It was noisy in the Zocalo, just as always. Marcus sat at the bar drinking a cup of something claiming to be coffee, and watched the world go by. He didn't usually spend much time in the station's biggest, brightest public room, but today he was making an exception. Today the dark underbelly of Babylon 5 could look after itself; the murky bar that usually received his patronage could go its grimy way without him.
He wasn't fool enough to call it a date; at least, not to anybody but himself. He wasn't fool enough to think about bringing flowers, or making rose-tinted plans for the future. After all, this wasn't some ordinary girl. If it had been he wouldn't have been toying quite so much with the cup holding his alleged coffee, or wondering to quite such a degree about what to say when she arrived. His eyes roamed constantly about the room, although that much at least was normal. Marcus was always on the alert. He just wasn't always quite this restless.
"Marcus." He rose slowly, switching from agitated to amused in the time it took to him to stand.
"What?" She was instantly on the defensive, and he had to smile.
"What do you mean, what? You asked me to meet you here!"
"That's not what I meant." She was eyeing him with a familiarly suspicious frown. "It's just the way you say my name, that's all."
He grinned, but let that one pass without comment. "Then Commander, if you prefer. Sit down. I'd offer to buy you a coffee, but I respect you far too much for that."
"I respect Londo too much to offer him this coffee." She waved a finger at the bartender, and ordered a mineral water, then sat down on one of the stools. Pointedly, even though she took the stool next to Marcus, she moved it a little way away. He sat back down, and just as pointedly moved his own stool a little closer.
"So!" He was like a kid, she couldn't help thinking. A big, excited kid. Why was it that Marcus only seemed to have two gears - quiet and brooding, or cheerful and hyperactive? "What did you want to see me about?"
"I did not want to see you." She frowned. Lately keeping him at arm's length seemed to be getting harder. Every time she made it clear that she wasn't interested, he seemed to get even more so. And, damn it, he even managed to be endearing in the process. A little bit. Sometimes. Her frown deepened. Needless to say, he was still smiling.
"Then why did you ask me to meet you here? If you didn't want to see me, we could always have talked in some other way."
"You don't have a Link, you're never in your room to receive a comm message, and I think I'm rather too old to go around pushing notes under people's doors." Her mineral water arrived, and she pushed her charge card across the bar before Marcus could toss the bartender some coins. She didn't know where he got his credits from, but he always seemed to have some on him; and always coins, never a card. If there was anything conventional about the man, she hadn't found it yet; which was a shame. If he had been at all ordinary, he would never have attracted her attention in the first place. He was still smiling, and she dragged up a glower, in readiness for the exasperating comment he was almost sure to make.
"I'm sorry Commander. I have a lot of responsibilities that keep me away. Sometimes I have to spend a night or two in Downbelow, and I've been called back to Minbar a couple of times recently." He was being well behaved, and she had been expecting levity. Why did he always have to be so damned unpredictable? It was as if he knew all the little tricks to keep her interested, in spite of herself. As if he knew exactly how to make her wonder if maybe there couldn't be... But she killed that thought. Her and Marcus? That was like suggesting that Londo and G'Kar could have a long and happy union. If she and Marcus ever did make it past the distinctly one-sided flirting stage, and into something more formal, it wouldn't last more than a day or two before she killed him. Half of the time all he had to do was open his mouth, and she was ready to draw her gun and open fire. She conceded his point with a nod.
"You have a lot to do. I understand that." What she didn't understand was why so much of what he did do seemed to involve highly public, extremely noticeable fights with large numbers of people, when he was supposed to be on the station surreptitiously. He was a Ranger, part of a secret organisation, with the heaviest of emphasis on the secret. Keeping a low profile had been mentioned originally; she distinctly remembered that - but Garibaldi was forever hearing reports of the "long-haired English guy with the overly dramatic clothing", who seemed to like to pick fights with as many dangerous gangs as possible. The aggravating sod would always smile so innocently when Sheridan sent Susan after him for a report - and why was it always her being sent for the reports? - and would spin some tale of a poor, toothless drunkard who had been robbed of his favourite boot by a band of troublemakers who had needed to be taught a lesson. That or insist that a gang of rowdy drunks had insulted Delenn's honour. She scowled at him now, again, just in case he was still interpreting her asking him here as being in some way indicative of her wanting to spend some time with him. She didn't. Or at least, not that she would admit. He was still looking at her expectantly though, and after taking a thoughtful drink, she gestured to a fairly secluded table. Not that anywhere in the Zocalo was truly secluded. In many ways that made it the best place for a clandestine meeting.
"Then you did want something?" he asked. His patience was unending. She nodded, and drank slowly for another moment, frowning at him over the top of her glass.
"Valen," she said at last, and set the glass down with unnecessary care and attention. "I know that I could go to Delenn for a proper answer, but... I don't know. I think maybe I wanted to speak to a human. Delenn's always so... formal."
"You want to know about Valen?" He spoke guardedly, probably trying to be careful of her feelings. After all - he didn't really know what her relationship with Sinclair had been. Just colleagues? Close friends? Anything closer? "There are a lot of books on the subject. Probably you could get a lot more from them than you can from me. Less opinionated as well."
"I don't want to read about a friend of mine in some book." She sighed. "Look, Marcus - it freaked me out, okay? I mean, I knew Jeff Sinclair for a long, tough year. We went through a lot together. You know what it can be like on this station. All the deals and the diplomacy and the craziness? Killers, thieves, spies, mad military types from Earth trying to get us all blown up? You form friendships very quickly in a place like this, and Jeff was one of the best. Then all of a sudden he's gone, hardly any time for explanations, and except for a sub-space message or two from Minbar, the next I see of him is on some insane mission back in time to steal Babylon 4, and... well. You know how crazy that was. Seeing him looking so old... and then all that stuff about a Minbari not born of Minbari... I've never paid much attention to their myths and legends and all that in the past. There's been no reason to. But he really bought into it all, didn't he."
"Entil'Zha has always had great respect for the Minbari. He once told me that even when they were on opposite sides of a war, he still respected them. Trusted them. They intended to wipe out humanity, but they did it without unnecessary cruelty."
"Which makes everything okay then." She looked away. "I never bothered... I mean, I've got to know Delenn and Lennier I guess. But when I came here the Minbari were still the people who killed my brother. I never wanted to find out that much about them. Now I do. A little. I want to know about Valen, and the war that he fought." She lowered her voice, although plenty of people knew about their enemy now. "Against the Shadows."
"I suppose I can fill in a few blanks." He looked honoured to have been asked. "Valen founded the culture of the Minbari the way that we know of it today. He also created the Rangers. He was a great leader and a highly respected figurehead, and I imagine that he always will be. But you know that. I'm not sure exactly what it is that you're asking me to tell you. He lived a long life after he left us. As far as we know it was a happy one. He was shaping history; beginning the future. And he knew that it was where he was supposed to be."
"Maybe." She sighed. "I guess I just seem to have found myself thinking about it a lot recently, that's all. Wondering. It's not easy to see your friend... do something like that."
"I know. He was my friend too, remember. More than that." He smiled slightly, and reached out to take her hand, well aware that he was taking his own life in the same hand in the process. "You need cheering up. It's all go around here, and that mission took a lot out of all of us."
"I need cheering up, do I." She looked pointedly at his hand, but he didn't move it. He had no intention of doing so, no matter how hard she glared. Instead he merely nodded, with predictable enthusiasm.
"Some sort of distraction. Entertainment perhaps. In a few hours there's going to be a concert on Earth - a display of defiance of Clark as far as I can gather, not that that needs to bother us. Some of the finest musicians, performing pieces from the last five hundred years of classical music. Shostakovich... Beethoven... I have front row seats."
"Front row seats?" She eyed him with suspicion, and he smiled brightly.
"I was planning to steal a couple of bar stools from in here, and set them up in front of a comm-screen somewhere. My room perhaps. Hence the stools, since I don't really have anywhere to sit. Except for one chair, so unless you want to get really close... which would be cosy, obviously, but might distract from the music a little..."
"Marcus!" She pulled her hand away. "I am not going to spend the evening alone with you."
"I'd be a perfect gentleman." He smiled his teasing smile, and she rolled her eyes. Enough. If she spent any more time with him just now she'd end up doing something that they'd both regret. She stood up.
"If you want to continue this conversation sensibly some time, get in touch. In the meantime I have work to be doing. Don't you have a fight you should be getting into? Some Lurkers you should be rescuing?"
"You're sure you don't want to listen to the concert?"
"Goodbye, Marcus." She turned and began to walk away, only to collide almost immediately with Garibaldi. They both jumped. He grinned.
"In a hurry?"
"What do you think?" She sighed and smiled up at him, rolling her eyes back to indicate Marcus, still standing beside the table that she had just left. Garibaldi nodded.
"I see. Still, I was looking for both of you, so it looks as if I got lucky, anyway." His grin became decidedly more mischievous. "Even if nobody else did."
"And nobody else is likely to." She sighed again, beginning to feel that today was not going to go her way. "Why exactly were you looking for both of us? I didn't get paged."
"No. Sheridan said not to put it over the Links." He shrugged. "They want to see us." He beckoned to Marcus, studiously not listening to them, but not quite yet ready to walk away. The Ranger came over.
"Marcus." Garibaldi couldn't help smirking, well aware of the atmosphere that always seemed to exist between the XO and the Ranger. "Delenn and the captain want to see us. All three of us. I don't know why yet, but I'm guessing something pretty special if they want it kept off the Links."
"Lennier said to expect something." Marcus nodded, easing back into a slightly more formal attitude. "Lead the way then, Mr Garibaldi."
"We're going to the main conference room." He did lead the way, even though neither of his companions needed to be shown. Behind him Susan wandered along, Marcus at her heels throwing up snippets of random conversation. He didn't seem remotely inclined to shut up, and Ivanova's frustration was palpable. After the third peculiar anecdote - something about an outdoor temple on Minbar, and a pool of possibly sacred fish - Garibaldi broke in.
"Did Lennier tell you anything else?" he asked. Marcus shook his head.
"Lennier doesn't tend to tell me anything. Not directly. He just passes pieces of information along from time to time."
"Isn't that the same thing?" Garibaldi was confused. Marcus smiled.
"Not necessarily to Lennier, no. I got the impression that he didn't know much, anyway. Delenn has been a little preoccupied since the business on Babylon 4. Most of the other Rangers have accepted her informally as the new head of the Rangers, which will mean a lot of new responsibilities. Plus the warrior caste are sure to object."
"Yeah. Sure to." Garibaldi knew nothing of the workings of the Minbari political establishment, and didn't particularly want to. He did know that any mention of Babylon 4 was likely to put him in a bad mood, however, and he glowered moodily at the floor of the corridor. "So you don't know why we're being called?"
"That could be so secret? No. I don't think the War Room business is a secret anymore. Most of what we do is out in the open now, except for some Ranger work and the business with the telepaths. Delenn will have her reasons, I'm sure."
"Yeah, and Sheridan's really bought into her whole secrecy thing lately," conceded Garibaldi. "Sometimes it's as if he's turning half-Minbari too."
"Somehow I doubt that." Ivanova laughed at the thought. Sheridan might be less openly of the strong-arm Earthforce type that he had been when he had taken over the station, but he was far from turning into the sort of peaceful, soft-spoken echo of the Minbari that Jeff Sinclair had become. Garibaldi also laughed.
"Maybe. Although goodness knows he's been turning more cryptic lately. It's like a disease around here, especially since Kosh died."
"You think we've all been infected by Essence of Kosh?" Marcus smiled. "Ah, but how would you know if we have, Mr Garibaldi? Do you trust your eyes and ears?"
"Don't you start." Garibaldi led the way onto a waiting lift and lapsed into silence, speaking up again only as the lift doors opened when they had reached their level. Marcus was still grinning, although as far as Garibaldi could see that was only through natural high spirits. "So nobody knows why we're being called to this meeting?"
"I'm sure we're about to find out." Ivanova made an automatic move to straighten her already immaculate uniform. "And whatever it is, it can't be good, right? Not nowadays."
"Don't be so pessimistic, Susan." Marcus, moving into the lead as they reached the door of the main conference room, shot her another of his annoyingly cheerful smiles. She scowled at him.
"I'm not being pessimistic. I'm being realistic. Around here lately nothing is ever good news. When was the last time any ship that docked here brought something good?"
"This morning," piped up Marcus, and offered a little bow as he moved aside to let her go through the door first. "That was when I got back." She rolled her eyes, then switched to formal mode as she went past him and into the conference room. Sheridan and Delenn were already there, standing at one end of the room, conferring in low voices. They looked up as she entered, and Sheridan flashed one of his broad, farm-boy grins.
"Captain." She nodded at them both, fully aware of their increased closeness in recent weeks. It was nice to see somebody making something good out of all of this, she thought; and goodness knew they deserved the happiness. They'd all been through a lot since being posted to Babylon 5.
"Commander, Mr Garibaldi." Delenn acknowledged the two station officers, then shared a Minbari bow of greeting with Marcus. "Marcus."
"Delenn." He took up a position at the back of the room, slipping into the silence that meant he was ready for any necessary action. Sheridan waved the other two into a less formal stance, then dragged himself up to his full height and put his hands behind his back.
"You're probably wondering why you've been asked here," he said. Garibaldi, ever the more relaxed kind, nodded his balding head.
"We were discussing one or two theories, yeah."
"The truth is, we have... something delicate that requires handling." Delenn moved up to stand alongside Sheridan, so close that there was barely space between them. "A mission, that cannot be entrusted to just anybody."
"A mission?" Susan brightened. Missions usually meant time off station; time spent flying a ship, and doing things far more exciting than waiting around in the Incident Room for more reports of Shadow activity that they could do nothing about. Sheridan grinned at her undisguised interest.
"Yes. Delenn came to me about this earlier today, and we've been discussing it since then. It seems that somebody has got himself into a difficult situation on a planet that's now within Shadow space. We need to get him out."
"He is... a most important person, in many ways. A sign of the future, perhaps." Delenn stepped forward to the table, to where a rolled up piece of paper awaited. She unrolled it. "This is a map of the planet's surface. The dark areas are known Shadows bases; sites where their ships have been excavated by their awakening forces. They are old burial sites, dating perhaps even before the Great War that my people fought against the Shadows a thousand years ago."
"And you want somebody to go in and get this man out?" Ivanova was interested, if concerned. "It won't be easy. All those Shadows. Surely the skies will be full of their ships?"
"There is a big Shadow presence there, yes; but several Ranger scout ships have been into the area without encountering difficulties. It would not be the first time that the larger Shadow vessels have failed to take any notice of small ships. It seems as though they often do not notice anything below a certain size."
"Tell that to Warren Keffer's family," interjected Sheridan ruefully. Delenn nodded to concede the point.
"An unfortunate incident, but one which appears to have occurred within hyperspace. As we all know, the rules are very different there. In normal space, and especially when the larger Shadow vessels are involved, the dangers seem to be less. At least as far as we can tell."
"So we go in there, and we get this guy out." Ivanova shrugged. "Sounds simple enough. What's the catch?"
"Catch?" Delenn smiled. "Ah. The planet is an inhabited one. It is not just a Shadow base, it is also home to a small colony. As well as getting past any Shadow vessels in the area, there will also be the local population to watch out for. We don't know how far in league with the Shadows they are, but we do know that they are not inclined to be friendly. They have shown some considerable enmity towards other races in the past, particular the Minbari and the humans. It is important to be very careful after landing."
"So we're talking low profile here," put in Sheridan. "I want you out of uniform, and you'll be flying something that doesn't have any Earthforce markings on it. And let me emphasise 'low profile'."
"We cannot take unnecessary risks. It is important that this person be rescued." Delenn smiled around at the others. "You can of course refuse to be a part of this. Because of the importance of secrecy, and my own distrust of certain elements on board this station, I do not want to tell you everything. That is in no way a reflection of you, but if you think it makes things too difficult, too awkward, you are more than at liberty to remain here." Her eyes took in Garibaldi and Ivanova at this, judging their expressions; presumably she saw no reason to doubt Marcus's readiness to be involved. Garibaldi shrugged.
"I don't see any problem. Ivanova?"
"I'm game." The time off station would be pleasant, even with a potentially dangerous mission at the end of it, and even if there was no opportunity to fully appreciate the chance to once again be planetside. Delenn smiled her gratitude.
"Yes." Sheridan's tone of voice showed that he had not doubted their willingness to be involved. "Then can I suggest that we take a break at this point? You need to get started as soon as possible. I've taken the liberty of making a few excuses for you, Susan. Corwin will cover for you on the command deck, so you've got a window of a few days if necessary. Zack can cover security for at least that long."
"You were pretty sure we'd say yes," commented Susan, amused. Sheridan returned her smile.
"I like to think that I know you that well. Anyway, take a few minutes, get changed into some civilian clothes, then get back here as soon as you can. I want you underway within the hour if possible."
"Sure." Garibaldi shrugged, as offhand and casual as though they were discussing the weather. "There anything else you want us to take along?"
"If you've got any non Earthforce weapons, it might be an idea to bring something in that line. I don't want to send you in there unarmed, but you shouldn't risk carrying anything with any insignia on it. It's pretty obvious that you're human, but I don't want anybody to think that you're specifically acting for Earth. Okay. Dismissed. Be back here as soon as you can."
"Sir." Ivanova snapped to attention, then turned smartly and headed for the door, Garibaldi at her heels. As they left they heard Delenn call to Marcus, and instead of following them from the room, the Ranger joined her beside the table. It was Sheridan who followed Ivanova and Garibaldi in the end, accompanying them as far as the lift.
"This could be a difficult one," he said as they waited for the car to arrive. "Delenn is pretty worried about the guy down on the surface. Seems that the Minbari consider him to be very important. One of their prophecies again. Until everything that we saw happen with Babylon 4, I'd have put it all down to superstition, but lately I don't know what to think anymore. If she says this man could be somebody important, we have to assume that that's what he is."
"We'll get him." Garibaldi smiled briefly, cheerily. "In and out like we were never there. Right Susan?"
"Right." She was only slightly less cheerful, less overtly confident. "No sweat."
"Don't jinx it." The lift doors opened, and Sheridan smiled at them both. "See you back here in a few minutes."
"Yes sir." Ivanova entered the lift, and pressed the button for the residential level. The last sight that she had of Sheridan before the lift doors closed was of him looking thoughtful and distant, and she was surprised at how wistful she felt for the days when they had all smiled much more readily. Everything was so much more serious now. So much more complicated. Life, and everything that went with it, was so very different for all of them now.
They arrived back at the conference room some fifteen minutes later, to find Marcus alone, studying the map that Delenn had unrolled earlier. He nodded a greeting to the pair of them, and explained that Sheridan and Delenn had gone to meet somebody who had just arrived at the station. Their transport, apparently, for the trip to rescue their unknown target. Ivanova joined Marcus in studying the map. So used was she by now to seeing him in his Minbari-style clothing, that it was not until then that she realised he hadn't changed. She frowned at him, looking him up and down appraisingly.
"Marcus, aren't we supposed to look inconspicuous?"
"Yes. I believe those were the captain's instructions."
"Precisely. That's why Michael and I are in civvies. We're not supposed to be noticed by anybody."
"Yes, I know. And you've done a very good job. I'd hardly take a second look at you." He smiled rather mischievously. "If you weren't you."
"That's not what I'm talking about. I know that we're alright - I'm talking about you. Marcus, you look about as inconspicuous as a Vorlon. Which isn't very inconspicuous."
"I don't know. I'm sure there's lots of inconspicuous Vorlons. Little ones. The sort that sit at the back in meetings and don't say much. Except that none of them say very much, really, and what's your point?"
"You!" She rolled her eyes. "Marcus, you look... I don't want to sound--"
"You're still wearing that blasted uniform," butted in Garibaldi, as ever one for getting to the point. "You can't possibly expect not to get noticed in it. We're supposed to be incognito. Which, I could point out, you're supposed to be all of the time. Wearing a uniform - even one that doesn't swirl about and wave at everybody - is not going incognito."
"The brief was to avoid anything that looks officially to do with Earth, and this doesn't. Besides, it's not noticeably a uniform. It doesn't have all manner of insignia all over it. And even if it is obviously a uniform, that doesn't mean that anybody will know what it's the uniform of. If they do, they already know about the Rangers, so why bother hiding it?" Marcus folded his arms, looking resolute. "And I can assure you, Mr Garibaldi, that even if my uniform does 'swirl about and wave at everyone' - I can still move with a lot more stealth than you." Garibaldi bridled at that, but Susan put a hand on his arm.
"Alright, alright. Let's at least try to get underway before we start fighting, okay? Marcus... that get up is just a little noticeable. Don't you have any civilian clothes?"
"As a matter of fact, no." He gestured to his black and grey uniform. "These are the only clothes I own. Well, actually I do have another set, as I wouldn't like to be wearing the same thing all the time. It'd get a little unpleasant, and I'd hate to have you start avoiding me. But I don't have anything noticeably different."
"Oh," muttered Ivanova, suddenly realising. "Arisia." He nodded.
"At least in part, yes. When the Shadows destroyed my colony, they also destroyed everything I owned, and I never really bothered replacing any of it. If you were to go into my room here on Babylon 5, you'd be seeing just about everything that I have. And a set of civilian clothing isn't amongst it. I'm a Ranger. This is what I wear."
"Fine." Garibaldi gave up. He was beginning to see why Marcus annoyed Ivanova so much. Susan, however, was looking guilty.
"You really did lose everything, didn't you," she said quietly. He looked at her askance.
"When your home explodes in a mass of fire, things do rather tend to get lost, yes. In my room here there's a box, made for me on Minbar. In it is another set of clothes, a picture of my family that by a pretty amazing coincidence I happened to have on me when the attack came, and a couple of books that I've bought since arriving on the station." He didn't add that there was also a bunch of synthetic roses that Ivanova had given to him for some reason he still hadn't managed to work out. "That's everything. I've come to realise that I don't need anything else. Except this of course." He waggled his fighting pike, with a brief smile. "Oh I know you like to fill your quarters with sofas and cushions and pictures of this and that - and very nice it looks too." He frowned. "Aren't we straying rather from the point?"
"Just a bit." Garibaldi tapped his finger onto the map. "Whereabouts is this place?"
"Your ship will have the exact co-ordinates programmed into it." The clipped tones of Delenn made them look up, and they all moved to a sort of attention as she swept into the room, Sheridan beside her. Exchanging another slight bow with Marcus, she smiled around at the others. "And it is imperative that you get there quickly."
"As far as we know, you're heading here," filled in Sheridan, tapping a finger on the map. "It's within the planet's arctic circle, to go by Earth terminology; and at this time of their year that means an endless night. We're hoping that that'll make your task a little easier."
"You mean we're heading for all day darkness in an arctic region?" Garibaldi shivered exaggeratedly. "I should have put on some long underwear."
"You don't have to worry about that." Delenn sounded amused. "Ferox is relatively close to its sun, and it never gets very cold there. You don't have to worry about winter weather."
"Just ultraviolet radiation," shot back Garibaldi. It was Sheridan's turn to be amused.
"Also not a problem," he assured them. "This planet is a colony, remember. It's not just the Shadows who have a base there. There's a grid protecting the planet from any harmful radiation that it might otherwise pick up, being that close to the sun. The Shadows haven't tried to disable it, so we can assume it isn't in their way, which hopefully means there's no reason to think that it won't still be there. Apparently it doesn't hamper ships at all, so you can fly straight through it without difficulty."
"And who are these colonists?" asked Ivanova. Delenn took over the narrative again. She and Sheridan seemed to work so well as a team that it was almost as though they had been doing so for years.
"Rodanns. They're not members of the League Of Non-Aligned Worlds, and they have never shown any interest in joining. They're not isolationists as such; they just don't like many of the other races. Marcus has had some experience of them in the past. Marcus?"
"Yes." He glanced up from his position some feet away, where he had been standing quietly, without appearing to need to refer to the map. "I was on a routine patrol a few months ago, at a little outpost world near the edge of what has since become Shadow space. The Rodann aren't terribly friendly, and I can vouch for their low opinion of humans. Ordinarily I wouldn't like to generalise about any race, but I'm happy to make an exception in this case. They're bad news."
"Sounds like the perfect candidates to make friends with the Shadows then," suggested Ivanova. Marcus shrugged.
"Depending on what they're hoping to get out of it, yes. Perhaps they already knew about the buried ships when they chose Ferox for a colony. They're a very war-like species, anyway. Permanent case of bad attitude all round."
"Lovely," muttered Ivanova. "Remind me not to run into any of them."
"I would certainly not recommend it." Rolling up the map, Delenn tucked it under one arm. "This may be very dangerous, Commander, Mr Garibaldi - not just because of the attitude of the Rodann colonists - and I'm sorry to be asking you to go. I am afraid that with things as they are at the moment, too many of the Rangers are busy in other places just now, and I am not prepared to let Marcus go alone. The risks are too great, and if he should be killed there would be no chance of completing the mission." She smiled at the faintly indignant Ranger. "I did not mean for that to be an insult, Marcus. I believe that you are fully capable of completing this task. I just do not want to... the phrase about eggs and baskets." He inclined his head in a formal, polite nod by way of response. Delenn returned the gesture. "Now if there are no more questions, I would suggest making a move. Your ship is ready in docking bay two, and nobody else is scheduled to be there for some time yet. It would seem a good time to leave."
"Fine by me." Garibaldi was always ready to take a ship out, a trait he shared with both Ivanova and Sheridan; and, also, with Sheridan's predecessor, Sinclair. "How long is the flight?"
"About thirty six hours. You should all try to get some sleep on the way, to be sure of being alert when you arrive. You probably won't get any chance to sleep on the planet itself." Sheridan was all business, despite the smiles and more relaxed attitude of earlier. "There aren't any beds on the ship that you'll be taking, but there's no reason why you shouldn't be able to take it turns to get some kind of sleep. Consider that an order." The grin suddenly came back out for an encore. "Now come on. You've got to take a look at the ship you'll be taking. I gotta say; I wish I was getting the chance to take her out myself. She's one of the ships that the Minbari have had built for the Rangers, so it incorporates a degree of Vorlon technology, just like the White Star. She's designed to be non-specific so far as the design is concerned, so unless somebody gets close to and has a proper look around, they'd have no reason to realise the Minbari connection. Which, given that the Rodann apparently hate the Minbari even more than they hate humans, is probably a good idea."
"Just why do they hate us so much?" asked Ivanova, as they began to file out of the conference room. It was Marcus who answered, falling into step beside her.
