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post #127 of (permalink) Old 01-16-13, 11:51 AM Thread Starter
Todeswind
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Kerrigan was as happy as a child in a sweet shop. The ever-increasing pile of machinery in her workshop had only become more wondrous to her as the science of their construction was made manifest. She pored over the technical manuals with voracious fascination, curious at the simultaneous brilliance and ignorance of the Earth Alliance.

The humans of the Alliance were mechanical savants, to be sure, but their lack of empathy with the spirits of the machine left their creations wanting. Already Kerrigan had improved the function of her own quarters with a ritual to appease the machine spirit of her door. The application of ritually spiced oils and a simple data-angel into the near-mind of the door had not only boosted performance but had also convinced the machine spirit to purge all entry codes but her own. Station security would have to knock prior to entry, as was only proper.

She hadn't intended to move into the diplomatic quarters offered to her, but the shuttle was ill-suited for long term habitation, especially now that she was no longer living by herself. Her servants had finally been given a clean bill of health, so it was for their sake more than hers that she had moved her effects out of her shuttle and into a spacious apartment in Green sector.

It was not without its own charm.

Kerrigan picked at a bowl of chocolate covered fruit given to her by General Hague, some sort of citrus native to the Alliance home-world, eagerly chewing on the tangy rind as she examined the device in her mechandrite. It was a chip no larger than her thumb, a simple communication device no more rare or exciting than the average survey auspex in the Imperium. However, to Kerrigan it was a thing of beauty.

It meant an end to her exile. It was not an STC, but its importance was so great that it would not matter.

A real-time subspace transmitter. Throne, but if she could even get one of these back to the Imperium, it might well change the tide of history forever. Stable interplanetary communication that did not rely on the warp was little more than wishful thinking and fiction in the Imperium, meaning that a transmission could arrive days or even centuries later than its sender intended. Even more bizarrely, messages at times arrived prior to their submission, resulting in several baffling situations where ships responded to their own distress calls.

The Alliance communicated between their home-world and their outlying colonies in real-time, and Kerrigan knew how they did it and understood how to construct a hyperspace engine. The Adeptus Mechanicus no longer was beholden to the Warp.

Not that she could do anything with this wealth of knowledge, as without a Warp-capable ship and a Navigator to course correct she had no route back to the Imperium. There was no hyperspace gate network to make use of in the Imperium that she knew of. She had, of course, constructed a distress beacon to summon any Adeptus Mechanicus ships that should happen to be passing, but she doubted they would ever come.

The key to the Imperium’s return to glory sat between her fingers, and she could do nothing more than sit and wait. In spite of this it was hard to feel frustrated, not with so much to be learned. She busied herself with learning the workings of the Alliance machines and with training her apprentices in the proper ways of the Machine God. Their aptitude for the science vastly outstripped their humility for the greatness of the Omnissah's works, but she supposed that humbleness only came with age.

Abbas certainly had little to be humble about. Whatever that boy might have done on the Endless Bounty would have been a shameful waste of his talents. She'd never seen someone take to mathematics and engineering as quickly as he did, understanding the materials with a nearly instinctive fervor. He might well be qualified for the rank of Magos in a matter of decades rather than centuries.

“Ma’am,” the craggly voice of her auto-savant Regulus interjected, “I believe you have an appointment in the med-bay.”

Kerrigan looked to her chronometer and blinked in surprise, yelping in shock, “Throne, is it time already?”

She gingerly placed the subspace transmitter onto her desk and shimmied out of her oil-stained robes, handing them over to Gerra as she walked into the the wide metal tub they'd replaced her bed with. Kerrigan had no need of a bed, as she didn’t sleep. Gertrude came over with a stiff brush and a bucket of perfumed rose-oil, along with another one of soapy water.

The two maids were slow in scrubbing her with the rose oils and rinsing her with the water but she was not churlish enough to complain. It had only been a week since the station's Medicus, Dr. Franklin, had released them from physical therapy and allowed them to go back to work but they hadn't heard a word of her protests that they ought to be taking it easy.

So far as her servants were concerned, she was an absolute mess without their help, and they outright refused to let her get a word in edgewise when she'd tried to give them time off. All of them but the young Galen, at least, who'd been more than eager to spend time with Abbas and Orr. The young scamp had adopted her apprentices as surrogate older brothers.

She closed her eyes and shut off her optics, enjoying the sensation of the soft bristles against her flesh and within the hard-to-reach places in her augmentics. It was easy to forget just how much grit pooled at the joints of those things, until it was scrubbed away and her mechanical limbs no longer felt like they were moving through molasses.

Gerra pulled out a clean robe of soft red cotton from Kerrigan's trunk and went about the exhaustive business of threading the augmentic tentacles and servo-connections into their proper openings. The two women chatted in Low Gothic, nattering on about how much of a waste it was that Kerrigan had no intention of ever marrying and how much prettier the agumentics would look if Kerrigan would paint them bright colors. She placidly let the nonsensical discussions wash over her as the women dressed her and tied her hair into a tight bun, tying it off with a red ribbon and a comb marked with the cog of the Omnissiah.

She hugged her maids tight to her body with her arms and mechandrites, staring into their scarred faces. Kerrigan's augmentic voice choked into a sob as she said, “Omnissah, but I missed you.”

Her servants hugged her back tightly before pulling away and bowing, giving Kerrigan a moment to compose herself. The Magos cleared her throat, embarrassed for the display, and nodded to Bizak, “Shall we go then?”

“Yes Magos,” Bizak smiled and waved to the door with his augmentic fingers. They were the work of Dr. Franklin rather than proper Imperial augmentics, but she had to confess that the man's skill with prosthetic limbs was more than apt. She'd consecrated the augmentics just to be sure that there would be no issue and found them to be sufficient.

Kerrigan walked out the door and into the hall of green sector, carrying a heavy leather bag over her shoulder and a small satchel of surgical tools on her belt. Today would be a very special day. Abbas had finally passed his first rite of ascension and earned the rank of Adept. Certain ceremonies consequently had to be observed, as well as certain surgeries.

