SIC ITUR AD ASTRA
He thought at first that it was the scene of a massacre or dreadful accident. Something terrible. Body parts lay scattered on the ground, and the shards of glass that were piled amongst them, and that were strewn everywhere, suggested a canopy; some protective enclosure for an early colony or expeditionary force; blown to pieces or collapsed under its own weight. There was enough metal, some blackened by fire, to back up that theory, and the harsh atmosphere of Xamen VII had eroded much of what was left. Desiccated flesh stripped in patches to the bone by the fine, harsh sand carried by the wind; metal prematurely aged; clothing and insignia worn away. He walked through it all, the howling wind a faint sound through his thick helmet, his own breathing so loud through the heavy apparatus that the ferocious weather was diminished even more. On he went, past a disjointed arm; an upturned skull; another skeleton almost complete, but blackened by fire. Great Azar, what could have happened here? It was a nightmare vision, like something from one of the wars of the Histories; the stories of age-old ways long outgrown. He stooped to look at the body, as though he might be able to guess what had happened by examining it more closely, but to his untrained eyes its secrets remained hidden. He could see only that the body was human, or humanoid.
Further he walked, past more bodies, more wreckage. Only after some minutes did the pieces begin to make sense to him. He recognised things; chunks of engine, sections of wing. It was then that he realised he was looking at parts of a spaceship. So it was a shuttle crash then; the bodies were crew - or more likely passengers, since none of the scraps of clothing seemed to match. He touched his hand to his heart in the age old sign of sympathy for the dead, then continued on his way. Still more wreckage. More bodies. Perhaps they could be catalogued, if he could find some way of identifying the craft. So far few of the pieces seemed big enough, but he wasn't about to give up. The geological survey could wait.
The ground became harder after a while. Rocks. A slope. He slipped on loose sand and found that it had partly covered what seemed to be a deep space pod; the kind of unit used to keep travellers in suspended animation for long flights. They were obsolete for the most part, in these days of hyperspace travel, but there were some races who still used them; whose technological development wasn't as advanced as the others. He had no idea how many people there were still putting themselves in deep sleep for long distance flight; right now he didn't care. Such an anomaly might make it easier to identify the craft though, and to give names to some of the bodies.
He pressed on again, almost falling down a rocky slope. There was more wreckage here; great chunks of it, outlining a recognisable shape. He had found the main body of the craft. Hurrying now he went onwards, slipping on loose sand and coarse gravel. Gods, but it was an inhospitable place. It was enough to make him hope that there had been no survivors of the crash. Anything had to be better than trying to suck in oxygen through the fog of airborne sand and poisonous gases. Nobody could breathe here; none of the many races that populated the galaxy had ever tried to spend any time here. It had half a dozen different nicknames in half a dozen languages, and all were variants of 'hell'.
There were more of the pods around the wreckage of the ship. Some still had people in them, though the seals had broken open on impact. Those limbs that hung free had been stripped almost to the bone by the sand, but the parts that were still in the pods were hardly damaged. There was no bacterial life on Xamen VII, and the dry air was not especially conducive to decomposition. He saw partial faces, and confirmed his own suspicions that the bodies were likely human. Some of the pods were undamaged, and for a moment his pulse quickened, but he could detect no life signs within. One or two pods vibrated with the faint tingle of power units, but still there were no life signs registering. He went on past them, pushing into the collapsed hulk of the shuttle, and saw several more of the pods. One broken, the body untouched by the sand that raged outside, the others undamaged. He crouched beside the body, seeing a human female of early middle age. There was a plastic card on a chain around her neck, and he leant close to get a better look at it. Kara Mostov, it read, in basic script. Cared For By Hans Mostov, 2462. The 2462 looked like a date, which was something of interest. 2462? Had this shuttle really crashed so long ago then; and why had this Hans Mostov had the woman - his wife? sister? - put into suspended animation? He shrugged and went on, examining what remained of the interior of the space craft - piles of equipment, some computer parts that didn't look dated enough to have been in use in 2462 - and a name, stamped upon a dented bulkhead. Serenity. There was an ident code as well; and something else. What looked like a slogan, of the kind so beloved of businesses. He had to get close to read it, and turn up the lamp attached to his helmet, but he made out the words in the end - Gentility, compassion, understanding. Your loved ones kept safe for tomorrow. It seemed a strange slogan, but he put it down to the species difference. Humans could be a strange lot at times.
There was only one other thing of interest in the shuttle, and that was in the cabin. Still strapped into their seats, looking as though they might almost have died yesterday, were the crew. Three of them, in matching black and yellow. They were all clearly dead, but he checked them over anyway, wondering why they had been flying the ship instead of spending the voyage in suspension like their passengers. So many questions. And then he saw at least part of an answer. Stencilled across the front of the uniforms, as part of a rather grand insignia, was the name of the company for which these three had apparently once worked. Earth Colonies Cryogenics, it read, beneath a rather stylised snowflake. Your loved ones kept safe. Only then did he understand. The pods were not for carrying passengers in suspended animation; Hans Mostov had not sent his apparent relative, Kara, on a voyage; the undamaged pods had not malfunctioned in order to be showing no lifesigns. This was a ship of the dead - a ship of the dead long before the crash that had killed the crew. The pods were cryo units, and their occupants were awaiting resuscitation in some distant time of medical miracles. He shook his head, and his hand went again to his heart. This was not something that his people would ever do to their own dead. They were consigned to fire, not to ice. But humans were different, he reflected. They could, indeed, be a strange lot at times. And now here he was with a ship of their dead, once carefully preserved by grief-stricken loved ones, now spread all over a crash site in a condition that no medical miracle would ever be able to reverse. The few undamaged pods could be returned to Earth Colonies Cryogenics, he supposed. They could go back to their long storage, and await whatever might lie in the future. For the rest hope had long departed. Logging the last of the details on his wrist computer, he decided that he had had enough for today. The Serenity wasn't going anywhere. It was time to return to the world of the living.
It was a long job to sort through the wreckage, separating the broken pods from the undamaged ones, burying the irretrievable dead, identifying as many bodies as possible. Earth Colonies Cryogenics, who would rather pretend that the incident hadn't happened than admit any part of it to their paying clients, showed no interest in recovering those pods that still seemed to be working, and the geological survey team claimed them in the end, for transport back to their own homeworld. It was not an unusual move; theirs were an acquisitive race; but it felt wrong to those who had walked amid the wreckage, and seen the devastation. Treating the pods like property to be claimed alongside mining and territorial rights was distasteful when once one had seen the faces of those in the broken pods, and been forced to think of the places they had come from, and the people who still looked forward to the time of their return to life. Not that anybody ever listened to the geologists.
The Azar homeworld was a long way from human space. Surveyor Maroch, who had been the first to discover the wreckage and the first to walk amongst the dead, took personal responsibility for the six undamaged pods, but his conscience did not feel any better about it. If Earth Colonies Cryogenics would not pay for the six to go home, he felt that his own people should, but as usual the homeworld government was more interested in other things. The fates of six dead humans presumably had less appeal than the chances of excavating valuable ores and minerals from a planet previously thought to be of no use to anybody. Privately Maroch believed that the six were destined for medical experiments, which in part at least he could appreciate. They were dead, at least as far as he understood it, and his people knew little enough about humans. He wasn't sure why he felt so bad about the idea. The fact that these people had relatives who fully expected them to be safe in some dedicated holding area? The fact that he had spent so long trying to identify their mangled fellows, on a world so hellish that it could inspire feelings of strong fellowship towards practically anything? Whatever the reasons, he watched over the six pods far more closely than he watched over his valuable geological samples, and he stayed with them even after they had landed The spaceport, grey and dull as it always was, perfectly reflected his mood as he climbed down from the cabin, and watched the unloading begin. The robo-comps whisked away the cargo with their usual speed and finesse, zipping off to deliver their loads to the waiting hover trucks of the government's science department. Everybody would be excited when the geological samples arrived at the lab. Maroch's team would be the toast of the department. But he didn't follow the samples. Jumping onto the nearest empty cart, he went with the cryopods instead. He only really wanted to see them settled somewhere; nothing more. It just felt as if he owed them that.
Which was why, three days later, after much arguing with the doctors, much complaining by the doctors, and after being labelled the most annoying obstruction ever to have graced the department's corridors, he stood beside a med-table watching as the newest equipment, designed by one of the finest medical brains in the galaxy, completely failed to resuscitate a dead man. James Khan, said the plastic ident on the chain around his neck. Cared For By Stephen Khan, 2510. Whoever James Khan had been, the best resuscitation equipment available in known space was incapable of making him be that person again. He merely lay on the table, the lights around him flickering like the sparklers at the starlight festival, whilst all the readings on all the computers proclaimed him to be just as dead as ever. More so, perhaps, given the various changes that couldn't help but begin to occur. Maroch wished him on his way to wherever he was going - or perhaps to where he had already long ago gone - and watched as the coroner took him away. At least James Khan would get a service of sorts, eventually, and hopefully one that Stephen Khan would have appreciated; even though it seemed likely that by now the pair had already been reunited.
Daniel Malowe, Cared For By Kristine Meyer, 2575, was next up to the med-table. Maroch watched the thawing with detached interest, feeling slightly worse about somebody whose sponsor was very likely still alive. Khan had been put into cryogenesis nearly ninety years ago, but Malowe was practically fresh by comparison; not that that made him any less dead. Maroch couldn't help thinking that there was a fundamental flaw in a system that froze people who were already dead. Wouldn't it make more sense to freeze them before that point? Although admittedly that in itself would probably be fatal, which would rather undermine the whole process. At any rate, Malowe made no greater progress than had Khan, and his body too was removed. Somebody in another lab was probably already waiting to get the dissection underway. It wasn't as if any of them believed that their efforts to reawaken the dead would ever work.
Marcus Cole, Cared For By Commander Susan Ivanova, 2261, looked younger than both Khan and Malowe. Maroch wondered what had killed him. He had been gone far longer than the others - more than three hundred years, frozen in a little glass and metal box not much bigger than he was. Quite what somebody was supposed to do if they were one day brought back to life by some miracle, when they were so far out of their own time, Maroch couldn't imagine. Presumably Commander Susan Ivanova, whomsoever she had been, and of whatever she had been a commander, had meant well in her own way, just as had Stephen Khan and Kristine Meyer; but it was hard for an Azari to countenance it. Species difference, thought Maroch, yet again. Humans really were a strange lot.
Having watched the procedure twice already, he moved to help hook the latest patient - victim? - to the equipment, wondering for a third time why they were bothering. Perhaps they were obliged by law to see if something could be done, before handing the bodies over to the knife-wielding alien research centre. Maroch would rather just leave them in cold storage, but what did government scientists care about what he thought? He was just the cumbersome thorn in their collective side over all of this; the obstruction that they growled about but never bothered to get rid of; probably because he was rather bigger than they were. Rigging up the last of the sensors and detectors, he stood back to let Doctor Taran switch on the machines. They knew what to expect by now; not that they hadn't anyway. No brain function. No sign of restored metabolism, no matter what they and their machines did to the hapless cadaver. Marcus Cole, along with the hopes and wishes of Commander Susan Ivanova - whatever they might have been, in the long ago past - would soon be nothing more than a ident number in an Azari medic's research notes. A noble end, some might say, furthering scientific enlightenment. Others - Commander Susan Ivanova for one, presumably - would have different ideas. Maroch decided it would be better not to care. Folding his powerful arms across his chest, he settled back to watch the cream of the medical centre as they went about their work. A click of a switch and the brain activity monitor snapped online. Another click and readings spun past on a screen. Blood enzymes, electrical activity, body temperature. Maroch frowned. Electrical activity? Why was one of the monitors beeping? Why were there warning lights flashing on little screens all about him? He was pushed unceremoniously out of the way, and in moments the med-table was a buzzing hive of activity. Maroch tried to ask what was happening, but nobody was paying any attention to him anymore. He had become the obstruction that could easily be ignored.
"What is it?" he asked the backs now turned to him. "Is something wrong?" Except that there was nothing that could be wrong with a man who was already dead. How much more wrong could things get for him than that? "What is it?" he asked again, and this time one of them answered him; the short, stocky, younger one, who actually bothered to look sad with each failure of their equipment to overcome death.
"We're detecting something," he said quickly, as he bent to make some adjustments to some of the equipment. "I'm not sure what yet."
"Nothing I've seen before," muttered one of his colleagues.
"He's not dead?" Maroch wasn't sure that he understood. The man had been in cryogenic suspension for close to three hundred and fifty years. Of course he was dead. Samal, the stocky young one, shrugged his chunky shoulders.
"It's peculiar," was all that he would be drawn to say. Maroch could have told him that already; as far as he was concerned the whole idea of freezing people was peculiar, and so was his own race's interest in those frozen dead. He tried to get a closer look at the latest victim on the med-table, but the doctors were packed around it too closely.
"I'm sure those are life signs," piped up somebody. There was a general murmur of agreement.
"Not conventional ones though," qualified somebody else. "More like..."
"...Like somebody with their biological and biochemical functions seriously reduced. Almost to nothing." Clearly feeling that he should regain control of the situation, Taran drew himself up to his full height, and frowned down at the comatose man on the table. Clearly he felt that it was inconsiderate of the human to be presenting him with unusual problems. Typical of the race, really, as far as he was concerned. "But not dead."
"Probably an easy mistake to make though, especially such a long time ago." One of his colleagues, busy adjusting switches and dials that had never really had much to do before, nodded knowledgeably at each new reading. "Even our own scientists might have made the same diagnosis in those days. What do you think happened?"
