The Sh’lassen Triumvirate had predicted a quick victory against the rebels. They were, after all, a disorganized group of religious fanatics. They were eternal optimists. They were hopeful. They were idiots.
Of course none of that changed the fact that the rebels were winning the war. It was hardly difficult to realize why.
The rebels held the fortress of Matok. It had been hewn from the undying stone during the last great invasion of the old war. The impregnable construction was completed in the time before words the honored nameless gods, ancient races of power and might beyond imagining.
The honored nameless gods, who the holy books name as intrinsically cleverer and more dangerous than the Sh’lassen could dream to be, designed the great walls and impossible geometries shielding Matok from the rage of the Ever-dying armies of the Bringer of Nightmares in the time before their banishment.
The eternal secrets of the honored nameless were hidden in Matok. The riddle of their disappearance entrusted only to the priest caste. The priests had hidden it from the Sh’lassen people in the height of their arrogance. Now the priests rebelled so that they might hide the secret of the nameless for eternity.
Matok was called the place of fire in the old days and in the old legends. It earned that name. Geysers of natural gasses filled the air. The smells of sulfur and methane seeped into the very flesh of those who walked through it. To wander the fields of Matok was to be stained for life with its taint and be haunted by the distant rumble of exploding clouds in the distance.
The Triumvirate couldn’t begin to hope to mount an aerial assault or launch ballistic missiles at Matok. Any missile or aircraft flying through the skies of Martok simply exploded before reaching its indented target. Laser fire burned clouds but was refracted into nothingness before orbital bombardment could have any effect.
So they fought on the land, as their ancestors did, and theirs before them. The Triumvirate partisans huddled in deep trenches inching forwards step by laborious step. V’cath had spent the better part of the past year hunched and huddled in the steeping and sulfurous muck at the bottom of the trenches swatting the flies from his haunches and prying small stones from his hooves.
He hadn’t yet even seen a rebel. Supposedly they filed their horns down to the nub but he couldn’t imagine any man willingly cutting off his own horns. It’s no wonder they started this insane war. How can a man with no horns be expected to think rationally?
He looked over the edge, squinting from the glare and from the smell. The heat haze from the deep geysers of methane and sulfur blurred his vision and made everything in the distance look the same shade of red. Another benefit of the landscape that crippled the attackers, Sh’lassen eyes saw heat not color. V’cath’s normally acute sense of smell hadn’t noticed anything other than the overpowering smell of rotting eggs since he’d spent his first night in the trenches.
The war leaders of his company assured him that his nose would eventually become accustomed to the ambient scents and adapt. They also promised him that he would only be fighting for two weeks rather than two years. The government promised soldiers many things.
He took a bite of his ration bar and wondered idly when they would create rations that don’t all taste like they were chewed by at least three soldiers prior to reaching him. The bars, jokingly called “recycled food,” consisted of a number of nutrient supplements bound to a protein and fiber combination base with roughly the consistency of sawdust and steel wool. It was best not to think too hard about where the protein in them came from if one wanted to keep them down.
After three weeks in the trenches without support V’cath would have gladly killed his own father for just a bite of decent food and clean water.
The hard earth above the trench reverberated with the sounds of hoof beats and V’cath grabbed his rifle tighter to his chest. A voice bleated exhaustedly and a shabby looking grey figure landed horns first in the trench.
V’cath relaxed. The familiar grey and black spotted fir and yellow sash indicated him at a Triumvirate partisan. He crawled over and helped the partisan up, “Come now, we can’t have you going hooves up on me just yet.”
The partisan spat out a glob of muck from his mouth and massaged an egg-sized lump on the bottom of his throat. Like most of the southern partisans he was a bit parrot mouthed and seemed to be suffering from a slight case of bottle jaw from the parasites that lived in the earth.
V’cath noticed the black bandanna wrapped around Matok’s horns and snapped to attention. The man was one of the commanders of the foreword sorties, “Sorry sir. I did not realize who you were sir.”
“At ease,” the partisan commander pulled out a pair of field glasses and put them up to his face, looking to the sky. He muttered to himself in frustration, “Damn, damn, damn.”
“Sir?” V’cath strained his eyes looking at the sky, “What’s the matter?”
