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post #121 of 159 (permalink) Old 12-19-12, 01:14 AM Thread Starter
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Abbas felt his brain turning into mush as he listened to the recording of Magos Dexxira'tel lecturing on the topic of basic data systems. It had all seemed so simple when Magos Frist had sat him down and drawn it on his data slate but now that she was no longer there to guide him through the engineering diagrams, it seemed that all of them had changed into a fascinating mix of gibberish and oblong shapes.

“I need to get memory engrams installed before the Magos realizes I have no idea what on earth she says five minutes after the fact,” Abbas sighed, “Orr, have you gotten any farther in this than I have?”

Abbas looked to his left and realized that he Orr had frozen in place, the boy sat stock still with his spoon hanging in front of his mouth. Taking it for a practical joke Abbas swiped at him with his data-slate, “Very funny man, be serious.”

Orr burst into a cloud of blue smoke as Abbas fell off his bed and into a So'go'ol pitch he'd been fond of as a child. Standing up with some confusion Abbas looked at the Data-slate in his hand only to find he was holding an oversized piece of uncooked grox steak.

“Oh for Throne's sake,” Abbas pinched himself and felt nothing, “I fell asleep. The Magos will have my hide.”

A troupe of So'go'ol players ran around him, firing back and forth at each other. He recognized the uniforms of his favorite team. He knew that he was supposed to be doing something to do with studying but for the life of him he couldn't remember how it was relevant to the game.

Abbas ducked down and pulled out his own stun pistol, feeling great pride in the So'go'ol uniform he wore. The Magos wouldn't begrudge him one game and he knew that the flying blue grox circling the pitch wouldn't let him leave anyway, not without a silver whistle.

He leapt over the boxes and tucked into a ball, rolling down the stairs as stun-fire spluttered across the railing. Sparks hissed and spat on the puddles of moisture dripping from the ceiling as he leapt to his feet, soaring above his opponents and landing on the other side of the pitch. Astonished at his own feat of acrobatics he jumped again and found himself soaring more easily.
 
Again and again he jumped, the game long forgotten as he rose higher and higher till he was eventually flying. He soared around the cargo bay, swooping twice before banking left and soaring out the open window and into the void of space. Inky cloying blackness swirled around him in an ocean of sound and shimmering dust, psychedelic trails of orange fluid moving out of his way with every paddle of his fingers.

The normally empty void of space was teeming with life. Multicolored fish bubbled their way past planets and stars, nestling in reefs of asteroids and planetary debris. Silver sharks ate blue warbling bird-like eels, braying in amusement at Abbas' playful smile.

A golden manta circled Abbas, singing songs of good cheer. He caught the golden manta's tail, sinking his fingers into it's skin like a pilot fish. Laughing like a madman, Abbas whooped with joy as the singing golden fish swam through the stars, joining with a thousand other manta rays. The golden fish swam around huge green flowers, tending to them and singing with them in a glorious chorus cheering for life and wonder.

They bathed in the light of brilliant white stars, feeling the tempo of their constant solar drumming base line. The great stars nurtured their planets, caressing them and filling them with teeming life. The ocean filled with more animals and plants than Abbas could hope to count, each adding to the song with new rhythm and motion. A symphony of harmonious eternity. The golden fish and their plants hovered around ancient men of stone and lithe, transparent men of eternal beauty and serenity. Each had their place, each had their part, and all followed the suns with rapture.

Then from a place of darkness came a mewling discordant cry, abrupt in its severity and envy. A measured staccato of furious hatred. From a dark hollow of shadows came the sorrowful ones. Slight of figure and near translucent in their temporal nature they lashed out at the animals, crushing fish, bird, and beast out of spite. They charged forwards, murdering then disappearing back into the ether.

Incensed by this the largest and strongest of the creatures pounced on the sorrowful ones, fish, flowers, dancing men, huge saurian figures and stone men crushing the murderous aggressors. They battled for an age and a half, pure titanic might versus craft and guile. The minds of the sorrowful ones were great and terrible but the suns heard the terrified cries of their children and came to their aid.

The sorrowful ones were mighty, but no match for the suns. Sorrow was cast back into shadow and night.

The chorus was diminished, but not gone. The dancing men ever vigilant for the sorrowful ones return, the suns turned back to their worlds. They made new fish, beasts, and plants, sowing their garden with more life than ever before, all to the sorrow of the sorrowful men. New creatures came, apes, wolves and vipers, each adding to the tune till it exceeded it's former resplendence.

The sorrowful men turned to their own dying sun, a hateful god who'd long abandoned them, and pulled a poison from it's corpse. They syphoned a hungering hatred from it's marrow, giving form to a thirsting venom from the birth of all. The howling maws of the abominations fed upon the singers, leaving behind silence and sorrow.

No longer discordant, the sorrowful one became the silent ones. Marching across the stars with their hungering abominations they moved ever forward, crushing the star children. Men of stone crumbled, men of steel rusted, and all manner of bird and beast were slain. Abominations swallowed whole worlds. The Suns came to save their children but they too were food for the hungering ones, monsters weaned upon the flesh of stars like a mother's milk. Beasts fled to the silent ones, begging for mercy and pledging service.

Traitorous vermin and mewling vipers ill suited to sing in the first place, they found easy living till the hunger of the Abominations grew too strong to bear and the vermin became food for their new masters.

In their pain and desperation the dancing men forged their terrified chorus into a weapon, bringing forth abominations of their own from the song, bringing alien songs from beyond. All manner of disgusting creatures of melody were forged to silence the hungering ones. Unable to kill the Abominations, the Suns fled to the corners of the universe, creating life with little thought as to how it grew and lived, so long as it survived. The endless field, the hastening blades, denizens of endless dance, and the hidden ones became the new image of how life was to be. They forged their creatures into weapons, turning the men of steel into blades, the men of stone into walls, and the fish and flowers into sharks and thorns to protect the nascent choir. For even the immortal were made moral.

Cautions and nature and nearly old as the stars themselves the arachnids started biting every creature in sight in desperation, poisoning them so that the silence would not reach their hidden webs. Born in a time before the song they hoped to confuse the silence, hiding between worlds. They crushed all who strayed too close to the nest. The fish and flowers rose up to crush the spiders wrapping their vines an webs about each other, attacking in the past and future in eternal looping battles. But with five words the greatest of the Suns brought the spiders into the fold, turning them into a weapon against the silence.

The Arachnids joined the song, howling at the top of their voice and disappearing before coming back and doing it again. No order, no planning, just fear and war and death. The dancing men and the arachnids fought alongside the otherworldly abominations, giving the men of stone time to forge great black gems. Horrible in nature these gems were intended to do that which should not be, to turn the power of the stars upon themselves, harnessing the power of creation to un-make what is. Armed with chaos and horror they struck back, slaughtering the silent ones and their abominations and driving them back to their worlds. The children of the dancing ones, the hastening blades, became the favored weapons of the suns, given power and knowledge beyond that granted to the other races.

Though they held the gems of the suns, the creatures were lost without the song, an orchestra without a conductor. Each of them tried to continue singing but it was a poor imitation of what had once been the music. The suns grew dim and silent, dying of age and weariness.

The timeless creators of all things had drawn to an end. Fearing for their lives the suns hid among the stars, burrowing within the corpses of the worlds that had born them. Though the oldest and wisest of the suns still lingered, they could not return to them for fear of the silent one's abominations, able only to give each of first of races a single task, an duty till the song could return.

It was a wise action, for without the suns to slake their hunger the abominations turned upon each other and upon the servants of the silent ones, having grown too fat and greedy upon the ancient suns. But too late, it was all too late. As the suns faded from the universe the silent men turned upon their own abominations, fearing their hunger and dominion. No longer protected by the discord of abomination the silence hid their shattered gods as they hid themselves, slumbering mordant silence for fear of the dark gems.

For a time the young races found peace in their duty and their successes against the abominations and the destruction of the hiding places of the silent ones. But the fish and thorns were impatient, they wished to have the song again, to touch the face of the divine. They forged a gateway to go beyond the paths of the web and into the ocean of stars beyond. It was the place that had birthed the starts in the time before time. Greedily and foolishly they opened a door that should never have been, unleashing the songs of dominion. The universe, having long battled silence, had no defense for the sea of screams.
So eager to hear the song again were the fish and flowers that it was too late that they realized the song was corrupting them.

Those who'd waited for the choir most eagerly became easy prey for the dominion of screams, mindless servants to it's howling. The silent ones and their hiding places were lost as the vast ocean of the stars became a blood bath anew, the oldest and youngest of races suffering from the screams with equal measure. Only the arachnids in their hidden places were free of the danger, their otherworldly nature and preternatural caution protecting them from harm. The gems were turned upon each other as the children of the suns and the dominion of screams battled to rob each other of knowledge and territory, ending only when the fish managed to crush the bridge to the ocean beyond.

The golden manta looked at him with tired fish eyes and a man's face, crooning in sorrow. Though there were no words Abbas felt the lamentation of the countless dead and suffering, the desire for order and the knowledge that it would never come again. It spoke as it sang, it's lips not seeming to matter to the song, “You must know. You must learn. Listen to the music, not the song.”

Before he could remember exactly where he'd heard the unnerving reverberating echo of a voice before, Abbas awoke in a cold sweat. His head had collided jarringly with the floor as a set of agumentic hands yanked the mattress out from under him. Winking the stars from his eyes he stared blearily up at Magos Frist and said, “The fish was singing to me.”

“The wine was singing to you if you thought I'd forget about your assignments boy. You'd better have finished them all if you think you can go about napping instead of coming to me with them,” She jibed caustically, “I'll have to hide you and Orr both. Being an apprentice to a Magos is not some cake-walk for indolent princelings to ignore until luck and social obligation puts them in a position of power.”

Orr looked nervously at Abbas. Abbas knew all too well that the poor boy had likely decided not to wake him out of simple courtesy. His kindness would not be replayed in kind. Abbas clutched his data slate to his chest, “I would prefer that you gave me both Orr's beating and my own for my mistakes.”

Orr's eye's bulged in horror as Magos Frist sighed and snagged his data slate with an augmentic tentacle. She ran a finger across the scroll bar, looking over his answers in total silence before meeting his eyes, “How on earth did you do this?”

Abbas opened his mouth to explain that he just couldn't figure out what Magos Dexxira'tel meant about the data systems having their own minds, though lacking their own will, when he recognized that he in fact did have an answer to that. Actually, it seemed that in his sleep all the words about his technical manual seemed to have reverted from incoherent symbols into plain English on his tongue. Nobody was more surprised than Abbas when he pulled out a pen and started drawing out his own ideal database hierarchy of specialized logic engines and knowledge spirits, and how he wanted to integrate them with Babylon systems.

He hummed to himself as he worked, discussing his ideas with Orr and the Magos, the threat of a whipping apparently forgotten in favor of her beloved machines. The music, older than time itself, gave purpose to his quill strokes bringing the knowledge into focus with greater acuity.

Abbas was proud that he would one day be a Magos, but knowledge was useless without a goal. Worthless by itself. He now had a goal, a borrowed wonderful memory from a dream as clear as day. By hook or by crook he would find the beautiful music once again.
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post #122 of 159 (permalink) Old 12-19-12, 01:15 AM Thread Starter
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Osma sipped from the glass of water offered by Medicus Nor, glad for the hydration. The Inquisitor had been very specific in Osma's orders, wait with his apprentice till he returned for her. The fiery alliance woman needed little in the way of protection but Inquisitorial protocol required that someone be there in case of an emergency.

Apprentice Ivanova was well enough, the taproot essence that she drank was intended to induce dreamless sleep, but she'd dehydrated herself greatly in the effort to fend off her attacker. She lay peacefully on the crisp white sheets of a hospital bed with an IV drip in her arm with some basic nutrients to avoid any side effects from the prolonged sleep.

“She's a pistol that one,” Nor laughed as he pushed a stethoscope within the crisp white fabric of his smock, “I'll be lucky if she doesn't pop me in the nose when she wakes up, just on principal.”

“Her enthusiasm is well placed,” Osma grumbled in agreement, “It is good that she was not seriously harmed.”

“A miracle actually. ” Nor brandished a clipboard in disgust, “Someone was feeding that poor simpleton Rabal series six anti-agapics.”

“Rabal series six? You're sure?” Osma blinked in surprise. Rabal series six anti agapics were not common, even in the nobility. Without substantial complimentary medications and augmentics the side effects were often deeply unfortunate.

“I ran the blood tests twice to be sure. It's series six,” Nor sighed in resignation, “It's not the first time I've seen it either. It's been popping up on a number of autopsies of men the Inquisitor had previously been eying as potential Amon partisans. For that matter it showed up in the Inquisitor's combat servitor.”

“The traitors are selling anti-agapics for loyalty,” Osma tugged at his beard in frustration. Imperial medicine could achieve miracles, but few could afford the best of them. Immortality and vitality were powerful motivators for crewmen to betray their crewmen, “Blood of the Emperor, can we even test for this?”

“For the regular crewmen? Most certainly. But it's very difficult to tell the difference between one type of anti-agapic and the next prior to autopsy if they've ever been treated at all,” Nor sighed, “Fools will take whatever they believe will save their lives, even at the cost of their souls.”

“The Butcher, Rik, wasn't responsible for his actions then?” Osma growled, “A side effect of the Amon Sui? The Lionhearts will be glad for that.”

“I cannot say one way or the other for sure. Cairn didn't leave me a great deal to examine, but what little Susan said before passing out sounds like a classic case of uncontrolled spontaneous neural interactions,” He interlocked his fingers wiggling them together then jammed them together hard, overlapping long digits over the back of his hands, “Without augmentic implants to sort the information being input into his mind he simply overlaid all information and was driven mad.”

“His caretaker was trying to medicate him, exchanging favors for anti-agapics,” Osma sighed, “He truly wished for Rik be healed.”

“At best the missing parts of his mind could have been replaced with Augmentics but that sect of the clergy believes that brain implants are too close to thinking machines,” Nor's lip curved down in displeasure, “There is a reason why Medicus must train for decades before we're allowed to administer surgeries and medicines unsupervised. A well meaning amateur can do far more harm than good. Which is actually something I've been meaning to speak to you about.”

“Oh,” Osma blinked in surprise, “About what? I've been giving the boy his medicine for his cough on time without anything from the apothecary, strictly following your instructions.”

“What? Oh! No, I'm sure you are,” Nor laughed and patted him on the shoulder, “You're shaping up to be a good father Osma, have no fear. No I wanted to speak to you of the first mate.”

“Enzo?” Osma raised an eyebrow in surprise, “What of him?”

“Not him specifically. ” Nor rolled the words around in his mouth as though unsure how to proceed, “His daughter.”

“I was under the impression that she was recovering quite nicely.” Osma asked, “Is there something she needs me to deal with?”

“Osma this is a matter of some delicacy,” Nor sighed, “A matter that I only can trust to you if you will swear not to bring it to the Inquisitor. Not without finite proof.”

“Nor,” Osma grunted in a voice of increasing worry. Nor was not a man prone to exaggeration but the fear in his voice was palpable, “What is it?”

“Osma, Bonafila should have to died three weeks ago. I was prepared to discuss funeral arrangements with her parents when one day, out of the blue, she starts getting better by leaps and bounds.” Nor sighed, “They called it a miracle, as did I. But now...”

“Now you suspect it might have been a chemically assisted miracle,” Osma swore loudly, “Throne of Terra. Donat Enzo a traitor? Are you sure?”

“Bonafila is his only child and I know he blames himself for not spending enough time with his daughter after she was initially injured. Sáclair had to all but threaten to throw him in the brig to keep him on duty,” Nor sighed, “Men have done more foolish things for less.”

“Do you have any proof?” Osma growled, tugging at his beard in worry. He could not afford to proceed with an investigation of this magnitude without absolute and concrete proof of Donat Enzo's involvement in this.

“Of course not or I would have given it to you before suggesting this at all,” Nor sighed, “But Rik's condition only re-enforced the necessity that this be investigated. It's too dangerous to let continue.”

“Blood of the Emperor,” Hissed Osma as the possibilities of Enzo becoming affiliate with the Amon Sui ran through his mind, “It would be the end of us all.”

“Yes,” Nor agreed, “The end.”

The room shuddered with the sudden squelching feel of ice and filth seeping into Osma's marrow, like being dredged out of a squalid pool in winter. He gritted his teeth and shook his head to un-pop his ears. No matter how often he did it the transition from the warp back to real space was deeply unpleasant.

The Inquisitor's apprentice stat up bold upright at the sensation, angrily ripping out the tubes from her arm as she turned to Osma, “What in the hell was that?”