"Some sort of energy drain. A weapon perhaps." Taran didn't much care; his only interest was in the here and now. "It should be possible to revive him. His body has long been shut down, but the freezing will probably have kept his organs viable. Theoretically he just needs to be reawoken."
"Even just taking him out of cryogenesis has been enough to make his life signs start registering on our instruments again." Samal excused himself in order to push past Maroch, and fetched a piece of equipment from the other side of the lab. "We could try this."
"What is that?" Maroch was feeling increasingly beyond his depth. Basic medicine he could cope with; he was trained in that in case it became necessary to treat a member of his crew on long haul geological expeditions; but this? Samal threw him a sidelong glance.
"Ever had a systems drain aboard your spaceship?"
"Once. Some kind of nebula that I passed through years ago left me dead in space. Why?"
"Dead in space. Exactly. The ship seemed dead, with no power in any of the systems - but you didn't have to junk it and buy a new one, did you." Samal was warming to his theme. "It just needed to be powered up again."
"I was found and towed to a space station, and got the ship recharged, yes." Maroch eyed the new piece of equipment. "You're telling me that's what that thing does?"
"A living being operates on certain levels just like machinery. It requires energy to make it go. We've used this before, with patients who were dangerously ill. Think of it as a recharge for the body, rather than for a ship. Obviously it's never been used for a human before, but the theory is the same. I'd imagine that it will just need rather less energy in this case. Humans don't tend to be as robust as most other intelligent life forms."
"Let's just get on with it, shall we?" Taran didn't appreciate having everything explained to a person who shouldn't even be present. He pulled the silver box closer, and began hooking it up to the man on the bed. "Of course there's no guarantee. Ordinarily I would suggest contacting Earth, and seeing if there are relatives who might wish to be consulted, but given the date on his details here, I think we're safe enough just going ahead with the procedure." He flicked a switch. "It'll take a while. We might as well leave him and move on to the next subject. Number four is it?"
"Number four, yes." One of his colleagues disappeared, off to collect the fourth of the pods. Maroch watched him go, and watched the latest pod occupant as she was wheeled in. Young again, just like Marcus Cole, but he didn't bother going over to read the name or see the date. He didn't want to know that kind of information anymore. It brought too much emotional involvement. Besides; the chances of any of the rest of the pods containing people in the same condition as this man before him were tiny. Less than tiny. There wouldn't be any more unexpected beeping from the machines. Leaving the doctors to go about their fruitless work, he turned his attentions to Marcus Cole. What did you say to a man who had been asleep for three hundred and thirty-six years? Would he even be able to function normally after so long in stasis? Clearly the doctors didn't much care. Maroch decided that he did. Somebody should be here, with the human. And with that in mind, he settled himself down to wait.
Marcus wanted to pull his clothing more tightly around him, but he couldn't seem to move. Was it possible he was only dreaming the cold? Only dreaming the discomfort, and that was why he could do nothing about it? He tried opening his eyes instead, but they didn't want to do anything either. Great. So much for having a perfectly trained body. He looked inside himself, searching for signs that would tell him whether or not this was a dream, but instead of answers all that his mind gave him was pictures. Battles. Vast, awe-inspiring battles played out against the backdrop of the stars, and him in the middle of it all, wondering. Was this what his life had been leading him towards? Ancient evils, ancient allies, modern tyrants. And who was who? Voices echoing. Prophecies and warnings, and shouting above the sounds of the fighting, and Susan was dying, and-- Susan. Susan was dying, and there was a machine that could save her, and hadn't he gone to find it? Hadn't he used it? Or had that all been a dream too? He should probably find out. Nothing wanted to work, and no part of him felt that it belonged to him, but if this was all a dream he had to find out where that dream ended. With Susan? With the battles in the stars? With Babylon 5, and Minbar, and Entil'zha, or even with the shattered ruin of Arisia? Fighting cold and exhaustion and what felt like the weight of several worlds, he forced his eyes to open. It took more than one attempt, but he got there, wondering all the while what he was going to see once the bright white glares had faded. The medlab on Babylon 5? The sleeping quarters of a White Star? His living quarters, back at the mining colony that had once been his home, before a Shadow attack he might just have dreamed had obliterated all that he had ever known? A voice was calling to him, or he thought that it was. Weird that everything seemed so vague, so confused. So much about not knowing, or being certain of anything. He didn't think that he knew the voice, but it felt real, so he concentrated on it, and let it guide him forward. He needed something pull him out of this cold, white place and back into reality. Whatever reality that turned out to be.
"Marcus Cole?" It sounded a gruff voice, but the unfamiliarity of it wasn't what confused him the most. Why 'Marcus Cole'? He had been just Marcus ever since the day he had arrived on Minbar - always supposing that he had ever been to Minbar. Always supposing that there was such a place for him to have gone to. Damn it, but everything was confusing. He closed his eyes, and tried to concentrate on something that felt real to him, but just now nothing did. Nothing felt like a memory that could really be trusted, except... A voice, arisen from within him. Precise, commanding tones. A voice with real authority, of a kind that could never be learnt. A kind that could only be given by the universe itself. A familiar voice, that told his eyes to open again, his vision to focus, and his mind to do as it was told. He smiled then, though only inside himself. Confused, barely conscious, and not knowing which way was up - but he could still take an order from his commander in chief. That's Minbari training for you, he thought ruefully, and this time the smile was real.
"You're awake." Somebody had seen the smile, and a hazy shape loomed closer in Marcus's vision. A big, bulky shape that made his muscles tense in readiness for action, even though he knew that he wasn't yet ready to fight. The smile didn't leave his face, but curved into something just the warm side of challenging.
"Yes." He put as much energy and life into the word as he could, and wished that he could be sure he could sit up. Instead he concentrated on making his eyes work properly. Focusing on the ceiling was one thing; focusing on different objects at different distances was something else. He saw the room then; white walls that didn't look like Franklin's medlab. A white ceiling, a row of windows looking over a laboratory like something from a nineteenth century horror novel. He frowned.
"Where am I?" He sat up as he said it, ignoring the sharp sound of surprise from someone who apparently wanted him to lie still. It was clear now that he wasn't aboard Babylon 5 - he thought he knew it well enough by now to be sure of that - and he was reasonably certain that that part of his memory hadn't been a dream... Babylon 5 felt real. Almost as real as Minbar and Entil'Zha.
"You're in a medical research facility." The gruff voice that had called his name when he had first woken up. Not an unfriendly voice, but also not one that was especially trying to be warm. A voice with questions in it.
"Sounds ominous." It was partly a joke; Marcus had a healthy dislike for hospitals at the best of times, and a 'medical research facility' sounded even worse. It also sounded even more like the kind of place that might want to do tests, and make him stay in bed. He turned, letting the focus of his eyes settle, and finally got a good look at the person speaking to him. Tall. Chunky. Mottled blue-green skin and a shape that was almost entirely humanoid. The only difference in shape between this dappled giant and Marcus's own race was in the head and the neck - the former flatter, with an impressively powerful jaw, and the latter thicker and faintly ribbed. Marcus's eyes widened.
"You're an Azari," he said, which was rather stating the obvious. Something that he didn't like to do as a rule, but when faced with such a surprise, sometimes it was unavoidable. The heavy head nodded.
"My name is Maroch. Captain of an exploratory geological vessel. You're on my homeworld."
"I am?" He was even more surprised now. The Azari were notoriously isolationist - a race almost as old as the Minbari, but not one to involve themselves in the affairs of others. As far as Marcus knew they hadn't offered any help in the war against the Shadows, and he was sure enough that he would have known if they had. Certainly they had never had any representatives aboard Babylon 5. Maybe that was changing now. With all that was happening in the galaxy of late, maybe even the Azari saw some sense in joining in. That didn't explain what he was doing on their homeworld though, when the last thing he remembered was saying his goodbyes to Susan. A goodbye that seemed foolish now, and he counted himself glad that she had not been in any state to hear it.
"You're surprised." The Azari - Captain Maroch - sounded more gentle now, which was something else that seemed ominous to Marcus. Marcus was, though, of an infinitely suspicious type, and well knew it. He tried to tell himself to relax a little, and just find out what was happening.
"Surprised, yes. That does about cover it. Very surprised. It's not often that you pass out on one side of the galaxy and wake up on the other. Not even after a really good party." He frowned up at the unfamiliar, but essentially good-natured, face. "What happened? How did I get here? I need to know about Susan."
"Susan Ivanova. Commander Susan Ivanova. I was trying to help her." He frowned heavily. It all seemed so horrible to have to explain it, especially to a stranger. How did you set about telling somebody that you had drained out your life energy in order to pass it on to a dying friend? And how doubly difficult to explain that to somebody who didn't know Ivanova. Nobody could understand anything if they didn't know her. Didn't know her rare smiles, her inspiring tenacity, her sharp and clever sense of humour. How it felt to watch the only thing you had left fading slowly away from you, and leaving you behind.
"Commander Ivanova?" There seemed to be recognition in the tone, and Marcus looked up in surprise.
"You know her?" Had she survived then? Had his attempts worked? Maroch shook his head.
"Not exactly. I just know the name. Marcus Cole..."
"Just Marcus. Always just Marcus." Cole marked him as a member of a family that no longer existed. It was better, sometimes, not to be reminded of it.
"Marcus then." The chunky head nodded once to acknowledge the request. "You're cold. Confused perhaps? You've been in stasis. I know the name of Commander Ivanova because it was mentioned on your identification." His cool green eyes travelled to something on Marcus's chest, and the human glanced down. It took a gratifyingly short time for his eyes to focus upon the object, and he could see what it was almost immediately. An ident tag, hanging around his neck, in a fashion that he felt most insulting. How dare it dangle there, identifying him like some lot put up for auction. He took it off, and read the words several times over Marcus Cole, Cared For By Commander Susan Ivanova, 2261. So Susan had survived. Whatever it was that that alien machine had done, it had worked and she had survived. He found that he was smiling again.
"Why was I put into stasis?" he asked, fingering the tag with a growing sense of frustration. If Susan was alive, his place was with her. She would insist that she didn't want him there, and that he got in the way and was a pain in the backside - all of which he would acknowledge most cheerfully - but his place was with her all the same. They had been together, in a sense, since Sheridan had first put them that way, when they had set off in the prototype White Star to search for the First Ones. He had teased her, she had been appropriately infuriated. One way or another he had been infuriating her ever since. Maroch shook his stout head.
"I don't know. Your life signs were... strange. I'm not a medical man, but as I understand it your life energy had been drained away by something. I'd imagine you were frozen until some way could be found of reviving you." He smiled, in a way that probably looked gentle to another Azari, but to a human, with that hugely powerful jaw, looked grim to say the least. Marcus frowned. He had never thought of being revived. Never imagined that anybody would consider it a possibility. Ever since his family had died he had been looking for greater and greater risks, although he had never admitted to himself that it might be because he was trying to join them. Either way, when he had been prepared to give up his life for Susan it had been just another of those risks; just another dangerous act that was necessary for someone else's sake. He had never considered the possibility of his own survival. Rangers didn't often give much thought to surviving; not unless success was dependent upon it. He felt somewhat peculiar. Adrift. Uncertain of exactly where he stood.
"So... you had the means, I take it." He rubbed a hand across his beard, trying to judge whether or not it had grown. Did beards grow in stasis? Presumably not. "How did you come to be involved, if you don't mind me asking? I've never known the Azari to help out much. Not with other races."
"We like to keep to ourselves." Maroch smiled thinly. "It's a tradition, if not one that we all like that much. But you're assuming that we've ended our exile. I'm afraid we haven't. It seems that the company that was asked to keep you frozen was bought out by another, and the cryopods were to be moved to another location. The shuttle carrying you, amongst others, crashed on a planet that I was surveying. That's how you come to be amongst us. We weren't asked for our assistance. If we had been I doubt that we'd have given it." He shook his head slowly. "But this is too much. Doctor Taran will be furious if he finds I've been speaking to you this much. I can't imagine where he's got to."
"Company? I don't... I was left in the care of some cryo firm?" That suggested time. The suspicion that he might be awaiting revival for years. Why would someone - Ivanova apparently - set up something like that? He wasn't sure that he liked the idea of his lifeless self lying immobile in a box, like some thing in a museum or a zoo. And for how long? Long enough, apparently, for the firm to have been bought out. Apparently Maroch saw the question on his face, for he reached out with one mottled, blue-green hand, and clapped Marcus lightly on the shoulder.
"You should rest," he suggested. "There's plenty of time for questions and explanations later."
"Rest? Apparently I've just been resting." Marcus tossed aside the ident card and put his hand to his lapel. The badge was still there, the bright whiteness of the room reflecting strangely in the deep gleam of the Isil'Zha. "How long was I in stasis? Weeks? Months?" His eyes widened. "Years? I have to know."
"You might wish that you didn't." Maroch was watching him thoughtfully, wondering all the while where Taran and the other doctors had got to. He didn't remember seeing them leave. It was their job to talk to this man, to answer his questions, and to make sure that he was capable of handling the answers. Maroch was a geologist - what did he know about medicine and psychology? He was supposed to find rare and valuable minerals, preferably on planets that nobody else yet owned. Nowhere in his training had there been seminars on aftercare for long term cryo subjects. This human though; he had sharp eyes and a determined look upon his face, and the promise of one who would not give up. Even now, as Maroch pondered his options, Marcus was standing up, looking around, frowning at pieces of equipment. He was clearly no fool. Sooner or later he was going to see that this was not technology that had been in existence in his own time. If he was well enough travelled he would know that even the Minbari hadn't had such things then. Already he was frowning more deeply, and there was something in the way that one hand played gently with the badge on his lapel that made Maroch uncomfortable. Here was the look of a man who was lost, for whom that strange green device was the only real thing left in the universe. With a grumble of annoyance, Maroch shrugged his powerful shoulders.