The commander furiously shoved the field glasses into V’cath’s hands, “Look for yourself.” V’cath nervously looked through the glasses. The ambient heat haze cleared out of his vision and he was left with a clear vision of a number of wide shapes falling through the sky towards the ground. Some damned fool must have ordered an air strike and gotten the wrong orbital coordinates.
He looked at V’cath, eyes roving over V’cath’s scout rank insignia, “Do you have a mobile communications setup or is your unit relying on runners?”
“Runners sir,” V’cath said nervously. There weren’t enough mobile communications equipment powerful enough to transmit through the magnetic interference of the local terrain, “The next one should be here in ten minutes.”
“Damn,” The commander swore loudly, “We need to get those deactivated remotely. If the rebels go on high alert the assault I’ve been planning for the past three days will have to retreat.” He spat on the ground, “Who would be so stupid? We haven’t tired anything like that since the first days of the war.”
“Sir,” V’cath felt his blood running cold, “I think we should take cover, now.”
“Are you giving me, orders whelp?” The commander snarled before V’cath grabbed him by the shoulders, shouted, “sooner would be better than later sir,” and tossed him into the shallow cave at the back of the trench, crawling in soon after.
The skies turned to fire, blinding and malodorous. The battlefield suddenly became a roaring inferno of screaming and gunfire as the geysers lit aflame and forced entire squads to run into open ground. After a few minutes of fire the partisan commander popped his head out of the cave and motioned for V’cath to follow.
The two crawled out and looked over the rim of the trench. Not twenty yards away a trio of surviving rebels was on the open ground, pawing through the remains of several partisan soldiers who’d tried, and failed, to use the fire as a distraction to conceal their assault.
"I'll overlook breaking the chain of command this once," the partisan growled. Mud had caked in his mane and dribbled from his horns.
V'cath snorted, it wasn't worth the effort to argue with the partisan. He was longer in the horn than V'cath by at least ten summers and no doubt ten times as stubborn to boot. Luckily he had three perfectly good reasons to ignore the partisan in his sights.
V’cath shouldered his bulbous weapon and fired sort stream of phased plasma at the nearest of the three. He caught the rebel’s shoulder, burning the flesh and tendons down to the bone. The rebel screamed and collapsed.
His fellow scavengers fell to the ground, shooting wildly and haphazardly. V’cath winced as a shot hit the earth in front of him, spraying his face with molten hot clay. He swatted the plasma-heated earth away from his face and resisted the urge to plunge his head into the pool of water at the bottom of the trench. It would provide a temporary comfort for his wound but more than likely go septic within hours.
The commander pulled a grenade out of a pouch on his bandolier and lobbed it towards in a high ark the prostrate rebels. They screamed and tried to run away but only managed to stand before it burst into a ball of flame, igniting a pocket of gas in the air and vaporizing them both. The commander yelled to V’cath, “Come on! We need to take the ground while we still can!”
V’cath nodded and left a red flag in the trench to let the runner know he’d advanced. The two of them hopped over the side and ran towards the next trench. As he hooves clipped over the packed earth V’cath prayed silently that there weren’t any land mines in the thick orange clay.
Only ten meters to go.
The commander was leaping over stretches of uneven ground and corpses with a grace that V’cath lacked. V’cath felt his own hooves slipping and shifting on stones and nearly tripped over the tangled limbs of half a partisan.
Only five meters to go
The terrifying smell of rotten eggs filled his nose. There was a gas pocket forming nearby. It could be a small one that would only burn his fur or a large one that would leave a steaming pile of charnel, either way he didn't want to find out.
Three meters to go.
V’cath ran as fast as his meaty haunches would propel his goatish body forewords. The commander was ahead of him, already jumping face-first into the narrow trench. V’cath leapt into the air and way flung forewords but the concussive force of the blasting gas bubble as a huge shape impacted with the earth behind him.
He tumbled head over hooves beyond the trench and collapsed into a crater. His entire body throbbed with pain. He lay on his back breathing laboriously, not even trying to move.
A sound, a loud reverberating a metallic squelch echoed from where V’cath had been flung. The thudding of metal on clay followed it soon after, echoing an unnatural reverberating chorus of growling mewls. A dozen shambling feel rushed along the ground, chattering and arguing in some guttural speech he could not place.