“The ship has just returned to real-space,” Osma checked his chronometer, “Damn and blast. The Inquisitor want's you to be in the landing party with him. Get dressed, you're about to meet up with the Centauri and Narn.”
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post #123 of 159 (permalink) Old 12-19-12, 01:16 AM Thread Starter
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Al'Ashir stared up at the double-headed eagle mounted on the wall. It was welded from debris of their battle with the demon, it made up in significance what it lacked in material worth. The room was tiny, barely four yards by ten, and the only furniture to speak of was an aging wooden podium that barely held his prayer book but it was a space for His Word.

And the Word would be heard.

For a couple of medium weight golden thrones he'd negotiated for a grocer to deliver supplies before and after every prayer service so that all who came to hear the word might leave with their bellies full. Far too few of the Lurkers had regular access to healthy meals for Al'Ashir's liking.

His first services had been given to mostly empty rooms, a few of the especially devoted Imperial ex-pats bothered to make the long trip down to his church twice a day but most had chosen to pray at their personal shrines if they bothered to pray at all. Fighter pilots were a notoriously private lot, choosing to worship their favored saints by flying rather than prostration.

Fortunately the possibility of a warm meal did not long go unnoticed by the poorer residents of the babylon station, even at the cost of a sermon. He spoke of loving one's fellow man and of the great saints, telling of battles and heroes of the Empire. It was unlikely that Al'Ashir would convert them all but each soul that listened to the Word was that much closer to salvation. They giggled at his poor English and Inerlac but it was well received over all.

What continued to surprise Al'Ashir more than anything was the unsupervised, and sometimes parentless, children who ran wild in the lower sections of the ship. What sort of a station had no school? How could generations of station dwellers be expected to do their job if they could not so much as read or write their own names. Once his congregation got up and running he would establish a school, sooner rather than later.

However it was neither the flow of parishioners nor the lack of education that troubled Al'Ashir in his new role as Bishop of Babylon. It was the xenos. It was on a lesser feast-day morning of Second Vec'so, a martyr famous for having protected his world from an Eldar attack, that Al'Ashir noticed something troubling.

There was a xenos in his church, listening to his sermon. Al'Ashir supposed it was to be expected on a station where the xenos mingle so close to their human betters, but it was not the xeno's presence that unnerved him greatly. It was the questions the xenos asked of him after the service. The Markab had questioned him on the nature of sin and repentance, asking him genuinely provocative questions.

By all rights he should have just cast the beast out of his rectory and told it to ask it's own unnatural gods of such things, but he did not. He and the Markab chatted about their respective faiths for hours after the service. The next service there were three Markab attending.

And they were by no means the only ones. Statuesque and lithe Vree and well coiffed Brakiri found their way into his flock, listening politely to his sermons out of curiosity or hunger. What unnerved him the most, however, were the xenos who came to his sermons with the Imperial ex-pats. There was at least one Minbari who always showed up with a broad shouldered pilot of Amon stock by the name of Kegg, chatting with him and laughing about some private joke between the two of them.

However there was trouble on the horizon for him. He could be sure of that. Galut was already trying to convince Al'Ashir to baptize some of the Drazi into the Imperial faith. Precisely how he'd convinced the handful of Drazi to agree to baptism was beyond him. He'd only narrowly managed to dissuade the Drazi and Galut by telling them that he wanted them to learn the word of the Emperor in full before he was willing to baptize them.

He'd hoped it would make the problem go away but it seemed to have only delayed the inevitable. The Drazi followed Galut to services, listening to sermons, waiting for their religious education to be complete. If only all human devotees were that dedicated, the Horus Heresy might not have been.

His subtle hints to Galut had been totally useless. The Drazi liked Galut. Galut liked the Drazi. They were his friends and he wanted the best for them, “They good. They deserve heaven. Help them.”

Though the Word was in Galut's heart heart His Way and His Word seemed to be at odds. The Imperial credo held little room for his desires. “Do not trust the xenos for he will approach you with honeyed words and false promises, he will lead you to ruin.”

But the more time Al'Ashir spent with the xenos the less literally he wanted to interpret that passage. Was that the danger in trusting the xenos or in trusting the wrong xenos? Was it wrong for the Imperials to treat the xenos with the same dignity the xenos showed them?

The credo also gave warnings against witches but the Empire employed billions of them as astropaths, navigators and even psychic Inquisitors. If they could co-exist with the psychics then why not with the xenos? No, that was a sin to even think. But it was a sin that was long past he supposed. In accepting the aid from the Centauri were not the members of the Endless Bounty already branded as xenos lovers?

No, no sane man could brand them as traitors for surviving just as no sane man would criticize him for bringing the word of the Emperor to those who would hear it willingly. It was not the fault of the xenos that they were born of the wrong mothers. There was good in these xenos, perhaps enough that they could even find some measure of salvation.

And who was he to rob them of salvation?
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post #124 of 159 (permalink) Old 12-19-12, 01:17 AM Thread Starter
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The settlement on the moon of Vega Six Segunda was spartan even back when it had been lived in by its Centauri colonists. Decades of neglect had left the verdant world to its own devices, letting the thick green vines with red leaves grow over the white stone surfaces of prefabricated dwellings in natural camouflage. Brightly colored songbirds nested the myriad of overgrown flower-boxes, twittering warning calls to each other as Londo passed them.

“They're beautiful aren't they Ambassador Mollari,” G'Kar said from where he lay in the shade an old tree, idly thumbing through his prayerbook.

“The birds? Yes.” Londo agreed, sitting on the edge of what had once been a fountain, “It is just as well that neither of our people took this place. We would have destroyed this beauty for the sake of denying it to each other.”

“I imagine this was what my world looked like before your people came. I've seen pictures, of course, but this?” he waved his arms at the omnipresent flowers, “This is how I pray it was. And how I pray it will be.”

“G'Kar,” Londo replied in annoyance, “Have we been to cordial for the past several days? Do you feel the need to bring out bad blood for old time's sake?”

“Nothing of the sort Mollari. Nothing of the sort.” G'Kar stood up from the ground, brushing the back of his trousers, “I'm just enjoying the irony of your solution to the Vega Six problem. You do realize that I had to propose it as a way of getting “one up” on the Centauri?”

“I would be very surprised if you hadn't. There are a number of Centauri politicians doubtlessly waiting for their agents on Narn to inform them of the inevitable Narn outrage,” Londo shrugged, “I had expected it to take more effort to be honest.”

“Both our governments are eager to ingratiate themselves with the Imperial government,” G'Kar nodded, “And both of us have our personal reasons for wanting the Imperials to go unharmed.”

“I'm just looking out for the interests of my people,” Londo insisted, though the pleased thanks of Mr. Morden repeated in the back of his mind, “I have no ulterior motive.”

“Ambassador you brought the Narns with you to fight the Vorlon Empire. Now I haven't been able to figure out how or why you knew it was coming but whatever game you're playing I know that it is you who features chiefly in your interests.” G'Kar held up his gloved finger and tapped the side of his forehead, “I'm not a fool Mollari. But for now, as long as your goals coincide with my own, I'm willing to go along with it.”

“Very well,” Londo hissed sarcastically, “By all means live out our conspiracy fantasies. In the meanwhile prepare yourself. Unless I miss my guess that is an Imperial shuttle on the horizon.”

The Narn and Centauri soldiers milling about the plaza hopped to attention, standing around the hexagonal cement landing pad at attention in a guard of honor. They may have been on an uncivilized scrap of nowhere but neither race would embarrass themselves in front of the other with less than perfect manners. Admittedly there were a great many more hateful red-eyed stares from the Narn style of politeness than Londo felt were strictly necessary but one could not expect perfection from a Narn.

Four ships zoomed into view, the bird-like transport ship of the Inquisitor accompanied by another two fighters that were more boxy and irregular, clearly designed for combat rather than beauty. The ugly boxy fighters took positions around the perimeter as the avian craft hovered above them, a stylized white eagle painted onto the belly of the otherwise crimson and gold craft. It swooped twice around the city before settling into the hexagon.

It was overkill, but Londo couldn't blame the Inquisitor for being cautious about meeting the two ambassadors on an unknown world. The man had recently suffered a crippling injury at the hands of the Vorlons, he was likely to be wary of alien interests. Not so wary, however, that he would refuse a meeting, thank the Maker.

The mouth of the shuttle yawned wide, extending a long metal plank down to the vine covered ground. A thin layer of smoke and steam billowed out from the opening, pressurized hypoallergenic gasses to ensure no bacteria found their way into the transport. A familiar golden skull poked out from the mists, leading a handful of colorfully dressed companions. Londo sighed at the obvious fear of alien bacterial contamination. There was taking precautions and then there was just being impolite.

“We did send them the profile for a sufficent vaccination for this planet yes?” Londo asked G'Kar as the Imperial embassy marched in their direction.

“We most certainly did,” G'Kar whispered through a forced smile, “But the Imperials are worse than the Markab when it comes to ensuring the purity of their people. I'm astonished they ever take the infuriating pressure suits off.”

“Don't tempt fate,” Londo whispered before saying in a much louder voice, “Inquisitor Hilder my good friend! I had not expected to see you in person so soon after your injury.”

“I'm quite well Ambassador Mollari.” The Inquisitor's metallic voice reverberated. He raised an ivory finger capped with a gold talon and tapped it on the side of his helmet, “An arm can be replaced so long as the mind is whole.”

A busty redhead wearing a high necked leather long-coat with stylized grinning skulls for buttons snorted and rolled her eyes. Her mouth and nose were covered by a rebreather “Daul could you possibly be more pretentious?”

G'Kar's reptilian inner eyelid slid over his red eyes, reflexively cleaning them as he sniffed the air, “Do I know you?”

“You most certainly do Ambassador. My apprentice is miss Susan Ivanova, formerly of Babylon 5,” Londo gagged in surprise, his fangs flexing against his lips.

“I had been led to believe the commander died in the attack,” Londo hedged uneasily around the obvious question. Outright asking if the commander had defected seemed ill advised, “They officially listed you as missing in action.”

“We are u...unable to c...communicate with real-space while we are in transit,” The Inquisitor's diminutive aid replied, “W...we could not correct such an error.”

Susan looked as though she very much would have liked to say something but a stern look passed between her and the skull-faced telepath. Londo got the distinct impression that a conversation was passing between the two of them. Susan stared daggers at the mask for a moment then gritted her teeth as she hissed, “You unbelievable son of a bitch. This is why you brought me here?”

Londo winced at her astringent acrimony. The scrupulously professional Commander was quivering with rage as the Inquisitor calmly rejoined, “Truth does not go away with time.”

“And what truth is that Inquisitor?” G'Kar sighed in exasperation.

If looks could kill the Inquisitor would have been a small pile of ashes upon the ground. Another round of meaningful looks passed between the Inquisitor and the buxom redhead before Commander Ivanova pulled off her mask and spoke in a tone drizzled with a thick layer of sarcasm, “I've been generously accepted by the Inquisitor as his apprentice.”

G'Kar and Londo shared a look of confusion that was not missed by the Inquisitor, “I found it unacceptable for her psychic talents to go to waste and dangerous for them to go untrained. Certianly not for a psychic with such impressive psychic potential.”

“What!” Squawked Londo in horror. Great Maker, he'd spent two years around a psychic without ever having the vaguest hint of it. The possible fallout was horrifying. How many of his secrets did she know? How many other Earth Alliance officers were secret telepaths? He'd grown accustomed to the Earther's telepathic apartheid but how much of his security measures were in error?

G'Kar seemed more intrigued that horrified, “Commander Ivanova is this true?”

“Yes,” The Commander replied with a level of vulnerability Londo had rarely heard from the Russian. It was like listening to a small child admit to a mistake they'd long hoped forgotten, “I'm a telepath, like my mother before me.”

“How can this be?” G'Kar all but whispered, putting his gloved hand upon Susan's arm in a gesture of solidarity, “I thought that all members of the Earthforce were tested?”

“I wasn't strong,” Susan admitted, “Barely a P-1, it didn't take much for them to overlook me.”

“The talents of the Psi-corps are astonishingly limited,” The Inquisitor interjected, his reverberating voice abounding with professional pique, “Having examined a half dozen men and women trained by them it's become clear to me they understand almost nothing of warp-craft. To allow a mind so readily prepared for the biomantic and pyromantic arts to go by the wayside for a lack of telepathic finesse is utter madness. Telepathy is only one of a million skills. They struggle to understand telekinesis and fancy themselves the masters of sorcery. Bah!”

“Not everyone can bend the forces of nature about their finger Hildy,” Replied an irritated woman. Unclad except for a sheer white sheet, her ebon skin glowed with the dull golden glow of active astropathy from an intricate patchwork of runes and circuitry, “And even those who can tend to lack your unique insights into the subject. The sisters of silence aren't especially fond of people researching the subject if memory serves.”

“Captain Sáclair I presume?” Londo bowed deferentially. He really did like the bombastic letch, the time would not come soon enough that they would meet in person, “Would it be possible for us to get our crewmen back? My assistant in particular has been greatly missed. Don't tell him though, a competent assistant who realizes his necessity soon becomes unbearable.”

“But of course,” The woman remarked offhandedly as she locked arms with Londo and marched him towards the ship, “Your men are already being transported back to your ships. And unless I miss my – Ah yes! Here comes young Mr. Cotto.”

Londo's portly assistant waddled his way out of the Imperial transport with the aid of a large and particularly ugly Narn, a greenish tint of airsickness about him. The astropathic servitor leaned in closely and whispered conspiratorially, “Between the two of us I like the lad but he's a bit queasy around the bends. I wouldn't put him at the helm of anything larger than a ground car.”

“His continuing survival is something of a mystery, yes,” Londo agreed before shouting to his assistant, “Vir! That's quite enough stalling. Your little vacation is over. It is time to work.”

“Vacation?” His assistant rolled shifted his eyes back towards the transport as though her were considering the merits of going back to the Endless Bounty and never returning, but common sense overruled his fear of the Ambassador. Vir exhaustedly plodded forward, distinctly the worse for ware. His coat, still the same one he'd left the babylon station wearing, had been hastily sewn together after being slit and his shirt was flecked with a mix of soot and something that resembled blood. “I think I'm done with vacations. Forever.”

“Just as well, you have none left to use,” Londo growled irritatedly, grinning and patting his assistant on the back jovially, “I am glad to see you well and whole Vir. To my great surprise I do in truth enjoy your company,” he lowered his voice, “And you will be wanted on the home-world soon.”

“Good,” Vir determinedly agreed, “Yes that sounds very good.”

“Th... this is actually a very n...nice planet,” commented the hunch-backed auto-savant Jak as he poked at the flora with a small sliver box, a scanner of some sort, “Lush and fertile. Why is it uninhabited?”

“History and luck,” G'Kar waved at the surrounding settlement, “This was formerly an outspost when the Centauri slavers were transporting my people. We drove them out, then abandoned it because of where it fell along our supply chains.”

“We drew you to it so that you would make such a foolish over-expansion,” Londo corrected, “But even the Narn occasionally make a tactically sound decision.”

“Ah,” The Inquisitor sighed, “You do not want to risk offering us shelter and having the Vorlons declare war upon you. Clever.”

“Partially,” G'Kar admitted, pulling a data-pad from his satchel and handing it to the Inquisitor, “But we've expanded our goals since then.”

“What is this?” The Inquisitor skimmed the contents of the data-pad before handing them off to Commander Ivanova.

The Commander's jaw dropped, “They're settling rights. Unconditional settling rights from both the Centauri and Narn governments to this solar system,” Susan looked at the Narn and Centauri Ambassador's in utter bafflement, “You're just giving them a solar system without asking for anything in return?”

“Of course he isn't,” Sáclair's Avatar laughed, “This scrap of space is part of the demilitarized zone between their peoples isn't it? They want to use us as a barrier to cut off both sides from using this place as a military staging point. A wall between two predators.”

“Among other benefits,” Londo replied, “There's nothing to be lost in turning what was previously a dead world into an new economic trading partner.”

“Very well then,” The Inquisitor nodded once, “If Jak finds nothing wrong with your contract I will graciously accept. The Belzafesters have been going stir crazy onboard the Bounty anyway.”

“They were ill-suited spacers to begin with. I'll start moving them into the settlement while you finish up down here,” Sáclair sighed freezing and leaning to the left, the woman's body going limp and falling to the ground in suddenly suspended animation. The servitor crumpled to the ground like a limp marionette.

“I hate when he does that,” Londo shuddered as he looked into the suddenly dead and glassy eyes of what had only moments ago been a living and breathing woman, “It's just unnatural.”

“I suspect that's why he doesn't warn us,” Sighed the Inquisitor, “He's up there on his throne giggling about our facial expressions, I just know it,” he shook his golden skull, apparently embarrassed to have spoken out of turn, “You've shown me a great deal of faith, now I shall return it in kind. I will accept a Narn and Centauri into my service to serve as the representatives of your people in the Empire. Mr. Cotto has already -”

“Vir!” Londo hissed, “What have you done?”

