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post #111 of 159 (permalink) Old 08-04-12, 01:47 AM Thread Starter
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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.


Once.


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.


-=-
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Booking Garibaldi quick passage to Mars had not been easy. John had to call in favors owed to him from the war to circumvent certain parts of the new quarantine procedures. He'd done everything short of just contacting a smuggler to ship the Chief to Mars, but raising no flags at all would have been more telling than only raising a few, provided that the Psi Corps was actually tracking Garibaldi.

He couldn't risk sending more than one man either. Helping an ostensibly traumatized friend skip a couple of security check points and a quarantine period could be explained away as simple kindness. Doing the same for four or five would be an obvious black bag operation, and he was in hot enough water as it was.


Not that he'd had much time in the past four days to spend too much time worrying about it.


"Honestly Dr. Franklin, I haven't got a clue what we're supposed to do in order to fix it,” John sighed, “I don't even know if it can be fixed. Maybe they're right and this station is cursed.”


"I don't know about that Captain,” The doctor, looking less haggard and stretched than he had in days thanks to a full night's rest, was sitting across from him in his office, “I've transferred the patients who need long-term care to more permanent hospitals, and anyone else who was going to die from this is already dead. I'm not saying that it's not a tragedy. It's the worst thing I've seen in my life. But it's not the end. Life goes on and we have to go on with it.”



"True enough, doctor,” John smiled, “I suppose I need to start looking at the positives. Do you know what I saw this morning in the Zocalo? The shops were open. People were eating at the restaurants.”


"They've cleaned out enough of the debris for that?” Dr. Franklin blinked in surprise. “I thought that everything was still on lockdown.”


"Apparently security has been turning a blind eye on people working extra shifts to get the station up and running again,” John sighed, “They're determined to build the place better than it ever was. As long as the unions are doing it of their own free will then I'm not especially inclined to stop them.”


"Funny that you mention people working together. I wanted to talk with you about the Imperials,” the doctor stood up and inserted an info crystal into the view screen. An image of the Imperials at prayer in flashed on the screen as Franklin spoke: “I realized something about them yesterday that's been nagging at me for a while. I just haven't had time to think about it till now.”


"What is it, doctor?” The room full of pressure suit wearing imperials continued their prostrations on screen, getting on their knees and flattening themselves to the ground before standing and repeating the process. He recognized the space as the area he'd given Al'Ashir a permit to build his church in Brown Sector. Al'Ashir had been adamant that it be in a place where he might minister to those who needed him most.

“Kosh hasn't tried to kill any of the Imperials on the station, just the Inquisitor. And the only ship that the Vorlon ships attacked without provocation was the Endless Bounty,” the doctor nodded as though it were supposed to mean something deeply provocative, “And even then he only attacked after the Inquisitor did whatever it was he did with the...” The doctor hesitated on saying the word 'demon.' It was not in his nature to fall to such superstition “... the entity.”


"That's what he meant,” John snapped his fingers, “Before he left Garibaldi left me a cryptic note saying 'More to Vorlon than meets the eye. Ship not Kosh's orders.”


"Sir, we know for a fact that the Imperials don't use hyperspace for travel. They use something else. And the Inquisitor said that problems with the... entities... that live in the Warp aren't uncommon,” the doctor crossed his arms, brow furrowed in concentration, “And we know that the Vorlons have some sort of hatred for the “third,” whatever it is.”

“You think that the Vorlons attacked the Imperials because they don't use hyperspace?” John nodded slowly in agreement. It wasn't entirely implausible. If the byproduct of using the Imperial method of FTL was attacks by creatures like the one that assaulted the station, he could understand why they would react badly to it, “But why the Inquisitor?”

“Captain. According to Delenn, even knowing how to do what he did carries the death penalty on Minbar.” John froze. One of the immutable facts of the universe was that Minbari did not kill Minbari. It was one of the core values of their civilization, a point of pride which they valued above all others. It was why they'd surrendered at the Battle of the Line.

Dr. Franklin nodded in agreement with John's stunned silence. “Yeah, that's what I thought as well. It's one of three crimes that the Minbari Grey Council will kill you for without a second thought.”


What are the other two?” John shook his head, trying to accept this new reality.


"She wouldn't say. It's apparently culturally taboo to even admit that this ever happened in their history,” Franklin shrugged, “But it's apparently some sort of a “true scotsman” thing. No true Minbari would do it, so if someone does it they obviously aren't Minbari.”


"That's some impressive mental gymnastics to get around to that,”John muttered. The Minbari had a unique talent for twisting whatever a philosophical principle said in, up, and around itself so that a simple proposition could end up saying whatever they actually wanted it to say. It was exhausting.


"Tell me about it,” Dr. Franklin sighed, “But that's my point. The Vorlons were here to stop... what was it you wrote in your report?”


"Kosh used the words 'creatures of the third.”


"Well whatever the Inquisitor did, it was considered to be a war crime by the Vorlons and Minbari. And to be honest, sir, if the Imperials are bringing those... things into Earth Alliance space I'm not especially inclined to disagree with them,” Dr. Franklin rubbed his eyes at John's incredulity, “I'm not defending them. Christ no. But I do think that we need to remember that it wasn't the Vorlons who slaughtered the hundreds of people I have in the morgue.”


"Enough,” John ordered. Dr. Franklin was building up to some sort of a point. He was certain of it. “What do you want me to do doctor?”


"Captain, we've been very welcoming and agreeable to the Imperials. And I like them, I do. They helped Miranda and near as I can tell they saved us from that creature,” Dr. Franklin used the sort of placating voice that only a doctor could use without it sounding patronizing: “But we know nothing about these people. When I revealed that they had human DNA, we relaxed a lot of the normal first contact procedures, but the truth is that I can honestly say I know as much about society of the Imperium of Man as I know about the Vorlons. We need to know more.”


"And you would do that by?” John let the question hang in the air.


"Asking them questions, obviously. They're just as disarmed but us as we are by them,” Dr. Franklin sighed, “But remember Captain, being human doesn't mean that your society is just. Hitler was human.”


"It makes perfect sense to me,” John nodded. “Do what you have to do.”


Before he could go into the specific of the doctor's plans, the door to his office slid open, revealing General Hague and a small contingent of Alliance officers. John walked over to the General with deliberately practiced nonchalance as they marched forward with purpose, knowing all too well the purpose of the General's retinue. He saluted his superior officer and spoke with forced formality, “General, what can I do for you sir?”


"Captain John Sheridan,” the general replied with a harshness John had witnessed before, though never on the receiving end. He had to remind himself that it was not, in fact, the General's true feelings on the matter. “You have received an order from Earthdome. You are to report to Earth Alliance territory to answer for your actions relating to the Endless Bounty.”


A diminutive asian man with a crooked, broken nose sneered at John in disgust. Though he'd never met the man in person, he knew without asking that it was Captain Xingjiang. The man managed to sneer and grin without ever moving his lips from their neutral expression of hatred, “You will pay for what you have done to my crew and the Alliance, Captain.”


"Stow it, Captain Xingjiang, or I'll arrest you for conduct unbecoming,” General Hague hissed, rounding his glower on the Chinese man. To his credit Xingjiang did not wilt under the other man's gaze, though he did obey the General's order for silence, “Captain Sheridau, this is not a formal court martial. However, you have been appointed council in your defense.”


If it was bad enough that the General had made sure he had a lawyer for an informal inquiry, it was obvious that the Senate planned to end his career even if they didn't plan to charge him with any crime. It was easy enough to do: embarrass him publicly so there could be no doubt for future administrations that he would be a toxic asset in command. Then promote him to irrelevance on some symbolic venture into deep space, or governing some irrelevant border colony. “I see, sir. May I ask who will be appointed to command the station in the Interim?”


"I will be taking personal command of the station,” the General answered, and John let out a sigh of relief he didn't know he'd been holding in. If it had been Xingjiang or one of the other Captains with a personal grudge against the station, it could have ended in disaster.


"What?” Captain Xingjiang blinked in surprise, “Who will command the fleet?”



"You've been transferred to General Franklin's command for their expedition to the Shi'lassen Triumvirate,” General Hague sat down in John's chair and smiled placatingly: “Don't worry John. She'll be better than new when you come back.”


"If you say so, sir,” John growled in a false voice of wounded pride. “I will be coming back.”


His link chirruped. He tapped it briefly, saying “Lt. Corwin, now isn't the best time.”


"Captain, you have a call from Earth,” the officer replied from the CnC, “Shall I put it through to your office?”


"Yes, but inform the Senator that General Hague has taken command.”


"General Hague, sir?” Corwin repeated.


"Do it, Corwin,” John growled into his comm. It was bad enough to have to submit to the inquiry without having to repeat a simple order.


"Captain Xingjiang, escort Captain Sheridan to the Agamemnon,” General Hague leaned back in John's chair, relaxing into the well-worn fabric. It felt wrong to see... anyone in his chair. It was his chair. Nobody else belonged in it, even someone who spared him a polite, “And for what it's worth Captain Sheridan, good luck.”


John didn't really remember much of the trip to the ship as he allowed the marines to escort him to the Agamemnon. It was unreal, and he spent the whole trip trying to reconcile himself to the fact that it was actually happening. He was under arrest. He wore no chains, had been charged with no crime, but he knew all too well that he was a prisoner. He was imprisoned on what had once been his own ship. But not forever and not for nothing.


"I will be back.” John promised himself, “I will be back soon.”


-=-

Abbas was well and truly lost. He supposed it shouldn't be that surprising; even after having spent the majority of his life onboard the Bounty there were still wide sections of the Endless Bounty that he could no more navigate than the dark side of Holy Luna. But there was something decidedly infuriating about getting lost onboard a space station as opposed to a merchant ship.


"Come on, Abbas,” he grumbled to himself, “You cant be that far away from Al'Ashir's church. Just find a map, all you need is a map. And you can get oriented again.


There was no up or down on Babylon 5. The whole station was built around the exterior wall, rotating to generate gravity. Skyscrapers shot from the curvature of the station, warping up and around his head dizzyingly. More than once, Abbas had needed to sit down after looking upward, for fear that gravity might give out and fly him into the groundthat he could just barely see in the distance. It just all felt too open, too exposed, too... well too alien for him.


No... it wasn't just the architecture that bothered him and put him off. It was the whole place. It was wrong, and evil. He knew that. He'd known that from the first day of his Tutoring. One can not trust the alien, for it is an abomination. He'd never understood the warnings about honeyed words or silver tongues though. The aliens one learned about in one's education were almost invariably the worst sort. They were the kind that churned men's stomachs and boiled their blood.


They were wasting their time with warnings about those. One did not need years of education to mistrust blood-soaked Eldar pirates. But to mistrust the smiling Narn who sold hot noodles from her tiny stall and always tried to offer him a free sweet cake when he passed was not one's natural reaction. The Xenos were interesting, even pleasant. And the Alliance never particularly seemed perturbed or endangered by their presence.


Quite the contrary, as he wandered the halls he saw humans and xenos engaging in all the sorts of mundane banalities one would expect from a ship's crew. There was something just disturbingly congenial about the Minbari book store. It looked too normal, too human. He would be glad to be off of the station when his father returned with the Endless Bounty.

Everything would be better then. He would return to the Endless Bounty with Kerrigan and they would go back to his regular life. He just hoped his father would return soon. The crewmen were getting too comfortable on Babylon 5. The quality of food and accommodations were not suited to the lifestyles of a nobleman, but they were palatial by comparison to some of the lower deck barracks after the damage done on Belzafest.

A pilot he vaguely recognized as being Imperial was chatting animatedly with an alliance man and his Vree friend, gesticulating broadly by way of compensation for lack of a common language in an apparent pantomime of a pompous looking Centauri man across the pathway. Yes, the crew were getting far too comfortable.


Life was easy on the Babylon station. Add to that the apparent ban on summary execution of lawbreakers and easy access to liquor, and they'd be lucky to convince any of the pilots to return at all.


Though there were some notable factors working in Abbas' favor, not the least of which was the Alliance perversity. Allaince humans were known to mate with xenos for recreation. Abbas gagged at the sight of an alliance man in an expensive looking suit exchanging saliva with a blue scaly something with tentacles.


Casual bestiality was not a selling point in their favor.


Only a truly sick mind would consider it. Only a... no! It was not worth thinking of, it was sick and wrong. Even the Primarchs were tempted by evil, even good men had impure thoughts. But a virtuous man could ignore them. Though the blue woman did have interestingly smooth curves and... no damn it he was better than this.


He rushed past a bar advertising the most exotic women in the universe and all but ran over a drunken woman as he jumped down two flights of stairs and ran the length of a corridor. He wasn't sure exactly what he was running from, but he knew he had to get away from it before something bad happened. If he stayed something bad would happen. The bad thing inside himself might fester and grow.



The passage was dark, damp, and crowded but devoid of xenos. Being near the machines was calming; it distracted him from his own worries. He shoved the bad thing to a corner of his mind as he meditatively ran his fingers along the front of what appeared to be a circuit junction box.It was one that he didn't believe he'd seen before, a rarity for him.


Children learned to recognize onboard systems before they could talk on the Endless Bounty. Nobles were no exception; a noble could die just as quickly from a malfunctioning oxygen scrubber as the lowliest peasant. As his father would put it, “Privilege is no excuse for incompetence.”


There were no words written on the outside but he knew the warning symbols of the alliance well enough to realize that it concealed a high voltage connection within. By serendipitous co-incidence, they favored recognizable yellow and black stripes to indicate hazards. He found himself following the yellow and black cable for lack of a concrete destination.

“Better to be going somewhere than back where I came from,” he muttered odiously, “Far better.” Never mind that he had no more idea what lay at the end of the corridor than he did what the cord was for, simply going anywhere felt like a drastic improvement.


His robes shuffled along the deck with a soft shifting of coarse fabric, only occasionally causing him to stumble as he walked. A lifetime of walking in trousers left him ill prepared for navigating the world in robes. Tuul assured him that it would take about a year to believe that he was, in fact, not naked from the waist down. How women wore skirts and felt anything but indecent was a mystery to him.


Jolted into action after a good ten minutes of silently meandering thehallway, following the cable in a direct path to nowhere, Abbas realized that he could hear a second set of footsteps in addition to his own. A slow purposeful clacking of steel-tipped shoes was skulking towards him, inch by inch.


Caught by an inexplicable urge not to be seen, Abbas ducked behind a large iron pipe, wedging himself into the narrow space between two support beams. He couldn't say what it was that set him on edge about the footsteps but something primal in him told him to run and hide rather than being caught in the open. Nothing good would come from those footsteps.


He held his breath and stuck to the shadows as a lean man with slick,neatly combed hair in a black suit and black leather shoes strode down the hall, muttering to himself. He fidgeted with the silver clasp binding a thin strap of leather round his neck, vaguely in the shape of the bizarre cloth nooses favored by well-to-do Alliance men, “No. No, he will be ready to listen.”


Abbas tilted his head as a cricket-like hissing of air chittered out from the empty air, crowing in response. The man shook his head and argued with the blank air next to him, “Look, they obviously aren't getting them from us and I can't realistically see them arming those lunatics.”


Another churlish hiss like curdled milk echoed in the black emptiness,radiating hollow anger. The man snorted, “I doubt he's going to want to talk with you either.”


Two warbled chirps and a hiss and the man started laughing, “If you want to violate every one of the rules of the last pact, and face the wrath of the Fiallathandirelyignir without their aid - or worse yet, have to bear the entire responsibility for the culling, then yes, why not? No, we talk now before this goes any farther and they think we were responsible.”


The voices hissed and crowed in the darkness in anticipation, clearly annoyed but not resisting his advice. A few pregnant moments passed before a massive shape shimmered out of the darkness, the massive armored form appearing from a blank patch of wall. The pulsating echoes of the psychic spell of invisibility sent purple puffs of smoke and steam into the air, revealing the object of Abbas' nightmares.


It was the Vorlon monster, Kosh Narenek. Abbas clapped his hands over his mouth, terrified that his own breathless silent scream of terror might warn the monster where he was. This was the beast that tore Inquisitor Daul limb from limb and sent his shattered body back. It would have frightened him less to be within arms length of of a hungry Tyranid Ravener.


"You're on time Ambassador,” the man's silky voice clung to the air round him, somehow echoing with the hissing clicks of his invisible compatriots, “I hadn't expected you to circumvent your security detail with such... ease. But I suppose not all Vorlons have your skill for deception do they.”


"A man who desires fire must bring a match,” Kosh growled angrily, “Else find himself burned for his effort.”


"Ambassador, we have every right to approach you about a breach of the old laws,” The man crossed his arms and leaned against the wall, entirely heedless of the danger.


"Laws of the third are none of your affair,” Kosh snarled.


"Calm down, we aren't here to remind you of your own inadequacies,” He chuckled amusedly, “Or to gloat over your incompetence.”

The Vorlon's wheezing voice hissed by way of angry question, the lights flashing confusedly.


"We're here over what happened last week in on the border of the twilight war.”


Kosh froze, growling dangerously.


"It wasn't us, if that's what you think,” the man shrugged, “But someone is out there going where no one should go, disturbing what should not be touched. Someone with power.”


“The Awakened hunger?”


"No,” the man winced, “No. They're still in hiding, and we still have time to prepare the younger races for what comes."

"No man can serve two masters.”


The man pointed down the corridor, “I beg to differ. But this is not about the issue of ways.”

"The ways are the only issue.”


"Kosh, put the ways aside for a moment and think.”


Fire burned around the Vorlon, “The pebbles cannot vote once the avalanche has started.”



"And the song sings anew with the old tunes.” The man pulled out a photo from his pocket, “With new players.”


"If you see the candle lit the dinner was cooked long ago,” the beast crooned. Abbas' skin crawled as it looked past him in thought, then back to the man, “Dances in the starry night scowl.”


"The hour of scampering is long past Ambassador,” the man turned his back on the Vorlon and waved, saying “The giver should be thankful.”


"Mysterious movements only sing of what is known,” the Vorlon shook it's broad head, “And what is foolish.”


"Ambassador, it wasn't us!” The man backed away nervously, apparently only now realizing the danger of the Vorlon. The hissing voices chirruped with actual fear.


"You still miss the music for the song,” The Vorlon's morose drone reverberated in the small space.


"Music is tangible, useful,” the man shrugged, “Utility has value.”


"Shall I ask a question of you Mr. Morden?” the simple phrase set the man stock still. He nodded unsurely, eyes darting behind him. The unseen ones stayed silent, whether in fear or curiosity Abbas didn't know,“What if the question is not the answer?”


"What?” The man blinked as the voices hissed in abject incomprehension.


"The departed are silent” Lightning balled into an furious corona above the Vorlon, “Go now.”


"Kosh, the treaties forbid this.” The man advanced brandishing his outstretched finger like a sword, “We have freedom of passage.”


Kosh hissed, “Depart or I will assist your departure to the beyond.”


The man raised his hands, palms up in a gesture of submission and smiled evilly. Turning on his heel with near military precision he turned back around and walked the direction he came from, giving a dismissive little wave of his hand, “I'll be seeing you Ambassador.”


"You do not hear the song,” The Vorlon turned and hovered away, briefly turning his red eye into the crawlspace to look directly into Abbas' eyes, through him. The Vorlon's voice echoed inside him, penetrating his mind, “You must listen. You must know what is to come.”


And then, as though it were all some odd dream, Abbas woke with a start in his bed. Only the blinking of his chronometer and the dust on his shoes to let him know that it had been real. Throne of Terra, it had been real! He hugged his knees and shivered, knowing that at any moment the beast could be back.


What did he do now?


-=-


The imposing vaulted ceilings and marble buttresses of the cargo bay of the Endless Bounty only served to impose a terrifying grandeur to the otherwise barbarous nature of the Imperials, bright torches recessed high into the ceiling casting grisly dancing shadows into the cloying darkness. Monstrous paintings of human atrocities lovingly covered the walls, depicting the stomach churning brutality of the Imperial gods with loving care.


However, it was the real life brutality that disturbed Vir.


The corridor to the cargo bay from the outer passages was lined with spikes at eye level, upon which the severed heads of those caught stealing from the ship's supplies were placed as an example to would-bethieves. Freshly dripping decapitations sat side by side with the petrified and mummified remains of an unlucky cutpurse from six hundred years prior, smelling of rotting meat and sorrow. They left no doubt that the ship's security would carry out their threat of shooting any alien who ventured out of the cargo bay without authorization.


The prospect of a bullet to the head had its merits when compared to staying in the bay. Lacking either indoor plumbing or proper bedding, the vast emptiness of the cargo bay was maddening. There was never any silence, with the vastness and acoustics one was constantly bombarded with the sounds and smells of the collected sentients.


The Narn clustered to one side of a stone partition in the center of the room, leaving the other side to the Centauri with Vir stuck in the middle by virtue of his apparent authority. As intermediary between the three groups, by default he'd become the de-facto leader of the alien population on board the Endless Bounty. It was a position that had made him universally unpopular.


The Centauri hated him because he was neither sufficiently noble nor rich to order them around, the Narn hated him out of habit, and the Imperials hated everyone equally. But they continued to rely upon him, because nobody else wanted to step in and do it. It was giving him far more insight into Londo's bitterness than he particularly cared to have.