It was a short walk to the med-bay; Dr. Franklin's surgery had intentionally been placed where it was convenient for the ambassadors to reach it in Blue 2. Before she knew it Kerrigan was at the doctor's door, walking into the relative bustle of the best-equipped medical center on the station.

“Magos Kerrigan,” Dr. Franklin greeted her coolly, his voice disapproving but not unprofessional. “It's been a while. How are my patients doing? Resting well, I hope.”

“They seem to be recovering remarkably well, yes.” The Alliance medicus always managed to make her feel horribly guilty for some reason. Every time she spoke with him, she had flashbacks of being caught taking sweets from the pantry as a child. “They take their medicines every four hours on the hour.”

“Good, now we just need to clear up the matter of you wanting to perform a secret surgical procedure upon a minor without his parent or guardian’s consent in my surgery without supervision by any doctor and we'll just be dandy,” The doctor said in a tone of deadpan seriousness.

“I am his appointed guardian, and it is a necessary part of his transition into the priesthood,” Kerrigan explained politely, “And it is for the adepts of the Machine God and their eyes alone.”

“Then you're going to have to find someplace else to perform it. I have medical standards in my surgery, one of the most prominent of which is that unlicensed surgeons don't perform unexplained procedures without observation.” The medicus crossed his arms and scowled up into Kerrigan's face.

“I have no need for an observer and assure you that I am more than qualified for this procedure,” Kerrigan growled in irritation, “I will not submit to this sort of insult.”

“Magos?” The young voice of Abbas spoke from where he poked his head out from the waiting room, “Why can't he observe?”

Kerrigan sighed silently. “Child, you know perfectly well why. There are some secrets that are not for those who do not worship the Omnissiah,” Kerrigan replied in irritation as she shoved her rucksack into Bizak's arm. The servant let out a slight 'oof' of surprise at its weight.

“But Magos,” Abbas interjected as he pointed to Bizak's hand, “Surely he already knows more than we're going to show him in the ritual. He's already implanting people with augmentics without first appeasing the machine spirits. Wouldn't it be better for him to understand the proper ritual, so that he could appease the Omnissiah when he does it next time?”

It was sound reasoning. She couldn't feasibly execute Dr. Franklin and all the other Alliance citizens for techno-heresy by herself. Converting him to at least try to appease the machine spirits he was giving life to would be the next best thing. After all, it was just the installation of augmentics rather than their fabrication. She poked her head into the sterile surgery cubicle. “I suppose it is a lesser ritual. Is Orr in there with you?”

“Yes, ma’am,” replied the voice of her other apprentice, “And I brought what you asked me to bring.”

“Good,” Kerrigan sighed, “Dr. Franklin, I will ask you to remain silent for the ritual if you are going to insist upon being present.”

The doctor nodded slightly. “I'll try.”

“Very well,” Kerrigan sighed. It was just one more minor heresy to add to the pile they'd accumulated so far. Just one more minor concession to take them further from orthodoxy. She did what she could because she must; there were no other options.

Kerrigan gestured to the table and Abbas stripped off his robe and climbed on it, his cotton small-clothes just barely preserving modesty. Orr waved the incense censer above her other apprentice, chanting the ritual of organized purity, much to Dr. Franklin's consternation. The Alliance medicus eyed every errant flake of incense as though they were a personal affront to his profession.

Ignoring the man's irritation, Kerrigan began to pray in binary, the harsh grating truths of the machine, “Omnissiah I stand before you today with a new child of the machines. Abbas Sáclair has come to the machine to find its order and wonder. May you find Abbas and bring him into the freedom of knowledge.”

Kerrigan's mechandrites whipped down and held Abbas' arms and legs in place as she pulled a sterile knife out from her satchel. Dr. Franklin shouted in horror nearly as loud as her apprentice as she cut into Abbas' spine without any anesthesia. The young Sáclair thrashed about in pain, cleansing himself of any pretense.

She asked him in the High Gothic of the Damascan nobility, “Do you wish to be a priest of the Omnissah?”

“Magos, what are you doing?” Abbas sobbed in pain and confusion.

She twisted the knife in his back. “Do you still wish to be a priest of the Omnissiah?”

“Yes!” Abbas screamed. The doctor tried to shove himself between Abbas and Kerrigan but she tossed him to the side of the room with her mechandrites.

“Do you still wish to be a priest, knowing the pain that it will bring, the suffering that you will face to earn knowledge?” Kerrigan said impassively as she sliced into his back, exposing the ribs and shoving the meat aside with her fingers.

“YES!” Abbas howled in agony. Orr, who understood as little Damascan High Gothic as Dr. Franklin did, was cowering in the corner, his prayers to the machine long forgotten. He made the symbol of the Aquilla and whispered words of warding. She would have to remember to punish him for that.

“Why?” Kerrigan scraped back the meat from his spine and started to drill into the bones, taking care not to nick the nerves. It wasn't especially easy to do with Abbas convulsing in agony and Dr.Franklin trying to attack her with a stool. The Alliance medicus was nothing if not persistent.

“BECAUSE I'M A BASTARD,” Abbas screamed, “AND I HAVE NOWHERE ELSE TO GO! I CAN'T GO BACK TO BEING NOTHING!”

“Good answer,” Kerrigan replied in English as she pulled the augmenter interface out from her bag and lined its spikes up to the holes that she’d drilled in Abbas' spine, “Try not to pass out.”

She shoved down hard, driving the spikes into the nerve clusters on Abbas' spine. The boy screamed so loud that his voice seemed to whittle down to faint wisps of agony, but he did not pass out. Kerrigan sprayed a healing foam into the wound and pulled the flesh shut around the three protruding sockets. She held the skin in place for a count of ten, allowing the foam to form a suture, then released it and rounded on the stool-brandishing doctor as he tried to shove his way past Bizack.

“Orr, leave.”

Her other apprentice did not have to be told twice. He bolted out the door and ran to Omissah alone knew where. She would track him down later. “Medicus Franklin, what in the name of all that is good and holy do you think you are doing? I could have paralyzed the boy if something went even slightly wrong.”

“Me? What am I doing?” The doctor waved at the still sobbing child in horror, “You just flayed a twelve year old!”