A plasma shot’s buzzing hiss cracked out and the commander yelled, “Stop where you are or we will open fire. I have ten men in this trench with me.”
Another shot rang out, “I’m serious damn it.”
Another shot, then another, and another, “Die! Damn you! Die!”
The commander screamed then went silent. V’cath shook in fear as the wet and unmistakable sounds of chewing echoed from the trench. The voices growled and hissed at each other with contempt as they chewed and swallowed luxuriously. An eternity later the great hulking sinewy men crawled over the edge of the trench and advanced towards the fortress of Matok. Their tentacles twitched angrily and the bursts of exploding gas lit up the spurs and crests of bone along their body terrifyingly. They each wore ragged scraps of armor bearing defiled images of what might have once been a two-headed bird of prey.
They walked only inches from his stunned body. He felt drips of blood drip off their talons and onto his charred fur. They dismissed his broken body and walked on, their hunger apparently sated for the moment.
It would be an hour till he got enough feeling back in his arms to drag himself back to the partisan camps or enough courage to risk being seen by the monsters. Time enough for him to sit and watch as some thousand capsules of the monsters impacted with the side of Matok.
Gods help them. The devils had returned for their ancestral home.
Michael hated the med bay. Dr. Franklin was nice enough, as good of a doctor as one could hope for, but the constant overpowering smell of antiseptics and sterile swabs was so thick he could taste it. It made him want to gag.
Why every doctor in the history of time had universally agreed that the doctor’s office must be a good three to five degrees colder than anywhere else was a mystery. Garibaldi sat shirtless on the table as the doc waved a dermal regenerator over his spine. It whirred and spat loudly.
After a few moments the doc nodded and pulled out a stethoscope, “Breathe in please”
Michael breathed in, grimacing at the feel of the cold metal and freezing hands on his back. He exhaled as slowly as he could, counting backwards from three. If he had to go through another week of this he would go insane.
“Again slowly,” Michael repeated the process, inhaling deeply and exhaling slowly. It burned a bit to move his chest that much but admitting it would get him another damned week of bed rest. Michel could have gladly never slept again.
“Does it hurt when I do that?” Dr. Franklin pressed down on a nerve cluster and throbbed badly.
“No” Michel lied, “No it’s fine I don’t feel a thing."
Dr. Franklin pressed down onto the nerve cluster and twisted. Michael jerked and yelled, “OW! Hey!”
“I don’t like it when my patients lie to me.” Dr. Franklin said in a tone of businesslike near calm. Michael recognized the tone, he used for interrogations. The Doc wasn't going to let him off easy this time. Damn, just his luck.
“Yeah well we could have discussed it. Geese what do you do when a patient’s late? Stick needles in their eyes.” The nerve cluster pounded with pain.
“I cannot fill out an honest physical evaluation without your co-operation,” the doctor waved around the stylus to his pen like he was brandishing a sword, “You are being cranky and difficult.”
“You try getting shot in the back sometime and see what it does for your disposition.” Michael started putting back on his shirt. His shoulder burned from the effort of twisting it back into the sleeve, “Ugh, so how’s it look?” Bad no doubt, it would be bad.
“Allowing for your tendency not to report everything that hurts, your condition seems to be improving right on schedule. I imagine you’ll be able to get back to work in the next day or so,” the way he said in a no-nonsense tone, “Providing you don't exert yourself.”
“Yeah… well I gotta check in with the new Captain first. See if he even wants me around,” Michael hedged, “Sides’ I don't know about this guy. I keep thinking how everybody and his brother wanted Sinclair outta’ here. Now all of a sudden this change of command.” He chewed his lip, “Sinclair I could trust. This guy… I don't know.”
Dr. Franklin quirked an eyebrow, “If you don’t mind my saying so, you didn’t exactly sound excited when I mentioned going back to work. I thought you’d be pleased.”
“Yeah I am,” Michael, said as much to convince himself as the doctor, “Mostly.”
Michael tried to leave the med bay when a hand reached out and firmly grabbed him by the shoulder, “Hey Michael!” Michael turned to the concerned face of Dr. Franklin, “Want to talk about it?”
“Doc what do you want me to say,” Michael sighed, “I got shot in the back by my own guy. My own second in command. He was right there all this time, a snake in the garden and I didn't even see it. What the hell kind of a security chief am I supposed to be, if I can’t see something like that.”
