, and asked him to accompany her. Then he reluctantly, and shamefacedly, walked alongside her to MedLab. There were three dead guards, and seven wounded, some severely. Ivanova linked in to Sheridan, reporting on the damage to the docking bay where the Vorlon ship had rocked and twisted in its attempt to leave the station before she had released it. She had sent Marcus to escort Neroon to his assigned quarters. Lorien had wandered off; he said he needed to let Velana know what had happened; that she would have felt the conflict from his ship.
John still sat on the floor, having refused medical attention. He couldn't meet Delenn's eyes, full of questions and apprehension of new pain, but he couldn't let go of her hand either. Finally, with her assistance, he rose to his feet, and said, "Come with me. We need to talk."
Marcus had escorted Neroon to his quarters, but the Minbari hadn't stayed there. Once the Ranger had left to attend to other duties, he slipped out of his room, fingering the identicard he had been handed. He wanted to get the feel of this place and the people that he would be expected to work with; both Minbari and human. For the first time in his life, he felt slightly uncertain of his capabilities. The Rangers were warriors, and yet not his caste, at least not many of them were. There were similarities, of course, in their outlook towards battle, and their allegiance to their cause and their leaders. The differences, though, those were also present, and he would have to learn more in order to lead them effectively. He had little time, but as he walked the corridors of the station, his confidence returned.
Reaching the main thoroughfare of commerce know as the Zocalo, he faded in to the shadows of a space between two storefronts to observe. There were large numbers of beings milling about, though he suspected that there was less of a crowd than usual. Everyone here had to know that battle was imminent, and the engagement of the enemy by the Alliance fleet would leave this station largely unprotected, and a tempting target for any enemy. Except perhaps for this one, it occurred to him. The ancient enemy, and their allies turned enemy, the Vorlons, were not like most antagonists. There was something going on underneath the attacks and destruction; some underlying principle that was not obvious, and not being addressed that he had seen. He knew Delenn ra'Mir, or ra'Ell he should get used to saying, and hers was a subtle and quick mind. The human captain was her superior in tactics and warcraft, but only slightly. The two of them together were formidable, and it was only to be expected that they would not fill him in on all the strategic planning yet. It would be good to know their plans, and he awaited that conversation with anticipation.
"Anla'Shok Na," came a quiet voice in greeting behind him. He turned to see Lennier, Delenn's aide, standing in front of a shop window. "Lennier," he returned, bowing his head slightly in the fashion of one greeting a comrade of slightly lower status.
"May I be of service to you?" asked Lennier. "Were you looking for anything in particular?"
Neroon shook his head at first, then said after thinking it over briefly, "I am uncertain how long we will be lingering here on this station. They have assigned me quarters, but there are no supplies. Is there a place where I can purchase food and drink that would not poison me?" He spoke in a dry sarcastic tone; as he knew full well the few actually dangerous substances, and could avoid them with ease. It seemed to him that Lennier wanted company or someone to talk to, and he found that he was not averse to the idea. The crowds of aliens moving through the marketplace were making him slightly uncomfortable.
"Of course," replied Lennier. "Follow me. If it is not too much trouble, I would appreciate some of your time. And perhaps your advice."
Delenn and John entered his quarters in silence, John leading the way. He called out for 'lights, low' not sure he wanted to clearly see her face as they talked. He'd thought about asking Lorien along, to explain the situation, perhaps lend authority to what he knew would be a devastating revelation. But this was personal, and between the two of them. He needed her to know about the restrictions on his life span, what had really happened to him on Z'ha'dum; and it needed to be him that told her.
If the situation were reversed, if he was getting the news about her...well, he'd had some inkling over the last year or so of what his reaction might be. The day she'd come to his quarters and asked permission to attend the Markabs in what had become their tomb; he'd had to simply let her go. The relief that had washed over him when he'd seen her alive, among the piled up corpses of the unfortunate aliens, had been an object lesson in how important she'd become to him.
Not long afterwards, he'd raced down to Grey Sector, heart in his mouth, heart pounding, with Lennier's panicky words of warning echoing through his mind. Finding her limp on the floor with that bastard Sebastian leaning over her angered him and aroused all his protective instincts. At least this time he could act. Not that it had helped much, and he'd had to watch, helpless in his bonds, as she willingly bargained her life away in exchange for his.
She did much the same thing again, after the assault on her kidnappers, taking the knife meant for him after trying frantically to warn him. He could still feel the shock of her collapsing in his arms, her blood soaking through the fabric of her dress to quietly drip onto the station floor. Then his reaction had been sheer cathartic rage; there was someone responsible, someone who could pay for hurting her. He could do something. The rage had carried him through the waiting period while she was being examined and treated. He didn't want to stop and think about what it would mean if she didn't pull through.
Then, in a darkened cell on Centauri Prime, he'd seen her in danger again, and again seemingly prepared for death. They questioned her, tortured her perhaps, and his muscles still clenched and his stomach roiled at the thought of it. His wife, his son; and he still didn't know how that was going to turn out, and whether he could prevent it. He didn't know whether he'd already lost the son they'd had in that glimpse of a possible future.