“It was a necessary ritual. I had to test his conviction.” Kerrigan asserted, “Pain is an important part of it.”

“Test his conviction? The kid hasn't hit puberty yet.” The Doctor virtually seethed with anger, “I've had about it up to here with you claiming cruelty as a cultural maxim. You can latch onto your tradition and your religion as much as you want, but for someone to do what I just saw you do to someone who loves and trusts you as much as that boy does, you have to have something just downright rotten inside of you.”

“It is necessary,” Kerrigan asserted, suppressing the feelings of unnecessary guilt that the Medicus somehow managed to elicit from her. It was a tradition that dated back to the fall of the mankind to the Iron Men. The doctor could not help but have such a limited perspective on the workings of the Adeptus Mechanicus; he did not understand the true way of things. “The ritual serves a purpose. It allows us to weed out those too feeble or weak-minded to undergo the transition.”

“Weed out the weak?” Dr. Franklin gagged at the thought of it. “Jesus. what would you have done if he didn't answer the question right?”

“I am in need of new servitors,” Kerrigan replied noncommittally, “The process would have taken longer, and Orr would have needed to get some more specific augmentics from my transport, but I could easily have converted him to a combat servitor of some sort.”

“Get out of my med bay Magos,” said the Doctor in a smoldering whisper of abject hatred, “Get out of my med bay now.”

Trusting in the Alliance medicus' skills to nurse Abbas back to wellness, Kerrigan acquiesced, spinning about and walking to the door. “When he wakes up, tell him to meet me in my quarters so that I can fit him for mechandrites.”

Bizack grumbled as they walked about how the Magos ought to let him go back and give that upstart medicus a good thrashing for his cheek, but she was only half listening. She thought back to her own initiation and tried to remember how she'd felt at the time. Time had long since dulled the centuries-old memory, but a vague impression remained of a small girl lying on a stone table in incomprehension as a woman she'd loved like a mother cut off the tips of her fingers and treated her as a stranger.

It was perhaps best that she had not preserved that memory engram. Some things were best forgotten, no matter how necessary they were at the time.

-=-

Michael swore furiously at the sight of yet another Psi-corps patrol weaving their way through the tourists front of the transport authority, reflected in the small mirror he was using to peek around corners. He'd been doing his best to take uncommon paths and disused routes to avoid the Psi-corps, but ultimately there were a limited number of places from which one could leave the planet Mars without raising suspicion or extradition. The Psi-corps had limited him from the majority of them.

He hadn't put much thought into an escape strategy from Mars in his initial plans. Susan's apparent arrest had been illegal; he would only have needed to get as far as the nearest Earthforce base before he could secure safe passage back to Babylon 5. He had backup plans, of course, but all of them were intended for one or two, not three. It wouldn't do them any good to steal a shuttle if they asphyxiated prior to reaching safe harbor in Narn space where they couldn't be extradited for ship-theft. His plans could be modified, but only to a point.

Contacting the “Free Mars” group for passage was an option, but he doubted that they would work with him knowing that he had a Dilgar in tow. The first time she made a catty comment about inferior races, someone would put a PPG round in her head, for entirely legitimate reasons. Warmaster Nya'dun lacked the infamy of the higher ranking Dilgar war criminals, but she had a list of crimes to her name to curdle the blood. The woman was evil, unrepentant and unashamed of it.

“How the hell do you get yourself into these situations, Garibaldi,” Michael whispered to himself. “You should have stayed home, watched the game, maybe played some poker, but noooo- you had to travel halfway across the galaxy to save two scumbags.”

“We can hear you Mr. Garibaldi,” hissed the warmaster in irritation, “Speaking softly doesn't make the sound travel any less directly into my ears.”

“I'd suggest not interrupting Officer Garibaldi's self-recriminating monologues. Although irritating, they seem to aid his thinking process,” droned Mr. Bester as he adjusted the black gloves on his hands, “And he has been seriously considering shooting both of us for several days now.”

“Stay out of my head, Bester,” growled Michael, irritated.

“Don't flatter yourself, Mr. Garibaldi, there is no need for telepathy to read you. You've been toying with the butt of your pistol since we first escaped the Martian research outpost.” He smiled innocently. “If you hadn't been thinking about it, I would seriously fear for my own safety. The alternative is that I would be following a madman.”

“So you are permitted to be abrupt with the Garibaldi, but not me?” The Warmaster crossed her arms irritatedly, hissing slightly on each final syllable.

The telepath rolled his eyes and replied, “Of course I am. He won't shoot me until I've given him the proof he needs of Clark's guilt. You, dear Warmaster, have remained entirely coy about what information you have.”

“My information is not for sale until I reach the custody of the Non-Aligned Worlds.” The Warmaster hissed, whiskers aquiver, “It is-”

“About the surviving Dilgar military disposition, yes you've said a thousand times already.” Garibaldi sighed in exasperation, “We've been on the run for weeks now, so could you at least change things up every once and a while?”

“I previously tried being forthright with the Earth Alliance on the subject. Their accommodations were insufficient for my needs.” The Warmaster absently reached up to a long pink mass of scars reaching from her eyebrow up and around her notched ear. The woman's eyes unfocused for a moment as she regressed to memory, shivering. “And I hesitate to provide information until I am certain that I won't... return...”

Mr. Bester hugged the Warmaster, stroking the fur behind her ears and cooing softly, “You're safe, kitten. We're safe, it’s over and you do not have to return. Focus on the cold of the air and the softness of your coat. This is not an illusion; illusions miss minor irritations and intricacies.” Garibaldi forced himself to stop gaping at the sight of Bester, of all people, showing kindness to anyone.

He pinched her cheek, hard. The Dilgar meowled in irritation and punched Mr. Bester in the gut, knocking the wind out of him. He wheezed loudly, resting his arms on his knees as he turned to face Michael and said, “It was common practice for the interrogators to present us with fantasies of escape so that we would reveal information about ourselves. They would spend days, even weeks, letting us believe that we'd escaped and found safety before bringing us back to reality and proving just how trapped we were.”

“You think that I'm a fantasy of escape?” Michael groaned in irritation, “You think none of this is real.”