“You can’t be expected to know everything.”
“Yes I can. I coulda known and I shoulda known. And now I,” Michael sighed piteously, “I just don't know if I’m cut out for any damn use to anybody any more.” Michael would have liked nothing more than to just climb into a bottle and never crawl out. “You know I keep asking myself what qualifies me to take back my job and I haven’t got an answer.”
He walked to the door of the med bay and turned back to the Doctor, “I wish the hell I did.” He walked out of the med bay with a clean bill of health and a loaded conscience.
The pilot sputtered in indignation, “You honestly expect me to make small talk with a blasted xenos sir?”
“What I expect you to do,” Sáclair said in a slow and dangerous voice, “You officious, self-righteous, rebellious, little toad, is to fly to the Babylon station, shake hands with the captain of the Centauri ship, smile, laugh at his jokes, and then I expect you to get on with him as though you were the best of friends at least for the next hour.” Sáclair towered over the pilot, “You seem to have forgotten with whom you are speaking. I am your liege lord. Do not mistake your place.”
“If you feel the need to undergo ritual cleansing afterwards to purge yourself of the xenos influence then do so,” Sáclair raised his finger and pointed it in the face of the freighter pilot, “But if you so much as show a frown before you’ve loaded every ounce of grain onto your ship I will have you made into a waste reclamation servitor.”
Sáclair punctuated the conversation with the strongest glare he could manage. Between his memories and those of his predecessors he had a good three centuries worth of practice at intimidating looks, “Do I make myself clear.”
“Sir!” the pilot swallowed nervously, “Transparently so sir.”
“Good,” Sáclair nodded, “Now do your damned job.” The pilot, eager to be out of Sáclair’s sight, rushed away tripping over his own boots as he went.
Sáclair was unwilling to allow xenos ships to berth on his longer than was absolutely necessary. After the first dozen or so tanker ships carrying water had arrived he’d insisted that all ships unload their cargo on Babylon 5 then load them onto Imperial freighters. It was a frustrating decision but politically necessary. Pilots without jobs are prone to mutiny. Loosening the alcohol rationing would have made them less mutinous but would have damaged the productivity of other crewmen.
He smiled and looked up at the half mended walls. The marble was cracked and several walls would need to be replaced but for the moment tapestries of his ancestral history and exploits covered the worst of the damage.
It felt good to be holding court in the great hall again. Much as he liked his apartments his true home was on the bridge of his ship. The Lady Sáclair often referred to herself as the mistress of a man already married to the stars.
She wasn’t that far wrong.
“Who is next on the agenda for today Preston?” acerbic though the man was, Preston’s secretarial skills were unmatched, the product of a splendidly underdeveloped imagination.
“The usual string of marriages, divorces, and inheritance disputes sir. There is one rather pressing petition though,” Preston looked down at a data slate, “Father Al’Ashir is requesting, well demanding to be frank, another audience with your lordship.”
Sáclair winced. This would make the seventh petition put foreword by Al’Ashir this week, “Very well. I’ll see him.”
One of the floating marble platforms rose to the great throne, depositing the bearded and scowling Al’Ashir at the foot of his throne. Al’Ashir was wearing the full robes of a member of the Ecclesiarchy, the seals, and ring of his office. It was a less than subtle reminder that although he resided upon Sáclair’s ship he was not truly bound by Sácliar’s orders except by custom.
“Captain Sáclair,” Al’Ashir said in a voice that threatened a sermon at any moment, “I once again put forth my request that I might bring missionaries over to the lost souls on board the Babylon station. It is through no fault of their own that they have not yet found the light of the Emperor. I will not condemn them to hellfire and nothingness for my inaction.”
“And I will not alienate our only source of food and fresh water on some ill advised jihad,” Sáclair looked at one of the many chandeliers trying to avoid catching Al’Ashir’s gaze, “I agree wholeheartedly that they ought to find His light but I will not send missionaries to save their souls at the cost of crew’s lives.”
Father Al’Ashir bristled, “I’m not advocating that we storm the station and burn out the heretics. They aren’t traitors. They’re ignorant children. Children can only learn if we teach them.”
