The nightmares came, as they always did. Memories of the worst moments imaginable: a single fragment of Susan's many borrowed nightmares. She dreamed in terrifying episodes of stolen horror and sound, ruptured echoes only half-remembered in their malformed splendor. It was not her fear, her unease - it was his, the Inquisitor’s. Daul's fear, and Daul's terror.
Daul had trained her to guard her mind against the predations of warp creatures as she slept, but protecting herself from demons of one sort only brought about demons of another. Daul's past echoed in her mind,her mental defenses useless against her stolen memories.
Aliens and eldritch monstrosities snickered and snapped at her heels, fighting her at every turn. The dreams had made sleep a battle as terrible as the one she fought while awake. It was not wading through the muck and mire of war trenches in some long gone battle, not the darkest of demons nor the charnel house of a an alien's monstrous appetites.
But it kept coming back to the house and the man.
The dream was always the same, the same place with the same victims. The house, the smells, Metzik. Susan hadn't ever been to Metzik, but she knew that the homely woodsman's house was larger than it strictly needed to be for Daul's family. Nor had she witnessed the Skur'nek birds that used to roost beneath the wide window boxes of flowers that Daul's mother arranged, but she knew it all the same. Its familiarity only served to make its deep homeliness more alien to her, aided and abetted by the creeping horror which she knew Daul felt every time he laid eyes on the building.
Other dreams passed as whispering and easily-forgotten bursts of terror, but not this one. She would sit for what felt like hours just staring at the door, too terrified to enter. Something terrible lived in that house now, something wrong and evil: a monster beyond contempt, and beyond hatred. Susan didn't know what it was or why it was there, only the creeping and unformed fear that a child had for what she knew lay in the shadows.
She knew what came next, but continued through the motions as she had every time before. Her body floated across the dreamscape like through some sort of fluid, not walking so much as gliding. As the high pitched howls of the women inside hit a crescendo, she willed her body to go faster, urging her phantom limbs forward to little effect. She could only hover forwards as first the mother, then the eldest daughter, then the middle daughter screamed in betrayed disbelief as the life was cut out of them.
It was only after the sound of the youngest daughter's squeals, high pitched and uncomprehending like the squeals of a piglet, squelched into silence with the crash of snapping jaws that her body responded as she knew it ought to. She bashed in the door with a kick she doubted her physical body could have managed, reflexively grabbing the wide woodsman's axe from where she knew it had been left next to the door.
The creature had to die.
The first time that she'd walked in, she'd been so furious she hadn't thought to bring a weapon. The beast had slaughtered her, waking her up from the dream terrified and sobbing. She hadn't made that mistake again. Every time the dream came, she fought the beast. Every time, the beast killed her. But she would be damned before she gave up and let herself give up because of a bad dream.
Susan inched her way forward with slow and careful steps, keeping to the shadows and taking care not to step on the creaky floor board as she crept up the back step. Susan took care not to look at the photos or paintings on the wall for fear of being crippled by an errant memory. Too much of Daul was wrapped up in this house.
Too much was bound to the last place he'd ever felt safe.
In the distance, she knew a little boy would be crying down skinny cheeks and doing his best to hide himself behind his own knobbly knees. It had taken her a few trips through the dream to realize who he was. The memory of Daul as a child was unrecognizable from what he'd become, especially after melting in her cradled arms as she tried in vain to cary the sobbing child to safety.
She hated the Inquisitor, but she couldn't bring herself to hate this little boy enough to let the monster have him.
But she couldn't put herself between him and it, not yet. Facing the creature head on hadn't worked. Running hadn't worked. A dozen plans so far had ended in bloody failure. It was time to use the creature's own ego against it. So Susan bit her lip and ignored every instinct in her body as she listened to the disgusting creature prowl forwards on its lanky legs, dragging its protruding belly along the ground behind it with loping jerks of its skeletally elongated fingers.
Unhindered by Susan's intervention, the creature stuck its head into the boy's room, cackling with barely restrained ecstasy. It slapped hands on the white paint of the walls, still dripping red from the slaughter below, defiling the symbols of worship on either side of the door with incalculable spite. “Daul.... are we playing games now, Daul? Daddy likes games.”
Susan's breath caught in her throat, rushing up with the taste of bile and regret. No, it wasn't time yet. She needed to be sure it wouldn't be able to strike back at her with those taloned fingers. The boy would have to endure a little longer. She knew he wasn't real, but somehow that didn't seem to matter to her as she endured a tiny, keening sob from where she knew the boy hid.
"Why don't we play a game Daddy likes? Do you want to play the game Daddy and Mommy just played? I promise we'll only do it once," it cackled to itself as it tore the clothes in Daul's closet to shreds. Susan swooned as she made the mistake of staring at a ruined sweater and was briefly overpowered with a warm memory of the woman who'd knitted it. The smiling apple cheeked woman whose entrails now decorated the downstairs landing hit her in the heart like a sledgehammer, mingling with her own dull memories of having a mother.
"Or do you want to play a game of hide and seek? Oh, what a naughty child you are for hiding from daddy,” The creature continued its pretense of searching, apparently oblivious to Susan, "Remember... Daddy loves you, doesn't he?" More laughter followed.
Oh yeah. It needed to die.
Susan crept behind the creature as it began its final speech, making her way to the door's narrow opening. She slowly took one step, then another, not daring to even breathe for fear that the noise might alert the beast to her presence. The creature was strong, but dull witted and easily distracted despite its agile ferocity. She'd nearly escaped it once by doubling back to the cottage five miles into the dense forrest of Metzik until the boy had whimpered loudly in fear.
First one step, then two: she crept closer and closer as the beast continued its cruel game of cat and mouse, “Here's some new rules to the game. Daddy finds you, and we play a game he likes. Daddy doesn't find you and you get to leave?”
A small voice hiccuped in fear just behind the creature, the softand heartbreaking whimper of a horrified child. “Only a few more seconds,” Susan reminded herself silently, “You only need to keep him busy for a few more seconds.”
Seconds passed as the creature stood in the center of the room, raving incoherently till it grew bored of its own speeches. Susan ducked behind the door frame, clutching the axe to her breast as the creature turned to face her, only missing her by moments. She held her breath and listened as it came closer to her.