"During the Earth-Minbari war, a battle between two fleets accidentally decimated a sizeable Rodann colony on a planet both races thought to be uninhabited," he supplied. "Much of the colony was underground, so neither fleet noticed it. Any scans that they ran wouldn't have gone that deep."
"But apparently the colonists were not deep enough," added Delenn. "When my people found out about the destruction, there was widespread horror, especially amongst the religious and worker castes. Even the military were saddened by the incident, since there is certainly no honour in killing unsuspecting civilians against whom you have no quarrel. We made overtures towards the Rodann, trying to apologise for what had happened, but all three of the diplomatic teams that we sent to their homeworld disappeared, and have never been heard of again. Their anger as a race was a terrible thing. Perhaps they believed that the destruction of their colony was intentional, or perhaps they were just so angry that they did not care about reasons and motives."
"Sound like a pleasant bunch." Sheridan looked around at the others. "And I'm sorry that it's them I'm having to send you into the middle of. It all backs up what we said before though. Get in, get the target, and get back out again. The ship has been programmed with as much detail as possible, including the co-ordinates where you should find your guy. You'll know him when you see him, and he'll be expecting you; or somebody, anyway. Marcus, that pin of yours is your password, and so's your ability to speak Minbari." He broke off as they passed a stray ambassador scurrying in the opposite direction down the corridor, then spoke up again once they were safely inside one of the lifts. "You stay low, keep your heads down, and get him back here. Don't let anything stop you from doing that."
"And you're sure we'll know him when we see him?" asked Susan. It seemed odd to be sent out to find somebody without knowing what they looked like. A photograph seemed to be a good place to start. Delenn nodded.
"You'll know," she said. "I'm sorry, but as I said before, I can never be sure who is listening here. This person... is very special. He is very likely unique. If certain people even suspected that he existed, we know that moves would be made to remove him. To kill him. My people are determined to ensure that this does not happen."
"Alright." It still seemed odd to Ivanova, but Garibaldi didn't seem too concerned, and Marcus seemed happy to go along with anything that Delenn said, so she saw no point in rocking the boat herself. Besides, beneath the urgency and the concerns, there was something exciting about going out into the unknown to rescue another unknown. She turned her thoughts instead to this ship that had made Sheridan so enthusiastic in his praise. If it was anything like the White Star she could understand that attitude. The Minbari certainly built interesting ships. Settling back to join the others in silence during the lift journey, she listened to the hum of the machinery around her. Funny how often she found herself looking forward to leaving the station, and yet how fond of it she invariably found herself to be when the time actually came to go. The gentle music of the machinery slowed to a faint thrum as the lift slowed, and she felt the excitement build again. Just what sort of a ship had the Minbari come up with for them this time? She didn't have long to wait to find out. As the doors opened, and they stepped out into the broad space of docking bay two, amongst all of the usual vessels was one that she didn't recognise. Its alien origin was obvious, although, like the White Star, it didn't look conspicuously Minbari in design. She felt a flash of excitement at this chance to fly something new.
"A Tristar!" Emerging from the lift just behind her, Marcus was clearly delighted. Garibaldi didn't look anywhere near so pleased. It looked a strange craft to him - a circular central section, with three triangular sections that radiated out of it at equally spaced intervals. Marcus was already disappearing inside though, and Susan could not help herself but follow; and the eager pilot in the security chief was not going to let him hang back. He followed on up the ramp. Inside the craft seemed just as strange, just as unfamiliar, as the outside. In the main circular section there were three chairs arranged in a line before a bank of controls, and each of the outer triangular sections had its own chair and controls. Marcus was pointing things out to Susan, his enthusiasm palpable.
"You pilot it from these seats here, of course," he said brightly, pointing to the three arranged in a row in the centre. "Then if you have to go on the attack, or just want a smaller craft for some reason, the three points break off as individual ships. They handle beautifully. You'll love it."
"You seem very familiar with it," commented Susan. He nodded, a little distracted by Delenn's appearance in the doorway. Something about her seemed to inspire him to remain at a sort of formal state of alert, like a sign of respect altogether different to any Ivanova knew from her own soldiering experience.
"I am," he said, with a trace of obvious pride. "Very familiar. I flew the first test flights for these things, with Entil'Zha. I think he may have had a hand in designing them, or at the very least suggesting some of their features."
"According to Delenn, he did." Sheridan also appeared in the doorway, looking around with the kind of barely suppressed acquisitiveness that Ivanova could completely understand. Sheridan was as much a pilot at heart as was she, and the ship must be deeply tempting. No doubt he was as anxious to take it for a spin as she was herself. "Jeff Sinclair comes from a long line of fighter pilots. That all adds up to a lot of experience. By the look of things, he'd have had quite a career as a designer of space craft if he'd wanted to go by that route." He sighed wistfully. "I really wish I was going along on this one. This ship looks like quite an experience to fly."
"Maybe some other time," Delenn told him. "You are needed here."
"I know." It didn't stop him sighing again, more exaggeratedly this time. Ivanova and Garibaldi exchanged a grin.
"We'll bring you back a souvenir, captain," offered Susan. Sheridan smiled.
"Just bring back your target," he told her. Delenn laid a hand on his arm.
"We should disembark," she said pointedly. He nodded.
"Yeah, I guess we should. Although if they want to take her out for a test flight first, I could--"
"We should disembark," she repeated, slowly and more firmly. Sheridan grinned, this time sharing the joke with Susan and Garibaldi.
"It seems we'll be disembarking now," he said. "Take care of her. I want her back in one piece so I can fly her myself some time. Understood?"
"Yes sir." Garibaldi nodded smartly, understanding the real meaning behind the request. Ivanova nodded as well.
"We'll see you as soon as possible."
"See that you do, Susan. See that you do." Sheridan took one last look around, at the crew of the ship this time, rather than at the ship itself. "Good luck."
"Yes, good luck." Delenn said something to Marcus in Minbari, and he responded in kind, returning her deep, formal nod. She glided from the ship then, as quiet and as regal a figure as ever. Sheridan followed in her wake. Marcus operated a control to retract the ramp and close the door.
"I'll take her out," he offered, sliding into one of the central seats. "There's nothing much to it. You should both be able to fly her easily enough."
"There's certainly a familiarity to the controls." Ivanova took the seat next to him, the middle one, which he seemed to have been reserving for her. It had the slightly larger size of a captain's chair, and she could see that there were one or two extra controls in the arm rests. It was all that she could do to restrain herself from pushing them, just to see what they could do. Marcus was powering up the engines, meanwhile, pointing out one or two of the buttons that she was not so familiar with. Garibaldi joined them.
"There are no scanner screens on the consoles," he said. Marcus gestured at the front viewscreen.
"You can get all manner of readings on that," he said. "For anything else..." He pressed a series of buttons, and a number of large, holographic screens appeared all around them. "The one on the left is useful for flying through hyperspace. It gives a good three dimensional representation of what you're flying through. On the right is the battle screen. It gives ship positions, with enhanced sensitivity for weapons systems and energy output. The others give information on gases, temperature, local space, nearby planets, asteroids and such like." He flicked a switch and the extra screens disappeared, then keyed in another sequence and the ship lifted up into the air. Ahead of them the bay doors began to glide open.
"She's smooth," conceded Susan. Marcus nodded.
"Wait until we hit hyperspace." With a press of a button he brought the ship forward, guiding her out of the bay doors and into the darkness of space. Epsilon III loomed up before them for a second, before Marcus spun the ship around and took her up. Susan felt her hands itching for a turn at the controls. She grinned at Garibaldi.
"Dangerous missions have their pay offs," she told him, and he nodded.
"They sure do. What I wouldn't give to have this baby in the annual shuttle race. She'd leave everything else standing."
"Five seconds to jump." Marcus had the ship on a heading straight for Babylon 5's local jumpgate. "Ready?"
"You betcha." Ivanova watched the lights race up as the jumpgate sequence initiated. "Funny that the captain hasn't come over the wire to say goodbye."
"Probably keeping it low profile. Anybody on the station could pick up the transmission." Garibaldi watched the jumpgate loom large on the front viewscreen. "Next stop, Ferox."
"And the Shadows." Ivanova was still thinking about that delightful proposition when they hit hyperspace, and the myriad wondrous lights leaped out to greet them. New screens rolled themselves out of nowhere to chart their progress, and she whistled her appreciation.
"This thing has amazing telemetry!"
"All part of the Vorlon contribution." Marcus stood up, making the most of the ship's artificial gravity to leave his seat and go over to the main hyperspace information screen. Ivanova reacted with shock to his sudden abandoning of the controls, but he merely grinned at her in his annoyingly cheerful way.
"Don't worry about it. She's on a set course. Ordinarily we'd still have to worry about keeping an eye out for obstacles, but with this scanning equipment we should get several minutes advance warning. Bar freak events, obviously."
"If it's all the same to you I think somebody should keep an eye on the controls." Ivanova was all too happy for that to be her, and Garibaldi joined Marcus by the holographic screens.
"Jeff really helped design all of this?" he asked. Marcus nodded.
"As far as I know. He suggested many of the features, and he was in charge of flight lessons. Of course, when I did my training the Tristars were very new. In the last few months they've been revised here and there from what I can see. The artificial gravity is better, and the acceleration isn't quite so rough as it used to be. I hardly felt the take off at all."
"When the war is over, Marcus plans to take up a job selling used spaceships," piped up Ivanova. Garibaldi laughed.
"How is she handling?" he asked. She grinned broadly.
"Beautifully. I'd suggest you take a turn at the controls, but I don't think I'm willing to give them up just yet. And just look at all these extra sensors. I've never known a ship fly so well in hyperspace."
"One of the benefits of the Minbari construction. Most Earth ships don't handle too well in hyperspace. They can't cope with obstacles coming at them faster than they can be detected. The Minbari worked that glitch out years ago." Marcus sounded greatly enamoured of the technology, and Ivanova could fully understand why. Any human pilot stood to experience great difficulties when traversing hyperspace, especially in a small vessel. Ordinarily, if flying a ship of this size built on Earth, she would have been on permanent alert, watching dozens of alarms, sensors and scanners in case of debris. Now she could merely relax and enjoy the flight. Ahead the main screen showed a digital representation of hyperspace as a kaleidoscope of shifting colour, but she soon found that she could change the image to an approximation of real space and colour. Gaseous clouds and distant star vapour rushed past so fast that it made her head hurt, and she appreciated even more the superior scanners that saw the possibility of collision so far in advance, and were able to steer the ship clear long before her own reflexes would have been able to kick in. Garibaldi came back over to join her, sliding into the next seat along, and eyeing some of the less familiar controls with suspicion.
"What do all these things do?" he asked. Ivanova grinned.
"The blue ones make coffee, and the red ones make tea."
"Of course they do. But is the tea herbal or mint?"
"It's English Breakfast." Marcus returned to his own seat. "Actually the blue ones in the middle there are for the stabilisers, and the red ones power up the weapons, but I wouldn't recommend using them in hyperspace unless you're very sure of your aim. They have a nasty habit of catching you by surprise."
"What kind of weapons?" asked Garibaldi, immediately interested. Marcus pointed to each of the buttons in turn.
"Front pulse cannons, port lasers, starboard lasers, roof pulse cannon, plus a pair of lasers on the bottom, for full attack capability during a manoeuvre. Of course there are also weapons in the three smaller ships. They have some quite impressive guns. More than you'd expect for the size."
"Not that they'd be much good against a Shadow vessel," pointed out Susan. He nodded.
"True. But not every enemy is a Shadow; and ideally you wouldn't go up against the Shadows in something this size anyway. The White Star, and some of the bigger Minbari war ships, are far better equipped for that kind of thing."
"Hey, you fight as best you can with whatever you're in when the enemy comes into view." Garibaldi folded his arms, staring mutely at the shifting colours of the viewscreen. "So how much longer is this flight, anyway?"
"Rather longer to go yet, Mr Garibaldi." Marcus seemed amused at the security chief's restlessness. "We've been gone less than fifteen minutes."
"Which makes thirty five hours and forty-five minutes to go." Susan also smiled. "Michael, if you're going to be this fidgety all the way there, you're going to get very annoying very quickly."
"I don't like having nothing to do." He looked back to the controls again, as though planning to press a few, but clearly decided against it whilst still in hyperspace. It was always hard to find something to talk about during a flight, even when accompanied by friends, and this wasn't exactly the sort of company where he could try out a few of the new lewd stories he had heard from the other members of the security team. You could never tell how Ivanova would react to that kind of thing, and he had no idea what to expect from Marcus. The man wandered about looking something like a monk, although presumably that wasn't too much a reflection of his true character. He wondered briefly how his old stand-by: 'fasten and then zip, or zip and then fasten?' would go down, but decided against it. Not in present company. Ivanova broke the awkward silence in the end.
"I wonder who this guy is we're being sent to pick up?"
"Somebody pretty special." Garibaldi shrugged. "Some Minbari spy maybe?"
"Not on a Rodann colony. They wouldn't take the chance." Marcus didn't seem too concerned about who their target was, but Garibaldi was less passively accepting of anything that Delenn said or asked.
"Then who? If the Rodann are so unaccepting of anything human or Minbari, who would they send instead? The Narn have their own worries right now, and most Minbari seem to look down on them almost as much as they look down on us. The Centauri don't strike me as the kind to help out with a Minbari mission. You can't trust any of them as far as you can throw them. And who else is there? Drazi? Pak'ma'ra? Gaim?"
"Don't be so hard on the Centauri. Just because Londo is the shifty type doesn't mean that they're all untrustworthy. Vir's a good man." Ivanova frowned. "But I agree, I don't think the Minbari would use a Centauri agent. Centauri Prime keeps far too close an eye on all its people. Something would find its way back to the emperor's palace in the end."
"And after what's been happening lately, the Centauri aren't on anybody's list of favourite dinner guests." Garibaldi nodded. "So we're back to the other options. Drazi? They make tough little warriors."
"Not so little. And they have helped the Rangers out before. But I don't think so. None of the other races are that involved, at least as far as I can see. They have to be coaxed and cajoled to help out every step of the way. If it is any of them then it's got to be an independent agent rather than somebody working with the blessings of their government. So really it could be anybody." Ivanova looked over to Marcus. "You really have no idea?"
"Delenn said that it was somebody important. That's good enough for me. We'll know him when we see him." He leaned back in his seat, staring at the viewscreen. "If you're bored, Mr Garibaldi, we could always play I-Spy."
"All I can spy right now is H for hyperspace. Or C for coloured whirly splodgy things." Garibaldi shook his head. "No thankyou. I think I'll take a turn in the sack if that's okay with everybody else. It's getting pretty late in station time, and I haven't had much chance for sleep with everything that's been going on lately."
"Fine." Marcus was quite happy to be left alone with Ivanova for a while, and she was still too interested in the Tristar to worry about anything else. Garibaldi headed for the back of the ship, and taking off his jacket to use as a pillow, he lay down on the floor and stared at the ceiling. It wasn't the most comfortable bed that he had ever enjoyed, but as a true pilot and citizen of space, he loved to feel the engines vibrating gently around him, and to hear the quiet hum of power. There were few more relaxing sounds that he knew. Marcus smiled.
"It seems that we're alone, Commander."
"Just you, me, and several billion stars, yeah." She began another examination of the controls before her. "How much of this stuff is Vorlon?"
"The advanced telemetry, as I said before. Also the heightened sensitivity of the scanners, and one or two other little tricks. If you were trying to follow somebody through hyperspace, for instance, you'd find it a lot easier in this than in one of your own ships."
"Everything the well dressed Ranger could need?"
"Something like that. Entil'Zha wanted something that could be used primarily by Rangers on long haul flights. Three pilots taking it in turns to fly can cover a lot of distance in one of these. The Vorlon/Minbari engine design allows a lot of flight time between pit stops."
She smiled. "Sometimes I think you'd be happier as a wandering Ranger like that, rather than being stuck with us on Babylon 5."
"Oh, being stuck on Babylon 5 has its compensations." He smiled fondly at her, but her attention was largely on the screen, and she didn't see the expression on his face. "Besides, I'm too much of a lone wolf to want to spend all my time out in one of these things with two other Rangers. The way things are I get to go off on my own as often as I like. I get in a lot of flying time, a few solo missions here and there. Plus I get to annoy Mr Garibaldi by looking out for the Lurkers in Downbelow."
"Oh, we know all about that." She rolled her eyes, remembering the most recent stories that she had heard. "All the same, if somebody offered me one of these, I think I'd take it. Although I might ask for some proper beds to be put in."
"There isn't the room. You wouldn't miss them, anyway. Sleeping on the floor isn't so bad."
"Speaks the man with no furniture." She smiled, wondering if they were keeping Garibaldi awake with their chatter, but not really caring. It was strangely nice to share a few moments conversation, when there wasn't the constant risk of her Link calling her to a meeting, or to the most recent crisis somewhere on the station. Marcus was even managing not to annoy her, which made quite a pleasant change. Funny how, just a few moments before, the silence had seemed awkward. Now, with just the two of them, she found it easy to think of things to say, and easy to enjoy the silences in between. Not that she was going to go reading anything into that. Marcus was... well. He was still Marcus. And he was still a pain in the neck most of the time.
All the same, the conversation was an enjoyable one. They talked for several hours, without really noticing the time going by. Marcus showed her the ins and outs of the main console, and explained the nuances of the various different holographic screens; which as far as Ivanova could see were much like the ones on board the White Star, but smaller and with different priorities. They talked about Earth then; about Russia, primarily, and a trip she had made to London as a child. It was odd to think that, despite Marcus's accent and mannerisms, she had actually spent more time in 'his country' than he had. She was used to colonists who had developed their own accents; their own cultural identities. The ones who still seemed so close to the country of their families' original heritage were few and far between. The talk wandered onto culture after that; Earth colonies, and Earth itself; cultural heritage. A long discussion about music over which Susan found herself growing unexpectedly passionate; endless comparisons of her own Russian/Jewish heritage with Marcus's own family and their origins. After that they wound up on literature, and argued at considerable length over Dostoevsky and Dickens; Pushkin, Solzhenitsyn, Tolkien and Wilde, and Ivanova surprised herself by how much Shakespeare she remembered from her school days. Marcus, needless to say, seemed able to quote great tracts from any number of plays, and with his often theatrical manner, not to mention his cloak, he fitted the archaic language well. She found herself laughing at him, and could have sworn that she saw real delight in his eyes. After that they drifted into silence, staring at the changing patterns on the viewscreen, and listening to the contented snores of Garibaldi in the back. Marcus grinned.
"He sounds like one of the wild animals that used to come around the Ranger trainer camp at night back on Minbar."
"Don't go telling him that." She smiled at Garibaldi's likely reaction. Marcus smirked.
"They were quite friendly actually. Very easily tamed. They were quite partial to the sort of porridge mixture that we used to eat in the mornings."
"Then the similarity definitely ends with the noise. Nobody has ever successfully tamed Michael Garibaldi. And if they did I doubt it would be with porridge."
"And what about you, Commander?" He had a worryingly direct look in his eyes, and she wondered what new tack he was taking this time. "What would it take to tame you?"
"A lifetime's supply of fresh hot chocolate." She smiled at the thought. Hot chocolate was one of the many options from the station's drinks machines, as well as being one of many hot drinks that the various bars and vendors offered; but it was all ghastly reconstituted stuff, worse than the coffee that she so hated. Fresh coffee she had worked out how to get, with a little creative gardening, but chocolate was something different. Real hot chocolate. With real milk. Hardly a priority for the shuttles going backwards and forwards from Earth - and especially not now that there were no shuttles going backwards and forwards from Earth. She thought of something else. "And my own personal pastry chef. Somebody who can cook cakes like you get in the little tea shops back on Earth."
"You don't make it easy, do you."
She laughed at that. "Never, pal. So what does it take to tame you?"
"Oh, I don't know. A nice smile, perhaps. From the right person."
"Simple tastes, huh."
"The Vorlons say that simplicity is the greatest complication."
"Well that makes about as much sense as everything else that they say. Ambassador Kosh used to be a running joke amongst the staff on the station. You never knew when he was going to speak, and when he did say something nobody ever understood it. He spent hours wandering around the station with the captain, giving him lessons in something or other. Sheridan used to come back looking like his brain had been wrung through a meat grinder." She smiled. "I'm actually going to miss him, although I can't say that we ever spent any real time together. Did you ever speak with him?"
"I don't think anybody ever really gets the chance to speak with a Vorlon, exactly. Once or twice I did get the chance to stare at him stupidly whilst he said something peculiar, though. Does that count?"
"Er, well." He frowned at the memory. "The first time I was sitting in the gardens, and when I looked up he was standing right in front of me. So much for my finely attuned Ranger senses."
"And what happened?"
"Happened? I said 'Hello'. Hardly earth shattering, I know, but what else do you say? Anyway, he just stood there looking at me, and then he came out with one of his little Kosh-isms. Many will see the book, but few will read it. Fewer still will understand the words."
"Yes, exactly. Who knew the Vorlons were literary critics? Still, it was nice of him to stop by."
She glowered at him. "But what do you think he meant?"
"Who knows? Mind you, I was reading Shakespeare at the time, so maybe it was just a general comment on the text. Old William could be pretty obtuse at times. You know, it's always possible he was part-Vorlon."
She sighed, growing annoyed with him again; which, on second thoughts, was probably preferable to the burgeoning sense of companionship from earlier. "Part-Vorlon? I don't think it's possible to cross-breed with a non-corporeal being."
"Suppose not. Still, be fun to try."
"Whatever." She ignored the teasing smirk that filled his eyes. "What about the other time? Or times?"
"You said you'd seen him once or twice. What else did you talk about?"
"Oh." He shrugged, apparently trying to make it sound like nothing much in particular. "We spoke about Valen. It was before I found out who he was, obviously. Makes a lot more sense now." Clearly he didn't want to elaborate, and Ivanova didn't push him. Instead she settled back in her seat, staring ahead.
"It still seems strange, thinking about who he really was. Valen I mean. To me he'll always be Jeffrey Sinclair."
"Ah, but to me he was never Jeffrey Sinclair. We're none of us who we used to be, Susan. And that would be true even if we weren't living in such momentous times." He smiled cheerily. "Time you were getting some sleep. You'd best wake up Mr Garibaldi."
"I suppose." She stood up and stretched, surprised how comfortable she had become in her seat. "You're alright waiting for a bit before you get some sleep yourself?"
"Me?" He seemed surprised that she was asking. "I'm fine. See you in a few hours."
"Yeah." It almost seemed a shame to break up the conversation, but she was beginning to feel tired. It had been late on Babylon 5 when they had left, and by her reckoning, in relative time, it must be past the early hours of the morning by now. She headed for the back of the ship, and nudged Garibaldi with one foot.
"Hungh?" He blinked up at her. "What?"
"Shift change." She smiled down at him. "You're looking very comfortable down there."
"No, not really. I haven't got a wink of sleep." He grinned up at her. "How did it go while I was out?"
"Fine. No problems." She took off her own jacket for use as a pillow, and Garibaldi tried to shake the creases out of his own so that he could put it back on. He gave up.
"See you in a bit then. How's you know who for conversation?"
"Not bad." She smiled almost fondly at the thought. "Night."
"Night." Stretching, he crossed over to the pilot seats, and slid into one. The viewscreen looked the same as before, and he was still at a loss as to what to say. He glanced over at Marcus.
"So what you talk about then?"
"Shakespeare. Dickens. Dostoevsky." Marcus smiled. "Do you have a favourite author, Mr Garibaldi?"
"Yeah. Either Hanna or Barbera." Garibaldi smirked at the thought. "Maybe we'd better stick to I-Spy. Or Hangman, if you promise not to try sneaking in any Minbari words."
"I'm sure we can think of something." Marcus leaned back, trying not to think too wistfully of the past hours spent lost in conversation with Ivanova. Garibaldi could be a garrulous and entertaining companion, but a highly attractive and deeply fascinating Russian commander he was not. He didn't even begin to have the right kind of figure. Garibaldi, who could easily guess the direction of his companion's thoughts, wisely kept quiet. For one thing Susan was very likely still awake, and he had no intention of risking her estimable wrath. Certainly not with so many hours still to go.
It was a long time before they awoke Ivanova. Marcus considered draping his coat over her as a blanket, but had to concede that it was more than his life was worth. Not that he was easy to scare, usually; but Ivanova was more frightening than most foes, Shadows included. In the end she awoke naturally, and glared bleary eyed at the two men flying the ship.
"I thought we were supposed to be taking this in turns?" she asked. Garibaldi grinned.
"We didn't dare disturb you. There are rumours of lost fingers in the past, and I need mine. Can't risk losing my trigger finger."
"Very funny." She stood up, shrugging into her jacket, and scowling fiercely at the creases in it. "Marcus? Bed. Now." She saw the look in his eyes, and flashed him such a glare that even he got the hint. He still grinned though.
"If you're sure that the pair of you will be alright flying on your own?"
"We'll be fine. Nothing to it." Garibaldi was feeling very at home behind the controls, to the extent that he was quite happy now for the flight to be longer than it had to be. Susan slid back into her chair, and eyed the various readouts and data streams. Certainly everything looked okay. Behind them Marcus was lying down on the floor, hands behind his head, eyes already closed. She got the distinct impression that he was already asleep.
"How was it?" she asked, not meaning the flight this time. Garibaldi shrugged.
"Oh, you know Marcus. He's the quiet type. Didn't say much."
"Quiet type?!" She rolled her eyes. "Whatever. So what do we talk about now?"
"Beats me. There's always 'fasten and then zip...' But then again probably not. And to be honest it doesn't kill all that much time anyway."
"Huh? You've been spending too much time alone with Marcus. You're getting to be as weird as he is." She settled back in her chair. "How long now?"
"Twenty two hours, thirty-two minutes." He grinned. "We're going to have to find a better way to pass the time."
"Yeah." Neither of them really minded. After nearly three years of hectic, often dangerous, service together, they were comfortable enough in each other's company for almost anything, and any silence wasn't likely to be too awkward. It was quiet in the ship, but it was a pleasant kind of quiet. A companionable quiet, just right for two old friends. The gentle hum of the engines did their talking for them, as the ship carried them onwards through space.
Much as though he were doing it just to annoy Susan - which she was perfectly willing to accept was the case - Marcus slept for only a very few hours. He awoke silently, just as he had slept, and appeared at her shoulder when she was deep in thought.
