Veniant Carnifices

8 February 2260

1000 hours

Jayaram had passed being scared a long time ago; now he was terrified, sitting against the wall in his quarters in the pitch black. The hull breach alarm had sounded, and an automated recording ordered everyone to remain in their quarters, put themselves between a hatch and the hull. Jay had already been in his quarters, having returned from his night shift not fifteen minutes earlier. He retrieved his coveralls from the pile of dirty clothes on the floor of his tiny room and waited for the call for all station maintenance personnel to report, but the call never came.

Jay had thought about just going out anyway, but he didn't know where the breach was, if it was under control, and he really didn't feel like getting sucked out into space. He didn't hear the tell-tale creaking of the bulkheads, though, so he felt reasonably confident that it was on the other side of the station, or was small, or both.

Just as he was beginning to convince himself that there had been a false alarm, the lights went out. Completely out. "Lights. Lights!" No response. Jay had fumbled around, his quarters suddenly alien and hard to navigate for all that they were five paces square; he barked his shins on a table and nearly fell, cursing. He finally made it to the panel next to the Babcom, pressed the buttons, but he might as well have saved himself the journey across the room; nothing happened. The Babcom itself was dead, too. Jay sat down, back against the wall. Cascading systems failure? Would heat go next, the air recycling? But no, he wasn't getting cold; quite the contrary, he felt like he was burning up. He could hear the hiss of the air unit in his room, and he clung to that tiny shred of comfort.

Jay waited. It was unnerving, sitting in the dark, eyes wide open but nothing other than total, complete blackness in front of him. He wondered if this was what it was like to be blind. Time lost all meaning. He didn't know how long he'd been sitting in the dark. It could have been one hour, it could have been five. He tried to count his heartbeats, but lost track sometime after three hundred.

He couldn't stay in here anymore. Hull breach be damned. Jay stood, hands out, and made his way right in front of the door. Waited. Nothing. Maybe the automatic sensor was on the same circuit as the lights. "Door, open." Obstinate silence from the door. "Open!" And the panic started settling in. Jay returned to the instrument panel, found the toggle at the bottom, switched it back and forth. Nothing. Back to the door, pressing on it with his hands, then hitting it, then kicking it, then screaming at it. Minutes, hours, who knew? Nothing.

Jay stumbled back into the blackness of his room, heart threatening to hammer straight out of his chest. He knew he had to get himself under control, knew that he just needed to wait until the systems came back online, but he stumbled over the table again and this time he did fall, head hitting the wall as he came down. Bright white pain flashed behind his eyes, and after a few gasping breaths Jay reached up and gingerly touched the top of his head, expecting to pull his hand back sticky and wet with blood, but it was dry. He'd managed to keep from cracking his skull open; small blessings.

Jay rolled over onto his back, swearing he would not cry. He hadn't cried in fifteen years, not since he'd buried his mother, and he was not going to cry now.

There was a pounding outside his door.

Jay pulled himself up on his elbows, looked that way, instinct stronger than intellect; blackness, of course. There was a horrible wrenching sound, metal on metal, and Jay found himself suffused with calm. This was it. Overall hull integrity had finally given way, and the station was tearing apart. Jay only hoped it would be quick. Then his door opened, tugged upward in starts and jerks. Dim red light in the corridor outlined the dark silhouette of a figure in his door, oddly shaped; probably carrying equipment.

"Here, I'm in here! Thank goodness." Jay pulled himself to his feet, shaking, and by the time he looked back up the figure had entered. His next words died before they passed his lips. He could smell something, and he thought it came from the person in his quarters. A sickly sweet, rotten smell. Jay wanted to ask what his name was, if he worked for the station, if he knew anything about the breach, but instead found himself backing up against the wall. He thought he'd been afraid before. He thought he'd known panic. He had never felt anything like this.

The figure came closer, relentless. Jay had one moment to wish that he could have died in the vacuum of space before it was on him. Then there was pain, and there were tears, and there were screams.

It was a long time before Jay finally died.

xxx

0900 hours

Ivanova had just ran back to her quarters to grab some paperwork when the breach alarm sounded. She called Sheridan, then Garibaldi, then anyone she could think of on her link, but there was nothing, not even static. It was dead. She went to the Babcom, but it was dead, too. She wasn't going to twiddle her thumbs in her quarters, but by the time she'd decided to go out and see what the hell was going on, the lights went out and her quarters were sealed.