Drag-thump, drag-thump, drag-thump: inch by inch, moment by moment till the creature's flaring nostrils just poked past the door, spraying a thin mist of caustic smoke as the creature hissed in snorting laughter in its moment of victory. Its triumph turned to disbelief as Susan spun on her heel, driving the axe's cold iron blade between the creature's nostrils, splitting the creature's head with a gratifying splatter of thick blood upon the floor.
It howled piteously and hissed a sibilant plea: “Mercy.”
But there would be none, not for this thing. Bellowing furious staccato screams of fury, she beat the creature till her body refused to continue, covering herself with the creature's entrails with each collision of the blade. She swung till the axe fell from her tired fingers, cold iron blade still sizzling with unnatural flashes of breaking ether.
She collapsed to the floor, sobbing with exhaustion and pent-up emotions, staring at the blood coating her fingers and willing her petrified hands to relax. It was over. She'd won. Fear and adrenaline twisted into glorious hysteria as she rocked on her knees whooping in victory, “First rule of Babylon 5, do not mess with Susan-fragging-Ivanova!”
Brushing the bigger bits of monster from her chest, Susan called out to the huddled boy behind the bed, “It's safe...you're safe.”
She stood up and took a tentative step in the boy's direction, wobbling uneasily on tired legs. It was only a dream, and she could control a dream. She told herself to forget how her legs would operate in normal life: just will them to work and they should work. She rambled semi-coherently to herself, “Come on Ivanova, you just killed the monster. Walking between here and the bed should be child's play.”
She did, and they didn't. Her imagination, suffering from the unfortunate fate of the pragmatist, was apparently hopelessly bound to reality. Her feet stayed fixed in place as she called out again, “Come on Daul. It's over, you're safe.”
A sad little boy with a tear-stained face stood up from behind the bed,a stuffed animal clutched to his chest. With a sad little sigh and a shake of his head, the child stared at her with eyes, piercing and sad like those of the Daul she knew. “Miss Ivanova. It's never over.”
And with that simple pronouncement, the world shifted. Tentacles erupted from the blood and gore around her. Malodorous hunks of sinew, tooth, and bone formed manacles, binding her arms and legs before she could reach for the axe. Horrified, Susan yelled, “Daul! Daul, what are you doing?”
The child scrunched his eyes and tore the stuffed creature in half. He screamed in agony, “It. Is. Never. Over.”
Tiny hands dropped the ripped animal and reached out for her, pleading, begging, but never reaching. The child's body fell apart at the seams, breaking into bits and pieces of charnel. Hot, sticky blood seeped from the pile of meat, covering the room in a thick wave of red, an ocean of blood full of floating bodies.
A sea of bodies drifted in endless stacks around her. Pretty, ugly, rich, poor, human, alien: all were equal in death. They all stared at her with glassy-eyed expressions of betrayal, demanding that she explain why she hadn't saved them. Bodies piled out for eternity centered around the ruined pile of a broken little boy, laid beneath the crucified remains of an old man.
Names, places, wars, conflicts, betrayals, mistakes, victories, joys, sorrows: all were soaked in the blood of a billion victims crying for justice. A billion names screamed in pain and fear, and Susan scrunched her eyes shut so she didn't have to see the child's detached lips still howling, “It never ends! Why will it never end? Throne, let it finish! Please save me.”
Susan struggled with her manacles, whispering incoherent platitudes. “I'm sorry, I'm so sorry. I tried to save you, I tried. I just can't.”
"A man has to save himself,” whispered an earthy voice in her ear as a firm hand grasped her around the waist, “You can't force a man to be another man, though I'll be damned if you women don't try.”
Before Susan could so much as blurt out a “Who are you?” the strong arm had yanked her backwards through a hole in space, jerking her from the endless charnel piles and into a rather homey-looking kitchen. Dizziness overtook her, forcing her into one of the chairs next to the hearth.
An old man in coveralls walked out from the tear in space, zipping it shut and shoving the glowing ball of energy into a thick sack-cloth bag. Deft fingers tied the shimmering string into an impossible knot, trapping the nightmare inside. With a final grunt of satisfaction the man pitched the parcel into the fireplace, burning it to cinders before shooting Susan a disgusted look. “Dreams were never meant to be borrowed.”
"I didn't mean to,” Susan whispered, trying not to drip blood on the white linen tablecloth, “It wasn't really...”
"It never is,” The old man stretched out his hands, lacing the fingers together with a fleshy popping of joints, “But meaning to do right and doing right aren't the same, and they aren't always obvious. What were you thinking in there?”
"I was going to save him,” Susan coughed, spitting up someone else's blood on the clean floor. The red liquid sizzled and spat on hard-wood surface, scarring it black. “I wanted to save him.”
"Doesn't seem to me that he's given you much of a reason to want to save him,” The man patted his breast pocket, grumbling in a language she vaguely recognized as the language of the northern continent. “Odd choice, really.”
"It was the right thing to do,” Susan shrugged. She could no more have left a child to suffer than cut off her own foot. “So I did it.”
"The right thing to do,” The old man chortled, though if it were in approval or incredulity she couldn't say. He barked out a quick laugh. “Yes, you'll do nicely.”
Before Susan could ask exactly what he expected her to “do nicely” the man fished a long wooden something out of his pocket and waved vaguely behind Susan, “I swear, a pipe always hides when I need it,” he announced to the tiny kitchen. He sniffed the air twice, before wrinkling his nose and asking, “You mind washing up in the basin? I'm not one for bad manners, and it's terribly rude to imply a lady isn't at her best, but I believe that shade of ichor doesn't suit your complexion.”
Before she could rationalize the futility of washing up to look nicer in a dream, Susan realized that she'd already started walking to the basin, wiping the mess from her face and hair with an embroidered white dish towel. And crazy though it was, doing so helped her feel cleaner. More than simple physical grime, she felt the guilt, the stress and the worry of the past week washing away as she scrubbed.
She scraped away the last of the mess and looked down at the basin,expecting to see foul water and a dirty rag, only to discover a spotless basin of clear water and a cloth just as white and clean as she'd started with. The old man ruffled her hair playfully, “Child, you're in a dream. Belief guides reality. You can achieve anything you believe in your own dreams.”