“Me? Most certainly not; I refuse to believe that any of my former subordinates are cruel enough to envision an escape fantasy where I have to endure your hour-long irritated conversations with yourself as you listen to Martian league baseball on your interlink as we sneak through the Martian sewerage system.” Bester looked pityingly at the Dilgar as she pulled her cowl up over her ears and cloak tighter over her uniform, “She, however, has been a test subject for new interrogation techniques for close to a decade - and my presence does not ameliorate her fears.”

“You interrogated her.” Michael groaned, “That's why you knew what she knows.”

“Only in vague terms.” The Dilgar smiled, flashing a mouth of sharp fangs, “Ten years and they never broke me. Pitiful.”

“You proved a most interesting puzzle,” Mr. Bester agreed in a tone of gentle competition, as though chatting with an old rival at a sporting event, “I had to reconsider a number of previously presumed constants of telepathic interrogations. But no, during my tenure we relied purely upon mental rather than physical implements. I have no need of such crutches.”

“And you trust him why, precisely?” Michael sighed.

“Dear man, do you believe that there is another person who can pretend to be as smug as Bester genuinely is for any length of time? Since they took him prisoner he's been delighting in throwing a spanner into their attempts to interrogate me,” She shrugged. “If this is a fantasy, it's proved amusing enough to warrant indulging in it before the electrified pain spikes come back. I'm in no hurry to revisit those.”

Bester growled in professional irritation, “Brutish amateurs. Information gained by such primitive means is hardly worth the effort.”

“I'm surrounded by crazy people,” Michael sighed and looked back to his mirror. The Psi-corps officers had rounded the bend, heading for the southern entrance, “OK people, look alive. We're heading for the Minbari port authority. If we can make it in there, we can claim amnesty.”

It was an odd byproduct of the Minbari surrender at the battle of the line. Minbari ships had not been allowed to land in Earth Alliance territory as part of the terms of their surrender, but there was a massive fleet in orbit of earth that needed to restock its supply of quantum-40. In an odd bit of legal maneuvering, the Earth Alliance government had declared a disused landing pad and supply yard on Mars to be Minbari diplomatic territory, so that shuttles of q-40 could be loaded without breaking the terms of the tenuous Minbari surrender. So it was that twelve square blocks of Martian territory in the largest of the dome cities was, in fact, part of Minbar.

It had become something of a tourist attraction in the following years. Initially, it was a safe place to get a look at the dreaded Minbari scourge, then later because of the ease with which one could both trade with Minbari travelers and purchase alien wares. The primarily European residents of the “Minbari-Earth border” tended to view themselves as more cosmopolitan than their other Martian brethren for living cheek-to-jowl with the aliens.

“Yes, we enter Minbari land - where we claim we engineered our own escape and ran into you while you were on vacation, and that you aided us out of the goodness of your own heart,” Bester replied in boredom. “It astonishes me that these harebrained schemes of yours somehow function.”

“What can I say? Spend enough years as an alcoholic and you get pretty good at making excuses,” Michael shrugged.

“Why does that not overburden me with confidence?” replied the Warmaster.

“You want to stay behind? Be my guest.” Michael held up his hand, counting down on his fingers, “But we are about – to – go!”

On 'go' he sprinted across the plaza, heading for the front gate of the Minbari transit authority, trusting that the sound of swift footsteps behind him were those of his fellow fugitives. Stepping off a knee-high wall he leapt three feet and onto the tabletop outside a French café. A startled couple yelled in surprise as he ran across their breakfast and onto the next table, leapfrogging his way across the bistro.

A broad-shouldered man rose to his feet with a yell of, “Oye! The fu-” only to be knocked forward into his eggs and toast by a sharp strike to the kidney as the Warmaster shoved him out of her way, growling ferociously. The howling of a large cat rose some primal fear in the humans, prompting them to leap out of the path of the Dilgar. Bester, as was his habit, jogged casually behind the frenzied feline with an expression of mild interest as he eyed the various breakfasts.

Slipping slightly from the egg on his shoe as he hit the ground, Michael narrowly avoided death as a PPG shot seared its way past his face, the sound of their bid for freedom apparently having alerted the Psi-corps patrol to their presence. Ten black-uniformed men charged through the crowd of tourists, firing their PPGs into the air to scare the civilians out of their line of fire.

Michael dived into a crouch, hiding behind a marble fountain shaped in the form of a prancing horse. Steam rose in great clouds as plasma fire shot through the streams of water coming from the horse's nostrils, providing Nya'dun with nominal cover as she followed Michael to his hiding place. As the Warmaster rose her pistol to fire back Michael grabbed her by the wrist, “No, you might hit civilians.”

“Better them than us!” Bester screamed across the path from where he was crouching behind a, now scorched, palm tree. He flinched as a bowling ball sized coconut crashed to the ground between his legs, “Jesus.”

“We need to get move!” Michael shouted over the sounds of PPG fire and screaming, “If we let them pin us down here we're as good as dead!”

“There is no cover at all over there! We'd be giving ourselves to them on a platter.” The Warmaster growled irritatedly, “That's no solution at all.”

“Must I be the only one who can think in a crisis?” Bester growled in irritation, picking up the coconut and heaving it across the plaza and into the front gate, ducking into a roll and taking cover with the two other fugitives as his projectile flew through the air. It soared five yards before smashing the window of the guardhouse.

“Well that was wholly unnecessary,” sighed the Warmaster, exasperated, “Shall we yell insults next?”

“No,” Michael smiled, catching onto Bester's line of thinking, “Next we surrender.”

“What!” the Dilgar hissed, fur standing on edge as though she'd just received an electric shock, “Are you completely mental?!”

“Good thinking Mr. Garibaldi, that will expedite our escape considerably,” nodded Bester, “ten feet should do it I think?”

“Better make it twenty to be sure,” Michael agreed, looking at his watch. “They've had enough time by now and I want to make it look good.”

Michael held up his pistol, tossing it over the fountain and into the plaza. It scattered six yards across the tiled ground. Bester, following Michael's lead, did the same. The telepath then held his fingers to his temple in a gesture of concentration, wincing slightly as he sent a message of surrender across the plaza.