"Marcus, damn it!" Trying to pretend that he hadn't just caused her to jump almost out of her skin, she glowered at him furiously, which of course was the kind of thing inclined to make him smile all the more. "What do you want?"
"I was wondering if you were hungry. There are food stores on board if you're interested. I could whip us up something?"
"You cook?" She regarded him sceptically. "Really?"
"We're talking shuttle rations, commander. That's hardly going to constitute cooking."
"There's nothing wrong with cooking," declared Garibaldi, looking at Susan as though she had been hinting it was something only practised by mothers and housekeepers. She smiled at him.
"You and cooking go together. With salami and garlic and... all those things that make Stephen worry about your arteries. I just can't see Marcus slaving away at a hot stove, that's all."
"Just as well. There's not much opportunity for cooking at colonial outposts and mining stations. All I can do is heat things through, or better still, buy it already on the plate." He vanished to the far wall, and produced a collections of packets and boxes from inside a hatch. "It's all Minbari, but it's perfectly digestible for humans."
"You make it sound so inviting." Garibaldi sighed. "Right now I could eat just about anything. I don't suppose there's any ice cream back there?"
"Or beer?" put in Ivanova.
"There's water." Marcus grinned. "Sorry, Susan. Alcohol is rather frowned upon. And I don't know that the Minbari have an ice cream equivalent."
"And they call themselves civilised." Only half grumbling, Garibaldi turned around. "So what's on the menu then?"
"Various freeze dried favourites. Give me a second to get it all heated up." Apparently that was all that Marcus needed, for he appeared beside the pilots' seats again in a very short time, bearing two plates. He handed one each to Garibaldi and Ivanova, then came back a moment later with a third plate and three bottles of water. "Nothing poisonous, honestly. Well - except to some indigenous flightless bird species in the Markab system, allegedly."
"I've never actually tried Minbari food before." Ivanova peered at her plate, and sniffed it cautiously. "It smells... oniony?"
"The Minbari have several plants similar in flavour to onions, yes. Sorry it all looks so unappetising. Something to do with the freeze-drying process I should think."
"Remind me to have a really good steak when we get back to the station." Garibaldi took a bite out of something square, soft, and faintly green. "Not bad I suppose."
"No. It's... well, it's quite tasty really." Ivanova tried to work out what exactly it tasted like, but had to give up. "Better than some of the stuff I've had on the station, anyway."
"A lot of the time that's not really difficult." Garibaldi ate quickly, hunger defeating his natural suspicion. Even the water didn't taste too bad, which again surprised him. Space rations had a tendency to taste of plastic, but apparently the Minbari had found a way around that.
"You should demand better food if it bothers you that much. You're an independent state now. Not bound by Earth anymore." Marcus seemed to find the idea amusing. "Put it in the new treaty you're working out with the other races."
"Very funny." Susan finished her food and leaned back in her chair. "Well that was better than expected. And now we've only got another... nineteen hours and sixteen minutes to kill. Somebody really ought to invent a faster engine. Something instantaneous would be good."
"You might not be in such a hurry to get there once we're there." Marcus collected the plates together and put them back into the hatch that they had come from. "Meditate. It's good for you."
"I'll teach you if you like. It's very relaxing, and it improves concentration. The Minbari say that--"
"I don't care what the Minbari say." She shot him the evil eye. "I am not going to learn how to meditate."
"And I'm not going to spend the next nineteen hours listening to you two arguing. Honestly, it's like taking a shuttle trip with a pair of children." Garibaldi let Ivanova see him smile. "Or a married couple. Here." He began to juggle the three empty water bottles. "Meditation, Garibaldi style."
"Bet you can't keep that up for the next nineteen hours." Ivanova laughed as he almost dropped one. "Told you."
"Oh ye of little faith." He recovered from the almost slip, and carried on juggling. "I might try to go for a new world record."
"We'll probably be at Ferox by then. I'd rather you were thinking of something else when we leave hyperspace."
"Yeah. Shadows." His mention of the legendary foe made them all more serious suddenly. Marcus shrugged.
"Delenn seems to think that they won't bother us. They're only interested in excavating their ships, and getting them in flight again. If they don't see us land, we won't need to worry about them. Just the Rodann."
"And all in nineteen hours, and... fourteen minutes." Garibaldi ceased to juggle, and threw the bottles, one after the other, to the back of the ship. "Anybody want to play I-Spy again?"
"Hardly." Ivanova looked back to the viewscreen, and the many shining lights of hyperspace. Despite the novelty of the different displays, it was beginning to look rather repetitive. "How about twenty questions?"
The remainder of the journey passed much as had the first half; in sporadic conversation, periods of boredom, and Marcus making Ivanova glower in annoyance. After leaving the jumpgate, however, and edging up upon the borders of Ferox space, Ivanova saw exactly what Marcus had meant. Sometimes the boredom of a journey was infinitely preferable to arriving at journey's end.
The system was a mass of blackness; a vast, dreadful sweep of impenetrability that hid the stars. The blackness was ships; they could see that after a moment or two. Many ships, small and spiked, rising and falling and spinning in idle inactivity. Ivanova tried to count them, but had to give up. They were everywhere. Marcus whistled.
"In Valen's name!"
Susan scowled at him, worry making her more irritable than before. "I do wish you wouldn't say that."
"Sorry." Marcus flashed her a faintly apologetic, distracted smile. "Force of habit. Sometimes it's difficult to remember that the person whose name you take in vain half a dozen times a day is the same bloke you used to beat in a swimming race every morning."
"Never mind that." Still sensitive about the issue of Sinclair, and annoyed to find himself somewhat jealous of the time that Marcus had spent with him, Garibaldi gestured at the view screen. "What about them?!"
"It's very unlikely that they'll see us. Or so the theory goes. They'll have their thoughts on other things." Marcus frowned at the mass of accumulated blackness. It was, to say the least, somewhat off-putting. "All the same, we should probably take to the smaller ships now."
"What about this section?" asked Garibaldi. Marcus shook his head.
"They won't care for it. Once we're gone it'll shut down, and if they pick it up on their sensors at all it'll be as nothing but space debris. It'll drift into orbit and nobody will pay it any mind. Again, or so the theory goes."
"Great." Ivanova looked around at the three little branches radiating out from the central section. "And they are easy to fly, right?"
"You can't go wrong. Entil'Zha swore that their controls were very similar to those of an Earthforce Starfury, but lighter and far more responsive. They're much more manoeuvrable than anything of human design, and they go at one hell of a speed." He smiled, as though at a memory. "Shall we go? If you take the first one, Susan, you'll find it's programmed as the command ship. That way Mr Garibaldi and I can take our cues from you."
"The... first one?" She knew now, upon really looking, that there were figures above the small ships, and that they were undoubtedly Minbari numbers. Which was 'one', though, she had no idea. He pointed her in the right direction. "Mr Garibaldi?"
"Sure. Why not." Garibaldi went to the second ship, and Marcus himself to the third. It was easy for the two officers to see what they were doing once they were seated, and Ivanova felt her confidence grow. There didn't seem to be any control that she didn't recognise.
"Ready?" Marcus's voice seemed to come from the console in front of her, and she looked automatically towards the speaker, as though looking instead at the man.
"I think so. Michael?"
"Sure, I'm ready. I can't wait to get this baby powered up." Garibaldi's excitement was obvious. "How do we break free of the main ship?"
"On the ceiling. There are three buttons in a row, all grey on red. Got them?"
"Yes," confirmed Ivanova.
"Got 'em," echoed Garibaldi.
"Then press the middle one first, then the right one, and then the left one. And I'll see you in space." He fell silent. Ivanova looked up at the three buttons.
"Oh well," she said aloud, not caring that the others would hear her. Michael Garibaldi's voice came to her, quiet but still obviously amused.
"It's now or never, huh. You realise how embarrassing it'll be if we can't fly these things?"
"Oh, I'm sure he'll let us live it down some time this century." Ivanova was just reaching out for the middle button when Marcus's voice came back out of the speaker.
"He might, but they won't. If you can't fly that thing, our friends out there could have you in pieces all over the sector before you find time to call for help."
"I thought you said they wouldn't notice us?" queried Garibaldi, but Marcus had fallen silent again. Ivanova sighed, and reaching up again, this time she did press the central button. There was a hiss of air behind her, and a screen came down, cutting her off from the main body of the ship, and sealing her inside her little pod. She pressed the right hand button, and there came the unmistakable sound of engines powering up. The floor hummed beneath her, and a myriad little lights sparkled into life on the panel in front of her. She couldn't help a smile. Even with a sea of Shadows in front of her, it was still wonderful to be out in space at the controls of a little flyer like this. This was why she had wanted to join Earthforce. Pressing the left hand button, she ejected her little craft into space, and saw the gulf open up before her. Immediately she put her hands to the console and took control of the flyer. It was just as Marcus had said. Similar enough to a Starfury for her to feel instantly at home, it was so much better than anything she had flown before. It answered her every touch with such smooth obedience that it was like something from a dream. She wanted to whoop out loud and send the thing into a dive. Into a roll or a spin or a series of each, and let the craft show her what it could do - but she told herself just to concentrate on the mission. Time enough for acrobatics when this was all over, and they were taking the Tristar back to Babylon 5. She put on her best commander's voice.
"Ship one to ship two. Copy?"
"Yeah, ship one." Garibaldi's approach to formalities was predictably different to her own. She was used to that.
"Ship three here, commander." Either out of deference to her, or because he was trying to prove that he could be sensible when he wanted to, Marcus made his own reply in rather more proper a manner. In his soft voice, which bore none of the stiffness of the military, the words sounded odd, but it was at least an attempt. She sighed. What a team she had. It was hardly a crack Earthforce squadron - which was probably, on reflection, a very good thing.
"Follow me in formation," she ordered, wondering if her idea of such things and a Ranger's were anything like the same, then deciding that she didn't care. Just so long as they all made it down to the planet, it probably didn't matter what pattern they flew in. Checking the destination co-ordinates on her flight computer, she took the craft into a tight banking manoeuvre that made her thrill to the neatness of the turn. Boy, but she loved this ship. She wanted half a dozen just for playing in. Below her the planet's broad curve beckoned, however, calling her back to her duty. She pushed the levity from her mind, and wondered if Garibaldi and Marcus would ever be able to do the same thing. Some chance. Calling out the order to head on down, she put the craft into a dive, half expecting one of the Shadow vessels to start shooting at her. None of them did. For now apparently they really did have their minds on other things. All she could do was hope that that piece of luck would last. It was a long way down to the planet, and they were going to be in plain sight all the way there.
Ferox was as dark as promised; the sort of dark accompanied by a distinct lack of night noises, and no apparent animal life. Garibaldi looked around without enthusiasm.
"It's dark, alright." He looked up at the sky. "Shame. It's been too long since I stood in the sunshine."
"Tell me about it." Ivanova could hardly remember the last time she had been planetside - her trip to the subterranean tunnels of Epsilon III not really counting. It had certainly been a long time since she had felt the sun on her face, and been able to look up at the sky and relax. All she could do now was look up at the invisible canopy of the ultra-violet filter, which made the sky an empty black nothingness. No stars, just an indistinct smudge of light to show the presence of the moon. It was just like being back on the station, save for the faint breeze - and even that was available in the station garden.
"We should hide the ships," suggested Garibaldi, tearing his eyes away from the pale, sorry plants and the apparently non-existent sky. Marcus shook his head.
"No need. They're undetectable to most scanning equipment, and in this sort of darkness they're almost invisible. Walk away a few paces and then look back. You'll see what I mean."
"The light does seem to slide off them." Ivanova tried looking at the ships from several different angles, but none of them gave her a better view. "Clever."
"All part of the service." He grinned. "I'll lure you away to join the Rangers yet."
"The uniform wouldn't suit me, and the jewellery isn't really my style. Plus I much prefer to carry a gun than a big stick." She looked around. "Where are we heading?"
"This way." Garibaldi was studying an old fashioned magnetic compass, which - Ivanova assumed, given Garibaldi's general professionalism - would work on the alien planet as well as it worked wherever it had been constructed. "Keep your voices down though. The settlement isn't far away."
"All those charming Rodann looking to make friends." Ivanova drew her gun. "I wonder where our guy is"?
"As close as he can get to where the Shadows are. Which is very close to the settlement by the look of our scans." Marcus moved into the lead, earning an exasperated sigh from Garibaldi. "The Rodann are known for the high number of their telepaths. Maybe they've entered into some kind of deal with the Shadows."
"Why would anybody do that?" The idea was anathema to Ivanova; but then she wasn't an acquisitive, belligerent colonist. Garibaldi pointed that out as he moved up to firmly replace Marcus in the lead.
"I'm the security chief," he hissed, with a notable glower. Marcus nodded, and fell back.
"Still doesn't make sense to me." Settling into a position in the rear, acting the part of a military professional in full and gleeful knowledge that she was infuriating Marcus in the process, Ivanova thought it all over aloud. "I mean, if you commit yourself as a pilot to one of those things, what exactly do you get out of it?"
"Maybe it's not the potential pilots who set up the deal?" suggested Marcus. He didn't like being in the middle, flanked by armed soldiers as though in need of their protection, and it showed very clearly in his voice. Ivanova found it rather amusing.
"It doesn't much matter either way," growled Garibaldi. "They're here, the Shadows are here, we're here. I mean, it's hard to see what else matters just now!"
"The Shadows. Yeah." Ivanova cast an unhappy look upwards. "I hate that they're up there, and we can't see them. For all we know they're watching us right now."
"So long as they're up there we should be fine. It's the ones on the ground that we need to worry about." Marcus spoke as though from the lessons learnt during his training on Minbar, or perhaps from some earlier briefing from Delenn. "When they're up in space they have little interest in what's going on planetside. They'll be watching for threats from out there, not down here. Their people on the ground take care of all that."
"If they're watching for threats from space, they're not doing a very good job of it." Ivanova tripped over something in the dark, and muttered uncomplimentary things about the absent sun. Marcus tried to steady her, but her furious look stilled his hand before it reached her arm. He grinned at her instead.
"True. But we were in a very small ship, fitted with equipment designed to confound sensors. We don't really know what the Shadow vessels are capable of detecting, but the Tristars have been tested in this way in the past and have always made it past the Shadows unseen, so long as they don't do anything to attract attention."
"Just like we don't tend to notice an mosquito unless it bites." Garibaldi nodded. "But down here it'll be a different matter. And we won't see them until long after they've seen us, right?"
"If they decide to take us out we'll be lucky if we see them at all." Marcus offered a little smile to go with this statement, as though to sweeten the pill. "They're as powerful as the Vorlons, and rumoured to be able to make themselves invisible. That's why we're not here to do anything more than get our man out."
"Be nice to think we could take out a Shadow outpost like this." Garibaldi smiled at the prospect. "What do you think it would take?"
"Something that could obliterate this entire planet, and all the ships that are in orbit around it." Ivanova's face showed her dislike of such action. "I don't see what else would do the trick." She stopped suddenly, frowning. "Do you hear that?"
"People." Garibaldi checked the charge in his gun automatically. "Must be getting close to the settlement."
"We flew in closer than I thought." Marcus moved up to stand alongside the security chief. "Although I can't hear anything else. No city noises. Are you thinking what I'm thinking?"
"A dome?" Ivanova also came up to join the group. "It is, isn't it. They've built their settlement inside a bio-dome as extra protection from the sun. How the hell are we going to get inside a bio-dome?"
"A dome won't be a problem in itself. Just the guards, if there are any." Marcus sounded perfectly confident, which didn't make Susan feel especially reassured. "These things are all pretty much the same. There'll be a security lock on the doors, but I can get us past that. It's what to expect afterwards that's the real unknown."
"Why did nobody mention domes as a possibility before? We could have brought better equipment." Ivanova's frustration was beginning to build into something more forceful. "If there are guards by the airlock we'll be sitting ducks."
"Susan, leave the garrotting till later, okay?" Garibaldi began to inch his way forward. "If we'd really thought about it we'd have known that this was a possibility. Who's going to risk gambling a whole colony on one UV filter that might malfunction? Though I'm surprised this guy we've been sent in to collect didn't send back a report on any of this."
"He didn't send back any reports. Delenn said he hasn't reported in since he landed here." Marcus was carrying his pike in his hand now, in readiness in case of attack, though it was not yet extended. "He wouldn't be able to send anything without the Shadows picking up the transmission. I suppose nobody realised how big a presence they have here until he actually arrived. And by then it was too late."
"So we don't even know if he's alive?!" Garibaldi looked almost as infuriated as Ivanova. "Marcus, you know just occasionally it's nice to know these things!"
"It doesn't make any difference. Somebody had to come here to find out one way or the other. The Shadows might have destroyed his ship before he landed. He was just in an ordinary flyer, not one with shielding like ours. Or he might have been captured or killed by the Rodann, or by the Shadows on the ground. For all I know he might be up there now, piloting one of those ships we saw on the way in. It doesn't make any difference."
"Yeah. I guess not." Ivanova relented a little, though somewhat sulkily. "Now where the hell's this dome? And what happened to the people we heard talking?"
"Probably gone inside, though we'd better look out for them anyway." Garibaldi began to lead the way forward again. "Does this guy have anything on him that we can use to track him down?"
"He should have a transponder, yes; but if he's inside the bio-dome it's doubtful that we'd be able to detect him. Not until we're in there too." Marcus pulled a small unit, about the size of a credit chip, from his pocket. "The light on this should flash when he's nearby, but it's not doing anything at the moment. I can't really tell if it's working properly until it does something."
"And will it show us if he's dead?" asked Ivanova. Marcus shrugged.
"Sort of. The transponder is powered by his own biochemical activity, so if he's dead it won't transmit."
"And since it's not transmitting anyway, we don't know if it's because he's dead, shut up in a bio-dome, or buzzing around in orbit flying a Shadow vessel." Garibaldi's smile was not a hugely cheerful one. "Great."
"Well I'd suggest we stop worrying about it, and do something to find some answers. One way or the other." Putting the sensor unit away again, Marcus began to stride forward through the pale, unhappy undergrowth. "The dome can't be far away. The voices we heard were probably external guards. The Rodann are an arrogant race on the whole, so there may not be that many guards, but we can't rule them out completely."
"Then try keeping your voice down!" Garibaldi hurried after him. "Marcus, you can't stride about like you own the planet when it's covered in people who'd take great pleasure in killing you!"
"Always behave like you know you have the right to be somewhere, Mr Garibaldi. Then with luck the universe should believe you and behave accordingly." Marcus strode on, slowing down only when his feet struck the unseen edge of a slope. "I haven't heard any more voices. Have either of you?"
"They must have been on a patrol." Garibaldi moved up to stand alongside him. "By now they could have gone anywhere, but they could come back this way again any time."
"And we can't take them out. If they get hit they'll know there's someone here." Ivanova peered into the inky blackness ahead. "Why's it so dark here? It wasn't this bad a while ago."
"That's not darkness." Garibaldi frowned at the impenetrability of all that lay ahead. "Is it?"
"No. That's shielding. Rather like on our ships back there." Marcus crouched down. "I think we've found it. The settlement. Built in a blister dome inside some kind of natural - or manmade - depression in the surface of the planet. Extra protection that way I suppose."
"If we can't see it, how do we get into it?" Ivanova also crouched down, reaching out with a feeling hand. "There's nothing there."
"Here, no. Further out you'd probably be able to touch something, but it might be alarmed so I wouldn't try." Marcus stood up, abruptly. "There must be a way down somewhere. There are sure to be several entrances, for safety's sake if nothing else."
"Won't they be able to see us?" asked Garibaldi. Marcus smiled faintly.
"Perhaps. I have no idea. On a dark night you can't usually see something outside a window, but I have no idea how this works."
"Only one way to find out, isn't there." Susan, in a low, crouching walk, began to make her way around the edge of the slope. It was curved, apparently more or less circular, though very large. "If this city is several miles around, it could take us forever to find a way down!"
"The night isn't going anywhere," pointed out Garibaldi. She glared at him, wishing that they could see each other better, so that her expression would have its desired effect.
"Keep an eye out for the guards," she told him, and he flashed off a snappy little salute.
"Yes ma'am. Marcus, watch the rear. I'm going out a little way off to the side."
"Right Chief." Marcus faded back out of view, vanishing into the darkness. Garibaldi disappeared off to one side, and soon Ivanova was alone. She made her way onward, wishing that she could see or at least hear something of her two companions, and hoping that they were still where they were supposed to be. Being out of sight of each other on a world populated by Shadows, seemed unnecessarily foolhardy. Something black and insubstantial, as a Shadow so undoubtedly was, would be impossible to see on a world that was so very black. She wished that they had not had to come here during this winter of endless night.
They had one close call; a rustle of indistinct undergrowth that turned into Garibaldi, and the quietest of hisses to stay low! Marcus was there as well then, melting out of nothingness, and flattening himself down on the ground beside Ivanova. They heard voices; footsteps passing close; a jumble of a language that none of them understood. Garibaldi's hand tensed on his gun, even though he knew that to fire it could bring disaster to them all. He could no longer hear his own breathing, and Ivanova and Marcus might as well have ceased to exist. Only the ground was real then, pressing against him, dusty and cold and smelling different to the earth he knew. The voices faded into the distance and he stood up, gun still ready.
"Do you want me to follow them?" Marcus's voice seemed impossibly soft. "Make sure they're gone?"
"No. Forget them. Time we found this entrance." Garibaldi nodded to Ivanova to continue searching. "Just get back to your former position and stay within earshot. Quiet earshot."
"And watch out for Shadows!" hissed Susan. Marcus and Garibaldi both nodded at that - then vanished again. She sighed. The close call with the presumably Rodann guards had done nothing good for her heart rate, and she hated to be so exposed. At any moment, she felt, a light could burst out from the darkly invisible dome, and she would be pinned in its brightness, visible to the entire settlement - and probably to every Shadow on the planet. There was nothing that she could do about that though; she could only keep on moving, and look for a path down to the dome.
She found one just as the silence and the stillness was about to drive her mad; when she would have been almost glad to see more guards, just for end to the nothingness around her. At her feet the ground sloped away, less sharply than before, and beaten down to a hardness of rough civilisation. She called out to the others, as loudly as she dared, and they appeared as if by magic from around her.
"We should have a few minutes," announced Garibaldi, in decidedly uncheerful a greeting. "I think I heard something off to the south."
"Three people," agreed Marcus. "I heard voices. They could be heading in any direction."
"Then can we get a move on!" Ivanova began to lead the way down what she hoped - really, really hoped - was a path. "How much of this is likely to be alarmed?"
"Any of it could be. Or possibly none." Marcus was right behind her, almost making her jump with the sudden volume of his voice so close by. "But we can't worry too much about that. We just have to get in."
"It won't be easy to open the door." Garibaldi overtook the pair, clearly still feeling that it was his job as head of security to go first. "It'll be some sort of air lock I should think. And what about guards?"
"None on the outside. That's what the patrols are for. On the inside...?" Ivanova stopped short as Garibaldi, directly in front of her, did the same thing. "What is it?"
"Nothing. I mean, the wall I think." Garibaldi was feeling around in front of him, with an uncertain touch. "This material is amazing. It's years ahead of anything we've got. I'm touching it, and I still can't see it!"
"The Rodann must be a more advanced race." Ivanova drew level with him, and also put a hand out to feel the apparently invisible wall. "Figures. Most other races seem to be older than humans."
"Age isn't everything." Marcus moved around them both. "It's a basic development from stealth technology. Humans have had ships that are invisible to some forms of detection for centuries. This takes it on a step by making it almost undetectable to eyes, too. It's not really invisible. It just plays tricks with the light. Or lack of it. It probably wouldn't be so effective if the sun were up."
"Like the cloaking suits Earthforce has been experimenting with." Garibaldi remembered the suits well, and how they had been used to make attacks against aliens on Babylon 5 two years before. This was all on a very different scale though, and many times more powerful.
"Perhaps." Marcus didn't seem to know what he meant. "Ah ha. I think we have a door."
"What kind of lock does it have?" Ivanova was straining her eyes, trying to see something, but could see only the movement of material that marked the position of Marcus's clothes. The indistinct shoulders shrugged.
"Electronic. Fairly sophisticated." He was running his fingers up and down, searching for any distinguishing features. "But it shouldn't be a problem. There are very few doors that the Minbari didn't train me to open. Ah."
"Ah? Good ah or bad ah?" Ivanova was highly dubious that the Ranger could open anything more complex than a shuttle door, but he had pulled what looked like a penknife from a pocket, and was sliding it about as though he had at least some idea of what he was doing. Garibaldi's voice hissed at her out of the darkness, taking her by surprise so wrapped up was she in all that Marcus was doing.
"Those guards coming back this way?"
He nodded. "Or maybe some others. Marcus?"
"Just a second." He was whistling something faintly under his breath, but Ivanova couldn't make out what. It sounded familiar, and characteristically jaunty.
"Marcus..." she warned. "We don't have all day."
"Which is just as well, since we've got no way of knowing when day is." He smiled at her, innocently enough at least as far as she could see. Which wasn't very far. "Just give me a second. It won't take much longer."
"Marcus, we probably don't have much longer!" The voices were nearer now; becoming clearer; distinct words again, in their unfamiliar language. "Marcus!"
"Quiet." He spoke firmly, apparently still relaxed. "They can't see us. Not yet. Just get ready to move when the doors open."
"And what if there are guards on the other side?"
"That's why you've got to be ready to move!" His hand twisted abruptly, the knife-like device in his hand flashed once, with a bright red light that Ivanova hoped to hell she or Garibaldi was blocking from the sight of anybody else in the vicinity - then there was a buzz of machinery no louder than a whisper of wind. Marcus grabbed her hand.
"Hey!" She tried to pull back, but he wasn't just being friendly. The door had opened. Garibaldi reacted too, hurrying into an invisible entrance, gun ready, eyes peering into a thousand impenetrable spaces. Ivanova found herself in a room bigger at least than the three of them, dark more through lack of light than through technological trickery, the coldness of the grim night still blowing against her. Marcus was fiddling with the door again, more hurried now, more willing to recognise the need for speed. The door slid shut at last, and for perhaps three seconds they were alone in the stillness of a room that they couldn't see - then a second door slid open, and there was light everywhere.