“Children learn only if they’re willing to learn,” Sáclair chuckled, “When they’re willing to learn and when they’re capable of learning the material.”
“I seem to remember tutoring a young boy on the history of the Saints who learned them all by memory in spite of his best efforts,” Al’Ashir smiled widely, “Or have you forgotten?”
“Not bloody likely,” Sáclair reflexively massaged the back of his hands. Al’Ashir had been fond of whipping students with a long stitch when they made mistakes, “I still wake up some nights and have to remind myself that neither am I ten nor am I in the middle of Ecclesial instruction.”
“If you’d simply bothered to study the material instead of re-reading the military campaigns of the Primarchs then I wouldn’t have had to switch your hands,” Al’Ashir smiled kindly, “All I’m asking is that you give me the chance to bring His word to those without it.”
“Father you know I cannot approve it,” Sáclair picked up his goblet and stood from his throne, stretching his shoulders slightly, “The Inquisitor feels that it would be unwise to do so.”
“To the eye with what Hilder thinks. Don’t hide behind your debts to him,” Al’Ashir swore, “I’m not asking him. I’m asking you. I know you are as God fearing as any other man on this ship, more than most. How can this be anything but the will of the Emperor?”
Sáclair bristled at the mention of his debts to the Inquisitor. Ones obligations of honor simply weren’t something one discussed in polite company, certainly not with one’s priest, “Father, for the love of all that is holy use your head. We’re in the middle of nowhere. We many never get back. If and when we get back to His holy dominion we can inform the nearest crusade fleet that there are a series of populated worlds under xenos influence but until that point it might be best not to give them the impression that we might bring a crusade fleet down on them.”
“And if we can convince them to find the light without the use of such crude measures?” Al’Ashir was not about to be side tracked from his goal, “What then? Are we better men for having forced men into His light that would have gone willingly? Must we enact pogroms and genocide where words will do? No I will not tolerate the heretic but the abuse of the ignorant and uninformed is equally barbaric.”
Sáclair rubbed his temple with the palm of his hand searching for the correct worlds when he felt a supple and elegant hand resting on his shoulder. He turned around and came face to face with the soft porcelain face of an angel. The Lady Sáclair had arrived.
He smiled and kissed her on the lips and grabbed a generous handful of her hips, “Darling, it is good to see you.”
The Lady Sáclair quirked her lip, “And you husband,” she nodded to the holy man and reluctantly removed Sáclair hand for proprieties sake, “Father Al’Ashir lovely to see you once again.”
“And you madam,” Al’Ashir grinned wildly, “Radiant as always my Lady you outshine the stars. Were I fifty years younger and not already bound to the Word I would move the stars themselves for a face like that.”
“Were you not vowed to celibacy,” Laughed the Lady, “I would fear you intend to steal me from my good husband.” She laughed dryly, “My husband tolerates no other man to flirt with me as you do.”
“I tend not to fear the advances of any man who cannot open a jar unassisted,” Sáclair sipped as his wine and stared at Al’Ashir’s look of mock outrage, “Oh come off it Father Al’Ashir, half the time you talk about the great crusades in your sermons I wonder if you’re talking from first hand experience. Were someone to tell me that you stood on the great mount with Gilliman himself I wouldn’t even question it.”
“A pity you will not let me share the thrill of my experiences with the Alliance then,” Al’Ashir continued, “I’m sure they could benefit from the moral truths of it.”
“Al’Ashir,” he sighed, “I cannot.”
“Husband,” The lady strode forward and put her arms round his waist, resting her head on his chest, “There can be no harm in allowing him to petition the Inquisitor in person. I’m sure that Misters Danzig and Gazan are in want of a priest to oversee their confession,” She smiled dazzlingly at Father Al’Ashir, briefly small emeralds inserted into each tooth, “If the Inquisitor forbids it so be it but let the decision rest on the one who wishes it so.”
Al’Ashir was formidable enough with those he liked. The Inquisitor was a meddlesome stranger. Yes, yes it made sense to allow that. Sáclair laughed rowdily, “Very well good wife mine, so shall it be.”
“I acquiesce to your wisdom,” Al’Ashir bowed slightly, “I look forwards to preaching to those in need of His word.” His hand was tapping at the holy book at his side like wild with anticipation.