There had been a couple of disagreements between the two groups but they'd been limited to the sort of posturing and name calling in any stressed group trapped in a room. Lucklily there was enough room for them to spread out without feeling crowded, not that anyone was foolish enough to stray too far from their group.


One a day the Narn and Centauri would send a representative to speak with him in the center of the room and discuss what needed to be done, often the only time in any day someone would speak with him. S

Shamefully, he came to look forward to accidents and fights, as it meant that he would have something to do other than stare at the terrifying space around him.


Today was no different as a square jawed Narn sat before him, cross legged and scowling at the hovering skulls above. Every time one of them got too close the Narn would reflexively reach for the blade on his back, fingers eager to draw the K'tok, “Such disrespect for the dead. Can a soul never be at peace?”


"Yeck,” Vir agreed, “Can we please talk about something... anything else, Ta'Lon?”


The Narn barked his grating laugh, his visibly scarred neck giving the slightest of hints about his smoky voice. “Not talking about them won't make them less there, Centauri. Truth does not go away because it is uncomfortable.”


"It does not make it more relevant either,” Captain Solaehos drawled aristocratically from behind a handkerchief, “These conditions are unacceptable.”


The Narn growled angrily, “Much as it pains me to do say it... he's right. Oh they've fed us and saved us, but only just. And then they leave us locked in this,” he waved to the darkness beyond the torches, “hell pit of a cargo hold.”


"And the servitors! What manner of man does that to his own people?” The Captain was eyeing a shambling wretch of what once might have been a man wandering the cargo bay while aimlessly running tentacles along the wall, “What purpose could that serve that a robot could not to better.”


"Jak assured me that we're only a day or so from the rendezvous point, then we'll be back with our own people,” Vir swallowed in horror, “He is as eager to be rid of us as we are to be back with the fleet.”


"Not too ready I hope,” The Captain joked morbidly. It hadn't escaped anyone's notice that the exterior doors to the cargo bay they occupied could easily be opened out to space, “I can't hold my breath for more than two minutes.”


"I'm more worried about what's inside the ship than what's outside it,” Ta'Lon's bitterness could have curdled milk, “Did you ever figure out what the damned thing that took Fe'Ral and dragged him through that vent was?”


Vir shuddered, he could still hear the astonished Narn screaming in confusion. Learning a name for the creature hadn't helped quell his fears, “Officer Agarkar said it was something called a “Bendy.” It's some sort of predator that sneaks on board Imperial ships and feeds off of anything and everything.”


"I couldn't care less what it's name is,” the ever practical Ta'Lon growled, “How do we track it?”


"We don't,” Vir coughed, “If one of them attacks then we can kill it with massed firepower or explosives but they're apparently invisible to.... well, everything short of psychics.”


"Will they provide psychics for this task?” The Centauri captain was as eager as the Narn to be rid of the threat of the creature, “Anything?”


"They flooded the vents around us with enough radiation to kill it. The officer assured me that they found the puddle of its remains,” Vir shuddered, “But if another one comes....”


"Another one?” The Captain brandished his handkerchief at Vir angrily, “How many are there? Why the blazes haven't they killed them all?”



"Why does anyone keep any predator around? There are worse predators on the ship, aren't there?” Ta'Lon growled in frustration.


"Yes.” sighed Vir, staring up at the flying skulls fitting about, conscious of the evils in their construction. “But we already knew that.”



Daul insisted she change into something more practical before they went to the cathedral. Eager at the prospect of getting out of the ridiculous dresses women of the Empire seemed to favor, she had agreed without thinking, only to have a gas mask and long cloak forced into her hands. The mask was uncomfortable and smelled vaguely of the ostrich the leather had so recently been part of.

She was not a fan.

Given the choice again she would have preferred to look like a courtesan than a relic from the First World War, but Daul was convinced that the additional intimidation of the gas mask would be necessary until she'd properly learned the art of being an Inquisitorial apprentice. And she couldn't exactly say no to Daul, much as she would have liked to.

It was maddening to despise the man and to intimately understand his thinking at the same time, to see the twisted reason behind his actions. She was never entirely sure if a thought was hers or a borrowed idea, which led to her acting intentionally combative of even his more innocent proposals. Not that Hilder ever had an innocent proposal; a polite greeting or an invitation to tea from him came with a price and a plan.

She had to admit, though, that she was grateful for the polarized lenses of the gas-mask when they walked through the doors to the cathedral, as the gold and polished silver reflected far too much light. Phosphorescently-bright torches burned brilliantly in hovering lanterns that spun in time with the massive, spinning, six armed clock. Susan nearly tripped over the knee-high lip of a gurgling fountain as she found herself staring at the clockwork cherub servitors, cybernetic constructs made from the remains of human children. They mended and tended the plants and flowers that hung in baskets and pots, laughing cheerily in terrifyingly regular intervals.

Following her gaze, Inquisitor Hilder snorted in amusement, saying “They're vat grown bodies Miss Ivanova. They've bred specifically for the purpose of working at the church." He paused, then added, "Well, some of them are donated by their parents after an accident, but only a madman would take a child for that purpose alone.”

It made the cherubs less terrifying, but only by a bit. Susan shied away from the chubby-fingered infants as they waddled past her on their busy little tasks. Chief Osma seemed amused by her antics and joked, “I suspect you can take them in a fight, Commander. They barely reach your knees.”

“Osma, your cyber-mastiff doesn't reach much higher than that,” Hilder intoned dryly pointing to the bronze robotic dog at Osma's side. The mechanical canine silently plodded along behind them, lethargic but alert. Snippets of Dauls memory made it perfectly clear that a cyber-mastiff could eviscerate a grown man in seconds given the chance, “And I'm not inclined to be too close to it.”

Osma reached down and rubbed the robotic dog's head with a calloused hand, scratching behind the ears as though it were an actual dog. “You'll hurt his feelings, Inquisitor.”

The dog's shark-like gaze didn't especially appear hurt to Susan, just hungry. Then again, as a robot she supposed it wasn't actually capable of either one. They walked in past the atrium and into the main hall, a cavernous space consisting of several dozen rows of pews laid out in a circle. They surrounded the wide pedestal upon which a clergyman would stand and give a sermon. Only a few parishioners were in the chapel alongside some white robed monks, giving way to the sort of eerie, forced quiet of an empty church.

It might have passed for any Eastern Orthodox Chapel from the Tzarist era in its decadence and artisan craftsmanship. That is, of course, if the Eastern Orthodoxy had decided that it was aesthetically necessary to include human remains in its regular decorating. In addition to the normal sculpture and reverent tapestry which one would expect from such a space, hundreds upon hundreds more servitor constructs were built into the walls and ceiling. Some carried relics, while others whispered gastly chipper greetings to those at worship, but the truly terrifying ones hung in the ceiling. Swinging from an elaborate framework of shimmering cables, a choir of servitors dangled down above the parish, a mangled celestial choir to sing prayers to the cruel god of mankind.

It was difficult enough to sort out her own feelings for God without adding a third party to the mix. Susan scrunched her nose at the borrowed feelings of ambivalence and betrayal she associated with the god of Mankind as a man in a bright purple robe introduced himself to Daul. The priest bowed deeply, flashing a bald patch of flesh in the center of his head where an two headed eagle had been branded, before formally saying “Inquisitor Daul, I am father Czyar, Bishop of this church. It pleases me to see you here, though I must confess, I'm surprised that I haven't seen you sooner. Al'Ashir often lamented that you had yet to come to confession.”

“My sins are between myself and the Emperor. There are ears even in places of worship, Father Cyzar,” Inquisitor Hilder replied, politely but exasperatedly kissing the man's ring in deference. This was obviously not the first time he'd fielded this question as he continued, “I pray in my own way and on my own time.”

“If you say so,” the priest responded dubiously. He was clearly unconvinced, but chose to save the souls of Daul's companions rather than continue the battle of wills. “Osma, I know there has been no lag in your devotions. The chaplain in your precinct has actually complained of the rigor with which you follow the words of the saints,” he said jokingly, before affecting a high pitched and girlish voice and saying, “How in the blazes am I supposed to be the authority on the Word of the Emperor when one of my Flock can quote the saints better than I can, and insists on correcting the most minor of interpretations?”

Osma positively beamed at the complimentary tone, saying “I am just a man humbled by the true word.” He was so painfully straitlaced that it was a wonder he could put on his shoes. Anyone that stiff-backed had to risk splitting it two any time they bent over.

“But of course,” he tilted his head, looking at Susan in an appraising manner, “I'm afraid I don't know you. Not a slight against your household, I'm sure; I'm just devilishly bad with names. Which parish are you a part of? I assume it's one of the Belzafest ones, since I have a rough time trying to get them to stick to the true word.”

“My name is Commander Susan Ivanova,” she announced, crossing her arms defiantly and pulling the six-pointed star from her shirt, “I'm Jewish.”

“Jewish?” The priest questioned, shaking his head politely, “I don't know that parish, I'm afraid, but there are many new ones that I....” he cocked his head at her continued combative posture, “...Jewish isn't.... my word, is she of the Alliance faith?” The Bishop looked at Daul eagerly, apparently thrilled at the prospect.

“Yes,” Daul nodded once, “The Jews believe that one day a divinely appointed king will come to rule the world and bring about the Kingdom of God on Earth, though he has yet to arrive. The three largest religions are variations on that prophecy. They're monotheistic, but waiting for the savior's coming at the end times.”

“Oh my, they're waiting for the Emperor and they don't even know it. They barely need any tweaking to synch with the basic Ecclesiastic doctrines,” the Bishop smiled fondly and said with a slight shade of envy, “Al'Ashir must be having the time of his life.”

“Whoah, whoah, whoah,” Susan said, alarmed. This was not OK; she had been prepared for defiant rebellion, not mild amusement. The Imperials seemed determined to dismiss or ignore any religion other than their own, and her anger colored her words: “You don't get to just claim the Jews as being part of your religion. I'm Jewish, not...” she looked around the cathedral, “gaudy space Catholic.”

“You will believe. It is the fate of all mankind,” The Bishop dismissed her entirely as one might a petulant child, “Honestly, Inquisitor, we must get a missionary fleet here to correct this. It's entirely unacceptable.”

“I hate to distract you from that noble goal Bishop,” Inquisitor Hilder responded, pressing a button on his belt to mute the speakers in Susan's gas mask before replying, “But we're here to discuss the murders of Belzafest girls.”

“Of course,” The Bishop shook his head, idly resting his hand on the dais next to him and accidentally triggering a preset message of prayer from the supplicant servitor affixed to the pillar. Its grisly meat ground out ethereal prayers of lamentation, accentuating the alarming casualness of the gruesome worship, “How foolish of me, but I get into talking with parishioners and one thing drives out the other. Bad business with those girls, a terrible business.”

Susan ripped the mask from her face and glowered at the Inquisitor, thinking hateful thoughts in his direction with a slight effort of psychic energy. The Inquisitor mentally batted away her probe, replying with a chiding reminder to control her temper, which only made her even angrier.

The Bishop, interpreting her look of fury as being directed at the killer, patted her shoulder gently, “You'll get him, Lady Ivanova. An evil man cannot hide from justice forever.”

“No,” Susan glared at Daul, “He can't.”

Osma pulled out a notepad from his pocket and put pen to paper before asking, “Bishop, I need to ask you some questions about who came in that day.”

“I told you before, Osma,” the Bishop said, shaking his head, “This is a place of repentance and confession. I cannot tell you anything about who comes in or what they admit to having done. This is a safe place for sinners to seek forgiveness. I will not have you harassing people at prayer.”

“Yes, you will,” Daul announced coldly, unfastening the button on the holster of his pistol, “or I will arrest you under suspicion of heresy.”

“Heresy,” The Bishop balked at the suggestion, “Absurd, if you even consider harassing my-”

Inquisitor Hilder pinched his fingers shut, forcing the Bishop's mouth closed with a panful burst of telekinesis. “Someone is committing ritual killings; someone out of this cathedral. If you don't let me find this person I will assume that you are protecting the criminal and there is no law of man or god that can hide you from me if that is the case. However, I'm assuming that isn't the case. You're a reasonable man aren't you?”

The Bishop nodded emphatically, trying to open his jaw, “Mhh, fhhh.”

“But of course,” he said as he released the hold, “Now, what do you have to say?”

“I suppose it wouldn't harm things,” the Bishop massaged his jaw, “if you were to talk with the monks. But there isn't anything to say. We have every priest in the parish tagged electronically to prevent them from being kidnapped by the Amon Sui. Whoever you're looking for isn't one of ours.”

“Has anyone been around the chapel a great deal?" Osma grunted, “Someone strange, perhaps someone who obviously looks agitated or worried.”

“It's hard to say,” the Bishop massaged his sore jaw, “Throne, Hilder.... you could just have left a camera without asking... I was very specific that asking was the only problem... ugh,” he blinked a few times and rubbed the tears from his eyes, “Ugh.... You should talk with Brother Helit. Well, everyone calls him Rik, but if anyone would know then it would be him.”

The Bishop cupped his mouth and yelled to a robed man at the end of the hall, “Brother Helit, come here.”

A wiry wisp of a man walked the room's length in record time before dropping to his knees next to the Bishop and saying reverently, “I serve in His name.”

“Get up, Rik,” the Bishop sighed, pulling the man to his feet, “He really is good natured but he's a bit slow. Sweet as you could imagine. Lived his whole life in the chapel, never even been outside the walls, and he's terrified of leaving the front door. Rik! These men have some questions for you.”

“Need to light the candles,” Rik hunched his shoulders and rubbed a thick patch of stubble under his chin, his crouched body language suggesting mental inhibitions, “Brother Wilan said to light the candles every day. Pray what nobody gets hurt.”

“Brother Wilan?” Osma probed.

“Another of our order. He was Rik's caregiver till now. Died of blood poisoning at Belzafest,” The bishop sighed, “The rest of us have been pitching in since then, but Rik was always like Wilan's son. He was making real progress under his care." He knelt down and looked Rik in the eyes, talking care to speak slowly, “Rik, these people are friends. What do we do when we meet friends?”

“Talk to them,” With a thrilled smile Rik stuck out his hand eagerly, pumping Susan's in a bone crushingly eager grip before moving on to the other two, though briefly stopping to stare at Daul's augmentic fingers with great interest. When he'd finished the Bishop patted his back, saying “That's good, Rik, you did a good job.”

Rik clapped eagerly at the praise. Daul cocked his eyebrow skeptically, asking “This is the best person to talk to?”

The Bishop shrugged, “Inquisitor, you could talk to every other person on the Monastery but it wouldn't accomplish half as much as just asking Rik. I swear, the boy has never forgotten anything he's ever heard. If someone was doing something strange, he'll remember it.”

Osma looked Rik in the eyes and spoke slowly, holding up a list of dates on his pad of paper, “Rik. I need to know if anything happened on these dates, anything out of the ordinary.”

Rik pointed to a date, “We got stucked to the middle of nowhere after a planet blew up.”

“No, Rik,” the Bishop corrected, “He wants to know about the church.”

Rik pointed to the first date, “I got to bake a birthday cake. It was a good cake.”

Susan greatly enjoyed the exasperated look on Daul's face as he continued asking, “Rik is there anything not related to food that you remember. Someone doing something strange. Something you didn't understand.”

Rik chewed his lip then nodded, “Yes.”

“Which of the dates?” Osma grunted, as kindly as he could.

“All of them,” Rik pursed his lips, “That's when the two men with the knives go into the crypt and scream.”

“What!” The Bishop spluttered, “Who?”

“Lord Gerard and Sir Malcom go down into the crypt with whips, knives, and chains.” Rik nodded, sure of himself. “About once a week.”

“Rik, why in the blessed saint's names are you only telling me about this now?” the Bishop groaned.

“You didn't ask.” Rik clapped his hands, “Should I show you where?”

“Yes,” Inquisitor Hilder pressed his fingers to the back of Susan's neck, spreading a warm sensation at the base of her spine. “I've temporarily deactivated the proximity sensor in the bomb, miss Ivanova. Stay here and look for clues; Osma and I will go arrest and interrogate the two nobles.”

“What? Leaving me here?” Susan blanched. “You aren't worried about me running away?”

“Miss Ivanova you are armed,” Daul said, then pointed to Rik, “and our witness is bloody well going to need armed protection if a noble realizes that a disabled priest is the only thing standing between him and freedom. Just stay with him for a couple of hours while we arrest them and arrange for safe transport. I don't want this man alone at night. Am I clear?”

“Yes,” Susan sighed, agreeing with Hilder against her better judgement, “I understand.”

“Good,” Daul, responded, turning to Osma. “Get your men in position to make an arrest. I want to total dominance over them on Inquisitorial authority within the next ten minutes.”

As she watched the two of them walk away, Susan tried to separate her feelings from those of Daul and realized, with horror, that her desire to see the guilty face the torture they deserved was not purely a product of Daul's memories. She held some of the same darkness inside herself. She closed her eyes, trying to purge herself of the deep ball of rage and hatred welling inside her. It didn't work, but at least the process helped her feel better.

“Come on, Susan, you're better than this.” She wouldn't turn her rage at the world into hating the universe for having wronged her. So there and then, clutching the Star of David to her breast, Susan sat down and prayed. God might not be listening. He might not even be there. But Susan wasn't about to blame him for all the wrongness in her life.

Susan Ivanova would not become like Daul Hilder.

-=-
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Talia loved watching Taro at work. Isogi wasn't a businessman, he was an artisan. He weaved words and feelings into a tapestry of logic that overwhelmed anyone he talked to. The impossible was made possible; the improbable became a matter of straightforward fact.

Yet his skill wasn't why she loved to see Isogi negotiate. Telepaths learned from a very young age that people cannot be trusted; it's ostracizing to know what people truly think. The parents of latent telepaths regularly get the first hints of their child's gift when their infant bursts into tears after the gift of a present from Santa. Her own parents got their clue after her pet gerbil “ran away.”

Human society is predicated upon a collection of polite lies.

But in spite of that Isogi did not lie. Not once. Not ever. The man was scrupulously truthful. It was astonishing how something so simple was so entirely rare. This in turn only made his outrageous plans that more thrilling: “Mars has resources the aliens need. Now they, in turn, can supply an economic base that will enable the colony to become self-sufficient in ten years. You can win your independence without bloodshed.”

Miss Carter chewed her lip in frustration, “It will be a hard sell with the committee. They'll need concrete assurances from the alien worlds.”

Isogi politely looked to Talia for her opinion on the matter. The man was practically a mind reader himself; she could swear that she was unnecessary for confirmation of what she knew. Talia expounded upon Isogi's suspicions: “Not entirely true. You're pretty sure the committee will accept your recommendation, and you're the one who needs the assurances.”

“Yes I do, Miss Winters,” Miss Carter's mind flashed with frustration at having her mind read so overtly as she snapped, “Mars is being ripped apart at the seams right now. And before I bargain with its future, I need to know exactly whats expected of us.”

Isogi waved his hand in a wide circle, gesturing to everything around him, “Naturally. That's one of the reasons why I suggested Babylon 5 for this meeting. All our prospective partners have representatives here, and we can iron out all the details satisfactorily.”

Miss Carter shook her head incredulously in exasperation, contrastingly with the waves of amused satisfaction coming from her mind, “You actually believe you can make this work?”

“No,” Isogi pronounced in a soft but meaningful voice, “but I believe we can try.”

Miss Carter smiled and shoved the remainder of her printouts into her suitcase, “I'll speak with the business affairs committee. I think I can have an answer for you by tomorrow afternoon.”

“Very good.” Knowing that Taro would consider it bad manners to do otherwise, Talia stood up at the same time as Miss Carter and walked with the two of them to the door. The Mars representative, eager to be away from Talia, did not tarry long. After a few polite handshakes the door hissed shut.

Talia smiled at Taro's inquisitive look, knowing all too well that Taro knew the result before she spoke, “She likes the idea. She has her doubts but she basically likes it.”

Taro chuckled paternally, “And you? Now that you've heard the details of my little plan, do you also have your doubts?”

“Frankly, yes,” Talia interpolated nervously. She wouldn't ever consider questioning him in a negotiation but parts of his plan for Mars' independence were outrageous, “The financial risk is bad enough, but the legal maneuvering will be even-"

Taro raised his hand to silence her. Firm but politely he said, “I want to hear them.” He smiled warmly, “Over dinner.”

Talia laughed, “I'd love to.”

-=-

David's eyes ached. Dex had kept him working for twelve hours straight before he'd been able to sneak off to Nor's hospital, only to be barred at the door by Nor with a hasty warning not to walk in. Bona had apparently opened her eyes for a few lucid moments and was with her parents for the moment in case it happened again. It had taken every ounce of self control to walk away from Bonafila, but angering Lord Enzo would potentially bar him from going near Bonafila to give her future treatments.

She'd opened her eyes. This called for a celebration.