“I didn't know that – I mean – I er, what?” His assistant sputtered nervously, “He just told me I was the Ambassador, I didn't say anything.”

“I will accept no others and I will not hear a word of argument against it,” The Inquisitor nodded, “Mr. Cotto has agreed to enter my retinue. A great honor that puts him in the highest court of the Empire.”

“Mr. Cotto has a role in government. My government. The Centauri government,” Londo corrected the Imperial, “One that requires he be with me at all times. He cannot exactly aid the embassy if he isn't around the Ambassador.”

“Ambassador, I am offering a permanent Centauri mission on this planet but I will accept no other diplomat than Mr. Cotto,” Inquisitor Hilder repeated firmly, “I trust him, well him and you. But we both know you have no desire to leave Babylon Five.”

“Very well then,” Londo sighed in grudging acquiescence, “I accept your offer.”

“What – but he – huh?” Vir repeated in utter bafflement, “Me?”

“Yes, you're an Ambassador to the Empire now, don't let it go to your head,” Londo patted his baffled aide on the back, “You look positively green Vir you should sit down.”

“What – oh yeah, sitting,” His horrified aide replied, plopping down on the ground in confusion, “Sitting is good.”

“I have no specific request for the Narn Ambassador,” The Inquisitor admitted to G'Kar, “Just someone who isn't prone to confrontation.”

“I have several in mind,” G'Kar admitted, “But we have another matter to discuss that is more important. I received troubling news as we were in transit.”

“Yes,” Londo admitted, “The Non-Aligned worlds are comitted to a peace keeping operation in the Shi'lassen Triumvirate in co-operation with the Earth Alliance, Narn Empire and Centauri Republic. As a member race of the Non-Aligned worlds you are expected to aid in peacekeeping effort.”

“The Empire does not go to war on the whims of other nations,” The Inquisitor whispered in a voice of deadly calm, the wisps of balefire flickering around him blazing white-hot.

“I think you'll want to,” G'Kar replied, “Our old friends have decided to show themselves. An army of monsters rallying behind the banner of one they only call Faust.”

The ground beneath the Inquisitor cracked as he mashed his long range communicator and outright bellowed, “Sáclair! Mobilize the Lionhearts. We go to war!”
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post #125 of 159 (permalink) Old 12-19-12, 01:31 AM Thread Starter
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Delenn walked to the center of the council chambers, no longer Satai. Stripped of rank but not honor, Delenn wore her ambassadorial uniform like a suit of armor. Striding into the center of the circle with great pride in her heart, she stood in the pale blue light at the center of the circle and spoke, “For twenty cycles I stood beside you as one of the nine. I called many of you friends. And now you call me outcast. You know me. You know I believe in the task that is before us, the great war that is coming. I have not turned my back on you.”

Delenn turned from grey robed hood to grey robed hood, trying to catch a stray eye or a hint of emotion. There was none to be found, “ I'm trying to help. I have sacrificed all that I had, all that I am. We can no longer allow ourselves to be separated by names and borders. Our two sides must unite or be destroyed. Do not make my sacrifice a vain one.”

The Minbari Ambassador closed her eyes in silent prayer that they'd listen, “Allow me to finish what I have started. In the name of our friendship and the future of our people let me remain on Babylon 5.”

“I'm more than happy to have you returned to remain with the humans,” replied a snide and hateful voice.

“You are the one who was chosen to replace me?” Delenn turned to face the robed man, “I do not know you.”

“I believe you do,” The man pulled back his cowl, revealing an altogether too familiar face.

“Neroon?” Delenn asked, flabbergasted at the choice. She turned to the council, pleading with them. “I do not understand! He is warrior caste from the Star Rider's clan.”

She looked from face to face as each hood turned from her, shying away from her in guilt. None dared meet her eye, “What are you doing? When Valen called the nine together he chose three from the worker caste, three from the religious caste, and three from the warrior caste. My replacement should have been from the religious caste.”

Delenn realized she was shouting and did not care, “Four from the warrior caste gives them unprecedented power.”

“And why not?” Neroon rejoined, his face bathed shadow and hatred, “It was the warrior caste who died in the war against the Earthers. Warrior caste who have defended our worlds for centuries while the council floated among the stars. Isolated from it's own people.”

“This is wrong,” Delenn's voice cracked with fury.

“Is it,” Neroon replied with terrifying calm, “You say prophecy tells us a great war is coming. Should not the warrior caste lead against it.”

“The Warrior caste cannot be allowed to set policy.” Such a road led to war and destruction. History had proven that well enough.

“Have you done any better,” Neroon eyed Delenn with dismissive disgust, “When I was inducted into this circle I was finally told the reason we were ordered to surrender. I didn't know whither to laugh or weep,” he shook with visible anger, “If we had been told the truth then we never would have surrendered.”

“You do not understand,” Delenn pleaded with Neroon to listen, to see the wisdom of her words.

“I see perfectly,” He dismissed her entirely, “That you stand before me as a creature I do not recognize. One put in two worlds, you are an affront to the purity of our race. And your assertion that you are fulfilling prophecy is presumption of the highest order.”

He rose his fingers in admission as his words rung in her ears, echoing the hateful words of Ambassador Hilder from so long ago, “And yet it is true that you are now the perfect liaison between us and the Earthers. You have no home with either of us. So please, act out your fantasy. Be our go-between. Return to what little of babylon five remains, and stay there.”

The room went to darkness, leaving Delenn alone in the pale blue light. She stood there alone as the council members walked away from her back to their quarters. Neroon will have moved into her quarters by then, boxing what belongings were hers and sending them to Lenneir. Her lip curled at the thought of that bull-headed cretin in her quarters. It wasn't an especially wise thought, but it was an honest one.

She nursed thoughts of unpleasant things that Neroon deserved before reason returned and she let go of her hatred. Neroon was not to blame for her situation, she was. She knew that ignoring the council would have consequences, but she had chosen to do it anyway. This was her choice, her path. She would walk it.

She walked from the Chamber of the Grey, walking the familiar path down to a garden in one of the public areas, her set meeting place for Lenneir. It was a tiny little bit of green space, barely eight feet by ten feet wide, but Valen had insisted that there be a bit of green space around for troubled minds to find peace. She sat on a narrow bit of flat stone and stared at an ancient tree. Its meticulously clipped and shaped branches curved into a beautiful sculpture of a bird in flight, winking and mischievously perking its beak.

A firm hand rested on her shoulder as a calm voice spoke in pleasant tones, “Hello old friend. We have a great deal to do.”
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post #126 of 159 (permalink) Old 12-19-12, 01:32 AM Thread Starter
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The galactic rim was a place full of wonder and mystery beyond man's comprehension. Even the most minor of discoveries beyond the rim were of such cosmic importance that the commander of an Explorer ship lived in perpetual intrigue. Each jump led to a new place never before viewed by human eyes, virgin territory for scientific exploration or economic exploitation. Explorer ships were tasked with the duty of discovering new space and building new jump gates, spending years or even decades at the edge of the unknown.

Captain Jack Maynard took command of the EAS Cortez in 2254 and, god willing, would captain it untill the day he died. Like its namesake, the Cortez was destined to break new ground and conquer the unknown. Admittedly the unknown's Jack favored were scientific rather than sapient. It was just as well, explorer ships were heavy on mass but notably lacking in weapons. If their mission required heavier armaments than a handful of Starfuries, they were in for a nasty surprise.

Not that their Starfuries were anything but the best of the best, Zeta Squadron had originally been intended as a gift to Babylon 5. In light of the rather startling redirect from repairing the Euphrates Sector Jump Gates to the edge of Drazi space they had understandably been transferred to his command. It had taken some effort to get Ray Gallus and his men into suitable accommodations. They had, after all, only been planning on just transporting them to Babylon Five. However with a little gumption and a bit of creative re-arranging of the current cargo situation they'd managed to get everyone living in reasonable comfort.

As per the President's orders the EAS Cortez was scouring the sector where the Imperials had first shown up for signs of their place of origin. It was no mean feat considering that the Imperials were reportedly equally ignorant of local stellar geography, but a thrilling one for Jack, “I cannot possibly imagine what their home planet looks like. Can you?”

Commander Steven Jonas, a slight man with a distinct overbite and a pronounced lisp, looked up from the chess board balanced on the small mess hall table. His hand, paused in movement above a white rook, did not so much as shake as he considered his options, “The Imperials you mean?”

“Who else?” Jack chuckled in a deep baritone, “Every time we jump we're getting closer to them, I can taste it.”

“I suspect it looks a great deal like their paintings of it. You've seen the history they gave us,” The Commander smiled and moved his bishop, taking Jack's knight before tapping the clock, “Massive cities, lots of people in robes, and a whole mess of skulls.”

“We know what the idealized image of how they want to represent themselves looks Steve. They're all religiously idealized images of their society. Praying to the great gods and paragons to save them from evil,” Jack convivially jibed as he pushed his pawn forward in an effort to force the bishop to retreat, “But that isn't how their whole society looks like any more than a painting from the wall of a church shows all of the human colonies.”

“You notice how all of their saints are carrying guns?” Commander Jonas moved his knight behind Jack's pawn, taking a bishop and forcing him to block with his queen, “Including their emperor? I would have paid way more attention in confirmation class if Jesus had been packing a PPG.”

“Even the Catholic church tends to show angels with swords and spears. I think they just happen to have a religion founded more recently than the bronze age. If they'd crucified Jesus in the Cold War we'd be painting Angels in green fatigues with M-14s,” Jack moved out of check and took a rook that strayed too close to his king, “I'm just looking forward to making first contact with their planet.”

“Sir we've jumped a hundred times so far without doing more than a passive scan of the sector. The techs aren't loving that. You know they consider a trip a failure without having at least spent a day collecting samples,” With a little flourish Commander Jonas took Jack's pawn off the table, moving his queen into position with a satisfied flourish, “They're going a bit stir crazy.”

“I understand their frustrations,” Jack sighed and moved his king, knowing full well the next move would be checkmate, “But orders are orders. Clark wants the Empire found as soon as possible, proper cartography be damned. We're lucky he hasn't got all the Explorer ships out here doing the same thing.”

“It's just that we need to have them doing something other than just sitting around on their hands. I've been talking with some of the pilots and they want to organize a basketball tournament,” Jonas moved his knight again, checkmating Jack's king with great satisfaction.

“Basketball?” Jack repeated.

“Yes sir, it's a sport that none of the men onboard are spectacularly skilled at and it doesn't require any specialized gear other than the ball,” The commander pointed above his head in the general direction of the cargo bay, “And we have about a hundred of them that were destined for Babylon Five that are just eating a hole in our cargo bay at the moment.”

“Alright Steven, if you can get the players it sounds fine to me,” Jack started to speak when his communications badge chirruped loudly. He tapped it and held it up to his mouth, “Captain Maynard speaking.”

“Captain we need you on the bridge,” the comms officer cheerily replied, “There's a ship on the other side of the planet that just popped out of nowhere. The radiation profile conforms with what we know about the Imperial method of travel. And sir... it's the biggest ship I've ever seen. Just massive. The sensors actually missed it for a couple hours because they were glitching out every time they tried to focus on it.”

“Send them the standard greeting package with an additional message of greeting in high gothic on microwave transmission,” Jack stood up from the table and started walking towards the main corridor of the ship, “I'll be there in five.”

He deactivated his link and held out his hand. Steven looked at it in annoyance, “We don't know it's them yet.”

“Shut up and pay up Steven,” Jack smiled, “I won.”

His second in command reluctantly shoved five credits into Jack's hand as the two of them sprinted in the direction of the Command deck. The Explorer ship was massive, as large as an O'Neill class station. There was a good quarter mile of ship between them and the command deck not to mention two flights of stairs.

“The next one of these gets an elevator,” huffed Steven as they rounded a corner and started ascending the ladder to deck 12, “And a transport tube.”

“Take it up with the Senate,” wheezed Jack, “I'm totally in favor of it.”

Steven opened his mouth to give a sarcastic reply but fell flat on his face as the floor beneath him shoot with a sudden burst of kinetic impact. He yelped in pain as his knees met deck plates, “Jesus!”

Grabbing onto the ship's cargo webbing for support Jack screamed into his link, “What the hell was that?”

“Sir,” replied the horrified voice of the comms officer, “They just fired on us after ordering us to surrender. Those were torpedo impacts.”

“Damage report!” The commander rubbed the blood from his nose as he spoke into his own link, reaching over to the wall and breaking the glass on the emergency condition alarm hanging from the wall. The hall lights switched from white to red, blaring klaxons warning the crew to get to safety.

“Sir none of the torpedoes have exploded, they bored into the side of the ship then stopped. No major damage to the ship,” the floor bucked again, struts shaking from the force of another impact, “Belay that. Our engines are down, I repeat our engines and docking bay are down. We've taken a direct hit from a laser battery of some sort. Critical damage across the board.”

“Why would they fire munitions that don't explode when they already have effective weapons?” Jack chewed his lip, “There's no reason for that – unless,” Jack swore, “Ensign. I need you to run a life signs detector on those torpedoes.”

“Sir why would I?” She paused again before replying, “Yes sir, twenty confirmed life-signs.”

“Just what I need,” Jack double-tapped his communications chip, “This is a general order to all crew-members of the Cortez. Prepare to repel boarders.”

The crew rushed into action, scientists and non-combat personnel heading for the bridge as GROPOS in hastily fastened combat armor marched in the direction of the boarders. Having gone so long without actually being in combat some of them were running down the hallways half-naked and carrying plasma rifles. A private he vaguely recognized as being named Daniels ran into combat wearing nothing more than his flak armor and a pink set of boxer shorts.

“We need to get to the weapons lockers sir,” Steven pulled out his side arm as he listened to the distant sound of booming gunfire echoing through the halls in a cacophony of human suffering, “Make sure that they don't fall into enemy hands.”

“Of course,” Jack said before correcting himself, “No, we need to get to the secondary bridge and get it into lockdown. Those munitions won't help us if they can shut down life support.”

“You think they know about that sir?” Commander Jonas asked, motioning for three GROPOS in full combat armor to follow them.

“They took our our engines and flight deck faster than it took us to even realize we were in the same system. We have to assume they have scans of our ship,” Jack slid back down the ladder, landing on his feet with a loud thump of combat boots on steel. This was not how first contact with the Empire was supposed to go.

They dropped three decks before they got their first sight of the boarders. They saw only the merest glimpse of retreating white pauldron bearing a black cross through the smoke, but it was enough to scare Jack senseless. Five men lay butchered in the hall, gored to death. One man, just barely on the edge of life, still twitched where he'd been pinned to the wall with a blade as long as Jack's leg set to a pommel thicker than a soda can. As the man coughed his death rattle he spat up thick globules of blood onto finger marks the size of cucumbers where a massive hand had ripped a pressure door from its hinges.

A flicker of movement caught Jack's eye and he fell to the ground, narrowly avoiding a gout of flame. “Jesus Christ!” Jack swore, crossing himself in horror before gritting his teeth and picking up a discarded phased-plasma rifle from the recent dead, “Don't just stand there! Kill the mother-fragger!”

Shrugging off the discharges of phased-plasma the massive black armored figure activated the trigger on the sword in his left hand, activating the saw tooth blades as he swung at the gut of the nearest GROPO, bursting him like a ripe melon. In a frenzy of black armor and swirling robes he spun around and roasted a second GROPO with his flamethrower, discarding it as it's fuel ran out, “Für deus rex imperator! Für Terra!”

The third GROPO planted in armored figures optics and fired, bursting the electronics and turning the grim mask into molted slag. With a scream of pain the man tore the helmet from his head and smashed it into the face of the remaining GROPO, crushing it.

Stephen lashed out with his combat knife, aiming for the joints of the man's armor but fell to the ground with a pained yelp as the man karate chopped him across the leg. It broke with thunderous a wet pop, dropping to the ground in pain.

Jack dropped his gun in apparent surrender, holding his hands behind his head. The armored man approached Jack, grabbing him by the front of his shirt and examining his rank pins in apparent satisfaction before holstering his sword. Apparently the Captain was important enough not to just murder him. He spoke in thunderous basso, “Du es tu Gefangener.”

Jack looked at the dead men piled around him and pulled the plasma grenade from where he'd concealed it behind his head and smashed it into the open mouth of the armored man, “Frag you!”

The astonished man's head exploded into a bloody mess along with Jack's arm as the grenade burst with enough force to crack a bulkhead. Jack screamed in pain as he landed in a heap on the ground, clutching his bloody stump of an arm. As he scrambled to stem the flow of blood from his body he looked up and into the face of the grim reaper himself.