“This had better be another hallucination,” griped the Dilgar as she tossed hers as well, “Humans cannot possibly be this crazy.”

“They've accepted our surrender,” Bester opened one eye and looked at Michael in surprise, “And yours, though I'd thought they'd rather shoot you on principle.”

“Thanks for the vote of confidence,” Michael griped as he stood up and walked out from where he hid, taking care to keep his palms behind his head, taking care to stay on the left side of the horse with his back to the Minbari Transit Authority.

“That's far enough,” barked the senior Psi-corps officer in an Scottish brogue as he motioned for his subordinates to approach the fugitives. “You're nicked.”

Michael did not resist as two large men forced him into a crouch, tying his arms at the wrists with plastic ties, though he did protest in irritation as one of them roughly groped his body searching for hidden weapons, “Oye, buy me dinner first buddy.”

The Psi-cop kneed him in the gut for his cheek. Garibaldi huffed in discomfort and fell to his knees, huffing for air as he watched the Dilgar struggle against her captors, hissing and biting at them, “You won't take me without a fight, you useless genetic wastrels! I'll gut you and feast on your entrails.”

“A charming woman,” the senior officer eyed Bester contemptuously from where two officers twisted the telepath's arms in a painful submission hold, “I can tell what you see in her.”

He turned back to the cowering crowd of tourists, cupped his hands, and yelled, “Nothing to see here folks, I'm sorry for interrupting your day with this little bit of law enforcement unpleasantry. It's over now.”

“I wouldn't precisely say that,” replied a jovial voice from the direction of the Minbari transit authority, “I suspect there are a few matters still up in the air.”

A handsome long-haired man with just a shock of a beard and mustache walked towards the Psi-cops, his Minbari uniform clashing with his obviously human features. Two highly irked members of the Minbari warrior caste followed him closely as he strode forwards, spinning the rounded shape of a coconut on his fingertips like a basketball.

Humming cheerily as he near skipped his way over to the senior Psi-cop, he extended his unoccupied hand to the officer, “Liaison on behalf of the Earth-Minbari Co-operation Bureau. Pleased to meet you.”

The officer did not accept the man's outstretched hand, eyeing it distastefully as he said, “Never heard of it. Now if you'll get you of my way, I can take these fugitives into custody.”

“Yes,” sighed the man wistfully as he tossed the coconut over into the Psi-cops’ hands, “You see, I'm afraid there is a problem with that. These three committed an act of vandalism against a building in Minbari territory, so they're going to have to explain themselves to the Minbari magistrate.”

“These people are wanted for treason, jail-breaking, and attempted murder,” growled the Psi-cop.

“Not on Minbar, I'm afraid,” the man shrugged, “That strikes me as a problem for Earth Alliance territory.”

“We are in Earth Alliance territory.” the officer said tersely.

“No,” replied one of the stone-faced Minbari, “The border of the Transit Authority is surrounded by five yards of unclaimed territory to prevent tariff disputes. You are currently in a demilitarized zone.”

“This is absurd,” the officer shook his head in incredulity, “I'm taking them with me. Want to stop me? You're going to have to shoot your way through us.”

“Well, you do have so many more guns than us,” The man admitted, looking conspiratorially to the two Minbari before snapping his fingers. With a roar of sudden shifting air, the oblong bluish forms of two Nial fighters flew up from behind the high walls of the Minbari compound, each of them rotating heavy fission cannons towards the Psi-corps officers, “But ours are just so much bigger than yours.”

“This isn't legal!” howled the Psi-cop in fear, “You can't do this!”

“Oh, it would likely cause a diplomatic incident if we do, sir,” the man said agreeably, “Heck, we'd probably have to give up this outpost entirely. And Lernon would just be heartbroken about that. Wouldn't you, Lernon?”

The warrior caste soldier just grunted. The man patted him on the shoulder and sighed, “You'll have to pardon Lernon; he never entirely got over not being able to finish the Battle of the Line. But I suppose you're about to give him his chance, aren't you?”

It was the look of contempt on the Minbari's face that seemed to convince the Psi-cop to back off, even more so than the fission cannons of the fighters. He snarled in frustration and made a rude gesture towards the man with his hand, “This isn't over.”

“You may report any issues you have with us to the Minbari ambassador on Babylon 5. I'm sure she'll just love to have you explain why you started a firefight in front of a diplomatic residence,” The man ran his thumb up his own forehead, tipping an invisible hat, “Best of luck to you.”

The Minbari led the three fugitives safely behind the walls of the Minbari Transit Authority before the front gates shut with a resounding iron clang, hiding the spiteful face of the officer from view. With a slight chuckle the man let out a long, low whistle of relief, “I can't believe that worked.”

“What!” squawked the Dilgar as he cut her wrists loose.

“There isn't any no man's land,” Michael replied, “He was lying.”

“Then what was your plan?” she crooned.

“I was trying to get the Minbari to ask for a list of charges, as is Minbari custom, and under Earth Alliance law they must produce to anyone who asks. Either he'd have to fake the charges, which we could dispute, or he'd have to admit them, which would reveal an illegal torture facility,” Bester shrugged, “But this was vastly more preferable. Why precisely did you do it?”

“I'm under orders to help him,” he pointed to Michael, “Get back to Babylon 5 and get things back the way 'they are meant to be.' Or something to that effect; my orders tend to be rather cryptic and esoteric.”

“Ordered by whom precisely?” probed Bester.

“He had a message for you specifically, Michael,” The man pursed his lips in thought, “Ah, yes! 'A black ship and a scorched badge makes long friends.”

Michael laughed, relaxing as the man cut the bonds off his wrists. The security chief knew very well very well where that message came from, and what it meant. Jeffrey Sinclair, the former commander of Babylon 5 and current Human Ambassador to Minbar, had been with him when the two of them had discovered a secret Psi-corps research outpost working on some unknown alien ship. The only evidence they'd been able to walk away with was a scorched Psi-corps logo. The knowledge of both ship and badge were exclusively known to the two of them. “How did he know?”

“That you were here? He didn't,” The man smiled, “But we tracked your flight plan.”