It was night by the ship's clock when he reached home, too late to wake his father's cook. Nevertheless, he still planned to make a night of it. He loaded up a plate with pickles, cheese, and fresh fruit next to a thick loaf of brown bread, balancing it on a tray with borrowed pitcher of beer as he made his way to the eastern study. His mother would have skinned him alive for carrying the food down the hall without a tray, provided the Lady Sáclair didn't get to him first.

Not that there was much of a chance she'd catch him. It was night, and night meant that one or more of the concubines would be seeing to his father's needs. With the Lady Sáclair indisposed for the Lord's more active recreations by her intense gravity, his mother spent most of her time in the Lord's bed. No reason to risk the Lord's heir.

“No reason to risk his real son,” David muttered bitterly. He liked the Lady Sáclair, he supposed, but David couldn't ever forgive her for being his father's wife. Logically, he knew that it wasn't her fault that his father fell in love with his mother after a marriage of convenience. He could remember his mother telling him as a child how Sáclair had come to her to find the love he couldn't find in a woman of noble blood, a woman who married for status. He'd sought her out after the Lady Sáclair's still birth thirty years ago. While Sáclair's other concubines were just dalliances that resulted in offspring, David knew that Sáclair loved his mother deeply.

It almost made up for Sáclair not loving him as much as he would love his true son, but only almost. A proud tapestry of his father standing on top of a shining moon leered down at him as he fumbled with the latch to the eastern study, “Open up you stubborn...”

David hopped on one foot, barely managing not to spill his meal over the floor as the door opened inward. Righting the tray, he scuttled over to a low table and plush sofa. With a satisfied “oof” of relief, he melted into the chair and stared in anticipatory glee at the far wall. A mirrored sheet of glass three meters wide and two meters tall concealed a tactical hololith, repurposed some three generations back by his great uncle.(twice removed) Instead of battle plans, the device had been programmed with a library of historical and fictional holo-dramas collected over centuries.

He took a swig of beer from the pitcher and was fumbling with the control for the hololith when the door opened and the soft footsteps of slippered feet stormed towards him. Irrationally fearing that it was the Lady Sáclair, he stood up and yelled, “I brought the food on a tray!” in a pre-emptive attempt to stop the hormonal rage.

However, while it was a Lady Sáclair, it was not 'the' Lady Sáclair. Ami, clothed in an uncharacteristically short dress that left substantially little to the imagination, stood behind the sofa with sleep-ruffled hair and a look of wild amusement on her face.

“I can see that,” his sister snorted, suppressing fits of giggles behind her hand. She swallowed in an effort to quell her amusement, but burst into a second fit of laughter, “Throne David, your face... it was priceless. A tray? As though it the tray would be what angered her.”

“Uuuhh,” David stammered. The Lady Sáclair had recently demanded that it not be used in a fit of hormonal pique, claiming something about her fearing the noise might agitate the child inside her. But he wasn't about to let the bloated hag ruin his celebration, especially considering that the room was wholly noise proofed and signal-dead to prevent eavesdropping. Ami would not be especially receptive to that way of thinking, however. “Come on Ami. She won't hear it.”

“That's not the point David,” Ami shook her head, “I'm worried about you. You're not yourself.”

“Come on, Ami, cut me some slack alright,” David sighed. “This hasn't been a good time for me. What with the battles and...”

Ami poked his sternum angrily. “David Sáclair, don't you dare try that on me! I know better.”

“What?” David blinked in confusion, “I don't understand what you're-”

“David, I'm not stupid. I'm not Carran or Arda but I'm not stupid, no matter what people might say about me,” Ami said, crossing her arms angrily. “You've missed ten of your scheduled tutoring sessions in High Gothic. Lord Sácomer says you've stopped asking him questions about ship's systems entirely, and almost all of your training has turned into one long discussion of security measures on the ship. You aren't even trying to figure out how to become an officer any more.”

David forced his voice to sound dismissive as his heart leapt up between his ears, trying to escape through his mouth, “Ami people just... deal with things differently....I wanted a change.”

“David, there's change and there's outright stupidity,” Ami puffed her cheeks in annoyance. “How could you do this to Bonafila?”

David's blood ran cold. How could she know? How could anyone know? Damnit, he hadn't been careful enough. A terrible vision of strangling his sister to death to protect the secret ran through his head, more nightmarish for its lingering appeal than its violence. “Ami, I don't know what you think you know.... but it's not what you think.”

“How can you be cheating on her! How can you be cheating on Bonafila?” Ami snarled. “It has to stop before she gets back on her feet.”

David's attempts to fabricate an excuse for his heresy stopped flat footed as he tried to figure out exactly what she was talking about. In a voice of stunned credulity he repeated, “Cheating on Bonafila?”

“Don't you try that on me, mister. I know the look of a man with a secret and Arda isn't the only one who can find things out.” She pulled a video still out from her dress, though Throne alone knew where she'd been keeping it, and brandished the still in his face. She pointed with a jewel-set fingernail at the figures in it. “You checked into the hospital with her after you had an allergic reaction to something or another; they sent a request for payment last week.”

Stenatoda! She'd found a photo of him with Stenatoda. The bitch had used his real name when she'd checked him in to make sure he was tied to them. “Ami it's not what you...”

“Flox poisoning, David. I know what that means. I know how you get exposed to it, and what its a side effect from,” She shook her head, “I understand needing a release, David, but you've overdosed on euphoria once already.”

“Ami, I wasn't sleeping with her,” David protested impotently. “She was just a friend.”

“David, don't waste your time pretending,” Ami sighed, “You don't do euphoria with someone who is “just a friend.” And you damn well don't go looking for a woman dressed like that unless you're planning to misbehave.”

Taking a swing of his beer and reaching for the remote, David tried to get his night back on track, “Look, you haven't got a clue what you're talking about Ami.”

His half sister grabbed the control before he could and held it behind her, asking suspiciously, “Fine then David. Tell me her name?”

“Uh... well... I...” David didn't know her name, and an obvious code name wouldn't help his case any.

Ami shook her head disappointedly, “That's what I thought. Throne, David, you need to stop this now!”

“It's more complicated than that,” David munched despondently on a pickle. “You... you just don't get it.”

“No I don't,” Ami pleaded, “So help me David. Help me try to understand what is going through your head right now. You've apparently been seen in the company of no less than fifteen women in various places on the ship, all of whom were in intimate situations with you. What is this? You can't have Bonafila so you have to have every other woman?”

“No...I'm doing it for....” What was he supposed to say? That he was doing it for Bonafila's welfare? That the only thing separating her from death was his betrayal of everyone he knew and loved? Ami wouldn't accept delivering orders for the Amon Sui as a reason for him to be in intimate quarters with so many women. In truth, some of them had offered themselves to him, a perk some of the Amon Sui women offered to their co-consipirators as a reward for continued faith, even though he hadn't accepted. But Ami needed a comfortable lie, not the truth: “I... I don't know why I'm doing it...”

“It isn't fair to her David,” Ami sighed, “It isn't any more fair to her that it is for my father to call your mother to his bed on a whim or to send her away.”

“You bitch!” David stood up, waving his pickle like a weapon, “Our father loves my mother!”

“Did I say he doesn't?” Ami sighed in a voice of forced calm, “But he chooses who do go to, and when. He chooses which of our mothers he wants at that moment, dismissing those who are inconvenient or ill. And we both hate it.”

Tears welled in her eyes and her voice broke with emotion, “It... it isn't fair to her that you can just dismiss her or entertain yourself with any woman you want in the meanwhile. She's my friend, David. It isn't fair that you can do this to her. That you can just use her.”

David walked over to her and hugged her as she cried into his shirt. He couldn't bear to see one of his sisters in pain. “Ami... it's OK! Please stop crying.”

“It's not OK,” her lips quivered, “It's not OK. Just.... just promise me you won't use my friend. Promise me.”

David, entirely baffled by the train of conversation, hugged her close and looked her in tear soaked eyes before announcing: “Ami, I have never loved a woman the way I've loved Bonafila. She is the light of my life. I promise you I will never do anything to hurt her again.”

Ami sniffled a bit, but nodded, “Ok.”

“Ok. Now I'm going to watch something pointlessly violent, drink my beer, eat, and celebrate,” David said, wiping the tears from Ami's cheeks with his pocket handkerchief, “Because today is a day to be happy, not sad. We're alive. Bonafila is getting better. All is well with the universe. You can join me if you wish.”

“Ok,” Ami flopped down into the sofa and offered the remote, “But I want to watch something with Space Marines.”

David smiled. “You read my mind.”

-=-

“You're quite certain that this device can produce the power output I require? One that has not been touched by the hands of xenos?” Kerrigan towered over the shopkeep, a portly woman from the Alliance home world, “It is an issue of religious purity. We would not consider installing an machine made by unclean hands.”

“Ma'am, my stuff was made in the USA. Good old fashioned elbow grease, and some General Electric know-how are what made this,” she smiled in apparent approval of Kerrigan's request. “It'll power a Starfury, I guarantee it.”

“Good! Have four of them sent to the Imperial bay.” Kerrigan pulled four sizable gold coins set with thumb sized rubies from her purse, saying “I presume this will be sufficient payment.”

“Jesus, lady? Are those things freaking real?” The woman drooled at the sight of the gems. “Tell you what, I'll toss in a couple of antigrav loaders for free.”

“That should be acceptable,” Kerrigan nodded to her guards. “Come. I have more parts I require from other shops.”

Freed of Mr. Garibaldi's exile on the condition that she neither harass the xenos nor attempt to modify any systems, Kerrigan had taken to wandering the station in the wee hours of the station's time. She did not require sleep except for the direst of injuries, giving ample time to explore. Provided, of course, that she agree to be accompanied by a bodyguard.

Kerrigan adored the Babylon station, heresy though it was to say so. The Alliance station was entirely unpretentious, almost innocent, corrupted horribly by virtue of their humanity. The Alliance security officers assigned to “keep her out of trouble” still had the weight in their cheeks that could only come from generations of easy living. They held all the bluster of soldiers but none of the humility that came from actually participating in battle.

Admittedly, her relaxation was greatly aided by the plasma syphon concealed on her person. Anyone who tried to use an energy weapon within ten paces of her would fire wildly off course as their shot dissolved under the curious sciences of the Ulmethii. It was easier to appreciate dangerous men when they were no danger to one's person.

However, the most shameful joy she got from the station was her proximity to so many xenos without having to go through normal channels. Kerrigan's true love was the study of xenotech sciences, and until her exile from her position on the Oita Forge World she'd been the world's pre-eminent scholar of xenology and xenobiology. It was a necessary study for the Imperium, but primarily a tactical one. The Administratum wanted to know how to defeat xenos races; learning from them was purely coincidental. Their technology had to be vetted, tested, and probed by every Forge World from Mars to Ryza before it would even be considered as an acceptable technology.

The Adeptus Mechanicus were, by and large, content to accept that xenos-created technologies were impure, and thus unusable. Unfortunately for her, Kerrigan was a woman beholden to logic. It made no sense to her that the Omnissiah, a god of knowledge and learning, would arbitrarily come to the conclusion that Imperial technology ought to be inefficient.

If the Tau had learned how to create plasma weaponry that did not explode, it was a betrayal of the Omnissiah's message to not learn its secrets for the betterment of the Imperium. She created a prototype using a reverse-engineered version of the pulse rifle, only to be exiled for her trouble.

Had the rifle not been designed for Inquisitor Daul Hilder, they would have made her into a servitor. She owed her life to him. This second exile was a small price to pay for his survival, considering the perks.

“Ma'am,” Mr. Zack Allan interrupted her introspection worriedly, “you might want to get moving.”

“No, thank you officer,” Kerrigan perused a display of historical dramas depicting the history of Earth, trying to decide which of them would be the best to start learning their history from. So many of the holo-dramas seemed to contradict the historical records that she was beginning to wonder if the actors even read them. “I have more items that I need to purchase before I retire.”

“I'm sure you do, ma'am, but I'm pretty sure I see... damn, she's coming over here,” the Marine groaned. “Don't say I didn't warn you ma'am.”

Kerrigan looked over her shoulder at the person Mr. Zack Allan was scrupulously trying to avoid catching the eye of, a severe looking white haired woman in a green suit emblazoned with the letters “ISN.” The woman was followed by a small cadre of men shouldering thick black devices with glass lenses on the front, presumably cameras. “Should I know her?”

“Merciful Christ, she's seen you,” Private Clémont sighed. “Why in hell didn't anyone tell us there would be one on station?”

Kerrigan pinched the bridge of her nose, “Will one of you please explain what you're blathering about?”

The woman, brandishing a black baton with a bit of foam on the end, walked across the hall and directly to Kerrigan without preamble. Her cadre of men with their curious devices followed her silently, capturing her image from every possible angle in an astonishing display of vainglory.

“Lady Kerrigan, the people of Earth would like a word with you.” Damn, the woman was doubtless some sort of Alliance royalty. She likely wasn't the good kind either, as few competent rulers were so vapid as to refer to themselves in the third person.

“I am busy at the moment.” Kerrigan picked up a data chip from the stall next to her, examining it with a probing mechandrite. One of the nobewoman's cadre focused on her probe in obvious interest. Kerrigan ignored it; no reason to get the fool whipped for losing focus. “Is this pressing?”

“The truth is always pressing Lady Kerrigan,” the woman continued, unabashed. “We have many questions for you.”

“It is Magos Frist. I do not know you well enough for you to take that liberty.” Kerrigan lifted herself off the ground with her mechandrites, adding another half meter to her height and the distinct impression that she was floating above the noblewoman. “Ask your questions so that I may be rid of you. I will answer all that do not violate the law or my conscience.”

“Magos Kerrigan,” the woman swallowed nervously, unaccustomed to this level of proximity to an augmentically altered person. However foppish she was, the woman had backbone. “The arrival of the Endless Bounty has caused an uproar in the past three months. Your nation joined the Leauge of Non-Aligned worlds in record time after first contact. But we know so little about you as a people: first and foremost, am I correct in saying that you are genetically human?”

“Yes,” Kerrigan sighed, annoyed at so obvious a conversation. “Your own doctors confirmed that beyond the shadow of a doubt. We are human.”

“I hope you don't take this the wrong way... but you don't exactly look like any human I know,” the woman politely jibed.

“I've had some upgrades installed for the purposes of improved functionality,” Kerrigan laughed mechanically, “but there are a few bits of human here and there.”

“Fascinating, we haven't gotten the hang of that yet, I'm afraid.” The woman pulled a device out of her bag. The device, obviously some sort of pict-corder, showed a small video of the Ogryn Galut protecting infants from demonic incursion. “And this man? Is he human as well?”

“I'd wondered how he'd managed to get those scars,” Kerrigan said with interest, taking the device with one of her tentacles. “The boy had more fight in him than I'd realized. I'd though Cairn had lost his mind when he paid a hundred thrones for him.”

“Paid,” the woman interposed in confusion, “He's a slave?”

“Of course he is. He's an Ogryn.” Kerrigan nodded, “Though 'indentured servant' is a closer translation. Galut is an... the word we use doesn't translate well... 'near human' …'altered human' ...no, 'abhuman.' He is genetically similar, however due to genetic modification and natural evolution he is disparate enough that the people from his home world can no longer breed with pure-blood humans.”

“And there are other 'abhumans' in the empire?” She pulled out a photo of Vira'capac sharing a meal with the pak'ma'ra, asking “Ones who do not share the physical similarities?”

“No,” Kerrigan laughed, “The Kroot is most decidedly not human... at all. But there are numerous abhumans in the Empire.”

“And are they all slaves?” Her eyes narrowed suspiciously. Ah, now the woman's fear made sense. She was afraid that the genetic variations of the Alliance would condemn them to slavery. There was no need to frighten the woman of the coming Imperium; it was best to help her look forward to it.

“Of course not,” Kerrigan shook her head, “The Imperium is just too large for any one type of abuhuman to be universally anything. Galut is one of many Ogryn; what applies to him is not universal. The Navigators are in a place of esteem, since we could not travel the stars without them.”

“One of them was part of the initial greeting party,” the woman nodded pensively, “The one with three eyes.”

“Yes, that was Navigator Zorn Calven,” Kerrigan raised her hand, willing a small hologram of him into life. It spun in place with a lifelike imitation of the man's insufferable sneer as she continued, “They are the ones capable of seeing the currents of the warp. They are the ones who make space travel possible.”

“The warp,” the woman nodded eagerly, “The alternative to hyperspace your people use. Yes, tell us about that.”

“I apologize madam,” Kerrigan sighed, “But that is not information I will share with just anyone. Even a the simplest forays into warp science can, and do, result in disaster without proper caution.”

“Disaster like what happened on Babylon 5 you mean,” The woman asserted, “There are certain people who are questioning if the timing of this so called “daemon” attack was more than a co-incidence. It has even been implied that the imperials had something to do with unleashing it.”

“Preposterous,” Kerrigan laughed at the very idea of it, “The Inquisitor does not consort with demons, nor does he summon them for his own purposes.”

“Then why did the Vorlon confront him after the fact?” The woman pressed the baton towards Kerrigan's face, asking imperiously, “How did you destroy two Vorlon warships?”

“I have no intention of...” Kerrigan trailed off, staring at a blonde man weaving his way through the crowd. Her eyes, modified years ago with augmentic upgrades, saw what no other mortal could: a fine halo of energies that could only be associated with concealed augmentic weapons, “I apologize, but you're quite sure that Alliance human's don't have augmentic machines installed the way I do?”

“Positive,” the woman smiled incredulously, “Magos, you didn't answer my question.”

“Be silent, you fool,” Kerrigan hissed, “I don't want him to know that I've seen him.” Kerrigan brushed past the woman, tapping her finger on her lips for silence. The security officers, wary of her aggressive posture, followed her closely and reached for their side arms.

“Kerrigan,” Mr. Zack Allan hissed plaintively, “What are you doing? She isn't going to just stop following you because you confused her.”

“Mr. Zack Allan,” Kerrigan hissed in a quiet whisper, “I am correct in my assumption that someone sneaking military grade weapons on to your station merits your interest?”

“Damn,” the officer unholstered his pistol, “Where is he?”

“Not sure... no, wait,” Kerrigan stopped at the end of a hall, using her enhanced augmentic senses to listen for the cyborg. However the only sounds she heard were of an amused human couple walking arm in arm down the hall.

“I've never seen you so excited about a deal before,” the woman laughed amusedly as Kerrigan placed a name with the face. It was the station's sanctioned psycher, Talia Winters.

Her date, a man of middle age chortled, “It's not just a deal Talia. It's a step into the future. Mars can be the beginning of a whole new life for the human species. It's as it was meant to be.”

Kerrigan hissed “now” and sprinted down the corridor as she heard a third set of footsteps moving from the shadows of an alcove. The tall, blonde cyborg approached the couple deliberately and stared into the man's eyes with pure hatred. He screeched in a hoarse whisper, “Free Mars!”

His hand covered in a coruscating blue lightning as he reached out to grab the man. Before Kerrigan could close the distance and grab him Miss Winters tossed herself between the man and his attacker, taking a lethal blast of lightning to the chest. Blue bolts of energy cascaded across her body, twisting and crackling in absolute lethality.

Kerrigan wasn't sure if the woman or her attacker was more surprised when the crackling energies siphoned into the blood red stone between the woman's breasts, leaving her shirt in tattered scraps but the woman otherwise none the worse for her troubles. The woman screamed and in a purplish haze of psychic discharge heaved the man into the wall.

“Security! Stand down!” Mr Allan unholstered his weapon, searching for a clean shot at the woman's attacker but finding none, “Come on, come on, I just need a shot. Get out of the way Talia!”

“Talia!” the man bellowed in apparent terror for his companion's wellbeing as the cyborg flipped to his feet and lunged for the woman again, brandishing a knife in his hand. The woman grabbed the man's hand at the wrist, freezing him in place with a telepathic suggestion.

Kerrigan bounded across the hall, ducking into a roll to come up behind the cyborg. Powerful augmentic tendrils wrapped around the cyborg, binding him and pulling him from the woman. No longer in direct contact with his telepathic opponent, the cyborg attempted to fight for his freedom. Blue bolts of lightning dissipated harmlessly on her insulated augmentics.

Sick of the creature, Kerrigan punched through it's chest and tore out the creature's heart, then twisted her mechandrites and broke the arms and legs for good measure. The discarded corpse spurted a thick puddle of blood as it collapsed to the floor as she muttered, “Disgusting thing.”

She noticed with some surprise that the noblewoman had apparently chosen to follow them rather than shy from the battle. She turned to her cadre, panting and bent over from the effort of running in her high-heeled shoes, “You got that, right? Tell me you got that?”

Miss Talia Winters groaned in frustration from the deck before sitting upright and ashamedly covering her chest. A hand print had been burned through her clothing down to the naked skin of her chest, but her skin was impossibly unburned and unscarred.

After having called in the incident to security, Mr. Zack Allan bent down next to Miss Winters, taking the black and white checkered cowl offered to him by Kerrigan to cover her modesty. “You OK, Talia?”

“I... I think I'm fine,” Talia looked at her companion in bewilderment. “I'm totally fine.”

“That you are alive at all is wildly improbable,” The Miss Winter's companion companion hugged her tightly to his chest, “But he should not have gotten this far at all with those weapons. It is inexcusable.”