“If he acquiesces,” Sáclair reminded Al’Ashir gently.
“When, not if,” Al’Ashir laughed, “With the will of the Emperor all things are simply a matter of when.”
“Oh very well when he acquiesces if it must be so,” Sáclair snapped his fingers for a new goblet of wine, “How in the devil do you plan to preach to them? That devil box of a translator butchers every other word I say.”
“Child,” Al’Ashir shook his head, “One does not let a machine speak for him. One must teach the word of the Emperor from their heart. So it is that I have been learning the language of the Alliance so that they might hear from my heart.”
“You speak the Alliance language already?” The Lady Sáclair blinked.
“In a manner of speaking,” Al’Ashir evaded the question, “I apologize my Lord and Lady Sáclair. I must be going. The next freighter leaving in a matter of twenty minutes. I will already have to rush to get there.”
Sáclair watched the priest retreat with mild amusement. Poor Hildy wouldn’t know what hit him. He idly took the new goblet of wine offered to him by Preston, “Perfect. Just perfect.”
Lord Refa had great taste in liquor judging by the year on the bottle but Londo suspected his talents leaned more in the way of drinking liquor than serving it. The fine crystal glasses clinked together clumsily as Lord Refa poured a generous measure of port into each of them. One did not, however, complain when someone of higher standing poured you a drink, much less if he was an under qualified servant.
Then again they were now on equal social standing weren’t they? His household had enlarged due to his good fortune a number of parcels of land and property now sat in his household trusts, each covertly gifted by an appreciative friend in the aristocracy. Even as he sat the soft snipping of scissors reminded him that Vir was enlarging the crest of his hair to reflect his new importance.
Refa smiled with polite and friendly insincerity, “So we set up monitoring stations near quadrant 37 to keep an eye on the Narn buildup. We heard that you would personally take care of the problem. But of course I’m sure you understand our skepticism,” he chortled and trailed off.
“Yes I’m sure it sounded quite absurd,” Londo basked in the moment.
“More like insane,” Refa carried the drinks over and passed one to Londo, “But then the probes went silent. Sensors confirmed that the entire Narn outpost had been wiped out. I would be very interested to know how you did that ambassador.” His eyes shone expectantly but Mollari was no fool.
“Yes, I’m sure that you would,” the two men laughed together as old friends, though neither of their smiles reached their eyes. The joys of court life.
“We are also very interested in your budding friendship with the Empire,” Refa spun the liquid around in his glass and clicked his tongue against his teeth, “I must confess that we were somewhat surprised that you had agreed to make such a large gift of good will to them,” he waved a hand suggestively at Londo’s shocked look, “Come now Mollari, you hid it well but not perfectly enough to conceal such a substantial amount of irregular cargo heading to a diplomatic way station. One might even think that the appearance of this new military power in the galaxy were connected with each other.”
Londo snorted impolitely, “One might think but one would be very much wrong.”
Refa turned his back to Londo an sidled over to the plush couch, flopped down and draped himself over it, “Very well, keep your secrets for now. What matters is that you have saved our people another embarrassing surrender by our idiot Emperor.”
Londo quirked his brow, the Emperor was not the most popular of leaders but most Centauri limited their complaints to dark mutterings about the Narn ‘appeasement.’
Refa sipped at the amber liquid in contemplation, “What you did required independence of thought, initiative, courage, and a rather large and aggressive strike force that you have managed to assemble without anyone knowing about it. Even the Narns don’t suspect it was us.” He gave the ambassador a meaningful glance “Or more precisely you. We need more people like you Mollari.”
Vir’s comb snagged on a bit of hair and Londo winced, “For what?”
Refa’s lips twitched, unspeaking. His eyes wandered to the squat form of Vir as he preened Londo’s crest. Londo nodded to his attendant, “He can be trusted.”
“The Emperor is old sick and frightened he’s a pitiful figure. With the recent death of his son there’s no clear line of succession. When the time comes my associates and I intend to fill that vacuum. It will not be easy. There will be resistance from the old guard. Overcoming that resistance may require force. Can we count on your support Ambassador?” It all flowed out in a great rush, Lord Refa’s excitement clearly mounting with each syllable.
“What you are asking could be considered treason.” Londo rubbed his fingers together; the effort of keeping his voice calm was making him jittery.