"I suppose you have to know sometime."
"That's hardly the sort of comment likely to make me feel better." Marcus's hand fell away from the badge, and went instead to his belt. He was looking for something there too, just as he had looked for the badge, and once again Maroch saw relief when he found it. This time it appeared to be a small, grey cylinder. He wondered what it was.
"We have our own calendar here of course," he said eventually, eyes still lingering upon the grey cylinder. "Here, we are in year of Azar 5992. But by the common human calendar, it is now 2597." He stopped then, knowing that he had already said too much, and watched with a detached sense of interest as the news began to have its effect. He had been expecting shock, probably disbelief. Maybe anger. He was even considering the possibility of the human fainting, and wondered if he shouldn't perhaps manoeuvre into a better position in which to catch him. What he hadn't been expecting was a frown, and a cautious, but mostly unemotional, stare into the middle distance. He frowned in concern.
"Marcus?" There was no reply, and he wondered if the human could hear him. Was his brain still dulled from stasis? "Marcus?"
"What?" The bright eyes looked up at him, sharp and direct. Unemotional and strangely blank beneath a glimmer of something that might have been humour. Maroch's frown deepened.
"Did you hear me? I was trying to tell you how long you've been asleep."
"I know." The eyes drifted out of focus, but this time, Maroch suspected, not because they were still recovering. "I heard you. Three hundred and thirty-six years - give or take a month or two. I confess it's a little longer than I'd imagined."
"That's all?" Maroch couldn't help thinking that if it was him being asked to accept such a piece of news he would have been shouting at something by now. Something or someone. Ranting, raving. Doing something. Not just staring, or making peculiar little jokes. He remained silent for a moment, beginning to feel very bad about having broken the news. He really should have waited for Taran. Marcus clearly hadn't been in any condition for such a revelation.
"I'm sorry." Feeling rather as though he had done something dreadful, Maroch looked nervously left and right. Taran couldn't be far away, surely? "I... I think it's time that you were checked over by one of our doctors. Would that be acceptable? We should be sure that you're in full health after your experiences. I..." He gestured to the bed. "Sit down. Lie down. You've got a lot to think about, I know. I'll be back as soon as I can with somebody from the medical staff. Yes?" In answer he received a slight bow that seemed almost Minbari in style, but the distant eyes didn't change. There was still no flicker of expression on the pale face, and no sign of forthcoming speech. Marcus was like a man lost inside himself. Without another word, Maroch hurried away.
He found Samal in the next room, busy about some paperwork that presumably concerned the six former cryo patients. He glanced up at Maroch, and smiled a warm enough welcome.
"How goes the vigil?" he asked. Maroch shook his head.
"Not well. He's awake, and speaking, but I'm not sure that he's functioning properly as yet. He seems distant. I think perhaps his mind is unbalanced."
"It's possible. It's been too many generations since our people experimented with long term stasis - and of course cryogenics are a different matter anyway - so I can't speak with any authority. If he's been frozen, though, it stands to reason that his brain and his thought processes will have been frozen too. Given time, or perhaps a suitable program of mental exercise..." He shrugged. "I'll speak with him. It could be interesting."
"He's a being, not a laboratory experiment." Maroch's tone was one of warning. Samal smiled.
"We're all laboratory experiments in a sense, but I see your point. I'm not Taran, Captain Maroch. Your new friend, if I may call him that, is not one of the lifeless bodies sent down for dissection. Let me speak to him. I have had some specialist training in brain disorders."
"Good." With some relief Maroch led the way back into the main hospital room. Perhaps he should admit to how much he had told Marcus? Perhaps he should begin to keep a low profile from here on in? He really didn't know. As it turned out, it didn't matter. Crazy though it seemed, and even though he could not explain it, the hospital room was empty. Marcus Cole had gone.
Marcus needed to walk. It was something that he had always liked to do when there was thinking to be done, at least since his days on Minbar. Walking for miles in suitable solitude wasn't often possible on cramped mining colonies, any more than it had proved to be aboard Babylon 5. There he had often had to make do with meditation, an agreeable enough alternative, but not one that was likely to do him any good in the medical centre. Besides, he wanted to be alone, he wanted to be outside, and he definitely wanted to be out of hospital. He hated hospitals. The last time he had stayed in one, a year ago - no, not a year ago, he corrected himself without emotion, rather longer than that - had been when he had received the beating of his life from Alyt Neroon, in a fight to defend the honour of the new Anla'shok-Na. Delenn had told him that he was a fool for trying it, and he had nodded ruefully. Denn-Shar, as he had commented to her, was meant to mean 'to the death', not 'to the hospital'. If he had known that Neroon would have spared his life he would never have invoked the old battle credo in the first place. Delenn had smiled at that. She so often smiled at the things that he said, even though he had always believed that the Minbari didn't generally appreciate alien humour. Now Delenn, and her beautiful, gentle smile, were far beyond his reach. For the first time his situation truly stung.
The medical centre was a secure institution, predictably enough; but that was hardly a problem for Marcus. There were several guards at what he took to be the main door, but they were easily dealt with. Delighted to find the contents of his pockets intact, he used his favourite bouncing ball trick to distract the guards, then knocked them senseless with smooth efficiency, courtesy of his beloved Denn-Bok. The fighting pike didn't seem to mind its three hundred and thirty-six years masquerading as an ice cube, but then it had been made well, and by true masters of the art. He slipped it back into his belt, collected the ball - quite why that one always worked on guards he didn't know; he was merely glad that it did - then gave the door itself a brief perusal. It was sophisticated of course, and of a different type to any he had seen before, but a Ranger knew many ways of opening doors. Sure enough this one slid open after only the shortest of deliberations, and Marcus smiled tightly. In his current mood, whatever might show on the surface, he would have been prepared to break the door down with his fists if that had been his only option. He needed to get out of here. Crossing a small courtyard, then hurrying down two covered walkways, he found himself in a green, gardened area. It was pleasant to the eye, but he didn't want to stay here. He wanted to be off the grounds. Hurrying now, he crossed the garden, going past flowers he had never seen the like of before, and trees that grew in chunky, powerful shapes. It was a chunky and powerful planet, apparently; he knew so little about it. Nobody really knew much about the Azari, at least in the twenty-third century. Centuries more advanced than humanity, and only slightly lagging behind the Minbari, they had always kept to themselves, and although they had never actively discouraged visitors to their planet, few enough had bothered to make the trip. Marcus would usually have been much more interested in the sights that he passed, for he liked flowers and plants as a rule; but his mind was on other things. Many other things. Things that were becoming more painful with every second. He needed out of here. Needed to be away from this cultivated place; this confined place; this airy extension of the medical centre. He needed to be somewhere where there would be no other people, and where he could walk until he dropped, if that was what he wanted. He broke into a run.
There were guards in the distance, but none of them seemed to see him. He wouldn't have let them stop him anyway. He had no gun, but he didn't fear those who did. There were few enough situations that his speed and agility - to say nothing of his five foot long Denn-Bok - couldn't get him out of. Trusting in that, he didn't slow his pace, and came at last to a fence. He didn't imagine that it would be electrified or otherwise protected - such things were rare outside of military installations - but he tested it first with the end of his pike. Nothing struck him as suspicious. Jumping up, he swung himself over the sturdy barrier, and dropped down on the other side. Only then did his emotionless veneer begin to fail him. Three hundred years. It was longer than any save the Vorlons were known to live, and the Vorlons were long gone. Everybody would be dead. Sheridan, Delenn, Franklin, Garibaldi. And, of course, Susan. Not only would they be dead, but everybody who had known them, ever met them, would also be dead. Probably everybody who had met the people who had met them. It was inconceivable. Insane. He couldn't be so far in the future, so far from everything he knew. He couldn't be. How was he supposed to live? To function? He had devoted his entire life, his entire being, to one cause. One reason. He lived for the One. But the One - all three of them - was gone. There would be a new Anlashok-Na, presumably, but it wouldn't be Delenn. It wouldn't be Sheridan. Their fight, the fight against the tyranny of Earth, and the growth of the darkness spread by the departed Shadows - that would all be over now. If it wasn't it would have meant that they had lost, in which case the darkness would have spread everywhere by now. The isolationism of the Azari wouldn't have protected them or their planet, but there was no sign of tyranny and terror here. The ground was not battle-scarred, the security in the centre had not been that tight. To him that meant that the battle was over. Sheridan and his forces had won. In consequence, everything that Marcus had thought his life was about was now gone. The darkness, the war, the One. And the one. Not the Entil'Zha. Not Sinclair or Sheridan or Delenn; but Susan. He had loved her, he had died for her - or had intended to. And now she was gone. Dead for several centuries. He hadn't been there for her, he hadn't enjoyed all those moments with her. Instead he was here and now, and not an ounce of it made any kind of sense that he cared about. He quickened his pace, not caring where he was walking; not paying any attention to the scenery of the Azar homeworld. He didn't hear the alarms that rang out from the medical facility behind him, and he wouldn't have cared if he had.
The Azar homeworld was as large and as powerful as the sentient race to which it had given birth. Vast mountains higher than any on Earth towered above huge trees, deep chasms, massive rivers. Volcanoes big enough to send much of Earth into another ice age just with a minor eruption still bubbled and spat with the force of the planet's ancient core. It was a place of astounding natural features, at least to somebody who was not a native, but Marcus was not in the mood for sightseeing. He could think of nothing but his current situation. Alone. It was like losing the colony all over again. Like losing his parents, and later his home and his brother and his friends. His Ranger colleagues, and later the people of Babylon 5, had been replacements for everything he had lost. They had stopped him from feeling the loneliness and the pain; given him companionship and conversation; told him jokes and stories and listened to his often sarcastic meanderings; leant on him, relied on him, and let him do the same in return. From the lowliest Lurker with nobody to care for them save him, to the commander of the great fleet, returned from death at Z'ha'Dum and ready to stand tall against legends - they had all been there for him, just as he had been there for them. And now every one of the them had gone. He wondered, briefly, if Susan really had hated him after all, as she had so often claimed to do during their many arguments. Was that why she had done this to him; condemned him to this life away from everything that mattered? But she had only been trying to help, he conceded in the end; had only wanted to do what she could for him, just as he had tried to do what he could for her. For the first time he stopped to wonder if perhaps saving her life wasn't what she would have wanted. If perhaps she would rather he hadn't given up his own life for her. Not that there was anything to be gained in wondering about it now, when it stood as an feat already long accomplished. He had saved her because he couldn't face the thought of living without her, and because, as always, he had considered another life to be more important than his own. He hadn't stopped to think that perhaps she would rather not have to live without him. Hadn't dared to wonder at it, probably. Maybe his act had condemned her to the same sort of loneliness that he was facing now. But no, he thought to himself, kicking a beautifully patterned stone with all the force that his blazing mind could gather. Of course she hadn't been in the same position. She had still had Sheridan, and Garibaldi, and all the others who looked up to her and cared for her. What he had done might have been selfish, but it hadn't been as bad as this. He hadn't abandoned her to this kind of emptiness; this kind of wretched nothingness. Part of him wanted to resent her for her attempt to save his life, but he knew that the anger he felt simmering within him wasn't directed at her. Couldn't ever be directed at her. He was angry merely at the universe, for all that it had thrown his way. He hated himself for being so self-pitying, but he didn't see how else he could feel. How could he feel any joy now? His Minbari training ran through his mind, unbidden as always, which of course was the point. They had taught him delight on Minbar; taught him how to see beauty in everything. How to see wonder all around him. Savour the little things, and enjoy them whilst they last... He didn't feel like savouring anything just now, save for his own anger and misery, but Minbari training was the kind that would not be denied. Even as he was frowning fiercely out at the world, hating everything, wanting to hit something until it or his fists were smashed to pieces, his subconscious was obeying the words of his teachers, back on the planet that had become his second home. He felt his mind begin to calm and empty; felt his tensions take a back seat to his awareness. A very human desire to cling to his misery fought for control for a few moments, but in the end it too stepped into line. Once a student of the Minbari, always a student of the Minbari. He let his eyes reopen.
He was standing in a wide open space without a sign of civilisation anywhere. Clearly the medical research centre had been built far from any towns. The horizon before him was a jagged conglomeration of mountains, dressed in brown and purple, and crowned with shocking white. Above them the sky was pale blue, creamy where the clouds splashed across it, lit in warm stripes by a sun that glowed with commendable enthusiasm. He saw rocky ground, carpeted with grasses short and long, and patches of flowers as high as his waist, that glowed a brilliant scarlet in the sunlight. A warm wind chased dust and leaves, and a bird rather like a chaffinch, but at least three times the size, splashed in a puddle near his feet. Its merrily flapping wings sent spray into the air, and he saw, for the briefest of seconds, an array of perfect tiny rainbows refracted through each droplet. Delight, the voices of his old teachers told him. See the beauty. Such things had seemed so irrelevant to him when he had begun his training, but he understood it all now. No man was any use when he was sunk in the mires of self pity. It was important never to sink too far.
For perhaps twenty minutes he stood there, staring at the mountains, watching the birds, admiring the flowers. He felt the sun on his skin, let the wind blow the scent of the flowers towards him, listened to the grasses rustle and the birds sing their alien songs. He couldn't not think of Susan, but he didn't let himself think of blame again. Didn't let himself wonder if she had hated him, or if this weird reawakening was some kind of cosmic punishment. It wouldn't be easy to stop such dark thoughts from returning, but as far as he could see he had plenty of time to master it. The rest of his life. Putting one hand up to touch the Isil'Zha, his anchor, he started walking again. This time his stride was not angry and forceful, but easy and relaxed. Beneath the calm eyes that stared dutifully at all the beautiful things, though, the tempests still swirled. Even the Minbari themselves were not trained well enough to prevent that.