"I couldn't beat it,” Susan growled. There was no need to elaborate what “it” was; the glow of the nightmare still pulsed in the old man's pocket. “How does belief figure into that?”
"Think,” the man said, tapping his forehead with his middle and index finger, “Why is it that none of you think before you act.”
"I did think. I thought of every way that creature could be killed. I tried every absurd, outrageous and exaggerated plan to kill it. None of them worked,” Susan blinked as an absurdly simple thought occurred to her, “But it didn't matter, did it?”
"No,” the old man shook his head sympathetically, comfortingly patting her on the shoulder, “It wasn't your demon to face. Wasn't your past to overcome.”
"But the nightmares will come back?” Susan sighed, “I know it will.”
"If you finish your training, without a doubt,” sighed the old man. He grinned fondly and whispered into her ear, “But not for a while. Not 'till you have demons enough of your own for this one to seem like a blessing.”
And then, as fast as the dream came, it disappeared into an incoherent mess of darkness and shadows. The nightmare of bodies and the simple, homely kitchen shimmered into fleeting dreams without consequence or comprehension, devoid of importance. They spirited her along for hours of confused dreaming until her servant, deeming her tardy for her morning ablution, startled her into action with the weight of a silver tea tray and an Inquisitorial summons.
Hilder, it always came back to Hilder.
Lord Refa was not pleased in the slightest. He was, in point of fact, livid to the point of bursting the seams of his lace collar. Swamped by decades of entrenched hatreds and existing prejudices, he would not be reconciled to wisdom of having acted in unison with the Narn war machine. He snarled, “Ambassador Mollari, we had an understanding. We were to propel the Centauri Empire back to its rightful place in the stars.We would be the kings of the galaxy. And after all that talk, you unilaterally decided to bring about this abomination!”
"Lord Refa,” Londo hissed through clenched teeth, repeating himself for what had to be the twelfth time. The Centauri noble hadn't let him get in a word edgewise since their conversation had started, simply talking over his futile attempts to explain himself.
"Plans laid over a period of years are being shredded to pieces Mollari. Partisans I'd been sure we'd be able to remove quickly and quietly are finding allies in the military,” he pinched his thumb and pinky together in a ward against evil, brushing his chest twice in disgust, “And even those who are allies to us are more worried about protecting the Vorlon border than the Narn one. And I can't blame them. Great maker, what possessed you to toss us into this conflict?”
The shrill “t” of conflict echoed around the small space of Mollari's quarters. The rooms afforded to passengers onboard a warship, even those given to an ambassador, were hardly spacious. The size and and the ship's spartan architecture combined with the gaudy extravagance of the Centauri Republic to make a uniquely unpleasant echoing boom to Lord Refa's continuing rant.
If he didn't cut the noble off soon he risked going deaf or mad. “Enough,” Londo bellowed, “Do you have something in particular you wished to discuss, or am I simply your sounding board for the blisteringly obvious?”
"Mollari, the court is in an uproar. Lords and courtesans are pacing up and down the gardens, looking even more flurried as even the most outlandish of rumors are proven true by your own reports,” he flapped his arms in an entirely un-lordlike manner, his sweat-stained lace ruff dangling limply in despondency, "It's not good,” he muttered, perhaps the understatement of the century.
"To hell with the court, to hell with the gossip, to hell with the rumors,” Mollari snarled disgustedly, “And to hell with yourself while you're at it, I wouldn't want you to feel left out.” He was neither drunk enough nor well rested enough to suffer Lord Refa's continuing insinuations.
"How dare you speak to me that way. I was the one who brought you into the fold of what is to come,” the Centauri nobleman on the other side of the screen sniffed imperiously, his eyes flashing with a dangerous edge of malice, “It does not speak well to our plans.”
"Your plans could not have succeeded as well as they have without my connections, my allies, and me. I am your plans Lord Refa. Without me you have nothing,” Londo shook his head, “Do not forget that.”
"We have not forgotten what aid you provided, Mollari, but our gratitude only extends so far. Are we bound to this madness of yours because you were useful to us once?” Refa clucked his tongue against his teeth in doubt, “I think not.”
"Lord Refa,” Londo growled in a tone of breaking glass, “We are bound by our treaties to the Babylon charter.”
"Treaties? Bah! They're words on a page, Londo. I'm not a fool to be appeased with such a facile explanation,” the irritatingly perceptive lout smirked over the link, “You were scrupulously quick to act the enforcing of this treaty, too quick for it to be a mere twist of fate.”
Suddenly the uncharacteristic rudeness of Lord Refa took on an entirely new aspect, Refa wasn't angry with him per se. Refa was angry but his rage only served as a pretense for his true purpose. Refa was afraid.
He didn't know that Londo's plan was. How could he? It wasn't as though he'd made his connections with the elusive Mr. Morden public knowledge. It wouldn't take that great of a leap in logic to assume that Londo's secret allies and the Imperials were one and the same. For that matter, Refa might well believe that it could have been a secret Narn plot the entire time and that Londo had no allies. No, they would have to assume that it was a Narn plot in order to reconcile the speed with which he brought the task force to Babylon 5 without contacting his own government, as well as the lack of hesitation from G'Kar.
This was not a conversation between allies for Refa; it was a man trying to reason with a rabid beast in his larder. If Londo didn't convince Refa of the wisdom of allying with the Narn he could easily wake with a knife in his back or poison in his drink.
Some creative truth would be necessary, “Indeed. It's almost as though I knew they were coming before they arrived.”
Refa's lips puckered in an amusing imitation of someone who'd downed vinegar instead of wine, “What?”
"Lord Refa, I was not just unilaterally creating a joint task force to bring them back to Babylon 5 on some bizarre whim. I knew they were coming.” It was only partially a lie. He'd not known it would be the Vorlons, else he never would have agreed to Morden's proposal. But he had known exactly where and when a fleet would be arriving to destroy Babylon 5.
"Your contacts... are capable of tracking the Vorlons?” The words came from Refa's lips slowly, not asking a question so much as tasting the concept as it passed his own lips. It had to seem absurd, if not impossible.
"Indeed,” Londo grinned as though it were the most obvious solution. “And I felt it was in our best interest to maintain our relationship with a race that has such obvious potential.”