Ivanova spent two minutes running through every curse she knew, in every language, and after she calmed down she dropped to her hands and knees, slowly crawled into her bedroom, to her closet, to the tool kit on the floor in the corner. No need to hurry; she didn't want to give herself a concussion, break a bone. Tool kit tucked into her jacket, she spent a few minutes feeling around for a flashlight, even though she knew she didn't have one, hadn't had one since she'd lost the last one when she transferred to B5. She didn't even have any fucking candles. She crawled back to the Babcom, slow and steady wins the race. She kept her eyes closed; it was easier than confronting the total darkness. Settling down on the floor, she pulled the tool kit out, felt around till her fingers identified what she needed: a screwdriver, an Allen wrench, pliers. She already had her pocket knife.

Off came the panel underneath the Babcom, exposing the workings underneath. Ivanova carefully felt around, trying to identify everything before she started. There was the main wiring, there was the video hook-up, there was the audio. And there was the emergency power, a self-contained battery unit. The Babcom should have cut over as soon as main power was lost; she'd have to do it manually. Ivanova cut the main wiring, stripped them by feel, hooked them over.

Cool blue light flooded the room, insanely bright after half an hour of darkness. Ivanova stood, worked the kink out of her neck. "Call to Captain Sheridan." The bland computer voice informed her that a call could not be placed to that unit. "Call to Chief Garibaldi." Same response. She tried half a dozen others to no avail. "Open a channel to Stellarcom." A channel could not be opened. "Open priority gold channel, voice authorization Ivanova." Nothing.

"Motherfucking piece of shit son of a bitch!" There, she felt better. Using the light from the Babcom - and that's all it was good for now - she gathered up her tools and went to the door. She had to move her couch first, but then she got to the access panel and removed it, too, and started to worm her way in between the bulkheads toward the hatch mechanism.

xxx

0845 hours

"It's not a toy."

"I know it's not a toy, Delenn." Sheridan had met her outside her quarters a few minutes ago, and they were on their way to a Council meeting. She was wearing her pretty green dress, the one that clung to her figure more than her usual robes, and Sheridan allowed himself a moment to sneak an appraising look.

"You just want to play with it. How do you put it? 'Take it out for some spins.'"

"I do not just want to take the White Star out for a spin. It's a brand-new ship, a mix of technologies, and I need to know what it's capable of. A weapon is only as good as the training you have to use it."

"Of course, John," she said, meaning nothing of the sort. Sheridan grinned down at her, ready to suggest that she could come along, supervise, when the alarm sounded.

"Hull breach! Hull breach! Remain in your quarters. Secure a hatch between yourself and the hull. Wait for the all-clear. Move in an orderly fashion. Do not panic. Hull breach! Hull breach!" Sheridan had grabbed Delenn's hand after the first 'hull breach' and pulled her back in the direction of her quarters, running. Proving that idiotic behavior was universal, all throughout Green Sector aliens poked their heads out of their doors, trying to see what was going on.

"Get into your quarters, all of you! Right now!" Sheridan shouted, and then they entered Delenn's rooms. Sheridan opened a line on his link. "Ivanova, come in!" Silence. He pushed the button to open a line again, lifted the link to his ear. He didn't hear the familiar low hum. Delenn's voice on the other side of the room. "Ivanova, come in! Garibaldi! C and C! Damn it!" He looked up - Delenn was in front of her Babcom, trying to place calls. "Anything?"

"The Babcom does not appear to be working." He joined her, resisted the urge to thump the wall.

"Open priority gold channel, voice authorization Sheridan." Normally he hated the computer's voice, but he would have given anything to hear it now. The comm system just sat there, unresponsive, screen dark. "Okay. Shit." He took a deep breath, looked down at Delenn, who was watching him closely. "I want you to stay here."

"The recording said to stay in one's quarters. You should not leave."

"I'm not going to just sit here, not if the station's in trouble." He squeezed her upper arms, smiled down in as reassuring a way as he could muster. He hoped it didn't turn out to be a grimace. "Just stay here, okay?"

The lights went out. He felt her step closer to him, hands just resting on his chest. "Has the station lost power?" she asked, and the question sent a jab of alarm through him. He listened, blocked out the sounds of their own breathing, the steady clip-clop of his pulse.

"No, the air recycler's still on." Then Delenn squeezed his shoulders; he could feel the warmth from her hands even through his jacket and shirt.

"Don't move." She left him then, and he heard her slowly make her way across the room. Sheridan thought about following her anyway, but couldn't remember exactly where her low little table was, and didn't really want to trip and kill himself. Then he heard a hiss, and a candle flame filled the room with flickering light. Delenn lit a few more - the little table was clear over there, damn it, he would have been fine - and went to one of her lamps, waved her hand over it. No response. "What happens if there's a hull breach?" she asked.

"Emergency bulkheads should drop, seal it off. I don't know why we lost lights; all primary systems have about three levels of redundancy, and everything's housed in the center of the station. Circuits might have overloaded; they should be back on soon." Delenn nodded, went back to her candles, gracefully sat before them. Meditating, he guessed. "You're going to stay here?" he asked, needing to confirm that before he left.