“Look, I feel your pain,” Officer Allan sighed exasperatedly as he holstered his weapon and helped Talia to her feet. He nodded to a small cadre of security officers who arrived to secure the scene, saying “I didn't even know that someone could hide a lightning rod in their arm. We search everybody on station for what we can. Sometimes they get through the net; I'm just glad we caught this one. ”

“Then we shall have to amend that,” Kerrigan fished about in the creature's innards, examining the circuitry within. It was a hack job if ever she saw one, the sort of work one got from relying upon backwater Mechanicus washouts and technological autodidacts. Every component designed to work in the short term, and even then not particularly well. Annoyed, she muttered “I won't allow those of us exiled to the station to be endangered by naive Luddites. Honestly, not catching a cyborg at the door? How you haven't been conquered already is a mystery.”

The noblewoman pointed the baton at her again, prompting Kerrigan to briefly entertain fantasies of making her eat it in punishment for her rudeness, “What do you plan to do in order to “amend it,” Magos?”

“By upgrading the station, obviously,” The Magos shook her head in disgust, “Now go away, you supremely irritating woman. I have to go meet with Captain Sheridan.”

The woman moved out of the Mago's way as she waved a blood stained augmentic claw at her, but would not be assuaged from her inquisition, “What do you think of the Captain’s duties on Babylon 5 in the light of his apparent failures as of late.”

Kerrigan shouted over her shoulder as Mr. Allan barred the noblewoman from following them into the lift, “I think that anyone who views slaying a demon and surviving invasion as a failure has taken leave of their senses.”

-=-

Sørian did not like being summoned to the great hall even when it was done with the pomp and ceremony someone of his noble blood deserved. Being hurried to the throne's judgement like some common strumpet was entirely unacceptable.

The Lionhearts hadn't announced themselves to his footman or knocked on his door. They had no need for either. Their authority allowed them to enter any room of the ship without warrant or permission. So it was that Sørian had been interrupted mid-coitus with a summons to arrive at the great throne in thirty minutes.

Thank the Gods that they hadn't come two minutes later, or they would have caught him mid sacrifice. Sørian was a good liar but even he couldn't imagine a plausible reason for someone to be fornicating with a recently slaughtered corpse covered in demonic sigils. Tzeentch alone knew how to pull that one off.

He wasn't even entirely sure which of the Lionhearts they were. Apparently vowed to silence and secrecy in their mission, they'd covered their faces and heads with wide turbans that matched the silk cloth of their robes and concealed their identities. Sørian vaguely knew that the largest of them was likely Hamman or Danzig, since Sergei walked with too much pride in his shoulders for it to be him. Not that he could do more than guess, as even their voices were distorted by breathing apparatus beneath the silks.

He hated feeling underdressed by comparison to his escort: he'd hardly had the time to slip into a simple silk and eagle feather tunic with a lace frock before they'd hurried him out the door. If he survived this he'd never be able to live down the shame of looking like some merchant son of a dock worker. Intolerable, it was entirely intolerable.

He could crush these fools with a spell and a wave of his finger, but to do so would damn him. He was powerful. but not powerful enough to overwhelm the entire ship, especially without the aid of his patron god of excess. No, he would bear the indignity - for now. Revenge, sweet revenge, would come later to all those who insulted and opposed him. By the Gods, it would come.

They had no proof. They could have no proof, not yet. If they had proof they would have shot him, not brought him to Sáclair... but why? What could this be about? Why could they need him?

The great hall was relatively empty at this uncivilized hour, its normal crowds likely at home finishing their evening meal rather than plodding about on some fool's errand. A few lesser nobles stood around chatting pleasantly, doubtless meeting in anticipation of a night's revelry. Lacking adequate quarters of their own, they would be forced to make do with some commercial venue for their entertaining. “New bloods are as bad as peasants, I swear,” Sørian muttered to himself.

The Lionheart to his left shot him a murderous look, displeased to be in close proximity with Sørian. Perhaps he'd ordered the man whipped as a child, possibly even hunted him. Few of the duct rats he'd hunted escaped alive, or sane. Osma's fools never even came close to finding Sørian, though the officers had been more than glad to hunt his patsies. The cultist's lip quirked in amusement at the fools protesting their innocence.

Who knows, perhaps some of them were even deserving of their public crucifixion. He'd certainly found their screams worthy. Bolstered by the happy memory, Sørian whistled an amused tune as they led him to a levitating marble platform.

“Get on,” the big Lionhearts sandpapery voice echoed through his vox-caster. He made no motion to follow Sørian.

“Er,” Sørian stammered, worried. Getting on a levitating platform by himself felt like an especially bad choice. Just because the Lionhearts did not shoot him didn't mean Sáclair wouldn't. He'd done so before to several mutineers, two murderers, and a particularly offensive minstrel, “Are you quite sure he wanted me, Sørian? Not the Sabian or Sural household?”

“Look, the Captain is waiting for you,” The large man cracked his knuckles, “Are you going to get on or do I have to help you on?”

Sørian's flash of range quelled almost instantaneously as he caught sight of a plasma turret in the ceiling tracking a floating servo-skull. Not here, not now, it was not time. “I suppose there's no time like the present.”

Sørian strode forward onto the platform and felt distinctly sick as it rose into the air. There really ought to have been a guard rail or a chair or something, anything really, to stop its occupant from being in constant fear of the edge. One wrong step, one subtle slip, and the rider would fall to the ground and die. Of course, that was probably its intention when one of the brutal ancient Lords Sáclair commissioned it.

As the Captain's ornate throne and kneeling concubines came into view in all its vainglorious luster, Sørian could not help by seethe with envy. The casual opulence and sheert dismissive immoderation of the Captain was enough to shame the Keeper of Secrets Bal'shag'kebet. It was a shame that the only god Sáclair truly prayed to was himself, since the brutality and arrogance of his household might easily have meshed with the prince's whims.

With the merest of deferent nods Sáclair greeted him neutrally, “Sørian, my good man, it's been too long since we've spoken. How are you?”

“It has only been six months since my last summons,” he responded. Six glorious months! “And I did not mean to impose.”

“Six months,” Sáclair tutted, “How time flies, how much has happened. How much you have changed.” The man pulled out a standard issue Adeptus Arbities pistol, “How we all change.”

“I have no idea what you're speaking of,” Sørian answered, clutching a small pouch in his pocket. Inside was a prepared spell of protection that ought to save him long enough to jump off the platform without harm. “I'm the same man I always was.”

“Are you?” Sáclair twirled the pistol on his index finger, sipping his mead out of a great flagon. “I hope not. I remember you being a self-centered, egotistical, selfish, useless fop.”

Blood boiled in Sørians' ears. He'd spent years building up his persona to conceal his extracurricular proclivities, but even his person was not deserving of this rudeness. Quelling the urge to strike the man down with warpfire, he replied in a slow dangerous tone, “I beg your pardon?”

“Calm yourself, Sørian,” Sáclair laughed in jovial commiseration, much to his compatriot's bewilderment. “My assumptions were recently proved incorrect. You are to be trusted.”

“I am,” Sørian blinked in total stupor, “Of... of course they were. Of course I am... but why?”

“Sørian, I am this ship. My children are an extension of me, never more than an inch away from the skin of the Endless Bounty,” He smiled politely, “All my children - well all my true borns anyway - all of them are implanted with tracking devices at birth. I know where my daughters are at all times. I know when they are doing something foolish. They are never alone, even when they believe they are.”

Sørian's blood rushed to his ears and a feeling of abject dread came over him once again, “Captain I don't know what she told you-”

“Not a thing,” Sáclair shrugged, “Nor do I suspect she will. But I do not need her account of the matter. She was followed by a servitor skull at a discrete distance. I know exactly what happened. I watched you save my daughter.”

“It... It was the least I could do,” Sørian whispered in shock. By the gods, it was a miracle he'd turned down Hexathelidae's suggestion to murder her or bed her in the street, “I.. I... she asked me not to tell you.”

“As your Captain I'm annoyed that you chose not to, but as a father I appreciate your loyalty to my daughter's wishes. I am cognizant that you chose to risk the death penalty at Osma's hand rather than embarrass her publicly,” Sáclair sighed. “You will be getting a full pardon for acting on behalf of my daughter in this. I have no intention of shaming Ami for the actions of that barbarian.”

“No,” Bless that wonderfuly foolish girl! Gods, had he realized at the time that an attempted violation would endear himself to the Captain in this way, Sørian would have allowed the officer to continue. Saving her from true violation might have gotten him a new title! “She doesn't deserve any of that.”

“As grateful as I am for your intervention however, I found your motivations to be most interesting of all,” he said, pressing a button on his throne which prompted a servitor to float over to Sørian in a frenzied circle. Thin tendrils of superconductive ribbon trailed behind it, projecting a holographic projection in the center of its hurried path. A vision of Sørian hugging Ami to his breast towered above him, a handsome man clutching his rescued maiden in picturesque glory. And then the vision of Sørian opened his lips, speaking words Sørian only vaguely remembered, “...Why, I would have thought that were obvious. We're hunting Amon Sui saboteurs.”

“Hunting Amon Sui saboteurs,” Sáclair chortled, “It seemed absurd to me, but I couldn't well leave the matter without investigation. And would you believe it, a bit of rooting in the ship's systems revealed an interesting pattern.”

“Did it?” Sørian relied in coy indifference.

“Indeed it did,” Sáclair tapped his temple, “At least twice a month, though often more, a servant by the name of Fen Nur not entered into the ship's census data leaves your domicile. This servant is scrupulous in his anonymity, avoiding all cameras and recording devices. And humble, too, since his clothing would easily pass for the penurious of men.”

“Does he now,” Sørian coughed, “I have many men in your employ...”

“Do not insult me, Sørian. He is you. You are the one taking late night strolls into the dark places on the ship. You are the one who's been making discrete inquiries into our network to discover any unusual traffic, using what the Tech-priests assure me is a wholly illegal logic cipher. You were not as careful in covering your tracks as you believe,” Sáclair laughed, “You've got a set of big brass ones to try and keep this up in the face of all else! Your last attempt to give information to me on the Amon Sui was from a public terminal ten feet from your residence.”

“What would you have me say, Captain,” Sørian sighed, “Am I to convict myself?”

“Convict? My boy,” Sáclair laughed, “You misunderstand this entirely. I want to use you.”

“Use me...” Sørian repeated the words incredulously, and realized that the Lord Sáclair did not even have the remotest suspicion of his involvement with the Amon Sui or the dark gods. Fen Nur was a rather hastily created Alias he'd generated after erasing any trace of his previous pseudonym from station records. He could have kissed the heretic enginseer who sold him his logic engine.

“Indeed my boy. I have few enough people looking to fight the Amon Sui who aren't wholly in the Inquisitor's pocket. The Amon need to be stopped, but not at the cost of this ship's soul, what makes her who she is,” Sáclair sipped his drink sadly, “The Inquisitor has taken prisoners. New prisoners, nobles. He's going to question them. Torture them, most likely.”

Sørian faked disgust at the concept of torture, curling his lip into a disgusted sneer, “How dare he?”

“They are suspects, he is an Inquisitor,” Sáclair shrugged. “But he is an outsider. He speaks the words of our language but misses its nuances, the culture behind it. I need someone I can trust in the interrogation room with him. Someone who can help avoid torture, someone who can report his unfiltered findings back to me. Can you be that man?”

“Not the Lionhearts?” Sørian raised his brow in confusion, “Can you not trust them? Or perhaps Mr. Enzo or another officer?”

“Trust is not the issue,” Sáclair sighed, “Knowledge is. They're soldiers and commoners, they miss things we would not. And frankly Mr. Sørian, you are unimportant enough that the Inquisitor will dismiss you out of hand.”

Sørian took umbrage with the suggestion, in spite of its veracity. A soldier or commanding officer would take the Inquisitor's attention. A minor noble serving as a translator would not. “I... yes, my Lord Captain. I am your man.”

“Very well Sørian,” Sáclair bowed in slight deference, “The Inquisitor will be waiting for you. Good luck. The soul of the Endless Bounty is in your capable hands.”

Dark Gods' blessings upon that insufferable tart of a daughter! He would pray for her good fortune with his next sacrifice. No harm in well wishing those who've helped you greatly.

-=-

Hope. Donat could not remember the last time he'd felt it. Clutching his wife Tessa to his side, he sat on the uncomfortable hospital folding chairs basking in the glory of his newfound hope. Bonafila's eyes had only been open for a matter of minutes, but Medicus Nor assured him that it was a sign of good things. Miraculously, unexplainably, Bonafila's body was healing itself.

Nor was running tests to see what combination of medication had given her such a positive result, but at the moment Donat didn't much care why his daughter wasn't dying. Let better men than he debate the effects of providence on the lives of good men. “Blessed be the Emperor.”

“Blessed be,” his wife nuzzled up against him, smiling contentedly. Tessa's eyes were puffy and red from crying in relief, but Donat couldn't think of a moment she'd been more beautiful to him. Tessa had been greatly understanding of the needs of his office, spending time with their daughter on his behalf. Every morning Tessa came and washed her face, and every night she combed their daughter's hair and read her a story.

Donat suspected that Nor had circumvented his wishes and allowed David to see his daughter unchaperoned. Too many food wrappers were in the waste paper bin and he doubted the copy of “The Triumph of the Sanguinary" on the end table belonged to the Medicus. Tessa too grew suspiciously mum on the subject of David Sáclair.

There were some days where he wondered if she didn't even know he was a bastard. Women have some of the strangest ideas. Just as well that the Emperor was a man, or the whole universe might implode out of sheer sophistry.

“Shouldn't you be at your post, husband mine?” Tessa teased him jovially, “Or have they figured out how to run the ship without you?"

“Sácomer has taken some additional shifts. The poor man's been feeling guilty since the last battle,” Donat ground the words “poor man” in disgust. Sácomer's sheer incompetence and unprofessional behavior was entirely unacceptable. Did he not think that Sáclair hurt as well? Duty was duty, even if it endangered one's cousin.

“You stop that,” Tessa pinched his cheek and shook it. He couldn't feel it through his petrified face, but he appreciated the gesture no less as she teased him, “That poor man has a kind soul. We don't have enough kind souls left in the universe.”

“I suspect it's well insulated from the rest of the universe. One would have to fight their way through so much blubber that it would hardly be worth the effort,” Donat jibed in reply, squeezing his wife's ribs and earning an amused squeak for his efforts.

“You behave,” Tessa chided, “We're in front of your daughter. We don't want to embarrass her when she wakes up.”

“Throne above, why not?” Donat grinned as wide as his face would allow, “I'd be a terrible parent if I couldn't soundly embarrass my child.”

“Oh,” Tessa giggled, “How silly of me. Shall I get the vid stills of her birth and first steps to show to everyone in the medical wing?”

“I can't imagine a better way of motivating her to stand up and walk,” Donat snorted, “I suspect we might want to start smaller or she'll pull a muscle sprinting across the room to stop you.”

“True, she does have those long legs. I'd have a heck of a time outrunning her,” The both laughed till they couldn't laugh any more, then went back to staring at her. Tessa sighed sadly, “When she wakes up.”

“Of course,” Donat hugged his beloved to him, “When she wakes up. Blessings of the Emperor be upon her when she wakes up.”

There were few things as glorious as hope.
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post #114 of 159 (permalink) Old 12-19-12, 02:02 AM Thread Starter
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Chapter 17: Changing roles.

Garibaldi floated across the surface of Mars, hovering above the rocky cliffs that surrounded the southern basin of the Psi-corps base. He hopped from stony outcrop to stony outcrop, taking care not to leave behind any footprints that might give a clue as to how he got in. Michael loved the sensation of floating across the low gravity landscape. Having spent the past two years on a space station with slightly below earth gravity he couldn't help but feel a bit like a superhero.

There were faster routes to the facility, but none that he dared risk. Both the sewers and the atmospherically controlled walkways between the Psi-Corps outpost and the nearest habitat dome were patrolled by forces loyal to the Psi-corps. They were all telepaths over the P-3 level, some of them perhaps were even as strong as a P-7. He could not hope to avoid them in such tight quarters.

The Martian surface was doubtlessly patrolled as well, but the harsh conditions and confusing landscape of the red planet made maintaining a secure perimeter impossible – at least not without revealing the facility to be a military installation. And if Garibaldi knew anything, it was that the last thing the Psi-corps wanted was to publicize this place.

So they relied upon motion sensors and stationary turrets to protect themselves from intrusion. Fortunately for Michael, plans of that nature had to be filed with the Mars central planning commission.

It was, of course, entirely illegal for him to obtain them in order to plan his break in. Then again so was kidnapping and he was reasonably sure he'd find a way to live with that too. Well, he would presuming that he eventually felt any.

There was a narrow path of stony outcropping that avoided both the sensors and the turrets, too high and narrow for any sane person to try and walk it. In a word, it was perfect. Nobody would ever see it coming. Still Garibaldi couldn't help but feel his heart catch in his throat as he floated over each crevasse and gully, knowing that falling would mean death by plasma turret.

He ended each jump on the small ledges and loose rocky ground, struggling to balance himself in the unfamiliar gravity. And each jump he'd somehow manage to catch himself on the side of the cliff just in time. He wouldn't fall. He couldn't fall. They had Susan; the Psi-corps had her.

And they were worse than he'd ever imagined them to be. Torture, eugenics, rape, murder, the list of crimes alleged by the psychics who'd hidden in Babylon 5 were enough to curdle blood. What evidence Dr. Franklin had given him was purely anecdotal, but the doctor had never given him reason to doubt his credibility. And a large group of wildly different people choosing to defect from the Earth Alliance went a long way to enforcing that credibility.

And they had her. Ok, it was a terrible plan; get in, get Susan, and shoot his way out. But it had the benefit of simplicity and necessity.

Micheal wasn't about to leave his friend to be tortured by some self important slimy weasel of a man as retribution for an embarrassing defeat. The security chief clenched his teeth and sped up the pace as he imagined that smarmy little rat-faced jerk smiling at Susan from behind the narrow bars of her cell, whispering false promises of reprieve and safety in exchange for information. Michael snorted as he imagined her response: Susan would probably tell him exactly where he could shove his honeyed words. The Russian had never been at a loss for stubbornness.

“Damn,” Michael hissed as he rounded the bend, flattening himself to the cliff face and trying to blend in with the rocks. A silver flash of light swooped round past him, the round orb of a motion sensor drone. It would seem that the plans hadn't included every defense.

They were common enough in the Earth Alliance, a simple robot equipped with an anti-gravity generator and a rudimentary VI. They were cheap and tended to last even in high danger environments for months or even years without requiring anything other than the most basic of repairs. And, unless Michael missed his guess about the pulsing blue light from beneath its steel skin, with a little bit of ingenuity one could install a plasma mine inside the machine without significantly affecting it's mobility.

He froze, not even daring to breathe for fear it might agitate the silver sphere. As one second passed, then two, then four, the sphere slowly hovered its way around the rim of the ravine, inching closer and closer. The ghostly memory of skin burned by plasma fire wafted through Michael's nostrils as he looked around looking for something, anything, to use in his defense.

His gun? No - it would hit him before he could run. Jumping down? Out of the question, there weren't any safe hand holds low enough that he could avoid the drone without getting shot to pieces. Jumping up? Just as bad, capture by the Psi-corps could well be worse than letting himself get shot.

Closer and closer the drone came, with Michael at a loss for what to do. Perhaps if he tore off his glove and tossed it to the side the drone would follow it rather than him. No that was even less of a solution, in the best case scenario he'd die from suffocation, “Oh boy Michael,” He grumbled to himself in fear, “What the hell have you gotten yourself into this time.”

Michael repeated the Hail Mary in silent fervor as he watched the golden surface of his mirrored glass visor shimmering in the silver pool of the drone's front. It hovered, immobile, inches from his face. Perhaps if he... no, there was no point -it was over for him.

And then, wondrously, it wasn't. The drone, driven by whatever simplistic mind it held, hovered back along the path in the opposite direction. Inch by inch, second by second, till it was gone from sight. It took Michael another minute to realize that he was, in fact, alive.

“You lucky son of a gun,” Michael whistled by way of punctuation, breathing heavily in fear as he grabbed loose stones from the cliff face, “That was way too close for comfort.”

Michael pitched a golf-ball sized stone across the gorge. With a smile of great satisfaction he watched the drone dive after it, headless of its own safety, as it rocketed into the firing arc of three concealed turrets. It burst into a searing cloud of plasma and glassed martian dust.

Praying that there wouldn't be any more drones Michael hopped the last three miles of gorge, gliding with terrified purpose. The weapons discharge wouldn't go unnoticed. Even now the patrol vehicle was doubtlessly altering course to investigate what had happened. If he was lucky they'd blame it on a malfunctioning drone and go on with their day but he couldn't rely on their incompetence. It was Garibaldi's rule number six; the bad guy is always just as smart as you are, plan accordingly.

So it was that when the boots of his suit clicked loudly, the magnetic undersides clamping down on the ferrous outside of an airlock, Garibaldi took care to activate a signal scrambler in case there were any security cameras in the area before approaching the key pad. Michael couldn't help but chuckle in incredulity when he recognized the Marscorp series g-11 security system.