"But allying with the Narn,” The Centauri Lord hissed 'Narn' like a vile oath, “They're... Narn.”
"And they die spectacularly well, don't they? G'Kar was more than eager to offer up their second homeworld defense fleet. It's a fleet that is now in shambles, along with a few of our own, yes, but none of them younger than seventy years out of the docks.” It was a product of calling in favors owed to house Mollari rather than any sort of actual planning, but beneficial none the less. Londo continued the chain of logic: “And with one of their prime fleets shattered, the Narn have had to weaken the Narn-Centauri border to make up for it. Quite coincidental, yes?”
Refa laughed heartily, slapping his knee in relief, “Great Maker, were there ever a Centauri so devious as you before, we might never have lost Narn in the first place. Yes...yes, I can convince our allies to see the wisdom of your plan. The Narn will never see it coming...it's genius, pure genius Mollari!”
"I have my moments,” Londo sighed, “Is there something else you wished to talk about?”
"No Mollari...that was more than sufficient. Just be sure that your allies are ready to move when we are,” Lord Refa rubbed his palms together, visibly giddy at the prospect of his coming rise in station, “Just make sure they're ready.”
Londo's blood froze as the screen went to black, muttering to himself quietly, “They'll be ready.”
The elusive Mr. Morden and his allies claimed that they were now in his debt, but as time passed Londo realized that having them owe him could only bind the Centauri closer with them. His one communication with Mr. Morden since the battle had been.... unusual to say the least.
Mr. Morden had smiled for the entire conversation. It wasn't his usual facade of polite indulgence but a genuine grin of accomplishment. It was the sort of grin that spoke of decades of planning coming to fruition. He was happy, relaxed, and, most unnervingly of all, speaking in plain English without the thinly veiled subtext that usually accompanied his every word.
His simple honest pronouncement of, “Well done Ambassador. Things went better than we could have ever dreamed,” sent shivers down his spine that still tingled with dark premonition. But he had better things to do with his time than brood over what was or what might still be. Things like lunch with the Narn... a prospect only slightly less appealing than another meeting with Mr. Morden.
The Ambassador grunted as the joints of his knees popped audibly as he stood, reminding him of his own not insubstantial age. Cursing his body for slowly betraying him, he rubbed the pain out of his left knee and pressed the control for the door of his quarters.
The bright purple and gold corridor yawed in either direction, following the curvature of the ship. Fading murals depicting former battles of the great Centauri Conquest hid beneath a layer of greying age and shabbiness. Barely visible Centauri warriors chased their foes down the path to the mess hall, hurrying Londo along with their greying charge. Relics of the Empire's former greatness moved with the shadow of who Londo had once been.
Londo could remember being young and idealistic. He had once believed that he could conquer the stars with the speed of his wit and the strike of his blade. “Paso Leati” they'd called him, the crazed leati. He lived and fought with a fervor that few men could muster. But the nail that stands out gets hammered down with time, and Londo had been beaten down in the wars of the court. The Republic had no room for his passion.
The smiling faces of young Centauri crewmen he passed reminded him of who he'd been. Time and life had taken his hope, his youth, and his passion. He wasn't much more than an old man with old dreams any more. The universe couldn't take his dreams, not today. He wasn't done with them yet.
In the mess hall he came face to face with another of his dreams, the man from his nightmares: G'kar, the Narn who would one day kill him. It was not in doubt; it was prophecy, fact. They would one day die choking the life from each other. He had seen it. It would happen, but not today.
Today he would sit and smile politely and pretend that he did not detest G'Kar simply for existing. Today he would do the right thing for his people. Today he would resolve a long standing issue between his people and the Narn.
G'Kar sat with Na'Toth and four other Narn at the officer's table, basking in the Captain’s disgust. Given the choice, Gaius Gerand would have sooner cut of his arm than allow a Narn at his table. But a physical meeting was necessary for the sort of negotiations Londo wished to do, and going to the Narn fleet in person would be impractical. Firstly, he wanted the “home field” advantage and secondly, because the Narn fleet was three times the size of the Centauri one. Were the Narn to decide to misbehave, it was unlikely that the Centauri fleet could recover or destroy him fast enough.
So Gerand tolerated the intrustion and offered G'Kar the same rights and courtesies that he would offer to any other Ambassador. It was cruel to force the Captain to cater to G'Kar's whims, but it would put the Narn at ease. He was substantially more pliant whilst given the opportunity to annoy Centauri.
Devoid of all Centauri save the captain and a few Marines, Londo had no difficulty in finding a chair. The officers had opted for extra duties rather than force themselves to play nice with the Narn. It was to be expected.
As Londo sat down he realized that the two of them were staring intently at a hexagonal wooden board with 121 small holes in it, moving colored stones and silvery metal tiles, “I did not know you played Dominion, Ambassador G'Kar.”
"I'm passably familiar with the game,” G'Kar's red eyes followed Captian Gerand's chubby fingers as they moved a cavalry tile over two spaces, seizing the red glass stone and killing his archer tile. “It was popular for Centauri to keep a Narn servant who could understand the game in order to practice on. It has since fallen into.... disfavor.” That it was equally common practice to have the servant beaten for having the temerity to win to easily or lose too obviously to hardly needed be said. The disgust in his voice was palpable.
"The Ambassador's strategy is curious,” Captain Gerand snorted as G'Kar retreated into one of the castle spaces with his knight, entirely missing the opportunity to kill the Captain's advancing swordsman and leaving his left flank entirely open, “He seems to be hoping that if he retreats far enough my soldiers will tire and go home.”
G'Kar ignored the jab and looked up at Londo as he advanced his knight behind the swordsman, halting the progress of the Captain's force by taking out a bridge. “Mollari, I must confess that I was surprised by your choice of the Vega Six system for our rendezvous point, considering itsunique positioning.”
"It's neutral space, and far enough from Vorlon territory that I'm not worried about them coming here,” Londo sighed, “And neither of us is stupid enough to be the idiot responsible for claiming Vega.”