“How in the- It wasn't even under my I.D! I hopped ten different transports under different names. Heck, I went into Narn and Centauri space before coming to Mars,” Michael sputtered.

“Our mutual friend suggested some of your favored aliases,” The man shrugged, “It wasn't hard to find once I knew what to look for. And I have a - er - range of associates in various places.” The man glared spitefully at Michaels companions. “I hope you'll pardon me for not going more into detail considering our company.”

“Yes, yes, we already know you don't like us,” the Dilgar eyed the Minbari speculatively, as though considering the ways to overpower them. “Can we please get to the part where you threaten us, then take us on that delightful-looking diplomatic ship being gassed up even as we speak? I'd like to be off-world before the Psi-corps think to fool the Air Traffic Authority into shooting us down prior to reaching the jump gate, thinking we're some sort of flying bat-creature opening the gates of hell.”

“Yes... that would be unfortunate,” the man agreed, “Very well, children, everybody grab their buddy and let's get started on our field trip to Babylon 5. My name is Marcus, and I will be your guide for the duration.”

-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-

The Lady Sáclair luxuriated on a gilded throne as it hovered through the air, strumming her fingers across her chest. Her belly, great with child, swaddled snugly into an augmentic corset that aided in supporting the additional heft of her soon to be born son. The great golden face of a roaring lion heaved and fell with her calm, slow breathing. The child was more placid than she was used to, but the Medicus assured her that it was to be expected given the higher-gravity environment of the newly colonized moon. It would take time for the unborn Lord Sáclair's muscles to adjust to the additional strain.

Annabelle's own aches and pains had increased since landing upon the planet, the dull and expected pains of motherhood exacerbated by the near-perpetual exhaustion of moving in slow motion. Throne bless Magos Tuul, who'd had the good sense to send the anti-gravity chair in addition to the household items she'd insisted upon bringing down from the Endless Bounty. It would rather have ruined the image of regal poise that she labored to maintain for the good of her subjects. A subject respected a leader who gave just cause for deference.

And there was great need for deference in dealing with the new task of bringing civilization to the untamed Terra Firma of the twin moons of Vega Six, dubbed New Belzafest and the Lion's Perch respectively. New Belzafest was a verdant moon, as different from its namesake as one could imagine. The Lion's Perch was substantially smaller, if no less verdant, and housed a long since disused spaceport as well as an orbiting station for refueling starships within spitting distance of the massive xenotech-constructed hyperspace-gate.

It had been years since the Lady Sáclair had left her husband's side, but in light of the danger he faced, Nathaniel had been adamant that she took the children to New Belzafest to aid and support the in the foundation of their new colony. It pained her to do so, but she had consented for the good of her children. With the notable exception of David, they would all be safely away from conflict. It hadn't escaped her notice that there were scrupulously few men of fighting age who'd been assigned to the recolonization effort, and suspiciously many new mothers, children, and teachers.

With the exception of her own private guard of Lionhearts and a decent number of Adeptus Arbites, the fledgling world's military assets consisted of a skeleton regiment of aging soldiers and injured Guardsmen. They manned the garrison, who spent as much time napping in the warm sunlight as they did patrolling the perimeter for dangerous beasts. And though a number of outdated, unshielded, and Warp-incapable ships were left for the defense of New Belzafest, Annabelle feared that they would be woefully unprepared for any sort of attacks. About her only seasoned force short of her own personal guard was a regiment of one hundred well-meaning but ill-mannered Ogryn.

But that would change when the Endless Bounty returned. Not if.When. And the colony would be prepared to start a new pocket of glorious Empire in Terra's name. It had been a month since she'd last seen hide or hair of her husband, but she would soon. She sighed and cracked her neck, wet pops clicking as she massaged the stiffness out. “I suppose that's enough quiet for one day.”

“If you say so, Ma’am,'” replied Corporal Maziv in his low purring grumble, his milky white augmentic eyes glowing slightly in the dull evening light. He was so old that even augmentics and anti-agapics could only slow the rate of physical decay, rather than stop it. Nobody knew exactly how old he was, since Maziv never bothered to keep track, but he was old enough to have served Sáclair's grandfather some two hundred years before. His reflexes and loyalty hadn't wavered in all that time. “The Circle will likely have started by now.”

“Yes,” Anabelle pursed her lips and flipped the activator to her chair, “I suspect they have.”

The Belzafesters were entirely polite and respectful, but no less infuriating to deal with. The former Belzafest colony had no nobles. The governorship of the colony was appointed by a representative of the Inquisition when the position became vacant, but all other positions in government were elected ones. Consequently, while they did respect her as the de facto governess of the new colonies, they had some strange notions about how one ought to treat their sovereign, not the least of which was that they expected to make policy absent their governess.

Maziv grunted, “They mean well, ma’am, they just think different.”

“Careful Maziv, you'll be telling the Lionheart recruits that they've done a good job next,” Annabelle jested. Maziv would no more give compliments than grow wings and fly.

“I Throne well won't. Give them a compliment and they go and get themselves dead in some foolishness,” Maziv nodded firmly, “Better disappointed at their scores than dead on the battlefield.”

“How are the young Lionhearts?” For their safety, all Lionhearts too young for active combat had been reassigned to New Belzafest, much to their annoyance.

“They complained at first; young men are always eager to throw themselves into the jaws of battle and death. Fools, the lot of them are. But Fadir and some of the boys who were unable to continue active duty after Belzafest have been taking them through stealth exercises in the woods, which seems to have taken their mind off of it,” Maziv sighed, “It's the little ones who worry me. The boys younger than ten are terrified of the jungle noises. Some damned fool showed them a copy of a Catachan holo-vid and they've become convinced a Catachan Devil is going to eat them in the night.”

“Yes,” Annabelle sighed, “The Consort Aran was lamenting something similar, though I find it difficult to take anything Isabel says without a grain of salt.”

Annabelle found dealing with the consort wives of her husband to be exhausting. Her husband rarely consulted her on the decision to take a new concubine, if ever, and even then it was only a matter of her own aesthetic preferences. He wanted to pick women who she found sufficiently attractive to share her bed with.