The Psi-corps were a highly funded and greatly esteemed government organization, but they were still victims of bureaucratic resistance. Government contractors were wont to install the best systems they offered for the initial facility. As time progressed however, disused ingress and egress took years or even decades before Earth would consent to funding an upgrade. This meant that outdated or inefficient systems continued years after their obvious obsolescence.

An amateur hacker could bust a g-11 in about an hour. Michael took two minutes.

Grinning roguishly in the face of a gust of pressurized gases trapped inside the airlock, Michael briefly admired his handiwork. Sometimes it was just great to be Garibaldi. He entered the small UV light sterilization cubicle and pushed the activator. A thin blue line of bacterial slaying light swept over him twice before the door to the main facility opened, the iris of metal wedges spinning inward to the circular walls.

The inner room was covered in a thin layer of red dust from disuse, the cleaning robot apparently never having been plugged into the wall. Michael swore, if anyone investigated his entry there wouldn't be any way to conceal it. Plugging in the robot would be even more obvious than just leaving footprints behind. Then again his plan never had been to leave the way he came.

He chuckled wearily as he stripped off the pressure suit, shoving it into an empty cupboard, “Nothing's ever easy.”

Now divested of his pressure suit Michael had no choice but to acknowledge the black fabric previously hidden beneath it. The pressed black uniform was still crisp, if a bit gamey, from his trek across Mars. Black gloves and black boots stood in contrast to a silver pin and buttons, all too menacing in their simplicity, “Jack boots, why does anyone ever trust a group that wears jack-boots. It's like a giant warning sign saying 'Warning! Evil Organization ahead.'”

It was sized perfectly for his body, but it could never fit him properly. Luckily PPG and flash-bang grenades concealed beneath his jacket snuggled familiarly against his chest as he snuck out of the room, walking with deliberate disinterest in the direction he suspected that prisoners might be kept. It only took a minute before he turned right and wandered into a more populated part of the facility.

Men and women in black suits and white lab coats wandered the halls, exchanging clipboards and animatedly discussing nothing over coffee. He cleared his mind, focusing on putting one foot in front of the other for fear that an errant thought might alert them to his purpose. He weaved his way through the crowd, taking care not to touch anyone.

The lightest touch of skin on skin could transmit his mind and purpose, dooming him entirely. Luckily telepaths were in the habit of avoiding contact. His bobbing and weaving avoidance of everyone in the hallway was interpreted as exaggerated politeness rather than mischief. It even earned him an approving nod from a bearded telepath pushing a mop across the hallway he'd been forced to skip away from, “Mighty decent of you officer.”

When the effort of pushing through the human masses without making physical contact got to be too much for him Garibaldi walked into a small break room. He entered the kitchen alcove with cautious haste, pouring coffee into a paper cup and examining the map of the facility to get his bearing straight. Just wandering till he found Susan was a recipe for failure.

For a moment he feared that he'd been noticed but none of the telepaths seemed particularly interested in him. The continued their animated conversations as though he weren't there. A rotund man with mustard stains on his shirt waved his hands wildly as he spoke, “No I have no problem with them doing it. God knows I was getting stonewalled on funding for years; I just don't understand how they do it. I was operating on the assumption that psychic communication could be boosted as far as Earth. But across galaxies? I haven't the foggiest notion.”

“And Earthdome expects you to replicate it within the year,” replied an exasperated woman with a slight slur in her voice of what might have been Chinese. She massaged her narrow eyes, “They never have any respect for our procedures. They want me to figure out how to toss fireballs from my hands. I haven't even been able to move a penny with any consistency.”

“They're asking me to step up human trials,” said a sad sounding man, African in his complexion and deep in his booming baritone, “They want me to start injecting my compound into a test subject this week. I wanted to tell them to go away, Nenda kajitombe, but you know I cannot tell them no. None of us can. So to trial we will go, because the basha wants me to.”

“Saying the words in Swahili doesn't mean they haven't been said,” the Asian woman hissed under her breath. Garibaldi could feel her eyes on the back of his neck as she whispered, “And people who bad-mouth the director have a nasty habit of being found dead by the Psi-cops.”

“Kuma Mamako!” Michael watched as the man reflected in the coffee pot flipped him off , “My research is too important for him to make me disappear. These psi-cops are all the same, a uniform and no brain. It is the mind that matters most.”

“Nobody is irreplaceable,” replied the rotund man, “Not here. We saw who they're keeping prisoner in the interrogation center. Don't pretend you didn't. He doesn't care how high up you are in the Earth Alliance or how important you think you are. If you're not helping the psi-corps you're garbage.”

“Shut up, both of you, before we all find ourselves in D-block,” hissed the woman, apparently realizing that Garibaldi was listening. Not eager for a confrontation, Michael put down his unfinished cup, turning into the hallway and heading for D-block. He hissed in audible relief as he walked out the door and nearly jumped out of his skin when a muscular dark skinned man with a shaved head started speaking to him.

“Don't take it personally,” The psi cop smiled, “They're just stressed. The boss doesn't actually have the lab-rats killed if their experiments go south, they're just reassigned and not allowed to have contact with the base.”

Garibaldi's mouth opened and closed, unsure how to react to the sudden appearance of a tall black man, “How... who... what?”

The man snorted, “Good grief, I haven't shaken up a rookie this bad in ages. You're one of Curtis’s boy's right? The ones who're here to babysit the base in case the Imperials get frisky right? Look I know you're used to having a better relationship with civvies but research bases sometimes do things that other parts of the Corps couldn't handle. The squints like to vent. Sometimes they vent on us. It's part of the job. Don't take it too hard.”

He slapped Garibaldi on the shoulder, and shook his hand firmly. A resounding thought pierced his mind as an ID chip was forced into his palm, “If you're going to try and break into the cell block you'll need this. Good luck, we'll cover you.”

Michael's eyes bulged in shock and the man rolled his eyes incredulously. The chiding voice whispered in his mind, “Oh, come on. This is a highly advanced facility full of psychics. You were noticed. Luckily you were noticed by us first. Normally such an intrusion is unacceptable, but your timing is fortunate and I am in need of a trustworthy agent.”

Garibaldi though “What do you want?” forcing the idea to the front of his mind. The other man shook his head a fraction of an inch, “Don't project. You don't want the wrong thought to come up with it and be overheard by prying ears. You want to free the woman. That's fine, you can have her. Take her with my blessing. But I want to free her cell mate. Take him with you and I will shield your mind as far as the cells.”

It wasn't as though Michael had a choice was it? The security chief of Babylon Five nodded in affirmation. The man shot the three scientists a cheery smile that seemed to terrify rather than comfort them before winking in Michael's direction, continuing their previous conversation as though the psychic exchange had never happened, “After all the Corps is family, and when has family ever done anything but drive you up the wall? After you mister Smith.”

Garibaldi walked along side the black man in silence as they headed deeper into the Psi-corps base. The dome was an old prefabricated facility, predictable in it's layout. D-block was two levels down and a half-mile south in a less populated but better maintained section of the dome. Advanced security countermeasures and sophisticated door locks stood in stark contrast to the thick windowless iron-slab doors they controlled.

The previously constant flow of people trickled down to only a handful of men in black Psi-cop uniforms. A few bored looking officers patrolled the wide hallway, stopping to chat with equally disinterested men sitting at security desks. As Michael just walked past the fourth of these check points with little more effort than tapping on the glass it struck him that none of them were actually looking for intruders. One group of officers huddled around the security desk watching Baseball, not even bothering to look up before buzzing them through.

“No, they just know my rank well enough not to question me,” the black man whispered into Michael's mind. Suppressing a snarl of annoyance Garibaldi massaged his twitching eye. He loathed having someone speaking inside of his mind who wasn't invited. Heck, he hated having someone in there who was invited.

“And who are you?” Garibaldi whispered.

The man smiled in altogether too much satisfaction and replied in a near inaudible chuckling basso, “I fix things that are broken. Find things that aren't easy to find. Remove people who aren't productive to our overall goals.”

An assassin. He was an assassin, possibly even one of the ones who'd engineered the death of President Santiago. At Garibaldi's disgusted look he jibed telepathically, “Oh calm yourself Officer. Had I intended to remove you I would have just told my agents to capture you before you got past the mine field.” The man nodded approvingly, “Impressive work by the way. I'll have to develop a way of counter acting it in the future.”

Michael bit back a venomous reply, though the look on the other man's face suggested that his anatomically improbable suggestion had been received loud and clear. They were passing through the final security check point when the screaming started, a horrible series of sobs and howls that struggled to escape the thick transparent aluminum of the check point's door. Garibaldi gritted his teeth and walked into bedlam.

This was hell. Men and women screamed within their cells begging for freedom as they clawed at the glass, glassy eyed and sobbing. Bodies shivering with the effects of prolonged exposure to psychic suppressant chemicals others sat on narrow cots and steel chairs, huddling for warmth in the cool space of the jail, “What is this place?”

“A solution to avoid embarrassment,” the black man sighed as a clearly insane man smeared his excrement across the walls of his cell, “Until other more profitable solutions can be found or we find a more profitable enterprise for them to aid in. Willing participants are unnecessary for progress' sake.”

'Human trials' was the word used by the scientists wasn't it? They were using prisoners for guinea pigs. Jesus Christ, they were using Susan as a guinea pig, “Who are they?”

“The worst of the worst I assure you,” The black man approached a key pad on the wall and entered his ID chip, “Murderers, rapists and scum of every order. Suffice it to say - parole was never an option for any of them. ”

The door opened and Garibaldi followed the black man into a hexagonal room with six transparent cells. Inside the second cell to the left huddled a distinctly feminine form in the clear outline of a tasseled military uniform, a uniform Garibaldi recognized immediately.

Dilgar. He rounded on the black man, “What in the hell are you trying to pull?”

The black man shook his head in confusion, “You're here for the woman aren't you? There she is.”

“I'm here for Susan Ivanova, the woman you kidnapped from Babylon 5. Where is Susan Ivanova?” Garibaldi grabbed the man by his shirt and shoved him against the glass of the first cell on the right, startling it's occupant so much that the tiny man fell out of bed, “Where is she?”

“I have no idea,” The startled man's eyes were wide with confusion as Garibaldi shoved a gun into the nape of his neck. His mask of perpetual calm broke into a look of horror, “We don't have her! Why would we have her? What would we need her for? It's not like she has any sort of useful intel we couldn't get otherwise?”

“Susan Ivanova didn't die on Babylon 5. I know that for a fact,” Garibaldi snarled, “I know you brought back Bester and a woman. Where is Susan?”

“Yes! We brought back two prisoners. Bester and her,” The man swallowed in fear, “Just these two!”

“Mr. Smith I think you'll find that the obstreperous Mr. Garibaldi is unaccustomed to being wrong,” wheezed the sarcastic voice of the man within the cell. Bester, wrapped in thick bandages from head to toe, hobbled over to the glass. He hobbled carefully forward on a leg encased in thick plaster, balancing his weight on a single metal crutch, “Perhaps he will be inclined to believe you if you explain why you believed that he was here to find the Dilgar?”

“Look, I don't give a damn who she is.” Michael shoved his gun into Mr. Smith's throat. The whistling sound of plasma charge twittering as he primed the trigger. The threat froze the black man's hand, stilling it's subtle movement towards the butt of a side arm, “Don't even think about it.”

“Mr. Garibaldi I respect your tenacity but you've come to the incorrect conclusion. I do not have the lovely Miss Ivanova. I do not have anyone. They have me,” Bester pulled down the bandages at his shoulder to expose exposing recent burns and abrasion, unmistakable marks of recent torture, “And if it means getting me out of this cell, then I am more than amenable to assisting in your crusade. Your fervor is admirable, but belief alone will not make the lovely Miss Ivanova appear in this cell.”

Mr. Smith nodded emphatically, “We were under the distinct impression she'd died.”

Michael swore and let go of the Psi-cop, “You mean to tell me that I broke into a Psi-corps base for no reason at all?”

“Incorrect,” purred a feline voice to Garibaldi's right. The Dilgar officer, a mature lynx of a woman whose greying whiskers drooped with age, chuckled in amusement, “You broke into this base to liberate the two of us and bring us back to Babylon 5.”

“And why would I do that?” Michael swore as warning klaxons rang in the prison warning of an unauthorized intrusion. Whatever Smith had done to conceal his entrance had only slowed rather than entirely stopped discovery.

“Because I know of a secret exit to this facility that is vastly preferable to your plan to shoot your way out. Because I have knowledge about the plot against Santiago and a pressing need for revenge that will comfortably fit into your obsession with justice,” Bester laughed delightedly as Mr. Smith opened the cells with his identity chips, “And because you don't yet know why she was captured by our agents.”

“Then impress me already,” Michael rejoined in irritation, “What does the last member of a dead race of madmen have to give me other than a massive pain in the butt.”

“All in good time Mr. Garibaldi,” Bester accepted the two phased-plasma pistols from Mr. Smith, handing one to the grinning Dilgar, “Might I suggest we see to our own liberty before bargaining for that little nugget of information. Mr. Smith, I presume we are continuing with the initial plan?”

“Yes sir,” The black man nodded and closed his eyes, biting his lip in anticipation. The diminutive telepath aimed the PPG and fired, two blasts of superheated air colliding with Mr. Smith's shoulder. The psycop fell to the floor howling in pain.

“Christ!” Michael swore in astonishment, “What was that for?”

“Deniability of course. My faction cannot afford for Mr. Smith's position in the Psi-corps to be lost.” Bester shrugged as he ripped open the cast over his leg along a hidden seam, revealing an apparently healed leg, “He should keep use of the arm as long as security reaches here in under ten minutes to administer first aid. I would prefer to be gone before then.”

The Psi-cop wedged Mr. Smith's identity chip into a small indent in the floor, opening a concealed staircase that wound it's way down into unidentifiable depths. Not exactly overburdened with choices, Michael followed the devil and his house-cat down to God alone knew what. Garibaldi knew he should have been worried about the implications of helping two deeply untrustworthy people escape from a secret black ops base of telepaths.

But for the life of him there was only one question running through his head.Where the hell was Susan Ivanova?
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post #115 of 159 (permalink) Old 12-19-12, 02:06 AM Thread Starter
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Sir Robart Malcom hadn't been hard to find. He hadn't even put up a fight when Osma's team arrived on the So'go'ol pitch before practice and declared him under arrest. Malcom's team had angrily waved about their shock pistols and shouted rude epithets. Their complaints turned to grumbling silence as Officer Osma fingered the straps of his shotgun.

Lord Fineus Gerard had been a bit more frustrating. Upon Daul's declaration of authority the Lord had ordered his servants into the cellar and barricaded himself in his study. If Daul ever found out the name of whichever Enginseer had been responsible for installing the blast doors in a private residence, they would get a proper punch in the throat. Two melta-bombs and a canister of tear gas later, he'd pulled out his second prize.

They now sat in solitary oubliettes, chained to chairs and kept in constant blinding light to prevent them from sleep. Inspection of the two men's private quarters had revealed an interesting supply of art and So'go'ol equipment but little to suggest they were guilty of any crimes. However Daul was certain that he could get a confession out of them.

It was odd really. Guilty men did not fret or fuss or worry in their cells. They did not beg for mercy or demand council. They relaxed. For them the fear and terror of being captured was now over. Capture was an opportunity to rest and plan. The two men sat in silence, alone and clearly afraid but neither man seemed surprised at their predicament.

“It doesn't sit right with me Inquisitor,” Osma said, pulling at his braided beard in annoyance. “Malcom at least is an athlete. So'go'ol players have no issue getting women. He could have had any lady he wanted. So why kill these women? Why wait for the Belzafesters?”

“I don't even begin to guess what is inside the mind of a madman.” Daul leaned back in his chair and stared at the monitor. It wasn't the athlete that interested him, Sir Malcom didn't strike him as the type to plan ahead; it was Lord Gerard that troubled him. With the man's long standing connections and high born family, a connection to the Amon Sui wasn't implausible. “When does this Throne cursed observer arrive? I've delayed this enough.”

“I mean no offense but why are you waiting for him at all?” Chief Osma sipped recaf from a misshapen blue mug bearing the misspelled symbol for his name in a child's hasty scribble. Tariq's work, no doubt. “The quicker this is finished the quicker the Belzafesters will stop climbing down my throat for every minor annoyance.”

“Because Sáclair asked me to,” Daul sighed in exasperation, “and because he's right. Some new perspective on the nobility of the Endless Bounty is not uncalled for. I do not think the way your nobles think. He will be better suited to that than I.”

Osma put the mug onto a shelf with deliberate care not to leave it where it might be bumped or broken and replied in disgust, “Sørian's perspectives will certainly be different. I don't know if I'd use the word better in relation to him.”

“You know the man?” Daul looked away from the video feed in interest. “What can you tell me about him?”

“Off the record? Other than being an arrogant bastard there isn't much to say. He's the noble son of a noble. Like his father and so on, dating back to the founding of the ship,” Osma growled, “I'm just lucky the lazy sod doesn't ever leave his apartment for anything other than boozing and carousing in dens of inequity. If the stupid sod ever realized how much influence his family has...” He stopped. “But I speak out of turn. He is an annoyance but a reliable one.”

“Small mercies, officer. Be glad for them. A man who counts the small blessings will never be short of them.” Inquisitor Gaal had been fond of that saying. Every time he found his egg to be a double yolk or an extra sweet on his pillow he'd point to it and thank his good fortune. He'd once written Daul a letter to tell him that the flowers on his estate were in bloom earlier than expected. The man never lost track of what was important in life.

A clean shaven man in the uniform of ship security tapped the door frame twice, interrupting them with a slight gulping noise as he cleared his throat. Having captured their attention he spoke, “Sir, Inquisitor, may I present the Lord Sørian.”

A handsome man coiffed in egregious decadence veritably flounced through the door past the officer, dropping into a comically exaggerated bow that was too sincere for it to be anything but natural incompetence. He smiled vapidly and giggled slightly before offering his hand in greeting. Daul disgustedly shook the floppily relaxed hand in his own augmentic one and stared at the man in astonishment as the security officer all but fled Sørian.

How had a man this obviously pathetic not been devoured alive by his rivals? It wouldn't take more than two minutes with this hilarious buffoon for another noble house to smell blood in the water. Throne willing it had to be an act. The Amon Sui devoured fools alive, literally so on at least one of the holdings he'd purged.

Daul rolled his eyes and squeezed hard with his augmentic hand, “Sørian, do not insult my intelligence. If Sáclair had intended to toss some useless blubbering noble at me he would have sent Sácomer.”

Sørian's eye's popped and he fell to his knees in pain. “Inquisitor! I don't know,” Daul squeezed hard enough to fracture bone, “Ok! Ok! I admit it! It was an act. I'm supposed to spy on you.”

Daul let go, “I know that. I knew that from the second Sáclair requested your presence. I allowed it.”

Sørian massaged his hand and stood up, the vague expression of incompetence leaving his face. Standing straight backed, he no longer looked comical in his clothes. Straitening his elegant ruff he sighed, “So what do we do now?”

“Much the same as we planned to do before, I suspect.” Daul shook his head at Sørian's baffled expression and said, “What? If I shot every nobleman I who spied on me we'd soon be devoid of nobles. Just don't lie to me about it.”

“Can we please get to questioning the two suspects?” Osma grunted in annoyance. His distaste for the noble's subterfuge was etched in every line of his face, “I want to get this mess over with.”

Sørian looked up at the monitors and blinked in shock, “Why on earth have you arrested Lord Gerard?”

“On suspicion of murder,” Osma grunted, “The Belzafest Butcher.”

“You think that Gerard killed someone? Gerard?” Sørian snorted in incredulity, “Gerard can't even eat undercooked meat. He's a severe Heamiophobe.” Sørian tapped on the glass and pointed to the lacerations on Lord Gerard's wrists where the rope burns had started to cut the Lord's skin, “See? He can't even look at his own wrists. It's why he had to quit the So'go'ol league. The second anyone got a cut or a nose bleed he just turns to jelly.”

“He could be faking it.” Daul chewed his lip pensively. “It would make a good cover story.”

“Not unless he's been planning these murders since he was twelve.” Sørian shook his head. “I can't see that happening.”

“I've seen stranger.” Daul replied, “But I see your point.”

“Still doesn't explain what the two of them were doing in the crypts with knives and chains,” Osma grunted in response, “I still say they did it. Malcom could have done the deed and Gerard the planning.”

“Perhaps,” The Inquisitor mused, zooming in on the faces of the two men.

“Heh,” Osama grunted in amusement, “They know we've got them dead to rights.”

“I don't know Osma,” Daul tapped the monitor, “There is something off about the whole situation. They seem worried but get the sense that it's more of a general fear than the cold panic of the heretic. They seemed more resigned to capture than anything else.”

“Oh for Throne's sake,” Sørian sighed, cupping his face in his hands and chuckling, “Save me from the sexually repressed.”

“You have something to add to this discussion Sørian?” Daul raised an eyebrow in curiosity, “Something we don't know?”