Vega was part of the Narn-Centauri DMZ, some seven systems too far from the center to be relevant for anything other than its jump-gate. Though technically part of the land not covered by the DMZ treaty, Vega continued to be in contention because neither side wanted to get saddled with it. Despite the fact that the planets of Vega were passably resource-rich with two habitable moons, the system was entirely impractical for colonization.
Due to its location on the border, were war to arise between the Narn and Centauri it would almost certainly include the Vega jump-gate as an early stage of it. And as it was too far from either side's supply lines, a victory would mean heavy casualties and an inevitable later defeat. The whole territory was poison.
Even if one of their governments claimed it, no colonists were dumb enough to put themselves in the crosshairs of ground zero for a Narn-Centauri war. G'Kar snorted, “Safety by virtue of impracticality.”
"No safety for your game I'm afraid,” The Captain took out another two archer tokens, seizing the the path to G'Kar's Emperor tile, “Two moves from check mate. I'm afraid you lose.”
G'Kar clucked his tongue dismissively and moved a peasant tile forward, threatening the Captain's Emperor and forcing him to retreat a tile, “Are you certain?”
"Of course.... no...how in the Maker?” The Captain's expression of victory slackened into outright disbelief as he examined the positioning of his tiles. G'Kar had drawn him forwards with easy victories, trapping him in position. He could not advance any of his pieces without putting his Emperor in danger, forcing a stalemate. It was the most humbling loss in the game.
G'Kar grinned and said, “Narn don't lose. We endure till the opportunity for victory.”
The Captain, expressionless and deadly silent, stared at the board for a few pregnant moments before sticking out his hand and offering it to the Ambassador. “I would be greatly pleased to play you again Ambassador, I haven't had that interesting of a game in years, but my duties take me elsewhere at the moment. Good day.”
G'Kar shook his hand and watched the Captain turn around and walk away. He stared pensively at the man's back, lost in thought, before muttering, “Another one I suppose.”
"Another what Ambassador?” Na'Toth probed as she examined the plate of food in front of her, clearly skeptical that it would not contain poison. She poked the roasted bird with her gloved finger twice as though deciding if it was worth the effort of picking it up to sniff it.
"Change. This week has been full of changes. Changes in thought, changes in word, and changes in friendships are all around us,” G'Kar chuckled and stared at Londo with his unnervingly red eyes, “Change is the most powerful force in the universe. One cannot resist it once it happens; it simply occurs. The world is changing around us and we have not even realized it yet. I thought he would yell, claim that I cheated,or threaten me. Instead, the Centauri captains takes his loss with grace. Wonders never cease.”
"An oddly philosophical start to negotiations Ambassador G'Kar,” Londo said, pulling at his jacket absentmindedly, “Will the entire negotiation be this obtuse and confusing? I could get you an encounter suit and you could speak in one word phrases.”
"Ambassador Mollari, have you not seen them already? Small changes. A word different here. A common courtesy there,” he waved to the crewmen setting around the mess, “The looks of hatred they're giving me?”
"They aren't giving you any look,” Mollari shook his head, “They're hardly even paying you any attention.”
"Exactly!” G'Kar nodded emphatically, “Here I am, a Narn Ambassador, a member of the Narn Kha'Ri. I command the Narn fleet surrounding them and they're more interested in their meal than they are with me. Centauri and Narn soldiers have started exchanging letters, chatting over the short range comms. Most of it is rudeness, bravado, and bluster, but we are actually talking, Mollari.”
G'Kar wasn't wrong: there had been a great deal of positive communication between the fleet. Neither the Centauri nor the Narn actually liked each other, but a grudging partnership seemed to have formed. For that matter, Na'Toth only seemed to be staring at him with dislike rather than murderous intent, “I suppose it is good to have some change, is it not? Even if only for a little while. Even if total change is impossible.”
"Ambassador. Our races survived the million little things in the universe that go wrong as a species. Our ancestors survived war, death, famine,and even each other,” G'Kar tapped two fingers to the temples on either side of his protruding forehead, “The impossible happens every day just by living. Every day we draw breath is a small miracle. I had previously believed your people only capable of death and pain, suffering and destruction. But there is a spark of good in you, deep down in your genetic code. It isn't much, but it's a start.”
"Thank you for your compliments; your gratitude is overwhelming,” Londo rejoined caustically, “I'm giddy with praise.”
G'Kar smiled and poured two drinks, saying “I never thought I would say this but...to peace between our peoples.”
"To peace,” Londo sipped deeply while starting out the starboard viewport, taking in the system beyond. The twin moons of Vega glistened with the light of the binary suns, “Yes... well let's see about solving another minor miracle. What to do about Vega.”
G'Kar sighed, “Yes, the impossible does always end up being easier to solve than the impractical. I've told you already. We have no interest in taking this territory. We desire the Beta Alpha Twelve system, and you may have the Vega system.”
"Bah! Beta Alpha Twelve is a populated trade route. We aren't going to uproot an economic hub,” Londo sighed, “And I know you aren't going to give up the Xe'ros quadrant so I won't waste your time asking about it. Iam too old and too tired to waste my energy going in circles.”
"Then why bring it up at all, Londo?” G'Kar sighed, “You know my government's perspective on the matter.”
"Because, my dear Ambassador G'Kar,” Londo smiled wide, “I'm not asking for the Xe'ros quadrant. Tell me, G'Kar, how would you like to greatly annoy both our governments?”
"Well, well, well,” G'Kar grinned, his unnatural red eyes shining with amusement, “What do you have in mind?”
Talia knew that she was dead the second she touched the circle. She couldn't have said how she knew it, but she knew. There was no bright light, no choir, and no tunnel leading to the afterlife. With just a slight shift in pressure, the world no longer existed for her. Her existence felt narrow, almost compressed. She passed an eternity in silence before she opened herself to the world around her, seeing with her mind what her eyes no longer could.
In a swirling mass of colors and emotions she watched an Angel and a faceless man with a gaping hole in his left side tear out chunks of each other with swirling patterns of hatred and sadness. She watched till the battle became too bright and she hid within herself, pinning her consciousness to the ground as she felt the pulling of the great void beyond.
Then came patches, shadows, echoes of memory. She remembered the man of iron telling his men of granite to put her in the box. She remembered the room full of greed and sadness. She remembered the man of granite and the squire carrying her and the empty doll to visit the angel.