It was when the alarms went off that Maroch began to worry. Alarms? It all seemed a bit extravagant to him. There was no need to warn security about the wanderings of a patient who was supposed to be receiving help and care. He said as much to Samal, but the doctor merely shrugged.
"This place is in the middle of nowhere, Captain. It's for his own protection really. If he manages to get outside the compound there's no telling what could happen to him. You know that. The wilderness is no place for civilised men."
"So they tell us." Maroch went to one of the windows staring out of the building. They were in the main corridor now, awaiting Taran's orders, anxious to see if anybody had seen Marcus Cole. The unconscious guards at the front door had been discovered almost immediately, and Taran, Maroch was sure, would be furious. The geologist only wished he could be sure that Taran didn't see Marcus as nothing but a laboratory experiment. Nobody had ever known of a sentient creature being frozen for so long and coming out of it alive, and presumably the rewards of such a study would be tremendous. Maroch didn't believe that there was anything to study. Not really. He remembered his conviction that Marcus must be sick or suffering ill effects of the freezing, because of his lack of response to the news of how long he had been in stasis. Now he wasn't so sure. Just because the Azari were a race of powerful emotions, given to expressing their feelings instantaneously and with force, didn't mean that the rest of the galaxy was the same. He knew that the Minbari tended to keep their emotions to themselves, and the Centauri were not given to great displays of their feelings whilst in public. For all he knew humans were like that. He felt stupid for having raced off to find Samal, for having left Marcus alone, for having brought Samal back to discover him gone. Now alarms bells were ringing, and armed guards were running this way and that in the search for a man who would almost certainly do no one any harm. They were likely to hurt him if they took him into custody - and how cruelly ironic would it be if they were to kill him? He tried to tell the guards that their state of alert was unnecessary; tried to find someone to turn off the alarms. Nobody wanted to listen to him. In the end he decided to search for Marcus himself.
He left Samal behind in the building, and headed off across the grounds, wondering where the human would go. Where would he go, in the same position? Walking, most likely; or running. Going far, far away just so that he had the time for thinking; so that he could walk off some of the frustration, or the anger, or whatever it was that he was feeling. It seemed to make sense.
Going out of the door that Marcus had broken, he headed more or less in a straight line, with variations only for obstacles, until he reached the outer fence. He had no idea if this was the route that Marcus had taken, but it seemed as good an option as any; and besides, he had to try something. He had found the human, he had brought him to this world, this centre. He had been there at his revival, and he was responsible for the calling in of the guard. As far as he could see it there was no way in which he was not accountable. No reason why he should not do all that he could to help. Scaling the fence with a degree of some consideration clumsiness, he all but fell down on the other side. Not for him the grace of a Ranger.
When Marcus had climbed the fence he had been half blind with grief and rage, and hadn't seen the spectacular scenery. To Maroch, who had grown up on the planet, it wasn't all that spectacular anyway. He walked through it all without giving it a thought. The birds flew away in shock at his passage, the scattered droplets from the puddles threw out their rainbows to blind eyes. The scent of the scarlet flowers was wasted, and the best efforts of the wind to conjure its displays of leaves and petals found no audience in him. Maroch went through it all at the same unchanging pace, guided only by the vague idea that Marcus would not have bothered to deviate much from a straight line. He would just have walked. It was not much of a theory, reasoned Maroch, but it was as good as any other available to him. Better than staying back at the research centre, anyway, and letting armed guards do this instead.
He found the human standing on the edge of a cliff, and started toward him with a shout of alarm. Marcus didn't turn, but he did speak.
"Don't do it, Marcus. I know you must be feeling bad just now, but--"
"I'm not going to jump, Captain." Marcus turned around, and Maroch saw warm humour in his eyes. "I was just admiring the view. You have an impressive planet."
"Do I?" The big native came forward, moving cautiously as though expecting that he was going to have to drag Marcus back from the edge at any moment. "You came all the way out here to think about that?"
"Sometimes it's important to get away. And I needed the space to think." Marcus smiled slightly, a smile that didn't quite reach his eyes. "Relax, Captain. I'm a Ranger, I'm not allowed to commit suicide. At least, not twice in one lifetime."
"I beg your pardon?" Beginning to return to his original diagnosis, that of brain damage from excessive freezing, Maroch edged forward again. He didn't much like the idea of being so close to the edge of a cliff, especially when he had no idea how high the thing was.
"Never mind." Marcus turned away again, looking intently at whatever lay at the foot of the cliff. Maroch was still summoning up the nerve to see what that was. He didn't even want to consider the irony of being a pilot who was scared of heights. Or heights such as these, anyway.
"I was worried about you," he explained, wishing that the human could find some less daunting scenery to admire. "You disappeared. Really you know, you shouldn't have left the hospital. You should go back." He frowned as Marcus put his hand up to his head, and seemed to be feeling it. "Are you alright?"
"I think so. I'm just checking to see if I have Property Of The Azari stamped on my forehead."
"I didn't mean it like that. I just meant that they can help you there. Nobody really knows what sort of thing to expect from your condition. I don't know exactly how unprecedented it is, but certainly the scientists on this world have never encountered the situation before."
"I'm fine. If I can walk and talk, and I don't feel ill, then I don't need a doctor. They can't help me with anything that matters, Captain. So why bother? Can they return me to my own time? To the company of my friends?"
"No." Maroch offered him the most compassionate smile of which his powerful jaws were capable, though it still looked pretty grim to Marcus. "Then perhaps you'd come with me instead. You need somewhere to stay until you decide what to do with yourself, and there's a library near to where I live. I'd imagine you want to do some reading. See what you can find out about the time you've missed, perhaps? Or maybe even what happened to some of your friends? We don't deal much with other races, but we do know something of their histories. My people love such things. What do you say?"
"Perhaps. It's a kind offer, and thank you." Marcus thought about the possibility of searching through some barren building, slotting data crystals into control panels - or whatever the local, and modern, equivalent - in order to read about the time from which he had come, and the events through which he had lived. It seemed horribly impersonal, and no matter how much the idea stirred an unexpected craving for knowledge within him, he wasn't sure that that was what he wanted. Perhaps not yet, anyway. His head ached just now, in sympathy with his heart, and no matter how much he practised the old Minbari art of delight, it couldn't keep all of the misery away. Right now he was happier gazing at scenery, and looking for peace inside himself. The Minbari had always been wise enough to know of the benefits of that.
"Does looking at nature really help that much?" At last summoning up the nerve to stand alongside his companion, Maroch looked about at the horizon, with its spread of vast mountains, then managed to make himself look down. Beside him Marcus smiled sadly.
"I like to look at beautiful things," he said softly, neglecting to add that looking at what was beautiful was far better than confronting feelings that were anything but. He cast that thought aside, managing to let his Minbari training take over once again. Deep breaths, calm mind, just relax. Beneath him there was a small lake, bordered by white and purple flowers, and a carpet of green deep and thick enough to take the breath away. Three children played by the water's edge, splashing each other, and fighting over what looked like a toy boat. Such a simple scene. So devoid of unnecessary complication. He let himself smile, a little emptily, but less so than his earlier smile at Maroch. Child's play was something that could make any troubled spirit that little bit calmer. Apparently it had no such effect upon Maroch.
"Marcus..." He reached out, without taking his eyes off the three children. "Just back away slowly. Quietly. With a bit of luck they haven't seen us yet."
"Oh, they've seen us. They've seen me, anyway. I waved to them just before you arrived." Marcus glanced across at him, surprised. "They're just children, Captain. Nothing to be afraid of."
"You don't understand." Maroch shook his head. "It's this place, Marcus. This wilderness. I should have made you come back to the centre straight away."
"I'd have liked to see you try." Marcus's voice had taken on a hard edge. "What are you talking about?"
"Secrets, Marcus." Maroch went back to the edge of the cliff, staring down at the three children. One by one, as though feeling his renewed gaze, they stopped what they were doing and stared up. "The great secret of the Azari, and why we've never encouraged visitors from other worlds. I have a nasty suspicion you're about to see it all first hand."
"Like I said. Secrets. Several thousand years ago, my people were experimenting with a new source of energy. There was an accident, and this entire hemisphere was drenched with poisonous residue. It was thought that the survivors were unaffected, since none of them showed any symptoms - until their children were born. Children with terrible deformities. There was little sympathy for such things in those days. To be honest there's little enough now. They were locked away at first, but more were born. In the end it was declared illegal for anybody from this hemisphere to have children. The place was mostly abandoned. But the deformed children grew, and as they grew bigger they grew more angry. At the way that they were treated, at the way in which they had been locked away. They rose up against their doctors, their gaolers, and they broke out. They took control of their own lives, and they made this place their home. A wilderness, abandoned by the rest of the Azari race. Over the years we've reclaimed bits of it, that seemed to have thrown off the poisons from the accident. Built towns, research centres, that sort of thing. But the others still live out here, and those are three of their children. Marcus, we're in terrible danger here. I have nothing but regret for what was done to those people, and I consider it one of the most shameful pieces of our history, but what's done is done. They're called the Drigol - a corruption of a word from the dominant dialect, meaning 'Raiders'. They kill, they steal. They're a violent people, with no time for the niceties of civilisation. We have to leave."
"In my experience, people who have been abandoned by their fellow beings are rarely as bad as popular belief might suggest." Marcus raised his hand in a wave to the three children, who stared back at him without returning the gesture. They were too far away for it to be possible to make out their expressions, but they looked suspicious somehow. Perhaps they were as wary of their fellow Azari, as their fellow Azari were of them. "Besides." He put one hand to the place where his Denn-Bok resided. "I think it's a little late to worry about getting away. We're about to have guests."
"What?" Maroch spun around, just in time to see some six or seven beings come into view from somewhere off to the sides of the cliff edge. They were wearing hooded capes and carrying sticks at least seven feet long, and they spread out in a line intended to quietly and firmly cut off retreat. He drew in a deep, unhappy breath. "Damn."
"Calm down. There's no reason to suppose they're dangerous." The talk of raiders was hardly encouraging, but Marcus had learned never to trust a man over long held prejudices. Maroch looked at him rather the way Marcus himself had used to look at visitors to the mining colony who had suggested that Quantium 40 probably wasn't all that difficult to handle.
"We're armed," the geologist said loudly, speaking clearly to the hooded men, as though to foreigners. "And there are people out looking for us. Armed guards, from the research centre near here. You know the one?"
"Armed guards?" Marcus was aghast. "You sent armed guards out after me?"
"I can't believe you sent out armed guards. What was I going to do? Single-handedly blow up the planet with my belt and a shoelace?" He looked down at his boots, fully aware that he didn't actually have any shoelaces. "I'll admit I've been feeling bad - and I'm not ruling out suicidal - but I don't intend taking your entire population with me. Armed guards?!"
"This really isn't the time." Maroch let his hand fall to the gun that he kept in his belt, making sure that the new arrivals would be able to see it. "We're leaving. Now."
"Oh put that thing away." Marcus had no idea what these people were like, or how much of what Maroch had said about them was true, but there was a side of him that had always gravitated naturally towards those like them. The shambling figures in their tattered clothing brought to mind the sorry Lurkers aboard Babylon 5; the weak, the poor, the dispossessed, forgotten it seemed by all save himself. From his first days on Babylon 5 he had walked amongst them as a friend, seeing their needs when others had ceased to care, being their voice when they couldn't make themselves heard. It was a part of who he was, and had been even before his life had taken its new direction courtesy of the Anla'shok. He was drawn towards these hooded people now without needing to know any more about them. Natural sympathies did not need a logical footing. Maroch glared at him.
"I said, put it away." Marcus knocked the mottled hand away from the gun butt, then took a step forward with his hands held out from his sides. "Nobody here needs a weapon. We're not here to fight."
"We didn't come here to, no." The centre most figure also took a step forward. There was the suggestion in his voice and his stance that said that, whether he had come for a fight or not, he was perfectly prepared to have one. "You'll have to forgive our curiosity. We could see a stranger. An alien. We just wanted to see what was going on." He drew himself up. "Would it be too much to assume that our planet has decided to greet the rest of the galaxy at last? Because if so it is our intention that the Azari people be represented by both their indigenous races, if there is to be any exchange of cultural attachés."
"I beg your pardon?" Maroch sounded flummoxed, but Marcus smiled broadly. There was nothing quite like watching an underdog take the initiative so smoothly. It seemed almost a shame to crush the poor fellow's hopes.
"I'm afraid you're reading too much into my presence here," he said in the end. "I'm no cultural attaché. Actually I'm no cultural anything. I'm just lost."
"Lost?" The Drigol spokesman didn't seem to understand. Marcus smiled uncomfortably.
"To put it mildly. Listen, if my friend here is right, and there really are armed guards roaming about the place, I'd like to suggest going somewhere a little less exposed. I'm no more anxious to meet them than you probably are."
"Marcus, you are not going with these people!" Maroch wanted to reach for his gun again, but an equally determined part of him wanted to keep it holstered. He wasn't really the type to fire it anyway. Marcus laid a hand on his arm.
"I won't stay in that hospital to be prodded and poked by doctors who know nothing about my race," he said firmly. "Goodness knows it's bad enough when it's human doctors doing the prodding. Friendly human doctors. I don't intend to entrust my anatomy to strangers who like sending armed guards to round me up. I'm in the middle of nowhere right now though, and these people know this place. Why don't you come along? It might be enlightening."