An armored figure, even more massive than the first, waded in through the corpses, the intricate patterns of his baroque design patterned after the skull and bones of a human being. He knelt over the headless corpse of his compatriot, saying words of prayer as he pressed down on the other man's breastplate. The Reaper examined the wounds before turning his glowing red eyes upon Jack.

Skeletal fingers grabbed hold of him and lifted him to eye level as the Reaper pulled a flamethrower pistol from his holster and held it up to Jack's stump. The Reaper fired, cauterizing the wound and tossing him back to the floor before speaking in heavily accented Interlac, “You do not die so easy. The Emperor has a use for you.”


A/N : There are no doubt errors in this. Please feel free to point them out to me. As always reviews are welcome. A special thanks to Nuts! on Spacebattles.com for working as my beta reader.
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post #127 of 159 (permalink) Old 01-16-13, 11:51 AM Thread Starter
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Kerrigan was as happy as a child in a sweet shop. The ever-increasing pile of machinery in her workshop had only become more wondrous to her as the science of their construction was made manifest. She pored over the technical manuals with voracious fascination, curious at the simultaneous brilliance and ignorance of the Earth Alliance.

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

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

It was not without its own charm.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Orr, leave.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-=-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Then what was your plan?” she crooned.

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

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

“Ordered by whom precisely?” probed Bester.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For family and duty she stuck to what mattered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Before seeing the Circle madam?” Maziv grunted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes mam,” replied the Lionheart dutifully, “If you say so ma’am.”
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Geneva is beautiful in spring. John had been to the capital city of Earth before, but never during spring. In spite of their newfound importance where the Earth government had been founded, the Swiss staunchly refused to allow any developments that might ruin the aesthetic beauty of their countryside. Barring, of course, the sizable space ports in Zurich and Geneva.

It was odd really, as Jon wasn't unaccustomed to either travel. As the son of a diplomat he'd grown up being carted around from place to place, always finding himself in foreign worlds. Yet for whatever reason, Geneva just hadn't really figured into his travel plans. When he'd finally been old enough to pay for his own vacations, it had felt simpler to head back home and visit family.

Oh hell, he'd forgotten to call his mother when he landed. He'd sent her an interlink message, of course, but she wouldn't stop being anxious till she spoke face to face on the comms. John couldn't wish for a better mother, but the woman was the queen of worriers.

He looked to his lawyer as she examined her legal briefings for what had to be the millionth time, asking “Is there a telephone in this car?”

“This is a government issue limousine, Captain, and no location devices of any kind are in use.” She held up a handheld telephone and tapped the top left corner, where a prominent red “ø” flashed, “And they prevent any signals from leaving it as well. Its a new procedure they've put in place to prevent the remote detonation of bombs. The new Earth Force One has something similar.”

“Will I be able to make a call before my hearing?” John really ought to call her.

“Captain we're lucky they didn't do the hearing in absentia,” Miss Corey joked darkly, surreptitiously eyeing his uniform as though searching for the slightest flaw that might harm her case. Finding none, she pulled a small box from her handbag and tossed it to John.

He caught it and pulled a long yellow band of fabric out, “What's this?”

“I want you to wrap that around your left arm,” She pointed to a series of symbols stitched on the cloth, “It's a 'remembrance band.' Some pop celebrity from Argentina came up with it. Those are the words for 'Hope' and 'Peace' written in Spanish, Drazi, Minbari, Centauri and Narn. Some of them also include it written in languages of the Non-Aligned worlds.”

“And the double headed eagle is for the Imperials, then?” John queried, running the fabric through his fingers and examining the symbols. The Minbari rune was actually slightly misspelled by whoever had done the sewing, saying 'hope and luck' instead.

“It’s become a hot button political issue. You have to wear the sash to show that you're supporting the families of the people who died on the station,” The stern woman intoned in a voice of deadly seriousness. “If you don't wear it, people will take it as a sign that you don't take their losses seriously.”

“I was there. I don't need to have a piece of cloth to remind me of something that happened directly to me.” John sighed even as he tied it around his bicep.

“I know that. You know that. Heck, even the people who are trying to nail you for this know that. But the talking heads and media circuses that will be following this trial don't care about what makes sense. It’s easier to go after you for not wearing the armband than it is to go after your military record. Hell, it’s even better for being fake outrage, because they can spend as much time talking about why it's not an issue worth speaking about as they spend talking about the issue,” She shrugged, “You can waste a bunch of time and energy on trying to fix the entire media structure, or you can wear the armband. Your choice.”

“Yeah, right,” John sighed as they pulled up to the capitol building. A sea of reporters, cameramen, and boom-microphone operators stood at the door in a veritable feeding frenzy. “Any last advice?”

“Yes,” The woman replied as she lifted herself up and climbed from the limousine, “If you end up shooting one of them, aim for Alistair Brant. I cannot stand that man's voice.”

The second he walked out of the limousine he was deluged with so many questions that it became hard to pick them out individually. An incoherent series of “Captain how...” “...what do you...” “...how did they...” and “What will be done about...” washed over him as he politely pushed his way through, repeating the same phrase over and over again, “No comment, no comment, I have no comment.”

Resisting the urge to rip an overzealous boom-microphone from its bearer's hands and beat him about the head with it, John followed the be-pantsuited lawyer on her trail up the stairs and into the capitol building. The sea of reporters washed up to the red velvet rope marking off the limit to which a civilian might walk, as even the most single-minded of them was unwilling to try the patience of the stern faced marines lining the perimeter.

John noticed idly that all of the marines were wearing the yellow bands out of their pockets rather than on their arms so as not to violate the strict uniform expectations of their superior officer. Perhaps Miss Corey had been right about the band.

The ostentatious interior of Earthdome was abuzz with interns and Senators discussing matters of state in hushed tones. Judging by their silence when he was within earshot, they were likely discussing him. John tried not to pay it too much attention, as it was bound to happen really. It didn't matter if one was in middle school or the highest offices of government; gossip was a universal currency.

Miss Corey checked her watch and looked at the flashing red light above the Senate door to indicate that they were locked, “I didn't know that there was going to be a Senate vote this morning. They usually vote on Thursdays, don't they?”

“Not exclusively,” John caught the eye of Senator Gomez, “But let's find out. Senator Gomez! It's been a while.”

“¿Qué tal, Capitan Sherídan?” The boisterous Spaniard replied, politely breaking away from his conversation with a lobbyist, “How are you?”

“I could be better, Senator. The sooner this ends the better,” John admitted. “I've never especially liked this sort of inquiry, even when I'm not the one being questioned.”

“Eh, these things they're never- cómo se dice- civilized. Sure we sit around speaking pretty but a knife in the back is still a knife in the back,” The senator said with his usual candor, “Most of them will pretend, but I've got another three years before reelection, so I can afford a little bit of honesty at the moment.”

“Why aren't you inside, Senator?” Miss Corey looked around at the collection of Senators that weren't within the room, “Shouldn't all the senators be voting in a closed vote?”

“For some things? Yes, of course. But some committees meet behind closed doors before bringing their findings to the general assembly. Defense, for example,” the Spaniard tossed his hands to the air in an exaggerated gesture of confusion, “We do not communicate so well between the committees, I think.”

“Which committee is meeting now?” John asked conversationally. Senator Gomez was on both the Defense Committee and the Babylon 5 Oversight Committee; any relevant vote to his own inquiry would be going through them.

“The Foreign Affairs Committee,” the Senator replied, “The Abbai have sent a delegation to Earth with some sort of a proposal for greater cooperation. No idea what it is, but Clark was eager to see that it happened.”

“Clark?” Miss Corey repeated in incredulity, “President Clark was eager to pass a proposal suggested by aliens for greater cooperation?”

“It was a good deal,” Senator replied as he looked to the suddenly green light, “You'll have to excuse me. I need to go to my seat. Good luck, Captain. For what it's worth, I'm on your side.”

“Thank you Senator,” John smiled in reply, “It means a great deal.”

“Well that's one down,” John's lawyer crossed her arms and chewed her inner lip, “That leaves only a couple hundred to go.”

“Eh,” John replied noncommittally. Nothing more really needed to be said as they walked with the general mass of people through the ornately carved doors of the Senate. The huge tiered room was structured like an amphitheater, clustered tables and wooden cubicles on each level representing the regions of the Earth Sphere government.

The Abbai delegation bowed to him politely as they passed, pausing to exchange polite greetings. The Ambassador actually flashed him a wave of her head fins, an Abbai gesture of approbation, “Captain Sheridan. It is good to see you.”

“Ambassador,” John smiled and interlocked his fingers in front of him in the Abbai gesture of welcome, “I thought you'd gone back to your home world for the Festival of Lights.”

“Lamentably, I will miss it this year. I regret it, but this was more important.” She licked the sharp inner rows of teeth with her elongated tongue. Peaceful though the Abbai were, certain predatory aspects of their former life as aquatic predators could not be overlooked. “It is lamentable, but necessary.”

“Ambassador, exactly what are you proposing that is this important?” John asked in genuine curiosity.

“Captain, my people have exactly one advantage over every other ship galaxy - shields. The Brakiri have some shielding, but when it comes to ship-to-ship combat, nobody comes close to us. It has been an advantage that has allowed us to hold our own even in the worst of times against the Dilgar,” She sighed morosely, “But now with the Imperials, it becomes transparently obvious that this advantage can not be exclusively relied upon. The landscape of warfare has changed entirely Captain. My people must adapt or soon find themselves outstripped.”

“You're here to trade for weapons?” It wasn't implausible. The Earth Alliance's offensive weapons technology was highly effective.

“We're willing to trade shielding technology in exchange for weapons, yes. And assuming it passes the general assembly, we will,” The Abbai ambassador's fin twitched, “I do not like to negotiate for weapons, but I trust Earth more than I trust Narn or Centauri Prime.”

“Understandable,” John replied, smiling at the thought of shielded Earthforce warships, “Good luck Ambassador.”

“And to you, Captain,” The Ambassador replied, leading her delegation past him and out the door, “The best of luck to you.”

John smiled back, knowing full well that the woman might have just sealed the coffin on his court-martial. Miss Corey muttered a series of four letter profanities before hissing, “You have got to be kidding me? Now? She does this now?”

“I actually approached her about something like this to her when the Imperials destroyed the Trigati.” John sighed, “Though I doubt it was presented as my idea when it came up in the Marti of Abbai. It seems like the battle with the Vorlons changed their minds.”

“It looks like we're going to do this one on charm alone then. God help you.” Miss Corey tore two pages of notes out of her legal brief and stuffed them into a pocket as they walked up to the long wooden table that sat in front of the raised podiums behind which sat the senior members of the military oversight commission, “We can't offer them the Imperial shielding technology without it being interpreted as a tacit preference for them over the Abbai. And we do not want you to appear any more aligned with them than you already appear to be.”

“Of course,” John was beginning to suspect that the universe was conspiring against him for some reason as he took his seat. The ten men upon the military oversight committee observed him with grim expressions, none of them betraying their feelings towards him. Even Senator Hidoshi, a man who was genuinely in his camp, wore an expression of disapproval.

“It's an act,” the lawyer whispered into his ear, “The ones that like you have to look just as angry as the ones that don't for the cameras. This session is being broadcast live.”

“This is a military hearing,” John hissed back, “Why are they risking the display of sensitive information?”

“Because it's a public enough tragedy that everyone thinks they have a right to hear every question being asked, and they're hoping that you will reveal something so that they can end your career for dishonorable conduct,” She whispered back, “It's not playing fair, but it's entirely legal.”

“A lot of things seem to be going that way lately,” John replied in resignation.

The Vice President looked around the room as everyone found their seats and rapped his gavel upon the podium twice once he was sure the senators were present and accounted for. “Ladies and gentleman of the Earth Alliance Senate, I call the 522nd session of the Spring Congress to order. Senator Lechner, please read the order of business.”

Senator Lechner, a red faced man with a bulbous nose, stood up from his seat behind one of the ten podiums and spoke in a sour drone, “Today's business is order G subsection 223.a.5; An Inquiry into events transporting on Babylon 5 on June 15th of 2259.”

“Very well, Senator Lechner,” The Vice President nodded once before turning towards John, “Are you Captain John Sheridan, commander of Babylon 5?”

John leaned towards his microphone and spoke into it directly, craning uncomfortably to reach it, “Yes Mr. Vice President, I am.”

“And do you swear to speak the truth and nothing but the truth so help you God?”

“I do,” John replied.

“Then let us begin,” The Vice President pulled a thick stack of paper out from a manilla envelope, put on a pair of reading glasses and looked over the stack of paper. A Jamaican man of considerable years, the Vice President was never one to be rushed. He paused for a good minute before saying, “Is this the report you submitted on June 18th?”

John opened his mouth to confirm but his lawyer reached over and snatched the microphone, “My client cannot be sure if the report you have is or is not the report he submitted, without reading the entire report in front of you. He can, however, affirm the accuracy of the report he did submit on the 18th.”

“Very well,” The Vice President thumbed through the pages, looking at each in turn, “I have to say, it's a fascinating read. Demons, the dead coming back to life, duels of sorcery with Vorlons and even an exorcism.”

“Demon was the word used by the Inquisitor, not myself.” Though if John were being brutally honest he couldn't think of a more apt word to describe the massive gaping maws and impossible geometries of the creature. The thing had just been unnatural.

“But you do insist that the dead did in fact come back to life,” Queried a Chinese senator with a pronounced mandarin slur in her “r” and “n” sounds. Her tone of amused dismissal was contemptuous in its rejection of the idea.

“We do have both corroborating witness statements and Dr. Franklin's death certificates for a dozen sentients who later came back to life and attempted to eat the patients in the Baylon med-bay,” Miss Corey interjected, pulling a thick binder out from her box, “We also have the witness statements of a dozens of Earthforce marines.”

“You cannae mean for us to believe that this is the product of sorcery,” scoffed a Senator with a distinct Scottish brogue.

“I don’t,” John shook his head, “I refer to the dead rising as 'warp sorcery' because those were the words chosen by Inquisitor Daul Hilder. I don't know how it was done, only that it was.”

“Respectfully Senator Joyce, when the dead start rising from their graves with the intention of consuming the flesh of the living, how does one refer to that without making at least casual reference to necromancy?” Senator Lechner joked politely, “If it had happened on my ship when I served in Earthforce doubt I would have resisted referring to it as a sign of the second coming.”

The assembled senators broke into polite bursts of laughter, cutting the tension somewhat. Senator Lechner waited for the laughter to subside before breaking into a question of his own, “When Inquisitor Hilder told you there was a demon on the station, did you take him at his word?”

“Of course not. It sounded insane and he assaulted a woman in the process,” John replied.

“In spite of your decision to protect the Endless Bounty from a Psi-corps investigation. A decision that robbed a number of young men of their lives,” The Chinese woman rejoined. “A curious decision.”

“I was following the charter of my station,” John ignored the jab, “I protected the Imperial ship because that was the legal thing to do, and I arrested the Inquisitor because he'd broken the law.”

“But you now believe that to have been in error?” asked senator Lechner.

“I supported it at the time, but knowing what I know now? Absolutely.” John nodded affirmatively, “In a heartbeat.”

“Because of the demon,” Sneered Senator Joyce.

“Senator, have you seen the video footage of the creature?” Miss Corey snorted, “It's a thirty-foot-tall, endless set of teeth that spat poison, ate sentients, and had an army of the risen dead. If you have a more scientifically palatable name for what the creature manage to do, my client is more than willing to use that.”

“My client is understandably emotional,” Miss Corey continued with a slight flourish of her hand, “But it cannot be overstated the invasion of the entity could not have been predicted. If you will please check section d-32 of the report I forwarded to all of you, it is abundantly clear that all required safety procedures were taken in the handling of the sleeper ship. The Captain went so far as to have an armed patrol search it. All security measures we knew to take were taken.”

The senator grumbled in disapproval, but did not overtly question the matter. The vice president however was not so quiet, “Captain, would you please like to explain why you ordered your ships to open fire upon a sovereign Vorlon vessel?”

“Captain Xinjang had already engaged in a firefight by the time I manage to order fighters to scramble,” Captain Sheridan replied, “I merely reacted to the ongoing situation.”

“And your decision to involve the Minbari attached to the machine on the planet below?” Queried an Arab senator in irritation, “Was that truly necessary?”

Before John could even consider replying to that question his lawyer had already started speaking, “Captain Sheridan could not have foreseen the force with which the Minbari in the machine would apply to the Vorlon fleet. It was entirely plausible that the Minbari would have negotiated a ceasefire, especially since the Minbari-Vorlon relationship has always previously seemed cordial. Too little is known about how that machine works at all.”

“That rather strikes me as a pertinent reason to not agitate the planet-sized death machine, then,” Senator Joyce interjected, pushing his glasses back up his nose, “Your previous reports indicated highly aggressive posturing from the planet the last time it was contacted.”

