Abbas didn't know if he would ever grow used to the cybernetics grafted to his spine. The aching pain in his back abated somewhat as Abbas shifted in bed so that he lay on his belly, but the additional weight of the mechandrites was still constantly there, pressing in on his shoulders.
He wondered if all tech priests had this much trouble getting used to suddenly having numerous limbs in places they’d never considered. Both Kerrigan and Tuul seemed effortless in their ability to use mechanical limbs, as though they’d always been part of their respective bodies. It was hard to imagine either of them falling over backwards heading to the toilet because they forgot how top heavy they were, and soiling themselves while they failed around trying to stand up.
He’d been too ashamed to call for help. He lay on the ground, frightened tears slowly dripping down the sides of his face, knowing he was a failure for not being able to do something so simple. The stupid bastard couldn't even stand up without help and he thought he was going to be a Magos some day.
He had been so ashamed when the dark-skinned Medicus found him the next morning, but he saw nothing but compassion in the man’s eyes. “Hey, hey. It’s OK. You’re OK.”
Abbas’ lip quivered and he hugged the man tightly about the neck, burying his face in the Medicus’ lab coat. The Medicus said nothing as he helped Abbas to the restroom, snapping his fingers to summon a nurse to deal with the mess. He helped Abbas to get into a shower to clean himself off, giving him a fresh set of clothing afterwards.
“It’s common for people going through what you did to have some difficulties.” Medicus Franklin said as he helped Abbas back to his bed. “You were out for a long time. We put you in a medical coma till we were sure that the implants had taken properly.”
Had he been asleep? Abbas shivered; it hadn't felt like it. Abbas had been living the dreams again, dreams of the fish and the flowers. The Manta had been with him, his shimmering companion through the stars. He remembered visiting parts of the galaxy too beautiful to describe and too terrible to imagine, seeing that which no mortal was entitled to witness.
It had a name, one too long and difficult to put into words, but he knew it all the same. It cared about him and all other humans. It loved them. Abbas shook his head, “I – thank you Medicus.”
“Call me Stephen,” The Medicus patted him on the shoulder. “The Magos wanted me to hand you over to her the second you woke up, but I’m not releasing you till I’m sure you’re ready to go.”
Abbas felt a stab of shame in his belly at how genuinely relived he was that Kerrigan wouldn’t be taking him back right away. He wasn’t sure if he could face her yet. Even hearing her name caused pain to flare across his back from where she’d scourged his flesh. He looked down at the floor, biting his lip.
“Abbas, so long as you’re my patient, then you’re safe. I give you my word.” The doctor made an x over his chest. “Cross my heart. I don’t care if it’s Kerrigan or God himself – nobody gets in the way of my patients getting well.”
“Thank you, Medicus,” Abbas shuffled his feet, using a mechandrite as a third leg to alleviate some of the weight on his back.
“Abbas, if you don’t mind me asking, why are you with that woman?” Genuine worry seeped into the Medicus’ tone.
“I’m lucky to be with the Magos,” Abbas looked up at the Medicus in surprise. “She is teaching me the ways of the Omnissiah. I will one day be a tech priest of the first order – Throne Willing – I will make ships and titans. I will know what they know!”
“Is it worth this?” Franklin gestured vaguely towards the mechandrites. “The pain? The shame? Having someone torture you? You’re just a kid – you should be somewhere discovering how to date pretty girls, not getting medieval medical procedures from a human Swiss Army Knife.”
“I need to do this,” Abbas tasted hollow desperation on his tongue. “I need to matter.”
“You don’t have to do anything to prove that you matter. Everyone matters.” The Medicus helped him back into bed. “Kid, you’re smart. Heck, you’re speaking English better than any Imperial I’ve met yet, and you’ve been here as long as anyone. You don’t need her.”
Abbas blinked. Throne above, he was speaking English. When had he learned that? How had he learned that? It hadn’t even occurred to him that he shouldn’t know it. It came as easy as breathing.
“I suppose,” he replied, lying on his side so that the mechandrites could hang off the side of the bed. “I still want to learn, though.”
“Don’t ever stop wanting to learn.” The Medicus smiled. “But don’t let anyone use your eagerness to know things as a way of controlling you. Knowledge is for everyone.”
“The Magos would probably disagree with you on that,” Abbas snorted.
“You don’t say,” Medicus Franklin’s acerbic retort could have cut glass.
Abbas quickly changed the subject, pointing to the man sharing his hospital room. “Who is that?”
“That is another patient of mine.” Dr. Franklin smiled, apparently extremely pleased with himself. “He had a number of modifications done to him against his will. It’s taken me a couple of weeks and a number of experimental procedures, but I think I’ve finally gotten him to where he’ll be able to live a normal life.”
“Modifications?” Abbas queried, looking at the peacefully sleeping man.
“Someone cut open his brain, forced him to stop being who he was. They took out all of the parts which made him human so that he could be used as a slave.” Franklin shuddered. “He was a weapon against his will.”
“What did he do to deserve that?” Abbas blinked.
“Son, nobody deserves that.” The Medicus shook his head sadly. “You don’t get to fix the wrong things in life by doing something worse. It doesn’t matter if the person is a murderer, rapist, or anything else – torturing them won’t help their victims.”
“Pain cleanses the unclean and the unworthy,” Abbas replied, quoting his scripture.
“You have a lot to learn about the world kid,” Franklin sighed, adjusting the other man’s morphine drip when he started kicking in his sleep. “Hate and cruelty only bring more of the same.”
Abbas didn’t have the energy to argue with the Medicus, so he closed his eyes and dreamed again of the fish and the flowers. The glowing manta was there to greet him, as always, smiling paternally as it took him under its wing.
Since returning to Babylon 5, Delenn had been busier than she’d ever been. Assisting Sinclair in relocating to his former station without anyone being any the wiser had not been easy, but somehow the Rangers had managed. Events were not moving as they were supposed to; the winds of time and fate had stopped obeying the prescribed paths of destiny.