"You're crazy." Maroch was firmly convinced that the Drigol were more than likely to bash the fool human over the head at the first opportunity, and then cook him over a hasty fire; but he couldn't really hope to take on seven of them on his own, and he still considered himself responsible for the man he had brought to his world. He shook his head, exasperated. "But if you're going with them, so am I."
"I'm sure that makes me very lucky." Marcus raised his eyebrows at the Drigol, well aware that he could very well be taking his life in his hands. "Would you object to a pair of guests? We're very well-mannered, most of the time, and my companion promises not to shoot you unless you shoot him first."
"And you?" asked the lead Drigol. He sounded as though he had a sense of humour, although it was probably buried pretty deeply beneath the layers of suspicion and severity. Marcus shrugged.
"I don't have a gun. So I won't be shooting anybody." There was a moment of silence, during which the seven invisible heads of the hooded Drigol exchanged wordless glances, then the leader nodded slowly.
"We'd be honoured to have you as guests," he said, with only a trace of discomfort. Apparently it was hard for him to consider trusting another; probably Maroch's presence made it harder still. He seemed to have a natural social grace though, the kind of thing that a hard life as a renegade could not always destroy. Marcus was all the more certain that his instincts were serving him well. Ragged outsiders were often so very much more welcoming than well dressed formal types in positions of authority. They usually had less to hide for one thing.
"I hope you know what you're doing." Maroch didn't exactly look afraid, but he certainly looked extremely worried. Marcus stepped aside with another of his almost Minbari bows, the faintest of smiles on his face. If the worst came to the worst he had an idea that he could handle these seven even with their staffs to help them, but he didn't think that it would come to that. He waved Maroch onwards.
"I never like to know what I'm doing," he said cheerfully. "It's more fun to be surprised. Just relax, Captain."
"Relax, he says. Marcus, you know nothing. My people have fought their kind for thousands of years. Now you come here and decide that you're going to make friends. You can't imagine how stupid that sounds. How foolhardy."
"Exactly." Marcus put a hand on his shoulder, guiding him gently forward. "You've fought them. But when did you last try to talk to them? How many of them have you killed without trying to end the hostilities?"
"They raid our cities and steal from us."
"You treat them as outcasts because their ancestors were deformed in an accident of your making. There is always balance, Captain. One deed against another."
"That's not very reassuring." Maroch eyed the escort of Drigol as they began to move away along the cliff edge. There was a path there, hidden from above, which led down to the lake and its attendant sea of flowers. A surprisingly easy path, apparently hewn by some ancient natural process. Marcus all but skipped down it, showing an energy subdued for too long by stasis. Movement was good; new people were good. It all kept his mind working. Over by the lake the three children looked up at the sudden arrival, and came running over to see what was going on. Up close, able to see them clearly for the first time, Marcus could see no sign of the supposed deformities that kept them apart, although admittedly they were different in appearance to the other Azari. Instead of being mottled green and blue, their skin was merely blue, though patched here and there with a slightly paler shade. Their eyes were also blue, whereas as far as Marcus knew the dominant Azari were an exclusively green-eyed race. Not that many of their kind had made themselves available for study in the past. Unlike their hairless cousins, the Drigol sported a kind of stubbly hair on the backs of their heads, of a slightly darker blue than their skin. They did look like a different race, that much he had to admit; but deformed? He wondered if the hooded cloaks worn by the seven adults were to hide their own misshapen bodies, but as they approached the children, one by one they threw back their hoods. If they were deformed, it was no in any immediately noticeable way.
"We have guests!" Sweeping the first of the children up into his arms, the leader of the seven Drigol adults threw his staff to one of his fellows. "Do you think that you can manage to greet them in the language of the humans?"
"Hello." The child in his arms turned its head away as soon as it had spoken, in the sort of shy gesture of small children the galaxy over. Marcus smiled.
"Very good. I don't suppose I'd have any idea how to greet you in your own language."
"It has always been a point of honour on this world to be able to converse with others in their own tongues. Even when circumstance prevents us ever from meeting such others." The lead Drigol lowered the child to the ground. "There are many languages. We study often for our entire lives. Fortunately, compared to some, your language is easy. I hear there are many others on your planet that are much more difficult."
"It's not my planet, but yes, Earth is home to many complex languages. I don't know that there's anyone who's ever learnt them all." Marcus took advantage of this new degree of conversationlism to hold out his hand. "We didn't try to introduce ourselves earlier. My name is Marcus, of the Anla'shok."
"I thought that the badge you wear had a certain familiarity to it." The lead Drigol took the hand and shook it, though with the look of a man who had only ever read of such a gesture, and had never yet had cause to put it into action. "I am Asham." He rested his hand on the head of the child he had picked up. "And this is my son, Devel. Tell me, Marcus. Do you often make a habit of striding so enthusiastically into the company of murderers and thieves?"
"As often as possible." Marcus clapped Maroch on the back. "But then I also make a habit of not believing a tale until I have some proof of its veracity. Do you have a settlement near here? Those guards might be close behind."
"Don't worry about it. We're used to avoiding soldiers." Asham smiled and gestured back towards the cliff. "But our settlement is not far away, no. The children will lead the way in." He took his staff back from his companion, and turned intense blue eyes upon Maroch. "All people are welcome to visit us. We would never turn anybody away. But if you would rather not come with us, now is the time to turn back, before you see where our community is hidden."
"He's coming." Marcus seemed led by a desire to interfere, and this was something that felt worthy of his interference. Perhaps, just as he had once made the medical staff on Babylon 5 look more fairly upon the station's Lurker population, he had a chance of making one of the dominant Azari look the same way upon the Drigol. His instincts told him to trust these people, just as they told him to trust Maroch, and a part of every Ranger's training was learning to hone and trust instincts. To believe in them, and to rely on them. The advice of the gods, the spiritualism instructor had called them, spoken by the voice of the galaxy. Marcus seemed to remember rolling his eyes at that, the first time that he had heard it, but just like everything else that the Minbari had taught him, it had more than proved its worth. Maroch, who didn't give a fig for Marcus's instincts, nodded unhappily. He still wasn't going to leave the idiot alone, no matter who he invited himself to spend the night with. The fact that these people had so far confounded his expectations by appearing to be perfectly civilised and polite didn't make him feel any better about being with them; but, apparently, be with them he must. He nodded curtly.
"I'd like to come," he lied, with only a flicker in his eyes to show the truth. Asham smiled slightly, not at all fooled.
"You'll be the first of the true Azari to stay with us," he said, as politely as he could, disguising his own uncertainty at the prospect. "Generally our neighbours are only interested in shooting us, so you might have to forgive my fellow Drigol if they seem less than delighted to see you. Our community used to be some ten thousand in number. In the last few years we've been reduced to less than two thousand. Something like that is likely to cause some ill feeling."
"I can see how it might." Fast warming to this new acquaintance, Marcus shared a brief smile with him that it seemed a shame Maroch could not also enjoy. Asham shrugged.
"But we are what we are. We've always accepted that." He gestured towards the cliff face, which the three children, sent ahead, were about to reach. "This way."
"They've never set up home inside the mountain." Maroch couldn't believe it. "The engineering requirements alone would be stupendous."
"Many mountains have natural caverns and tunnels," pointed out Marcus. Maroch nodded.
"Yes, but enough for two thousand people?"
"Ten thousand," Marcus reminded him. "Once upon a time."
"Yes." Maroch, to his credit, did look saddened at that. "I never knew that so many of them had been killed. I knew that my people were trying to herd them back away from the new settlements we've been building around here, but I assumed that that was all they were doing. The Drigol might have a reputation for being violent and ruthless, but I'd never condone killing them."
"Which seems more violent and ruthless to you, Captain? The people who welcome you in, regardless of what you represent, or the people who kill them indiscriminately? If the Drigol are ruthless, maybe it's because they've got no choice. People don't always choose their lifestyle. Sometimes it's forced on them by others. It's important to remember the distinction."
"Have you always argued so eloquently for the rights of cut-throats and brigands?" Maroch seemed amused. Marcus smiled.
"Only for the picturesque and tragic ones. It's an old family tradition. An ancestor of mine used to trawl through slums looking for pretty young sinners whose souls he could save. Of course he was clinically insane, but nobody minded that."
"You're a madman, Marcus Cole." All the same, Maroch smiled. "Mad enough to be able to persuade me to walk inside a mountain with a gang of people I've been warned about my entire life. As far back as my family can trace their history, they've been telling their children to beware of the Drigol."
"And for at least as long as that, my family have been telling their children to beware of the true Azari." Suddenly speaking up from right behind them, another of the Drigol surprised them both with his interjection. "You're not the only uncomfortable one here."
"Point taken." Maroch looked away, clearly embarrassed. Marcus felt for him, but what was to be said? The fact that these people were willing to take Maroch in spoke volumes about them; but perhaps to an Azari the notion of false publicity was an unfamiliar concept. Asham came to walk alongside the two strangers, a pleasant smile on his face.
"You are welcome, friend. Just because we are uncomfortable, does not mean that we are not welcoming. We are raiders, and we don't try to deny that - but we are not murderers. We have no firearms for one thing - those few that we stole ran out of power very quickly, and we had no way to recharge them. We have our fists, and we have our staffs. You try killing an armed guard with one of them. We'd be lucky to get close to enough to bruise him a little."
"They tell us that you murder wherever you go." Maroch spoke quietly, with the voice of a man who was being forced to face a new truth, and wasn't entirely sure of it yet. Asham nodded.
"I'd imagine that they do, yes. We've always been an embarrassment, but as time passes, and people become more willing to look upon us kindly - as you apparently do - the lies have to become bigger, and the campaigns more forceful. Prejudices grow over time, and can gather speed and size like snowballs tumbling down a mountainside, if nothing is done to bring them into check. And when you have a ruling caste, who pass power from generation to generation, old prejudices and policies are not likely to go away."
"Yes." Maroch looked away again, even more uncomfortable this time. "Although you haven't yet proved that you're not a cut throat. Why should I take your word above that of my government?"
"Ha! A fine question. A very fine question!" Asham clapped on the back, laughing loudly. "There is no reason for you to trust me. For all you know as soon as we step into this mountain - you see the entrance now that we're closer, behind the bushes that grow just ahead? - you'll have your throat slit and your giblets boiling in our cooking pans before you can say 'I told you so' to your friend here. And yet you're willing to come with us. Why?"
"I don't know. Because he is, I suppose." Maroch shot Marcus a look that was part fond, part accusatory. "I feel responsible for him. He's a guest."
"Commendable. And since I always make it a point to trust a man who trusts me - however unwillingly - perhaps you'd feel better about entering our settlement if you were to carry this for me?" Asham handed over his staff, and Maroch found himself smiling with unexpected warmth.
"Thank you. But no. And besides, the blasted thing is so long I'd probably only do somebody an injury with it." He handed it back. "And Marcus, if you say 'I told you so', I'll take that thing back and do you an injury with it."
"As if I'd say anything of the kind." They had reached the cliff face now, and the children, as well as several of the adults, had vanished inside. The closer they were to the ragged bushes, the easier it was to see the hole beyond. It was mostly hidden by a fold in the rock, as well as by the assorted greenery, but to anybody who knew that it was there it was much more obvious. Even so, on closer inspection, it appeared to be nothing more than a shallow cave. Only once entered did it show itself to be much deeper. They had to go in single file for a short distance, twisting and turning several times through smooth rock bearing tiny fossils and streaks of mineral that glowed very faintly to light the way. It looked fascinating to Marcus, but Maroch showed no interest, so presumably it was all common enough for the rock formations of the planet.
"We have quite a community down here," Asham told them as they walked. "Although of course, not as large as it once was. Mind your head, Captain Maroch. The ceiling dips down considerably at the end of the tunnel."
"So I see." Maroch stepped forward, ducking down as he did so, and found himself emerging into a cavern larger than any he had anticipated. The size of it was astounding; a mighty upward sweep of rock that vanished into invisibility far above his head. The walls were aglow with streaks of phosphorescence, and veins of minerals glittered in the light of many candles. Fires burned in the centre of the cavern, the smoke rising up to vanish into the darkness, presumably to find its own way out through natural vents. There were Drigol everywhere, standing around the fires, tending to cooking food, gossiping in corners, caring for children - all of them as ordinary looking, and as harmless looking, as the true Azari amongst whom he himself lived. Asham followed him out, clearly delighting in the effect that Maroch's appearance was beginning to have on the assembled masses. He strode out into the cavern, raising his voice to address the throng.
"You can lower your weapons, friends. He's here as our guest. Our very welcome guest." Pushing Marcus forward as soon as he also emerged from the tunnel, he beamed happily at everybody within range. "We have two guests. Friends who wish to while away some time in our company. Didn't the Seers tell us that we faced times of change? Perhaps those times are beginning today."
"Times of change?" Marcus wasn't sure that he liked the idea of being worked into the prophecies of these people, but Asham silenced him with a gentle pressure on his arm.
"Indulge me," he said quietly, and Marcus nodded. He was no stranger to prophecies and Seers, after all. Asham nodded his thanks.
"So are we going to stand about like fools, or are we going to show our guests some hospitality to remember? This is your chance to impress our civilisation upon one of the true Azari - and show him how vicious and depraved we really are! Stoke up the cooking fires, my friends. Gather around them, and begin the storytelling! Captain Maroch?"
"Yes?" Rather taken aback by this energetic outburst, Maroch was looking a little worried, rather as though he suspected that he might have to take a position of some prominence in this impromptu party. His fears were more than justified. "Captain Maroch has many tales to tell. He is a captain! A man with a ship of his own!" He glanced sideways at Maroch as he spoke. "That is true, isn't it?"
"Yes." Maroch was paling, looking as though he thought he should probably have lied. Asham laughed, and banged him cheerfully on the back.