Refa nodded slowly, his eyes searching Londo’s posture and disposition, “Or the first step to restoring our people to their proper place in the galaxy depending on who writes the history books. I think it will be us,” his voice excited, “What do you think?”
The rightful place of the Republic in the galaxy, Londo’s head filled with visions of the great Centauri Empire of old stretching back out and grabbing the stars themselves.
Londo held up his glass to that of Lord Refa, “I think that we have a great deal of work ahead of us.”
The Imperial Ambassador sat straight backed on the chair across the desk from John, his golden skull mask glinting with soft plumes of Purple static. The small twitching man sat in the chair next to the Ambassador, adjusting a matte black re-breather.
John hated the masks though not as much as he hated the Ambassador’s bodyguard. Skitarii Thross would be in every meeting with the Ambassador, standing in the distance. He never spoke, never laughed, and never even seemed to be breathing. He simply stood there staring hatefully at Miss Winters, arms crossed, growling slightly as she shifted in her chair. Ivanova had insisted that Miss Winters be present at all meetings to ensure that the Ambassador not use his own psychic abilities to ill effect.
The Ambassador apparently found her presence to be hilariously funny.
John felt the bodyguard’s optics staring him down as he spoke to the Hilder, “I’m sorry to say this Ambassador but I need you to move your warship out of Babylon Five orbit. This is a diplomatic station, part of our charter demands that we do not allow foreign military vessels to berth here for any length of time.” John smiled and waited as Jak started to repeat what he said. The translation computer sat turned off at the Ambassador’s request, he had distaste for any sort of device that recorded his voice. It was probably some sort of social taboo but it would have made this sort of thing substantially easier.
The Ambassador raised his hand, cutting Jak off, “I understand what you speech. Listening to your words I have. Your meaning is shared.” Jak politely whispered in the harsh Imperial language and the Ambassador nodded, “… meaning is understood.”
John blinked in surprise, “You’re picking up English very quickly.”
“I listen,” Ambassador Hilder nodded curtly, “It is necessary. Complex words are lost, like a child I speak.”
“The Ambassador has a talent for languages,” Jak interjected in accented English looking distinctly pleased with himself. Jak seemed to take unnatural pleasure in knowing he was cleverer than those with whom he conversed, “And we have taken a personal interest in fostering friendship with your race.” The Ambassador tapped his hand against Sheridan’s desk twice, silencing his translator.
"And we appreciate it," John smiled politely and poured himself a cup of coffee, "Would you care for some?"
"I appreciate much, thank please," the Ambassador reached over and took the porcelain mug in his gloved hand, "Hospitatity is wise between friends."
The Imperials Ambassador always referred to the humans as friends, though only in private. No doubt he offered sumilar framiliarities with the Ambassadors of the non-aligned worlds as well. Yet for all the grotesque imagery and terrifying physical presence of the Imperial agents the Ambassador was positively paternal in his manner.
“Infinitas infinitio Spende no move.” He nodded his head firmly as though the matter were settled, “What other you request?”
“No,” John said patiently, “You will movie it into neutral space somewhere else. It doesn’t have to be far away, but yes it will move.”
“Not military ships no need move yes?” The Ambassador rambled in his half-coherent English patois, “Not military ship keep here. So keep here.” He motioned to the station floor.
“Yes,” John tried to wade through the sentence structure but with no luck. He glanced at the silent Jak, “A non military ship may be granted permission to stay here briefly.”
Ambassador Hilder cocked his head confusedly and looked to Jak, saying a long string of something in his native language. They chattered at each other for a good thirty seconds before Jak smiled and looked at John.
“Captain Sheridan,” the man twitched in a friendly manner, “Infinitas infinitio Spende, or Endless Bounty as it would be in your language, is not a military vessel. Not even remotely so, it is under armored, under equipped, and overall outclassed by the Imperial Navy. We aren’t to be trifled with," he hastily corrected himself, "But we are not a military vessel.”
“You expect me to believe that a shielded ship over half the length of this military installation is simply a courier? You expect my government to do the same?” Sheridan stood up and paced round the room to where the Ambassador and his aide were sitting, leaning up against the edge of the table, “Even if that’s true my government is still going to require that you move a safe distance away from the station. One of the other planets in system would do but you cannot keep it in orbit of this particular planet.”