It was troubling, to say the least. Ancient beings and societies were acting in ways never previously observed. The only consisted fact in the reports from the rangers was that trouble was on the horizon. Confusingly, the ancient enemy appeared equally harried by whatever was plaguing the known worlds. Several known strongholds of the enemy had simply disappeared, planets and moons reduced to rubble and slag.
The Vorlons denied all involvement or knowledge of who’d done it. Even more troubling were the early reports of worlds being conquered on the border planets, worlds whose hyperspace gates were destroyed soon after their conquest.
So it was that Delenn found herself sitting in on the first session for the Babylon 5 Advisory Council in which she didn't know the correct course of action. The path had seemed so much clearer to her when she’d been in the garden with Sinclair, talking of his plans for stopping the great enemy in their tracks. Now, she wasn’t so sure.
To say that this was an unconventional session of the Babylon 5 Advisory council would be an exercise in understatement. Of the five major races, one was represented by a proxy ambassador, another was absent entirely, and a third was under house arrest. It was not ideal, to say the least. Still, with the return of Sheridan to his post as Captain of Babylon 5, at least one of the pieces had fallen back into its proper place. Destiny would still be fulfilled with her help.
In Valen’s name, it would be so.
The Captain stood, looking around the League of Non-Aligned Worlds. “I am pleased to announce that I will be continuing to serve as the Ambassador for the Earth Alliance and commander of this station. It is good to see you again, even if we are meeting under such dire circumstances. We are here to discuss the new military threats discovered in the past months.”
He nodded to Lt. Corwin, “Open it.”
The Lieutenant tapped his data pad, activating the display behind the Captain. An image of an oblong black ship covered in long black claw-like ridges and tentacle-like appendages appeared on the screen.
“This is the first of the recently discovered ship designs encountered at the Battle of Sh’lassen. The Imperial Ambassador identified them as belonging to a war criminal from the Empire. We don’t know the extent of his military assets, but judging by his confirmed attacks upon Vree and Abbai shipping lanes, we are forced to assume they are extensive. We have reliable confirmation that these ships are equipped with stealth capability equal to or greater than that of the Minbari.” The Captain tapped the screen once, summoning an image of an all-too-familiar fleet.
“Ambassador G’kar has personally vouched for the authenticity of these vid captures.” Na’Toth hissed in agreement, “They are supported by a fleet of Dilgar vessels. We don’t yet know how the Dilgar escaped the destruction of their sun, but they are clearly less extinct than we initially predicted.”
“If that weren’t bad enough, their ground forces are, to put it frankly, evil.” Captain Sheridan shuddered. “The ‘half-breeds’ are a species that procreates by taking and forcibly impregnating sentient species. Their young apparently absorb the most genetically beneficial traits of whatever race they encounter, then burrow out through the parent, eating them alive.”
“Preliminary autopsies of those corpses recovered from Matok indicates that some several thousand species have been absorbed into the ‘half-breed’ genome to create at least six variants of the creature.” Lieutenant Corwin added, “However it is certain that the man who designed them, the renegade Inquisitor Faust, had access to DNA from the Humans, Narn, Centauri, Minbari, and two other as of yet unidentified species which form the genetic basis for all subsequent variants.”
Denenn’s stomach turned. Everything about these “half-breeds” was a violation of both decency and nature. Faust had warped and twisted the very essence of what made a creature alive and warped it into a weapon. Their oblong proportions and cruel faces were made all the more terrifying now that she recognized the patterns and contours of the jutting protrusions of bone.
She subjugated her aversion and focused on the Lieutenant’s voice. Learning, she could conquer this foe if she knew it well enough. Lt. Corwin’s cheeks colored. “We – uh – know this due to the taxonomic consistencies between all the variants. Specifically the bony crests, mottled skin, iron rich blood, and … tentacles…”
“Wait,” The Abbai ambassador blinked, watching the video footage of a half-breed rip a man to shreds with its barbed tentacles. “You mean those are…”
Delenn couldn’t help herself. She let out a foul oath in the language of the Religious Caste. Not that anyone heard her say it; the noise had become a cacophony of swearing and disgust.
“At one point, yes,” Sheridan interjected over the collective retching and disgust of the Ambassadors. “Our xenologists apparently hypothesize the original purpose was largely bred out of them en lieu of the venom they currently secrete from those appendages, but we have at least anecdotal evidence to suggest that they’re capable of fulfilling both roles based upon their treatment of female prisoners of war.”
“I would advise against getting stung.” a smarmy voice replied, one that sent shivers of terror down Delenn’s spine. Delenn resisted the urge to run away screaming as Mr. Morden walked into the room, taking the seat the Centauri normally occupied next to John Sheridan. “Or becoming a prisoner.”
“Allow me to introduce my associate, Mr. Morden. The Earth Alliance Government has loaned him to me. He is an expert on – well, everything, at least according to him.” John shrugged. “He is our subject matter expert on the second race to appear on Sh’lassen.”
“Indeed.” Mr. Morden. “But I’m only half of the team which will be needed to explain what you’re dealing with. For the next part..." he drawled, staring at a blank space on the floor.
“Yes,” a familiar rumbling tone growled. The Vorlon Kosh shimmered into view out of seemingly nowhere, standing at his place as though he’d been there the whole time.
Delenn’s eyes bulged as she looked from the Vorlon, to Morden, to the Captain and back. This was going to get worse long before it got better.
“Holy mother of – ” Captain Sheridan nearly leapt out of his own skin. He looked to Morden in confused anger. “You knew about this?”
Mr. Morden pulled a sheet of paper out from his pocket. “Ambassador Kosh, on behalf of President Clark, please allow me to present you with an official pardon for all apparent wrongdoings currently impeding your ability to serve as ambassador.”