“Volumes Inquisitor. Volumes upon volumes,” Sørian jibed, “But for the moment I'm going to settle for a basic explanation of misbehaving. We need them both in the same room. And make sure they can see each other.”

“Why would seeing each other matter?” Daul asked, though he began to suspect the answer. Two men with no wives or girlfriends who met each other in secret were not always plotting a coup of government.

“Like I said,” Sørian sighed, “you're over thinking this. What else could two men meeting in secret dark rooms carrying chains be planning.”

“You cannot mean to imply that they are in sin,” Osam looked distinctly green at the prospect, “By the Throne, perhaps they are the Butchers. If they can live with... that... abomination about them, who is to say they can't do another vile sin? It is as unnatural as murder I tell you.”

“So is marrying your mother or breeding with your sister, and our Captain comes from generations from that,” Sørian shrugged impassively, “You'll find most things the clergy puts extra effort into telling the masses not to do tend to be actions they find undesirable. If it weren't fun it wouldn't be necessary to make it against the rules.”

“Is there a law against it on the Endless Bounty?” Daul sighed. If all these men did was sleep with each other then an Inquisitorial pardon in exchange for co-operation would go a long way towards getting them to talk. An inquisitorial writ of permission would allow them to continue their minor heresy in secret in exchange for their loyalty. Loyalty that would be his and his alone.

“Custom mostly. ” Osma's lip curled in transparent displeasure, “The nobility greatly discourages it as a sin. They'd disinherit both of these men for this. As well they should! Malcom is a role model for children. Children!” He shuddered, “I'll have the posters of him removed from my son's room at once. There is no place for that on this ship. By the Throne I'll have to tell the ships school masters as well.”

“Officer Osma,” Daul's voice ground in dangerous baritone, “You will do no such thing.”

“Sir?” Osma repeated in confusion, “They're perverts. I cannot trust them to be allowed back into places of respect... Malcom runs a So'go'ol league for children. He's alone with them for hours!”

“Osma, we are going to go into that room. We are going to interrogate those two men like any other two men we have in custody. And then we will leave the room, revealing nothing of their personal lives to the rest of the ship,” Daul pointed at the two men, “What they are doing is legal, private, and no business of mine provided that it is not directly related to treason or sedition. What you do in my service is classified. That will not change on a whim.”

Osma was having none of it. “Sir, at least let me enter these men into treatment. Bishop Leogere claims to have made great strides behavior modification. Perhaps he could cure them.”

“This is the same Leogere who claims to have one of Sanginius' bones?” Sørian snorted in amusement, “The same Leogere who charges some fifty thousand thrones a week for his treatment?”

It was to be expected, Osma's views on the written scripts was a literal one. It offered little room for interpretation or disagreement. Daul greatly respected the man but in this case his views could greatly impede the investigation, “Osma I need these men to answer my questions willingly. They need to feel like they can get out of this room alive. Part of that is going to be you staying silent on this issue.You will reveal none of what you learn in my investigations or I will have you arrested on charges of treason.”

Osma scowled in fury and tugged at his thick beard but growled a frustrated assent, “Yes sir.”

“Sørian, you will come with us. Do not speak unless spoke to directly,” Daul glared at the man, “Am I understood?”

“Crystal clear Inquisitor,” Sørian nodded sincerely, “Lead the way.”

“Open the wall between them Osma,” Daul commanded, motioning in the direction of a raised stone platform in the center of the room large enough for five men to stand abreast, “It's time we had a little chat.”

The three men stood on top of the slab and Osma manipulated device on his wrist, activating the platform and lowering the trio into the oubliette. Daul squinted at the blinding brightness and throbbing music of the prison, massaging the ringing out of his ears. Osma flipped a switch to dim the light and silence the music.

No longer trapped in blinding cacophony the two noblemen blinked the stars out of their eyes, only grudgingly aware of their surroundings. Before they could speak, Daul pulled two syringes of sedatives from his pocket and jabbed them into the bound men. It wouldn't be strong enough to damage their lucidity but it would go a long way towards loosening their tongues.

It was Lord Gerard who spoke first. His eyes were puffy and red from crying, “Just kill us. We know it's what you're planning to do eventually and all things considered I'd prefer to die prior to torture.”

“Am I?” Daul pulled a long silver knife from his belt. Imbued with a small measure of psychic energy, the hexegrammic runes on the blade hummed with purple light as Daul probed the two men's surface thoughts. The light did not actually do anything, but it looked frightening. Fear and faith were an Inquisitor's greatest weapons.

And he most definitely had them scared, petrified even. But not scared of Daul specifically, for them being discovered was a culmination of years of fear. Lord Gerard's spiteful words were general, directed at Daul for lack of a better target, “I think you misunderstand my purpose.”

“He damn well doesn't,” Sir Malcom spat on Daul's sleeve in defiance, “I know why you dun' brought me and Gerard to this room an' I don't take kindly to it.”

“Ah, so Sørian was correct. The two of you are lovers,” Daul sighed.

“That prissy little lickspittle can kiss the broad side of my arse,” Sir Malcom twisted his fingers into a rude gesture, “I know who I am, and loving Gerard don't make me less of a man than that mewling nancy.”

Osma snorted in amusement. His disgust for the man's lifestyle was apparently less than his dislike of Sørian. The nobleman's face curved in abject hatred for a moment before smoothing out in apparent acceptance. Daul suspected that the boy was inexperienced with criticism, which could be dangerous in its own right.

“Sørian is the only reason I'm coming down here to talk instead of just ripping the truth from your mind,” Daul cut the rope binding the man's arms to his chair, leaving the leg bindings in place, “Apologize.”

The astonished So'go'ol player massaged his wrists as Daul cut the bindings on the Lord Gerard. He sighed and muttered an insincere, “Sorry,” under his breath in the direction of Sørian.

“Sorry?” repeated Lord Gerard in astonishment, “He's going to filet us with that knife and you're apologizing?”

“Nobody is fileting anyone,” Daul spun the knife in his fingers, “Not yet. You are going to explain to me what you were doing in the crypts. You were seen entering there multiple times. Our witness identified you as bringing knives, whips, and chains. Why?”

Sir Malcom blushed beet red and muttered under his breath.

Daul cupped his ear, “I didn't catch that. Why?”

“Privacy! We went there because there was privacy,” Sir Malcom yelled in frustration, “It was the only place that our families and my team mates were guaranteed not to walk in on us.”

“You... defiled each other,” Osma growled, clutching his shock maul to center himself, “You defiled each other in a church crypt?”

“It was my family's crypt, the place where the urns of my ancestors are stored. Rather, it's where they would have been stored if we hadn't been hit by decompression a year ago. Now it's just an empty room,” Lord Gerard shrugged, “I didn't think the dead would mind me using the space for something other than sadness and death. An affirmation of life in a place of death; it was due.”

Osma turned his back on the prisoners, resisting the urge to cave their heads in with his weapon. Daul patted his shoulder comfortingly, reaffirming his presence before turning back to the two men and asking, “Why the whips, chains, and knives?”

Sørian actually giggled, “Inquisitor Hilder, does he have to spell it out for you? There are recreational uses for all of those items. I can suggest some hololith stills if you need to further explore the matter.”

The feelings of bemused embarrassment mingled with sexual arousal from the two men was affirmation enough for Daul's taste. He had no urge to delve deeper into their minds for those particular memories. He holstered his knife angrily, his ire at losing his only lead dripping from his voice as he said, “ Keep these two under house arrest for the moment, but move them into better conditions. Osma, we're going to have to go back and question Rik.”

“What happens to us afterwards?” Lord Gerard probed. A small measure of hope entered his eyes as he realized that they would not die.

“Lord Gerard, whatever you may believe is your business but I have absolutely no intention of airing your dirty laundry out to the world. What you do in the privacy of your bedroom is your business,” Daul sighed, “But please try and keep it out of the church. One of the priests believed you were doing something unholy in there. The poor lad was too simple to make the connection.”

“Oh!” Lord Gerard blinked in surprise, “Rik remembered that far back? He really is improving.”

“You mean I spent the past day in a hole because that retarded pervert was listening to the door,” Sir Malcom shouted while punching his fist into his palm, “I'll kick that simpleton from here to sunday, that'll teach him.”

“Robart! Be nice, the poor man doesn't mean to be off balance. It isn't his fault he took a shot to the head,” Lord Gerard crossed his arms and puffed up like a jaybird. Now that he no longer feared for his life a generous portion of the swagger of nobility was back in his mannerisms, “He can't help getting a bullet wound to the head. He fought for the bounty the same as any other soldier”

Osma blinked in surprise, “He was a Lionheart? The Bishop said he'd never left the chapel.”

“The church took him in after a gunshot to the head left him simple. The little bastard has been living with Brother Willan for decades,” Sir Malcom said with great invective, “Sodding little twit can't remember a time before then so I suppose it is as close to his whole life as the little bugger can manage.”

Lord Gerard smiled, “Brother Willan was a good man. He turned a blind eye on me and Robart in exchange for some series 3 Gennak anti-agapics.”

“Wouldn't a priest have access to those already?” Osma asked, perplexedly twirling his thick beard.

“They aren't as good as ours. Only series 1 Joxxor,” Lord Gerard ran his fingers over the stubble on his chin in annoyance, he clearly hated being poorly groomed, “And he was trying to heal Rik, he treated that boy like a son. It was terrible on the boy when he died. We found Willan dead in the crypt. We actually paid for his his cremation service. It was actually quite moving. Al'Ashir read the man's favorite passage of the Holy Word. Guilliman 3:234:M39.”

“Guilliman,” Osma tapped his chin in thought before repeating the passage from memory with encyclopedic accuracy, “Love heals all wounds, there is no wound in this or any other life that cannot be healed by the balm of an woman's heart. For in her innocent care all pain disappears.”

Sir Malcom smiled, “The man truly believed in love. Preached it every day of his life till the day he died. We need more like him.”

“The heart of a woman heals all wounds... Blood of the Emperor! We need to get back to the Cathedral now. I've left Susan to care for the Butcher of Belzafast,” Daul swore, leading the trio back to the hovering platform, “He's going to kill my apprentice. The Throne cursed buggering son of a dog is the Butcher!”

Osma flipped the switch on his wrist and swore furiously as the device overloaded, coughing sparks as the machine spirit died. He ripped the device from himself and tossed it to the floor, “Throne!”

Sørian looked altogether too pleased at Osma's discomfort as he drawled, “Having trouble Officer?”

“Where are the manual controls?” Daul proactively searched the edge of the platform for any levers or buttons, “We need to get this moving.”

“There are no manual controls, it's a maximum security cell,” Osma growled in frustration, “Thats' the entire reason for the wrist controls, to stop prisoners from being able to just flip a switch and escape.”

“We're stuck here?” Sørian bemoaned, “For how long?”

“Normally there should be someone to check on prisoners every twenty minutes, but my men aren't going to be in any hurry to get closer to the Inquisitorial interrogation. If they check every hour it will be a miracle,” Osma growled in frustration, “He always kills at the same time of day. We're not going to be able to reach the Cathedral in time.”
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post #116 of 159 (permalink) Old 12-19-12, 02:07 AM Thread Starter
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Built with the most sophisticated of Minbari weapons and armor, the Grey Council mothership Valen'Tha vastly outclassed every other warship of the younger races. It hadn't been the intended flagship of the fleet, the Drala Fi held that honor till Captain Sheridan destroyed it in the Earth-Minbari War.

The Council ship was more than just a weapon, as much a cathedral as it was a warship. As the mobile base of the Grey Council it was intended to be the mobile military bastion of Minbari art, culture, and learning in the face of what might come in the next great war. To that end great works of the Minbari had been packed within the confines of the Valen'Tha. It was a collection to rival the museums and libraries of a dozen worlds.

Delenn smiled at Lenneir's barely contained glee at being allowed into so auspicious a place. He worried for her greatly, but in the face of so many great and wondrous things he could not seem to stop smiling. There was a wonderful innocence about him, a purity of spirit few men had. He would make a great member of the Grey Council some day, though it would be inappropriate for her to ever say so.

His exuberance reminded her of her own apprenticeship to Dukat. She had loved her younger days as Dukhat's protege. Delenn spent weeks, if not months, of her life going through the old texts of Minbari scholars, devouring the words of Valen, Meklen, and Durval. It was not a life she'd surrendered easily when she'd left for Babylon 5 but, she'd been bound by obligation, guilt and destiny to leave. Only a fool tried to deny destiny.

Delenn wandered through bone-white crystalline corridors, bathed in the pale blue light shimmering through silver-mesh fixtures on the wall; followed closely by Lenneir. The flickering purple light shimmered and shone through crystalline sculptures on the walls and doors. They painted intricate meditative patterns of refracted light and color, the introspective work of ages.

Delenn approached the stony faced outer guards without fear. The council guards came from all castes and belonged to none, choosing loyalty to the grey council above all else. They would allow her to pass. The same courtesy would not pass on to her apprentice, “You will have to wait out here until I'm finished inside. Only members of the Council and a few acolytes are allowed beyond this point.”

“I understand. I will wait, and I will pray for you if you would not consider it presumptuous,” Lenneir smiled brightly, a deep twinge of worry written on his every feature.

Delenn smiled, “No, not at all.”

“Until later Satai Delenn.” Lenneir bowed and sat down on a bench, watching the light's flicker and softly praying in the language of his priesthood. He pointedly ignored the guards in doing so, a small measure of polite deference on her behalf.

Delenn passed into the inner sanctum of the Grey Council, walking down the corridor of the religious caste to her modest room. She'd cleared out the majority of her personal effects when she'd moved into the Babylon station but a few odds and ends had been either too large or too ceremonially important to leave the ship. It was her room, but it no longer felt like home to her. There was too much of Dukhat in the room: video stills of the two of them together, a couple of books given by him.

She hadn't wanted them on Babylon Five. Thinking about Dukat too much wasn't healthy. She'd loved him dearly, he'd been like a father to her and she would have let him be more if they'd had more time together. When he died she cried out for blood in sorrow and rage, and the Minbari were less for her choice to do so. And it had been her who had cried for the bloodshed to stop when she realized the gravity of her error.

She reached out her hand to the video still and pulled it away as a twinge of hatred played at her heartstrings for the humans. That was a part of her life she'd left behind her, the guilt, the rage, and the sadness. The humans were not to blame for misinterpreting the Minbari custom of open gun-ports.

She sighed and stripped naked, removing the rich clothing of a diplomat for the simple grey robes of the council. The council were to wear no symbols of status or wealth, carrying only the simplest of woolen robes and a single quarterstaff. It was a tradition that harkened back to the early days of the Minbari, when Valen united the warring clans under a single banner of truce.

The fabric chafed against the softer meat of her human flesh and a slight chill seeped in through the fabric. Minbari fashion was ill suited for human physiology. The proportions were wrong tight where it should be loose and rubbing uncomfortably on the tufts of hair growing from her arms and pelvis. Precisely why evolution had chosen to keep the four most inconvenient places for hair was a mystery to her.

She winced as a hair yanked off of her head when she pulled it over her robes, a subtle reminder of how out of place she really was. Saying a soft prayer to Valen Delenn grabbed her staff and strode out the door at the back of her quarters, heading down into the chamber of the nine.

Light of any kind was forbidden on the path but years of stumbling through the darkness had cured her of needing any illumination. She swam through the pitch black darkness, finding the familiar stairs with her memory rather than her sight. Moments later, she left the cloying darkness for a room illuminated by a single crystal chandelier which cast nine pools of light that stood in a circle at the room's center. Each of the circles was conspicuously devoid of the other eight council members, though she could hear the sounds of breathing in the darkness.

Delenn walked to her place among the nine and pulled her hood back, speaking the words that were her's alone to speak,“Summoned, I take the place that has been prepared for me. I am grey, I stand between the candle and the star. We are grey, we stand between the darkness and the light.”

Silence was her reply. A pregnant moment passed before the dull baritone of Coplann echoed through the blackness. He was a meager man, tall and slight of build but burdened with the harsh bone crest of the warrior caste. Delenn had always considered him a friend but his face held no friendship in it as he strode forward into the light, “They will not come Delenn.”

“But I was summoned.” Delenn protested.

Coplann shook his head in regret or sadness, Delenn was not sure which. “To receive judgement, yes. Not to appear as one of the nine.”

“I'm entitled to a hearing,” The unfairness of it was unbearable, “I'm allowed to defend myself.”

“That was before you disobeyed us. You were told to wait before taking this action.” Coplann paused, looking her up and down, “Before becoming alien to us. You've been away from us for too long Delenn. Your contact with the humans has changed more than your appearance. If you are no longer one of us, how can you be one of the nine?”

“My heart has not changed.” Delenn clutched her left breast, balling the fabric in frustration. They could not do this to her, they were her people. She did this for them as much as she did it for the humans.

“We no longer know your heart. Delenn,” Coplann deliberately omitted even the meanest of titles to re-enforce her dismissal, “The council has voted to remove you from our presence. From this day forth you are no longer a member of the grey council, no longer Satai. I'm sorry Delenn.”

Delenn's vision swam before her. Her life's work, her purpose and her density, they were all gone in an instant. No, not all gone, “Wait. What about my appointment to Babylon 5. My position as Ambassador is separate from my role as Satai.”

“We are still debating this. It is your right to make a statement before the nine if that is your wish.” Coplann bowed slightly. As a member of the Warrior caste this was as close to sympathy as she could expect from him.

“It is.” Delenn whispered in breathless exhilaration, “Thank you.”

A fit of boldness overtook her and Delenn spoke, “May I ask, who was chosen to replace me?”

Coplann turned back to the shadows, walking out of sight. “I will convene the nine, when we are ready you will be summoned.”

Delenn's fingers balled the fabric of her robes in frustration as she walked back in the direction of her room, knowing full well it would be the last time she could call those quarters hers. It would be the last time she stripped off her robes of state. The last time she would be Satai Delenn.

No, she would not let melancholy overtake her. Delenn had purpose in destiny. She marched forward, wincing from small hairs pulling from her body yanked by the shifting of the rough fabric. At least she would be more comfortable in her ambassadorial ensemble
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post #117 of 159 (permalink) Old 12-19-12, 02:08 AM Thread Starter
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Susan kicked her feet back and forth, shuffling them across the floor in front of her chair. Babysitting the witness was an astonishingly boring job. Rik's daily duties of cleaning, praying, and muttering to himself in something vaguely resembling hymnals weren't exactly the sort of thing one wrote home about. It was as Rik busied himself with preparing a meal for the two of them that she'd taken to flipping though the illustrated children's copy of the Heilig Credo Imperialis.

Much to her astonishment, Susan found herself greatly liking it. Every page was filled with tales of mysterious heroes and dark gods trapped in eternal battle for the souls of billions in a galactic and eternal war between good and evil, all painted with loving detail. The childhood dreams of a boy wanting to join the space marines hummed gleefully in her mind as she went over the parables of Guilliman, accenting her own fascination. If it ever got back to the Earth Alliance it would be a best seller.

“Guilliman my favorite,” Rik smiled toothily as he peeked at the book, tapping the page with a flour covered hand and a leaving a white print on the blue armor of the smiling hero before going back to rolling meat into dumplings, “Best of the Primarchs.”

“The credo seems to be calling Sanginius the best, certainly the most beautiful,” The winged Adonis was always depicted in a position second only to the Emperor himself, with the notable exception of Horus who was shown on an equal level but steeped in shadows and intrigue, “He was always my -er- the Inquisitor's favored Primarch. Something about his incorruptible purity appealed to him. Even I admit that beauty without vanity is something to be admired. ”

Rik's face scrunched up in pain as though he were having difficultly articulating himself, “No, no- not best, never best. Not as good. Ugh. Too girly. Not as good. Not pure.”

Susan frowned in sadness and cooed soothingly, rubbing the disabled man's back, “It's ok Rik. It's ok, I'm still learning about Guilliman. How about we talk about it over dinner? That should be ok right? Eat a nice meal in us and then we can talk.”

“Yes,” Rik nodded emphatically. He tossed the dumplings into the simmering oil, pausing briefly to lift the lid on a pot of rice and give it an approving nod. “Yes, food is good. Food is good.”

A small black box on his waist whistled twice and he looked at in irritation before rooting around in his pockets. He pulled a phial of blue liquid out of his pocket and stared at it in disgust before drinking the bottle, coughing from it's acrid flavor. At Susan's confused look he held up the empty phial, “Medicine. Gotta' take it when it beeps. Need my medicine.”

“Oh,” Susan looked at the browning pasty of the dumplings and felt her mouth start to water, “Rik if those taste half as good as they smell I may be in love.”

Rik smiled an uncharacteristically wolfish smile as he poured out a generous measure of water into a cup and added herbs to make tea. He offered her the cup with a slightly steadier hand than he'd had even moments before, “It's a special brew. Willan used to give it to the sick so they'd heal better. Sleep better.”

Susan accepted the cup and drank deeply, savoring the flavor of it's earthy sweetness. It left a slight numbness on her tongue as it went down but it's overall refreshing presence left her content, if a bit light headed. Normally she was a coffee drinker but for Imperial Tea she could make an exception. In her surprise she briefy reverted to her native tongue, “Bolʹšóje spasíbo, vot éto da. That packs a heck of a punch.”