“When it was controlled by an unknown,” Senator Hidoshi cut in. “Ambassador Delenn assured us that her former mentor was virtually a pacifist. Certainly none of his published works indicated a propensity for such decisive violence.”

“Babylon 5 is not equipped to withstand a Vorlon war fleet unaided. When it comes down to a choice between making the Hail Mary play or letting the quarter of a million people on Babylon 5 die, I chose the latter. What else –,” John's temper was already starting to show more than was probably wise as his lawyer grabbed him by the sleeve and veritably tossed him back into his seat whispering, “Not now!”

“Honorable Senators, this is not reasonable,” She asserted, holding up a picture of the Vorlon Ambassador, “The wanton deaths caused by the Vorlon Kosh Naranek indicated a clear pattern of violence that would have been directed at Babylon 5. The war criminal Naranek remains under house arrest until he can be sent back to Vorlon space.”

John felt that house arrest was a generous term for pointing guns at his door and hoping he didn't come out and murder everything in his path, but pointing that out seemed unlikely to help his current situation. Leaning past Miss Corey he vocalized an irritation that had been nagging at him for a while, “Speaking of which has the Vorlon government replied to our request that he be removed from the station, or have his diplomatic status revoked so that we can try him for murder?”

“Kosh Naranek... has not been recalled by his government,” Senator Hidoshi uttered in a voice of disgust. “They assert that he acted within the limits of 'higher law,' and thus is not accountable for his actions. He will remain their Ambassador.”

“Like hell he will!” John stood up and grabbed the microphone, ignoring his lawyers attempts to snatch it back from him, “This is outrageous!”

“I couldn't agree with you more, Captain,” A firm midwestern twang rang across the senate floor as an aging man in a angularly cut grey suit. William Morgan Clark, president of the Earth Alliance, strode down the steps of the senate, looking as presidential as John had ever seen him, “This entire procedure is outrageous.”

“President Clark,” Senator Müller, a portly german man with an unconvincing wig, sighed in irritation, “Is there a reason you're interrupting this investigation?”

“I'd say that the far more pressing question is why the Earth Alliance Senate is sitting around and accusing a war hero of being derelict in his duty,” The President strode between the desk and the raised podiums, his quarter brogue oxfords clicking across the floor. He continued till he stood in the exact center of the room, on top of the semi-precious stones set into the floor in the shape of the Earth Alliance seal before continuing.

“Captain Sheridan is a man who stood up to the Minbari, the Centauri, the Narn, and even the Vorlons. He has stood defiant and he has won. This man, more than any of us, embodies Earth's fighting spirit and will to continue.”

“Mr. President,” Interjected Senator Joyce in irritation, “I do not appreciate you trying to make this issue of station of oversight into a political matter.”

“Isn't it, though?” The President shook his head, “We're looking for a head to put on the chopping block because someone must be responsible, and it's natural to look for the man who is seated highest. He has the farthest to fall, after all, and the only thing people love more than a hero is to watch him fall. Well, I don't know about you all, but I'm damn tired of us tossing away our heroes.”

There was an affirmative set of murmurs from the collected Senators, matched by an irritated hiss from Clark's political opposition. John's blood ran cold as it became abundantly clear that the President had aligned himself with the Captain. He had to resist jumping in shock when the president walked up next to him and slapped him jovially on the shoulder, “Well I believe in heroes. And Captain Sheridan is as heroic as they come. I don't know about the rest of you but I have read the station logs from that day. If the Captain will indulge me, I would like to speak in his defense briefly.”

“Yes,” John spoke, though it felt like another person was actually saying the words as he saluted the commander and chief, “Of course, Mr. President.”

“This is taken from a letter written by the head of the dock worker’s guild, a miss Neeoma Connally. She mailed it to me after she found out that the Captain was possibly going to face court martial,” He clucked as he pulled his glasses and the letter from a jacket pocket, “I'll skip past the paragraph where she uses some rather unpleasant words to describe the person who came to the decision to remove Captain Sheridan from Command. And I quote 'The fact that any of us managed to live through the horrors of June is thanks to John Sheridan. The Captain faced down an army of the undead, staying behind in the market district to make time for the rest of us to hide. I don't know what went wrong but if anyone wants to say it's John Sheridan they're going to have to go through the dock workers first.”

He held up the letter and waved the twelve pages to demonstrate his point, “There are eight hundred signatures on this letter. The surviving dock workers, not a one of them even begins to blame John Sheridan for this. Four thousand surviving crew and administration, and none of them blame John Sheridan for this.”

“And what of Commander Susan Ivanova's defection to the Empire? What of her secret telepathy?” senator Joyce interjected, “Are we to believe that he was wholly ignorant of this?”

“Susan's what!” John squawked, completely forgetting decorum, “How! Why? When?”

“The former commander Ivanova fooled everyone she knew for twenty nine years,” Senator Lechner shook his head, “The Captain cannot be realistically expected to outwit a woman who can read his mind. That's the entire purpose of the Psi-corps, to avoid that sort of abuse of power.

“Sorry, I want to go back to Susan Ivanova being in the Imperium. How the hell do you know that and why wasn't I informed?” John only realized he was shouting half way through talking. Christ, who was Garibaldi on his way to save? Had there ever even been a woman on the ship with Bester?

The Captain's heart stopped a beat. The Guards whose minds had been altered were also men he'd assigned to guarding the Inquisitor. Bester might have been a skilled enough telepath to alter men's minds but Daul Hilder was skilled enough to warp reality, “No... no she couldn't have... It isn't... how?”

“This farce has gone on long enough,” sighed the President. “I am abolishing this inquiry under article three of the Zelenka Act. Any actions taken by Captain Sheridan in the defense of his station were taken under wartime conditions and thus are not subject to peacetime expectations.”

“This is outrageous,” barked the irritated Chinese Senator. “It is an outright abuse of power! The Zelenka Act can only be invoked when war has been declared by a foreign power. I challenge this action!”

“You're welcome to try and overrule me in the general assembly,” replied the President as he shouted out to the crowd, “Is there a second?”

“I second,” replied the Senator Joyce, red-faced with anger.

“Very well then,” The Vice President, apparently the only person in the room who'd been expecting this turn of events, chuckled in amusement, “We shall put it to a vote, then.”

“All in favor of upholding the President's invocation of the Zelenka Act,” Green lights flashed from the Senators’ cubicles as they pressed the affirmative votes on their vid screens. John looked around the room trying to get a sense for how many had voted in his favor, but could not be sure.

“And all those opposed?” Another round of lights flashed, this time red, as Clark's opposition weighed in. Perhaps it was wishful thinking, but there seemed to be fewer nay votes.

The Vice President waited a minute to be sure that all the votes had been tabulated by the computer before smiling slightly. He fell slightly into his native patois as he said, “Well den' twoud' seem 'dat you've managed another one, Clark. The Act is upheld by fifty two votes.”

“Justice prevails, as it should,” replied Clark as he walked over to John Sheridan and held out his hand. The President smiled and said, “It would be my honor if you'd allow me to give you a ride back to Babylon 5 on Earthforce One.”

John stared at the hand of the man he knew to have killed the previous president, the man he was secretly working to overthrow. President Clark was man who he trusted less than a snake in the grass. Shaking the man's hand would be a show of televised support for a man who'd knowingly committed regicide. It would, for better or worse, link him publicly to the Clark administration.

John shook the viper's hand, knowing full well he would one day be the President's undoing. “Thank you, Mr. President.”

He would get to continue running Babylon 5. A key portion of the Earth Alliance government would remain outside of Clark's control, no matter the public perception. And the reality of what he was doing far outstripped the importance of any temporary political embarrassment.

An injury well earned was better than none, so long as it won you the war.

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post #129 of 159 (permalink) Old 01-16-13, 11:54 AM Thread Starter
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Sáclair didn't know what to make of hyperspace. He understood the warp, how it felt against the ship’s hull, the dangerous creatures perpetually clawing at its wards. It was familiar territory to him. But on the urging of his Navigators he'd permitted the Centauri and Narn ships to lead the Endless Bounty through the forgotten paths of hyperspace, so that performance tests could be conducted under controlled conditions.

The potential boon of avoiding the warp was too tempting to ignore. Yet had he realized the vast emptiness of the endless red sea, he might have reconsidered. It was maddeningly empty. No life, no sound, no light, no dangers, it was just an endless sea of shifting color and black. If the warp was hell, hyperspace was most certainly purgatory. According to the Narn Ambassador, if one were to become cast adrift they would spend eternity without ever encountering another living soul.

A ship lost in hyperspace was lost forever, never to return.

In a very real way, it was more nightmarish than the warp. He'd removed his mind from the ship an hour into the maddening silence, the absence of sensation made him too dizzy to function. One could not spend eternity stumbling through darkness like a man plummeting through empty air. If not for the braille-like abrasions of astropathic signals from hyperspace gates, he might have believed there was no exit from the void.

The sockets in his arms itched painfully, begging for the sensation of swimming through space that he'd ignored for weeks. But there was no reprieve in the silver filament, nor was there release to be found in drink. The bastard of an Inquisitor had, in his infinite wisdom, decided that there would be no drinking for anyone prior to battle. Aided and abetted by an standing order to the serving staff left by his wife, he'd not touched a drop of anything stronger than recaf in three days.

It was insufferable. Deprived of wife, concubines, children, his ship, and even a stiff drink; how in the blazes did they expect a man to live like that? His only companion at home was David, his bastard. And David spend the majority of his time pining after a girl far above his station.

“Sir,” Donat approached the great throne, data-slate in hand, “The Jan'kir reports that we are ten minutes from our destination.”

“Finally,” Sálcair exhaled in relief, cracking fingers between interlocking palms as he stretched out his arms, “What do the forward scouts report?”

“Nothing good sir,” Donat tapped his hololith with his quill, prompting the massive hololithic display in the hall to switch to a map of the Akdor. A disjointed connection of friend and foe markers darted about the orbiting moons, advancing and retreating from the planet's southern continent, “As you can see, the Alliance military has already launched an offensive on the rebel fortress... Matok I believe. The ships marked in green are of Earth Alliance and Sh'Lassen make, and the yellow dots are rebel ships.”

He twisted his stylus and zoomed in on an section of space that distorted slightly from second to second, occasional burst of energy firing from seemingly nowhere, “These are what we believe to be the ships sent by Faust. It fits the sort of sensor interference we encountered from the ship above Belzafest. Thankfully, it’s seemingly less efficient.”

“They're Throne well efficient enough,” Sáclair swore, “Get the Astropaths to work on some sort of solution to this. We can't keep using our own pilots for targets when we need to shoot someone.”

“I don't think we'll need to; there is enough of a sensor ghost for us to triangulate a rough approximation of where the shots are coming from,” Donat chewed his lip, his expressionless face contrasting with the slight worry in his voice, “My worry is that we aren't going to be able to do it unless we get someone firing at us.”

“Donat, we're a good half kilometer longer than the next closest ship and we're flying under the banner of the double eagle. Of all the things I fear, 'not enough people are shooting at us' doesn't even make my top twenty,” Sáclair inserted the silver filament from his throne into his arm, gagging at the cloying nothingness, “Throne ,that is sodding frigid! How the devil do the xenos travel through this?”

“The Navigators share your sentiments. They've been rotating in and out of their trances at twenty minute intervals for fear they might lose their minds in the vast emptiness,” Donat growled in hatred, “My understanding is that the xenos... the xenos use... they use thinking machines to achieve the same effect.”

Sáclair wished he could have some wine to settle his stomach at the thought of that many thinking machines. The fall of the first great and bountiful human society came at the hands of the Men of Iron, nearly bringing about their destruction. The Emperor had, in his boundless wisdom, decreed that no thinking machines should be allowed in his Imperium. To be so wholly reliant upon such technological devilry was unthinkable, “We're certain that the thinking machines aren't taking us to an ambush?”

“As sure as we may be,” Donat absently scratched at the back of his head with his finger, “Heresy though it may be do admit it sir... I don't suspect the xenos of betrayal.”

“Nor do I, Mr. Enzo, which is part of what troubles me.” Sáclair's fingers traced over the firing controls of his weapons ports, realizing idly that he hadn't even considered passively targeting them, “But we are under the writ of Inquisitorial mandate of Hilder ,and will act as such. If he's determined to toss himself headlong into a warzone, who am I to disagree?”

“Of course, milord,” Donat manipulated the map again, focusing upon the hyperspace gate, “Post-hyperspace combat is highly limiting due to the bottleneck inherently derivative of gate use. The enemy knows exactly where we're going to come from.”

“But the shields will be up before we leave correct?” Sáclair grinned in anticipation, watching the chronometer count down to zero, “And our assault forces are all prepared to head to the front lines?”

“Yes sir,” Donat nodded, “But I need to remind you that we're at half stock of ammunition and have precious few cyclonic torpedoes left. We have the lances, but they are hamstrung due to the targeting errors caused by Faust's ECM.”

“We'll make due with what we have,” Sáclair said, virtually seething with anticipation. So close, his reprieve from the emptiness was just out of reach.He thumbed the shipwide intercom and barked out, “All hands to battle-stations.”

The lights dimmed and his crew scurried about the hall below, moving to their battle stations. The atmosphere was tense, but curiously expectant. Having been so regularly bloodied in since the assault of Belzafest, their hearts were hardened to the danger. They knew what the Lord Sáclair expected from them, and would do so without question.

A pregnant minute of utter silence passed before the hiccuping chirrup of an incoming transmission echoed through the hall. A young officer's appeared on the hololith to address his captain, “My Lord Sáclair. We've received a hail from the G'Noa's Fury. They say it's time.”

“Then we shan't disappoint them, shall we?” Sáclair leaned back in his throne. “I say it's high time we repaid Faust for Belzafest. To Victory!”

“To Victory!” Echoed every voice on the hall, chanting again and again, “For the Emperor! To Victory!”

Sáclair closed his eyes and sunk into the nothingness. The titanic form of the Endless Bounty swam in open air, followed by a school of smaller crescent and angular xenos craft. Straight ahead of them was a puncture in the nothing, a brief window into sensation and existence. Two large Earth Alliance ships, though smaller still than the Endless Bounty, sat on either side of the puncture, wedging it open.

The nimble Narn and Centauri fighter craft exited the puncture first, the rest of the fleet following soon after into the light and warmth of realspace. Sáclair squirmed in pleasure even as the irritating pinpricks of weapons registered across the void-shields.

The battlefield was bedlam; the still-smoldering hulls of a thousand Sh'lassen ships littered the outer belts of asteroids, confusing sensors with ghosts of weapons-fire as the unused munitions in their magazines detonated. He could vaguely sense weapons-fire in the distance, his limited mind registering the ongoing dogfighting as the sharp sound of a cracking whip.

“Finally,” Sáclair growled in eagerness, “Engines to full! We need to get to the drop point.”

“Incoming fighters!” Sacomér barked in earnest surprise as dozen blurry shapes rocketed towards the fleet, appearing from the radiation. They swarmed a Centauri warship, pelting it with laser fire before swooping away as it exploded in a spectacular ball of radioactive flame.
A second Centauri warship broke formation to chase the fighter craft only to get crippled by a second fighter wing. It spun helplessly in the air as the escort fighters scrambled to protect it from bombardment.

“I've had enough of this,” Sáclair hissed in irritation, “Launch all fighters. Weapons-free. Let's bring the fight to them. And Mr. Andrews! Give them a taste of their own medicine.”

The forward gun batteries belched atomic death into the asteroid belt, firing irregular staccato bursts of fury into the sensor ghosts. The ghosts fled, dropping low to avoid his assault, straight into the closing jaws of the Narn fighter wings.

It was over in seconds. However, the destruction of the enemy fighter wings was only a brief respite for their assault force. Larger shapes were approaching, cruisers less able to conceal themselves from the sensors of the Endless Bounty.

“Sir, the enemy ships will reach firing distance within two minutes,” Donat manipulated his quill across his data slate, “It seems that the Earth Alliance weren't able to distract all enemies from the jump-gate.”

“Best not to be here when they come then,” Sáclair whooped in amusement, “Drop our surprise and advance. This was not an unforeseen possibility.”

The enemy ships controlled the space both above and below the asteroid field, with the exception of a narrow spearhead of space controlled by the Earth Alliance too far to the planet's southern pole for them to feasibly reach. According to G'Kar, the asteroid field was considered to be too hazardous for any ship larger than a one man fighter to safely navigate, which was partly why the gate was put on the other side of it by the Sh'lassen. They could control the rate of enemy advance.

Just as well that the Empire made their ships of sterner stuff than the average Alliance cruiser. Trusting in the competence of the Narn to destroy the enemy fighters, Sáclair pushed forward, leading the cruisers through the asteroid field. The massive armored prow of the Endless Bounty smashed through the massive stones, shoving forward though the space debris with ease as he fired the forward lance batteries into the field.