“What?” The Captain squawked like a scalded cat. Sheridan’s hands shook with rage as he confirmed that Kosh’s pardon was genuine. He cleared his throat, subduing the urge to scream incoherently before speaking in a dangerous murmur, “It’s real.”
Delenn hadn’t ever seen the Captain that angry – not once, not even in the heat of battle. She wanted to comfort him, to offer him some word of encouragement that would fix this, but none came to her. She settled for reaching out and touching his sleeve.
The Captain glared in her direction, a look that might have shattered crystal, but she stared back into his eyes and shook her head slowly. “Captain – he knows more than anyone else. The Vorlons may well be the only race who can give us the knowledge we need to survive.”
The Captains pragmatism was apparently greater than his rage. He sat down in his chair, furious but silent. Delenn was pleased to notice that he had not brushed her hand away from his arm.
“Are we done yet?” The smarmy voice of Mr. Morden seemed to crawl through the room.
The Vorlon replied to Mr. Morden, speaking over the frenzied murmuring of the League. “Continue.”
“Right,” Mr. Morden ignored to look of betrayed surprise on the Captain’s face, tapping the screen to summon the next vid capture – a solar sailed dart-ship. “Allow me to introduce you to an Alai war ship. Let me be perfectly clear: If you encounter an Alai ship and lose, do not surrender. Under no circumstances are you to ever allow yourself to be captured.”
“The Alai have violated the terms of what was to be.” The Vorlon’s eye flashed crimson. “The younger are guarded by shadow and light – no other was to intervene.”
“Vorlon, you and I both know that the specific goals of the Alai Starstriders are not outside the terms. It was rude of them not to declare their presence, but the arrival of the Enemy more than justifies their decision to intervene.” Mr. Morden shook his head. “Their decision to start poaching from the younger races, however, is not within the bounds of what is reasonable.”
“I do not understand,” Na’Toth queried. “You both speak of these creatures as if they should be known to all of us.”
“They are known to my government – though we have no word for them,” Delenn admitted. “Though what little we know is from cryptic warnings and the ruins of any colonies we created in territory they decided was too close to their own.”
Morden snorted, tapping the screen to bring up a still shot of a smiling, slender creature holding curved blades to chop an alliance marine in half, “The Children of Isha view all of creation as ‘their territory’ and the Vorlons as reckless children. The Alai are a splinter group of their main territories, fanatics obsessed with the second of the races to appear on Matok.”
He summoned an image of a skeletal creature, clad in the fleshly flensed skin of sentient beings. “The Necrons. The enemy of all creatures in the universe.”
“The Enemy of all.” Hissed the Vorlon.
“They’re not my enemy.” Interjected the Brakiri ambassador. “I’ve never even heard of the Necrons.”
Morden laughed, “They don’t care. The Necron Dynasties view all other life as slaves and soon to be corpses – and they have the firepower to back it up. A single Necron and it’s outpost’s garrison warship were capable of defeating the entirety of Faust’s forces at Matok, including a substantial contingent of Alai Sartstriders, without taking any recorded losses. This was one ship. There are millions, possibly even billions of planets just like Matok with hidden fortresses and fleets which put those of Matok’s Dynasty to shame.”
“War has been declared,” Agreed Kosh. “We must answer, as one.”
Mr. Morden nodded in agreement. “Indeed. It would seem that the petty squabbles of our kind must be ignored in light of this new threat. The Guardians must fulfill their purpose.”
“I would see the ones with whom I am to make a pact.” Kosh’s booming voice echoed in the small chamber.
“The question has already been answered to their satisfaction,” Mr. Morden smiled, snapping his fingers.
Delenn’s jaw dropped as a trio of massive, chitinous, black creature shimmered into view, their multiple compound eyes flashing as they hissed and chittered in their curious language. The Shadows had revealed themselves to the universe.
“Allow me to introduce my associates,” Mr. Morden waved to the room at large. “The one of the two guardians tasked with the protection of the younger races. Isn’t that right, Kosh?”
The Vorlon said nothing in reply, but its red eye pulsed slowly.
“Ah ah ah – you know what we’re owed.” Mr. Morden poked the Vorlon’s encounter suit in the chest, laughing jovially. “Say it.”
The Vorlon’s eye continued to pulse.
“Say it.” Mr. Morden grinned as the trio of black creatures gibbered in sing-song whispers, “If you want our help, then say it.”
The glowing eye narrowed to a pinprick of light, “The Vorlon Government moves for the Shadows to be added to formally recognized by this council. We furthermore nominate their ambassador, Mr. Morden, to the Babylon 5 advisory council, as they are the equals of our own Empire.”
“What!” Delenn all but screamed. She felt the room spinning round her as reality ceased to hold all meaning.
“The Narn second this decision.” Na’Toth smiled, her crimson eyes full of greed. Without the Centauri here to vote, she could take credit for their election without ever giving credit to her hated enemy.
Delenn looked to the Vorlon in desperation, begging him to see reason. “Kosh – I cannot do this. I cannot support this. This is evil.”
“The lesser evil,” Mr. Morden corrected her. “And the price of our deal, Naranek.”
“No,” Delenn shook her head violently. “No I will not allow this.”
“I’m afraid that I won’t be supporting this either,” Captain Sheridan interjected. “And as the Centauri are absent, the motion cannot pass till their return.”
Mr. Morden pulled another sheet of paper from his jacket and passed it over to the Captain. “Captain Sheridan, I’m afraid you have no choice in this matter. President Clark has made his feelings on the matterabundantly clear.”
The Captain looked over the paper, his eyes searching for any inconsistency or error to the official orders he’d been handed. Apparently finding none he picked up his gavel. His voice shaking with barely controlled rage, he rapped it twice on the table. “The Earth Alliance votes yea on this matter. The shadows are admitted to the Babylon 5 advisory council, with Mr. Morden as their Ambassador.”