She relaxed into the tall stool and leaned her elbows into the countertop, listening to Rik talk as he cooked. He was positively cherubic in his pleasant disposition and care, she wasn't entirely sure if she was guarding him or if she was his eagerly anticipated guest.

“Wilan always cooked with me. Others didn't want me to cook. They were worried I'd hurt myself, but he let me cook. Taught me,” He smiled as he started dicing onions and tossing them into the pot of boiled rice, “Said 'Boy needs a skill, not a bunch of whining nursemaids.' He always taught me.”

Susan idly noticed that Rik's posture had improved over what it had been only moments ago, his fingers were shaking less. It seemed that just thinking about his former care taker gave him strenght. Even his slurred speech seemed less pronounced, “He seems like a nice man.”

“He was a great man,” Rik said in a voice curiously devoid of slurs or stuttering as he reached in with a long set of chopsticks to pull the dumplings out of the oil and place them onto a while ceramic plate, “The best. And he was taken from me. And now you are going to help me get him back!”

He grinned maliciously at Susan, catching her entirely off guard as her brain registered the abnormality of how relaxed she was. Susan's mind waded through cotton as she stood to her feet and stumbled backwards. Her hands found the handle of her pistol and she unbuttoned the holster, not drawing it but holding the butt of it for reassurance, “What was in that tea?”

“A sleeping aid. The medicine gives me brief periods of lucidity, but it goes away. It always goes away. Wilan was working on it, he was getting close to making me whole enough to function.” Rik clutched the sides of his head and scratched his fingers over his face as though insects were crawling on it, “I'm slipping, even now but I must finish my task. He was the best! And then he was taken away. But he'll be back. I'll bring him back.”

“He's dead,” Susan steadied herself on the countertop, “You showed me his -” a shudder ran through her as her fingers slipped on the flat surface, unwilling to hold, “-his grave.”

“No!” Rik bashed his fists on the table in fury, mashing the cooked pastries in anger, “He made me better. I have to fix him. I can fix him. He deserves to be fixed. It's why I need them.”

“Them,” Susan growled in sudden recognition, a sudden burst of rage and adrenaline stalling the haze at the edge of her vision, “The girls -son of a- you killed them!”

“I needed them. I needed what they had,” Rik ran a finger over his breast, caressing his own heart, “I needed their power. It's how I'll fix him.”

“What did you do with their hearts? Why did you take their hearts?” Susan recalled the thick red strips of meat that Rick had minced into pieces before wrapping them into the dumplings, brushing mashed bits of pastry from her overcoat in horror.

Rik grabbed a handful of the smashed pastries and shoved it into his mouth, chewing twice before swallowing throatily. He laughed as he followed Susan's mortified stare, “Not these, just grox-flesh. The heart must be fresh. It must be still warm with its love. It must be raw.”

Susan yanked her pistol out of its holster and fired at Rik's head, missing him but forcing him to seek cover. Breathless with fear Susan hobbled out of the kitchen and towards the prayer room she knew to be full of people. She needed to be around people, Rik wouldn't kill her with an audience.

Would he? Well, she hoped he wouldn't. The man was clearly not firing on all cylinders. As Susan looked over her shoulder she saw the blurry outline of a man hobbling after her on a lame leg with just the merest hint of silver to show the knife in his hand. One Susan knew was bound for her heart.

Susan fired twice over her shoulder and yelped in furious protest as a chubby servitor-cherub flew down from the ceiling to wrestle the pistol from her fingers, doubtless responding automatically to the weapons fire. Susan punched the airborne ball of flab between the eyes as it sang an apology in High Gothic warning her that “violence in a house of the Emperor would only lead one to hell.”

Susan shot the second one between the eyes as it swung low grunting, “Not now,” as her left knee went numb, entirely refusing to move. A third cherub butted her in the chest, knocking her to the ground as the first came back and bit her hand, disarming her and flying away with the weapon as two more came to hold her down. She struggled against the howling infants, punching them in their malformed faces till her knuckles bled but the tiny cyborgs held on.

“Enough,” Rik snarled. A firm hand reached out from the blurry blackness of the corridor and clamped down on Susan's thoat like a vice, squeezing tighter and tighter as she felt the point of a knife digging into the flak armor of her jacket. The blade, sharp enough to skin a full sized bull grox, struggled to slice the thick layered fabric of her shirt. Rik swore as he hacked at the layered wool and ceramics.

God bless than insufferable bastard Hilder, he'd just saved her life. Susan kicked hard, catching Rick's knee with the jutting spiked teeth of a decorative skull on her boot and twisting hard for good measure. Rik let go of her with a howl of pain, unintentionally swatting one of the cherubs pinning her arm in the process. Susan wriggled free and crawled in the direction of sound and light, muttering to herself, “Come on Susan, come on”

Her shoulder burst into pain as a lance of light tore a hunk the size of a golf ball out of her padded armor and scalded her arm, spinning Susan into a dimension of anger she'd never felt in her life. He'd shot her. He'd shot her in the back. He'd shot her with in the back with her weapon. Glancing shot or no, that would Not Do.

Susan screamed in rage and pain, tapping into her borrowed memories as she splayed her fingers and tossed a gout of psychic fire at the man with all the psychic might she could muster. A sphere the size of a basketball careened down the corridor, exploding into a multicolored blast of shimmering light and sound, “Frag off!”

Addled by drugs, she'd missed her mark by a half-meter, tossing Rik into an alcove ass-over-elbows. It wouldn't kill him but it had the benefit of outright slaughtering the cherubs in a nightmarish burst of burnt cybernetics and roasted chubby bellies. The charred and broken cherubs mewled lamely on the ground where they flapped with their roasted wing nubs.

“Defiler!” Rik howled, “Heretic witch! I will have your heart!”

Rik pulled a pill from the black box at his waist and chewed it as he shoved broken bones back beneath the skin and twisted his dislocated hip back into place. His eyes bulged from a delirious mix of insanity and chemically induced bliss as Susan shouted, “Ohcome on, that's just cheating.”

Rik erected himself, the unknown science of his pills causing him to groan in ecstasy as each twist and rub of his fingers over his every injury healed them.. He cracked his neck twice to shift his vertebrae back into place and ripped a decorative power-halberd from the decorative statue above a nobleman’s tomb, thumbing the activator switch and bringing the ancient weapon to life. It sputtered and spat with orange light, criss-crossing lifelines of power twinkling with mordant menace.

Susan held up her hands to let loose another burst of fire, hoping to at least kill her murderer, when a warbling mass of billowing red robes and mechanical tendrils bounded over her and pounced upon her assailant. The astonished Rik swung the halberd but to little effect; the pole-axe was ill suited to defend from a close ranged attack. Agumentic talon and barbed mechandrite met bare flesh, slicking and tearing with a mechanical precision in contrast to the howling specter of death commanding them.

Rik's arms were torn from his sockets with malicious nonchalance, his legs following them soon after. The priest's torso fell the floor, writhing in agony but unable to die, his body still enchanted by the miraculous chemicals. Blood streamed across the floor as Rik sobbed in fear and confusion, crying out to a bust of the double-headed Eagle for salvation, “No, not yet. Not yet! I'm not finished. I can still save him! I can still save him.”

The uncaring red robed phantasm towered over the pitiful figure, pulling a pistol from his robes. The hall echoed with the harsh bark of gunfire as a fist sized projectile collided with the man's head, bursting into a corona of white hot flames as it bust on impact. The priest was immolated in a cloud of white-hot flame.

The specter turned from the immolating body, giving Susan a gristly view of the new and upgraded Cairn Thross. He'd always been intimidating and unearthly, his misshapen augmentics and massive bearing had been intimidating in their own right but the menacing nature had always been an implied rather than overt display. Carin's new upgrades lacked even the meagerest pretense of civility.

Swallowing nervously as Cairn lifted Susan to her feet, she could not help but notice the feel of razor sharp talons on the thick leather of her overcoat. Nor could she help noticing a couple of barbed scythes waggling on the tips of augmentic cables, twitching like a scorpion's tail. Even the decorative thurible hung from a barbed length of chain that winked ominously past the thin tendrils of incense as it swayed from his belt.

“Thanks,” Susan winced as she moved her scalded shoulder the wrong way, “But don't think this makes us friends.”

The Skitarii stared back at her, his glowing green optics swiveling in the shadowed interior of his cowl in a way that gave Susan the distinct impression that he was rolling his eyes at her. He holstered his bolt-pistol with a mechandrite, examining her wound. Drugged, tired, and confused, Susan consented to Cairn's amused mothering as he half-carried her into the light and activity of the high-ceilinged cathedral antechamber.

She'd let her guard down around the Imperials, allowed herself to be lulled into complacency by Rik's apparently pleasant nature. It was not a mistake she would allow herself to repeat.
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post #118 of 159 (permalink) Old 12-19-12, 02:10 AM Thread Starter
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General William Hague watched the blinking light of the Agamemnon winking into hyperspace on his view screen with great apprehension. The Sheridan's former command would be a friendly environment for John to prepare his defense but it would only provide a brief respite before his hearing. William couldn't afford to aid his long time friend and ally, not when doing so could endanger the secrecy of his investigations into Santiago's early demise.

No, John's fate was in his own hands now. God help him, he was on his own.

Hague would have to figure out a suitable replacement for John in the event things went sideways. Sandra Hiroshi? Perhaps. It would be a hard sell though, as few candidates that he would trust could pass Clark's Earth First vetting process. It had been pure luck that Clark valued Sheridan's war record enough not to interview the man. But there was no other Star Killer to be had.

Doctor Franklin had been kind enough to inform him which of the surviving senior staff was informed of their suspicions about Clark. It was a short list consisting of himself and the now absent Chief Garibaldi. Meaning that there were far too few men he could trust in his staff.

Babylon Five was the lynchpin of his plans. In the event that evidence could be discovered, it would need to be distributed to the known worlds as well as to the Senate in order to insure that Clark didn't manage to sweep it under the rug. Internal pressure alone wouldn't be enough to oust Clark short of civil war. Nobody wanted that.

William leaned back in his borrowed chair, looking up at the clock and considering the possibility of dinner. One's problems often looked less onerous on a full stomach and the hydroponics gardens on station were the envy of the rest of the fleet. After several months of rations, anything else started to look gourmet . He looked at his watch and remarked, “Why not? It's time for dinner somewhere in the universe.”

William strode over to the office door, opened it, and yelped in surprise. A mutilated woman's head covered in mechanical devices and tubes of unrecognizable fluids glared back at him. The visage poked out from crimson robes that shifted and rippled as curious mechanical devices fluttered about beneath them. She regarded his rank pins and the empty room behind him before croaking in a girlish mechanical hiccup from the thick face mask covering her lips, “Where is Captain Sheridan?”

“Captain Sheridan has been called back to Earth,” William placed a name to the horrifying face as Zack Allan rounded the bend, puffing with exertion and clutching his side. He had to have been chasing her for half the ship to get that winded. A flock of floating skull servitors zipped past him, hovering macabre creatures weighed down an odd array of miniature arms carrying ink, parchment, quills and incense.

“Unacceptable,” Magos Frist growled, “I require his immediate presence.”

“I am the interim commander of this station,” He offered his hand to her, pointedly ignoring the skull transcribing their conversation with agitated movements of a long feather quill, “General William Hague.”

“General,” The Magos' eyebrows raised slightly and she took his outstretched hand, shaking it in her own bone crushing cybernetics after shifting the heavy cloth bundle over her shoulder, “Then it is you with whom I wish to speak.”

Officer Allan, still massaging the stitch in his side, interjected, “Ma'am, I told you that you have to call ahead. You can't just barge into the Cap...er, the General's office. Geez louise, Magos I need to take you down to the precinct and question you! You just killed a man.”

“What?” William blinked in shock, pulling his hand away from hers. An all too familiar hot, sticky redness coated his fingers and he realized that the cloth bundle the woman carried with her was dripping onto the floor. “Jesus!”

“It was a cyborg and it was in self defense,” The Imperial walked past William into the Captain's office, completely ignoring Officer Allan's admonitions. She bent down on the floor and started placing a circle small metal spheres on the ground, pausing only briefly to look up approvingly at the skull painted on the ceiling.

“Well done boy, well done.” She commented to nobody in particular, “A sign, a good one at that.”

“Magos, I have to interview you,” Officer Allan's voice held more exasperation than worry, “It was self defense. I know it. I was there but I still need to ask you some questions.”

“Sheridan extended me diplomatic immunity did he not,” The Magos touched her finger to one of the metal globes and then the next. She continued to touch each of the globes, connecting them with a thin beam of light. “That allows me to ignore your regular legal processes.”

“It does but,” Officer Allan looked at the General apologetically and said, “I'm sorry but there isn't actually much I can do to stop her short of shooting her.”

“Is every day like this on the station?” William rubbed his forehead with the palm of his left hand.

“No, sometimes it gets confusing,” Officer Allan sighed.

“Captain Sheridan was apparently a saint,” William growled, “Magos Frist. What in the hell are you doing?”

The globes hovered into the air, spinning around in random directions to form a sphere of light, within which a small model of the station appeared. The Magos stood up and spoke in a her chipper repose, “Mapping out a blueprint of the station.”

“And why, pray tell are you doing that?” Imperials, the whole lot of them were insane near as he could tell.

“To decide where to install the shield generator and upgraded sensors,” The Magos shook her head in disgust, “I've had my fill of danger. I won't be installing military grade emitters but I have no intention of fist-fighting another cyborg that slips through your net. I won't risk the lives of those of us trapped on this station because of your technological backwardness.”

“A fist-fighting cyborg assassin?” The general looked at Allan incredulously, “Seriously?”

“Indeed,” The Magos flung her parcel onto the ground, unwrapping the disemboweled carcass of a man in his forties. She reached into the man's chest and ripped a hunk off the man's sternum. It snapped off with a puff of blue static discharge, “It was a slapdash job of it too. No skill to it at all, just brute force construction.”

William did not take the microchip from her hand when she offered it to him. The blithe treatment of the dead by the Imperials was as unnerving as indicated in Sheridan's notes, “Magos? Are you admitting to murdering a man on my station?”

“Not murder,”The magos crushed the chip with her fist, “Justice, this thing was on it's way to murder your pet psychic.”

“Pet?” William sighed, “Are you referring to Miss Winters?”

“Yes sir,” Officer Allan interjected, “The cyborg was trying to waste Miss Winter's client, Taro Isogi.”

William bit down a curse, he'd received no less than twelve calls ordering him to spy on the head of Futurecorp. If the man had actually been assassinated it would have been a political cluster bomb. Christ, this was all he needed, “Is Isogi alive? Miss Winters?”

“Your psychic and her companion are well, better than well. Miss Winters is a dangerously capable psychic. I've never seen energy shunted quite that way,” She absentmindedly started manipulating the holographic image of the station with her tentacles, never breaking eye contact with William, “But it should never have reached the point where her competence was necessary. It is far too easy to sneak weapons onto this station.”

“I'll admit there have been some things we've missed,” William admitted, “But our procedures for finding weapons are stringent.”

“In the past two months you've missed a war servitor, several plasma rifles, a coven of weapons grade telepaths, and a demon that ate a decent portion of your crew. And that is just what I can confirm personally. We are long past the point where you get to claim that your screening processes are anything more than wishful thinking,” The Magos pulled a long golden reed from her robes poked at the cyborg's innards, prompting slight motions from the corpse as she manipulated the mechanical devices within, “By the Omnissiah, it is there but for the grace of the Emperor that this thing did not go on a killing frenzy on this station.”

Officer Allan grunted in grudging affirmation, “I notice you forgot to mention that a lot of those were brought onto the station by your people.”

“It only qualifies me as more of an expert on your security flaws,” The Magos brushed his concerns aside and pointed to the holographic image of the station. Bright blue sections of the hologram flickered over the static green outline of the station, indicating changes made by the Magos. The tech-priestess examined her work and nodded. “Yes, I can have this station up to a passable standard of military preparedness without overly taxing your systems.”

Shields, she was offering them shields, “And what do you want in exchange?”

The Magos tilted her head, apparently confused by the question, “What do I want?”

“Yes, what do you want for this technology?” William sighed, batting a floating skull away from his head. He hated haggling, “What do you want me to give you in exchange?”

“I don't want anything from you. This is an offer for Captain Sheridan. I will deal with him and him alone,” Kerrigan leaned back on her tentacles, spreading them out into a reasonable facsimile of a chair, “I need to reach an understanding with the station's commander.”

“Mam I assure you that I am authorized to make any negotiations on his behalf for the period of his absence,” William sighed, “And I cannot guarantee that he will still be the commander of this station after his Senate hearing.”

“Senate hearing?” The Magos massaged her temples before muttering a few words of Gothic that struck William as being distinctly impolite, “Am I to understand that he is facing formal inquiry from your government for his recent actions?”

“I cannot comment on the matters of internal military politics mam,” William shook his head, “But I don't have high hopes.”

“Then I suppose you will have to do your best to defend this station without my technologies,” The Magos veritably seethed with disgust, “I will deal with Sheridan or there will be no deal.”

“I can pass the message along,” William did what he could to conceal his excitement. This might very well allow him to save Sheridan's career even if it didn't save his command. Unfortunately reason reared its head and butted into an otherwise wonderful burst of optimism. William sighed and asked the obvious question, “Why?”

“Why Captain Sheridan?” The Magos paused, pondering the question. She sniffed and rubbed some of the gore from her hands with a oily cloth she pulled from her robes. It did little to actually clean them, but at least managed to move the mess around into a different pattern. “There are a quite a few reasons. Politically, it benefits me to have a commander on the station who is indebted to me. Practically, I find the Captain to be highly competent and unlikely to break the terms of my agreement. But if I'm being blunt, I find it to be repugnant that your government could so easily discard him for fulfilling his duties to the best of his capacity.”

“You should never just toss someone away for doing the right thing,” She paused with a slight hitch of breath that might have been a sob, “I refuse to allow him to be tossed away for having done the right and righteous thing. If your government cannot be trusted to keep Sheridan in charge of this station then it simply cannot be trusted at all.”

“I will pass the message along Magos. Now, you will allow Officer Allan to interview you and remove the corpse from my Office,” Williams invoked the voice he used on Ensigns and enemies, a quiet growl that demanded obedience, “Please.”

The Magos shrugged, “Our business is concluded and I'd been hoping to give your men a basic primer on spotting military cybernetic enhancements anyway.” She stood and grandiosely waved for officer Allan to follow her, “Come child.”

“And I thought Londo was annoying.”Allan groaned in frustration, “I've got to go sir. I'll send Dr. Franklin to get the body but someone needs to be on damage control for this one.”

“Yes,” the General waved at the Mago's retreating back, “You go, I can call the Senate Oversight Committee and inform them of the news.”

“Tell them to prepare for tonight's news as well,” Officer Allan said over his shoulder as he followed the Magos, “Cynthia Torqueman was a witness to it as well. Torqueman and her entire camera crew.”

General Hague used a series of words entirely unbecoming of an officer as he punched his identity code into the long range communications system. Dinner would have to wait. Senator Hidoshi was going to need all the warning he could get.
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post #119 of 159 (permalink) Old 12-19-12, 02:11 AM Thread Starter
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Little though he wanted to admit it, Vir found the Imperial nobles to be astonishingly similar to his own people. They stood in stark contrast to the filthy masses of olive skinned docking bay crewmen wearing varying outfits of grease-stained cotton and wool or the merchant men who concealed their low-born upbringing behind silks and furs. The Nobles did not wear their dress uniforms. They were part of their dress uniforms. There was a distinct swagger in each medal, medalist and gaudy ornament that Vir wondered if there were a person beneath them at all.

The noble houses of Centauri would gladly have killed for a chance to be invited to a party in so auspicious a ballroom. The thick marble columns and singed tapestries hinted at it's recent disrepair however the throne room of the Endless Bountywas still as gloriously opulent as any palace Vir ever hoped to be in. After close to a week living in the near constant darkness of the cargo bay, being allowed this audience was like being born a second time.

Gorgeous women wearing sheer garments and thick leather corsets that were somehow more scandalous than outright nudity carried platters of succulent food and flagons of spiced wine, cheering in celebration. It was a feasting day on the Imperial calendar. The celebration of a man who'd chosen to castrate himself rather than falling to the temptations of a demon, which was apparently the reason for the scandalous clothing. Ostensibly one would resist the temptations of the 'demon hostesses' choosing abstinence over temporal joys. Though, near as Vir could tell, the abstinence lasted only so long as the evening prayer bell before the nobles descended upon both food, wine, and hostesses in a frenzy of post-fasting indulgence.

Two Lionhearts, Fadir and Hamman, had been assigned to him to serve both as protectors and captors for this journey. Though it seemed fair to say they'd chosen the former over the latter as their primary duty. They delighted in his cultural faux pas and linguistic hiccups, thrilled at his simple misinterpretations of daily activities they took for granted. His confusion over calls to prayer had been a special joy for them. The two of them laughed uproariously as Vir dropped to the floor when a siren sounded, mistaking the kneeling for prayer for an explosive decompression warning.