"I have no desire to be pulled out through a hole in the hull, John. Please just come over here and sit with me."

"I can't."

"Then please be careful," she said, and Sheridan fought a fleeting urge to ask her for a good-luck kiss.

"Aye-aye, sir," he said instead, and headed for the door. And nearly walked right into it. "What the hell? Open." He waved his hand in front of it, then tried to open it manually using the toggle on the instrument panel by the Babcom. "Oh, give me a break." Sheridan paced back and forth in front of the door, hating being stuck, hating not knowing what was happening out there. Something strange was going on; he might have temporarily reassured Delenn, but he hadn't reassured himself. All necessary systems were kept well away from the outside of the station so something like a hull breach could be managed without sacrificing overall station integrity. He couldn't think of any reason why they would have lost lights, station communications, and apparently the ability to open the hatches, but not heating and rotation and air.

He sat down heavily on Delenn's little couch, thinking. "It seems the station agrees with me," Delenn said, not even glancing his way, her gaze still on her candles. "It's best to stay here." He wanted to glare at her, just a little bit, but she was probably right. Still...

"We could probably get this door to open manually," he said, trying to figure out where the mechanism would be. Between the walls, to the left of the door. There had to be an access panel. He stood, shoved aside the couch he'd just been sitting on. Yep, there it was. He knelt, looked at the corners. "Delenn, do you have any tools? A screwdriver?" Even as he asked, he knew she wouldn't have anything like that. She came over and crouched beside him, hand on his shoulder to brace herself. She examined the screws, then went over to her kitchenette.

Delenn returned with one of the little forks he had used when he'd joined her for that (incredibly long) ceremonial meal. Sheridan fiddled with it a little bit, turning the ends this way and that, and found that if he put one prong in at an angle, he could get the screw to turn.

"This is going to take forever," he said, sighing. Then Delenn took her own little fork, went to the other side of the panel, and started on the top screw.

"I think I will be able to finish before you," she said, that half-smile on her face.

"Is that a challenge?"

"No, only a statement of fact. You're too easily distracted. I will probably finish both before you have finished one." Oh, she was good. But there was no way in hell he'd let her win. The game was on.

xxx

0615 hours

The being who allowed others to call it Kosh moved through the corridors of Babylon 5. Corridors. Paths from one potentiality to another. Humans, Narn, Centauri, Minbari, Drazi, Brakiri, dozens of others; they walked through the corridors, in easily predicted patterns, like drops of water along an incline, molecules of gas in an enclosed environment. Individual flickering lights of consciousness, each walking its own path, each trammeled in by only having so many paths to walk.

The station was its own flickering light of consciousness. Atoms in a body; people in Babylon 5. Kosh was part of that consciousness. Looked out through the station's sensors, listened to the quiet hum of the universe, tasted the photons captured by the solar arrays, allowed itself to be held by the centrifugal force generated by the station's rotation.

Kosh knew they were coming the instant the ship came out of the jump gate. The bloody ones. They had hidden their ship inside another ship, but there were signs, clues. Unnoticed indicators. Kosh knew what would happen. They would dock, and everything would be in order. Puppets would enter the station. The puppets already knew where to go, what to do; the broken ones did not move anywhere without knowing to where they were moving. The puppets would herd everyone like beasts into pens, keep them there so the angry ones could sample as they chose. Some would survive. Most would not.

Kosh could inform the humans in command of Babylon 5. It would be easy. They had plenty of time to fire on the ship, and the banished ones would be destroyed. Not all of them, of course. All would never be destroyed. But these, they could be dealt with.

Kosh thought, in the space of time between two hydrogen atoms colliding inside Epsilon, and in the moment they became helium, and a new burst of energy sprang forth into existence, Kosh made its decision.

Kosh had brought an Inquisitor to the station. It was important that the two be tested. It was necessary to know whether they were ready, whether they were the right people. If they were not, Kosh would find others. The Inquisitor had reported that they had passed the test, but Kosh was not sure. They had formed a personal bond, and Kosh feared that the bond invalidated the results of the test.

That was not all. There were others on board this station who would come to prominence in the war to come, who would be required to stand and fight with the same willingness to sacrifice themselves for the cause. They had not been tested.

The miserable ones would make a good test. Far better than the Inquisitor. They would test many important attributes, most of which the lesser races lacked; intelligence, courage, creativity. If the people on board this station could not pass the test administered by the injured ones, then they were not the right people for the coming war. They would need to be replaced. It was better to know now.

Kosh would not inform the humans who ran the station. The ship would be allowed to dock. There would be a test.

Let the butchers come.