And most recently, she'd turned the White Star into a shield, protecting the ship he was on from a Shadow assault. Watching helplessly adrift in a disabled ship as she put her life on the line, for him and for others... Awhile ago he had realized something. He had been able to deal with this, because it was part of who she was. It was part of who he was too. She'd watched him walk away into danger before, and undoubtedly would again. Her strength had maintained her so far, as it had him. She'd given him the strength to hold on to life, to return from Z'ha'dum and take up the mantle of leader that she had prepared for him. Had she known what it would cost? He wasn't sure. Maybe she had suspected at the beginning, but now, after all they had been through...it would be hard.
Delenn stood in the center of the dim living room, trying not to think of what she was about to hear. Lorien's words had struck a chill in her heart that wouldn't leave her. She knew; she'd known, since John returned that there was something he wasn't telling her. It wasn't like she didn't have her own secrets, but this one lingered in his eyes when he looked at her, some sadness that he couldn't put behind him. Standing straight and tensed against what was to come, she asked, "Can we have some more light, John?" Moving towards him, she stopped herself before she walked into his arms, and bracing herself, said simply and directly, "I am ready."
He took a moment to adjust the lighting, then started in with minimal preamble. "I should have told you this before. I thought at one point I wouldn't have to; that events might make it unnecessary." He looked away from her briefly, down at the floor, then raised his eyes to meet hers again. "I told you I died at Z'ha'dum, Delenn. Not in a metaphorical or spiritual sense, but literally. And that Lorien brought me back, somehow, but I didn't tell you that he couldn't fix everything back the way it was."
She hadn't breathed since he started to speak; it seemed like forever since she'd drawn a breath. "How long?" she finally managed to say, echoing her original query of Lorien. Her voice sounded cracked and harsh in her ears. He'd taken her hands between his own, and she clutched them hard, as if she could physically hold him in place. "How long do we...do you have? Is he certain? What does it mean? You are here...you seem fine," she added almost plaintively.
"Lorien says twenty years more or less." He winced as horror and pain flooded her face. She was crushing his fingers, but he didn't want to let go. He never wanted to let her go. "Barring accident or injury. It's a good run, Delenn. I'll be in my early sixties by then..." his voice tapered off as she dropped his hands abruptly and retreated a step away from him, wrapping her arms around herself. He couldn't believe how abandoned he felt at the gesture. Patiently he waited, uncertain what to do next, but willing to follow her lead, and to give her what time she needed.
Thoughts tumbled through her head, one after the other, visions of Kosh and Ulkesh; their words and cryptic advice during the war, and afterwards, on the station.'If you go to Z'ha'dum, you will die.' Her study of prophecy, her discoveries and suspicions and fears; all these had driven and shaped her life and actions. Even after he had come to mean so much to her. "No one returns from Z'ha'dum," she finally whispered. "I suppose they meant no one returns unchanged. Or undamaged," her voice rose on his thought. "You told me your people live to one hundred years, or even more. I...can't..." her voice choked off. She left unspoken the rest. I lost our son. I can't stand to lose anyone else. I can't stand to lose you, not again. She didn't want to follow that thought to its conclusion.
"There's something else." He decided abruptly that the time for secrets was past. Her eyes widened, and he smiled briefly, "Not bad. At least, I don't think so." He gestured towards the couch, "Let's sit down. I don't know about you, but I've just been resuscitated by a First One. Leaves the knees a little weak." He thought he spotted a shadow of a smile on her face, as she gracefully took a seat. He noted, thankfully, that she sat close by him. That seemed a good sign. Clearing his throat, he began again. "I never told you about that time on Babylon 4, when I got unstuck."
She looked confused for a minute, then said, "When you were adrift in time, you mean?"
"That's right." He gingerly reached over and reclaimed her hand, which was lying loosely in her lap. "I went forward in time, about 16 or 17 years. I was on Centauri Prime, and Londo was Emperor. The planet was a wreck; the city in flames." His voice was briefly haunted by the vision of devastation he still vividly remembered.
She looked at him expectantly, lips parted, like a child waiting for the next part of the story.
"You were there," his voice warmed at the memory. "You...we...were obviously together. As a couple. You told me you loved me..." He watched her flush, and squeezed her hand tightly. "You told me about the war, that we had won, but that it wasn't over. You told me our son was safe." He watched the words sink in, and her eyes flare with momentary pain, rapidly overlaid by a dawning hope. "I don't know if that was the future, or only a possible future, but your words then, and again before I left for Z'ha'dum, they're what brought me back."
She considered what he had said. "It was a possible future only. It may have been changed by events since your return; by choices we have made, by other experiences." Picking her way through her jumbled thoughts, she went on, "The son I referred to then might be the one whose soul I just released."
"Or it might be another child; one not yet conceived." He leaned forward, trying to make her understand, "It doesn't matter, don't you see?"
"Not matter?" she sounded slightly shocked, and more than a little disturbed.
"I didn't mean it that way!" he said urgently, trying to find the words to make her understand. "A child of yours, of ours, would be great, but what I realized, just recently, after the miscarriage," he broke off awkwardly, then drew a deep breath and went on, "What I realized is that what I really want is you. A child would make a wonderful addition to our life, but what I want is to spend that life, what I have left, with you. I want to marry you." His voice trailed off, sounding almost embarrassed. "That's not the way I meant to ask you," he said, a little sheepishly. "I don't even have a ring picked out."