“Imperator calls for downfall xenos, but he is not so literal I think,” chided Fadir with an amused cluck of his tongue on his teeth, passing Vir a sweet roll from an equally amused Hamman.

“He is perhaps greatly excited for praying Imperator.” Snorted Hamman.

Their pidgeon-english combination of interlac and gothic was near impossible to understand but they simply refused to accept that he could understand their language no matter how many times he spoke to them in it. He was a xenos, xenosdid not speak gothic, ergo he must not speak gothic as well as he said he did. Some things never changed really, the Narn did the same thing. Outright refused to speak in their own language with anyone but a Narn.

The Nobles of the bounty, however, had no such foreknowledge and thus simply assumed his accent to be a product of a foreign world rather than a foreign species. A number of curious parties had approached him on their way to the throne, issuing polite greetings before being shooed away by the Lionhearts. Those not brave or foolish enough to walk up to him eyed him surreptitiously over feathered fans and through thick veils of fabric, cordial in their predatory appraisal.

Political intrigue, opulence, and weaponized civility, Great Maker but the nobles of the endless bounty made Vir homesick. Caught up in his comparisons of the two societies he did not notice the porpoise of a man wobbling in front of his path till the man's spidery cybernetic frame lowered the man to his level. His blubberous jowls split in a wide smile as he burst into a bombastic laugh that tossed flecks of spittle stained with wine onto Vir's face, “So you're the little devil that's been causing me a whole mess of ruckus and bother. You've got a set of stones on you xenos I'll give you that. Coming here on Inquisitorial authority so that you cannot be denied.”

He slapped Vir's shoulder with a meaty paw, chatting convivially. “I thought that Osma's head might very well explode. The poor man spent hours trapped locked in his own jail cell after the keys broke and then this. I'd shy from ship's security if I were you Ambassador.”

Vir might have taken it for a threat if he believed this vacant idiot of a man had two brain cells capable of connecting with each other. Based on the odor of liquor on the man's breath it seemed far more likely he simply lacked any filter between what passed for a mind and his lips. As courtly and polite as he could manage he bowed out of the other man's grip and said, “I will keep that in mind- er- I didn't catch your name?”

“Master of the Watch, Étienne Sácomer,” At your service. He hiccuped and kicked his pudgy legs back and forth, making the rolls of fat wobble in gelatinous imitation of jogging, “I am to take you to the Captain.”

“Oh,” Vir looked to Fadir in surprise, genuinely astonished that the porpoise of a man was a military officer. The Earth Alliance prided itself on the idea of having every officer in it's military at a level of fitness capable of holding their own in a fight. Even Doctor Franklin had been expected to be able to keep up with a grueling level of physical fitness, “Very good then.”

He followed Sácomer as the man lifted himself onto a stone platform with his spider legs, moving with surprising dexterity on his prosthetics. With a jolt of purple energy the stone platform rose in unexpected locomotion, carrying the three of them up and into the air. Watching with fascination, Vir observed a number of similar platforms hovering around a conspicuously empty throne.

“I thought I was to meet with the Captain,” Vir looked at the Imperials in frustration.

“You will,” Replied Sacomér pleasantly. He twisted a purple stone set into a golden ring on his pinky and the stone plinth shot upwards at the sheer ceiling towards a hideously grinning mural of a augmentically altered eagle tearing at a man's face. Vir whimpered in shock at the stone platform hit the mural at break-neck speed, crouching into a ball in an impotent effort to avoid the pain.

After a moment he peeked open a scrunched eye to the sounds of Hamman and Fadir's amused giggles. Fadir reached down and lifted Vir back to his feet, scowling at Sácomer between snorts of laughter as he chided his superior officer in their native Gothic. “Sácomer perhaps we should warn guests that the hololithic images won't kill them next time?”

“Ah,” Sácomer blustered in embarrassment, “I just assumed that he would have known.”

“Stop bullying him,” scolded an annoyed girl's voice, “The poor dear looks scared half to death.”

Vir looked over Fadir's shoulder to a stunning young woman wearing a conservative mix of red silks and golden lion emblems. He could just catch the outline of silvery-gold hair and a mischievous smile from beneath a lacy white veil. She stood to the side of the room, holding an infant by the scruff of his neck as the small child leaned forward, eagerly trying to waddle his way over to the platform. Though she would have been of average human height, she towered over Vir in her high-heeled leather boots.

“And where do you think you are going Master Agustus?” Fadir handed his rifle to Hamman and walked over to the infant, picking the boy up and spinning him around. The infant Agustus giggled excitedly in reply, “Fady! Fady! Fady!”

The young girl shook her head in amusement, “When he heard that you were coming he simply refused to stop crying till I agreed to bring him to see you.”

“Ami you know as well as I that this little heartbreaker knows a kindred spirit when he sees one,” Fadir tickled the boy's tummy and lifted the boy to his shoulders, “He can't be blamed from wanting to be around a master.”

“Oh can't he,” The girl snorted as she waved a pleasant greeting to Sácomer, “Thank you Sácomer. I can take him from here.”

“Are you sure about that?” The portly man asked, “I was supposed to bring him to your mother.”

“She gave me the job, seems to be under the impression that I've been spending too much time cooped up alone lately. Insisting that I start taking on some courtly responsibility to keep me in the world.” The girl, Ami, pointed at Vir with a gloved hand, “Like escorting an Ambassador to my father's study with the help of armed guards.”

“If you insist,” Sácomer replied in disappointment, twisting his ring and lowering the platform back through the holographic image. His head disappeared from view below the shimmering image as a snap hiss of ionized air heralded the thin purple barrier of energy that blocked the Captain's residence from the great hall.

“So then” The girl curtsied and held out her hand to Vir, “You would be Ambassador Vir?”

He took it and kissed the back of it as he'd seen the nobles do in the great hall doing, “Yes, Vir Cotto. I'm afraid I don't know your name.”

“Ami Sáclair, daughter of Captain Sáclair,” The girl smiled, locking elbows with Vir and leading him down a high ceilinged hallway, “The one taking you on a tour of my household while my mother is indisposed for such duties.”

“She's sick?” Vir asked in genuine interest.

“Pregnant with my younger brother, but otherwise in great health.” The girl's voice hitched with excitement, “She's with the Bishop trying to pick someone to do the baptism ceremony. Al'Ashir was left on the Babylon Station so she's had some trouble finding a priest.”

Hamman away looked up from the game of peek-a-boo he was playing with the child on Fadir's shoulders, “I thought she was going to use Rik? The poor man needs something to do now that he's left alone most of the day.”

“She didn't say,” Ami sighed. “She's been so hormonal lately that it could be anything. Throne only knows which unfortunate soul she's quizzing about baptismal founts.”

They walked through a heavy set of oak doors and into a room full of leather furniture and tapestries. A handsome swarthy man was rolling around on the floor as two young boys and a little girl attempted to tackle him. The muscular man feigned near defeat as he flopped around in their play-fight, tickling whoever got too close to his calloused hands, “I'll eat you up you little Lions.”

“Having fun Danzig?” Snorted Ami. “Still fighting the good fight?”

The leader of the Lionhearts sat up, grabbing the three children and holding them under his arms in a hight bear hug. He jiggled them back and forth to squeals of amused laughter as he replied to Ami, “I seem to recall a tiny blonde girl giggling as I picked up her and her brothers not ten years ago. She seems to have grown up into a sarcastic young woman. I can still lift you under one arm if I want to.”

“Far be it for me to rob Paulo, Vincente and Marian of their well deserved tickles,” Ami snorted, “Is my father in the study?”

“Of course, he had me take over the game from him when I arrived. Said, 'I'm not about to leave these little cubs without a proper prey to replace me,' then popped back in the study. Actually he asked that you be there for his meeting with the Ambassador. Apparently he has something for you to do.” Danzig plopped the children down on a sofa and continued his play-fighting as he talked, “Oh and Aryana and Vigo wanted to know if you were planning on still going to dinner with them tonight. They're going to roast one of the Ostriches and watch a holo-drama.”

“Yes to both,” Ami smiled kissing the craggy man's forehead like she might for a favored uncle, “Thank you Danzig.”

“Yes mam,” He saluted her with one hand as he fended off his three pint-sized attackers with the other, “Of course mam.”

“Your brothers and sisters?” Vir queried as they walked past portraits of stern but handsome men and their families. They all had apparently been painted to give the impression of austere authority. Even the children looked distinctly perturbed.

Ami flashed him a dazzling smile from her veil, “Some of them. The youngest of us. Fifteen in all, sixteen if you count my brother to be.”

“Sixteen?” Vir squealed in astonishment. The largest human family he'd ever met had given birth to three in all. Centauri families at time got that large but the humans were vastly more conservative as a species.

“The Lady Sáclair is not the only woman who finds her way into the Lord Sáclair's bed, even if she is the only one who finds her way into his heart. But it is not my place to speak of that.” Ami's lip curved up behind the fabric of her veil to hold back the tirade she apparently would have very much liked to indulge in. Vir felt a shiver of annoyance run through her arm as she composed herself.

Deciding it was best not to go into the matter Vir changed the subject, “I was one of six, though I was the only one from my mother. She was his second wife, a political marriage to a house that quickly lost favor after the death of the old Emperor. I never really knew my older siblings that well but I had a lot of cousins who I still stay in contact with.”

“They're lucky to have you Ambassador.” Ami smiled, “The Inquisitor told my father that it was you who dragged him to safety after the Vorlon monster crippled him. It was very brave of you. I do not envy the danger of fighting one of those... things.”

“They aren't... I mean...I wasn't really – I mean I was but it just - Too many people were dead. The Inquisitor saved us from that thing, whatever it was,” Vir blushed and scratched the back of his head, “It was the right thing to do...stopping it, that is. It was evil. Kosh, by the maker, it made no sense for Kosh to attack Hilder.”

They rounded a corner and walked past two Lionhearts standing on either side of a cherry red door, entering into the study beyond. It was a room furnished in the same baroque opulence that he'd come to associate with the empire. What space was not dripping with unnecessarily lavishness was covered in ancient scrolls and tomes bound with hand tooled leather.

“Ah,” Captain Sáclair rose from an overstuffed chair, pulling a long pipe from his lips and brushing the crumbs of a recent meal from the front of his robes. Tossing the data-slate in his hands upon the table he pulled his daughter into a hug, kissing the top of her head, “Thank you my darling. It's good to see you.”

The tall man scrutinized Vir. The piercing blue corneas gave the distinct impression of dissecting Vir in the process. “So you're the Centauri who Hildy' added to his retinue? The one who is here to represent our guests in the cargo bay.”

“I am,” Vir swallowed hard and tired to keep his knees from shaking. Sáclair's hawkish features lost none of their flinty menace in spite of his apparent cordiality, “Assuming the Centauri and Narn arein fact guests.”

“What else would they be?” Sáclair laughed heartily, though without any mirth, “We're all friends here.”

“We're beginning to think prisoners would be a more accurate description of being kept in a dark hole for a week surrounded by vent dwelling predators and not allowed to go anywhere on pain of death.” Vir almost swallowed his tongue at the unintentional burst of honesty, “We were fighting and dying for you not so long ago and now we don't even have beds. It's not acceptable.”

“Osma assured me that the accommodations would be more than sufficient to meet your needs,” Sáclair replied in genuine surprise.

“Osma has a great many ideas about the world that are outdated father,” Ami interjected, “I would be very much surprised if the bay they're living in is fit for a servitor, let alone a large group of people.”

“I thought I ordered the Y-block dormitories be dedicated to the xenos and their immediate needs?” Sáclair grabbed his data-slate in confusion, “How on earth – ah – that would explain it.” He peered over his slate sheepishly, “It would seem that the Y-block dormitories decompressed in battle against the Vorlon and haven't been repaired yet. I presume that Osma put you a cargo bay with orders to keep you there till a solution was found.”

“And what happened to that solution?” Vir replied in irritation, massaging where his back still smarting from lying on the floor, “And some decent food? Narn and Centauri eat human standard foods.”

“Donat is supposed to be in charge of this sort of mundane detail, but he's been given a leave of absence to spend time with his daughter. She woke from her coma today,” The Captain looked over to his excitedly squealing daughter's suddenly grinning face, “Yes that was the message I wanted to get to you in person Ami. You can see her later.”

He turned back to Vir, “I'm unaccustomed to dealing with both my own duties and his, but Sácomer is ill suited to be trusted with managing what Donat does. You have my sincere apologies about your treatment on my ship but as we will be rendezvousing with your peoples by tomorrow at the latest would you settle for the rations and some additional blankets? Perhaps some good wine?”

“I suppose that would be acceptable.” Really walking back with anything more than what they had at the moment would be fantastic, “If you'd send some of the Lionhearts to guard us instead of the regular security forces.”

“The Lionhearts? And why in the Eye should I do that?” Sáclair walked over to his cabinet and poured two silver goblets of wine, handing the first to Vir in amusement, “My security is more than capable of defending themselves.”

“I'm sure they are. But the Lionhearts can play musical instruments and if we're going to be under lock and key I at least want someone there to fill the silence,” Vir sipped from the glass conservatively. His tolerance for alcohol wasn't especially strong, “It might keep Narn and Centauri from actually murdering each other out of simple boredom.”

Sáclair snorted in amusement mid sip, coughing as the wine went up his nose. He beat his chest twice to clear it and howled with laughter, “You want an orchestra?”

“If you're willing to spare that many,” Vir nodded and smiled at the giggling Ami, “But a string quartet would go a long way towards smoothing this over.”

“Throne above, why the Eye not? Fine Ambassador, you will have your orchestra,” He crossed his arms, spinning his goblet amusedly in his hand, “It's the absolute least I could do and I have to confess I find I greatly enjoy the culture of your species. I think that your race would easily find a place within the good graces of our Empire, even possibly the Inquisition.”

“I fear the Inquisition's good graces are in short supply today Captain,” The furious voice of Inquisitor Daul Hilder preceded the man's entrance as well as the entrance of his shadow, the skitarii Carin. Sounding less like a man's and more like the booming thunder of an oncoming storm it sent shivers up Vir's spine, “We. Need. To. Talk.”

Sáclair sipped from his goblet in apparent obliviousness to what would have sent Vir running for the hills, ignoring the green balefire spilling from the man's eyes and mouth, “About what?”

“A number of troubling things.” Tendrils of smoke were rising from the table where the Inquisitor's fingers clenched it, digging deep furrows into the wood, “All of which are better discussed away from prying ears.”

Sáclair put down his goblet and poked at the still smoking black runnels in his table, “That is a five thousand year old heirloom Inquisitor.”

“It is about to be a five thousand year old piece of charcoal,” Replied the Inquisitor, blinking in surprise at the Inquisitorial sigil about Vir's neck, “Throne above is there anyone who hasn't joined my household in the past month without telling me?”

“I assumed it was you,” The captain looked at Vir in astonishment, “The ID codes checked out and it's legitimately his.”

“Where in the devil did he... Vira'capac! That meddling lizard,” The Inquisitor massaged his forehead in annoyance, “Another detail Jak has apparently decided is low priority at the moment.”

The skitarii nodded in approval at Vir, twittering in a pleased fashion. Hilder looked at his body guard in incredulity, “Really? It's the xenos who you give immediate approval to while my apprentice is still on probation in your eyes?”

The skitarii tapped his master's augmentic arm, adamantium clicking on ivory. Hilder sighed, “Of course, I haven't forgotten he put himself in danger on my account. You're right as usual. He is more than sufficiently capable in a tight situation. Worthy.”

“Uh,” Vir blinked in surprise, “What?”

The Inquisitor patted Vir's shoulder, “Mr. Cotto, you threw yourself in front of a rampaging psychic to pull a complete stranger to safety because you felt it was right. You continued to administer treatment to me and pulled me to safety in spite of the clear and immediate danger to anyone who was around me. You have earned my respect.”

Vir didn't know exactly what to do with that knowledge so he settled on, “Thank you.”

“Good,” Hilder nodded in approval, “Now if the young miss Sáclair will be so kind as to help you find something in the household larder I would be more than glad to talk with you about what I hope to achieve with your help after my meeting with Captain Sáclair.”

Vir's growling stomach voiced it's assent and he thanked the Inquisitor again. Ami locked arms with Vir but didn't lead him away quite yet, “Inquisitor, has your apprentice had any luck with... with what I talked to her about fixing?”

The Inquisitor's already stern face hardened, stretching his scars. “The Butcher has been dealt with. More than that I cannot say. Your father and I have business to talk of girl. Don't force yourself to grow up too quickly with knowledge of the world no sane woman wishes to have. There was too much sadness and death for one of your youth to be burdened with.”

“And your apprentice? Is she well?” Ami probed nervously.

“Peace child,” Inquisitor Hilder said soothingly, “She is well. A bit shaken up but she managed to get the Butcher.”

“Good,” Ami grinned in satisfaction, marching Vir out the door and in the direction of the larder. The cherry red door slammed shut behind them, echoing with the dull sound of a turning deadbolt. Vir followed her, feeling a bit daft about how painless the process of getting what he wanted from the Imperials had been.

“Let's get you a decent meal. No, not just that; something more! Tell me Vir.” Ami giggled in transparent glee as she directed him to the kitchens, “Have you ever watched an Imperial holo-drama?”
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post #120 of 159 (permalink) Old 12-19-12, 02:11 AM Thread Starter
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Guinevere Corey was an imposing woman who wore her pant-suit the way a medieval knight would have worn a suit of armor, with only slightly less self important swagger than a 14th century noble. She would have made a terrifying drill sergeant if she'd been willing to submit to anyone's authority but her own. John had to give Hague credit, he'd picked a hell of a woman to represent him. She didn't just walk into the conference room of the Agamemnon, she owned it from the second she entered.

Now if she could just let him get in a word edgewise they might get along famously, “Miss Corey, I don't think-”

“No, you don't. Don't think, don't talk, don't act, don't even breathe without running it by me first. You are ten different kinds of screwed on this thing and it's my job to make sure you walk away with this without jail time if this goes to court martial,” Miss Corey's thick shoulder-pads loomed imposingly over her shoulders elevating her suit in abrupt angularity, “Good grief, Captain, you don't just walk a legal tightrope, you do cartwheels on it.”

“My actions as Captain of Babylon 5 were done for the good of the Earth Alliance,” John repeated for the thousandth time, “They were entirely legal.”

“Captain Sheridan, I do not get called in to defend someone who did something 'entirely legal.'They pay me is six hundred credits an hour too much to bother with that,” John's lawyer pulled out a thick stack of folders from her leather briefcase, “Now are you going to argue with me or help me plan your defense?”

“I can't believe this,” John groaned in annoyance, “The whole process is absurd.”

“Not from where I'm sitting,” Guinevere Corey put on a set of reading glasses, intently examining her notes, “Captain I'm staring at a four figure casualty statistic.”

“And it could have been a 100% casualty statistic if we hadn't taken action,” John barked in irritated reply, “I took every precaution to protect our people.”

“No, no,” Miss Corey shook her head, speaking in a more soothing tone, “Captain I'm not accusing you of anything. That's not my job. I'm here to prepare you for the questions that you will likely face in an open session of the senate. They are going to poke you and prod you hoping for you to respond. They want you to react. We have less than a week to get you ready.”

“It's just infuriating. I'm going to have to sit there and take it as a bunch of armchair quarterbacks poke me with sticks to see if I'll growl. You see this after every battle, every war. People get done with it and what's the first thing the loser says? We could have won. If we'd just had a little more time, more resources, if we'd just done one thing better, we could have won.” John sighed, “They come out of the woodwork to talk about something they haven't got the slightest clue about. What's worse; they believe it. It's no different than the Battle of the Line.”

“We won the Battle of the Line Captain,” the woman looked over her legal brief, “And if you let me help you we'll win this one as well. Now, let's try this again from the beginning. And remember, don't rise to the insult.”

A soft knock echoed on the door frame as a rosy-cheeked ensign popped his head in, his clean shaven face blotchy where the stubble was just poking through the skin. Somehow he looked even younger than when John had been commanding the Agamemnon. He saluted the Captain and spoke in an official voice, “Sir. Ma'am. There's received a message from General Hague.”

Guinevere snagged the crystal and dismissed the ensign with a look before plugging it into the conference table. The table lit up, translucent green words appearing on its surface in a plain missive from the General. His lawyer skimmed it before looking up at John in incredulity, “John, somebody out there must love you.”

She swiveled the document around so that he could read it. It contained two columns, one written in English and the other in High Gothic. He couldn't make heads or tails of the legalese but the complexity of the words and logos impressed him of its importance, “I don't know what this is.”

“This is the first draft of a treaty to gift the Earth Alliance with the technology to make shields and upgraded laser cannons. Apparently Frist wants to upgrade her new home but only if you are the commanding officer of the station,” Miss Corey tapped her nose knowingly, “Let's see if those armchair quarterbacks are willing to turn down shields.”

“Lets try those questions again Miss Corey,” John's mood perked up greatly, “I have the oddest feeling that I'm going to be able to pass them with flying colors this time round.”
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