The fleet filed down the narrow path, ships keeping close together to travel in the Endless Bounty's wake. Sáclair counted down from fifty, tapping his finger on the arm of his throne and watching the sensor map of the asteroid belt. As the last friendly cruiser darted to a safe distance from their egress into the asteroid field he flipped the switch to his left, activating a series of proximity mines loaded with vortex bombs.

His sensors flashed every warning imaginable as a massive section of space became engulfed in a maelstrom of extra-dimensional energies. Vortex bombs were not explosives per-se; they opened a hole into the warp that sucked in any unshielded fighters or men unfortunate enough to be within their radius for the few seconds it could be maintained. They were deviously simple to make: a warp engine large enough to be fitted into a fighter was set into critical overload and left on some sort of pressure trigger or proximity sensor. If they had them, larger ships might activate their hexegrammic wards in time to avoid destruction, but by the time the enemy ships made it back to the battlefield he'd be long gone.

The Endless Bounty tore through the inner ring of asteroids and into the orbit of Akdor, directly into a conflagration between the Earth Alliance and Sh'lassen rebel forces. Laughing like a madman, Sáclair pushed the ship's engines to their limits, passing the performance red line as he smashed the Bounty's prow through one of the oblong rebel ships, bursting it in half before spinning the Bounty in an upward pirouette and shouting, “Port batteries, full salvo in three, two, one, fire!”

Three ships were smashed into atoms under the massive salvo. The Earth Alliance Starfuries swung in through the atomic flames, using the cloak of the salvo to mask their advance on a fourth ship. Sáclair smiled contentedly as his consul chirruped eagerly, heralding an incoming transmission. He idly activated it, whooping with glee as the Centauri Primus wing shot past him and into the Sh'lassen rebel fleet.

The sour, almond-eyed face of Captain Xingjian popped up on his screen. The Alliance Captain growled in begrudging thanks, his slurred l's and r's exacerbated by his irritation. The automated translation servitor droned in it's seductive lilt, “What are you doing here 該死?”

“Charming as always Xingjian,” Sáclair smiled, twirling his fingers and firing a lance shot into a fighter wing that was straying too close to a Narn Cruiser for his liking. The fighters scattered. “A simple ‘thank you’ will suffice in future.”

“Answer the question,” Xingjian's eyes popped with fury even as his ship's lights flickered from the impact of enemy fire, “Or I will consider you an enemy combatant.”

The man was completely mental. Sáclair rolled his eyes in exasperation and wordlessly sent a message to the aft weapons batteries to target Xingjian's ships as a precautionary measure, “Captain, I'm here as part of the council relief fleet on behalf of the Non-Aligned Worlds. Now, if you’d be so kind as to remove your head from where you've so readily wedged it up your own ass and get back to fighting the enemy rather than wasting my time, I would take it kindness.”

Xingjiang's face boiled with apoplectic rage as Sáclair deactivated their transmission in disinterest. Xingjiang was under orders not to fire on Non-Aligned Worlds ships, and he could be trusted to obey it. If not, that was why the Emperor gave the Imperium void shields.

“Tactical report, Mr. Enzo.”

His second chewed his lip in thought, “Faust's fleet seems to have been driven back to the second moon of the planet by the Earth Alliance and Sh'lassen government forces, though by all reports they're regrouping rather than retreating. Early chatter is commenting that they're retrofitted military surplus from a recent war with shields and Faust's xenotech rather than proper Imperial military standard.”

“Well that's something at least,” Sáclair smiled in pleased surprise as a Centauri cruiser interposed itself between a damaged Narn ship and it's attacker, taking the brunt of the attack before a second Centauri Primus could destroy the rebel warship. “Is this rabble the entire rebel fleet?”

“Near as I can tell sir,” Donat sighed, “But I don't even pretend to have a complete understanding of the tactical situation, Faust's ECM makes me far from confident in the astropathic sensors.”

“Best to act sooner rather than later,” Sáclair remarked as he spun the Endless Bounty back towards the planet. Sáclair plowed forwards, aiming to punch through the rebel blockade and reach the Earth Alliance beachhead, “Donat, send a message to Hilder and the ground assault forces. We launch the Golan transports as soon as they're close enough to reach the planet's atmosphere safely. I don't want to spend too much time stationary in this maelstrom.”

Sáclair winced in pain as a lucky shot from an Sh'lassen rebel missile cruiser burst through the ship's forward shields, bursting against the ship's armored hull, “ I feel the need to register my abject displeasure with these Sh'lassen traitors in the most direct of terms.”

“Of course, milord. Lance batteries are ready on your command.”

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

Daul stood sat impassively in the Golan transport as it plummeted earthwards, counting down from a thousand as angry, black thunderclouds whipped past its tiny viewport. Not in the mood for the Lionhearts’ good-willed round of insults, he only half listened as they accused each other of the vilest of perversions and misdeeds. A nagging feeling of dread tugged at the back of his mind, a fear that this battle might be his undoing.

Before the battle of Belzafest, he'd been prepared to die. After losing so much at the hands of Faust, ending it all in a blaze of honor and duty had been perversely appealing. But there would be little profit in his death on the Sh'lassen world of Akdor, not unless Faust lay dead and on the ground. And there was a part of his heart, an honest part, that admitted he did not want to risk the lives of those who fought at his side. Well, those who fought at his side and weren't Vira'capac; the dour Kroot just utterly refused to die.

It perched on top of a Chimera with its talons wrapped around the gun barrel, entirely disinterested in sitting in a safety harness. After spending so much time in a cell on the Endless Bounty, it seemed that the xenos had developed an acute distaste for confinement. The Chimera's drivers, a pair pale-skinned Belzafesters, stared murderously at the Kroot as it luxuriated on top of their transport.

The entire surviving Belzafest PDF had volunteered for the mission, resulting in a bizarre situation where they'd had to have ship security guarding the transports to prevent soldiers stowing away to be part of the military engagement. Hatred still burned strong in the hearts of Belzafest for the destroyers of their ancestral homeland. Gaer Tiber's men would do their duty or die trying.

Daul's “personal guard” consisted of a half dozen men led by Gaer's most trusted Lieutenant Cynry Shan, a bellicose man of few words and deliberate actions. They were all men who'd lost their entire families to Faust, men who could be trusted to obey without question. And after months in the deserts of Belzafest, their skill was without question. They prayed in silence, ignoring the boisterous good humor of the Lionhearts.

“I can hear it,” whispered a soft feminine presence to his left. Susan Ivanova stared at the deck plates in concentration as though trying to see through them, “The warp - I can hear it... rumbling. Something is very wrong.”

“As can I,” Daul agreed, “Witchfire and sorcery is being used in great quantities on the planet. It leaves a stain upon the material world. It does not belong. Practice what I taught you. Clear your mind. Embrace the calm within. The hatred, the dying, and even the suffering: block them from your thoughts."

Susan closed her eyes and steadied her breathing, inhaling and exhaling whilst whispering words in the language of her pagan faith to focus herself. She was only a few weeks into her training but she'd advanced as far as Daul might have expected an apprentice to achieve ten years along the way thanks to the borrowed memories. She wasn't remotely close to his own talent, but she was a force to reckon with in her own right.

She hated him, to be sure, but they'd reached a functioning relationship out of necessity since he'd cut off the possibility of her returning to the Earth Alliance by publicly declaring her a telepath and ward of the Empire to the Narn and Centauri. Returning to the Alliance would mean arrest and capture by the Psi-corps to probe her for knowledge of Imperial sorcery, and she knew it.

“That's it,” Daul said soothingly, “Clear out your mind and find your place of calm. You control it. It does not control you.”

Cair warbled twice, twittering at their imminent arrival as the elephantine transport bucked upwards from anti-gravity pads meeting ground level. The Skitarii hefted an oversized bolt-gun with an extended barrel magazine and flexed sharp taloned fingers.

“Throne, Cairn,” Danzig eyed the array of odd devices around his belts, satchels, and bandolier, “You were never for lack of gear but even I can't think of a reason for some of that... Is that an Ulumethi plasma syphon? Where the devil did you even- you know what? I don't actually want to know.”

“Better prepared than deprived,” the dour Lieutenant Shan whispered, his voice raspy and high pitched through a breath mask.

“Masks on,” Daul ordered as the front doors to the transport opened, thick ash and soot billowing into the cool air of the transport, “Mount up.”

The collective mass of Lionhearts and Belzafester soldiers entered their respective Chimera transports. The clanking of boots on the light transport tanks mingled with the activating rumble of burning promethium engines. Daul climbed into the front Chimera of the column with Susan, Danzig, Carin, Vira’capac, and his personal guard of Belzafesters, surveying the men in approval.

The Inquisitor tapped the radio on his skull-like helmet to talk with the transport's pilot, “Report, soldier. How many of our forces made it to the planet?”

“Sir,” the eager Belzafester replied, “We lost two Golan transports to anti-aircraft fire, sections B and D, but G and R companies were forced to redirect to the southern ridge before unloading their packages.”

“To the pit of the Eye,” Daul swore angrily, “You mean that the Leman Russ tanks are two hundred miles off target?”

“At least,” The pilot agreed, “And their transport is grounded till they can patch a reactor leak. Our air support is coming but they've been delayed by Faust's aircraft to the north. Apparently they have to take out an earth to space laser battery before the Narn can land their tanks.”

“Of course they are.” Danzig sighed, massaging the frustration out of his temples in resigned irritation, “Are the rest of our transports on target, at least?”

“Yes sir,” The officer said before correcting himself, “Or at least... I believe so. We're having trouble communicating with anything longer range than twenty miles.”

“It will have to do.” sighed Shan in resignation, “The Earth Alliance will send them aid as soon as feasible to get them into position.”

“Just once, I would like to have the support forces in position beforehand,” Daul sighed, “Never mind. We're only ten miles from the Earth Alliance forward outpost. Begrudging our lack of artillery won't make more appear.”

Taking that as a queue, Cairn banged twice on the door to the cockpit, whistling sharply to the driver. With a lurch of motion the Chimera zoomed headlong into the Akdor badlands, bouncing its way over the rough terrain of the planet. Daul rocked forward uncomfortably against his harness at every rock and divot, to the point where he started to wonder if the Chimera's shocks had been intentionally tampered with out of spite.

“Throne almighty,” the voice of Sergei cracked across the radio from the end of the column, “Are we aiming for the worst terrain? Gazan is threatening to sew the eyes of our driver open so that he'll properly watch the road.”

“The road isn't ideal,” replied the irritated voice of Daul's chimera driver, “But if we go on any other paths our treads will get stuck in the ash piles or die when we ignite the methane geysers. Belzafest was a garden paradise compared to this hellhole. The planet itself is a minefield, and I don't like the idea of blowing up.”

“Inquisitor, you always do take me to the loveliest places,” Snorted Danzig in amusement, “Perhaps next time we can skip the foreplay and just light ourselves on fire.”

“That can still be arranged,” Daul replied dry amusement as they hit another bump, yanking him in his chair uncomfortably, “Throne almighty that's uncomfortable.”

The Kroot crooned in agreement. Vira'capac licked his left eyeball with his tongue nervously as he preened himself, softly muttering in his own singsong language. The constant motion irritated the Kroot more than anyone else, doubtlessly agitating the gas bladder between the creature's nose and lungs which it used to filter out toxins.

The chain of Chimeras jerked and jostled their way across the inhospitable Akdor landscape, driving across rocky outcroppings and past deep ravines. One of the chimeras turned too soon and disturbed an underground pocket of methane, bursting it and flinging the transport head over heels into a pool of chemical runoff. Daul ordered the vox casters to be switched to another channel to save them from having to listen to the Lionhearts’ agonized final screams before giving the order to continue their march.

It was just as well that Danzig decided to do so, apparently the forward scout sentinels had their vox units set to two units above what they were supposed to be broadcasting. The Lionheart growled in irritation, "Throne, has anyone read the void-born mission parameters beyond the summary? It's a miracle they had their vox units active at all."

"I wouldn't blame them," Shan intoned in his raspy near whisper, smoothing his yellow and black checkered tunic. He took special care to brush off the patch embroidered with Daul's personal crest, Shan's symbol of fealty. "The magnetic rock formations will be paying hell with our equipment. We were equipped for the climate of Belzafest, not Akdor. We're ruggedized and air tight, but the magnetic interference of Belzafest was not as pronounced. Communication will be shorter ranged than we'd hoped."

"We're just going to have to operate on the assumption that the individual units reach their intended positions by the time we hit the rendezvous point," Daul sighed in exasperation, "The military aid of our allies ought to compensate for the delays, Emperor willing. They're no Adeptus Astrates, but they'll have to do."

"You have several thousand ground-pounders backed up by tanks and air support. They're as good or better than whatever else is out there," Commander Ivanova interjected irritatedly, "And as good as any other military in service."

Cain tweeted incredulously, eying Susan with a mix of confusion and bemused interest as he scratched his forehead with a long metal talon.

Daul couldn't help himself, he burst into a fit of giggles that drove the commander into frigid silence. Taking a moment to compose himself and sending a minor psychic suggestion to the other soldiers to stifle their own sniggers, he addressed the commander, "Commander Ivanova, the Adeptus Astartes are our…. specialty soldiers. They’re monastic warrior orders, bred specifically for the purposes of excelling at warfare. I'm certain that the "Gropos" are admirable soldiersm but the Space Marines are… more than that. An individual Space Marine is equal to any ten of the Lionhearts, and that is being generous."

"You can't be…" the commander trailed off, her eyes glazing over slightly in borrowed memory. She blinked twice to reorient herself before continuing, "Ok, so you are serious. But we don't have them and the ground pounders will do the job. They're good at what they do."

"We shall certainly see," Daul replied indecisively, "Faust will give them more than ample chances."

The transport echoed slightly with the sound of small arms fire against the hull as the driver shouted orders to the gunner. The multi-laser turret swiveled on its axis with a grinding of shifting gears and the hiss of pneumatic pistons, and the echoing buzz-crack of a dozen high powered streams of weaponized energy seared some unseen target. A brilliant burst of flame flashed through the tiny slitted view ports on the transport's sides, braying screams of agony howling in time with the blast.

"All clear," chimed the driver over the intercom before kicking the transport back into gear, "Be on the lookout. Sh'lassen rebel forces are setting ambushes along the path."

Danzig checked the sights on his hot-shot lasrifle, fiddling with the beam transparency. "ETA to target?"

"Target is imminent," replied the driver, "Forward outpost in five, four, three, two, one, mark."

The Chimera rounded a bend in the magnetic rock formations and turned into a formation of Earth Alliance tanks. The angular war machines’ powerful laser cannons targeted the Chimera even as they hailed requesting the Imperials identify themselves.

Taking the encrypted vox offered to him by Cairn Daul replied with the identification code, fumbling through the Interlac words, "Whiskey, eagle, eagle, two, delta, two, seven, bravo, one, five."

A tired but friendly voice replied over the vox channel, "Glad to have you here, Inquisitor. We could use all the help we could get. General Franklin is waiting for you on the western ridge in the motor pool."

"Very well," Daul replied, nodding to the driver. The Chimera lumbered along past the massive tanks, giving Daul a clear view of them through the tiny window of transparent plastisteel. He let out a low impressed whistle at the sheer mass of them, easily twice the size of a leman russ with a gun to match. It hovered on powerful antigrav struts, nimbly navigating the rocky terrain as though it were open ground.

"Those are new model Odin and Loki," Susan remarked in surprise, "I didn't know that they'd gotten those in service yet."

"Not too shabby," Danzig commented in earnest, "Not projectile weapons I presume?"

"A dumbed down of the plasma cannons used by warships, it packs a heck of a punch," Susan smiled wistfully, prompting Daul to suspect that she'd very much like to fire one. Cairn was veritably watering at the mouth at the new technologies, his facial tentacles frenziedly drawing the machines for future reference.

The Earth Alliance was primitive in many respects, but confusingly advanced in many others. How could a society so backward in even the most basic understanding of both shielding and psychic technologies have managed to develop such advanced anti-gravity and plasma weaponries? It veritably boggled the mind.

The Chimera shuddered to a halt, its wide door yawning outwards and into a frenzied mass of black-armored marines scuttling around the motor pool in blind purpose. Long necked combat hovercraft landed for just long enough to disgorge the wounded and load a fresh load of soldiers destined for the meat grinder.

Dozens of men bearing wounds from familiar imperial las weaponry as well as the deep tooth and claw marks of half-breed savagery lay on cots. A mess of white coated medics did what they could to save the wounded and comfort the dying, though more came with every trip of the flying transports.

"Inquisitor," A domineering, bespectacled black man barked across the mass of men. Though he was several yards from the Imperials somehow his voice managed to carry across ocean of human suffering without any loss of clarity or absolute authority, "Over here."