"Move!" Garibaldi was trying to be quiet, though not trying too hard. He was running even before Ivanova's eyes had had a chance to adjust to the light; running out of the room and into whatever lay beyond, gun pointed at targets that he didn't even know existed. Marcus's pike extended with its sharp little sound of activation, and he was running too, crouching low, eyes everywhere, diving into a roll that took him out of sight somewhere to Ivanova's left. She followed on, expecting to hear shouts or gunshots, but hearing nothing at all save her own footsteps, and Garibaldi's heavy breathing. Behind them the door whirred itself closed, and all of a sudden the world seemed to make sense again. Ivanova let her breathing return to normal.
They were standing at a checkpoint; two small, low buildings very obviously erected as guard stations, with a thin, metalled road running between them. Beyond was the settlement, still with the look of a temporary colony about it; prefabricated buildings with no made attempt to tidy or landscape the earth around them. Around the houses the light of the checkpoint tapered off, fading into the more muted gleam of a false dusk or early dawn.
"Come on." Garibaldi was hurrying past the checkpoint, not caring why it was unmanned; thinking only of the voices they had heard, of people possibly coming this way. The others followed him, past the guard stations into the grey world beyond, trying to lose themselves in the thin, hard roads between the largely windowless buildings.
"That was weird. Why would the checkpoint have been unmanned?" Ivanova stood at a cross-roads, on the alert for any possible passers-by. Garibaldi, who was doing the same thing, shrugged energetically.
"Maybe it's night, and they don't have anybody on duty then?"
"Maybe. But I doubt it." Marcus was pulling out his sensor unit, turning in a tight circle, and staring at the little unit in apparent rapture.
"Then what's your explanation?" asked Garibaldi. The Ranger shook his head.
"I don't have one. I just don't think it's likely that they've leave the entrance unguarded. Maybe the guards were called away?"
"Intruders? Great. So either they're wandering around somewhere looking for us, or we've chosen the same time to break in here as some other gang." Garibaldi didn't appreciate the humour in that, but Marcus grinned at him anyway.
"I've got a signal," he announced, changing the subject completely. "Our man's alive."
"That's a relief. If we'd come in here for no reason I'd be thinking about doing some serious damage to somebody." Susan glanced back at Marcus. "So which direction do we head in?"
"Well..." He turned away, trying to judge, a frown showing the need to concentrate - when suddenly, from somewhere off to his right, came a high pitched, terrified scream. A second later several voices shouted out, and a fusillade of gunfire and ricocheting pulse energy made all three of them duck reflexively. Marcus gestured towards the source of the noise.
"This way," he said decisively, and started off in that direction at a run. Garibaldi and Ivanova shared a sour look.
"Figures," muttered Garibaldi, and Ivanova nodded. There was nothing else that they could do then but follow after.
There were people with guns everywhere, which rather answered the question of where the guards from the entrance had gone. Most of them were in uniform; one-piece black outfits with red tabs and markings, contrasting with the obviously civilian clothing of the others present. Garibaldi and Ivanova found Marcus crouched by the side of a building, watching everything with clear interest.
"It's a hunt," he said, without looking back at them. "They're after something."
"Or someone," growled Ivanova.
"Just so long as it's not us." Garibaldi crouched down beside Marcus. "How about your little toy?"
"It says he's not far away, but I can't be very specific. He's probably in one of the buildings around here, or hiding behind one of them. If he's what this lot are after then he could be hiding almost anywhere."
"Somebody screamed," pointed out Ivanova. "That means somebody saw something. It can't be us they're after."
"Then we assume it's our guy." Garibaldi considered swearing loudly, but decided that this probably wasn't the best time. "Do we split up?"
"No. It's not safe. We don't know the terrain, and we don't know where all of the enemy are placed. Splitting up isn't a good idea." Ivanova gestured to the little device in Marcus's hand. "Besides, that's the only one of those things that we have. We should stick together."
"Fair point." Easing back into the shadows around the building, Garibaldi checked his gun's charge again, as though he had developed a compulsion for doing so. "These Rodann are a grim looking bunch. Whatever they're after, I don't envy it."
"Whatever they're after made somebody scream," pointed out Marcus. Ivanova realised what he was inferring.
"Something scary. Shadows?"
"Who knows?" Garibaldi shepherded them away down the street. "Damn it, I wish I knew what our guy looks like."
"He should stand out as much as we do." Ivanova ducked down a side street to check for the presence of others. "Marcus, when you train to be a Ranger, do they really train you to fight Shadows?"
"In a manner of speaking."
"So if it is Shadows making the locals scream, and we run into a bunch of them down one of these streets, you'll know what to do?"
"Yes." He sounded matter of fact for once, without a trace of levity. "Run. Run or make sure that you go down fighting. Without a lot more firepower than we've got, we don't stand a chance against even one of them."
"That's what they taught you on Minbar?" Ivanova couldn't believe it. "Run away or make sure they kill you?"
"We're supposed to spy on them, Susan. See what they're doing, and then report back to people who have the weapons and the ships to fight them properly. On a one to one basis they're hundreds of times more powerful than we are. Imagine going one on one with a Vorlon. I don't want to know what happens to the people they capture, so yes. Run, or be sure to die."
"Great. Just what you want to hear when you're about to start running about in dark alleyways. That there might be monsters we don't stand a hope in hell of killing wandering around here too." She chose a street at random, and led the way into it. "Still, I guess these people must know the Shadows, right? So it can't be them they were screaming at?"
"We don't know how far in with the Shadows they are," pointed out Garibaldi, and earned himself a scathing glare in response.
"That made me feel a lot better." She sighed. "Marcus, what's your little gadget saying?"
"That we're close." He frowned down at it, and its little blinking light. "Beyond that, I--"
"Down!" Garibaldi threw himself forward, pushing both of them down to the ground. A beam of light flashed up the street a bare second later, splashing pools of illumination across the place where they had been standing moments before. Voices rang out, and several guns blasted loudly at one target or another. The security chief whistled softly.
"Close. Low now. Get to the end of the street as fast as possible."
"They'll see us!" hissed Ivanova. She felt him shrug.
"You have any better ideas? I'd rather run than be found lying flat on the floor like clumsy spoo. Come on!" He went up on all fours, then in a crouching run made a dash for the end of the street. Ivanova and Marcus followed, but they were no more than half way down the road when a light burst into life above them. In one of the houses, somebody had turned on a light. And another. And another. Ivanova turned slightly, looking up, seeing a window that opened out of one of the dark houses, just as another light crashed on. Huge, wide black eyes stared straight at her, and her own eyes opened nearly as wide. Marcus glanced up as well, then pushed her on again.
"Keep moving!" he urged, not worrying now about volume. Above them a voice, that could only have belonged to the owner of the wide black eyes, yelled out a ferocious alarm.
"Something tells me that means 'humans'," growled Garibaldi.
"This way." Eyes fixed to his sensor now, apparently not caring about the escalating dangers around them, Marcus led the way down another of the uniform streets. The gunfire was increasing around them, and Garibaldi, more out of principle than anything else, fired back. Not that there was anything definite to fire back at, but it gave his irritation an outlet. Around them lights were stabbing out of the darkness at every twist and turn; house lights, flood lights, less powerful torches and spot lights. Stentorian voices echoed from every which way. A plume of dust exploded from the wall just above Marcus's head, and he ducked sharply to one side.
"That was close," he commented, sounding almost cheery.
"Everything's getting close," growled back Garibaldi. "We need to find cover, or get the hell out of here!"
"Feels like we're running right into the middle of everything." It was Ivanova's turn to duck. "We're going to get cut off. If we're not surrounded yet it's only because they're all confusing each other. Where's our man, Marcus?!"
"Close!" It was all that he could tell her. A powerful beam of light illuminated all three of them ,and for the first time since they had left the main body of the Tristar, they could all see each other clearly. Seconds later the hot smell of plasma fire lit up everything around them in coloured sparks.
"This way!" Grabbing his two companions, Garibaldi all but threw them around a bend, their feet slipping and skidding on the ground, the light seeming to chase them wherever they went. They broke into a run, dodging this way and that, diving around corners, firing back blindly as they tried to find a way past the ranks of enraged Rodann. Once a towering form appeared in front of them, gun raised, only to fall back from a mighty blow courtesy of Marcus's pike. Garibaldi nodded briskly.
"Nice move. Now keep going!" He was pushing them on at every few steps, as though he thought that they might stop running without his encouragement. Left, right, around corners, twisting and turning and often doubling back on themselves they went, somehow always staying ahead of their pursuers, even if only just. Suddenly Marcus stopped.
"Are you nuts?" Garibaldi tried to push him on again, but this time the Ranger wouldn't allow it.
"We're close again." He was staring at the sensor, eyes determined. "We keep running away from him, but we're almost on top of him now."
"Marcus, there isn't time! There's probably fifty people after us now!" Garibaldi tried to push the other man on, but Marcus was too quick. He dodged aside with ease, moving with the fluid grace of an eel who had no intention of being caught.
"This is why we're here!" he protested loudly. "He must be in one of these buildings."
"And we're supposed to find out which one? Marcus, we can't get inside any of these places, and even if we could we'd probably never get out again. Now come on!"
"Wait!" Ivanova stepped back a bit, risking exposure to the ever echoing guns. "Forget about in one of the buildings. What about on one of them?"
"That could be it." Marcus stepped back as well, dodging a beam of light. "They're low buildings. No more than a couple of floors high. It wouldn't take much to get onto one of them. Susan, you're a genius!"
"I know," she told him, deadpan. He flashed her a grin; then suddenly took a run at one of the houses. He leapt neatly, in the sort of acrobatic manoeuvre he used when fighting, snatching for an upstairs windowsill as his feet were hitting a lower one. He was dragging himself up then, vanishing from sight over the edge of the roof. Seconds later one end of his pike appeared, hanging down for somebody to grab hold of.
"Hey, it was your idea," pointed out Garibaldi. Susan nodded ruefully.
"Yeah." She backed off, then took a run at the building just as Marcus had done, leaping for the lower windowsill and snatching hold of the pike. She felt herself being lifted up, and snatched for footholds on the way up to help her ascent. Breathless seconds later she was on the roof.
"Quick!" she gasped. "Garibaldi!"
"Your wish is my command." As apparently cheerful as ever, Marcus leant back over the edge, and this time it was Garibaldi who jumped up. Ivanova leant over to help pull him up to join them, and it was with much effort that they dragged him up alongside them. The voices of their pursuers were all about them now, and the road in which they had just been standing was flooded with powerful white light. Garibaldi blew out a long breath.
"That was close. Now where do we go from here?"
"Over here I would assume." The voice was quiet and deep and bore the faint hints of an accent, as well as more than a trace of good humour. Garibaldi's gun whipped up, pointing towards the source of the voice without really knowing what he was aiming at. Marcus put a hand out, pushing the gun down.
"I don't think it's one of the Rodann, Chief." He edged forward, his sensor held outstretched in one hand, the light now flashing crazily. "I think this is him."
"Him?" The pleasant voice laughed lightly. "I see I have some minor fame. Do I take it that you've been sent to extricate me from this little mess?"
"Yeah. It seems so." Garibaldi peered into the gloom, still highly suspicious. "Damn it, why is this planet always so dark? I'm Michael Garibaldi, security chief of Babylon 5. This is Commander Susan Ivanova, and... Marcus."
"A Ranger." A hand moved out of the greyness, becoming more visible as it came closer; a mottled hand, showing greenish, brownish patterns like those of the Narn. "Good day to you." He spoke a few words of Minbari, and Marcus replied in kind. Garibaldi shook a proffered hand.
"And you are?" he asked.
"My name is La'Morth." The figure loomed closer, and they could all see him now; the large, powerful body of a Narn, but with skin patterns paler than usual, the reptilian features tempered by something else. Something that had caused him to grow hair on the top of his head, where all pure-blooded Narns were entirely bald. His hair grew upwards, and although it did not grow as thickly as that of somebody who was not also half Narn, its sweep into a familiar crest was unmistakable. Ivanova blew out a breath.
"Sweet heaven," she muttered. The being before them smiled.
"I see that my appearance surprised you? I regret that it seemed to have a similar effect on the Rodann. They were terrified; or perhaps very angry, it can be hard to tell with them. Either way, I am afraid that between the four of us, we seem to have caused quite a stir."
"We'll get out." Garibaldi dragged his eyes away from this most unexpected of new arrivals, and peered over the edge of the roof. Everywhere below them was alive with light and stampeding figures, but nobody as yet seemed to be thinking of looking up. "Do you have a gun?"
"I have several." He held up two sizeable looking pistols. "I'm not sure how much power they have left though. I've not needed them much since arriving here, but I'm afraid that the last hour or so has had an unfortunate effect on them. I'd suggest shooting like mad and running for the nearest exit, but I have no idea where the nearest exit is - or even where the furthest one is - and there are rather a lot of upset Rodann down there."
"And quite likely Shadows too," growled Ivanova. La'Morth shook his head.
"I don't think so. They don't come into the city as far as I can tell. They prefer to keep to themselves. I think perhaps that if the local population saw what the Shadows looked like, they might be less willing to offer their friends and neighbours for use as pilots for the ships."
"Then with a bit of luck that's one less thing to worry about. If all we've got to think about is Rodann, our chances of getting out of this just doubled at the very least." Garibaldi checked his gun again. "Okay. When I give the signal, we're going to run for the edge of the roof. We're going from roof to roof until we can't go any further. Then we head for the door we came in through. Marcus, can you open it a little faster this time? We don't have time for the long-winded approach."
"I can do it quickly." He was sure about that. After all - he had done it now. He knew what to look for; what to reach for and what to activate. "Just worry about getting us there, Mr Garibaldi."
"Fine." The security chief looked from one to the other of them. "I'm sorry it's been such a hurried introduction, La'Morth; but we don't have time to get to know each properly. On my mark, alright?"
"Right." Ivanova checked her own gun, and it whirred softly in readiness. Marcus nodded sharply.
"Good." Garibaldi took another quick look over the edge of the building. "Then let's go. Now!"
He broke into a run straight away, leaping and crashing hard into the roof of the next house, back on his feet again even before landing had registered; up again, running again, the others following suit. Somebody below shouted out, and the game was on then; their rooftop flight had been discovered. It was like running through a light storm, the edges of the buildings crumbling under the assault of the gunfire coming up from below. La'Morth slipped and nearly fell as a plasma blast just missed his foot.
"Down!" Garibaldi was leaping into space with the optimism of the desperate. The Rodann were scrambling up the walls now, and when the others jumped down to the ground it was hardly a second too soon. Ivanova felt something grab at her arm, and thought that she heard cloth rip as she fell.
"Come on!" Marcus steadied her, but whatever had caught at her as she had jumped had caused her to land badly, and her leg didn't feel up to a high speed getaway. She pushed Marcus on, feigning perfect balance and struggling to keep up with the others. They were beginning to leave her behind, and the gunfire was echoing around them again. Garibaldi's sense of direction kept them all going; kept them all in the right direction; kept them all more optimistic than they might otherwise have been. Several Rodann came at them from up ahead, but moving into the lead, La'Morth hit them both solidly, sending them bodily to the ground. Garibaldi grinned.
"Never get in the way of a Narn!" he said brightly. La'Morth nodded.
"Or even half of one." They sped up again, heading for the exit with the tense feeling of people about to reach their goal, and knowing that they could be thwarted at any step. The guard stations were still empty, but that hardly mattered now. As they left the network of houses and streets behind, the Rodann were a massed force behind them, only the apparent inaccuracy of their shots keeping them from shooting the foursome down.
"Marcus, get that door open!" Garibaldi dropped behind one of the guard stations, and loosed off some covering fire.
"I'm on it." Marcus ran to the door, fumbling with the lock as he had done before. Even though he knew what he was doing this time, it seemed to take an age to open, but at last it slid back. He dashed through, trying to find some way to jam the controls so that they could seal the Rodann inside the city, however temporarily. Garibaldi crashed into him in the confined space.
"Do we have to wait until the inner door is shut before the outer one will open?" he asked. "La'Morth is just a little bit bigger than we are!"
"I'm trying!" With a sigh Marcus zapped open his pike, and slammed it against the lock of the outer door. In a shower of sparks the door hissed open and they tumbled out into the dark outside world. Only then did they notice that Ivanova had not yet caught up.
"Susan!" Garibaldi looked back, seeing her just coming up towards the inner door, limping badly and slowing fast. The Rodann were gaining on her, and one of them fired a shot straight at the inner door. It began to hiss shut.
"Susan!" Marcus started forward, but La'Morth reached out, grabbing at him and Garibaldi, pulling them back.
"You'll be killed!" he told them, but Marcus whipped up his pike and knocked the wrenching hand aside. With a burst of speed he hurled himself forward, and rolled under the door just as it crashed shut. A shower of sparks exploded from the electronic lock, and he knew with horrible certainty that the door wouldn't be opening again for some time. Smiling awkwardly, he took Ivanova's hand so that she could take the weight off her injured leg. She glared up at him with a fierce fury.
"Marcus, you stupid, moronic, suicidal idiot!" They were surrounded now, and she let go of him to turn to face the Rodann. Angry, heavy featured faces, pale white and thick-skinned, glared back at the pair. Marcus tried to push Susan behind him, but she resisted with another glare. She raised her gun, as though somehow she might be able to hold the whole lot of them off with that one, now nearly empty, pistol. A neat shot that made her wonder how so many others had missed, blasted it clean out of her hand. Seconds later another shot hit her in the chest, and she dropped like a stone.
"Susan!" Marcus stared down at her, horror-struck, registering that she was still breathing in the same second that he realised she had been hit with nothing more than a stun blast. He moved protectively in front of her with his pike at the ready, in an entirely futile gesture that could never have done anything to defend either one of them. A shot struck him hard, and he collapsed beside Ivanova. His last thought was that this mission really hadn't gone as well as might be hoped - but he had no regrets. Garibaldi was safe, and he could be counted upon to get La'Morth away. The mission could still be completed. Marcus was where he wanted to be.
The crash of the doors shutting seemed much, much louder that it had when they had been on their way into the city. Garibaldi ran for the electronic lock, but he had no idea what to do with it save blast it, and that was unlikely to help. La'Morth grabbed his arm.
"Hurry," he said with clear urgency. Garibaldi dragged his arm free in irritation.
"They're trapped in there!" he snapped, the words coming much louder than he had intended. La'Morth nodded, his movements as brisk and as forceful as Garibaldi had come to expect from the full-blooded Narns he had encountered so often on the station.
"Yes. But you will not open this door. It fell shut, that is why there was the crash. The mechanism is broken."
"Something got shot up," Garibaldi slammed his hand against the wall. "Then how-?"
"Now, we do nothing. We do not know how many of the Rodann are out here. We must get away. If they see us they will kill us."
"And if we don't do anything they'll kill Susan and Marcus!" Garibaldi looked back to the door and the lock, and swore softly. Without a tool kit, and probably a hydraulic jack, there was no way he was getting though this door just now. La'Morth took his arm again.
"If they are going to kill your two friends, by now they will already be dead. I'm sorry. Standing here and risking your own death will not help them."
"But they might not kill them!" Garibaldi was clutching at straws and he knew it; but he wanted something to be positive about. "They might want to interrogate them first, right?"
"I--" La'Morth broke off, seeing that Garibaldi was in search of life rafts to which he could cling. He nodded. "Yes. They may want to find out who you people are. Why you are here. But I can make you no assurances. The Rodann do not like humans, and they are not known for their mercy towards anything or anyone, let alone a race they despise."
"Well pardon me for finding the glass half full." Garibaldi's eyes drifted back to the door. "Most of the time, anyway. We have to get in there! Whether they're alive or dead, we have to get back inside to find out."
"You appear determined." La'Morth pulled him gently away from the door. "And that is commendable. But we will not help your friends if we are dead or captured ourselves. We must leave this place."
"Yeah." Garibaldi gave in to the pressure, and let the hulking figure hurry him away back up the slope, away from the shielded city. They would have to find another door. There had to be more than one. They would have to get in without alerting anybody, and find Susan and Marcus without giving themselves away, and rescue them if they were still alive - all without taking the risk of getting La'Morth hurt, or killed, or left stranded here with no one to get him safely to Babylon 5. Delenn had made it clear that it was La'Morth who was the important one. The one who had to be saved. La'Morth was the one that Garibaldi knew he should be thinking of. He just couldn't shut Susan and Marcus out of his mind quite that easily. Couldn't consider leaving them behind no matter how important the Minbari considered this probably unique Narn-Centauri hybrid to be. The future, Delenn had called him. A symbol, probably. A hope for a time when the two races could see past their hatred and their spilt blood, and reach some kind of an understanding. A co-operation. It would mean thousands - possibly millions - of saved lives on both sides. If somehow La'Morth could help to facilitate that, then it really was important to get him away from this place of undeniable danger, and deliver him into safer hands. But to leave two people behind in the process? Garibaldi couldn't countenance that; but the idea of risking La'Morth's life in order to attempt the rescue of two people who might already be dead did not sit easily with him either. He let himself be led further away, and tried to think about it all unemotionally. He was good at that, usually; but it was different when a close friend and colleague was involved. He hadn't known Susan Ivanova for all that long. Just three years. But, as Susan had said to Marcus during the flight, Babylon 5 was the sort of posting that encouraged firm friendships. She had become one of the greatest friends he had ever had.
They stopped walking when they had reached the relative cover of some tall, spiky undergrowth, which allowed them shelter after a fashion. La'Morth sat down on the ground, which was covered in a thick carpeting of something very like pine needles. Garibaldi sat down too, and found the carpet to be soft and dry and almost warm. He tipped his head back, and rested it against the trunk of the tree-like growth behind him. It was easier to think now, with his eyes closed and his mind no longer on the hasty retreat.
"You're troubled," observed La'Morth. Garibaldi opened his eyes briefly; just long enough to shoot his companion a wry look.
"Yeah. You could say that." He closed his eyes again, listening to the unnatural silence of the odd night. "Damn it. Everything was going so well. You wouldn't believe the way this place looks from space. The number of ships flying around up there, it's like everything is black and writhing. But not one of them saw us. Which is just as well, as we could hardly have fought them off. Nobody saw us approach the city, or enter it. It was practically flawless."
"If it helps, I'm extremely grateful for the assistance." La'Morth looked away, past the dark, bent shapes of their sheltering vegetation. "I had just about given up hope. My ship hopelessly wrecked on landing, most of my communication equipment gone. I don't know how they discovered me, but I suppose it was always just a matter of time. If you hadn't arrived when you did I would almost certainly be dead, or a prisoner. Now instead it's your friends who are in that very predicament. I'm sorry about that."
"Why? It's not your fault." Garibaldi opened his eyes again, and tried to flash his companion a reassuring grin. La'Morth was still looking away though, and he didn't see the gesture. "We knew the risks when we came here. We certainly knew what a risk we were taking when we went into the city." He slammed a fist down into the carpet of needles around him. "What the hell was Marcus thinking? If he was still with us we'd have an extra pair of eyes and hands, and a rescue operation would be a whole lot easier. Instead he had to pull the most stupid stunt I've ever seen."
"What's done is done," La'Morth told him. "You risked your life coming here to help me... Mr Garibaldi, isn't it. You all risked your lives. The least that I can do is to return the favour. We will find your friends."
"No." Perhaps because it had been somebody else who had suggested it, but it all seemed clearer to Garibaldi now. He shook his head, heavily and slowly. "We can't take the risk of anything happening to you. We have to get you away from here. Susan and Marcus know that. They'd be furious if I let you risk your life for their sakes, and they both know that you're the important one here. I have to get you somewhere safe before I can afford to worry about them. No matter how much danger they might be in."
"And if I refuse to be protected in this way?"
"Then I bash you over the head with whatever comes to hand, and I get you away from here by force." This time La'Morth did see Garibaldi's smile, and he returned it.
"I don't think that you would be capable of 'bashing me over the head', Mr Garibaldi. But I appreciate the sentiment." His expression turned to one of gentle concern. "Are you really planning to leave your friends behind?"
"I don't know." Garibaldi rose to his feet, kicking at the needles as he did so. "But I am going to get you back to our ships. They're as safe as it's possible to be around here. Maybe you could fly one of them away from here."
"I am not the sort to abandon others in a crisis, Mr Garibaldi."
"And I'm not the sort to disobey the orders of certain people I respect." Garibaldi cast one long look back the way they had come, then shook his head. "No. No, they knew the risks, and my job has to be getting you out of here. So come on."
"If you truly wish it." The graceful giant followed him quietly, back over the dark, rough landscape with its coat of struggling plants, back over all the land that Garibaldi had last traversed in rather less silent company. They had been arguing most of the way, he realised; their conversation onboard the Tristar had mostly been in the form of arguments; their at times too noisy chatter planetside had also been irritable. Him, telling Marcus to let a security professional lead the way, Ivanova being her usual prickly self, Marcus annoying the hell out of the both of them. He wanted to go back then, and do whatever was necessary to get the pair of them out of the city, even if they were both already dead. But he didn't. He just put one foot in front of the other, and kept on doing it until the blackness of the way ahead showed the faint shimmer of the subtly disguised ships. La'Morth showed an immediate interest.
"Beautiful. Minbari in design, yes? But perhaps conceived in co-operation with some other race? Are the humans so advanced?"
"No." Garibaldi couldn't help but sound wistful. "I don't know much about these things. To be honest this has been my first time out in one. It's Marcus you want to talk to if you want to know about these babies."
"And that, I fear, is now impossible." La'Morth refrained from looking back. It wasn't as though it was possible to see anything now anyway. "Mr Garibaldi, are you sure that you want to leave?"
"As sure as I'm ever going to be, so I don't see any reason to hang around, do you? You think you can handle one of these?"
"I would imagine so. I am quite well experienced at handling a number of vessels of this size."
"Good. It's pretty straightforward once you're inside one of them." Relieved that he wouldn't be having to spend the journey cramped into a cockpit with La'Morth beside him, Garibaldi opened the nearest of the little ships, and helped the big hybrid into the seat. The door closed silently and smoothly, and the security chief went quickly to another ship. He was moving fast with unconscious determination, anxious to get off the planet as soon as he could, so that he was not tempted to go after Susan and Marcus. His head hurt, and he knew that it was all a part of his hatred of the situation; but he didn't know what else he could do. Delenn couldn't have emphasised La'Morth's worth any more than she had. So trying not to think about it any further, he powered up the engines, muttered a cynical prayer to whatever gods might happen to be paying attention in this part of space, and took the little vessel up into the air. La'Morth followed behind, showing a confidence at the controls that made Garibaldi feel a little better. The better they both flew, the more chance they had of making it past the planet's seething black orbit. It seemed incredible that he had got past the Shadows once. Twice didn't seem at all likely.