“The pact is made?” Kosh hissed.
“We will play our part, Naranek.” Ambassador Morden replied, leaning back in the Centauri chair as he brought his feet up to rest on the table. “You’ve won your peace. Now let's win the war.”
“Shadows and light are bound,” The Vorlon nodded, shimmering out of view along with the trio of spidery creatures. “Together we go to war.”
Delenn found herself clutching the Captain’s arm as much for her comfort as for his, as Ambassador Morden continued to describe the macabre horrors of the Necrons. Whatever deal had been brokered with the Shadows, her own purpose in life had been discarded as part of the price.
A tear streamed down the side of her face, as Delenn realized how truly lost she really was.
Inquisitor Hilder sighed in exhaustion, wincing as he lowered himself into the cushioned chair sitting in what remained of Sáclair's study. Though they were the private apartments of House Sáclair had not fared well in the battle for Matok. Cairn and most of the Sáclair household had busied themselves with the debris in the hallway, as the Captain and Daul conferred in private.
The Inquisitor half-heartedly kicked at a shard of what might have once been a Matrala-wood desk, wondering if there even was a planet Martrala left from which to harvest mahogany.
“I don’t suppose you have any brandy on hand, do you?” he asked dejectedly.
Sáclair fixed him with a disgusted gaze. “My home is in ruins and you’re looking for my liquor?”
“Do you have the brandy or not?” Daul rubbed the sleep from the corner of his eyelids.
“Inquisitor Daul Hildur,” Sáclair pulled a steel cylinder from the ruins of his desk, pouring its contents into two of the least-damaged glasses. “Who do you think you’re dealing with?”
Daul groaned as he stood up, stiff and sore from days without sleep. He grabbed the glass and drank the amber liquid gratefully, “I think you’re a pompous, arrogant, self-absorbed lunatic with an ego capable of eating a star system.”
Sáclair tilted his glass in a minor salute, “Great minds think alike.”
Daul snorted in amusement. “How badly was the ship damaged?”
Sáclair sighed, “Worse than Tanagra 2, nowhere near as bad as Belzafest. Our biggest losses were to personnel. The damned knife-ears took out everything they could before we got them off my ship.”
“Do we have the medical supplies to cover the wounded?” Daul asked as his artificial hand twitched from a misfiring neuron. He hadn't had time to have it recalibrated since the battle.
“We can save the crucial personnel,” Sáclair shrugged. “But we’re going to encounter a labor deficiency on the way back to new Belzafest. Even with the women and children back onboard, we’re only just barely avoiding press-ganging the Belzafesters.”
“You’ll avoid it entirely,” Daul growled. “They’re part of my household.”
“Your household won’t get anywhere if I can’t staff this ship Inquisitor.” Sáclair snapped, before he sighed. “But it hardly matters in the long run. We ran out of ammunition for most of the broadsides; only the lances are still operating at full capacity. If we get into another scrape like that one, we won't be walking out of it.”
“Can’t we manufacture ammunition?” Daul sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose.
“Not unless you’re hiding a forge-world inside your apartment I don’t know about,” Sáclair replied. “This is a trade ship, not a deep space exploration vessel. The Endless Bounty was never intended to go this long without making port on an Imperial world.”
“We’re going to have to set up some sort of manufacturing facilities on Belzafest. To restock the ammunition.” Daul ran his augmentic hand through his hair. “The sooner, the better. Till then, we’re just going to have to hope we don’t get into any major fights.”
“Dare to dream, Hildy – dare to dream.” Sáclair snorted. “The knife-ears aren’t going to forget that we fought them. It might not come today, it might not come tomorrow, but they will have their revenge. We have the benefit of the Narn-Centauri fleet between here and our new home-world, but it won’t last forever.”
Daul opened his mouth to reply but Sáclair interrupted him, “Inquisitor, we can’t keep relying upon dead races and legends to keep saving us. Of the last two conflicts this ship has been in, it has essentially taken divine intervention to net us a victory.”
“I know,” Daul admitted. “But we must stop whatever Faust is trying to achieve.”
“Hilder, I have been remarkably patient with this quest. I know that I’m honor bound to serve you till the end, but I’m genuinely starting to have my doubts that it even can be done.” The captain raised his hands pleadingly. “We’re treading water. We’ve been treading water since Belzafest. It’s time to start picking a direction before we drown.”
Hilder tried to snap at the Rogue Trader, but the reproach died on his lips as his unsaid words ran headfast into Sáclair's brutal logic. For a moment, the core of strength that Hilder leaned on was not enough. The Inquisitor's uncompromising resolve faded, as he began to truly comprehend the sheer magnitude of the task before him.
“You’re right,” The Inquisitor admitted, as the veneer of calm he so carefully maintained cracked in two. Tears ran down the sides of his face; he'd wondered before if he was even capable of it anymore. “Thronebut I know you’re right, Nathaniel."
“Inquisitor Hilder? Daul?” Sáclair replied, in a moment of genuine concern. “Are you alright?”
“I – I’m not strong enough for this Nathaniel.” Daul shook his head. “I don’t know if any of us are. You weren’t there. You didn’t see it. Faust tore apart that world, he woke creatures that should have slept forever. And it was just one move in his plan.”
“The Necron knew me, Captain. It knew we were coming. It planned on our arrival.” Daul shuddered. “I don’t know how, but it had been planning on our arrival for ages. It chided me for arriving late.”
“Inquisitor, it was trying to get into your head – to drive you mad with these questions.” Sáclair placed his hand comfortingly on the Inquisitor’s shoulder. “Eldar, Necron, it makes no difference. Xenos thrive upon our doubt and grief.”
“This was different Captain. It was no mere ploy. The Pretorian’s emissary knew my language even before I walked on that planet.” He pulled a book from his pocket. “It is a prayer – part of their scripture since the colony was founded. A greeting specifically for me was in the prayers of their priesthood for generations.”