"A man with a ship of his own! A man who flies to other planets! A man who has seen other worlds and other peoples, of the kind that never come to our world here. Gather around and listen to his tales of far off places!"
"Er... I am a geologist, you know. I only usually go to uninhab--"
"You think they care?" Asham pushed him forward. "Gather around! And when he's finished, our other friend Marcus will tell us of the Anla'shok. The great army sent out to fight against darkness in all the worlds of the galaxy!" He broke off, grinning widely, a showman born. "That is alright with you, Marcus?"
"Delighted." Marcus could tell tales with the best of them. In the meantime the cooking food was beginning to smell extremely tasty; after all, he hadn't eaten in three hundred and thirty-six years. Moving forward with the others, well aware of the nervousness in the eyes of so many of the Drigol as they watched Maroch pass, he seated himself where Asham indicated, and accepted a bowl of water from a adolescent girl who even he, as anything but a native, could see was extremely beautiful. So much for the tales of deformity; apparently that had never been about anything more than different colouring and a sprinkling of hair. Around him the fires were being stoked up, and somebody was showering what seemed to be scented sawdust over the flames. Children were pressing in closer, frightened and inquisitive, nervous and excited. Some tame creature rolled over on its back beside Asham, and Devel appeared to scoop it up into his arms. Maroch was watching everything with eyes as wide as those of the children. It was, Marcus thought rather contentedly, all rather wonderful.
They ate well, though simply, and Marcus resolved to accompany the next hunting and gathering expedition. If these people, with their very limited resources, were prepared to use so much of their food in welcoming him, he was going to help them to replenish their stocks; besides, it would be good practice. As he ate he listened to Maroch, shy at first, as he began to tell tales of the places he had seen on his travels. Gradually he gained volume and courage, and was soon embellishing shamelessly, talking of worlds of crystal that glowed brightly in space, and were inhabited by creatures made of precious metals. The adults laughed, the children gaped. Marcus just enjoyed the stories. When it was his turn he told of Valen, and the battle he had led against the Shadows, forming the Anla'shok from the Minbari under the guidance of the Vorlons, and how his legacy had survived to fight the Shadows again. It was a story that he knew well of course, for all the Rangers had learnt it as part of their training, long before anybody had known that the man who so often told it was the very man who had lived it - or was going to live it, unknown even to himself, such a short time later. He didn't bother saying that he was a part of the story himself; that he had been involved in that second great fight against the Shadows, when they had at last been driven from the galaxy. That was too much to tell, and too much to think about. He concentrated only on telling it as a remote history; something that had happened to others. When it was over, and they had listened to Drigol fables and songs, the party broke up a little, going off to gather closer to the other fires, in their family groups perhaps. A gangly youth anxious to brush up on some of the languages in his repertoire settled beside Marcus to practice his Minbari, and Maroch fell into quiet conversation with Devel and some of his friends. The children were anxious to learn about their blue-green neighbours, and he tried to tell them what he could without letting on how much the true Azari despised their Drigol cousins. Asham listened without speaking, his face in shadow, gently stroking the pet that seemed so devoted to him and his son. Gradually the children drifted off to sleep, borne away by adults to sleeping places just beyond the firelight. Asham roused himself then.
"The children don't understand," he said, in clear reference to Maroch's most recent storytelling. Maroch shrugged.
"They shouldn't have to. Children aren't supposed to know about hate or prejudice. They learn that from their parents."
"And from several thousand years of popular myth." Asham nodded. "Thank you, anyway. For being here. It's good for them to see something good of the outside world. I hope that they'll remember it, in the years to come, when all that they know of the true Azari is guns and cruelty. That way they won't hate all of your people as I was once raised to do."
"You don't seem to hate us all," pointed out Maroch. Asham nodded.
"I got tired of it all," he said simply, and wouldn't say more. Instead he turned to Marcus. "And you my friend. You've told a great tale here tonight. Would the Anla'shok welcome Drigol recruits do you think?"
"They very well might. It's a long time since it stopped being just for the Minbari. Just so long as you can pass the training."
"Immaterial I'd imagine, since we can't get to Minbar to apply!" The Drigol leader took a long drink of fire-warmed water. "You will stay with us a while, won't you. I don't want to delay you, but your presence here quite brightens things. Visitors are so very rare. We haven't had any in three generations, at least as far as anybody can remember."
"We didn't really have any plans," admitted Maroch, who was relaxed and comfortable by now, and enjoying the company immensely. Almost all of his anxieties had faded in the warmth of the fire and the conversation. "Except that Marcus was going to use my library of course."
"Oh, we have a library here," dismissed Asham with a wave of his arm. "How do you think we come to know of the Anla'Shok? A big one, or big enough, in one of the side caverns. We don't just steal food from your people you see, Captain. We steal books. Our children deserve an education too."
"I don't dispute that." Maroch smiled. "Though it's so far from your reputation that it's really rather amusing."
"I suppose so. You'll find many books, anyway Marcus. Whatever it is that you were hoping to find, there's a fair chance that it's there. Even though we've developed separately all this time, it seems that the Drigol are as determined as are the true Azari to learn all the languages that we can. And you'll find most languages represented in the library. There's sure to be something that you can read."
"Thank you. I'll look in the morning perhaps." Marcus still didn't think that he could face the idea of gazing at sterile computers looking for information about his friends, but it was something to think about. Asham nodded. With honest courtesy he didn't ask what Marcus hoped to find. Instead he simply repeated his assurances as to the extent of the library, then wished them a good night. They watched him leave, vanishing out of the firelight in the direction taken earlier by Devel. Maroch stretched and yawned.
"Are you going to be alright getting some sleep, or would you rather stay awake?" he asked. Marcus smiled slightly.
"I feel as though I never want to sleep again; but I am tired. I have to sleep some time."
"I think somebody said we were supposed to sleep over with Asham and his family group. There are some blankets set aside for us." Maroch drained his bowl of water. "You know, my friend, I could get used to this. I've never known such fellowship."
"Then stay," suggested Marcus, for whom life had always been relatively simply that way. Maroch laughed.
"And starve, or die of some dreadful disease they don't have the facilities to avoid or treat, I suppose. Besides, they're not like us. Like the rest of the Azari I mean. I'm ninety years old, Marcus, and I'm not yet approaching my middle years. But to a Drigol even seventy is old. Few of them reach eighty. We may have been lied to about these people, but those things are known scientific facts about the mutations that cause their condition. I don't think I could stay amongst such short-lived people. I can expect to live for two hundred years; very likely more; and to watch all of my friends die would just become depressing. Besides - I have a life and a career to get back to." He stood up. "Goodnight, Marcus."
"Goodnight, Captain." Marcus watched him leave, then finished his own water and laid the bowl carefully down on the ground. He didn't want to sleep, but as he had said, he was tired. Sleep was a necessity whether he wanted it or not. Trying to cheer himself with thoughts of pleasant dreams - or, possibly, the chance of waking up and finding that this had all been just a dream - he headed off after Maroch. The idea of waking up back in 2261 was a beautiful one, but he was not fool enough to wish too hard. A Ranger always knew the limit of a dream.
He was on the White Star, and as always it was a wonderful place to be. The distant, smooth hum of the engines mingled with the gentle sounds of the consoles and their instruments. A background murmur of conversation, half in English, half in Minbari, mixed together in his head so that he could no longer tell one from the other. He was watching a console of his own, although he didn't really need to. The White Star could all but fly herself given the chance, and she didn't need much input even from a skeleton crew. His own position at a console was more to give himself something to do during the journey, for he had nothing else to occupy his time. It was to be too short a flight to bother spending it in meditation - and besides, he didn't want to meditate. Didn't want to miss a minute of this.
They were all here. All of them, with him. Everybody who was important to him, save perhaps for the sometimes prickly doctor, Stephen Franklin. Marcus couldn't think of a team he would rather accompany on a mission, even if the mission itself did seem bizarre. Stealing Babylon 5's predecessor in order to send it back in time to help the Minbari fight a war a thousand years ago was certainly one of the oddest of the tasks that had been assigned to him, but since the task came with Entil'Zha it had all the validation it needed so far as Marcus was concerned. Not that he would have refused the mission anyway. He turned from his console to watch the others, just content to see them going about their own various assigned tasks. Odd that they meant so much to him now. When he had gone to Minbar to try to become a Ranger, he had had nobody. All of his family and friends had gone, everybody who had ever meant anything to him had died. He had been alone in the universe. Now he was on a ship with a new band of friends, and he knew that he would do anything for any one of them. He had certainly never thought that he would ever feel that way about a group of people again.
Sheridan was in the command chair. Marcus didn't know him very well, but he had had the ear - so to speak - of a Vorlon, and that in itself made him special. He had an aura about him that made people turn to him, and even if he was a little too militaristic for Marcus's liking, he had proved to be a good man. Marcus liked him, and was increasingly enjoying his company.
Delenn stood beside the captain, occasionally throwing glances his way that apparently she thought were subtle. If she honestly believed that nobody noticed the love in her eyes then she wasn't nearly as perceptive as she appeared to be. Delenn, like all of her kind, was proud and steadfast, and was also gentle and honest and kind. Marcus had learned to trust and respect the Minbari as a race, but there were few of them that he respected so much as he did Delenn. He remembered how he had felt when she had been kidnapped, and his jaw tightened involuntarily. Delenn could be annoying and frustrating and unnecessarily cryptic, but he had become unexpectedly devoted to her. Like Sheridan she had an aura about her, that people responded to in all kinds of ways. She was a direct descendent of Valen, supposedly. He had no problem believing that.
And Susan. The prickly, complicated, infuriating, wonderful Susan Ivanova. He had never known anybody like her. Never felt like this about anybody. He made jokes because he liked to see her smile. He made jokes to irritate her, because he liked to see her getting cross. He made jokes because he was astonishingly nervous around her, and didn't know how else to handle it. He had wanted to avoid her at first simply because of what she did to him. Because everybody he cared about had died, and he was nervous about getting close to anybody again. Because he was a Ranger, destined to walk in the darkest of places, and he could never ask anybody to follow him there. He had fallen for her anyway, and now he was enjoying every moment of this short flight, just because it meant being near to her. Even - or perhaps especially because - she was doing her damnedest to keep him at arm's length.
She was watching Entil'Zha at the moment. Sinclair, to her. Jeffrey Sinclair, former commander of Babylon 5, once as militaristic a man as John Sheridan, or so the stories said. Nobody would think that to see him now, dressed in his Ranger uniform, carrying himself with the poise and grace of a Minbari, his features composed in an expression of peace and general benignity. He was a leader just like Sheridan was, but in a very different way. It was more than his title that made every Ranger so far appointed ready to do or die in his name. Marcus himself was devoted to him, and didn't think that it was an exaggeration to consider Sinclair to be the most important person in his life. More important than Sheridan, more important than Delenn, more important even than Ivanova. Marcus smiled to himself, and spun idly around in his chair, forgetting all about his console. This was truly a great mission to be on; truly a great sense of fellowship. He hadn't been happier than this in a long time... except... except that strangely he couldn't quite remember why. He was enjoying the companionship wasn't he? Being here with the people who meant the most to him. But who were they? Not Entil'Zha, who had gone away into the past; far, far into the past to find another destiny. Not Sheridan or Delenn, who had gone off along their own path, to places he had had no cause to follow them to. Not Ivanova. Ivanova who had been dying, fading away, leaving him - and then not dying, but still leaving him. And now the bridge of the White Star was empty. Cold and dark and empty. Entil'Zha was gone. Sheridan and Delenn were gone. Ivanova was gone. Even the White Star was gone, her consoles crumbling, her power long drained, her captain's chair rusting away. Her deck plating was falling away beneath his feet, and the impossible vastness of space stretched out around him. So very, very empty. So lonely. So cold. He tried calling his friends, but none of them could answer him. They were too far away. Ivanova, Delenn, Sheridan. They were as far away as his brother, and his fellow colonists from Arisia. Entil'Zha was further away still. And the great space around him was getting darker, and colder, and bigger every second. The loneliness was growing, the desolation, the fear of being bereaved all over again. There was no way that he could given his life energies to bring Susan back this time. She had gone far out of the reach of any alien device. Far out of the reach of him. Far, far away, taking with her everything else that seemed important. The One. The fight. The life he had won for himself. All gone. Breaking off and drifting away like the collapsing chunks of the hopelessly aged White Star - which itself had already been burned away to nothing on Z'ha'dum. Three hundred and thirty-six years. Three hundred and thirty-six reasons to want to end it all all over again. To want to let everything drift away. Everything that was left. He shivered, marvelling at the iciness, the shocking, breath-defying coldness of space - and with a loud gasp of air into almost forgotten lungs, he jerked awake. Everything was dark, though there was an air of constriction about him; none of the vastness that had surrounded him in his dream. Here the darkness was not so great, for candles burned here and there, showing him occasional glimpses of huddled figures sleeping quietly. He rubbed at his eyes, half expecting the unfamiliar tears to still be there, frozen into crystals of ice just as they had been in that cold, cold place of his dream. There were no tears, no ice; nothing except eyes staring widely and wildly into darkness. Darkness and memories, and the disbelief of a present he couldn't comprehend. Everybody dead. Everything gone. It was too much to think about. Too much to process. He thought about trying to meditate, but he knew that there was no way he was going to manage that. He wouldn't be sleeping again tonight either. Wouldn't be finding any kind of peace, for all his Minbari training. That left him with several options, as far as he could see. Staying here, staring into darkness, slowing letting memories and miseries drive him mad; trying to walk off his confusions again, and either losing himself irrevocably in the subterranean tunnels, or stumbling into who knew what outside. Soldiers, wanting to return him to the hospital perhaps, for whatever reasons the doctors there had for wanting him. Or he could find some place to practice with his Denn-Bok, working himself into exhaustion in an attempt to drive out the grief - which might have worked, had he had the inclination to try it. Instead it was the fourth option that seemed the most attractive just now. Rising to his feet, stepping carefully between the rows of sleeping bodies, he headed off in search of the library. Time, perhaps, to search out a few answers. Time either to find something that might make him feel a little bit better, or might forever crush the only good thoughts he had left. Either way, there was no time like the present. Even if it was a present he had never asked to be in.