To be sure, at times it worked out splendidly. Sáclair's first concubine, Ariana Rendra, had been a pleasure both inside and out of the bedroom. They'd lived as equals until an unfortunate side effect of giving birth to Anthony, Nathaniel's second bastard child, had killed her. It was perhaps why the boy had grown up to be so taciturn later in life.

Annabelle had not had as pleasant a relationship with any of the subsequent consorts. Regina Kora, though pleasant enough, was a bore and a dullard. She was a great listener to be sure, but Annabelle resented the woman's supposition that Regina's offspring would take the place of her own were she unable to mother an heir.

The Lady Sandra Nixya had not been a consort as such, as she was Captain of the Crossed Cutlasses. She'd left the product of her affair in artificial wombs to come to term prior to leaving for the northern rim of space. For the children's sake, she'd forced Nathaniel to declare the woman an official concubine. He'd never been able to abide the sight of them, so hurt was he by the Lady Nyxia's dismissal of him. Annabelle, however, had loved them as her own. It had been with great sadness that she'd consented to send them to the Schola Progenitum, but they had neither skill nor titles and would need both to thrive in life.

Kifah Narjis was well intentioned but irritating. Kifa had no particularly irritating habits, but as a woman barely two years older than Ami she'd seduced the lord Sáclair while working as his chamber maid. The sheer cheek of it was infuriating.

And the less said about the Isabel Aran and the better. Isabel Aran's only notable merits were her unusual sexual appetite and a body born of constant, narcissistic levels of fitness. It was the damned Inquisitor's fault. It had been in the stress of fleeing his pursuit that Nathaniel had taken Isabel to his bed, and then in his incarceration that they'd been trapped together.

She loved her husband dearly, and tolerated them for his sake, but there was a part of her that questioned the necessity of the concubines at all. It was his right by birth and conquest to do so, but what a man could do and what he ought to do were seldom the same. If he'd focused on her and only her, perhaps they'd even have a boy by now. No, the here and now, stick to the here and now.

For family and duty she stuck to what mattered.

Annabelle leaned back into the cushion of her chair, the soft velvet cool against her aching back as the golden throne hovered over the red tile floor. “Come on Maziv. I've dawdled long enough.”

Warm sunlight shone in through the wide windows favored by Centauri architects, encouraging rebellious flowering vines to shimmy into the dwelling. Neither the Belzafesters nor the Endless Bounty crewmen were particularly skilled in the art of horticulture, and the process of clearing the thick mess of encroaching wilderness had slunk along in a ponderous crawl of confusion, accidents, and delays. It was a minor miracle that any of the dwellings were fit for habitation at all, having been abandoned for decades. Yet whatever else might be said of the Centauri, they build their structures to last.

The short journey was pleasant, if nothing else. The Lionhearts and ship's security eagerly saluted the Lady as the throne passed them, even if there was a slight sheen of boredom in their eyes. For a wild and untamed planet, their stay had been decidedly unremarkable so far. Even the local fauna had, as of yet, not caused any problems to speak of other than causing some unfortunate allergic issues for the Narn Embassy. And that was hardly world-shattering.

It was during this rather soporific musing that the chair swooped round a corner, colliding with a resounding thud of flesh as a bemused nobleman squawked in bafflement. Hiding her smile of contented surprise she snorted imperiously at the upended man. “Good morning Lord Sørian.”

“Milady,” the oily weasel of a man smiled up at her, “A good morning indeed. I was just examining the most interesting flower.”

“Ah,” Annabelle replied noncommittally, deigning to commit as little importance to the man's opinions as she could. Annabelle hated Sørian. The man was lecherous, self indulgent, self important, and simperingly saccharine in his supplication. Her good husband, in a mood that smacked more of liquor than brilliance, had come to the decision that Sørian ought to be appointed to the Belzafest colony as an advisor. Though what advice he expected the irritating man to give was entirely beyond her.

The man continued to smile vapidly as the silence dragged on, smiling expectantly at her. Exasperated, she asked, “What is so interesting about the flower?”

The nobleman held up a small white bud between his thumb and forefinger, still attached to the vine. The petals shifted as he touched them, straining towards the sunlight no matter where he turned the stem, “Most curious, are they not?”

“Living things aspire to keep on living, Sørian. Even plants are very skilled at adapting to that end,” She rubbed her own belly, “We do everything to keep on living so that we can pass on our genes to the next generation.”

“Do we?” Sørian picked the bud off the stem and tossed it into the darkness. The tiny bud fluttered about in the shade before pinwheeling about as though drawn by a magnet, rocketing over to another vine, “Because to be frank, milady, it rather seems like we've been allowing bendies to roam free among the groxes.”

“You tread on dangerous ground,” Annabelle's harsh alto snapped with such severity that all Lionhearts within earshot started eyeing Sørian with anticipative apprehension. Maziv's milky eyes narrowed as his hand casually rested upon the pommel of a curved scimitar.

Sørian was either too determined or too foolish to allow her warning to dissuade him from continuing, “Madam, the Amon Sui have been quiet as of late, but they are not gone. Now, more than ever, we need to be prepared for their treachery.”

“You surprise me,” Annabelle relaxed in her seat, “I'd rather been led to believe your loyalties lay elsewhere.”

“The Amon Sui have no love for me, milady,” The nobleman tipped his felt hat with a slight jingle of bells sewn into the seams of his waistcoat, “And I am ill-suited for subterfuge and sabotage. But I know people. I know their minds and their desires. And I intend to find them. For the good of the crew, for those who have... who have become special to me.”

Ami, ugh, she had been fearing this. Her daughter had developed an unhealthy level of dependence upon the man's council. How Ami had even meet the wastrel was a mystery, but she would not see her daughter wed to someone so entirely unsuitable for her. Sørian was a man of proper breeding but a small heart.

Her husband had given approval? Bah, he was no mother. Ami deserved a man who would love her properly.

“Out of the goodness of your heart?” Annabelle chuckled derisively. Sørian had never been known to give a single copper penny at the collection plate. “I seem to recall a moment where a young nobleman had said 'If the Emperor planned on us wasting time and energy on every damned persons’ problems, he would have made us all Primarchs or nobles.”