“How is that possible?” Sáclair blinked.
“That is a very good question,” Daul replied. “A better one is ‘what do the Eldar have to gain by allying themselves with Faust?”
“The Eldar have little enough rhyme or reason to their behavior,” Sáclair replied. “Why focus on them?”
“Because it is another mystery, Sáclair. We know that the Craftworld Eldar all use soul stones to protect themselves from the warp, and yet we found precious few stones among their dead.” He tapped his temple with his index finger knowingly, “The logical conclusion is that they are their dark brethren from the webway, yet it is equally erroneous. We know that the Dark Eldar make no use of combat telepaths from their own kind, and yet we found more psykers in their ranks than ever seen before.”
“There is another matter requiring your attention, Inquisitor,” Sáclair reached over to the table, opening a cloth shroud to reveal a massive dagger. “One that the Lionhearts brought directly to me.”
“That is an Astartes combat blade,” Daul blinked in shock. “Where did they get it? Why was I not informed of this?”
“As to the where; Faust’s bunker, apparently impaling his general.” Sáclair replied. “As to the why; Sergei’s team found it in the primary command bunker.”
“Ah,” Daul nodded. “I see.”
The Dilgar command bunker was buried deep underground, too far for the comm-beads to communicate with the outside world. In the time it took Sergei and his men to extricate themselves from the bunker, Daul had already boarded a transport to take him back to the Endless Bounty and recover. It was Sergei though. He might well have simply ‘forgotten’ to report that detail to the Inquisitor before reporting it to Sáclair.
Daul picked up the blade, feeling overwhelmed as he always did when faced with the sheer mass of Astrates equipment. It was an antique Karzhan Dagger, a relic of the old legions. They had been common enough prior to the fall of Horus but the knowledge of this particular blade’s construction was lost in the fall. To Daul’s knowledge fewer than 5,000 blades of Karzhan make existed within the Empire, most of them in the possession of the Salamanders chapter.
He flipped it over, looking at the iconography and let out a low whistle. “This was a blade from the Dark Angel’s main garrison. Look at the markings – Luther’s men held this blade. I didn’t think any relics from the fall of Caliban were in circulation.”
“The Dilgar general was crucified and nailed to the ceiling with that and five more like it,” He hefted a thick burlap sack onto the table. It thudded with the weight of more Astrates combat blades.
Daul’s eyes bugged as he opened the satchel only to find five more blades with the same markings, “Sáclair – any one of these blades is worth the value of an entire star system. You’re telling me that someone discarded six of them to make a point?”
“The corridors were apparently lined with bolter casings and about a million other clear signs of the presence of one or more Space Marines,” Sáclair sighed. “Space Marines who were fighting to leave the bunker.”
Daul’s mind froze as it struggled to process this new information. “Faust has Space Marines serving him.”
“He was an Inquisitor.” Sáclair replied. “Is it so implausible that he might have a couple of Dark Angels working for him?”
“For Faust? Entirely.” Daul snorted. “Dark Angels do not associate with traitors. They certainly don’t discard chapter relics to make a point. No, I suspect that it is more likely that Faust has some of the traitor war band at his command.”
“I thought Faust wasn’t affiliated with the Ruinous Powers,” Sáclair quirked an eyebrow. “We haven’t exactly been dealing with demons and sorcerers in his armies.”
“He is not – at least not that anyone has ever been able to verify reliably.” Daul tapped the flat of the blade with his fingertip. “But Traitor Legions aren’t all in the grip of the Warp. The Imperium doesn't like to advertise the fact, but we almost always have at least one rogue chapter of Space Marines rebelling against Imperial law for substantially more mundane reasons than the powers of Chaos. Space Marines are skilled warriors, but they’re ultimately people.”
“I’m still not loving the idea of going up against the Adeptus Astartes,” Sáclair grimaced. “My Lionhearts are skilled, but there are limits.”
Daul considered it. “Nor I, but I suspect that he has too few Marines for them to represent more than a symbolic threat. He was using his Marines to either coordinate the battle or to keep the Dilgar general in line. Had he any substantial number of them we would have seen them on the battlefield – even a half-company would have routed that fortress in weeks, not months.”
“Inquisitor, this is not the first time Faust has shown resources and knowledge far beyond what you’d estimated. He has ships, men and materials light-years in excess of what we estimated.” Sáclair grew uncharacteristically serious. “Hilder, what is Faust's end-game?.What is so important that the Eldar, Necrons, and Space Marines are getting involved?”
“We don’t know.” Daul replied. “Honestly, we don’t.”
“Come on,” Sáclair snorted. “You’ve been spouting that for months now. He was a prominent Inquisitor for centuries before his fall. He published books in common circulation. You must have some sort of guess.”
“I prefer not to speculate,” Daul replied.
“Inquisitor, that is a lie. You do nothing but speculate about that man.” The captain sighed. “Don’t waste my time on lies or platitudes. Just talk to me.”
“I have considered the matter.” Daul admitted, tapping his fingers together pensively. “Faust was brilliantin his time. A visionary. When he first started, many in the Inquisition genuinely believed that he might well be able to help us reach the glories of days long past.”
“There are – factions – within the Inquisition; philosophical outlooks on how the Empire ought to be governed. Sometimes these differences of opinion are academic, easily sorted out in debate,” He paused, considering his next words. “Other times they become more – proactive – in their disagreements.”
“You mean they fight each other,” Sáclair interjected. “Kill each other.”
“Not always,” Sáclair shook his head. “Usually one simply uses their operatives to simply thwart the efforts of an Inquisitor heading down a dangerous or foolish path. In an extreme case one might get them censured, arrested or excommunicated for dangerous behavior.”
“No wonder you’re all so damned secretive,” Sáclair snorted. “You’ve got all the power in the world, but if you use it even slightly wrong and someone finds out about it, your peers will bring down a star sector's worth of hurt on you.”