She stared at him for a moment, buffeted by conflicting emotions. Bewildered, she tried to settle her mind, to decide how she felt, confronted as she was with this mix of pain and pleasure, sorrow and hope. A choice lay before her, to grasp what happiness she could for what time they were given, or to withdraw from him, trying to avoid future pain by causing it now. It didn't take a heartbeat for her to realize that there was no choice to be made. The heart does what it does, and her heart was his; for now, for twenty years, for ever and for always.
"How did you mean to ask? What is the proper ritual?" She looked at him with eyes deep and dark behind her serious expression.
He smiled crookedly, and explained. "This is the way it goes among my people. I say, 'Delenn, will you marry me?' And you say 'Yes', or 'No'." He waited a beat, then his smile slipped, "You're not going to say 'No', are you?"
In answer, she leaned forward and fiercely, passionately kissed him. It was an answer enough, but he wanted to hear the words. After a few seconds, he pulled away, just far enough to allow her the space to reply. Her mouth was still brushing his, her breath warm and sweet and rapid against his lips. "Tell me your answer, Delenn," he said hoarsely, his heartbeat sounding so loudly in his ears, he wasn't sure he'd be able to hear her.
She pulled him back into her embrace, pausing just long enough to whisper, "The answer, John, is 'Yes'."
In MedLab, all was chaos. Michael's wounds were painful, but not serious, and he watched grimly as Stephen Franklin worked on those more gravely injured. He knew each and every one of them. Hauling himself off of the bed, he limped slowly out into the anteroom at the front of the facility. Lyta was still there, but Zack had left to check on securing the Vorlon Ambassador's quarters. They planned to seal it off for now, and clear it out later, once things calmed down. Michael thought morbidly that wasn't likely to be anytime soon.
Michael sat down heavily beside Lyta, who was patiently awaiting her discharge chit from the technician. She'd checked out fine, and was ready to get away from all the pain and dissonance that was emanating from the wounded. Normally it would be an easy block, but she was tired, and trying to block Ulkesh had drained her.
"Lyta, can I ask you something?" said Michael hesitantly.
"Of course," she said politely. Sometimes she wondered why she was always so polite to these people. She suspected they never really accepted her as part of the team. Except for Zack, of course, and maybe Marcus, she considered upon reflection. Oh, and Delenn...now that she thought about it, that constituted a sizable percentage. Maybe she was being too sensitive. "What can I do for you?" she added a bit more warmly.
"Do you know of any way to get him out of my head? Vash, I mean? Or am I stuck with him?" Michael tried to keep the desperation out of his voice. If he didn't find a way, he couldn't see a clear future for himself; not in EarthForce, assuming they ever got the rebellion cleared away, or on the station, certainly not in Security, which was what he was trained for, and what he knew and was good at. He wanted to get back to work, and back to his life.
Lyta looked at him with a certain amount of sympathy. She was familiar with feeling set apart, and not completely trusted. "I don't know. Lorien might, though. I'd ask him if I were you." She added, "I'll ask him for you if you like."
"That'd be great." Michael said with relief. Then he confided, To be honest, he sort of creeps me out."
Lyta just smiled. She was familiar with that feeling too.
Susan was finally off duty. Leaving C&C wanting nothing more than a shower and the quiet comfort of her quarters, she left a message for Marcus to give her a couple of hours. She couldn't figure herself out; part of her wanted to see him, almost ached to feel his embrace, but another part of her just wanted to be left alone. It had been another stressful day, and what she really wanted was a stiff drink and some serious down time. Maybe she'd lived on her own for too long, or maybe she wasn't suited to this couple-thing. She knew Marcus would give her whatever space she asked for, but she couldn't help knowing that he was there, in the background, wanting more. Perhaps he wanted more than she could give.
Hearing the door of her quarters close with that lovely snick that meant she was sealed away from the outside world, she heaved a sigh of relief, and tugged off her jacket. The Minbari-provided uniforms were a lovely fabric, lightweight but warm in the chilly confines of C&C, but 14 hours in any piece of clothing was quite long enough. She looked at her link with loathing for a moment, briefly considering taking it off and burying it deep in a drawer. She couldn't do it; devotion to duty was woven into the fabric of her soul. Settling for opening the top two buttons of her uniform shirt and pulling it free of her trousers, she went to the bar and reached for the bottle of vodka she kept there. She almost let the liquid overflow the glass when a loud voice boomed directly behind her, "Commander Ivanova!"
"Draal," she said with resignation, turning to face the familiar golden glow of the keeper of the Great Machine. "What can I do for you?"
"There seem to be a great number of ships in the Epsilon system. It is interfering with my work. Can you ask the Captain to remove some of them?" Noticing her informality of dress, Draal beamed at her. "You are off duty! Good, you work too hard."
"I'll speak to the Captain, but frankly, the fleet should be heading out with the next couple of days. It's time we did something, anything, to take this war to our enemies." Susan took a swallow of her drink, wincing a bit as the raw alcohol hit the back of her throat. It had been awhile since she'd had time to relax and unwind. She set down her glass, and stretched her arms behind her back, enjoying the crackle of the joints as they pulled apart and then fell back into place. Draal watched her with interest.