It wasn't the most impressive command station Daul had ever seen, certainly no Imperial general would be so gauche as to arrive at a battlefield without at least a proper tent and serving staff, but what the Alliance lacked in grandeur it made up in practicality. A rather meager steel fold out table with an aging map and a small hololithic projector displayed the relative locations of enemy and allied positions, standing as the centerpiece to haphazard piles of tactical printouts and early battle reports. The sour-faced general Franklin brandished these reports at his underlings, barking harsh commands with the absolute expectation that they would be followed out.

Daul approached and bowed, interlocking his hands in the symbol of the Aquilla, “General Franklin.”

“Inquisitor Daul Hilder,” replied the General placidly before his eyes settled on Susan and an edge of venom seeped into his voice, “The former Commander Ivanova.”

“Sir?” The Commander blinked as though slapped.

“I'm well aware of your rising status in the Empire Miss Ivanova.” He growled in irritation, “Telepaths cannot serve as an officer of Earthforce, certainly not telepaths who've defected. Consider it an act of mercy that I don't arrest you this instant on behalf of the Psi-corps because I need the Inquisitor's expertise -and don't think for a second an arrest isn't damn tempting.”

“Sir I've done nothing wrong,” The commander pleaded, a look of abject horror on her face, “I'm in-” Susan stopped mid sentence in shock when the General slapped his palm on the table and stared her in the eyes with a look of indomitable resolve. Even as she sputtered trying to explain herself, he wouldn't even begin to listen to her insistent affirmations of innocence.

“Miss Ivanova, it is in your best interests for you to close your mouth this instant. Settling what you did or did not do is a job for the Psi-corps and a board of inquiry if and when you decide to report back to Babylon 5 where you are currently AWOL. And a General hasn't got time for a derelict soldier,” It was cruel of Daul to have forwarded a receipt of the commanders amnesty and new role in Imperial government to the Earth Alliance prior to their departure via Centauri diplomatic channels, but the woman couldn't properly evolve into her new role as long as the hope of returning to her former position abided. Yet another wound inflicted upon his apprentice for her own benefit; she would one day come to appreciate the benefits of what he'd done for her. Not in this century, perhaps, but she would eventually.

General Franklin pulled the stomach of his uniform forwards and straightened his spectacles, tossing a still image across the table towards the inquisitor, “Now Inquisitor, what the devil am I dealing with?”

The image showed a corpse of a bloated and distended creature, that might have been a man if not for its mawkish gait or the thick masses of bony crests and thick tentacles across it' massive mottled black-and-grey flesh. A half breed of Faust's working, to be sure.

Daul cleared his throat. “Nightmares, General. You're fighting monsters and nightmares. They are not creatures of flesh and blood to be reasoned with, they're weapons created with an inscrutable and malevolent purpose.”

“Well, I've got a hundred and fifty miles of trench warfare and bunkers full of the fraggers between us and the Sh'lassen rebels at Matok. We can't get anything airborne close enough to make a significant difference in our advance without passing one of the damned anti-aircraft platforms in the fortress or the methane geysers that are just as bad. The best we've been able to do- General xny'Yih? Can you come over here for a moment?” The bespectacled man waved to a hooded figure some twelve feet away chatting with a number of other hooded men. It hobbled forward as the General continued, “The best we've been able to do is just slow the rate of attrition. The black devils are dug in tight.”

The hooded figure pulled back his cowl to reveal the goat-like face of a Sh'lassen man. The creature swiveled its unnerving golden eyes to Daul and chattered in a braying sneer of annoyance, “The heretics are defiling the place of the Old Gods, the teachings of our forefathers and the only thing standing between us and reclaiming the truth that is ours are these... these... beasts!”

The irony of calling another species a beast was apparently lost upon the harsh voiced longhorn. It stamped its bipedal hooves and pulled at a thick rope of golden fibers, shaking its head in unmistakable exasperation. Daul bowled enough to be respectful, but not so much as to imply obsolescence, “You are of the Triumvirate, I presume.”

“General xny'Yih,” Confirmed the bestial humanoid, “ I've been leading the siege of Matok these past two years to reclaim the truth that belongs to all.”

“What truth?” probed the Commander.

The beast man fixed her with his unnerving gaze, eyes narrowed in irritation, “If I knew it, I wouldn't need to waste two years watching men die. The rebels claim it and our ancestral fortress to be theirs and theirs alone. 'We are not ready' bah. Who are they to judge who may know the nameless' brilliance in battling the nightmares of old.”

“Faust doesn't send his troops en-masse somewhere unless there is something of legitimate value to be taken. Whatever it is that he wants, we cannot allow him to have it. Faust is a war criminal worse than any you've ever seen,” Balefire flickered around Daul in his anger, “He must not succeed.”

“Precisely what is he guilty of doing in the Imperium?” Probed General Franklin in expectant curiosity as he eyed the red shapes moving around the hololithic map. Waves of green flickered into and out of view in the haze of red.

“Much,” whispered Shan in a voice of horrible calm, “He is guilty of murder, torture, slavery, genocide, and the destruction of the Belzafest colony, as well as countless others for well over a century.”

“He destroyed a city?” General Franklin interjected in disbelief.

“Belzafest was a planet,” corrected Daul, “Whatever his goal is here, we must ensure he does not succeed. The crimes on Belzafest were some of his lesser evils. Entire planetary populations have been put to death for fear his half-breeds might poison off-worlders.”

“We've been doing what we can to stop infections. The venomous stinger's entry wound is quite distinctive, but short of amputating the limb we haven't been able to find a way of curing the poison without killing the soldier,” brayed the Sh'lassen general in anger, “But communication with the frontline soldiers is so bad that it's often too late to do anything other than shoot the poor bastard before he goes mad from the venom.”

“I was referring to a more metaphorical poison,” Daul cleared his throat uncomfortably, “The half-breeds are male... they favor the use of other sentient species females for incubating their young. The woman is forcibly implanted with around a dozen pups. The process is slow, so that the mother can attempt to flee back to safety and spread the half-breeds to a new population center they do not yet control.The mother becomes their first meal after they chew their way out. I rather thought it might have come up before now without me needing to say...”

“We do not send our females to war,” brayed xny'Yih in preoccupation, “So it would not have. It may soon become problematic however.”

General Franklin shot one of his underlings a worried look, “Lieutenant Davis, issue an immediate warning to all soldiers. Tell them exactly what the Inquisitor just told me, word for word. Lets not take any chances. And issue an order not to let them take POWs under any circumstances.”

“Easier said than done,” Susan rejoined, puckering her lips inward in shame at the Generals spiteful glare.

The General waited a full minute, staring at her in uncomfortable silence before continuing as though the Commander had never spoken. “They've got the whole inner valley under their control. Environmental conditions prevent air support, so we're going to have to do this one the old fashioned way. Even our air support can't safely operate higher than about thirty stories up. The Narn and Centauri are massing for a combined assault on the northern front with General Andre's troops so that we can cut them off from the west and force them to retreat into the rebel artillery. Your Imperial vehicles are going to need to spearhead that western assault.”

“Faust will have group of a non-half breeds guiding the war effort,” Daul tapped the thickest mass of red on the map, “If we can get to them and kill their leaders we should be able to mop up the remaining troops with relative ease. They're bred for ferocity, not cleverness.”

“I will have a guide assigned to you to guide you through the terrain,” hawed the Sh'lassen general, “There are still a few left who managed to survive the loss of our forward lines who should know some of the secret paths and safe havens.”

“Incoming!” screamed a frenzied ensign as she and everyone else in the encampment dropped to the ground. A whistling thrum sung through the air as an explosive shell collided with the sooty earth half a mile away from where Daul stood, kicking up a brilliant explosive burst of flame and debris. The Inquisitor winced and thumbed the controls to his helmet's audio feed, drowning out the screams of pain from distant soldiers.

Cairn aided Daul in rising to his feet, irritatedly brushing off his Talbard with a brush he'd produced from Throne alone knew were. Daul shoved the brush away in exasperation and chided him in Gothic, “Cairn, the blessed thing will be soaked in blood and all manner of horrible things before the day is through. A bit of soot won't do any more damage.”

His attendant crossed his arms and eyed him irritatedly, the brush quirked to the side and chirruping irritatedly as though to say “well you go and wash it then why don't you?” Putting the sarcastic Skitarii from his mind, he lifted his apprentice to her feet, “Up you get, Commander Ivanova. We haven't got all day.”

“They've moved their artillery closer than your map would indicate,” Danzig flipped up from where he lay back to the ground with acrobatic ease, his wide silk pants flaring over his combat armor, “Or they have equipment that's better than you reported.”

“Assume the latter,” Vira'capac crooned in irritation, “Man things never get better answer. Worse always than plans. Highly irritating that Vira'capac has not died yet. Perhaps get lucky this time. Perhaps not.”

“General.” A woman's voice cracked across the relative silence like a whip, preceding the arrival of a lean woman of dark completion. Her name was just visible behind the long dreadlocks that hung down her uniform, Tonya Wallace. Precisely what rank ISN indicated was lost upon Daul but the brevity and familiarity with which she treated the General left no doubt of her importance. The word “reporter” echoed in his mind vaguely, though it' meaning found no purchase in the Gothic language, “General, I want to know why I haven't been assigned to a military unit yet. I'm supposed to be reporting from the front lines.”

“Miss Wallace,” replied the General in a tone of exhausted repetition, as though having an argument he'd long ago tired of fighting, “The situation is far more volatile than we initially anticipated. Once we have a more solid foothold into the – What are they called Inquisitor?”
“The proper name would be xenodeamonia hälféraza Knyttneve, but 'half-breed' is more than sufficient,” Daul replied, eyeing the silver hovering disks that floated around the woman and wondering as to their purpose.

“Lord Almighty, that is a mouthful,” The General shook his head, “The half-breeds are a lot tougher and more dangerous than we realized.”

“The initial report I got from the Sh'lassen government said that 'the bowels of hell have yawned open to disgorge a mass of the most horrendous creatures from the time of nightmares when death first touched the land.' Was that insufficiently descriptive?” She was a noble of notable standing to be able to afford that sort of device and talk to a general disrespectfully without fear of reprisal. Perhaps he could use this to his advantage.

“If the Lady Wallace desires she could accompany our party,” Daul interjected before the General could open his mouth and say something foolish to the noblewoman, “Provided that she is willing to accept the dangers I face at the forefront.”

Susan stared at Daul in utter disbelief before making a soft “oh” of comprehension with her lips and bursting into a fit of silent giggles. Ivanova really was an odd woman at times. Daul suspected it might be a long term side effect of the combined memories though he couldn't be sure. Ignoring her strange behavior he continued, “The potential for fatal harm is great, but if you are willing to shoulder the risk then you may come.”

The noblewoman veritably salivated at the opportunity, shooting a wry glance at the Alliance general. “Yes, yes that would be entirely OK with me!”

“I can't stop you Miss Wallace,” The General replied irritatedly, covering his ears as another shell burst some sixty yards from the Alliance forward outpost, “But you're going to have to go now. Inquisitor we need to start pressing forward towards the west sooner than I'd planned. If we don't get rid of that damned artillery we're going to lose the forward momentum and they'll have time to regroup.”

“Well we can't very well have that,” Daul nodded looked down at the hololithic display and its sea of red waving around the great spire of Matok. He laughed sharply and clutched the ethereal image in his augmentic fist, red images distorting around the ivory digits, “Cairn, I do believe that it's time for us to pay a visit to our old friends and voice our displeasure.”

The Skitarii growled in agreement, flexing its talons in anticipation of the hunt to come.
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post #130 of 159 (permalink) Old 01-16-13, 11:56 AM Thread Starter
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Magos Adept Tuul swore in irritation as an electrified cable came loose from the ceiling and crashed down across the gangway, crushing a servitor into a pile of messy gore and offal. The sizzling meat of the servitor splashed wetly across his face and optics, briefly obscuring his vision.

It was times like these that he was grateful to have removed his digestive system. Now was no time for nausea.

“I want the primary reactor back online! I don't care what you have to do, the auxillaries can't compensate for the power drop for much longer!” Tuul bellowed over the loudspeaker, “And get a repair team over to deck twelve to fix the carbon dioxide scrubbers before the crew suffocates.”

Tuul grabbed the power cable in the arm of his servo harness, enjoying the tingling sensation of 50,000 volts arcing across his insulated limbs. He cackled madly to himself as he shoved the power line into a junction point, twisting it in before forcing a rudimentary seal with ferrocrete epoxy. It wouldn't last the battle, but it ought to hold out until Enginseers could manage a more permanent repair.

“Sir,” a red robed Enginseer said as he hopped over the liquified servitor, holding out a data slate at arm's length so as not to stand in any of the puddles, “The Lord Sáclair needs us to increase the power output of the starboard Y-axis thrusters by ten percent to offset the main guns. We're getting too much lateral drag from gunfire.”

“Then fix it, why don't you? Take a maintenance team to the thrusters and recalibrate the power couplings,” Tuul eyed the power readouts on the data slate anxiously, “And get Enginseer Sven down to deck 17. Something has to be wrong with the power readouts - it's showing 100% efficiency in the shield generators.”

Nothing ever ran at 100% efficiency, especially not mid-battle. How in the hell had Kerrigan made this look so effortless? She'd never been caught short of breath; even when she'd had to surrender she'd apparently done it with grace and poise. Perhaps it had something to do with being a woman. There was at least correlative data to suggest a link between being more collected in a crisis and being female.

If he survived he'd have to consider increasing the ratio of estrogen in his remaining biological components to see if it boosted performance, “Enginseer Throm, what in the hell are you trying to do? Blow up the ship? Don't try to reactivate the reactor till after you've flushed the excess radiation.”

Tuul ducked under a mess of cables and grabbed hold of a narrow ladder, glad for his augmentic fingers as the ship bucked to the left. His mechanical digits held fast to the ladder as the rest of his considerable mass swung head over heels off the platform and into open air.

His mechandrites whipped out, subconsciously lacing themselves around the ladder to prevent him from plummeting down the mile-deep chasm of the main engineering bay.

“Omnissiah almighty!” Tuul swore as he spoke to the ship, “Keep together girl. Come on then, keep together for me. You've lasted this long, just go a bit longer girl.”

The machine spirit of the Endless Bounty was tenacious. She would likely keep on going long after all the rest of her crew were just ashes in space, but Tull was in no hurry to be those ashes. He righted himself on the ladder, climbing his way down to the ship's warp engines. It was not until the soles of his feet echoed on the floor with a satisfying click of magnetic soles on deck plates that he let go of the ladder.

It would slow his strides considerably, but maintaining a veneer of calm and poise during a crisis situation would calm his Enginseers. After all, if their Magos was calm and composed, then there was nothing to worry about. Perhaps that explained Kerrigan’s poise and gracefulness; it was a practiced veneer of calm. It was too much to consider right now, he reminded himself. He would compare the variables when the ship wasn’t in mortal peril.

It was a problem with having as spacious and quick-acting of an augmentic brain as he had. The enhanced cogitators and memory engrams within his mind left him prone to bouts of manic thinking and sidetracked trails of logic. If he had time later he would implant a second augmentic brain attached to his first one, so that he could allow himself to continue two trains of thought at once, perhaps even three. Though perhaps that would be no less distracting – still worth a try, though.

He winced in pain as the ship bucked again. His legs, attached firmly to the floor, yanked hard where bone met augmentic. Glad that he could silence his vox caster, Tuul howled in silent pain within his head as nerves stretched and pinched from the strain. Vestigial remnants of ear ducts watering behind his optics, Tuul walked down into the tiny room that sat on top of the Warp engines.

Left foot, right foot, left foot, right foot - he forced his legs to continue past the pain. The pain of the flesh was fleeting, and hardly worth his time. Any organic matter that was too damaged to be repaired could always be replaced. The flesh was weak, the machine was strong.

He continued down the unmarked corridor ten paces before reaching a translucent barrier of purple energy: a void shield. Tuul irritatedly typed the access runes to deactivate the barrier before walking through. With a hiss of crackling ozone, Tuul idly realized that walking even a second slower would have severed a mechandrite. He would have to remember to recalibrate that; it was an unrealistic entry time.

Then again, there was no hurry to have Enginseers in this particular room. The hyperspace engines were too dangerous and too critical to entrust in the hands of anyone less qualified than a Magos. Not that it stopped the Navigators from poking their noses into where they did not belong.

“Speak of the devil,” Tuul muttered to himself before activating his voice box, “Navigator Calven, this is not a safe place to be right now. I need you to return to your designated safe zone until the battle is over.”

“Magos Tuul. If I am not safe standing on top of the ship’s Warp-engines, then precisely where am I safe?” The skeletally thin Navigator queried as he ran his fingers over the ornate machinery of the machine.