"Where are we heading for, Mr Garibaldi?" La'Morth's voice sounded out over the speakers, surprisingly loud in the confined space. Garibaldi glanced over the scanner screens. He could see what he thought was the main body of the Tristar, floating aimlessly in space just like the debris it was intended to resemble. He would feel far better about making the journey in that, rather than trying to get all the way back to the station in a little vessel like this one. He had no idea what its range was, and he wasn't about to put that to the test right now.
"Just follow me," he ordered, all business now. "Maintain radio silence, and don't break formation." Not that they were really in formation to begin with, but it was all by the book from now on. Easier not to think, and just to rely on regulations. Easier to try shutting his mind to the sea of blacker-than-blackness; the spiky, spider-like shapes of the ships that haunted all their nightmares now. Better than wondering about Susan, and about Marcus, and about what might happen if just one of those Shadow vessels noticed the two tiny little ships cutting a curve across the planet's upper atmosphere. None of them did. It was almost insulting.
"Where are we going, Mr Garibaldi?" La'Morth seemed to have no desire to stay silent, and Garibaldi didn't blame him. It was bad enough up here, in all this darkness, surrounded by all those ships, without having nobody to talk to. He turned his ship towards the drifting Tristar, and kept his eyes firmly on the scanners, the screens, and everything else that might give him an early warning in case anything happened. Nothing did. He was almost starting to wish that it would.
"In a little while, we'll be heading for Babylon 5." He saw no reason to stay silent about that. The Shadows must already know about the place, and even if they didn't, apparently they weren't listening. They didn't care for two tiny little people, going about their tiny little business. Maybe life was like that for the ancient races. If so, Garibaldi didn't think very much of them. Hadn't they ever heard about mice and elephants? Probably not, he conceded, as he brought his little vessel in to dock with the larger section. He had no idea how to do it, but apparently both ships did. He let them complete the task alone.
"And what happens on Babylon 5?" asked La'Morth, stepping out of his little ship as soon as it had docked, and joining Garibaldi in the main ship. "Do we get together a rescue force for your friends? You must have other Rangers on the station? Or others at least who know of the Shadows? People who are capable of fighting the Rodann colonists?"
"We could take the colony apart if we wanted to. That part of it's not really the issue. We'd have to get a proper squad past all those Shadows first, and I don't think we could ever do that." He said it with feeling, but right now Garibaldi was beginning to think he could get a whole army, dressed in pink neon and glitter, past the seemingly oblivious ships. "No, Susan and Marcus are on their own now. If they can get out of there, all well and good. If not..." He didn't want to think about that, but of course could think about little else. "Come on. Get yourself into a seat. We still have to make it to the jumpgate."
"And then...?" Garibaldi thought about the thirty-six hour flight. Thirty-six hours of wondering about his friends, and torturing himself about having abandoned them. Of wondering whether La'Morth was truly worth it. "I don't know," he confessed in the end, unable to lighten his mood in the slightest. "How are you at playing I-Spy?"
Ivanova awoke feeling like she had a hangover; and wished fervently that she did. If this was one of the rare occasions when she had had the opportunity to let loose and make merry, then she was probably waking up on the floor of her room - hopefully her room, rather than somebody else's - and she could write off thoughts of hostile colonists with guns as a part of some peculiar, inebriated dream. When she opened her eyes and saw a cold, grey prison cell, she growled her displeasure. Why couldn't the universe play fair for once?
"Ngugh." She rolled over, unable to attempt anything more than half-hearted movement and incomprehensible sounds. Whatever knockout shot the Rodann had used, clearly it still had a grip on her muscles. Curse words of every description ran in circles around her brain, but they had to stay in there, unuttered, which was a shame. Swearing inside her head wasn't half as satisfying as yelling it all furiously at the ceiling.
"Marcus?" Great. How come that word managed to come out intelligibly, when all the things she really wanted to say hadn't? She looked around, unable to see him at first, then spotted him at the far side of the room. He lay on his side, his back to her, and he didn't seem to be moving. Crawling groggily over, she shook one of his shoulders.
"I'm awake," he claimed sleepily, showing absolutely no inclination towards movement. She poked him in the ribs, hard, and was rewarded with something indignant in Minbari. Probably 'I'm awake' again, she thought, and carried on glowering.
"Hello." Blast him, how did he get to have proper words from the outset? Her tongue still felt heavy and unresponsive. He at least had the grace to look groggy though, as he sat slowly up and looked around.
"What do you mean, 'hello'?" She hit him hard on the shoulder, letting her anger have full rein as her muscles eased back to life. The words might be a little slurred, but she was at least capable of vocalising her rage now. "Marcus, what the hell are you doing here? What were you thinking? You should be halfway to Babylon 5 by now, helping Michael get La'Morth to safety."
"You're angry." He rubbed his shoulder where she had hit it, his eyes showing not the slightest hint of reproach. Her own eyes widened in disbelief.
"Angry?! Marcus, we had a mission, which you just abandoned in order to pull some stupid stunt. Am I supposed to be impressed? Is this supposed to look like heroism?"
"Mr Garibaldi is more than capable of getting La'Morth away. If I didn't believe that I would never have left him to it." Marcus looked around the room as he spoke, sizing it up with what looked like a professional eye. Ivanova almost asked him how many such prisons he had been incarcerated in in the past, but bit her tongue immediately and thought again. The last thing she wanted was to present him with the opportunity to change the subject. Marcus could chatter like nobody she had ever known.
"That's beside the point. With two of you there'd be a greater chance of success. What if something happens? If there's a fight, or if Michael is hurt? Or if La'Morth is? With two of you--"
"With three of us things would have been even better." His cool eyes regarded her with a faint trace of humour. "There's two of them, and there's two of us. On your own you have far less chance of getting away from here. I made a decision, Susan. Perhaps not one that you agree with, but one which seemed to me to be the best thing in the circumstances. It wasn't made lightly. Now if you don't stop being so grouchy, I won't let you in on the escape plan."
"Escape plan?" She stared at him, almost beginning to be impressed. "You have an escape plan?"
"No." He grinned, in his usual, infuriating way. "But when I do have one, I won't let you in on it unless you cheer up."
"You--" For once words failed her, and she turned away, trying not to simmer quite so noticeably. It only seemed to encourage him. "Why are we still alive to talk about escape plans, anyway? I thought the Rodann were likely to kill us on sight, just for being human?"
"Good point." He stood up, cloak swirling about him in its usual dramatic fashion. Garibaldi had been right about that uniform, conceded Ivanova. It did swirl about and wave at everybody. "I have another question."
"What?" She wasn't terribly interested. Questions she had plenty of. He held something up though, which he had clearly just discovered about his person.
"Why do I still have this?"
"Why do you still have what?" She saw what it was then, and stood up, more than merely surprised. "Isn't that your stick thing?"
"My Denn-Bok - my pike if you prefer. Yes." He activated it, so that it flew out to its full length. "I didn't even close it up before I fell, let alone put it away. Why would they have given it back to me?"
"I have my gun." She hadn't noticed it before, having had other things on her mind besides what was in her belt. She pulled it out now, and checked the charge. Practically empty, as it had been before she had been captured; but still her gun, in her belt. "Are they taunting us? Saying that it doesn't matter if we have weapons because we're not getting past them anyway?"
"Could be." He closed up the pike again. "Even so, is it a chance you'd take with a prisoner?"
"Hardly. It's too dangerous. No matter how careful you are, there's always the chance that something could happen." She shrugged. "Unless they want us to escape."
"So they can follow us, you mean? Perhaps get Mr Garibaldi and La'Morth as well?" He nodded. "It's possible. I'm not so sure though. After all, that gun of yours isn't going to be much use. As I recall it was almost empty."
"It is." She looked down at it, almost accusingly. "The charge is nearly gone. I had a spare one, but I must have dropped it during the chase."
"Little chance of escape then." Marcus frowned, looking about the room. It seemed large for a prison cell, although presumably it hadn't been designed with that purpose in mind. A large room, though, in which to imprison two enemies. He might have expected something smaller. Something really quite a lot smaller in fact. His frown deepened. "Unless..."
"Unless? Have you finally come up with that plan?"
"Not so you'd notice." He took her arm, pulling her closer to him so that her brow furrowed in annoyance. "Susan... what's the best way to gather data about something?"
"What?" How was it that he still seemed to find the time to be weird and annoying, even when they were clearly in a dangerous position? A flicker of a frown showed on his face.
"Stephen would understand," he told her. "He's a scientist. Think."
"You'd observe. You'd..." She looked up at him. "Are you saying we've been given our weapons back so that they can watch us like lab rats? They don't need to arm us for that."
"They do if they want to size us up properly. See is intact, so to speak." He pulled her into the middle of the room, away from the suddenly threatening walls. "They're watching us, right now."
"But the Rodann have already seen us," she pointed out. "They've seen us in action, seen us with our weapons. They don't--" She broke off then. "You don't mean the Rodann, do you."
"No." He was looking past her, at the darkness that lurked in the corners of the room; the room that he had thought at first was unnecessarily large. Apparently the size wasn't unnecessary at all. He swallowed hard, and let his eyes float on through the patches of darkness, searching for the shapes that had to be there. He knew what he was looking for only through the lessons of his training; the half-certain stories passed down to his instructors through a thousand years of Minbari tradition and folklore. Shapes. Angles. Points. Greater darknesses that shifted and moved within the static shadows of a place that should have held no true shadows at all. He saw them then, but he was sure that they would only have allowed themselves to be seen if they knew that he was looking. That didn't exactly fill him with confidence.
There were several of them that he could see, all in the sharp, spiky shapes of half-recognised creatures. Spiders, crabs, short, squat dragons that were all angles and no curves. All blacker than any night; black enough to suck in the light, and tease and defeat the eye, at least at first. Once he had caught that first teasing glimpse, it was all clearer, all more certain. He could see them properly then, and hear their sharp feet as they skittered and clacked on the hard floor. Ivanova drew in a deep breath.
"That's them, isn't it." She wanted to hold her ground, but it seemed impossible not to be intimidated. "The Enemy. The Shadows."
"That's them." Some of them, anyway. There was no telling how many more were on this planet, or in orbit around it. All hard and dark and sharp, and more incomprehensibly alien than anything Ivanova had so far encountered. She heard a whispering, like low, sharp voices impressing themselves upon her subconscious, but she didn't know if she was hearing them properly, or just sensing them in her mind. Like the buzzing of tiny, tiny insects it continued, until she was tempted to clamp her hands over her ears, and shout to block out the sounds.
"What do we do?" She remembered all too well what he had said before, about not wanting to find out what happened to the prisoners of the Shadows. About there being no way to fight them. She could believe it. They didn't have the size of the Vorlons, but they carried the same aura of power. Marcus looked grim.
"They can cut us to shreds and barely move doing it. It would have been creatures like this that killed Kosh. If they can take a Vorlon apart, we'd be nothing more than tissue paper to them."
"You're not the most reassuring companion I've ever had."
"I'm not here to be reassuring." He pulled her behind him, as though trying to protect her from the creatures, and she glared at the back of his tousled head. Aside from being decidedly annoying, his attempts at chivalry were entirely pointless, for the Shadows were behind them as well, moving closer and backing away as though with each breath. She wondered if they did breathe. Were they non-corporeal as the Vorlons seemed to be? They didn't look it, but surely nothing completely solid could manifest in that way, out of the echoes of shadows?
"You're the Ranger," she reminded him, pushing her way back to his side. "The Minbari must have been training you people for the last thousand years for something."
"I think that bit might have made a good secret actually." His hand brushed the Isil'Zha, pinned as ever to his chest, and he smiled. There were few secrets here. Few things that the Shadows didn't already know. They hadn't exactly been drumming their heels since their return, and if they had been aboard Babylon 5 to kill Kosh they were likely already privy to all kinds of information, and even identities. Just because these were probably not those same Shadows was no reason to suppose that they did not have the same knowledge. The Vorlons had powerful telepathic connections amongst their own species; the Shadows were almost certainly the same. So he had been taught, anyway, with their behaviour during those legendary battles of a thousand years ago as the basis for the theory. No secrets then; nothing that these creatures didn't know, save perhaps what kind of people they were; what kind of addition they might make to the Shadow ranks. And Ivanova was right. He was a Ranger. The training was supposed to have been for something. He stepped forward.
"What do you want?" It was a question he had been taught to ask no one else, but here it was fairly nonsensical. What they wanted was obvious. Talking was better than standing around watching the sharp dark creatures click and clack in circles around them though, and the sound of his voice was better than the appraising silence. Ivanova winced, as the sharp hissing sound that she alone could hear rose abruptly in volume. The dark figures that surrounded them skittered closer, and black spiders nearly as tall as Marcus leant in close. There was no answer to his question.
"What is it you're hoping to find out? We know you have servants amongst other races, but you're not going to get us to join you." As usual the words tripped out of the Ranger's mouth as though without thought, but for once Ivanova didn't find it irritating. She nodded her head, and tried to ignore the black snakes that slid around their feet. The walls seemed to press in closer. Marcus's brow furrowed, as he struggled to find something that might get an answer.
"Why are we here?" That got a reaction, though not one that he might have expected. The snakes at his feet hissed sharply, and several of the Shadows drew back, then seemed to grow as though in rage. One of them, a spider made entirely of points and hard straight lines clicked and clacked over to him, and he felt the chill of its presence. He saw its face then; eight small, gleaming eyes, and mouth-parts that twitched and threatened. The Denn-Bok was in his hand almost before he was aware of it, extending with its signature sound. Grey against black, like the lines of his uniform. Not that the creature seemed to notice it.
"What do you want?" The answer was loud to Ivanova, but Marcus didn't seem to have heard it. She wondered if the creatures were speaking to her alone, or if she could hear them simply because of her latent telepathic ability. "What do you want?"
"What do you mean?" She tried thinking the question, as an experiment, and felt coldness trace itself up her spine as some of the creatures leaned in closer behind her. They had heard. They were inside her head, and that made her grip her skull with her hands, and try to force them to leave her. She couldn't. They were far too powerful; far too intense. Black shadows that gripped her thoughts and made her listen to them, as impossible to fight as any numberless, indefatigable foe could be expected to be.
"What do you want?" They were coming closer, closer, their voices louder in her head. She could see Marcus looking at her, worry in his eyes, see him coming over to her. His face was filled with concern, with the desire to help, with tender earnestness that made her screw her eyes up tight and look away. He couldn't make the voices go away.
"Susan?" His own voice sounded so distant. So tinny and faded and insubstantial through the growing cacophony of echoing Shadows, all asking their identical question. Somebody took her wrists and she fought back, pounding something warm and close with her fists, and screaming for it to leave her alone. A part of her knew that it was Marcus, but he was the only tangible part of all of this. The only thing that she could hit. And through it all the voices were growing louder and louder, and sharper and sharper, until her head burned with the pain of it all, and she thought that she could not help but go mad. She didn't know if she was still hitting Marcus. Could no longer feel her fists to know where they were, whether pounding at his chest, or gripped to her own ears, or held gently by Marcus as he tried to make her hear him. And then the Shadow voices were gone, with their hissing and their gasping and their rattling, and all the other noises that made her subconscious cry out, and in their place was one voice. One cold, crisp, human sounding voice.
"What do you want?" It was the voice of authority, the voice of sanity, and she opened her eyes and looked up. Up at Marcus holding her hands, looking down at her with the deepest concern. Up at the Shadows looming around them in their sharp, pointed circle, closer now than they had ever been. Past all that, to the tall, broad-chested man in Earthforce uniform who stood at the back of the room. He was waiting for an answer; demanding an answer, and she frowned at him.
"What do I want? I want you to leave me alone. I want you to get out of my head. I want to have a bomb the size of Moscow, so I can blow this whole planet to hell, and you with it." She pulled free from Marcus, stepping around him, moving purposefully towards the Shadows even if any one of them could snip her in half with a slicing claw. "I want to be out of this room, and up in the sky in a fighter, seeing how many of your ships I can blast out of the skies. That's what I want." She came to a dead stop, feeling the Shadows closing around her. Marcus was struggling to get to her - then with a whistling of air and a snapping of hard, shelled bodies, he was gone, twitched into the air by snapping arms and claws and horns, and flung away across the room. She could see him rushing back again, pike out, lashing pointlessly, hopelessly, at creatures that could never be hurt by him. Creatures that could fade into insubstantial mist to avoid a blow, or vanish completely, or just take his assault without feeling any part of it. Not that that stopped him. Ivanova tore her eyes away, looking back towards the Earthforce officer she felt sure had been just an illusion. If they had sent her a figure like that, then they must know who she was. Not a surprise, if they had been inside her head. The imaginary officer had gone. There were no humans in the room now save her and Marcus; no human voices asking intelligible questions. It was all just whispering again, getting louder and louder in her head, until her knees felt ready to buckle.
And then silence.
It took some moments before Susan realised that she was not unconscious this time. That she was just lying, curled up on the floor, her eyes shut tight and her arms protecting her head. Several more moments before she could bring herself to open her eyes, to lower her arms, to lift her heavy, tired head. Everything ached, everything felt confused. She had lost all sense of time, all sense of relation to the world beyond the room. She could feel a pulse beating heavily in her skull, and for several moments that was all that felt truly real. With a mighty effort that triggered a wave of nausea, she lurched to her feet and looked around.
The Shadows were gone. Without their presence the room seemed smaller than before, as though it had grown to admit them. It was empty, bare, grey, with no more accumulated darkness in the corners. A hidden light source shone from somewhere in the ceiling, but it cast no shadows of its own, and hers was too pale to hide interlopers. Marcus. Where was Marcus? It was a disjointed question, for she was still too confused to think clearly about anything, but surely he should be here somewhere? Performing a shaky circle, she spotted him at last by the door, sprawled face down, pike still in one hand. Typical. Did he ever let that thing out of his sight? It wasn't easy to get to him, but she managed it with an effort, concentrating on one foot, another foot, one foot, another foot, until she was getting down onto her knees beside Marcus, and the room was spinning rather less severely. There was a lesson there, she thought ruefully. Kneeling or sitting good, standing or walking bad.
"Marcus?" She shook him, but tried to be gentle about it. "Marcus?" He didn't respond, and she sighed. Just how often was she going to have to shake him awake today? "Marcus?!"
"Susan..." He sounded deathly tired, and rather as though he might be in pain, but the words still came out with the good cheer guaranteed to make her glare at him. "Really, if I'm... to continue... waking up in your arms... might I suggest we... choose somewhere a little... more comfortable?"
"You are not in my arms." She realised that he had moved slightly, so that instead of merely holding his shoulders, she now appeared to be cradling him. Hoping that it made him bang his head on the floor, she twitched her hands away immediately. "How are you?"
"In one piece." He sat up, and she saw that his coat bore several large tears. There was blood on his forehead, but not enough to cause immediate concern. "I think." He looked around, frowning, and bringing his breathing under control like a man well trained to withstand pain. "When did they go?"
"I don't know. I don't know if we've been here an hour, or a day, or longer. Time all got stood on its head when they were here. I'd like to know why they went, though. I thought they were interrogating us."
"I'm not sure that a Shadow needs to ask specific questions. Like a Vorlon, they can probably grab what they want right out of your head." He stood up, testing his arms and legs for damage. "That's good. Nothing seems to be broken."
"Something to be thankful for I suppose. Not that it would make much difference with us trapped in here."
"True. But it'll please Stephen. Between you and me, I think he's getting rather bored with patching me up. Last time he threatened to have me shipped back to Minbar to avoid the medical costs."
She smiled despite herself. "You're sure you're alright? It looked like they were knocking you about a fair bit."
"No more than they were you. Just in a different way. If they'd wanted to they could have snapped both of us in half without an effort. I'd guess they were just playing."
"Playing?" She didn't like the idea of them returning for a second game. He nodded.
"Seeing what we might be prepared to do, perhaps. How easily we'd give up. At a guess they're collecting data. They know that they're going to have to strike against us eventually, and they want to know what kind of a battle to prepare for." He closed up his pike and put it away, wincing at several over-stretched sets of muscles, and a few previously unnoticed bruises. "Goodness knows how many others they've examined in the same way. Other humans, other races." He shrugged, and wished that he hadn't, for his shoulders felt as though they had been pounded upon by a giant. Perhaps they had. "Maybe they're planning to recruit us, like our friend Mr Morden."
"If they think that they've got another think coming." Her glower was a spectacular thing to behold, and true to form Marcus rather enjoyed the sight of it. He smiled faintly, and she frowned at him, though not with all her usual force.
"I rather think they've already discovered that. One look inside your head and it's a wonder they didn't all just surrender on the spot."
"So what happens now? Can they force us to help them?"
"Probably. I don't know how willing their pilots have to be. They could wipe our minds and turn us into Trojan horses. In a sense, obviously." He shrugged. "They didn't kill us outright. That has to mean they have something planned."
"Thankyou. That really makes me feel better."
"Yeah. I seem to be good at that." He walked up behind her, softly as always, and reached gently out with one hand, that never quite touched her shoulder. "Look, they might not have anything planned at all."
"They're the Shadows, Marcus. The legendary ancient enemy? The Minbari have horror stories and histories about them dating back at least a thousand years. So do the Narns. Goodness knows what stories the Centauri might have. As usual it's just the humans left out of the loop. This isn't just some bunch of aliens."
"I know." She was starting to turn, so he dropped the hand that had never quite dared to touch her, and stepped back a pace. "Ranger, remember? But Susan, being ancient, powerful and sneaky doesn't mean that you always have to have some secret agenda. Even the Vorlons probably do things just on a whim occasionally. I know that Kosh did. Besides, if they try to force us to help them, there's always something we can do to prevent it."
"Suicide, you mean."
"I wouldn't phrase it quite that way. But it is always an option. We go out fighting, right?"
"You try to stop me." She rubbed her head, remembering those horrible echoing voices and whispers. She knew what the Shadows had been doing to telepaths of late, and if her mild psi rating was enough to mean anything to them, that could be her next. Wired helplessly into computer technology, ready to bond with a semi-living ship. How much of her own mind, her own identity, would remain? She had seen her mother's mind lost. She wouldn't lose her own as well. Angry, she kicked at the floor.
"And what if they don't come back?"
"I don't know." He shrugged extravagantly. "I suppose then we feel insulted, and have to wait for the Rodann to shoot us instead."
"Oh yeah. The Rodann." She had almost forgotten about them - the people of whom she had been warned so carefully "They're obviously in a lot deeper with the Shadows that we were counting on."
"On this colony at least, yes. Probably when the Shadows returned, they gave the colonists an ultimatum." He frowned. "Or at least that's the way I'd rather think of it. It's easier to deal with people who chose to turn evil to save themselves, rather than people who actively sought the evil out in the first place."
"Still cranky sods, either way." She rubbed her chest, which was still sore from the stun blast earlier. "Marcus..."
"Yes?" He offered her a small, questioning smile, like somebody who, for once, was not actively trying to annoy her.
"The Rodann I can cope with. Being executed in some grimy cell where nobody will ever find out what happened to us - that I can handle. I'm fine with that."
"You are?" He made a face. "Not greatly happy about it myself, if I'm honest, but each to their own."
"Precisely. Look, I didn't say I wanted a pointless and anonymous death, in a grimy cell or otherwise. Just that it's a lot easier to handle that than it would be to handle being used by the Shadows. These people probably chose it. Morden probably chose it. But what if they didn't? I don't want to be used, especially if they can use me to do real damage to the Army of Light. To my friends, the station, to Earth. Anything. It's all very well you talking about going out fighting, but we didn't do a very good job of fighting them earlier, did we. You attacked them and they tore your coat. That wasn't much of a fight, and it didn't look like they were thinking of making it to the death. And me. Some whispering voices in my head and I was ready to collapse. Did collapse. Again, not much with the fighting. I don't have enough of a charge left in my gun to shoot one of us, let alone both, so straight out suicide isn't much of an option even if--"
"Susan." He stayed her tumult of words with a mild gesture. "Let's cross that bridge when we come to it. If we come to it. For the time being nobody's showing much interest in us. Maybe we're not going to get to heroically commit suicide or die anonymously in a grimy cell. Which might be a good thing... depending on what else happens instead."
"It's strange." Folding her arms, forgetting her moment of worry, Susan began to pace. Marcus was reminded momentarily of Sheridan, and smiled. "We come here, to a place where we're told we'll likely be killed on sight. That the Rodann hate humans. That they've loathed us since the war, and they pretty much loathe everybody anyway, so the fact that they really have a grudge against us is especially bad. You said it yourself."
"True. The Rodann are nasty buggers. All attitude. At least the other belligerent races can be talked to. I've learnt to have a lot of respect for the Drazi, even when everybody else is dismissing them as brainless louts. But the Rodann? Forget it."
"Exactly. But what does this big bad race do when it gets hold of two if its least favourite life forms? Kill us? Torture us? Shout at us a bit? No. We get knocked out and left alone. And the Shadows. Did that look like a huge display of strength from perhaps the most feared race ever to walk through the galaxy?"
"No. It didn't." He was frowning hard. "So what are you saying?"
"I don't know. Why lock us up? Why not just kill us? And if the Shadows do have some plan for us, then why not just go ahead with it? Why flex their muscles a bit and then walk away?"
"Because they have another plan that they're trying out first, and we're the back up in case anything goes wrong." His eyes met hers, cloudy and troubled. "Susan..."
"I know." She was frowning so hard that it hurt, but it seemed to help her to think; or maybe the pain just helped her to concentrate on something beyond the lingering confusion in her mind from the earlier attack. "La'Morth. Do you think he could be working for them?"
"A Narn? Even being half Cantauri he'd still have their sense of honour, surely. Or part of it."
"The Narns are a proud race. That doesn't mean that every Narn is proud. Or that every one of them would die rather than let the Shadows expand their empire. Even G'Kar wasn't always the trustworthy nice guy that you know him as." She shook her head. "Don't generalise, Marcus. It's beneath you."
"I know that, I'm just..." He shook his head, and shrugged helplessly. "Just grasping at straws. If they've got La'Morth, then Garibaldi could be in great danger."
"And alone, thanks to you." She drew in a deep breath. If it hadn't been for Marcus being here with her, she would probably never have worked all this out. "No. I doubt he's in any danger. La'Morth won't want to show his hand yet."
"Always supposing he really is a bad guy. We don't know it yet, after all."
"You want to take the risk? We have to assume, don't we. Especially since it all makes so much sense."