"Intriguing ritual! What connection is there between the liquid you ingested, and the violence you are doing to the connective tissue in your shoulder joints?" Without waiting for an answer, he turned and pointed towards the comscreen, which obediently lit up, awaiting further commands. "I wanted to show you something."
Susan came over towards him, and focused on the screen. "What is that? It looks like the tactical display of the station's perimeter defenses." She looked at Draal who was smiling broadly. "How did you get into those files?" she asked suspiciously. "I thought I told you to ask before accessing the station computers! When the Captain finds out what we've been doing..."
"I have told Delenn, and I am sure she has passed the information along. Besides, this is what you wanted, is it not? I will put the power of the Great Machine behind the defense of the station when the fleet is gone. I just sped up the process a little, streamlined it. Isn't that the correct expression? You were busy." Draal sounded slightly defensive and decidedly annoyed.
"No, no," said Susan soothingly. "You're right, this is just what we discussed. I'm just surprised how far you've gotten." She added, reflecting, "And a good thing too. I imagine we'll be off soon, and this had better be in place before we go."
Just then the door chime sounded. Deep in her study of the screen, she said absentmindedly, "Open."
Marcus had taken a chance and ordered takeout from a little place he knew in the better part of Brown Sector. He wasn't even sure Susan liked Chinese food, but he'd gotten a large variety of items; surely there was something she would want to eat. He entered quietly and set the food down on the counter that split the kitchen area from the rest of her quarters. He could hear her talking over towards the comscreen and assumed she was working. When he looked over, he was stunned by what he saw.
A glowing hologram of a stout elderly Minbari male was standing next to Susan in front of the screen. He recognized Draal. What astonished him was Susan was glowing too...at least her right arm, which as he watched she put into the comscreen, somehow. Her fingers moved data around like a stylus, flicking through screen views like they were the pages of a book. Draal was alternating between examining the screen closely, and watching Susan with a strong glint of pride in his expression.
"If you expand the forcefield to cover this area, the jump gate should be adequately protected. I've been concerned they'll try to blow it, and isolate the station that way. It would certainly be effective." Susan pulled her hand out of the computer, and it retained its spectral yellow glow briefly, then extinguished.
Draal commented, "You are getting better at that, Commander. I am still unsure how you are accessing the Great Machine remotely, without your corporeal body being wired into the cradle. It shouldn't be possible..." he broke off, and turned to look at Marcus. "I should be going, Commander. I wish you every success in your mission, and will speak to you on your return." He bowed his head to her, and then at a lesser angle, towards Marcus. "Ranger," he said in farewell, and he winked out of view.
Marcus was still standing with his mouth slightly open. Susan looked at him wearily. "I suppose you saw that." He nodded, still not speaking. "And I suppose you'd like an explanation."
He raised one eyebrow and said, "What do you think?"
She crossed the room, and started looking into the various boxes and bags on the counter, trying to stall off the discussion. "This looks good. Can it wait until after we eat?"
Marcus walked over to her, and put his hand over hers. "I'm afraid not. What the hell was that? Was Draal doing it? It didn't sound like he understood what you were doing either!"
"I was helping Draal set the Great Machine's force field to cover the periphery of the jump gate. It should keep protect the machinery if there's an attempt by any of our enemies to detonate a charge inside it and blow up the gate." She looked a bit uncomfortable at his worried expression, and then sighed. "Okay, let's sit down. I have something I've been meaning to tell you. Now's as good a time as any." She picked up her drink, gesturing towards the bottle and glasses in offering. He shook his head, and walked over to the couch. She sat next to him, and tried to gather her thoughts. This wasn't going to be easy. Probably best to just get it over with.
"You know I've been wired into the Great Machine a few times now," she began. It was always good to begin with a neutral recitation of history, she thought. "I've used the holographic system a couple of times now, too."
Marcus nodded, wondering when she was going to get to the point, assuming there was one.
"When I was Epsilon Three this last time, I found that sometimes I could access the Machine without being hooked into it. Draal was shocked the first time I did it; even Zathras was surprised, though not shocked I think. I got the impression he had known it was possible. Perhaps it's even happened before, I don't know for sure."
"But what does it mean? Is it dangerous?" asked Marcus. "Can you control it, or is the Machine doing this itself?"
"I'm controlling it, and that's sort of the point." She took a deep breath. She didn't want to hurt him, and she wasn't sure she wanted to lose...whatever it was they had, but he needed to know. "Draal thinks I'm destined to be the next keeper of the Machine." She didn't even look at him, not wanting to see if he was shocked or upset or furious. "I think he may be right."
Marcus sat in silence for a moment, trying to absorb what she was telling him. "Why would you want to do something like that? Did Draal talk you into it?" He stood and began to pace back and forth, in front of the couch. "Are you running away from something?" He stopped and looked at her, "Are you running away from me?" His voice had grown hard, and a little angry. "You can't avoid pain, you can't avoid life, by running away from it! Destiny's what you make it, Susan."