And then she was born for a second time. It all seemed too unreal to her when Zack had explained it, but not a word of it had been a lie. She had been certain. She died and was reborn in her own image. The warm weight of the hefty ruby that sat between her breasts pulsed with her own life and thoughts, her very soul.
She'd taken it off once to shower.
She'd gotten as far as walking from her bed before she felt the haze of death slipping over her, her control slipping into the void. It had been pure luck that she fell backwards and landed on top of the stone, or else she might not have woken up at all. She hadn't spoken of it to anyone, she'd been too afraid. It was all just overwhelming. Worse, the deathly visions she experienced when bound to the stone continued to haunt her. The real world was constantly at odds with superimposed images of spirits and nightmares, ghostly visions haunting her waking world.
She was learning to live with the phantom images that people carried with them: their guilt, their shame, their hopes, and their unfulfilled dreams, but she still found herself occasionally slipping into fugue-like states. She could will herself back into the real world a bit easier every time it happened but it was always a danger.
She would live with it, and she would overcome it with time. All things grew better with time. The most important thing for her at the moment was to try and keep going with her life as though nothing had ever happened. She was still Talia Winters and she wouldn't let anything change that or anything else, least of all a reunion with an old friend.
The CEO of “Future Corp,” Taro Isogi, was a short man, though with his broad jaw and voluminous presence in a room one would never notice. She'd met him years ago, not long after graduating from the Psi Corps trade program and quickly found herself taken under his wing. She'd learned more about business in four weeks of watching his negotiations than she had in the previous four years of study.
She'd been surprised but deeply pleased when Taro had decided not to cancel his appointment with her on station, in spite of the recent difficulties. In his words, “I cannot imagine a better setting to convince someone that peace is the better option.”
The conference room she'd rented in blue sector was gorgeous, if a bit dated in its architecture. The furniture was all squares and jutting angles, in keeping with the preferred esthetics of the German man responsible for the creation of the buildings floor plan. The view inside the room, though, was nothing in comparison to the view outside it. The skyline of the curved inner passage of the sector swooped around her, buildings rising in a wide circle on all sides.
Patches of green where oxygen-rich plants grew on the sides of buildings splashed bright color from flowers of all types imaginable, some growing wild where battle damage had let them escape their meticulously planned arrangement. It was perfect for their reunion.
Isogi, as always, entered the room just five minutes before it was scheduled to start. It was early enough not to be late, but late enough not to seem eager. “Mr. Isogi.”
The man's broad jaw line arched into a handsome smile, “Talia! It's been too long. What did you think of my new Mars proposal?”
"It's like all your proposals: too progressive, too risky, and too costly in the short run,” Talia chided, only briefly having to pause as she focused her vision away from a ghostly image of a laughing fox. “But if you can make it happen-”
"I must make it happen,” Isogi interrupted as he gently shepherded Talia over to the door. She'd never quite figured out how he did it, but the man had a talent for taking over the room he was in without ever being pushy or rude. He was simply in charge and everyone seemed to instinctively know that was the way things were supposed to be. “Future Corp has to expand beyond earth. Mars is the first step.”
"The senate won't like it,” Talia shot back, tapping his chest with a gloved finger, “And the Mars conglomerate will try to bury you.”
Isogi shrugged dismissively, entirely heedless to the risk. He'd decided it was possible and practical, so as far as Isogi was concerned there was nothing left to discuss. “I'm prepared for that. Now I need only convince Mars to share the risk.”
Talia crossed her arms, “And if they won't?”
"Then the path to freedom may well be drenched with innocent blood,” Isogi stared at Talia with sad, piercing eyes, “And a long held dream of mine will die.”
The bright and tinny 'whoosh' of an opening door advertised the arrival of the third party of their debate, a handsome woman in a dark suit. Her face spoke of a hard life, aged before her time. Without preamble she walked directly to the CEO of Future Corp and offered her hand, “Mr Isogi, Amanda Carter. Mars Colony Business Affairs Committee."
Isoga took her hand and shook it firmy before waving behind him by way of greeting, “Miss Carter, this is Talia Winters, one of the finest commercial telepaths I've ever worked with. She will be monitoring our negotiations for FutureCorp.”
"Miss Winters,” Carter said, her greeting for Talia cold but not impolite. Miss Carter held not particular love of psychics but as Isogi had doubtlessly informed her of the presence of one prior to the meeting, seeing her was not unsettling.
"Please,” Isogi said, leading her to the conference table. It was a tactical move on his part, a polite gesture to be sure but not without reason. By putting himself in a position where he implied that simple actions like sitting down or getting a drink were somehow “gifts” that he provided to his counterpart, he could continue acting as the dominant party in the negotiation. It was not “neutral” territory, it was “his” territory. The man was sharp as a tack.
"I read your proposal Mr. Isogi, ” Miss Carter's antique briefcase opened with a snap of aging tongs and the shifting of old leather, “and frankly,you're either insane or a very brave man.”
Isogi leaned in and whispered conspiratorially, “I can rather imagine that's what they said about your great grandfather John when he volunteered to pilot the first colony ship to Mars.”
It was like watching Da Vinci paint. In a single stroke Isogi had managed to respect the woman's father, demonstrate that he knew more than he'd previously let on, and showed the resources of his company for garnering obscure information. Miss Carter froze for a moment, clearly processing the fact that Isogi knew that much about her family, before smiling and laughing. “So they did. Let's talk.”
Isogi politely and docilly bowed for her to continue, “Please.”
Talia sat down in her own chair, eager for the fireworks to begin. A negation with Isogi was many things, but it was never boring.
The Endless Bounty was not a ship of impressed workers or prison laborers and was, by and large, a safe place to live. However, only a fool would remove his armor outside of the barracks if he worked in law enforcement. There were crime lords, madmen, and saboteurs enough that even the most well liked of Osma's men didn't dare walk around in the lower districts alone. As the old joke went, “A man who walks alone in the dark walks with death beside.”
But in the barracks, things were different than even in the most impressive of local precincts. All things considered, it would be easier to blow up the ship than to take the barracks by force of arms. None of his men needed to fear for their safety behind the safety of its doors. So it was behind the walls of the barracks that they laughed, joked and lived. It was well lived-in, and though lacking in creature comforts what it had was well used and well appreciated.