“A youthful foolishness,” Sørian splayed his right hand over his breast. “One that I regret terribly.I assure you milady, that I am long past youthful foolishness."

“No, Sørian, you've more than contented yourself with infections of the adult persuasion." Annabelle rolled her eyes at the man's rejected look of spite. Yes, therein lay the true man. "Sørian, like most women I do keep track of the ship’s gossip. Unlike most women, I have unfettered access to the ships records. A curious number of women in your service seem to leave the Endless Bounty under mysterious circumstances when the ship makes port."

"I have no idea to what you refer, madame..." The nobleman hedged, "I do not keep track of every servant in my household."

"Oh, don’t lie to me. It is a waste of both our time. Your purpose is no secret to me. I know your mind too well, my husband was cut off too similar a cloth," the lioness within her reared angrily, "Bastard children sired from servant girls and pretty faces are the byproduct of many a nobleman's sporting. But I will not abide a man romancing my daughter who would so discard a woman bearing his seed."

“You wound me, madame! I have no clue to what you refer. If there were any servants to be replaced, it would be my varlet, who organizes such mundane household affairs." Søians face was a mask of practiced innocence, betraying none of the anger she knew to be simmering just beneath the surface. "I have no carnal knowledge of any woman in my employ. The satisfaction of such urges is unthinkable to me."

"There wasn't likely much thinking involved, I suspect. " The Lady Sáclair was being far more blunt than was her custom, but in the fullness of her womanhood her pregnancy had drained her patience for the game of houses. Tired, achy, and hormonal as she was, there seemed little time to be wasted on roundabout speech. “Fortunately for you, I have no intention of relying upon your unique ability to 'not think' your way into her small-clothes. Contrary to what you may believe, servants are more than capable of both listening and speaking their minds. The servants in my employ do so more than most, I suspect. Your attempts to ingratiate yourself with a woman thirty years your junior have not been a subtle as you desire. She may find your company agreeable, but I find it wholly inappropriate.”

“Madam, I do not pretend to know what sort of gossip you might know of me. Nor do I claim to be a saint. But whatever poison has been poured into your ear is, I assure you, entirely a misunderstanding.” The nobleman bowed deeply and handed over one of the white flowers to her, “I can only say that envy and trickery have never been beyond the nobility. We sometimes forget to observe what is right in front of us for fear of some dark plot. I am her friend, nothing more. If I have overstepped my bonds, please accept my most humble of apologies.”

Never for lack of courtesy, the Lady Sinclair politely sniffed the bud. Throne, but it was intoxicating, a vague smell of lavender and cooking pies. She couldn't precisely place it, but it was possibly the most lovely thing she'd ever smelled. She lost her train of thought as she stared into the bud. “These are magnificent. We'll have to make sure to plant these in the garden.”

“They already are planted in the garden,” Maziv grumbled informatively, “You ordered them burned.”

“Did I?” Annabelle sniffed the flower again, feeling the aches and discomforts of her pregnancy melting away. “That seems a shame, they really are lovely. Such a wonderful scent...”

“Madam,” The nobleman got down on his knees and pulled his wide hat from his head, displaying the many jeweled combs holding a powdered whig of finest grox-mane in place, “I only seek to advise and to aid you in your search for the traitors to our livelihood. They are no friends of my family, and I fear us all. I am at your disposal, and in your service.”

“Yes, I suppose... I suppose that could be arranged,” She sighed and reclined back into her chair. It was getting harder to concentrate. A bout of fatigue? Odd, she did not usually tire until her afternoon tea, “Maziv, I grow weary. Let us retire.”

“Before seeing the Circle madam?” Maziv grunted.

“No, no of course not. I just... Of course, let us head to the Circle,” Annabelle pinched her nose hard and let go of the flower, starting her addled senses back to waking, “I cannot wait till I can finally drink a decent cup of recaf. Ah, very well Lord Sørian. If you wish to hunt Amon Sui, then hunt them you shall.”

Her mouth twitched into a devious smile as a solution to the Ami problem came to mind, “In fact that shall be your only job from henceforth. I am appointing six Lionhearts to follow you day and night to aid in your search. Till the Amon Sui are no longer a threat you shall not be without them, day or night until even the name Amon Sui is forgotten.”

“Certainly that's excessive! A man must have some privacy after all. My apartments are secure enough,” The man hastily replied, doubtlessly thinking of some comely maid in his employ. Perhaps he even had someone higher-born in mind; now that she’d thought of it, the Lady Huin had been sending jealous looks towards Ami whenever she'd gotten attention from the Lord Sørian.

“If you insist,” Annabelle replied in a voice of motherly concern. She didn't especially need the Lionhearts with him when he was within the confines of his bedroom, only around to shield Ami from the advances of an older man. Sørian was highly unlikely to unearth anything of importance in his search anyway.

Sørian looked slightly green as six Lionhearts materialized from behind tapestry and next to cupboards, falling into lockstep with him, “Are they to obey me?”

“Only if you're not acting the prat and giving good advice,” Maziv grunted with his diplomatic air, “Noble you are, Sáclair you aren't. You're a guildsman, nay a shipman.”

Sørian's eyes narrowed, “I did not ask you, lowborn. I asked your mistress.”

“Maziv, if he speaks without a civil tongue in his head again, please remove it,” Annabelle enjoyed the look of shock in Sørian's eyes as she said, “Oh, honestly. Even were he to do it, the Medicus can grow you a new one in a matter of hours. It would be painful, but certainly deserved for being so rude to my subjects. You're a noble, do try and act like it.”

“I will keep your advice in mind milady,” the nobleman bowed, “Now if you will excuse me, I have to oversee the transfer of property into my new household.”

The Lady Sáclair nodded curtly, to which Sørian rushed out of the corridor. His six shadows followed him in lockstep, much to the nobleman's irritation.

“Come on, Maziv,” She sighed, “The Circle will arrange the terms of diplomatic relations with the Narn without us if we don't hurry. No sense of decorum, I swear.”

“Yes mam,” replied the Lionheart dutifully, “If you say so ma’am.”
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