“Correct,” Daul replied. “At some point Faust got ahold of an alien artifact – I don’t know what – which apparently held some sort of genomic lexicon for almost every species in the galaxy. Faust believed that alien DNA might hold the key to restoring our place in the galaxy at large. I don’t know precisely how he did it, but he bred the first of the half-breeds as an attempt to create his own perfect man. He wanted to create a warrior to replace the Adeptus Astrates, one which would be immune to the taint of Chaos.”
“Oooh,” Sáclair winced. “Yes. I can see how that would irk the hardline purists.”
“Even the more esoteric factions found the idea of creating a xenos-blood primarch to be excessive. His research was banned, and the source materials and experiments were to be handed over to the Adeptus Mechanicus to be processed and studied, then destroyed.” Daul snorted. “Faust took it poorly. He refused to hand over what he’d learned, insisting that there was a greater picture at work than we realized. He repelled the forces sent to force his obedience, and launched a crusade across Imperial space that left words aflame as he collected information towards that end. He bred thousands of different types of his monsters, conquering those planets with materials relevant to his research.”
“I don’t get it though,” Sáclair shook his head. “If he was such a good Inquisitor, why would he go rogue?”
“Because he refused to believe that he could be wrong, I suppose.” Daul shrugged. “Arrogance is often the folly of my profession.”
“You don’t say?” Sáclair smiled, his tone jovial – a polite joke at the Inquistor’s expense.
“In all honesty,” Daul replied, dismissing the captain's good-hearted jibe with a wave of his hand, “Faust’s goals are ultimately for his own benefit. You can’t start trying to figure out what his end game is. He’s insane, drunk on his own power. Whatever his original purposes might have been, I suspect that he’s simply stuck in the forward momentum of what he started. There well may be no end goal.”
“The Eldar don’t work with someone who doesn't further their goals, Inquisitor,” The Captain shook his head. “There is a goal. You mark my words, he’s working towards something.”
“True,” Daul sighed. “All too true.”
“Well, I’m going to get pissed drunk and pass out till we reach the colony.” Sáclair clapped his hands together. “Would you care to join me in dulling my wits?”
“No,” The Inquisitor shook his head and finished his drink. “But thank you. I have interrogations to conduct and footage to review.”
“Never a dull moment with you, is there Inquisitor?”
“My dear Captain.” Daul smiled. “If we make it through this – if we actually manage to capture Faust – I will spend a week in the most raging, drunken bacchanalia of debauchery and victory you’ve ever seen.”
“Now that would be a sight to see, my dear Inquisitor.”
Jeffery Sinclair’s changeling net concealed his true features, but could only moderately dull the look of disappointment on his face as he looked around the ruined remnants of the Zocalo. It was mostly clean of debris and largely repaired after it’s unfortunate run in with the third space creature, but it wasn’t the same. He recognized few of the shops and fewer of the faces in them.
Much though it hurt him to say it, this was no longer his station.
It felt wrong to slink back on to Babylon 5 like a criminal, secreting himself through the back channels and criminal networks he’d spent so much time, effort and energy trying to dismantle during his tenure as commanding officer of Babylon 5. Here he was, a respected member of the Earth Alliance government, cowering behind a changeling net to prevent himself from discovery by those who would call him friend.
It was all too voyeuristic.
It was also far more difficult than he’d first assumed it would be. Garibaldi’s ordered enhancements to station security were borderline draconian, with spot checks and random scans of passing sentient creatures to look for contraband. He’d already seen someone dragged off to the brig by Alliance Marines, not station security. Sheridan’s administration claimed that the presence of military personnel for police matters was a “temporary” solution, but the intelligence that the Rangers could collect from the Senate indicated the opposite.
Clark’s government was quickly gaining support from even moderate elements of the Earth Alliance. The sudden instability of the alien races of the galaxy had people spooked. Colonies were losing shipments to unknown brigands, and even the Rangers weren’t sure who was the culprit. And while it wasn’t common knowledge yet, several outlying Earth Alliance colonies had ceased communication with the Earth Alliance altogether.
Were it a single system it could be written off as coincidence or equipment failure, but three colonies had already gone quiet in the space of a week. None of them were particularly significant - scientific outposts and way stations for the refueling of starships - but all of them were within a dozen light years of each other.
Even more troubling, someone was destroying hyperspace gates to specific systems. None of the systems held any obvious connections, nor were any connected to any known civilizations on record. Dead worlds were disappearing.
People were scared. They had a right to be scared. None of this was part of the plan.
“We are ready for you, Entil’zah,” muttered the cloaked Minbari to Jeffery’s right. “The room has been checked. We detect no listening devices.”
“And telepaths?” Jeffery asked. “We have a detection net in place?”
“A triad of Minbari telepaths are in place to ensure no wandering minds find us.” The Ranger pulled back his hood as they walked past the doors of a newly finished dojo, specifically one training in the Minbari martial arts.
Jeffery followed the Ranger, idly noting that their guards weren’t quite as concealed as they ought to have been. The pair of muscular humans stuck out like a sore thumb, loitering in front of a Minbari establishment. They’d have to install a bench or something; there needed to be a reason for people to linger in that place, or people would question it.
Then again, perhaps something more overt was called for under the circumstances.
The Rangers had elected to place their on-station headquarters in the dojo as a way of hiding it in plain sight. Nobody would ask why Minbari or humans were entering a dojo at any given hour of the day or night. Virtually any odd behavior or noises could be explained away as “training exercises,” and the occasional presence of non-Minbari Rangers would be largely ignored.
They would of course actually have to teach martial arts, but the Ranger commander in charge of the dojo assured Jeffery that it would provide them with a viable recruiting pool for future Rangers.