The library wasn't what he had expected it to be. Libraries had a tendency to be places of digital information, especially where space was at a premium. With the exception of the few real books that Marcus had jealously guarded as a child, everything he had read before arriving on Minbar had been digital. A crystal to be inserted into a hand-held reader; a set of pages to be called up on a computer screen. Entire libraries floating around on the Internet, waiting to be accessed. So few people wanted to deal in real books anymore; but when he pushed aside the heavy, beaded curtain that covered the entrance to the library, all that he saw were books. In a vast, rocky cavern, lining walls that twinkled gently with a faint phosphorescence, were countless books. Big, small, mostly bound with leather. On home-made shelves, or just piled on the floor. Spread out before him, to his sides, smelling of dust and paper and leather and memories. He wandered further in, seeing a basic filing system now, albeit one written in a language that he didn't understand. That had to be what it was though; hand-written signs stuck to the wall at regular spacings, telling what each group of books was about. He looked at the books in each section, hunting for ones that he could understand, so that he could figure out the way in which they had been arranged. Most of the books were Azari of course, but just as the people of the Azari world thought it a point of honour to be able to speak in all languages, apparently they also thought it important to be able to read in other languages. He recognised the Centauri alphabet dotted about here and there, although he couldn't read it. The Narn alphabet, of which he knew enough to identify the first grouping of books as one on warfare, was fairly well represented too. He walked on, spotting enough books in Minbari, and those human languages that he could read, to identify further sections. Science, music, philosophy, religion - The Book of G'Kar, he saw, with a pang of sorrow, resting beside G'Kar's beloved Book of G'Quon. Law, fiction - Dickens, he noticed, with an odd burst of approval. Art, mathematics, poetry - the first ever Minbari book that he had read, nestled between something in Centauri, and another book that he couldn't identify. He was tempted to pick the Minbari book up, and read again those old poems that had first helped him to fall in love with the language that had been destined to become his second tongue. In the end he walked on by. He was not here to lose himself in poetry, no matter how beautiful. He went on, past another section that he couldn't identify, until at last he reached history. He stared at the books for some time, wondering which one to pick up, praying for something that would tell him what he needed to know. There was a Minbari one that caught his attention first, but it was another that he picked up. It was in English: A History Of Galactic Politics, subtitled, From The League Of Non-Aligned Worlds To The Interstellar Alliance. The Interstellar Alliance sounded like Sheridan somehow. After all, the League of Non-Aligned Worlds had seemed at the end of its natural life-span in the last days that Marcus could remember. Sheridan and Delenn had had dreams and plans, to say nothing of a formidable destiny, and the next stage of the galaxy's development was the perfect task for them. He flicked through the book, past mention of the Babylon project - the disappearance of Babylon 4 that brought him disturbing echoes of his dream - to the creation of Babylon 5. A picture of Jeffrey Sinclair, in Earthforce uniform, looking very different to the man that Marcus had sworn to serve. The photograph still brought a stab of pain, although it was an old pain now. Sinclair had been lost anyway, even before Marcus had managed to leave all the rest of his friends behind. He turned on through the pages - a photograph of Ambassador Mollari, in happier days than Marcus had known him to have; Ambassador Kosh vanishing into the distance; several Pak'ma'ra arguing with a Drazi. Delenn, before her transformation into a partial human; and after, accompanied by an adoring Lennier. Sheridan, in his Earthforce uniform, Garibaldi in the background, trying to look as if he wasn't there. There were no pictures of Susan, at least as far as Marcus could see. It wasn't unexpected. History had a habit of forgetting the assistants in favour of a few big names. He went on through the pages - Clark's growing power base, the rumours of the Shadows, the struggles for independence on Mars. There was little about the Narn-Centauri conflict, nothing about the Rangers. No mention of Sinclair's disappearance, which had remained unexplained as far was Earth was concerned. Sheridan's fleet was mentioned though, with the struggle to free Earth. No nod to its flagship, commanded by Susan Ivanova. Just of Sheridan and Delenn, victorious in the end, creating the Interstellar Alliance, and marrying, and of Sheridan being appointed President of the galaxy. Marcus smiled slightly, for he supposed that that was a good thing. Sheridan was probably the best man for the job, if anybody had to be president at all. The marriage wasn't a surprise. It had been on the cards for a long time. He flicked on, not wanting to admit that he was looking for an end to this story. It seemed a little morbid, after all, but he wanted to know. He didn't have to look far. 2281, the book said, although the other details weren't nearly so exact. Sheridan had, variously, died, been borne up into heaven in a glowing chariot, or merely gone away perhaps to one day return. No body had ever been found. Marcus wasn't surprised. The same had been said of Valen himself, after all. Sheridan had undoubtedly gone beyond the Rim. It was a surprise, then, to read of Delenn's death a little while later, but it made a certain sense. Delenn was a Minbari; she would probably have wanted her soul to return to the place of its making; to replenish the Minbari shared Soul, that made her race what they were. Whatever Marcus himself thought of that belief, he knew what it meant to Delenn. Going beyond the Rim - whatever it meant - would have seemed wrong to her. He closed the book, and reached for the Minbari one that had attracted his attention earlier. Here at least there was mention of the Rangers. Their involvement in the fight against Earth; of Sheridan's joint command with Delenn; and something else, so gloriously unexpected that it made his heart sing out and twist in pain in the same moment. 2281. Sheridan, knowing that his time was drawing to a close, had passed on command of the Anla'Shok to a successor. A hugely worthy successor. General Susan Ivanova. There was a picture, so unmistakably of Susan. His Susan. Older, with lines on her face, and as beautiful in every way as ever. The uniform of the Anla'Shok-Na - for she would have been Anla'Shok-Na, rather than Entil'Zha - suited her, he thought. Its lines flattered her, and she wore the cloak well. He didn't want to turn the page, but he did in the end, slowly, and staring at the picture of Susan until it was gone. She had retired her leadership, the book said, after many years of command, during which the Rangers had fought to finish the liberation of Centauri Prime from the servants of the Shadows - fought alongside the Emperor Vir Cotto no less. Susan had retired to Centauri Prime in the end, it seemed, to the Emperor's court, handing over the reins of the Anla'Shok-Na to another; and this time to an Entil'Zha. David Sheridan. Marcus whistled at that. Again not a surprise; not really. It stood to reason that they would have had at least one child. But this one, descended from all three of the One, must have carried a terrible burden of prophecy and destiny. Marcus hunted for a picture, finding one at last. Sheridan's proud stance and combative gaze; Delenn's gentle smile and easy poise. A Minbari bone crest beside an unruly tumble of dark blond hair. Marcus was sure that he could see Sinclair in that face too. Suddenly heavy-hearted, he threw the book to the floor.
"We usually treat the books better than that." It was Asham, speaking from the shadows. Marcus didn't look up.
"I'm sorry." He picked the book up, checking it for damage, then put it back in its place. "I was just..."
"Getting angry at history. Many of us do. History is full of mistakes we fail to learn from, and catastrophes that could have been avoided. It's gone though. Finished with. Getting angry at it serves no real purpose."
"You don't understand. I should have been there. I should have supported Susan when she was Anla'Shok-Na. I should have been there to help David take up his position. To have supported Delenn after Captain - President - Sheridan went away. But if I had... If I was there, Susan wouldn't have been, so it's possible that none of it would have happened anyway. She did so much. A veteran of the Telepath Wars, it says here, whatever they were." He closed his eyes. "And I should have been there too."
"You're right, I don't understand." Asham sat down beside him, adding the light from his own candle to the sinking light of Marcus's own. The yellow glow made his blue hand look mottled like those of the true Azari, but he didn't notice - or perhaps chose not to. "Am I to understand that you've somehow travelled in time?"
"Sort of. I died, in a manner of speaking, in 2261. It was the end of a hard year. The woman I loved was dying, and I gave my life to her through some sort of machine. She had me frozen in the hope that I could be revived."
"And now you have been, in our time, with all your friends gone, and turned to nothing more than pages in history books." Asham shook his head sadly. "You have my condolences, my friend. That's more than I would know how to deal with."
"It's more than I know how to deal with." Marcus found that he was toying once again with his Ranger badge. "I'm sorry. With everything that you have to face, the last thing you need is to listen to my problems."
"Often listening to the troubles of another make one's own seem less immediate." Asham clapped him lightly on the shoulder. "What will you do?"
"Short of building a time machine? At the moment I'm filled with a powerful desire to get very, very drunk." Marcus looked across at his host with a hopeful look on his face. "I don't suppose you have any alcohol? Home-brewed whisky? Wine? Beer?"
"I don't think that I'm familiar with those. We do sometimes make a kind of fermented liquid with fruit and grain, but we so rarely have enough food even just to eat, let alone to squander in that way. At any rate, it's lethal. It's rumoured to cause blindness and insanity."
"Sounds good to me. On the mining colonies where I grew up the workers used to drink something called moonshine. It was reputed to make great shuttle fuel, but I don't think anybody ever tried it in an engine. It was too explosive."
Asham laughed. "It sounds... interesting."
"Oh it was. And it certainly had its uses. Doctors swore by it as an antiseptic, and the cleaning crews said that nothing else would scour the drilling equipment quite so well. Children used to make fireworks with the stuff. Only thing you couldn't do with it was drink it. Not safely, anyway."
"Then why did the miners make it?"
"Ever handled Quantium 40? It's dangerous. Really dangerous. It'll kill you before you know it's doing it, and explode at the slightest provocation. Quantium 40 miners lose friends all the time. The colonies are isolated, the only visitors are the buyers, and they get out again as quickly as they can. You live your life alone, in the dark, untrodden regions of space where nobody else wants to go." He smiled reflectively. "But even then getting drunk wasn't my style. You know, in all my life I only ever got really drunk the once."
"Over a female?" inquired Asham, who was clearly a man of the world even if he did spend his life living in secrecy deep inside a mountain. Marcus nodded.
"Over a female. Beautiful girl I met on Mars. She decided to get herself killed during the Earth-Minbari war."
"Yes, I was rather put out about it at the time. I'd almost made up my mind to fall in love with her."
"Then I know how you feel, at least as far as that is concerned. Whatever and whoever you've lost to stasis is something that only you can understand - but I lost my wife quite recently. She 'decided to get herself killed', as you put it. We were coming back from a foray for food and medical supplies, and we were ambushed by soldiers from the Azari military. Of ten of us, only three made it back alive. I confess I could very easily have got drunk a good many times since then. If you really think it's what you want..."
"No." Marcus smiled at him, as gently as his still wandering mind would allow. "I'm sorry, Asham. I've no right to all this self pity; not with the problems you have to deal with. And besides, I've hardly drunk anything since becoming a Ranger. It's not really allowed."
"Nonetheless, oblivion sounds like a fine prospect at times, Marcus."
"Yes." Marcus couldn't shake the images of Susan Ivanova that lingered in his mind; standing on the bridge of her ship; fading away in Medlab One; photographed in the uniform of the Anla'Shok-Na. He would lose those pictures if he really did get drunk, and he knew that he didn't want that, no matter how much it hurt to see them. The memory.... of all the things you have lost or left behind... can have a terrible power... The power of grief, and loss, and regret. Delenn had said that to him once, just after Babylon 5 had broken away from Earth. It had been good advice then, even if he hadn't listened to it. It was even better advice now. Goodness knew his situation hadn't really had time to sink in yet, and he was sure to be heading for far more sorrowful times than this when it did, but for the time being he would follow Delenn's guidance. She had always had a habit of saying things that turned out to have great importance in the future. Rising to his feet so fast that his cape swirled about him with a pleasing sense of drama, he clapped Asham enthusiastically on the shoulder.
"What we need," he said thoughtfully, and with no small measure of excitement, "is something more effective than alcohol. Something that'll give us both something else to do, rather than dwell on the galaxy's unfortunate sense of humour. Don't you think?"
"My friend, I have absolutely no idea what you're talking about. But I feel sure that, if I did, I would agree. Do you have something in mind?"
"Yes, I do. You fight with staffs. Long ones. Do I take it that you're good with them?"
"We have to be." Asham managed to look both faintly conceited and honestly modest. "They're the only real weapons that we have, save for some slingshots. Admittedly they're not ideal against guns, but they're the best we can do."
"Good." Marcus favoured him with a particularly large grin. "Well, not good good, necessarily. I mean, I'm sorry that you don't have proper weapons, obviously."
"I feel sure that you're heading for something. A point, perhaps?"
"Touché. You know, you have quite a sense of humour for a man who lives in the middle of a mountain, and has lots of people trying to kill him. Somehow I'd have expected you to be a lot more... grouchy."
"When you live inside a mountain, and have lots of people trying to kill you, you have a lot to laugh at, Marcus."
"Yourself, for living inside a mountain? Your reason for living there? Laughing is better than crying, most of the time. Anyway, you had a point that you were getting to."
"Actually I think I was probably going to ramble on quite a bit more first. But yes, there was a point. I'd like to suggest a contest, Asham. It seems that I haven't trained with my own staff since 2261. I'm not sure that you can get rusty in stasis, but I think I should probably get some practice in anyway."