"I'm not sure what I want!" Susan exploded briefly. "And who are you to talk about avoiding life? Why did you join the Rangers, after all? Altruism? Belief in the cause? Or was it in absolution?" She paused to take a drink, barely stopping herself from slamming the glass back down. "Sit down, and let me try to tell you what it's like," she said tensely. She leaned forward, and began speaking slowly, trying to explain. "Being in the Machine is like nothing I've ever experienced before. You can go anywhere, see everything, the past, sometimes the future, or at least possible futures. It's wonderful and scary and terrible and awe-inspiring-all at once. I'm getting better and better at using it; Zathras says he's never seen anything like it. I'm good at it, and it's important, vital, that the Machine be accessible. Look what Draal has done already, putting its power to use sending Babylon 4 back in time, protecting the station now!" Her eyes were glowing with enthusiasm for a moment. "I have other priorities at this moment, that's true, but it's something I can see myself doing, sometime, in the future..." Her voice tapered off, and she ended, "I can see it." She fell silent, and her eyes focused inward, as if she was looking at invisible wonders.
Marcus cleared his throat. "All right. I can see this is a wonderful career opportunity for you, even if the start date is a little hazy." He took her hands within his own, and said, "What about us, Susan? Where do I fit into this, if I do at all? I thought we were starting to build something, between the two of us. Was I wrong?"
She shook her head. "I don't know. Maybe we were, but I can't ask you to buy into a relationship that could end at any minute. It wouldn't be fair."
Marcus sat back, and began to laugh, softly at first, then louder.
Susan couldn't believe it; here she was trying to be considerate, let him down easy, and somehow he found it amusing. "What the hell are you laughing at?" she demanded.
"You. Us." He finally choked out, tears in his eye from laughing. "We're about to go into a war against an unbeatable enemy, against insurmountable odds. It's likely we won't live out the week, and you're wanting to break it off cause we don't have a future!"
She stared at him for a moment, then dropped her gaze, hiding her own reluctant smile. "Well, when you put it like that...it is pretty funny."
Marcus grew serious. He reached out and gently tucked a strand of hair that had fallen into her eyes back behind her ear. "I'm a Ranger, Susan, and I plan to stay one. Whatever the reason I joined, I take my vows seriously. 'We walk in the dark places, where no one else will go.' There's always a chance, often a good one, that I won't come back from the next mission. You're an EarthForce officer, subject to the orders of your superior officers. Sometimes they will order you into danger. Our lives are dangerous. I'm willing to take whatever you have to offer, for however long we have."
"It doesn't seem fair," said Susan stubbornly. "You deserve better."
"Life isn't fair," said Marcus, casting a thought towards Sheridan and Delenn. It really wasn't fair, he thought. "If you're giving me a choice, I say let's take a chance. We have no way of knowing the future, unless of course you can get a direct line through the Machine." He paused, then said lightly, trying to hide his anxiety, "Have you considered looking into the Mars Lottery numbers, say for the next few months?"
Susan persisted, "What if I say 'no'?" She added hesitantly, not wanting to hurt him further, "I'm not even sure I love you. I mean, I love you; you're my friend, but...oh God. I'm no good at this." She shook her head in despair.
"That's your choice, your feelings, and your decision," he said shortly. "Just be sure you're doing it for yourself, and not for me. I don't need your protection. And I don't want your pity."
"No," said Susan, then added, "I don't want that either."
The silence between them grew awkward, when Marcus let go of her hands, and then slapped his together. "I don't know about you, but I'm starving." As they got up and headed towards the kitchen, he remarked casually, "So, if you end up like old Draal, will your body need exercised at all? Cause I could help with that...drop by every few months or so, take it out for a spin..."
Susan stopped poking around among the containers for a moment, and grinned. "I'll make sure you get first shot at the position."
Marcus left right after dinner. Susan hadn't protested. She'd seemed exhausted, and he knew she had a full shift tomorrow, probably more like two. He'd kept things casual, but his heart was burning in his chest. As he walked down the corridor he became more frustrated and angry. This wasn't right, and it wasn't just because there was a risk he'd lose her. There had to be someway he could make her see that she would be throwing her life away. Becoming part of a computer the size of a planet, however interesting, was just a waste. He found himself wandering towards the VIP quarters, still fuming, thinking he'd look up Neroon and see if he was up for some denn'bok practice. He had to release some of this pent-up energy. If he couldn't do it in a pleasant fashion with Susan, then beating the hell out of Neroon would have to do. Of course, he'd probably be the one getting beat up, but that could work, too.
He approached Neroon's door, and hit the chime, impatiently bouncing on the balls of his feet. He felt like someone had wound a spring up tight in his chest, and if he didn't get some release, he'd explode.
When the door opened, he entered quickly, giving the ritual greeting before he even noticed the presence of Lennier.
"Hello, Lennier. Am I interrupting?" Marcus' calm tone belied the wild expression in his eyes. However distracted, he still noticed the two Minbari carefully avoided looking at each other.
"We were discussing our current situation, both here and at home," replied Neroon neutrally. "Have you eaten?" He gestured towards an empty chair at the small dining table.
Marcus noted the remains of a typical Minbari meal in front of the two of them. "Just finished. What situation is that? Is there something happening on Minbar?" He took a seat and looked at Neroon curiously.
Neroon sighed heavily. "We have no effective government at this time. Since Delenn dissolved the Grey Council, it has reformed, but there is imbalance and uncertainty, and the people are beginning to feel it. There are contradictory edicts issued, even at the highest level. Factions are jockeying for power, and there seems to be little overarching vision for the future."