The Dojo was a mess, a gutted section of the Zocalo that had been abandoned after the battle with the Thirdspace creature. Still it comfortably accommodated the six Minbari and five humans sitting Indian style on the charred ground in meditation.
“Do we have any news of Ivanova or Garibaldi?” Jeffery accepted the Ranger’s data pad, reading over the Ranger reports for the day. Two rangers dead, thirty missing in action – either they were getting careless, or the security forces of the Non-Aligned worlds were getting far more competent.
“Ivanova has been contacted, Entil’zah. We expect to hear from the operative soon.” The Ranger bowed apologetically. “As to Mr. Garibaldi, he and two others are being escorted by Ranger Cole back to the station.”
“Two others?” Jeffery looked up from signing a requisition order for starship bio-armor components. “Who?”
“The report did not say.” The Ranger replied with characteristic Minbari stoicism. “I presume they are important specifically because of how little was said. There was a message from Mr. Garibaldi.”
“Really?” Jeffery handed the data pad back to the ranger. “What?”
“Mr. Garibaldi politely requests that you shoot his companions ‘if they so much as sneeze in a funny tone.’ Ranger Cole indicated that the statement was not made in jest.” The Minbari shrugged. “Whomever his companion is warranted the inclusion of a telepath triad to prevent psychic maleficence. It is wise to assume danger.”
“I’ll keep it in mind,” Jeffery looked around the empty space of the dojo. “How long do you think it’s going to take to get equipment in here?”
“I’m not sure, Entil’zah. We de-prioritized improving the interior in light of the political changes.” The Ranger chewed his lip. “We only have sixteen Rangers on station; I instructed them to make their overtures with the local players to establish an information network on station.”
“Well, have them do that and hang heavy bags.” Jeffery scratched the back of his head. The gesture made his changeling net’s holographic skin flutter in front of his face, briefly blinding him. “Agh!”
The Ranger politely ignored his outburst. It wasn’t the first time Jeffery had made that mistake, and likely wouldn’t be the last.
“I keep forgetting that thing is on.” He blinked the stars out of his eyes before continuing. “No, we need to look motivated to get this place up and running or somebody is going to wonder what we’re really doing. Get the men to work it in two-person shifts, and make sure they’re seen to be working on it. It doesn’t matter if they’re effective, just that they’re obvious.”
“Understood, Entil’zah.” He bowed, interlocking his fingers in a Minbari prayer gesture. “I do so immediately.”
“See that you do.” Jeffery tapped the pin on his jacket, deactivating the changeling net. The world briefly turned blue as several spectrum of light filtered by the net instantly became visible.
His communicator chirped twice and he answered it, “What is it?”
“The Ambassador is here. She says it’s important,” one of the men guarding the door radioed back.
“Let her in,” Sinclair replied. That was odd; he’d expected Sheridan’s meeting of the Babylon 5 advisory council to have taken longer. He turned from the door as it opened to the Zocalo, pulling his hood up to conceal his face from any passerby.
He waited for the door to close before pulling it back and smiling, “Hello Delenn. How did the – ” He stopped, catching sight of Delenn’s tear-streaked face and puffy eyes. “Delenn, what happened?”
“The Shadows have been admitted to the Babylon 5 advisory council at the behest of Ambassador Kosh.” The Minbari Ambassador brushed an errant hair out of her eyes. “They’ve revealed themselves to the younger races and declared their presence.”
“We aren’t ready for this yet,” Jeffery swore. “The Whitestar fleet isn’t even half built, and Naranek knows it. What is he playing at?”
“I tried asking him after the meeting ended.” Delenn shook her head. “He told me that ‘even fate isn’t inevitable.’ That horrible man is an ambassador.”
“Morden is here? Operating in the open?” That wasn’t supposed to happen. Little enough was known about the Shadows, but the Rangers had centuries of collected knowledge of their habits and tactics. The shadows were secretive to the extreme. Even the true name of their species was a matter of pure speculation. To outright announce themselves to the universe at large was anathema to their very being. “The Necrons are even more of a threat than we’d assumed.”
“Lennier has tried to look through the archives for some reference, any reference to the Necrons. We have nothing about them, even in my copies of the secret archives of the Grey Council.” Delenn shivered. “I think that Kosh is afraid of them.”
“I think we all should be afraid of them,” Jeffery agreed. “Have you seen the preliminary reports from the rangers deployed to Shi’lassen? Teleportation, the use of pocket dimensions as weapons, the ability to phase straight through solid matter; it reads like science fiction.”
“It troubles me, Entil’zah Sinclair.” Delenn shuddered. “We must continue to monitor the effects of this decision. It well may be that Kosh has some plan we are not seeing in the war to come.”
“And it well may be that the war we get isn’t the war we’ve been preparing for.” Jeffery sighed. “Delenn, this is why I came back with you. This is why we’re here. We need to learn what our next move is. We need to figure out how to secure a better future. Don’t give up on me now.”
“Entil’zah, I have given everything for our cause. I have given my body, my title, my right to rule our people – everything.” Her eyes hardened with the glint of determined fire he knew so well. “I’m not giving up. I can’t give up. I have nothing left to surrender. This cause is all I have left.”
“Good,” Jeffery agreed. “Delenn, do you think that you can sneak two people through customs with your diplomatic permissions?”
“That would depend on who, and why,” Delenn replied, curious.
“Garibaldi can give you both, once he gets through customs.” Jeffery smiled. “We’re going to need to talk to him about becoming a ranger anyway.”
“You think that he would join?”
“I think that once I tell him how much he’s going to be able to know about everyone’s dirty laundry, I’d have to beat him off with a stick.”
Stephen watched the man struggle to grasp at a cup of water. “Come on, you can do it. Easy. Easy now.”
The recently repaired paraplegic’s prosthetic fingers flexed awkwardly. The man had gone so long without proper hands that his body didn’t quite know what to do with proper manipulators. The pudgy ceramic digits shook with the effort of not crushing the cup.