"Yes. Yes I suppose so. So Mr Garibaldi takes La'Morth back to Babylon 5. To do what exactly? I mean, surely if they wanted somebody to do something there, they'd just send Morden?"
"They probably know that we suspect Morden. He hasn't really been seen since Kosh died. And maybe Morden couldn't be sure of getting security clearance, or..." She trailed off. "Marcus, La'Morth isn't really a station concern, is he."
"Well of course he is. The station is half owned by Minbar, and he--" He stopped abruptly. "But he's not destined for Babylon 5. Or at least his mission isn't. He's going to play along until they send him off to Minbar. Delenn as good as said he'll be going there. All that talk of prophecy and importance. With a cover like that, he could do almost anything once he got there. The Grey Council would be safe off on their ship, but the cities, the people, the Rangers. He could do any amount of damage."
"The Shadows probably know that the Minbari are their enemies. The last war taught them that. If they could have somebody take the Minbari out, or at the very least cripple their war effort..." Susan almost shivered. It didn't bear thinking about. "All the ships that are in orbit here could go in after him and finish the job, all without the Vorlons every needing to know anything about it. One quick strike, before anybody can stop them. Clever."
"Clever?!" Marcus was incensed. "You're talking about an entire world! A very beautiful world, and the home of a race of which I happen to think very highly! The Minbari don't deserve to be turned into a notch on the Shadows scoreboard. One more step up their ladder to ruling the galaxy. We have to stop this!"
"Relax, Marcus. I didn't mean that I approved. Just that you've got to see the strategic merit in all of this. They knew that somebody would come after La'Morth and take him back. Give them a lift to Minbari inside his head or whatever. At the same time it gives them a chance to grab somebody else as a back up in case something goes wrong. In case La'Morth was killed in the getaway, or in case we caught on too soon. We're not dealing with some mindless, evil force here. These Shadows know what they're doing."
"Of course they do. They've been around for as long as the Vorlons." He turned away, the light-hearted side of his personality gone without trace. He was all business now. "We have to get out of here."
"True. Somehow I doubt that pretending to be ill and then jumping the guard will get us anywhere here though. What about the door?"
"There's no way of opening it from this side. Not that I can see. I doubt we'd be able to force our way out, either."
"Which leaves what?" Susan was beginning to see the possible benefits of an escapology course during basic training. "Making a noise and hoping that somebody comes to see what's going on?"
"Depends, doesn't it."
"Depends on what?"
"On how anxious they are to keep us in good health for the Shadows."
"Good point." She began to smile. "If the Shadows really want to keep us around in case we come in handy, they won't want to let anything happen to us in the meantime, right?"
"Maybe. Question is, can we cause enough alarm? I doubt we could fool the Shadows whatever we do; they can get in here anytime to see what's going on. But I'm betting that they've got other things to do with their time."
"And they've probably left the Rodann on guard. Makes sense to use them for something." She began to pace again, more animatedly this time. "So what do we do? We can't exactly set the place on fire. I doubt it would burn."
"How about your gun?"
"It's nearly empty, remember. We probably wouldn't get even one proper shot out of it, and that would hardly be enough to worry anyone." She smiled suddenly. "Unless..."
"I might be able to make the gun fire in a different way. Here, look." She drew it from its holster, and pulled the charge cartridge out of the back. "This won't fire properly now, because there isn't enough energy left in the cartridge to force a good sized plasma burst out through the barrel and into the air. But if I can tap the cartridge directly, I should be able to make what's left inside ignite in some way. It'll be all noise and not much else, but that might be enough to make any guards out there sit up and take notice. Always supposing that there are any guards."
"And always supposing that they're not listening in right now."
"Always supposing that, yes." She raised her eyebrows. "So is it a good idea?"
"Of course it is." He smiled briefly, showing that he was still in there, underneath the newly business-like exterior. "It's your idea."
"Thankyou for the vote of confidence. I haven't done it yet though." She tossed the cartridge lightly in her hand. "Without a proper tool kit this might not be easy. Do you have something I could use to start a fire? Or anything that we can use to get a spark?"
"It's a stone floor. I think if I hit it hard enough with my pike I can get a spark, yes."
"Good. Then do you have anything that'll burn? Just for a few seconds. I don't want a full scale fire."
"Something that'll burn?" He checked his pockets, coming up with the detecting device he had been given to help find La'Morth, the 'penknife' he had used to open the airlock doors, what looked like a tennis ball, and a small piece of folded paper. He held the latter up, triumphant. "Paperwork, from when I docked back at the station the morning we left."
"It had to come in handy some time." She took it from him, tearing it up into strips and arranging them in the pattern of campfire logs. "Okay. Theoretically I know how to do this. One of the cadets used to do it all the time in barracks during the night."
"I'm suddenly saddened that I missed out on a life in the military." He watched her draw a small knife from a pocket, then use the little blade to partially prise open one end of the cartridge. "Do you think there's enough juice left inside to make it work?"
"No way of knowing." She looked up at him. "Okay. Do your stuff."
"Pleasure." He flicked out the pike, then raising it vertically in both hands, brought it down with impressive force onto the floor. Several sparks skittered from the end, but predictably enough the paper didn't catch. A few more tries was all it took, however, before his aim improved and the sparks leapt straight into the waiting tinder. Ivanova blew softly onto the paper, and Marcus generated a few more sparks for good luck. Before long the paper was beginning to smoulder.
"Great. Now we just need to let it heat up a bit." She jammed the cartridge onto the end of her knife blade, and held it over the little fire. "There's no danger, but watch your eyes. Even though there's not enough of a charge left to cause damage, the flash will probably be quite bright."
"You could give lessons in sabotage."
"Sabotage? More like drunken cadet pranks." Se turned the cartridge over in the wispy, virgin flames. "Don't Ranger trainees get up to mischief in the barracks?"
"If you can stay awake after your head hits the pillow you're lucky. It's hardly an easy ride." He used the end of his pike to stir up the fire a little. "Besides, when you have representatives of both the military and the religious castes patrolling about the place all night you wouldn't try anything even if you did have the energy."
"Oh. Cadet prefects aren't nearly that scary." She frowned critically at the little cartridge. "Does it look like it's starting to glow?"
"Do we want it to glow?"
"Then it looks like it's starting to glow, yes. Now what?"
"In theory, whatever kind of a charge is left inside will heat up, expand, and erupt - hopefully bit by bit - out of the crack I made with the knife. Otherwise all that'll happen is that it'll carry on glowing until the fire goes out. And that'll be it really."
"No. Possibly a slight fizzle."
"Then it has to work, doesn't it. Remember: 'Claim victory in your heart and the universe will follow'."
"If you say so." She moved back a little, holding the cartridge as far away from herself as she could. "Get over by the door. We probably won't have much time after the guards come in."
"Right." He lingered for a moment, obviously not liking the idea of her staying in the middle of the room, right in the line of fire if the guards did come; then backed off towards the door. He stood beside it, back flat against the wall. "Nothing seems to be happening yet."
"Give it a chance." She gazed hopefully at the little cartridge, now noticeably glowing. Maybe she should have been more of a rule breaker herself during her cadet days. At least then she could be sure that she was doing this right. Something crackled, and a hesitant smile began to awaken upon her face. Lift off? She turned her head away a little, tensed up - and in a flash of white and yellow, the cartridge erupted. A blossom of exploding energy that shot upwards in a rush reaching almost to the ceiling. It gave off little heat as it passed her face, and the tendrils that touched the ceiling left no scars, for as she had said, all the force was in the light and sound. But the sound at least was authentic. She grinned.
"Marcus, no! No, don't. Please! Marcus!" Another crack, just as though somebody had opened fire once again. Somewhat bemused at his elevation to apparent mad gunman status, Marcus raised an eyebrow in surprise. If he was going to say anything, though, it was cut off by a sound outside the door. A shout? Something muffled; a stumble of advancing feet. Just as a third - and by the look of it, final - explosion emptied the little cartridge for good, the door began to swing open. Ivanova collapsed, most authentically, into a dramatic heap on the floor, and a sizeable Rodann guard rushed in. Marcus swung down his pike in a neat and deadly strike, and the guard collapsed into an even more dramatic heap than Ivanova. Somebody yelled, and a gun appeared in the doorway, but an upward swipe with the pike sent the weapon spinning away through the air. Caution to the wind, Marcus slammed open the cell door, and hurled himself out into whatever lay beyond. A lone Rodann guard, the one that the Ranger had just disarmed, was reaching out for a second weapon that lay on a desk nearby. Marcus crossed the space between them in the blink of an eye, pike ready for use even if the guard managed to fire first. He saw the guard's eyes harden in hatred, and saw the finger tighten on the trigger - but when the gunshot came, it didn't come from the guard. Instead it was the guard who fell. Marcus turned. Ivanova was standing in the doorway of the cell, an appropriated gun in each hand. They were larger than the ones she was used to, and considerably more powerful, and she was beginning to regret having fired one of them one-handed; but there was undeniably something satisfying in the things. She grinned.
"Nice shooting," complimented Marcus. "Although I was hoping that one of them would be in a position to tell us about the way out of here."
"We could wait for one of them to wake up," suggested Susan, essentially unrepentant. Marcus shook his head.
"Yours is dead. I don't fancy waiting that long. The other one will be out for hours."
"Looks like we have to hope for the best then." She holstered one gun, and kept the second out and ready for use. "Grab his weapon, then come on. We have to move fast."
"How about your leg?" Remembering how it had failed her during the attempt to escape from the city earlier, he was doubtful about her ability to run now, but she seemed unfazed.
"It's fine. Bit of a rest, makes the world of difference. Now come on!"
"I'm coming." He took the dead guard's weapon, and followed her through a second door. "Any idea where we are?"
"Not in the slightest."
"Any idea where we're going?"
"Not really no. You?"
"I thought I'd just follow you."
"Fine by me." She stopped at a T-junction in the corridor, and raised her eyebrows. "Heads we go left, tails we go right?"
"Okay... do you have a coin?"
"Not one with anything on it you could call a head or a tail, no."
"Oh." She frowned at him. "Well then I guess we go right."
"We do?" He didn't quite see the sense in her reasoning, but her glare was a challenge to argument.
"Yes. You have a problem with that?"
"No. If you want to go right, then right we will go. But I want you to know that if we end up in trash disposal, or at a guard outpost, I'll be looking pretty smug."
"Fine." She started off down the right hand post. "Marcus?"
"You do think that Garibaldi is alright, don't you? If La'Morth is really working for the enemy, he could have killed Michael by now. He could have done just about anything."
"He could have. That doesn't mean that he will have, or even that he'd want to. You said as much yourself, earlier." He looked serious again, as serious as she had ever imagined that he could look. "But we should still hurry."
"I know." She quickened her pace in response, even though she had no idea where she was going. "Believe me, I know."
Time passed more slowly on the voyage back to Babylon 5. Perhaps in the hope that Susan and Marcus would find a way to come after him, Garibaldi kept the speed down. He was on edge, worried that the Shadows might be in pursuit, or the Rodann, and not sure what to think when the path remained clear. There were no Shadows, no Rodann. No shots chasing them on their way. It seemed that nobody cared they had escaped. He should have been glad, he supposed; but Garibaldi was a man who had honed paranoia to an art form, and he couldn't seem to stop worrying over what was, and what wasn't, and what perhaps ought to be. La'Morth noticed his unrest, and tried to alleviate it, but there was no lessening of the tension. Garibaldi had every scanner tuned to search for possible pursuit, both from enemy and ally, and his mood only got worse when the screens remained empty. Even Shadows on their tail would be better than nothing, he felt himself thinking. At least then he would have had something to do.
"You wish to go back," observed La'Morth after some time. Garibaldi didn't look up.
"I wish we'd never left."
"Do you plan to go back?"
"No." There was more force in that one syllable than even Garibaldi would have thought possible. He looked up at last, and dredged up a smile, as though in apology. "I have to get you away. Whatever it is that the Minbari plan to do with you, it's more important than anything else."
"Ah yes. Their prophecies." La'Morth nodded slowly. "I was young when they first heard of me. My parents had met, and fallen in love, and I was the result. Now they're both dead, thanks to a Narn assassin, and I am welcome on neither world; and still the Minbari think that I can bring peace to both."
"You don't think so?" Garibaldi didn't either. He had come to know the Narns and the Centauri rather well, and even if he didn't understand all of the issues between them, he knew that nobody would be ending their mutual enmity soon. La'Morth smiled sardonically.
"I don't think one hybrid can bring peace, especially when both sides hate him. In the future, perhaps, there will be many like me, but much has to change in the meantime. It's not even as if it's easy for a Narn and a Centauri to... to join. I'm hardly the herald of a new joint species. More an example of how the impossible can sometimes happen."
"Then why let the Minbari put you on a pedestal?"
"Because..." La'Morth shrugged his powerful shoulders. "Because they have their prophecies, and they wish for me to fulfil them. I went to Ferox on a mission for them as a show of goodwill, for a chance to think about their plans for me. Whilst I was there things became clearer in my mind. Now? Now I must at least report back to them. To Minbar. Then perhaps I will go my own way." Garibaldi nodded.
"Fair enough. We can have you on a ship to Minbar soon after we dock at the station. There'll be a debriefing though, I should think, before you can leave."
"I can be patient." La'Morth smiled faintly. "When I need to be. I only hope that I can be this patient when I discuss my destiny on Minbar."
"What does this prophecy say then? What is your destiny?"
"I am supposed to herald great change. They say I am the one from two worlds of fire, who will end a war. If you know the Minbari at all, you know their prophecies, and their cryptic ways. For myself, I grow tired of it. I wish to forge my own path from now on."
"That I can understand." Garibaldi smiled flatly, still caught up in watching the scanners. "I have no great destiny, and I'm glad."
"Oh we all have a destiny, Mr Garibaldi. We are all destined for something. Some believe that we are pre-destined."
"Not me." Garibaldi shook his head. "I make my own decisions, choose my own pathway. Anything goes wrong, it's my own fault. Anything goes right - well then I got lucky. It wasn't always going to happen that way."
"You're no Minbari, that much is clear." La'Morth smiled at him, though his eyes did not smile. "Mr Garibaldi..."
"What?" Garibaldi, again, didn't look up. There was a pause, then a sigh.
"Nothing. Nothing of importance. You should sleep, my friend. I can pilot the ship for now. And I can watch the scanners, and be sure that we're not followed."
"You're sure that you know how to operate all of this stuff?" Garibaldi didn't want to relinquish the controls, not because he was afraid that La'Morth could not handle them, but because he didn't want to stop watching the scanners. Watching for their enemies. Watching for his friends.
"I can fly it. And I can watch all of your screens." The gentle repetition carried a certain emphasis, and Garibaldi nodded unwillingly. He was tired. The few hours sleep that he had had on the way out had been a long time ago now. He was hungry too, he realised; his last meal break had also been a long time ago. It had all seemed filling enough before, but now that quite some hours had passed it was almost as though he had not eaten at all. He didn't want to eat now though, any more than he wanted to sleep. He just wanted to gaze at the scanners and be angry at the universe. La'Morth put a large hand on his shoulder.
"Mr Garibaldi, your friends may well have given their lives, just so that I can reach Minbar. Do you not think that I feel something for their loss? I will watch the scanner screens, and I will wake you immediately if I see that third little ship heading this way. Get some sleep. You'll be the better for it. I'll take a turn myself later, and you can brood alone then to your heart's content. Is that reasonable?"
"Yeah." Garibaldi knew sense when he heard it, even if he did have no desire to be sensible just now. "Yeah, I guess that's reasonable. But if you get into any difficulty, or if the Shadows or some Rodann attack fleet suddenly appears--"
"I'll wake you. But if the Shadows come, Mr Garibaldi, we won't see them. Not until it's too late."
"Maybe. That's no reason to stop looking." Garibaldi stood up, leaving his chair with clear reluctance, and went to the back of the ship. As before he took off his jacket to use as a pillow, lying down with the air of a man who believed that he would not be getting any sleep. There was no murmur of conversation to relax him this time; no Marcus and Ivanova, ill-matched couple that they were, to smirk at as he lay waiting for sleep. There was just the hard floor beneath him, the uneven pillow under his head, and the restless uncertainties in his stomach and his mind. His instincts were telling him that things were wrong; that things he hadn't even considered were not as they should be. But all that he could think about were his friends, and the creatures who should be pursuing and weren't. Anything else felt like his own paranoias bothering him as they always did. He paid attention to them usually; they kept him alive. Now though, they felt like distractions. It was these troubled thoughts that eventually accompanied him to the edge of sleep; and when he drifted off, it was into dark dreams that brought him no rest. La'Morth watched him sleep, with strange expressions haunting both their faces, and the scanners watched themselves. La'Morth didn't bother with them. He already knew where the Shadows were. He saw them everywhere he looked.
The volley of gunfire singed the hair on top of Ivanova's head, and might have done more had not Marcus grabbed her by the shoulder and hauled her back under cover. They almost lost their balance, but his poise kept them upright, just, and they returned fire as best they could. The Rodann weapons fired more loudly than the PPGs that Ivanova was used to, and with much greater power. It made her wrists ache with the strain from the recoil, and her stomach churn with the strong, bitter scent of the heated plasma.
"You see how many of them there are?" Sticking his head out from behind their disturbingly inadequate cover, Marcus fired off a series of shots. He thought that he heard a thud, but if it was one of their assailants collapsing, it made no difference to the scale of the return fire.
"I didn't see anything except guns." Ivanova took a moment to gingerly touch at her scalp, and make sure that her hair wasn't on fire. It still felt hot enough to be. "Where the hell did they come from?"
"Did you really think we'd get out of here unchallenged?" They both ducked as a shot came particularly close. "They could have security monitors set up. When we were creeping about thinking we were being really careful, they could well have been watching us every step of the way." He fired again, several shots this time. "Any idea how long we can expect these guns to last out?"
"Who knows? They're bigger than ours, but they pack more of a punch. They probably last about as long as the charge on our own."
"Then we'll be alright for a while."
"Yeah, if you really want to stay here and get shot at for a while. Every minute we're here, we stand less chance of getting to Michael. If he's playing this right, then he'll have left the planet by now. We don't know how long we were unconscious, or how long we were with the Shadows, so we have no way of knowing how much of a lead he's got. We have got to get out of here!"
"I know all that!" He fired again, and this time was rewarded with a definite thud. Somebody had gone down that time. "Just now there's not a lot that we can do about it though. Is there."
"Not immediately, no!" She still wanted to be angry with him. He was in a far more convenient place for anger than any more legitimate target. "Just... just keep firing."
"I intend to!" He fired again, as though to prove the point; a long burst of sustained fire that echoed unpleasantly in his ears. The percussion from these guns was terrible. He had no idea if he had hit anything, but seconds later a voice boomed out from ahead of them.
"Do you think he means hello?" hissed Marcus. Ivanova shot him a poisonous glare.
"You want something?" she asked the invisible spokesman. There was a short laugh in reply.
"To tear you limb from limb. To hang your heads from the rafters in celebration of your death. To spread your blood over the ground as fertiliser for the crops that will come when the winter darkness is past."
"Fine." Marcus seemed about to shout some kind of reply, but Ivanova silenced him before he could begin. This was her territory. She was in command here.
"You want us, you're going to have to come and get us!"
"We can do that. Your bodies will soon be in pieces at our feet." The Rodann voice smacked of false bravado, even though his was by far the best position for threat making. Ivanova recognised the emptiness of his talk, and hoped that she knew how best to play upon it.
"Then why don't you make a move? Why stand back there and let us shoot at you?" She grinned, almost sorry that he couldn't see her. "Or are you afraid?"
"Afraid? Of you?" This time the anger came through even more clearly. Real anger. Real hatred. And something else too. Resentment.
"Not of us maybe. But of the Shadows. Did they tell you to keep us alive? Have you got to do what they say? Come on, why not give us a real fight? Forget the Shadows. Come over here and get us yourselves!"
"Er, Susan? Is that really a good idea?!" Marcus was beginning to think she was letting the heat of the moment get to her, but she was still smiling.
"Come on! Are you really that scared of the Shadows? Of big black spiders that never even let you see them properly? What's so special about them?"
"You try my patience, human. Do you wish to be torn limb from limb?"
"Quite frankly I'd prefer it to being made to work for the Shadows. What did they give you? Money? The promise of power?"
"The promise that they will grind both Minbar and Earth into nothing but space dust." There was the sound of a footstep. The Rodann, apparently, were moving in closer. "But if you are really so willing to precede your race into oblivion, I suppose I can accommodate you. The Shadows left you in our care. We'll not see them again in a while."
"Now that sounds more like it." She gestured to Marcus; sharp, staccato movements that were a sort of military sign language. He raised an eyebrow. Obviously she wanted him to do something. When he didn't move she glared, then pointed around the edge of the small building that was so far doing a fairly good job of protecting them. He nodded, and slipped off around the corner. They had found their prison to be contained in a half-underground base of operations, close to one of the exits from the dome-covered city, but the guards stationed there were predictably unwilling to let them go. He stood now in a rabbit warren of little roads, little buildings, and inadequate light from powerful street lamps that all seemed to be too far away. A fight wouldn't be easy, but at least the Rodann would be as hampered as they were by the bad light. Sliding the gun into his belt he took out his pike, extended it, and readied himself for action. He could still hear Ivanova, and even though he hated to think of the dangers she was creating for herself, he enjoyed hearing her mock the enraged Rodann.
"We heard so much about you people before we came here. About how you hated our kind. About what bad attitudes you have. About how tough you like to think you are. And what have we seen of it? Nothing. Some posturing, some yelling, and some badly aimed gunfire. I've had better tussles than this with the Pak'ma'ra!"
"You are asking to be devoured, human!" There was no mistaking the fury in the Rodann's voice now. This no longer seemed the voice of somebody anxious to preserve the life of his Shadow masters' new toys. Ivanova laughed disparagingly.
"By you? I don't think so! I've seen spoo with more fight in them!"
"Then the last thing you will see before you die will be my fists tearing out your heart. We'll see how contemptible the Rodann are to you then!" Footsteps. Loud, fast, heavy footsteps. Marcus listened carefully. He had to time this right. Susan was counting on him for that. But there was more than one set of footsteps. More than one Rodann pounding closer. More than one of them looking to avenge the grave insults against the honour of their race. Marcus listened with concern. And people said he was foolhardy. He really hoped Ivanova knew what she was doing. Waiting until the footsteps had stopped, until he could hear the smaller sounds of the new arrivals arranging themselves for battle, until the angry, threatening shouts of earlier had become a gentle, sinister chuckle in prelude to bloodletting, he edged back to the corner, and peered carefully around. Susan stood where he had left her, her back to the wall, her gun hanging at her side. There were six Rodann before her, and from the look part-hidden in her eyes - which he hoped only he could see - that was rather more than she had been expecting. She was standing tall, her expression proud, a cocky smile on her lips that Marcus couldn't help wanting to savour for a little longer.
"So you think this is a great display of Rodann strength? You're not all that big. I'd heard you were built like Narns."
"Not all who are big, are strong. Not all who are strong, are big." The lead Rodann, whose voice was easily recognisable as the one Susan had provoked, spoke smugly. "And besides, we are very much bigger than you, human."
"Yeah, well we have a lot of sayings about size, back where I come from." Susan couldn't help grinning insultingly. "So which one of you do I fight first?"
"Who said we were going to take it in turns?" The lead Rodann seemed to swell up, his chest expanding with his own sense of pride and self importance. "I've always wanted to gut a human. They say that you have enough wrapped up inside of you to strangle you several times over. Provided you live long to try it."
"I always try to oblige." She stuck her gun into her belt. "Ready when you are."
They converged upon her as one, and as he ran forward to join the fray, Marcus saw Susan go down, dodging and diving to avoid the worst of the attack, letting the front most of the attacking Rodann take much of the force of the assault themselves. Marcus moved with a speed and a grace that came almost entirely from his desire to get to her before it was too late, and bringing his pike down with all the force he could muster, he downed the nearest of the enemy. Predictably enough, though, his actions did not go unnoticed. As the first Rodann casualty folded up and collapsed to the ground, another was turning to meet the interloper. His hard face, with its thick, fish-belly white skin, looked far more than merely enraged, and the blood red mouth opened wide in a roar of pure fury.
Marcus ducked the first fist, dodged the second, and swung the pike around to jab at the ankles of another Rodann who was getting too close to Ivanova for his liking. Susan was still doing her best just to avoid blows, for there was no chance of getting a shot off at such close range, and she had no other weapon. She jabbed an elbow somewhere painful at every opportunity, but for the most part all that she could do was lead her assailants on a merry dance, and hope to stay out of reach for as long as possible. Even for Marcus, things were not much better.
He slammed the pike against his opponent's face, but he had not had the time to haul off for a properly devastating blow, and the Rodann merely growled threateningly, and tried to bat the weapon from Marcus's hands. The Ranger foiled him with a leap back, but there was not a great deal of room to manoeuvre with the second fight going on so close by, and he almost tripped. One of the sizeable fists caught him a glancing blow on the shoulder and he winced, almost dropping the pike, and clinging onto it through sheer instinct. He came back on the offensive, dodged a second fist, and jabbed the pike into his opponent's ribs, taking the opportunity to perform a similar attack on one of Susan's assailants. She was tiring, he could see. It wasn't easy to outmanoeuvre all those crashing fists. Trying to do the best he could to help her, he used his pike to hook the feet out from under one of the Rodann, clubbing the surprised soldier over the head as he went down. The attack came at the expense of his own defence, however, for his own primary opponent was back on the warpath. One large, chunky fist caught Marcus in the kidneys, and a second flew past his head as he threw himself desperately to one side. He rolled over on the ground, dodged a very well placed kick from the Rodann he had just tripped, and came up to his feet right in the path of another powerful blow. He dodged again, but not quite enough to avoid the blow entirely. Knocked into another of the enemy, he did the best he could to be sure that they both went down together. Susan was freed up a little then, and pulling out her gun, she let out a volley of fire that sent one of Marcus's assailants down. Another kicked the gun from her hand, but in doing so he exposed one side to attack, and Marcus drove the pike into his side, following through with a sharp, upward swipe that caught him under the chin and dropped him to the ground. He didn't get back up. That made three down. But it still meant three more to go.