Osma liked his office. It was a comfortable, if spartan, space situated in the heart of the Endless Bounty within the central security barracks. It was a point of pride that he didn't live within some disconnected estate on the upper levels, though he could have easily afforded it. His place was with his men, guarding his ship and his people. It was home to him in a way few other places on the station could be for an officer of the law.
Beyond the obvious necessities of his office, the ancient marble desk withits ebony inlay, the hololithic display on the wall and a pair of wall mounted servitor scribes, his office also included an overstuffed chair and a small book case full to the brim with the writings of the saints and the Primarchs. His apartment was where he slept, but this was where he lived.
It was also one of the few places where he felt the Inquisitor and he could discuss the specifics of the so called “Butcher of Belzafest.” It was Osma's seat of power, so any discussion of the investigation would be in his domain and under his authority. Osma wanted the Inquisitor's support and aid, but he needed this to be a victory for security and not the Inquisition. He needed that feather in his cap so that the Belzafesters could feel secure in coming to station security for help. The last thing he needed was for a substantial population of the Endless Bounty to decide that they didn't trust ship's security.
The Inquisitor arrived with remarkable punctuality, walking through Osma's door only a minute before their appointed meeting time. The man looked like hell. Osma hadn't ever considered what the aftereffectsof being caught in a blender might look like, but Hilder was doing a decent imitation of it. His hard face was covered in scars leading down from his cropped pate to his neck line, giving the merest hint that they covered his entire body, “Throne, Inquisitor... I know it's not my place, but are youhealthy enough to be doing this? I can't imagine that your body has had enough time to recover.”
The Inquisitor smiled at him, bending a particularly angry-looking scar crossing his lips, “I suspect that whatever the Butcher has in store for me will be relaxing by comparison to the rest of my month. I'm quite looking for a morally unambiguous search for a murderer.”
"Can you please stop enjoying this so much?” the woman behind him rolled her eyes in exasperation, crossing her arms in a way that emphasized her plunging neck line. It was the sort of shrewd calculation intended to distract a man, or the innocent gesture of a woman inexperienced in wearing the sort of fineries worn by the nobility, which would have only served to make the gesture more appealing.
Apparently his glace at her bosom was not covert enough to escape the Inquisitor's notice. He snorted in amusement and pointed to her chest with an ivory-inlaid, saying, “Miss Ivanova, you will find your current posture has a most...interesting side effect upon the dress the Lady Sáclair insisted you wear.”
"Oh for the love of-” the scarlet haired beauty uncrossed her arms and yanked the hem of her shirt upwards, “How do women move in these things? It's not a dress, it's a pearl lined silk tea towel with a corset and bustle.”
"Very carefully and deliberately, though it is customary to protect one's own modesty with a veil or fan. Though if memory serves, a particular apprentice of mine informed her servants that she 'isn't going to waste her time and energy carrying around ten pounds of feathers or chewing on lace all day.'” The Inqusitor chortled at the woman's murderous look, turning to Osma and motioning for her to sit in one of the chairs opposite the desk, “I'm sorry, Osma. How horribly rude of me. Allow me to introduce the Alliance Commander Susan Ivanova, my newest apprentice.”
"Of the Babylon station?” Osma blinked, nonplussed. There was a whole mess of Narn and Centauri confined to the cargo bay, but he'd not realized that an Alliance human female had been brought onboard the ship. Someone in decontamination and immunization was getting sloppy,and he'd have to make a note of it. “The same who runs the station immigration?”
"Uh... yes,” she tilted her head slightly, “Have we... have we met before? There is something familiar about your voice.”
"We have, after a fashion,” Osma tousled his long and braided beard, “Though only through translation matrices before now. You asked me some questions about the religious broadcasts we do regularly for ships in the area.”
"Wait... you weren't the one who I talked with about the ships getting too close to the jump gate path, were you?” Amusement twitched the edge of her lips into the hint of a smile.
"I am not he. That was the ship's third in command, one Lord Sácomer. Though I must confess, the recording of that conversation has become a matter of much speculation for the translation experts on my staff. Were you specifically threatening to reach through the intercom and make him eat his own head if he didn't get our ships out of the way, or were you threatening to come over to the ship and do it yourself?” He had fifty silver thrones riding on the latter, and it would be good to just get the bet over with so that he could stop hearing about it at every meal time from someone or another.
"Not now, Osma,” Hilder interceded, pulling one of the top reports from Osma's desk marked 'urgent.' He studied the paper, saying “I need an update on the Butcher situation. I've been out of touch for weeks now.”
"I'd have thought you'd be all over it by now,” Osma tilted his head in confustion, “ The Belzafesters are vassals of your household, after all.”
"Pardon,” the Inquisitor looked up from the page, “They're what?”
"Uh,” Osma sputtered, confused. How didn't he know? The man was a seeker of truth, for Throne's sake! “Inquisitor Hilder, the Belzafesters pledged themselves to you and your house until the death of Faust and all his works. They've already started stitching your personal heraldry into their clothing.”
The Inquisitor growled to himself. "Sáclair seems to have let that particular detail slip his memory. No... Sáclair wouldn't outright ignore something that obvious. He knows I'd have his hide,” Hilder sighed, “More likely he told Jak and Jak simply considered it pertinent to that specific moment in time. Never mind...”
"Does it change anything to know that?” the Babylon commander was looking at the wall mounted servitors in disgust. The pale torsos of two men scribbled on long scrolls of parchment with spidery limbs, keeping Osma up to date with the actions of his men. The woman, though, wasstaring at them as though someone had slaughtered a man in front of her. “Murder is murder and a killer is still a killer.”
“Miss Ivanova," Osma said firmly. He had no time for some liberal-minded agenda confusing his investigation. "The servitors on my wall were made from a pair of men who made their living by pretending to sell upscale ships to the poor, before tricking their prospective buyer into standing in an airlock without a ship on the other side. Their punishment was justice served for evil done. Nothing more and nothing less.”
The woman looked deeply skeptical, but held her tongue. The Inquisitor took the opportunity to shake his head and say, “What pattern have you found with relation to the killings? Is there any truth to this being a ritual murder of virgins?”