“Good,” Stephen let go of the cup entirely, leaving it in the hands of his patient. “Now sip from it, slow and careful. Just take a drink.”
The patient looked at him in confusion. Stephen mimed sipping, remembering that the patient wouldn’t know the words for “drink” in English yet. With all the reconstructive brain surgery they’d done, it was a miracle the patient recalled his own name.
The patient raised the cup slowly, taking a drag of the cool liquid before starting to cough uncontrollably. He bent over the side of the bed, vomiting into a bucket next to the bed. Stephen patted the man sympathetically on his back, “It’s just your gag reflex. Don’t worry about it. We’ll get you used to eating and drinking in no time.”
It was to be expected. The patient had consumed his nutrition intravenously for at least three years prior to his recovery in Stephen’s care. The man’s digestive system had atrophied in the intervening time. It would take gradual exposure to extremely nutritious foods before he could reliably control his own consumption of food.
The crude cybernetics had taken Stephen nearly a day of intensive surgery to remove, as well as an additional fifteen procedures to repair the man’s basic motor and cognitive functions. He doubted the man’s memories would ever recover properly, but he was certain that the former Imperial servitor could live a relatively normal life.
He couldn’t help everyone living under the yoke of Imperial rule, but so long as the servitor Dorn was under arrest, the Earth Alliance was obligate to provide him with proper medical treatment. An Earth Alliance judge had luckily agreed, delaying a trial till such time as Dorn could be reasonably expected to articulate a defense.
Not that it mattered. Stephen’s report on Dorn’s servitor state was more that sufficient for a verdict of “not guilty by reason of disease or mental defect.” The poor bastard hadn’t been more sentient than a houseplant before Stephen manually reconnected his synapses.
Stephen had every intention of sending his documentation of Imperial augmentation processes to Amnesty Intergalactic once he’d managed to restore Dorn to health. How anyone could do that to another thinking being was beyond him. The death of personality was controversial, but still afforded an individual the potential for happiness.
The Imperial servitor Dorn’s pain and fear sensors were hyper-stimulated at all times, subdued only by artificial implants displaying images from the Imperial Church and of his master, Inquisitor Hilder. At the drop of the hat those barriers could be disabled, turning Dorn into a psychotic killing machine immune to pain. It also basically meant that the only thing Dorn had actually felt in God only knew how long was total agony.
They'd taken everything that made Dorn human, except the memories of pain. They were psychotic bastards, the lot of them.
“OK, Dorn,” Stephen helped the man back into bed. “I’ve got to go now.”
The man said something that could have been the Imperial language, but was likely just a combination of sounds – he didn’t quite have his language centers operating properly yet. Stephen took the man’s smile to mean that he was pleased, though.
He pulled the curtain closed, making a note on the man’s chart that someone would have to try to switch him from IV bags over to gruel.
“Doctor Franklin,” A nurse approached him. “Do you have a moment?”
“Of course, Miss Trask,” Stephen smiled at the pretty nurse. “What is it?”
“You asked me to keep track of any strange behavior from the patient,” she said, pointing behind him to Dorn's bed. She shifted from heel to heel like an embarrassed child.
“I did,” Stephen replied, confused.
“Well, Doctor...I came in last night to check on the patients, and I heard the strangest noise. I couldn’t figure out what it was at first. It just sounded wrong.” She shivered. “It was laughter, the creepiest laughter I’d ever heard in my life.”
“He’s bound to have some strange ticks while his brain re-maps itself around the missing implants and restored synaptic pathways.” Dr. Franklin shrugged.
“Oh, I know that, doctor,” The nurse agreed. “But that’s not the strange part. You see I looked in on him, just to check that he was OK, and he was standing on the other side of the curtain as though he’d been waiting for me. He looked at me with wide eyes and said something in the Imperial language.”
“You’re sure it was actually a sentence?” The doctor asked.
“I'm positive,” The nurse nodded. “Abbas, the one in the other bed, heard it and translated for me. He said ‘none can stop my glorious purpose. Not even in death am I defeated.’ It creeped the hell out of me, doctor.”
“I wouldn’t worry about it too much, Ms. Trask.” Stephen replied. “The man has had religious dogma pumped into his skull for years. He’s going to be somewhat poetic in his language.”
“That’s what I thought.” Trask agreed. “But according to Abbas, it wasn’t part of any prayers he knew.”
“And you knew the entirety of scripture before you were fifteen?” Stephen laughed. “The kid is well intentioned, but I wouldn’t put too much stock in his understanding of the Imperial Creed."
“I suppose so,” Nurse Trask replied doubtfully. “Still, it just felt, oh I don’t know, wrong. More wrong than it normally does when a man looks at me, I felt like he was looking through me rather than at me.”
“I can have another nurse on call in case he gets out of hand, but I don't know what else I can do till he actually does something more substantial than talking in odd verse,” Stephen replied. “The man simply isgoing to have some quirks.”
“I guess,” The woman chewed her lip. “Doctor – do we know why they chose do lobotomize Dorn, exactly?”
“Does it matter?” Stephen replied. “I’m not here to care about the politics or histories of my patients. Once they come through that door, they are patients. Our only concern is how to get them well.”
“I guess– No, I know you’re right.” The woman sighed. “Of course, you’re right. It just freaked me out, is all.”
“It happens to all of us,” Franklin patted her on the shoulder. “Now, if you’d be so kind as to empty the bucket next to Dorn’s bed, I'll head over to my desk to catch a nap.”
“Yes Doctor.” The nurse nodded, ducking past the curtain.
It was not till the pneumatic doors to the long-term patient wing sealed shut on his way out that Dr. Franklin heard the first chilling trill of Dorn’s laughter, echoing through the bulkhead. When he got to his desk, what little rest Stephen found was fitful and full of the sounds of Dorn’s cruel amusement.