The lead Rodann, the one that Susan had goaded into breaking cover, spat insults now in his own language, and with a rush of speed hurled himself at her, bearing them both to the ground. Marcus saw her go down, but although he yelled out to her, and tried to run to her aid, there were two very angry obstacles determined to get in his way. He kicked at one, spun about and hit the other with his pike, but it caught the weapon and twisted it away from him, swinging it back at him with horrible force. He had to throw himself aside, rolling over, pulling the gun from his belt as he went. A huge boot came down to stamp on him, and it was at that that he fired, no longer having any other option. Smouldering boot leather - or some such equivalent - rained down on him, and he smelt burning flesh. The Rodann roared with pain, hobbling away. Marcus fired after him, but the second of his assailants stopped him with a powerful kick to the side than left the human rolling away across the ground. He tried to stand, saw the still hobbling, wounded Rodann coming back to get him, and kicked out at the wounded ruin of a foot. The Rodann could do nothing else but fall, gasping in pain and swearing furiously in - probably fortunately - unintelligible strings of his native tongue. Stumbling back to his feet, Marcus tried to take a moment to catch his breath. He was bruised and slightly dazed, but by the look of things he was in a better position than Ivanova. Attempting to wrestle at close quarters with the very angry Rodann commander, she was making little headway. There was still another of the people to deal with though, before Marcus could help her; and this one was holding his own Denn-Bok, looking very much as if he knew exactly how best to use it.
"Marcus!" Susan was trying to draw his attention to something, but if it was her own plight there was very little that he could do about it. He had to duck sharply to avoid a blow that could quite easily have broken several of his bones, and wound up grazing himself sharply on a nearby wall. The gun fell from his hand. Behind him now, Susan swore, and he heard somebody grunt in pain. He still had his own problems though. Ducking again, he heard the pike ring out as it hit the wall just above his head. He threw a punch that bounced off thick Rodann clothing, then felt his arms grabbed from behind. Oh yes. The bloke with the wounded foot. So that was what Susan had been trying to warn him about. Helpless in the powerful grip, he could do nothing but struggle as the other soldier came up in front of him, and lifted the pike for what could well be a killing blow. Doing the best that he could, he threw himself backwards into the embrace of his captor, and swung up his legs into a powerful double-footed kick. His feet hit the pike rather than the Rodann, but the weapon at least spun away. Furious, his would-be killer came onwards at him, growling threats that Marcus couldn't understand, huge fists raised and ready to do serious damage.
But the pike had landed near to Susan. Marcus could see that, although he wasn't sure how she was going to get to it. She was free of the commander's grip now, but they were still circling each other, neither making a decisive move as yet. Could she get to the pike before the commander? Marcus didn't think so - but then Marcus didn't really have time to wonder at it. A huge, huge fist jabbed him in the stomach, its full strength withheld. Somebody was hoping to play. Still folded up by the blow - as much as he could be when tightly held, Marcus gasped for a breath. He tried to lash out with his feet again, but the Rodann were wise to that now. He tried to flip the one holding him over his shoulder - a simple fighting trick that he had learned years before joining the Rangers. It seemed wise to that, too, and was holding him so that his feet barely touched the ground. Nearby he could hear Ivanova, though his eyes were too blurred from the blow to be sure of seeing her. He heard a heavy blow, and his heart sank. There was no way that could be her hitting that hard. The Rodann commander must have gained the initiative. Consumed with desperation, he twisted with energy renewed, kicking backwards this time. One foot grazed the wounded one behind him, and he heard a sharp hiss of pain. He felt the grip on his arms and chest loosen, and taking what seemed to be the only option, he rocked forward with all of his weight. He felt the grip begin to give, and with a final effort, tore free, landing hard on his hands and knees. Stumbling up, no longer knowing where any of the others were, he heard a gunshot and ducked instinctively. Somebody fell. Somebody very heavy. His vision cleared, and he saw that it was the Rodann with the injured foot. Susan, his blessed, wonderful Susan, had regained hold of her gun, and the commander was flat out on the ground. She tossed the pike back, movements teasingly casual, and taking his cue from her he responded equally casually, ramming the pike back into the path of the final, oncoming Rodann, without even bothering to check on his position first. The big soldier crumpled, and Marcus flipped the pike up neatly, bringing it down on the big, broad head. Susan laughed.
"You look exhausted," she told him. He glared.
"So do you. And much though I'd like to take the opportunity to rest, I very much doubt any of that went unnoticed. We have to get out of here."
"I know. Get your gun." She laughed as he went stiffly to do so. "You like doing things the hard way, don't you. A gun will take the enemy down quicker every time."
"Not when the gun is on the ground, and the enemy has no intention of letting you reach it." He wiped a trail of blood from his forehead. "I don't think I like this planet very much anymore."
"I never liked it all that much. What do you say we leave? Quickly."
"Yeah. Quickly would be good." He took a few steps forward and winced. "Always supposing I can still do quickly."
"You'll do it, or it'll be you I'm shooting at next." She sped up slightly. "And you'd better be able to open the door. I am not getting stuck in here again."
"I'll do it." Of course after that they had to find the place where they had left the ships, for neither of them was entirely certain where that was anymore. They didn't know where they were now in relation to that first door they had encountered, through which they had gained entrance to the city, and without that knowledge the map that they had memorised aboard Babylon 5 was useless to them. Pursuit would not be far behind, either. Already Marcus thought that he could hear voices shouting, raising the alarm yet again. If they weren't careful they were going to be fighting yet another hand to hand battle, and bravado aside, he didn't think either of them was up to that.
The darkness of the Ferox winter was on their side though. Once outside the city it was easy to stay ahead of their pursuers, and even to increase the distance between them. The Rodann were big, and could travel at speeds a human could only dream of, but their night vision was only average. One or two of them had lights, but they couldn't shine them everywhere at once. Guided by blind instinct, and Ivanova's impressive ability to recognise particular murky landmarks, they were able to find the way back to where they had landed. They were even able to recover some of their energy and spirits on the way. A surprise of sorts awaited them, though, when they arrived.
"There's only one ship left." Ivanova stared at it, amazed that she hadn't stopped to think of it before. Of course there was only one ship left. Garibaldi and La'Morth would hardly have shared one. Unperturbed, Marcus was already climbing up to open the remaining vessel.
"There's enough room for two of us in here," he claimed, far more happy about all of this than Susan would have liked.
"Will it still take off?" she asked.
"No problem. It's a tough little ship, Susan. I've flown one with a passenger before. All part of the original testing."
"A passenger, huh." She didn't ask. She could imagine. He smiled.
"Not what you're thinking. Actually it was Entil'Zha. And there was more room than you might think. You're smaller than him."
"Happily." She climbed up alongside, and slid into the cramped interior. Whatever he had claimed, it felt small to her. Very small. It was impossible to move without pressing against him, but if she had expected him to find the situation amusing, he had wrong-footed her yet again. Once more he was all business.
"As comfortable as I'm likely to get. More comfortable than either of us might be soon. Do I hear gunfire?"
"Yes, I think so." He flicked a few switches, and the engines began to power up. Little lights glowed on the control panel, and a holographic screen unfolded itself from nowhere. It showed several little dots, moving quickly, all converging on a diagrammatic representation of the ship. Marcus raised an eyebrow.
"On the ground they can't touch us. Not with those hand guns. The shielding on this ship is excellent."
"And if we take off?"
"Then we're much more vulnerable. The engines and the underside of the ship are potential weak spots. This thing was always designed more to avoid gunfire than to take sustained hits, but in the atmosphere it can't manoeuvre so well. There are all awful lot of them out there with guns. We wouldn't exactly be a sitting duck, but we'd be something pretty close."
"So we sit here forever and never get anywhere? And what if the Shadows come after us too? We have to get moving, whatever kind of a target we might be. We're on borrowed time as it is, remember. We have to get to Garibaldi."
"Flat out, we might still make it." He took the control stick, easing the ship off the ground just a few inches, and turning it around to face away from the undergrowth that had helped to shelter it. "Depends if he's going flat out too. Theoretically we can match his highest speed - even assuming he'd back in the Tristar - but we can't exceed it. We can't sustain it either."
"Meaning there's no way to catch up."
"Meaning there mightn't be, no." An explosion of light filled the main screen as a gun blast grazed the nose of the craft. "Looks like they're finally within range."
"Looks like." She braced herself against the sides of the craft, suddenly aware of the heat in the cramped, crowded space. "Marcus..."
"Don't worry. It's in hand." He lifted the ship a little further off the ground, hand rock steady on the control stick. It was an impressively responsive craft, she realised, not having used such hair-trigger precision herself earlier. Gently it eased itself forward, until it was hovering some three feet above the ground, and facing the approaching Rodann. Their firing was almost continuous now; a steady burst of yellow and white that glanced off the front of the craft and made the cockpit hum with echoes of the noise. Marcus flicked a pair of switches in front of him.
"The more noise we make, and the more gunfire that lights this place up, the more likely it is somebody will notice," he commented, almost off-hand. Susan nodded.
"It's not as if nobody knows we're here," she pointed out.
"True. But there's a whole lot of ships up above us who just might not know that we're coming."
"And one other ship that's getting further away from us every second we waste here."
"Fair enough." He was smiling crookedly; she could see it faintly, reflected in part of the console. Seriousness and amusement shared control of his eyes, but it was with a steel glint that he turned to survey the holographic screen beside him. There were more Rodann all the time. A steady stream of them, all with guns blazing. The stream of plasma blasts was beginning to make the little ship rock and shudder, but still Marcus did nothing. Ivanova was practically tearing her hair out.
"Just a moment." His eyes were fixed to the screen. It looked like twenty or thirty dots on there; each one of them a large, angry Rodann. Looking out of the front of the ship, Ivanova could see some of their faces now; could see the bruises and blood that identified the ones involved in the scuffle earlier. And still Marcus did nothing.
"I thought you said this thing wasn't designed to take sustained hits!" Her hands gripped the back of the pilot's chair, itching to throw Marcus aside and take over the controls herself. "What are you waiting for?"
"The right moment. Remember our underside is our weakness." Very, very slowly, he edged the ship up another twelve inches. More gunfire exploded across the bows, and the temperature inside the ship rose. It smelt as though something was on fire. The Rodann were all closer now, all near enough to see proper detail. Ivanova thought that she recognised the one Marcus had knocked out with his pike back in their cell. In a semicircle they all arranged themselves, ready to blast the ship to pieces if they could. That much was clear from the faces she could see. From the hatred in the fierce and the furious eyes.
"I know!" He turned away from the holographic screen at last, watching out of the front of the ship now. "I think this is everybody who's coming. Hold on to something."
"I am." A gunshot hit the front of the ship right in front of them, and for a second neither of them could see a thing. The semicircle of Rodann attackers were advancing as one, all firing, turning night into brilliant, glowing day until it seemed to Ivanova that something must give. Something must blow. The ship shuddered and shivered and groaned, and the heat inside rose until the sweat began to prickle on Ivanova's forehead. And then, only then, did Marcus come to life.
With a burst of engine power that made Susan's stomach drop into her shoes, he took the ship up, up, and over into a dive roll that left his passenger scrabbling for a better handhold, and cursing him all the while. Out of the front of the ship she saw the Rodann, looking up, guns raising to continue firing. But it was Marcus who opened fire first. The little ship's pulse cannons burst into life with a flash of cool blue that drowned out the white and yellow of the guns on the ground. Over and over rolled the ship, protecting its more vulnerable areas by presenting them to the guns below as little as possible. And still Marcus fired, great blue bursts of energy that painted complex, surreal paintings in the air as everything whirled and rolled and spun. Ivanova realised she was holding her breath, but she could only let it out slowly, bit by bit, as she struggled to regain her sense of equilibrium. It took several moments to appreciate that they were the right way up again. That nothing was spinning save her confused mind, and that instead they were heading on a steady, fast course straight upwards. There was no more flashing yellow and white, or leaping, crackling blue. There was only blackness, and the gentle coloured glow of the lighted control panel. She whistled softly.
"Not really. It wasn't even nice shooting. They didn't stand a chance."
"Better them than us."
"True." He glanced over at the holographic screen, empty now that there were no longer any targets for it to project. With the press of a button he sent it back into oblivion, then smiled faintly at Ivanova's distorted reflection in the more conventional screens before him.
"There's no way that the Shadows can have failed to see all that gunplay. Chances are we're going to fly right into them."
"We don't really have a whole lot of choice, do we. What sort of shape are we in? Any damage?"
"Only superficial. Some scarring to the surface I should think. Part of one wing might be on fire, but that'll go out once we're in space."
"Right before the Shadows blast us," put in Ivanova. It was a weak joke, but she smiled at it anyway. "I suppose there's a chance we can outrun them. Or avoid them. All two thousand of them."
"I don't think there were quite that many. But if they see us, no, we can't outrun them. Remember the one we encountered in the White Star? It took all of Captain Sheridan's tactical manoeuvring to get us out of that. In this thing we wouldn't have a chance." He patted the console affectionately. "No offence. I'd just that right now I'd rather you were a Minbari battle-cruiser."
"Or several Minbari battle-cruisers." They flew higher. The planet was clearly curved beneath them now, and as they went higher still, Ivanova could see the light that still bathed the non-Arctic regions. Bright light. Sunlight. She missed it, and it was a shame that she had not been able to enjoy it this time out. Not been able to walk beneath a proper sky, look up at expanses of blue, enjoy the feel of that sunshine on her face. All the more reason to survive this, she decided. All the more reason to have that date with sunshine and blue skies another day. All the same; well over a thousand Shadows ships. All that seething darkness she remembered from earlier. There was no way past all of that once secrecy was gone. No way past--
"What the--" They broke free of the atmosphere half expecting instant death, but there was no gunfire. No blast of hot energy from ridiculously advanced weaponry they had no hope of avoiding. There was nothing at all. Everything was emptiness, and where before the black ships had blotted out the stars, now the tiny distant lights flickered again. The Shadows had gone.
"Well that's somewhat unexpected." Marcus headed the ship towards the jumpgate, running a quick scan to be sure that the Tristar had gone too. If it had, he could be certain that Garibaldi had made it out of here alive; although La'Morth's company alone should have been guarantee of that.
"They've gone after Michael, haven't they." Ivanova wasn't sure why the absence of her own expected death was such a disappointment, but she knew that she would rather have met the Shadows here than know where they were heading.
"After Michael, straight to wait things out closer to Minbar. Who can tell." He looked back at her. "Susan, it really is time to face facts. By the time we get to Babylon 5, it's conceivable that Garibaldi and La'Morth will have already reported in. La'Morth could be on his way to Minbar, and there might not be any way to stop him. Even if he hasn't left the station, if we turn up and he suspects we know about him... Well the station would have considerably less chance of surviving whatever he's got planned than Minbar does."
"Yes, I know. I've been thinking about that. Any message we send stands a good chance of being intercepted though. The messages won't get through, and we'll get picked off by some rear guard. So what other options do we have?"
"Not a lot." He hesitated briefly. "There's a Drazi colony close to here. They have faster ships. Things that'll outstrip even the Tristar. Make the kind of hyperspace travel you're used to look slow. Admittedly it's technology designed for piracy, which is one of the reasons why they don't tend to flaunt it, but if it'll get us to Garibaldi quicker, I think you can ignore the origins."
"A Drazi pirate colony? And you think they're likely to help us?"
"Let's just say that they owe me a favour." His eyes were intense now. "Susan, we don't know how far ahead Garibaldi is. Now we can try to get to him on our own, and we might just make it, but it's always possible that they've got an escort of sorts. Even if we're fast enough, we won't necessarily manage to do anything. So you have to decide. Do you want me to head for Garax IX?"
"A Drazi pirate colony. That owes you a favour." She shook her head. "One of these days we're going to have to have a long talk about whatever it is you get up to when you're off-station."
"There's nothing I'd like more." He raised an eyebrow. "Well?"
"What the hell." She shrugged. "At least we'll have a bigger ship then."
"Well every plan has it's drawbacks." He smiled teasingly. "So we're heading for Garax IX?"
"Looks like it's our best chance, doesn't it." She settled back into the cramped space, wondering how the hell she was going to explain this on her report. "But if they shoot us down, I'll make you pay. In this life or the next."
"Fine by me. Initiating jumpgate sequence." The lights fired up ahead of them, and he guided the little ship onwards on its course. "It'll be about three hours."
"Wonderful." She had long ago given up tying to get comfortable. Three hours would be sweet hell. He was smiling at her again, and she glared. "What?"
"We could always make the time go a little faster."
"If you suggest I-Spy, I will kill you."
"Oh. Twenty questions then?"
"Marcus..." She couldn't help groaning, but he, of course, was unconcerned. Three hours. Something told her it was going to go by very slowly indeed.
If she ever came to write her memoirs, Ivanova couldn't help thinking that this was going to make a very large chapter. Either that or it would be one of the things that she avoided mentioning altogether. There were plenty of reasons for airbrushing it out of her history, after all. Heaven only knew what Sheridan, or Earthforce, or anybody else for that matter, would say if they saw her right now. It had to be the least likely rescue fleet of which she would ever be a part.
She was standing on the bridge of a pirate ship, which aside from being the sort of thing of which childhood dreams were made, was also the kind of thing that was very hard to explain in an official report, of which there was sure to be at least one if she survived any of this. Beside her, seated in a somewhat grandiose command chair, was the pirate captain, a large, broad Drazi dressed in what appeared to be red satin, which a sword strapped to his waist that looked big enough to behead a rhinoceros with a single blow. His crew, dressed in a similarly colourful fashion, all stood or sat at their various stations, all armed to the teeth with swords and sizeable laser pistols that made even the ones she had taken from the Rodann look tiny in comparison. If there was a PPG equivalent of a sawn-off shotgun, she felt sure that she had just found it.
And even the ship itself was unusual. The ceiling of the bridge was painted with images of Drazi, in purple and green sashes, tearing each other to shreds with all manner of weaponry. The walls were covered with all kinds of sharp implements, both old and new, and above the main viewscreen hung what was apparently the Drazi equivalent of a skull and crossbones; a Drazi skull, naturally enough, with a dagger stuck through its eye, all backed by two crossed laser cannons. Why the hell these people - these pirates - were willing to help her and Marcus she had no idea, but she was determined to find out eventually. Needless to say Marcus spoke Drazi, so any chance of picking up a few clues from snatches of conversation evaporated immediately. Instead she had heard nothing but unintelligible strings of a language she knew nothing about, and from which she couldn't hope to put two and two together. Not with any chance of making four, anyway.
But the speed. The speed was incredible. She had always thought of hyperspace as being more or less the same kind of journey whatever the ship; most vessels didn't travel through it any differently. The older races might be different, but she had never had cause to travel in a Minbari ship, and doubted that she would ever be able to travel in a Vorlon one. She didn't want to travel in a Shadow vessel, and the White Star - well, that was something different altogether. This though - this was wonderful in an entirely new way. There was no other way to describe it. Yes, it looked centuries old. Yes, there were numerous stains about the place that looked suspiciously like blood. Yes, she felt that she was being constantly eyed up by half the crew on the bridge - although whether in a lascivious fashion, a suspicious one, or just because they were hungry and she looked rather tasty, she hadn't decided. But the speed... It was almost as though she could feel the wind in her hair. Feel the slipstream. She couldn't feel the floor moving under her feet, but it felt as though she should. In this thing it seemed impossible that they would fail to catch up with Garibaldi, unless he had been gone longer than she thought. The next question, of course, was what sort of weaponry the ship had; or more to the point, did it stand the slightest chance of staying in one piece if they came up against any Shadows? She didn't really think that it did, but it certainly felt better to be inside something like this than inside the tiny one-man flyer she and Marcus had been in before.
"Penny for them?" Marcus had appeared beside her again, and she glowered inwardly. She really hated it when he did that. "I suppose it should be 'credit for them' these days of course. What, with inflation and all. And there not really being pennies anymore."
"I was wondering about this ship. What its capabilities are."
"More than you might think. It uses scavenged technology from half a dozen races."
"And the Shadows?"
"I don't know. With luck we won't have to find out."
"Very reassuring. But with all the 'luck' we've had so far on this trip, I don't think we can count on any more." She looked about once again. "So who did the décor?"
"The crew. Painting the ship is quite the communal activity."
"That's one thing I'm not going to suggest to Sheridan." She raised an eyebrow. "So how do you know each other? You're going to have to tell me sometime."
"Am I?" He smiled lopsidedly. "You know how it is. You all fly the same sector, sooner or later you're going to meet up somewhere. At a bar. On a space station. In the cargo hold of a Gaim space-freighter. These things happen."
"You're not planning to tell me, are you."
"Not without considerable arm-twisting, no."
"I thought there was 'nothing you'd like more' than a long discussion about your little off-station jaunts?"
"Yes. Perhaps some of them would make better stories than others, though." One of the Drazi said something to him, and he laughed shortly. "They think you're some kind of intergalactic police officer. Ivanova of the Yard."
"And they're still willing to help?"
"I told them you'd keep their base a secret."
"And they owe you a favour."
"Yes. Quite a big one. But you know Susan, it's not just us who have set ourselves up against the Shadows. These people spend a large proportion of their lives in hyperspace. They'd seen that something was out there - something big and black and scary - probably long before the humans became aware of it. They've had tussles and they've lost ships. They want to fight these things as much as we do."
"I don't see them joining the alliance." She was damned if she was going to be that understanding towards a bunch of pirates. He just shrugged.
"Do you think they'd be welcome? Now stop looking gift Drazi in the mouth. It's because of them that we're getting the chance to catch up with--" He broke off as an alarm sounded at a console nearby. A shout went up from the Drazi, and all around the bridge the colourful pirates seemed to take on a new air of dedication. Of seriousness. Marcus was the same. Coat swirling about his ankles in its favourite dramatic fashion, he went over to the flashing console, and stared down at the rolling figures on a screen that looked peculiarly old and outdated. Susan joined him.
"Don't tell me that's nothing. What is it? The real intergalactic police, or the Shadows?" He smiled briefly.
"Is there a real intergalactic police? Look." He gestured at the oddly battered screen. "See the black shapes?"
"Shadows." There was no mistaking them. They were spiky and spindly and they moved like nothing else. "Where are they?"
"Close by, according to this old thing. It's very precise. They took it from an old relic they found drifting in space. Part of some Minbari ship from the war a thousand years ago. It's designed specifically for tracking Shadows vessels and similar technology."
"Any sign of Garibaldi yet?"
"Yes." This time there was no brief smile, no teasing glint in his eyes. "Susan, this scanner... The images that it's projecting are of Shadow equipment of some kind. Somewhere nearby there's a vessel, and something on it is of Shadow design."
"There could always be more than one vessel in the area." She was denying the obvious and she knew it, but now, so close to the reckoning, she wanted to deny it. Marcus shook his head.
"There are no other vessels in the area. There's only us, and a small Minbari-style ship going at quite a speed straight for Babylon 5. Something onboard the Tristar was put there by the Shadows. Something that's been made or adapted by them. I think that's the last proof we need about La'Morth."
"Hopefully doesn't know about any of it yet. So long as he doesn't suspect that there's anything up, he'll be alright. Garibaldi is La'Morth's guarantee of an easy route in."
"True." She bit her lip, and when she spoke again she sounded bitter. "So what's the plan? I assume that your friends have one?"
"Yes, they do. They want to destroy the Tristar." He put out a hand to forestall her rage, gripping her shoulder gently. "They feel they have to. As it is, we can expect company any time now. Shadows coming to see that we don't interfere. We're going to have a fight on our hands, and if La'Morth decides to get in on the act, the Tristar could be firing on us too. You can't blame them for wanting to improve the odds, or get rid of a Shadow agent."
"Don't patronise me, Marcus. I know the risks and the best way of handling them. I don't need to have it all explained. But just because La'Morth has something on him that the Shadows made, doesn't mean Michael has to die. We have to try something else first."
"I might be able to stall them." He didn't look wholly confident, either that he would succeed, or that it was entirely sensible to try. "Give me a second. I'll talk to the captain, see if I can get us some time. See if we can try to get Michael out of there before--"
"Before you blow him to hell? Marcus, I can see the sense in destroying La'Morth and whatever Shadow technology he's got with him, given what's it's intended for. Hell, Michael himself would be the first to say go for it. But I will not stand by and let you blow up one of the best friends I've ever had."
"It won't be easy to get him out. If we leave that ship in one piece, we risk taking fire from it ourselves. There will be Shadows heading this way, and we're going to have to fight them too. If we're destroyed, Minbar is destroyed. And I will not stand by and let that happen."
"Then what options do we have." She spoke very quietly, and very calmly, which was reason enough to assume that there was a storm brewing. He was silent for a moment, regarding her thoughtfully, then turned to the captain and rattled off a few sentences in Drazi. The captain responded in kind, then muttered something that sounded disparaging, and shrugged. Marcus looked back to Ivanova.
"Well?" she asked. Something about the captain's tone had not filled her with confidence. Marcus seemed hesitant.
"We've been given permission to take out one of the shuttles," he told her in the end. "See if we can get Garibaldi off the Tristar. I'm afraid the captain thinks we're insane for trying though, and I'm inclined to agree with him. We'll be sitting ducks out there."
"True." Shuttles, on the whole, were very small, and considerably easier to blow up than the ship on which they now stood. Still, there were worse things than being blown up, and one of them was standing around waiting for a friend to get blown up instead. She gave a curt nod. "Okay. Let's do it."
"You're sure? It could get pretty bloody hairy out there."
"Yes, I know." He smiled at her fondly, although he made sure that he did it when her eyes were on the scanner screen. "Shut up."
"And come on." She headed for the door, exchanging a curt nod with the captain that was about the extent of their communications so far. He hadn't tried to speak to her at any point, but had still managed to give her the distinct impression that he thought she and Marcus were an item. It didn't help that she didn't know what the hell they were saying to each other. One more thing to try to find out about later, she supposed. For now though, there was only Garibaldi to think about; and whether or not he was even still alive.
Garibaldi had more or less given up hope of seeing something on the scanners. After he had woken up from his restless sleep - and why had his sleep seemed to be full of the sound of whispering in a language he had never before heard? - he had returned to his post immediately. Everything looked as it had before he had fallen asleep - vast distances of empty space, the narrow, colourful corridor of hyperspace; and no other living thing within light years. No sign of the Shadows, of the Rodann, or of Susan and Marcus. Until, when he knew that he was mere hours from Babylon 5 - four at the most - he saw something at last. A flicker, no more. A flash that became an image. An image that became a clear reading. He sat up straight, checked one of the other scanners to be sure. To be completely certain. Three ships. Not greatly large, but certainly much bigger than the Tristar, all heading his way at an impressive speed. The Tristar being what it was, its speed was impressive of course, but these ships were gaining on him fast. Vessels from an advanced race then, perhaps? He thought inescapably of the Shadows, but he couldn't help thinking that a vessel designed to be used by Rangers would identify Shadows as just that. Shouldn't there be alarms? Something flashing in warning at the very least? Instead there were just the three ships, streaking across his scanners in close formation, heading towards him in wretched anonymity. He brought the weapons online, glad he had taken the time to familiarise himself with them earlier. All the time he had cause to be glad of his paranoia. Always, it seemed, it turned out to be justified, and extremely useful.