"Not the blasted virgin thing again. Ugh, if I had a copper for every time I heard that,” Osma pulled out a thick binder of witness statements from a desk drawer, “If it's a man looking for virgins he's doing a piss poor job of it. Four of them definitely weren't and another three seem highly unlikely. It seemed like that was the pattern at first, but at first we were only speaking with the parents and community leaders of the victims.”
“I definitely wasn't talking about boys in that way with my parents at that age or any age for that matter,” Susan blushed slightly, “I can see how that would go wrong.”
"It's worse than that. We have people organized into groups to travel with parents or guards to make sure that there aren't girls traveling alone. But this throne cursed rumor has managed to make it's way around the ship,” The only thing faster than warp travel was the speed at which gossip got around the ship. If he ever figured out a way to convert gossip into fuel, the Endless Bounty would never need to stop, “And you know how teenagers are. Once they get a damn fool idea into their head it never leaves. Belzafest women are getting something of a.... reputation... ”
"Sleep with me so the axe murderer won't kill you in a dark alley,” the commander parroted facetiously, “It's a hell of a line, especially if you believe it.”
"There are worse reasons,” the Inquisitor shrugged, “But I presume that the people foolish enough to believe that doing so will protect them also believe it gives them license not to take any protections at all.”
"Got it in one,” Osma grunted in disgust, “I'm all for faith in the Emperor but faith doesn't excuse stupidity. And we can't actually explain to these people that it doesn't help without essentially causing a riot for telling a group of grieving mothers that their children were less than perfect. Even then, there is no guarantee the damned fools will actually listen.”
The Inquisitor nodded in agreement, “What precautions have been taken?”
"All that I can take without actually removing people from their basic patrol routes and guard duties. I've got people taking second and third shifts. Sergei has the Lionhearts patrolling the area, but they're soldiers, not investigators,” The Lionhearts were helping the Belzafesters feel safe, which was useful in their own right. But a hammer is not especially useful for anything other than hitting a nail, and without knowing whom to smash they were mostly symbolic. “Though at this point, I'm just glad for the warm bodies.”
"Any physical evidence?” the Babylon commander leaned over Osma's desk to get a better look at the map of patrol routes, giving him an unintentional look down her dress in the process. “Patterns, anything?”
Osma looked down at the map, ashamed for entertaining impure thoughts, “Er.. yes. But nothing especially useful considering how relatively well-used the paths he chooses for this purpose are. There isn't any discernible pattern to who is around for the killings, when and where. We'd thought that he was waiting for there to be a sporting event at the same time as a mass to have as few people on the streets as possible but the tenth girl didn't fit the pattern.”
"You're joking, right?” Susan pointed to a large red circle on the map, “They're all happening within walking distance of this church.”
"Miss Ivanova, it's not as telling as you might think. It's the largest church in the area and one of the most well used,” the Inquisitor shook his head, “And it's an offshoot of the Skekkis order divinity. The priests are all pacifist eunuchs.”
"Have you questioned them?” The commander protested exasperatedly, “At all?”
"Of course he has,” He blinked at Osma's slightly bashful look, “You...you have questioned them, haven't you?”
"Shakut dismissed them early on in the process as being unlikely to be suspects,” Osma chewed his lip, “They don't even eat meat. I can't see one of them being a brutal murderer.”
"People lie Osma. Monks lie. And even if all the monks are saints in the waiting, the Monks must have an bishop and staff overseeing them. A corrupt bishop or clerical overseer isn't unheard of,” Inquisitor Hilder sighed, “They have been questioned, haven't they?”
"Inquisitor, I think you forget the limits of my authority. I cannot question a member of the church leadership without special dispensation from the Archbishop,” Osma hated that he couldn't question them without the dispensation but laws were laws. “I did all that I could without Al'Ashir. And I can't get his permission as his excellency has decided to convert the Alliance. It's a noble task but one that I wish could have waited two weeks.”
"Well then, I suppose we're just going to have another go at it, won't we?” Inquisitor Hilder had the sort of manic glint in his eye that terrified Osma. It was the same look of purpose which Hilder wore for every interrogation of Nathaniel Sáclair. “I suspect he'll be a bit more... pliant for me.”
"And barring that I can shoot him till he talks,” the commander joked, “It's not like I'm bound to your laws.”
"Huh, I suppose you aren't at that. You are purely within my jurisdiction,” The Inquisitor clucked his tongue at the commander's look of absolute shock. “Miss Ivanova, you're under Inquisitorial mandate now. So long as I say you can do something, it is.... what's the word? Oh yes, 'Kosher.'"
"Well, this certainly makes things interesting...” Ivanova said enthusiastically. A devilish glint shone in her eye.
"You may not shoot the Lionhearts, Miss Ivanova, nor anyone else in my employ,” Daul sighed exasperatedly. “And no, I did not need to read your mind to know that.”
"Oh, very well,” The commander stood up and stormed for the door. “Come on then. Lets find me someone I can beat the living daylights out of.”
Osma whispered to the Inquisitor as they followed her out the door, “Inquisitor, I believe I've just won 50 thrones.”
The man had a name. It was a good name, one that his mother had selected to make him strong like his father. It was a name that spoke of his family's history and their travels. But he could not remember the name. The name was unimportant.
He wanted to know what his name was, but the red headed woman chose what was important. It was her job. So he remembered dying, the pain of decompression, the coldness of space. He remembered it over and over in a constant loop. He was long dead, or ought to have been.
He knew what it took to kill a man. That had been important. She let him remember that.
There had been a woman before, a place of red stone, and a cause. He remembered once believing in a cause, though that too had been purged from his memory. He might have found that frustrating if the woman would let him. But whenever he tried to focus on what he had been the memory would slip from him.
He knew it was time to wake up. Knew he was on Babylon 5. The woman had told him, given him orders. Orders were his life. Orders had to be done.
Kill the man Isogi. Kill the woman Carter. The woman... Carter... he knew the woman Carter.... No. It was not important. The woman decided what was important and that was not important. He would kill them and then he would go back to sleep.
He would die again and again till he finally didn't wake up. He did not want to live. That was not important but it was his. He would kill them, then he would die.
It would end this time. That was important.