Tuul didn't really have an answer to that. Any weapon powerful enough to breach the bulkheads and additional void-shields around the warp-engine was strong enough to destroy the ship outright. “I still have to ask you to leave, Navigator. I cannot be liable for your safety.”

“Magos, it is precisely because of the danger to all of us that I come to you now. It is the only time that I can be positive that we will not be interrupted.” The Navigator's voice lacked its usual haughtiness, sounding lost more than arrogantly superior. “What I tell you can only be said in secret.”

“You've got five minutes Navigator,” Tuul sighed as he approached the hyperspace engines to plug in his handheld cogitator, “That's how long it will take to download the data core. I can't spare more than that without putting the ship at risk.”

“Time,” The Navigator snorted in amusement, pulling out his snuff box before stowing it back in his pocket as though having reconsidered it. “That is the issue, isn't it?”

“Four minutes fifty five seconds,” Tuul examined the power to weight ratio of the hyperspace mass exchange, trying to figure out if there was a way to improve the real-space to hyperspace conversion.

“Magos, our orders are secretive by design. For the good of humanity we keep certain knowledge secret, for fear of the harm that might be done were it to be given to the wrong people. We guard our knowledge jealously, so that it cannot be used against us. But some knowledge is too dangerous to be kept, and some secrets are not worth the price we pay,” the Navigator wrung his hands fearfully, “Some answers come to light no matter what we do.”

Tuul looked up from his cogitator. The houses of Navigators were obsessive in their secrecy, second only to the Ordos Malleus of the Inquisition in their secret knowledge of warp-craft. They were sorcerers well-versed in a craft that none save their carefully honed blood lines could master.

Navigator Calven rubbed his hands together nervously. “Navigator Illrich does not believe that this should become common knowledge. I disagree. However, he has forbidden me from revealing it to anyone oath bound to the Inquisitor or Sáclair.”

“Then why even bother –“ Tuul shook his head in surprise as it hit him, “Omnisisah above, I'm not actually bound to either of them, am I? My pledge of loyalty is to Kerrigan, who is no longer bound to Sáclair and was never bound to Hilder.”

“A technicality, but not a breach of my oath.” The Navigator nodded. “For my safety, however, I will request an oath of secrecy from you to never reveal my part in this.”

“You have it,” Tuul nodded.

“Magos, tell me. What do you know of the potential chronological side effects of warp travel? Time travel, if you prefer.”

Tuul held up his finger in a gesture for quiet and activated his long-range communicator, “Enginseer Sven, I need you to oversee repairs for the foreseeable future. I've encountered an unusual fluctuation in the Hyperspace engines that I will need to see to personally.”

He looked up at Calven, “Congratulations Navigator. You have my undivided attention.”

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

It was official. Once this report hit the air Tonya was going to win every damn award for journalism the Earth Alliance could give. She was going to boost the network ratings by twenty points just by being able to show an interview with the Inquisitor. Live footage of Imperial soldiers engaging in active warfare? Forget about it.

It was difficult to martian the proper decorum and dignity that was expected from a war reporter when she was just so giddy about the opportunity that was sitting in front of her on a silver platter.

Her producer was going to have a heart attack when she sent him this footage. She could taste an anchorwoman job just around the bend. At this point the disgraced Earthforce Commander Ivanova was just the icing on the cake.

The body armor the Imperials had insisted she wear was horribly uncomfortable, but Inquisitor Hilder had eyed her civilian issue flak armor once before sniffing in disgust and pulling a chest plate emblazoned with the double-headed eagle of the Imperium out a cargo container.

“If you're going to go into battle unarmed, at least have the common sense to not go unarmored,” he'd grumbled contemptuously.

He did not, she noticed, force a similar armored vest upon their guide V'cath. The hoary goat-man was left more or less to his own devices with the avian Kroot Hunter. The two aliens seemed content to just stare at each other with their unnerving yellow eyes, growling and braying territorially.

The deliciously handsome Colonel Danzig had helped her put the armor on, flashing her a haggard but handsome smile and saying a couple of heart-meltingly flirtatious words in the Imperial language. If the two of them survived this battle, she planned to see if he was just as tan beneath the crimson silk robes. She smiled wickedly to herself; it didn't seem like the Colonel would take much convincing if she had the opportunity.

OK, it was a glib thing to be thinking about before going into a warzone, but after the fifteenth or twentieth one you went to it got sort of hard to be serious any more. Yes, they were driving through the endless ash wastes of Matok, and yes they were heading for almost certain death in the jaws of the half-breed war machine, but damn was this going to make a great story.

Figuring that it was best to stick with the English-speaking portion of the people in the transport, Tonya smiled and spoke to the Inquisitor. “Inquisitor Hilder, thank you so much for giving me this opportunity to speak with you.”

“You were determined to reach the front lines. I had space in my Chimera. It seemed an adequate exchange,” the Inquisitor paid mild attention to her as he pulled out a black stone box and set it in the middle of the transport. Pressing a button in its center, he activated a holographic overlay of the battlefields. It was a splotchy and irregular map, but it vaguely showed the position of the Imperial forces as they weaved their way towards the rebel fortress.

“Exploratoribus marunong ügyesen,” The swarthy Colonel pointed to a column of the bipedal imperial walkers. He tapped the lead walker and the hologram shimmered, shifting to a first-person view from the perspective of the walker.

A hundred miles of trenches stretched out into the distance, carrion piles of Sh'lassen corpses shoved into whatever gaps could not be filled with sandbags. The vague profiles of several alien war machines poked out from concealed positions and camouflaged netting, pointing angular weapons she vaguely remembered from history vids.

“Dilgar suppression tanks,” Commander Ivanova's brow rose in abject shock, “Where in the hell did they get those? I've never seen one outside of a museum.”

“Not just the tanks,” brayed V'clath as he scratched a rough bit of skin behind his horns, “Cat-men too. Nasty as the half-breeds, twice as mean.”

“But they're dead!” Tonya asserted in confusion. A whole race did not just walk away from a supernova. “The entire system is a black hole.”

“Dilgar?” Queried the bird like Kroot warrior in a crooningly hopeful tone. “Tell Vira'capac man thing, what is Dilgar?”

“They're a feline predatory species, and tried to conquer the galaxy thirty years ago. But they're extinct. They all died when their sun went supernova.” The Commander shook her head incredulously, “But that thing looks like it just rolled out from the factory.”

The goat man hawed in amusement, “Give up on impossible. Impossible stopped when demons came to Akdor. Now there is only possible and true.”

“Let's see how well these ghost tanks stand up to Imperial weaponry.” The Inquisitor grunted irritatedly before tapping the side of his golden skull-like helmet to its hidden transponder, “Ignem in di mae Panzer.”

A brilliant lance of laser fire shot out from the muzzle of the walker's gun. With a thunderous burst of exploding munition the Dilgar war machine ceased to be. Small arms laser fire cracked across the expanse of the dunes, scourging the area around the walker till a missile whistled its way across. The camera blurred as the driver hurriedly repositioned his vehicle, trying to avoid the explosive round.

The image disappeared as the interference grew to be too much for the holographic interface to keep up with. A man in yellow and black heraldry yelled into his microphone agitatedly, “Ioannem? Estis vos lebendig? Estis vos lebendig? Ioannem!”

“Likey dead,” Hemmed the Sh'lassen with goatish irritation. “Radio only gives away our position. Foolish.”

“Our communications channels are highly scrambled,” the Inquisitor replied tersely, “That is highly unlikely.”

“Best not to rely on what is likely,” The goat-man jutted out his lower jaw pensively clicking his teeth together, chewing on a bit of cud stored in his cheek, “Usually disappointing.”

The Kroot whistled in agreement, “Why not have more clever goat things with Vira'capac? Only stupid pink man things thinking foolish thoughts.”

A pregnant moment passed as the tank rumbled forwards before a timid and tired voice of the walker commander replied, “Ja. Ich is libendig. Si plures que wir dachten.”

“Of course there are more of them than we planned. At least they took no casualties,” sighed Commander Ivanova before replying into her own headset in flawless Gothic, “Deus Rex Imperator shültz.”

“You've learned the Imperial language already?” Tonya asked in astonishment. The Earthforce linguistics department was only now beginning to understand the thousand dialects of the insanely complicated Imperial language. It was being described jokingly as “Esperanto as designed by Satan” due to its billions of homonym words without any visible standards of either grammar or conjugation.

“She wouldn't be a particularly useful apprentice if she couldn't understand the language,” the Inquisitor replied as he examined an ornate pistol strapped to the wrist of his mechanical arm. It glowed slightly with the discharge of ambient energy.

“It's why he kidnapped me. I accidentally looked into his mind,” Susan growled in a voice of deadpan calm. “I know too much.”

“Must you continue to bring that up?” the Inquisitor sighed in a tone of irritated repetition. “This is going to be a tedious apprenticeship if every conversation we have is going to revolve around how I recruited you.”

“Recruited me?” the Commander screeched, “You drugged me, stripped me naked, pierced my nipples and about ten other places I didn't even know could be pierced, broke my arms and legs, then carried me to your ship in a sack! How in the hell was that a recruitment?”

“Impressed into service, if you prefer. It was a far sight kinder than what your Psi-corps does to those with unique talents. The refugees that the ship's sanctioned psykers have begun training were tortured in ways that would shame the Arch-confessor Kyrnov.” The Inquisitor shuddered visibly, “What sort of sociopath puts a twelve year old girl in a forced breeding program?”

So many questions were bouncing around Tonya's head she could hardly string them together. The Commander had been kidnapped? The Psi-corps had a secret underage breeding program? Hell she hardly needed to ask any questions, the Imperials were so alarmingly open with information. Say what you would about the Imperium of Man, but they took freedom of information to a whole new level.

“Probably the same sort of sociopaths that butcher dozens of women to heal their dead friend,” Susan shuddered in disgust. “The Imperium doesn’t have a monopoly on morality.”

“Rik no bad,” Growled Danzig in an irritated patois, “Sick in head. Not fault. Drugs wrong for head.”

“Yes, the actions of Brother Helit were tragic but unavoidable considering the unstable and often hallucinogenic effects of improper anti-agapic use,” The Inquisitor sighed morosely, “If we'd only known, we might have helped him.”

Anti-agapic. Now that was a word Tonya knew. The war criminal Deathwalker had shown up on Babylon 5 one year prior, claiming to have discovered the ultimate anti-agapic. A drug to cure all disease and stop all aging, “I'm sorry Inquisitor, but did I hear you correctly: the Imperium has access to anti-agapic technology?”

“Yes, we can extend our lives by hundreds, sometimes thousands of years with regular treatments,” the Inquisitor waved of the question disinterestedly as he looked at his chronometer. “Pervenimus erreichen ad terminum fünf Minuten. Deus Rex Imperator shültz!”

“Deus Rex Imperator shültz!” replied the collected Imperials in the transport. Tonya repeated the phrase, not wanting to feel left out. Judging by the approving nod from the Inquisitor, it had been the correct choice.

However, when the Colonel spoke into his communicator it was not in the alien tones of High Gothic. He spoke but an altogether more familiar and astonishing language: “OK, men, we're moving into the battlefield. No slip ups. I want this by the book. We all go in and we all come home. For Sáclair and the Empire, God willing!”

“You speak Arabic?” Tonya asked in confusion. “Why the heck would you learn to speak Arabic?” She realized a moment later that she’d asked in Arabic when many of the Imperial soldiers looked up at her in shocked surprise.

Colonel Danzig looked at her as though his pet cat had just burst into song before slack-jawedly saying, “You... you speak the ancient words of my ancestors? The words of the Damascans long past?”

Tonya realized that nine highly-armed people were all looking at her with varying levels of awe and horror. She might as well have taken off her clothes for all the fuss it caused. She looked at Susan, “It's just Arabic. What's the big deal?”

“The ‘big deal,’ Miss Wallace,” said the Inquisitor in a voice of near-reverent calm. “is that we now know unequivocally that your people come from a common history to our own. There can be no doubt.”

“Not to mention that it pretty much shoots ten thousand years of Lionheart military tradition of speaking in Arabic as a secret language to hell and back,” Susan sighed. “Sorry, Danzig. I wish I’d realized it sooner.”

“Is not your faults,” Danzig replied in English before waggling his eyebrows at Tonya and speaking in Arabic, “And at worst you and I will get to know each other better once this is over. I do not need to speak your language to read your body.”

Tonya felt red creeping into her face as the tank slowed to a halt, the harsh crack of ozone echoing in time with the deep booming bursts of explosive projectiles fired by their chimera transport.

“Stick close to me,” the Colonel whispered, “and you might survive to see tomorrow.”

It was only as she followed her companions out the back of their tank and into the open air that Tonya really began to appreciate the gravity of what she'd signed on for. When the Inquisitor said that he intended to “spearhead” the assault on the half-breed troops, he meant it literally rather than figuratively.

She ducked in terror as an explosive round collided with their transport, gutting it and annihilating the spot where she'd been sitting not ten seconds prior. A razor sharp bit of shrapnel whizzed past her face, slicing her earlobe painfully. Her yelp of pain was silenced by Danzig clapping her breathing mask over her face with a barked command of, “Silence, woman, or they'll hear you.”

The Imperial troops advanced down into the trenches, silently slinking along the trenches as their transports rumbled along the open battlefield. The massive cyborg grabbed her by the nape of the neck and carried her into the trench bodily when she couldn't convince her legs to move forward out of fear. Dear God, why had she thought this was going to be a good idea?

She followed Commander Ivanova as the woman worked her way through the three inch-deep layer of black sludge, only barely able to stand the constant smell of methane from the geysers erupting all around them. Her camera, painted black so as not to give away their position, hovered unhelpfully above her as it filmed her humiliating trudge through the mire.

The massive cyborg loomed over her, propelling itself forward with its mechanical tentacles inches above her body. She resented its presence until the first shell burst next to the trench, shrapnel and burning napalm flying in all directions. The igneous projectiles reflected off of some sort of personal energy field, protecting her from injury or death.

She stuck closer to the cyborg after that, not giving the remotest shit how bad the cyborg smelled or how hideous it was. As long as she got to live, it was the most beautiful thing she'd ever seen.

The Imperial paused briefly at an intersection, waiting patiently. One minute, then two, then three, and on and on they waited. At ten minutes of silently crouching in a trench and listening to gunfire Tonya was about ready to scream when a howling screech of incoming artillery drowned out anything she might have said. She scrunched her eyes closed and huddled beneath the Cyborg, clutching his chest for protection as Armageddon crashed to the ground before her.

Her hands shook with horror, but she'd managed not to soil herself as the cyborg gently pried her away from him and urged her forward and into the charnel house. What had once been bodies of the oversized half-breed creatures and Dilgar lay mulched in the remnants of destroyed bunkers.

“Clear!” Cried Danzig as he poked his head into the now exposed tunnels, “No, wait-” He fired his rifle twice, “-Clear. Eagle 1 is burrowing. All teams advance into the breach on my mark.”

He looked to the Inquisitor, who nodded once in the affirmative, “Mark.”

The Imperial soldiers dived into the remains of the ruined bunker, guns at the ready and eyes peeled for anything out of the ordinary. Tonya noted that the red-robed men speaking Arabic and the men sporting black and yellow heraldry of the Inquisitor seemed to take a drastically different attitude to warfare. Where the swarthy men were gung-ho and devil may care, the masked men were more cautious, more calculating. Perhaps it was a product of their service to the Inquisitor, as Hilder was an apparently cautious man.

As Susan Ivanova helped Tonya down into the rubble of the bunker the reporter could not help but wonder if it would have been wiser to heed General Franklin's advice just to stay behind. The press tent hadn't really been that bad, had it?

“Jesus, Hilder,” Susan exclaimed in shock, as she stared at the severed head of a truly massive creature, “What the hell was that?”

“I'm unsure,” The Inquisitor prodded the elephantine face with the blade of his sword, opening the creature’s eyelid to examine its irises. “Every gene stock produces different half-breed creatures. I can only speculate as to how the half-breeds would be affected by generations of being in your space.”

“Generations?” Tonya asked in horror.

“It would have to be at least long enough to rescue an invasion force worth of Dilgar from their home world. How long would that have been?” the Inquisitor looked at Susan expectantly.

“A year, give or take. Probably longer,” Susan sighed in irritation. “The Incubation period for a thousand of these things is a month isn't it?”

“A week,” replied the Inquisitor calmly. “Sgt. Hamman, if you would be so kind?”

A sallow cheeked man with a recently healed scar across his face smiled eagerly as he thumbed the activator to his flamethrower and fired down the passageway ahead. An inhuman howl echoed from the depths as something many-limbed and canine scrambled away into the darkness.

The Inquisitor smiled eagerly as he activated the power switch on his broadsword, lighting coruscating across it's blade, “Weapons free. If it moves, kill it.”
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