"Does Delenn know of this?" asked Marcus in concern.
"Some of it. I have sent her messages, from time to time, trying to ascertain her opinion of various issues. But she has been preoccupied with the war, a matter of little concern to the Council. She is correct in her priorities, in that the situation on Minbar will hardly matter if the Shadows triumph. Or the Vorlons," Neroon added reflectively. "The situation here is immediate and perilous, which is why I am here, and staying here. But there is now a void in her information stream. Morthenn and the others are not privy to the machinations of my clan. I could not in all honor tell her, or you, some of the strategies being discussed, but it is a matter of deep concern to me."
"You think Minbar is in for some difficulties?" Marcus said. "Let's get through this war intact first-surely it can be dealt with after wards?"
Lennier shook his head. "The more we know, the better prepared we will be for whatever comes. It is not good, this lack of information." He looked down at the table, not wanting to meet the eyes of the others. "I am considering returning to Minbar."
Marcus stared at him, "Now? On the brink of the final battle? You'd abandon her, I mean... us?"
"It is not a bad idea," interjected Neroon. There were subtle undercurrents between Delenn and her aide that were disturbing, but he did not doubt the man's loyalties. "Lennier is trusted by the religious caste, and the workers would accept him on Delenn's recommendation. There are a few warriors who I could provide introductions to; those able to place the needs of all Minbari above those of their own clan and caste."
Marcus looked hard at his friend, who had said nothing further. It must be getting harder for him, as Sheridan and Delenn grew closer as a couple. "It might work at that." He asked gently, "When would you go?"
"Immediately. It would do no good to wait, would it?" Lennier's voice was calm, and neutral.
Marcus thought he'd never heard such control of what must be a great deal of underlying pain. "When will you tell her?" Remembering the scene he'd come upon after Ulkesh's expulsion, he thought that Sheridan and Delenn had looked as if they needed no interruptions that evening.
"Tomorrow morning. She will understand, and I will continue in her service." Lennier added definitively, "Just not here."
"Not all soldiers can be on the front line, Lennier. This seems like a good choice for you," Neroon said. "Now, what brought you here, Ranger? You never said."
"I actually came looking for a fight." At Neroon's expression of anticipation, he almost laughed. "Some denn'bok practice. I find that the waiting is getting to me."
Neroon smiled broadly, "Excellent! I too, find the eve of battle drags. Let us hone what skills we can, as I am sure we will have need of all of them."
Lennier excused himself, saying he needed to arrange some things before the morning. Marcus used the com system in Neroon's quarters to reserve an exercise room, and led the Minbari out into the corridors, on their way to an evening of martial bliss
The next morning there was a meeting of the War Council. Delenn sat silent as John outlined his plan to lure both the Shadows to the same place the Vorlons were heading, to Coriana Six. The representatives of the various governments watched as Sheridan gave his instructions to Erickson, the Ranger in charge of the contingent of White Stars nearest to the Shadow fleet. All had to observe, all had to agree. All had to watch as the sacrifice was agreed to by the volunteers. Delenn took the reverent and ritual farewell from Erickson in stride, although John could see that she was deeply affected.
Neroon gave the man the ritual Warrior salute-that which was reserved for those who are about to die. Erickson, to his surprise, returned it. He wished he had known the human better, but it gave him great hope for his new army. These Rangers knew how to die, and that was an important part of knowing how to fight. The Council broke up after that, with only the core people remaining. Lennier had approached Delenn, and was speaking to her quietly. He drifted closer, curious as to her reaction to her aide's announcement.
"I will be on the afternoon transport. That way I can be through the gate before the fleet deploys." Lennier was filling in the silence emanating from Delenn with travel details.
Neroon thought she looked even more stricken than she had at Erickson's ritual invocation of the Ranger oath. "Lennier will be doing me a favor," he interjected smoothly.
Delenn looked at him in surprise, "What favor is that, Anla'Shok Na?" She resorted to formality as she tried to process the news. Another loss, this time of someone she had thought would always be there; it was hard to bear, especially today.
"I was torn between wishing to engage in the battle, and wanting to remain on Minbar to monitor the situation there. Lennier is, in essence, taking my place, and he has my gratitude for giving up his chance at war in exchange for the entangling coils of diplomacy and government. He will be a source of information, and a representative for you at home. I think it will become important, later." Neroon saw that her color was returning, and that she was pleased with his appreciation of her aide.
"You do me too much honor, Anla'Shok Na. I could never take your place, in Council, or in battle." Lennier tried to deflect Neroon's praise.
"Nonsense. You will be invaluable. You see far more that you let on, which is an admirable trait in an observer. There is much to see, I am afraid." Neroon fell silent.
Delenn turned to Lennier, and said, "I will see you at the transit area this afternoon." She cut off his protest, saying, "One last time, your obedience in this is required. My understanding is lacking, except that this is important to you, and as Neroon says, it will be good to have someone at home whom I can trust completely. Take care, and I will see you before you leave." Lennier bowed and left, leaving Neroon and Delenn to watch his departure together.
"I suspect there is more to his going that I am being told," said Delenn.
Neroon shook his head. "I cannot say. He is no coward, at least not when it comes to battle. This is what he wants, and he will be of some use there. Let him go, and it may all come right in the end."