He stared into the gilded skull that the Imperial Ambassador wore over his face. Small static discharges sparked off the helmet at odd moments, making it difficult to stare into the Ambassador’s eyes. They stood in silence just staring, each waiting for the other to break.
“We get grain and water,” flowed the Ambassador’s elegant patois, “And we move the ship. Is this,” he muttered in the Imperial language searching for the proper words, “acceptable?”
“It will do for now,” John nodded conciliatorily. Earthdome really only needed him to say he was making ‘progress’ with the Imperial Ambassador, “I was also wondering about the cultural exchange we had discussed. We are more than willing to exchange our entire historical records for as much of yours as you feel comfortable sharing.”
The Ambassador laughed and John’s face creased into a frown of consternation, “I’m sorry is there something I’m missing in the translation.” Imperial humor was insufferably obtuse.
Jak, fidgeted about though a sack at his side. The soft jingling of crystal against crystal heralded him pulling out a long, thin piece of quartz and holding it out on his palm, “An exchange of cultural data was already part of our agenda. The history of the Empire is long, and at times confusing but this crystal contains a summary of the most important events of the past ten thousand calendar years.”
“Wow,” John took the crystal and felt the cool weight of it in his palm, “Ten thousand years? How old is your species,” his cheeks reddened, “That is, providing that isn’t a rude question.”
“We estimate around fifty thousand calendar years,” Jak played with the long cord of his breathing mask. It twisted and shifted warping the sound of his voice, “Though anything before around ten thousand years ago becomes unreliable. There were certain… complications.”
“We prefer not discuss the Dark Age,” Ambassador Daul bowed his head, flashing gold gothic lettering on the dome of his helmet, “Sad speech is for different time. Now we discuss Magos Frist.” The ambassador shifted his baroque cloak of firs and leather covering his ornate pressure suit to better reach a metal disk attached to his belt. He tapped the scroll on Sheridan’s desk and a small image of what might once have been a woman appeared. In the pale Green light of the hologram she looked altogether inhuman.
“Yes, the priestess of the machines,” John tripped over her title. The concept of scientific research being a religious pursuit was wholly alien to him. How the two professions meshed was a mystery, “She’s coming today then is she?”
“She wishes to observe your machines. She decide which are and are not will of Omnissiah,” the chair creaked and shifted as ambassador stood eye to eye with the Captain, “Her judgments the voice of the cog. Final. I not dispute. Unable to dispute.”
“And if she finds us lacking?” John’s tone carried an edge to it. The Imperial Ambassador’s voice held a tone of threat in it that he didn’t appreciate.
“Unfortunate,” The ambassador picked up the disk of the table and passed it to his bodyguard, “Much unfortunate.”
“I don’t appreciate threats against my station Ambassador,” John poked his finger into the Ambassadors chest. Before he knew it a powerful hand was gripping his own at the wrist, metallic fingers cutting into the flesh. Thross, the Ambassador’s bodyguard did not appreciate John’s closeness to his master.
John scowled at the face to half-face with the glaring bodyguard as a sharp pain burned in his wrist, “Ambassador Hilder control your man.”
The Ambassador barked something in the Imperial language and released his wrist. “Skitarii Thross take position seriously,” Daul waved the bodyguard back to the wall, “Perhaps too seriously. Are you alright?” He stood and reached for John’s wrist in concern.
John recoiled from the Ambassador’s grasp as Talia stood up and moved towards John protectively, "I beileve it's time to assert my position as mediator in the discussion, we must end for the moment."
“Yes,” John massaged his wrist and winced as he pressed down and pain flared, “This meeting is over. We will meet again in six hours when your Machine priest arrives.” He glared at the bodyguard, “And I expect mister Thross to be out of my sight for the next week at the very least. I will have armed guards at our next meeting.”
“Throne’s light shine upon you,” The Ambassador interlocked his fingers in front of his chest in a vague imitation of the double-headed imperial eagle and bowed before striding out of the room, cape and coat billowing behind him.
The door to his office slid shut and John swore loudly. He gingerly tapped the link on his left hand so as not to move the arm too much, “Dr. Franklin can you please get someone up to the Commander's office? I need you to fuse a fractured wrist.”