"What is it?" La'Morth had claimed that he wanted to sleep, but Garibaldi knew that he hadn't. He had lain at the back of the ship, and had stared at the ceiling as though searching for the meaning of life in the dark grey metal. He had mumbled to himself, though Garibaldi had not been able to hear him. At times it had seemed that La'Morth had wanted him to - but somehow the words had always seemed to become too slurred to decipher.
"Ships." Garibaldi gestured at the nearest screen. "Do they look like Shadows to you?"
"Even just on a scanner screen, there's no mistaking a Shadow vessel. I don't know who those belong to." La'Morth sat down on the seat beside Garibaldi's. "Can't be your friends. Not in three ships."
"So are they friend, foe, or not much of either?" Garibaldi's fingers did not stray from the weapons controls. "What do you think?"
"I think you should be careful." La'Morth's eyes drifted to Garibaldi's tense hands, ready and waiting on the console. "Let them come closer and they could blow us to pieces."
"Or they might mean us no harm at all."
"True." La'Morth's eyes narrowed, in a way that managed to remind Garibaldi of both G'Kar and Londo - and, for some reason, of the worst of both. "But we have to get to Babylon 5, remember. You said so yourself. Whatever else happens, you have to get me there. It's why you and your friends went to Ferox. It's why your friends died. Can we afford to risk the success of this mission on the possibility that these people might mean us no harm? There are few vessels that possess that kind of speed, Mr Garibaldi. Can it be that in this region of space you've never yet encountered Raiders?"
"Raiders." He spat the word out. He hated Raiders. Hated their cruelty and their violence, and the way they put so many innocent lives at risk just to steal cargoes, or even just to satisfy their own bloodlust and love for a fight. Babylon 5 had seen its share of Raiders sure enough; and La'Morth was right. They did tend to be the ones with the faster ships. "Well, we shouldn't try fighting them in hyperspace. We could all get blown to kingdom come." He tapped a quiet rhythm on the console. "I'll drop back to normal space. See what they do. If they follow, then we've got reason to suspect that they're dangerous."
"A fair plan." La'Morth watched the scanner with apparent suspicion as Garibaldi keyed in the sequence to create a jumpgate. A flash of light and colour, and then the bright whorls of hyperspace were gone and the world was black and cold again. It was always a peculiar contrast. They had to wait then, to see if their suspicions had been unfounded; to see whether or not those three unknown ships would continue on their way, or drop out of hyperspace too. It was almost a relief when the elliptical light of a jumpgate flashed open, and the ships appeared again. Garibaldi realised then that he was spoiling for a fight. He stroked the pulse cannon controls thoughtfully. He had no idea how powerful they were, but he knew how an Earth ship of this size was armed, and one of Minbari design could only be better. He could do some serious damage before these new arrivals really had a chance to fight back - provided he took the initiative. Something attracted his attention, and he looked down. A smaller ship had launched itself from one of the three bigger ones. A shuttle by the look of things; it was too big to be a lifepod. What could a shuttle want? Was something abandoning ship? Escaping? It seemed to be heading his way.
"Mr Garibaldi." La'Morth looked agitated. Afraid? Garibaldi hadn't thought of him as the type to panic easily, but then nobody really liked the thought of being shot down in space. There was a whole lot of vacuum to suffocate in, if the explosions failed to get you.
"We don't know who they are," he protested. Something was holding him back. His instincts again, he realised; and damn it, didn't they usually come through for him? But the shuttle was closer now, and he had heard of that particular Raider ruse; a shuttle packed with explosives, detonated close enough to disable a ship and make escape less likely.
"You must fire, Mr Garibaldi!" La'Morth made a move before the chief could stop him, slamming his hands down on the nearest of the weapons controls. Laser fire erupted from the port side of the ship, narrowly missing the shuttle. It swerved from side to side to avoid the deadly blasts, and Garibaldi pushed La'Morth aside.
"There's somebody flying that thing! Raiders wouldn't send over a manned shuttle!"
"Tricks! All tricks!" La'Morth made another swipe for the controls, but before he could get close enough; before Garibaldi could reach out to stop him; space seemed to shimmer. The blackness was suddenly darker. Two Shadows vessels had appeared.
"Damn!" Pushing La'Morth to one side, Garibaldi swung the Tristar around, doing his best to manoeuvre the ship about so that it was out of the Shadows' path. But they were not heading for him, he realised. They were closing in on the tiny shuttle. The little ship leapt aside, putting on a fine burst of speed. Garibaldi was suddenly on their side, suspicions gone - but what the hell-? The little ship was heading for him, swinging around to put him between it and the Shadows. His pulse rate soared, and he made to move aside, but the Shadows did nothing. They made no effort to fire upon the tiny shuttle - almost as if they were afraid of damaging the Tristar.
"What the hell is going on here?" He had never been this close to a Shadow vessel before; had never expected to and live. And now here were two of them, hanging there in space, staring at his ship and failing to destroy it. He swallowed hard.
"The other ships." La'Morth sounded shaky. Hopeful? Shocked? Afraid? Garibaldi was damned if he could tell. He followed the other man's gaze, staring out of the main viewscreen as the three ships he had so distrusted earlier split up and came in to the attack. They had fought Shadows before by the look of things, for they ducked and weaved and rolled and fired as though piloted by old hands. Could they be Rangers? But they didn't look like Minbari vessels; more like cobbled together mishmashes of a hundred different technologies.
"We're gonna get blasted sitting here." Moving the Tristar out of the way, he sent a few shots himself after the Shadows. They didn't fire back. What the hell was this? What was on his ship that the Shadows were so determined not to destroy? And then he realised, and his hands fell away from the controls.
"Mr Garibaldi!" La'Morth was aghast. "Get us out of here!"
"Suddenly I'm not so sure that's a good idea." He half-turned, refusing to move the ship, feeling it rocking and shaking under the force of so many nearby explosions. "So what is it, La'Morth? Are you going to destroy Babylon 5? Or is your plan for Minbar?"
"What?" La'Morth stared at him, eyes wild, then slowly seemed to shrink in his seat. "Oh. You've realised. I'd rather hoped that you wouldn't."
"I suppose that means you plan to kill me now? I shouldn't bother to try. That's what those three little ships are going to do, isn't it? They're somebody come to stop you. They'll get me at the same time." A violent explosion rattled the ship, and he was almost thrown from his chair. "By accident or design, they'll blow this ship up. You'll never see Babylon 5."
"I don't want to kill you." La'Morth looked sad; regretful. "I've enjoyed this time with you, Mr Garibaldi. The first time in so long I've had a chance to enjoy some simple companionship. Some simple conversation. Not just instruction, and talk of prophecy. But you can't be allowed to stop me."
"You might just find me rather hard to kill." He pulled out his laser gun, but La'Morth didn't seem concerned. He shook his head slowly.
"I might, Mr Garibaldi - but then I wouldn't try in the first place. It's them that you need to worry about."
"Them?" Assuming that he was talking about the Shadows, Garibaldi's eyes went back to the screen. One of the enemy vessels, shaking under the force of a powerful direct hit, was starting to crumple in on itself, but one of the three attacking ships was glowing. He saw the shuttle again for a moment, looking almost as if it were trying to get close to the doomed ship - but the explosion came before anybody could do anything. The ship blew apart in a bright, bright blaze of colour, and Garibaldi had to throw up a hand to protect his eyes. The Tristar rocked under the impact of several pieces of debris, and the crumpling Shadow vessel exploded into jagged black dust. He blinked the spots from his eyes, and turned back to La'Morth - only to find that he was not alone. Crawling out of nowhere, clustering around the three control chairs, were four large, black things. Spikes, legs, claws, horns - everything that was about sharpness and angles and their implicit threats; all clacking towards him like nightmares emerging from the imagination. He raised his gun then, although he knew that it would have no effect. He could no more take out even one of these creatures with a simple PPG than he could take on the entire Vorlon race armed with a catapult.
"I warned you, Mr Garibaldi." La'Morth sounded honestly regretful, although Garibaldi didn't feel any better for it. Another violent explosion rocked the ship, and he almost lost his footing. The Shadows, needless to say, looked unaffected. If they were speaking he couldn't hear them, but he did hear something in his head; something like a scream, begun a thousand years ago, and just now echoing into being. He took a step back, and pointed his gun at La'Morth.
"I'll shoot him before you can shoot me," he tried, though he was sure that they could be much, much faster than that. La'Morth just looked stricken. Outside the little shuttle was heading his way again, and this time the remaining Shadow did try to shoot at it. Garibaldi could imagine the people inside being buffeted violently to-and-fro, and he didn't envy them one bit. Everything was aflame out there now, it seemed. Pockets of gas ignited by the laser fire, burning themselves out in seconds before the surrounding vacuum sucked out their life; chunks of red hot metal; bright colours from the weapons fire, flashing backwards and forwards and singing his own craft, rocking the little shuttle, blasting chunks from the two remaining ships that he was hoping were on his side. One of the Shadows came closer to him, and he felt his gun hand lower; felt icy shivers across his chest as the creature moved past him and inspected the controls. They were going to fy the ship out of here. Killing him was a certainty, but they were going to save La'Morth. Get him out of this battleground and on his way to Minbar, with them hiding somewhere in the background. Consumed with rage, rocked into incandescence by another close explosion, he raised his gun, ignored the screaming in his head, and blasted away at the console. La'Morth yelled out, though it did not seem to be in rage, and the four Shadows rose up, up on hind legs that seemed suddenly much longer. Claws and horns and jabbing mouth parts chittering and snapping at him as the screaming grew louder in his brain...
"Run!" It was La'Morth, hurling himself suddenly between the security chief and the furious creatures. Garibaldi didn't need to be told twice. There was nowhere to run to, but he ran anyway, tripping on obstacles that appeared in his mind, blinded by the screams inside his head, shaken every step of the way by the crashings and the blastings of the furious battle outside. He fell into the nearest of the little ships, having almost forgotten that it was there. The Shadows were running for him, and he could see the deadly blades that their claws and horns could be. He slammed his hands onto the controls - any controls - and through the blur of the shield coming down to seal him inside the ship, he saw La'Morth. He seemed to be tugging at his own body, and Garibaldi thought that he saw light where there should have been flesh - but then the ship was blasting away from the Tristar, and he was spinning out of control. He fell into the pilot's chair, banging his head on this and that, catching a glimpse of the ferocious battle far closer to him than he would have liked. A shot skimmed his bows, though he had no idea who had fired it, and a shower of sparks rained down on him. It seemed as if the universe itself shook, and when he reached for the controls he got nothing but burnt hands and a powerful, acrid smell. Great. Dead in space in the middle of a battle. Behind him he saw the Tristar shake, though he didn't think it had taken a hit. The Shadows, trying to mend the console? Trying to transport themselves and their servant to safety? Not to the surviving Shadow vessel if they wanted refuge, for two of its legs had been blasted off, and its return fire was growing ever more erratic. There would be others here soon though, he realised. They would have to come, to protect La'Morth. Nobody would stand a chance then, especially him, stuck here without an engine to his name.
"This is the Shuttle... the Shuttle... damn it I don't know how to pronounce its name. But calling Garibaldi." Ivanova's voice. He couldn't believe it. That was Ivanova in that thing? She was alive? He thumbed his radio controls, but was rewarded with an electric shock for his trouble. Wonderful.
"I hope that's you, Michael." Ivanova sounded tired. She probably was tired. Certainly he was. "We're coming to get you, either way, so if you're not Michael... well then I guess we're screwed, aren't we." He smiled at that, even as another explosion rained more sparks down upon him, and a chunk of broken Shadow 'leg' came close to colliding with his ship. He saw the shuttle then, coming closer, scarred all over from the battle, and smouldering in places that didn't look especially healthy. Apparently it could still manoeuvre though. With barely a bump they came together - that chunky, damaged vessel, and his own tiny broken one - whilst around them the galaxy hurled fire every which way.
"Michael." Ivanova was greeting him as he stumbled through the airlock. Battered, dirty, sporting one hell of a black eye - but definitely still Ivanova. She was grinning at him, and he was grinning at her, and looking damn silly in the process he was sure. She threw her arms around him, just as yet another explosion knocked both of them off their feet.
"Get us the hell out of here, Marcus!" Ivanova was fighting her way back to the front of the ship, greetings and hugs forgotten with the return to business. Only then did Garibaldi see the Ranger as well, and smiled a very exhausted greeting his way. Marcus looked as knocked about as Ivanova, and his greeting to the security chief was a very cursory one.
"Airlock closed. Ship away," he reported. Garibaldi saw his dead little vessel drift away as Marcus gunned his own engines, and took them further from the Tristar. Something nearby exploded, and they all looked up to see the second Shadow vessel erupt into nothingness.
"There'll be more." Garibaldi was amazed at how tired he sounded. "There'll always be more." But the two remaining ships were turning on the Tristar now, and he watched it with a heavy heart. La'Morth had saved his life. He couldn't be all bad. But there was something about him that was at least part Shadow now, and so long as that remained, he could be nothing but a threat - and a lure for other Shadow vessels to come here and protect him. None of these other ships were likely to survive a second fight.
"There are Shadows onboard," he said suddenly, unsure quite what that meant for the battle. "Four of them. Can those two ships kill them?"
"Shadows?" Marcus was reaching for what seemed to be the communications controls, shouting into the microphone in a language that Garibaldi thought he recognised as Drazi. These were Drazi helping? They didn't look like Drazi ships.
"They managed to destroy two Shadow vessels," he heard himself saying. Marcus shook his head.
"Those were just ships piloted by telepaths, remember? But actual Shadows - with them onboard that ship could be practically indestructible. I don't know that--" But he broke off then, for the Tristar, like a light from Heaven itself, was beginning to glow. Pale, pale blue, and brighter than Garibaldi had ever seen - but familiar to him. Associated with La'Morth. A glimpse seen through a descending screen, of a man tearing at his own body, until he had seemed to glow.
"La'Morth." He wasn't aware that he was speaking aloud, but the words jumped out of his mouth as the thoughts arrived in his head. "That's what he was going to do when he got where he was going. They turned him into a bomb."
"And he's detonating! Why the hell would he do that here?" Aghast, Ivanova stared out of the front screen, at the ship now bathed in blue light. "Marcus!"
"I'm on it!" He was shouting in Drazi again, and one of the ships was peeling away, even as they were doing the same themselves. Racing away from that bright, bright light as it grew brighter and brighter still. And then there was no more glowing - there was nothing but a blinding, awe inspiring fire, and an explosion that lifted the shuttle and hurled it away like a toy. Marcus fought with the controls; Susan tried to help him. It seemed hopeless, for burning wreckage was everywhere, and they were spiralling crazily. Heat washed over them in intense, crackling waves, and she thought that, beside her, Marcus was muttering something in Minbari. She didn't know what. She knew that she probably never would. She just fought with the controls alongside him, not really expecting to come out of this alive; fighting all the time against dizziness. When at last the buffeting stopped, and they were able to see again, everything still seemed to be glowing. Everything seemed on fire.
"One of the ships has gone." Marcus was tapping controls, checking scanners, hunting everywhere, but it was obvious that one of the Drazi vessels had disappeared. Blasted into oblivion along with the Tristar. Just more blazing wreckage beginning to be choked by the vacuum. The remaining vessel, the flagship of the little fleet, hung uncertainly in space, alone now. Ivanova felt sorry for its crew. Pirates they might be, but if it hadn't been for them...
"Thank them," she told Marcus, suddenly afraid that she might not get another chance. He did as he was told, and a reply came in the voice of the pirate captain himself. Ivanova pictured him sitting in his ostentatious chair, all in red satin, with his glittering sword hanging at his waist, and found that she was smiling. Marcus glanced up.
"They're heading back home," he reported. "They say it was a pleasure."
"Then they've got a damn funny idea of what's pleasurable." Garibaldi watched a jumpgate open, and saw the vessel he had come so close to firing upon vanish crookedly through it. After that his eyes turned back to the last of the Tristar, and watched the fires burn on.
"What do you want to do now?" Still blinking from the force of the explosion, Marcus was speaking quietly, eyes fixed upon the dying lights outside. Ivanova was still staring at them herself.
"Get a message back to Babylon 5. Tell them everything; or everything that we can say on a non-secure channel, anyway. Minbar has to know about all of this just in case."
"You think a message will get through?"
"Yes." She watched the last of the flames flicker out, unable to sustain themselves in the emptiness of space. "I don't think there are any more Shadows around here. There's nothing out there now."
"Nothing at all." Beside them, Garibaldi stared out of the viewscreen as well, thinking about La'Morth. He had seemed to be a good man, and Michael always trusted his instincts. Surely there must have been something of who he had used to be left beneath whatever the Shadows had built in its place? Something had made him act that way in his last moments. But he couldn't be sure. Perhaps La'Morth had done what he had done in order to save Garibaldi's life - or maybe he had done it in an attempt to kill them all; Garibaldi, Susan, Marcus, and the attacking Drazi ships. They would never know. Not now. Funny, but it had never seemed this hard to celebrate the defeat of an enemy before. Garibaldi couldn't think of it that way though. He saw only the death of a man who might have been saved. A man who had apparently given his life for the sake of others. And there was nothing at all to celebrate in that.
It was night when they returned to the station, some hours later, just as it had been night when they had left it. The docking bay was empty, and the tiny Drazi shuttle limped in without any great sense of triumph. Sheridan and Delenn awaited, but neither of them seemed triumphant either. It was did not feel like so great a victory.
"Captain." Ivanova acknowledged him with a brief nod. Delenn drew Marcus off to one side, and the three officers talked together to a background hum of hushed Minbari. "I'm sorry it all went so wrong. Maybe if we'd got there a little earlier..."
"I doubt that would have made any difference. Besides, you got there as soon as you could after we got the message that somebody needed to go." He shook his head. "No, it wasn't your fault. Quite the contrary. If it hadn't been for the three of you, we might all be dead by now."
"The Minbari put a lot of hopes in La'Morth." Garibaldi remembered his discussions with the alien earlier. Regardless of how willing a participant La'Morth would have been, the prophecies had been clear. An end to a war. It was a promise of the sort of peace to which they all aspired now. "He said he was supposed to fulfil some great prophecy, and bring peace. It might have been good to bring him back alive, even if the Shadows had got to him. He still might have--"
"Once the Shadows took him, he was very likely lost to us." Delenn came up to join them, her business with Marcus apparently concluded. Ivanova looked around for the Ranger, but he had already disappeared. Typical. Just like him to slide off on some other business when there was a debriefing to attend.
"You don't think there was any chance to get him on our side again?" asked Garibaldi. "Even given what he did at the end?" Delenn shook her head, though she didn't look sure. She had her earnest look on again; the one that said great things; more perhaps than she could ever say with words.
"Once you have become an agent of the Shadows, there is very little that can save you. If you have become their true servant, you are lost forever. La'Morth had the potential to be great, as perhaps do all of us, but with great potential can come great temptation. He must have had ambitions upon which the Shadows were able to pray."
"He did." Again Garibaldi remembered the conversation onboard the Tristar. "He resented his supposed destiny. He didn't like the plans that he felt the Minbari had for him."
"And in trying to avoid that destiny he might well have stepped right into its path." Delenn smiled sadly. "If he had gone to Minbar, and led the Shadows in an attack there, he would most certainly have been the one who came to end a war. Not the war between the Centauri and the Narns, as we had hoped, but the war between the Darkness and the Light. With Minbar in ruins, our fight against the Shadows would have been greatly disadvantaged. I do not think that Babylon 5 can yet stand alone."
"You and me both." Sheridan whistled. "It doesn't bear thinking about. Still, I guess in a way it's a compliment. Obviously the Shadows consider your people to be a great threat."
"I think perhaps humans have a very strange idea of what is a compliment." She smiled at him. "From now on we shall have to be very careful. Very careful. Of all who might be agents of the Shadows. Of all who might have been... contaminated. There is no telling when or if the Shadows will try again."
"But for now the danger is gone?" asked Ivanova. "The danger to Minbar I mean."
"It would seem so. After we received your message, I had several Ranger patrols look for the Shadow fleet. They report that it seems to be heading back to Ferox. As you surmised, they were apparently counting upon La'Morth's action as a prelude to their attack, hoping that in the carnage their involvement would not be noticed. I do not think they will attack openly yet. The time may yet come when they will make far bolder moves; but for now they are still being careful. Tentative. For this we can be grateful."
"And in the meantime--" Sheridan gestured for them all to leave the docking bay, and begin walking back towards the main part of the station-- "I want to hear all about this battle. What kind of firepower did it take to destroy those Shadow ships? You mentioned having assistance. Where did it come from?"
"Ah." Ivanova shot yet another glance over to where Marcus had been. He was, of course, still not there. Of course - this would be why he had vanished so quickly. He was avoiding having to explain about the Drazi pirates. How he knew about them, how he had known where to find them, and how exactly he had got them to help. She still didn't understand all that herself.
"We did have some help, yeah," offered Garibaldi, who had heard as much as she knew about the story on the way home. Marcus had been remarkably tight-lipped about it, given his now legendary willingness to talk about everything else. "Some Drazi ships that Marcus and Ivanova encountered when they were looking for me."
"Drazi? Really? I should probably place an official thanks with their government." Sheridan didn't sound as though he was going to leave it there. "Come to the conference room. We'll talk it all through. I want to hear all about Ferox, and what you encountered there, and everything that happened when you fought La'Morth. It might be important."
"Yes, I agree." Delenn sounded even more enthusiastic than he did, though with her usual degree of gravitas adding a greater degree of seriousness to her voice. "We must hear everything. Perhaps there is something you remember of La'Morth's behaviour that in future will help us to tell when someone has been recruited by the Shadows. Did you gauge anything of the level of Rodann involvement with the Enemy?" She smiled gently. "I know that it is late, but it is important that we get the full story whilst it is still fresh in your minds. Such snatches of information can make all of the difference, at the most unexpected of times."
"What about Marcus?" asked Ivanova, still feeling that if she was going to have to spend the rest of the night being grilled, then so too should he. Delenn showed no urgent desire to round him up for interrogation.
"Marcus has other things to do. His work is always ongoing. He is to meet with a group of Rangers out by the Motesh Peninsula tomorrow, so he will be gone from the station in a few hours. For now we must talk only with you."
"Fair enough." Garibaldi had an air about him of wanting to get this over with. "Conference room it is then. But I gotta say, I don't feel like I know a whole lot."
"We'd best hear it anyway." Sheridan still sounded enthusiastic. Raring to go. Sometimes Ivanova thought that he never got tired. She, on the other hand, most definitely did. She wanted a hot bath. A long, good soak. A soft, warm bed. A shower and her own, Earthforce issue bed would suffice, but at any rate she wanted to sleep. But first came duty. She knew that. She was just going to make damn sure that she sulked about it too.
In the event it was the early hours of the morning before she arrived back at her cabin. The station was dark and quiet, as was the way of it during the small hours; an attempt to help people acclimatise to the sunless, moonless days and nights on the station. She had seen nothing but darkness since leaving the station to go to Ferox though, and her body clock just felt confused. Opening the door, she stumbled into her quarters, ignored the computer's automatic welcome, and tugged off her jacket. She threw the heavy Rodann gun onto the couch, and stumbled blearily into the shower. It wasn't a long, hot soak, but it was better than nothing. It felt quite nice to emerge a while later wrapped in a thick, definitely not Earthforce issue bathrobe. Her mind was still too active for sleep. Too filled with the questions, answers and thoughts of the debriefing, as well as the many events of the last few days. Stretching sleepily, she sprawled on her couch, glad of her many cushions. It might be nice to fall asleep here, she thought dozily, rather than going to the extra effort of heading for her bedroom. Nice to sprawl here, in the comfortable arms of carefully chosen cushions, and enjoy the scent of chocolate as it wafted through the room... She blinked. Chocolate? That didn't make any sense. She had some scented oils around somewhere, and probably some incense sticks, but chocolate? Floral scents, yes. Anything else, no. She pushed herself to her feet and looked around. What was the source of... her thoughts trailed off. Standing on her desk was a large mug, and she didn't need to go closer; didn't need to take a delighted sip; to recognise the sweet, heavy taste of real chocolate. Real, fresh chocolate, made with real, fresh milk. How the hell-? There was something else there too, wrapped up in what looked like a floral print, paper napkin. A chocolate éclair. Hot chocolate and a chocolate éclair. Neither of them had been there when she had come in earlier. They could only have arrived when she was in the shower. But how could anybody have put them there? Only then did she remember her conversation with Marcus onboard the Tristar. She swore.
"Marcus, damn it!" She went straight to the door and strode out into the corridor, not caring that she was rather underdressed. There was nobody in sight. "Marcus!" No answer. Not that she had expected one. The aggravating sod would be on his way to the Motesh Peninsula before she managed to find him, too. Cursing, she went back into her quarters, and let the door slide shut. Confound the man, he was incorrigible. When he wasn't driving her insane, he was making these exasperating... kind... infuriating... thoughtful... confusing gestures. One of these days she was going to have to lay down some ground rules. Establish a few borders. Make some things clear. One of these days...
But not today. Not now. Not when there was a large mug of hot chocolate waiting, acquired from heaven knew where, and an equally impossible éclair wrapped in a napkin that no eating establishment onboard the station used. Such things were of far greater importance. Marcus could wait. Yelling at him about his avoidance of the debriefing could wait. Telling him off about the Drazi pirates could wait, at least until he got back from the Motesh Peninsula. Raking him over the coals about breaking into her quarters could wait too, and thanking him for the hot chocolate... that could wait indefinitely. Besides, yelling at him was easier. Much easier. Let him go play the wandering hero in some distant region of space, thinking that he had avoided the fireworks. She'd just make damn sure she was waiting for him when he docked, with a scowl fit to incinerate the whole station. Then he'd learn a few Ivanova Ground Rules.
Although, she mused ruefully - and, perhaps, a little gratefully - he'd probably enjoy that. He really was the most infuriating sod. And part of her would always love him for that.