"I suppose. But I will miss him," she said. "I am glad you came, Neroon."
He looked at her fondly, but with a shadow in his eyes. "I came to fight a battle I can understand. What is going on at home; that is not my kind of war."
Just then John called to Delenn, and she excused herself. Marcus came over to him, and said, "How did she take it?"
"She is no coward either. How long will this feint take? Do you think we will see action soon?" Neroon asked impatiently.
"Tomorrow, next day at the latest, is the word I'm getting. We'll hear back from Erickson by late tonight, station time. He won't waste any time, unless I miss my guess. Eager to get to it?" asked Marcus, a glint in his eye.
"You might say that," replied Neroon. "Warrior caste Minbari are often blessed, or perhaps I should say cursed, with a presentiment of their own death." He added, with sober emphasis. "I do not believe I will return from this engagement. I hope we can strike a death blow to our enemies with this tactic, as I do not see myself having another chance." He bowed his head to Marcus, and stalked out of the war room.
Lorien entered the war room and crossed over to where John and Delenn were talking. "May I speak with you?" he said, addressing Sheridan.
"What is it?" answered John. Delenn started to withdraw, but he laid his hand on her arm, and she stayed.
"Ms. Alexander has presented me with a request, from your Mr. Garibaldi," said Lorien. "I thought while we were waiting, we might deal with it. I would like you to be present, and perhaps the Vorlon should be as well."
"I should like to meet Velana Naranek," said Delenn. "She is of Kosh's kind, is she not? His family, his clan, perhaps?"
"She is, or as close as I can come to the Vorlon concept in your terms. So was Ulkesh, of course." Lorien looked closely at Delenn, who held his gaze without flinching. "Why not? Shall we reconvene aboard my ship? Can you arrange for Mr. Garibaldi to be brought there?"
"I'll ask him to come, if that's what you mean," said John. "In about an hour?"
"That would be fine. Time grows short. Your plan should be put in motion soon. And then we will see." Lorien smiled as if anticipating a treat.
"That we will," said John. "I have to finish up here. Can you make sure everything is ready for when Erickson reports back?" This he addressed to Delenn.
"Of course," she said with a tight smile. "I will meet you at Lorien's ship. In one hour."
Michael was beginning to think this had not been his best brainwave. Lorien's ship was unlike anything any of them had seen, and to make things extra special, there was a Vorlon waiting inside. Of course, nothing beat having a Shadow in your head for overall weirdness. He still had Nanny with him, but John had asked his guard to wait at the entrance to the docking bay. The man had been happy to oblige.
Lorien was already in there, and John and Delenn were waiting for him in the transport elevator. He swallowed hard, and joined them inside. Delenn made small talk, trying to put him at ease, which he appreciated, while the 'vator went up and they heard the connecting locks whine and whir as their transport linked up with Lorien's ship.
When the door opened, John went straight in like he knew where he was going, which Michael realized he would. He and Delenn followed until they reached what Michael thought must be the First One equivalent of a bridge or command center of some kind. It was a round room, with nothing that looked like seats or chairs, just a chest high railing in front of a large view port. The port was closed, sealed with louvered shutters of grey metal. When you stared at them too close, they wavered and blurred as if they were illusory rather than solid. Perhaps they were. In front of the port, and on the other side of the railing, was a familiar encounter suit. The figure breathed in and out, or seemed to, and its iris opened and closed rhythmically.
Delenn walked up to Velana and bowed in greeting. "I am Delenn," she said. "It is an honor to meet you. I knew Kosh, a little. For a little while. I am sorry for your loss, both the recent one, and before."
"Reflections reveal the truth ," said Velana, apparently considering Delenn. "First One." She tilted her helmet in Lorien's direction. "Entil'zha," she then added, turning to Sheridan, who nodded back.
Michael touched John's arm. "Did you get a promotion? I thought Delenn was Entil'zha."
"No, I didn't, and yes, she is, but I'm not wasting my time correcting a Vorlon. It'd take all day, and I'd still get nowhere in the end," Sheridan whispered back. Then he turned to Lorien. "Why did you think Velana would be interested in Michael's 'problem'?"
Lorien didn't answer, instead turning to Michael. "I can remove Vash, but I must warn you, it will not be a pleasant process to undergo. Still, you will survive. Your guest will not."
Michael was disconcerted. "No one mentioned that. Will he go wherever they go...when they die?"
"No," answered Lorien. "It will be a final ending. Apart from his fellows, alone. But he has no future in any case. Nowhere to go, and nowhere to stay. It was the risk he took, for his cause, for his sector."
"Sector?" asked John.
"Family, clan, group. I am unsure of the exact parallel designation." Lorien put both his hands together, fingertips touching. "Are you ready?"
Velana seemed to grow agitated. "Let it speak," she finally said.
Lorien tilted his head, considering. "You mean Vash? Certainly. Was there a question you wished to ask it?"
Michael raised his hand, "Do I get any say in this?" He walked closer to Velana, and looked her up and down. "I never knew where to look a Vorlon in the eye." He peered at the iris near the bottom of the helmet, and said, "I'll let you talk to him, but first tell me why."
"To know your enemy is to know yourself," said Velana. Her voice, fluting out of the encounter suit, sounded as if it was coming from all around them.
It made the hair on Michael's neck stand up."That's pretty much why Vash is here. To know us." He paused for a moment, and then asked, "Is that why you're here? Whose side are you on anyway?" Fear made the questions come out belligerent.
"Yes. To know...why you are." Velana fell silent, then turned towards Lorien. "Let him speak. Please."
Lorien looked at Michael, who nodded his agreement. Lorien placed one hand, fingers outstretched, against Michael's face. Immediately, Michael's face went slack, and there was the sound of dry laughter from his throat.
What do you want, Vorlon?
"To know who you are."
I am no one, now. A shadow of a Shadow, no longer a player, merely an observer. Much like you, in fact.
"We act." There was definitely regret in Velana's voice, clear even through the modulation of the suit.
You do! You do, at last. And yet here we both are, trapped behind the front lines, unable or unwilling to participate in what may be the final battle. The final determination of the final question. I will not see the end, but you will. There was bitterness there, and resignation, and some anger.
Velana remained silent for a moment, then spoke. "Then stay."
The human wants rid of me, and who can blame him? His destiny, such as it is, is denied him while he carries this pathetic remnant.
"You feel sympathy." Velana said, as if struck by the idea. She then turned towards Delenn. "You were a bridge too far. Kosh was wrong to advise this. He too, felt...sympathy." She looked at John, who was standing close by Delenn. "He chose death."
Lorien was watching the Vorlon carefully. "Are you finished?"
"No'!" The word was torn from Velana. She glided away from the others, facing the curved wall to one side of the port. The iris of her suit opened, and a bright light flowed out, burning a hole in the wall of the ship. When the light stopped, the wall flowed back together, becoming a seamless expanse once again. "The rift can heal if the structure is whole." Turning back towards Michael, she asked quickly, as if afraid she would change her mind if she hesitated, "Stay with me."
John and Delenn exchanged a swift glance, and he took her hand, leaning over to whisper in her ear, "She's wrong. I chose life."
Delenn smiled wanly, twining her fingers between his, and said, "I think she meant Kosh."
Lorien looked at Michael, and said, "Vash, would you want to be carried by Velana? You will be unable to direct her actions, or hear all her thoughts, but you could observe, and speak when she allowed it. It is only a partial life."
It is something. Michael's head swiveled towards Velana. Why would you do this?
"I wish to know who I am." Velana then said to Lorien, "If he is willing, do this thing. Release the human to himself."
Lorien nodded, and placed one hand on Michael's face, then reached inside a gap in the encounter suit that had appeared. Blinding white light poured out, and Lorien's hand slipped inside up to the elbow, his robes falling away from the opening. John and Delenn watched as an oily black substance poured out of Michael's eyes and mouth, slithered down Lorien's hand and arm, across the bridge the First One formed between human and Vorlon. The blackness slid inside the suit, as Velana jerked spasmodically, thrashing from side to side. Lorien then removed his arm and the suit closed. The sudden removal of the light left them blinking and disoriented, but John dropped Delenn's hand in time to catch Michael as he slumped towards the floor.
"Is he all right?" Delenn asked John anxiously. John had lowered Michael to the floor, where he lay unconscious. Turning to Lorien, who was watching Velana with curiosity, Delenn asked him, "Is Vash gone? Completely gone?"
"Oh, he's gone, all right," came Michael's voice. He caught at John's arms and pulled himself unsteadily to his feet. "He left behind one hell of a headache, and what feels like a hole of some kind. The feeling's fading, but he's gone."
"Yes," said Lorien. "He is inside Velana now. For better or for worse."
"Velana," said Delenn, "Can you hear us? Are you in pain? Can we do anything?"
The Vorlon stood, not moving, the iris of its suit still and closed. Suddenly, it convulsed, shaking hard, and then the familiar melodious voice was heard. "I would like some time...alone."
Never alone. Never again. Vash's voice wasn't triumphant, rather it was...thankful.
John's link sounded, and they all heard the message. Erickson's ship was in position. The subterfuge was underway, and in a few hours they would know if it had worked. Then the final stage would begin.
Lorien spoke to Velana, "You will come with us when we leave. Rest now." He headed towards the transport, only pausing to look back once. "Are you coming?" The others followed him, John still supporting Michael unobtrusively. The Vorlon stayed motionless, but the view port behind her was no open. Instead of the walls of the docking bay, they could see stars, bright against the black sky, light against the darkness.
The next day the fleet left for Coriana Six. Susan and Marcus were on one of the White Stars, the tension between them not affecting how smoothly they interacted on the command deck. Neroon was directing the Rangers from one of the Minbari Sharlin war cruisers, solitary in his foreboding. John and Delenn were together, as they would always be from now on, joined at a level deeper than that of the physical plane. Lorien accompanied them, with Velana/Vash, and Lyta, who had left Zack tear-stained, both proud and furious that she was going into battle.
Michael Garibaldi stood at the main viewing window in C&C, arms crossed across his chest. He was wearing the uniform of the Army of Light, and he was part of that army once again. Zack was behind him, his ever-loyal lieutenant, and the command staff awaited his orders. With the aid of Draal, and the Great Machine on the planet below, his aim was to keep the station and its inhabitants safe during the coming storm. He was in command again, in command of himself, and of Babylon Five.