"A contest?" Asham's eyes lit up. "A sporting affair. A Game. We haven't had any Games in years. Since the true Azari began to decimate us we've hardly done anything but run and hide or scrabble for food. But Games? Entertainment. Relaxation, and not hiding in the dark, underground. Perhaps even a little alcohol, if we can find any that isn't too toxic. Marcus, this is a wonderful idea. We can keep each others minds off our sorrows, for a little while."
"Good. Tomorrow then?"
"Wouldn't you rather practice for a while? 2261 - if I understand your dating system correctly - was a long time ago."
"A very long time." For an instant Marcus's eyes were very, very sad, but he struggled back from the brink with an almost visible shake. "But I'm a Ranger. We're always in perfect shape."
"And in perfect modesty?"
"Naturally. It's part of the training." Marcus raised his eyebrows. "So is tomorrow too soon?"
"We don't need to make another raid just yet. I was planning to spend the time training Devel, but the children can have their own Games. We can use the place by the lake. It's big enough."
"Great." Marcus looked extremely satisfied. "I'll look forward to it."
"You should get some sleep in the meantime. There's only one of you, and a lot of us. I think you'll find that there'll be rather a lot of people wanting to try their skills against an outsider."
"The more the merrier." Marcus smiled slightly. "I won't be getting any more sleep tonight, Asham, but thank you for your concern. I'll read for a little longer, and perhaps try to meditate for a while later on. You get some rest though."
"As you wish. Do you promise not to throw any more books around? They're not easily replaced."
"I promise." He smiled more broadly. "Goodnight."
"Goodnight." Asham bowed his head. Marcus returned the gesture, watching as the Drigol left the library. He left his candle behind, for Marcus's own was all but gone. The heavy curtain swished and rattled its way back into place, and Marcus turned his attention back to the shelves. So many books that he wanted to read. So many things that he wanted to find out. How was humanity doing? What was the current great task of the Rangers? What was happening to the Minbari, the Narn, the Centauri? But it was to none of the history books that he turned. To none of the books on politics, or warfare, or current affairs. Instead he went back along the shelves to the book of Minbari poetry that he had first read so long ago. He had struggled through it that first time, still hampered by an unfamiliar tongue. Now he knew that language as well as he knew his own, and he knew some of the poems better than either. Settling down with it beside the stubs of candle, he turned the old, heavy pages, looking for the poem that had always stood out for him. An epic piece, of Valen and the battle against the Shadows. Of the wondrous weapon the legendary Minbari had brought with him to help make that great stand against the enemy. One day, it said, Valen would come back, striding back out of the stars to lead the way once again. A nice thought; but not a very helpful one just now. Choosing something rather less personal, and less inclined to make him brood, Marcus let the gentle words wash over him as he began to read aloud. A thought occurred to him as he did so, and he smiled at the whimsy of it. They had picked up transmissions, in the old days on Babylon 5 - echoes fading into subspace from the future. Voices bringing unexpected messages, caught up in freak twists of time and space. Maybe there was a chance, however slight, that one day his own voice might be one of those messages. That even now, hundreds of years in the past, Susan might be hearing his voice reading ancient Minbari poetry. Not that she would understand it. At the very least it was a thought that made him smile; and with a flash of the sort of optimism that had kept him chasing after her in the first place, made him begin to read aloud in English instead.
The following day dawned bright - not that it showed inside the mountain. Marcus awoke with a jolt, unsure what had awakened him, and realised that he had fallen asleep sitting up in the library, with a pile of books on his lap. The candles had long burnt out, and the room was lit only by a few traces of phosphorescence on the walls. It added a ghostliness that matched his mood as he mulled over his predicament once again. Then with a heavy sigh he jumped to his feet, put away the books, and snapped out his Denn-Bok. Stasis evidently agreed with it - three hundred and thirty-six years without use didn't stop the old mechanism from working beautifully. He went into a series of manoeuvres, whirling the staff with the skill of long practice, not stopping until he had worked up a sweat; then putting the pike away he went off in search of the others. The sooner this contest got started, the better. He was beginning to grow tired of inactivity.
He found the main cavern buzzing. Apparently Asham had wasted no time telling everybody of the Games, and everybody was talking excitedly at once. The cooking fires were already raging, several dozen people were wrapping food up in large leaves, apparently preparing a picnic. Several others were wrestling with heavy stone jars, which very likely contained alcohol. Children were running everywhere, half of them attacking each other with short staffs, clearly having decided to get in some swift practice. Marcus diverted a couple that were in serious danger of upsetting one of the water carriers, then made himself busy as part of the procession carrying supplies outside. The children tagged along, running around and around him in ragged, noisy circles. Asham waved to him as he staggered out, weighed down by a hefty container of water and several loaves of some kind of dark bread.
"I see that you're making friends, Marcus."
"Apparently I'm easily confused with a Maypole. For dancing around." He let Asham unload the bread, then lowered the water to the ground. "You've been busy."
"I had the guards wake me shortly before dawn. There's a lot to get ready for something like this, my friend. Look about you. We don't party often, and it's nice to try it once in a while."
"So I see." Marcus looked around at the lakeside scene; fires already burning, children picking the flowers and threading them into garlands, impatient adolescents already fighting amongst themselves. Faintly hassled looking parents were trying to disentangle their children from minor scrums, drag their other offspring out of the lake, and take their turns at carrying food and water out of the mountain. A young female who looked roughly the equivalent of fourteen to a human, came up bearing a wreath of twigs and creepers, which she presented very formally to Asham. He accepted it gravely, and put it on his head.
"An old custom I assume," he said with some amusement, as soon as she had gone. "I confess I don't study such things, but her father is one of our experts."
"It suits you." Marcus finally chased his young shadows away, watching as they headed straight for the lake. Somebody with a parenting aura about him tried to deflect them, but they hurtled past him with the enthusiasm of puppies let off the lead, and tumbled into the water in a noisy clump. Asham raised his vestigial eyebrows until they disappeared into his wreath.
"You have an interesting effect on my people, Marcus. A few hours amongst us and we're all in full party fever. Except you."
"And you," pointed out Marcus. Asham nodded.
"But I'm the headman. It's my job to be responsible and careful. What's your excuse?"
"Not listening to good advice." Marcus forced a smile. "Perhaps we should both set a good example. Are there more traditions to follow, or can I just challenge you straight away?"
"I've no doubt that there are a hundred traditions." Asham grinned at him. "But no matter. Do you need a staff? I'm sure that there's somebody who'll lend you one."
"No need." Marcus pulled out his Denn-Bok, although he didn't extend it. "I have my own."
"It looks a little short..."
"It'll do the job." Marcus gestured towards the flat stretch of land just beyond the sea of flowers and attendant garland-weavers. "Shall we?"
"Certainly. Just remember that my host's responsibilities only extend to not killing you. I'm perfectly at liberty to thrash you soundly."
"If you can." A wicked look came over Marcus's face as he waggled his still unextended Denn-Bok. "You sure this isn't against the rules?"
"I'm not sure that there are any rules. If you want to fight with something no bigger than your hand, then on your head be it. The loser will have to tend to the cooking fires for the rest of the day, so I hope you know your way around a spit and a stew pot."
"We'll see who winds up doing the cooking." Marcus strode ahead to the fighting ground, then whirled around and activated his pike with a flourish. Asham's stride faltered, but he smiled gamely.
"Sneaky. I should have suspected something."
"Yours is still longer."
"True. But I have a suspicion that length isn't going to be much of an advantage." The Drigol raised his staff in a passing salute. "Ready?"
"Always." With an expression of intensity that showed how much he needed this, Marcus dropped into position. Asham came at him low, but he batted the blow aside with ease, using one end of his pike. A swift swipe up to knock aside a return blow aimed at his head, and then he went on the offensive. He worked Asham backwards some half a dozen paces, then threw himself into a dodge and roll as Asham rallied with an offensive of his own. A shout went up from the other Drigol; clearly they had seen that the fighting had begun. Marcus didn't care. Spectators were unimportant. All that he cared about was that staff, coming down towards his head...
He dodged, spinning aside, whirling the pike one-handed, then spinning around to counter a particularly well placed attack on what should have been his undefended side. Asham, using his greater height and reach, lashed out with one end of his staff, apparently hoping to hook Marcus's feet from under him, but the Ranger, anticipating such a move, leapt nimbly into the air and whipped up the Denn-Bok. It caught Asham solidly in the chest, and one hand slipped from his staff. Marcus brought up his own weapon, and sent the Drigol's staff flying into the air. There was a cheer of congratulation, but only a polite one; with the exception of Maroch and a handful of the children, the Drigol had been firmly on the side of their local boy. Asham laughed uproariously.
"Marcus, my friend, you have a speed I've never seen before!" He clapped the human on the shoulder. "And now it seems that everyone must endure my cooking. So much for this being a party."
"It would have been a lot worse if I'd been the one playing chef, I assure you." Marcus shook hands with his gracious sparring partner, then turned to address the crowd. "Right! Who's next?!"
It turned out to be a very enjoyable morning, at least for Marcus. The challenges came thick and fast, and he didn't have much time to rest between bouts. The Drigol, whose very lives depended on their skills, kept him on his toes; and it was only the superior knowledge of his Minbari instructors that stopped him from crumbling under the attack. Abandoning his cape, and shaking the sweat from his hair, he threw himself into each fight with real gusto. So did the Drigol. In the end it was only the onset of midday, and a general consensus that it was time to eat, which brought the string of challenges to an end. Marcus threw himself into the lake, and floated there, fully clothed, until Asham and Maroch came to fetch him.
"You've only got yourself to blame," announced Maroch, standing at the lakeside with his massive arms folded across his chest. Marcus swam lazily back towards the shallow water.
"It's impolite to turn down a challenge," he insisted. Asham laughed and, striding into the water, pulled Marcus to his feet.
"It's impolite to turn down every challenge," he clarified. "It's good sense to turn down one or two."
"I needed the exercise." Marcus knew that he looked like a fool, dripping wet and clearly exhausted, his long hair hanging down in sodden rats' tails. He shook his head hard, showering water all over his two companions, and sending both of them stumbling out of range. Maroch growled something in his own language that had the universal sound of a swear word.
"We should eat," Asham told them. "Before the others eat everything for us."
"You have that much faith in your cooking?" asked Maroch. Asham laughed.
"Not really. But today we're all hungry." He frowned, looking down at hands burnt by the cooking fires, and clothes spattered with stew. "Although I think it might be time to change the 'the loser of the first contest does the cooking' rule. I'm not sure where that one comes from, anyway."
"Who cares, so long as the food tastes good?" Marcus retrieved his coat, pulling it on over his soaking clothes. "Does the food taste good?"
"I was rather hoping that somebody else would try it first," confessed Asham. Maroch raised what would have been his eyebrows, had he had any.
"You do sound promising."
"For a man who was 'uncomfortable' last night, you're looking pretty relaxed right now," complained their host. Maroch smiled, though with a touch of uncertainty.
"Yes, I do seem to be getting rather used to this place." He cast a look around at the unruly scattering of Drigol, the very race he had been raised to fear and despise. Oddly he felt more at home with them than he had ever felt with anyone before. Asham clapped him on the back.
"Too much reflection isn't allowed at the Games," he said pointedly. "That's why we're having this day. To keep our minds working on other things outside ourselves, rather than inside."
"Some of us are better at it than others," put in Marcus. Asham responded by pushing him over towards the cooking fires.
"Some people just don't like to have a good time," he suggested, and earned a wry smile in response.
Whether Marcus was cheerful enough to pass to muster or not, they had a good meal. They ate the heavy bread, warmed by the fires, and a stew that seemed to be largely made from the flowers that grew around them. It had a spicy flavour, slightly heady to match its scent, that went well with the hot sunshine and sense of fellowship. Around the fires people were still fighting, challenging each other with lazy enthusiasm, and a group of adolescents were fighting beside the lake, trying to push each other in. The smaller children, led by Devel, were trying out some of the moves that they had seen Marcus use, though not with much success. His fighting style had a showmanship about it; a sense of the swashbuckling adventurer, whilst the Drigol's own style was more practical and distinctly less flowery. Marcus smiled at the sight of the children trying to jump and whirl. With more practice and proper teaching they would be good at it; they had a flexibility that their elders seemed to lack. Not that it was a more developed fighting style that the Drigol needed; it was better weapons. That or the removal of their need to fight in the first place.
Midday began to turn into afternoon. Even the children gave up in the unexpected heat, and soon only the adolescents fought on. Marcus sprawled near the lake, letting the sun dry his clothes and hair, staring up at the sky with troubled eyes. He should have been so happy. He had had a hugely enjoyable morning, a wonderful meal, and here he was, relaxing in the sunshine - something that he hadn't had cause to do in a very long time - with friends all about him. He wasn't happy though. Not really. He screwed his eyes up tight, and tried to berate himself for his attitude, but he didn't really feel in the mood for that, either. How was he supposed to feel? When could he expect to be happy again? It was less than a day since he had awoken, he supposed; less than a day was not enough to get used to this. He was still angry with himself though; as much for having woken up at all as for feeling this way about having done so. If he had been just that little bit more deeply unconscious; if the Azari had had more cause to believe him dead; they might have given him up for the same. Then he cursed himself for thinking that way too. Life was sacred; Delenn had always believed that. Had always said that. So had the other Minbari. Life was sacred, and to wish your own away was a terrible sin. You were supposed to live to serve; and if the galaxy wanted you to live, then live you must. He sighed, very long and very hard, and then flickered open his eyes again. The sky was beautiful. Huge and blue and cloudless, and speckled, occasionally, with birds of all colours. Off to one side he could see the top of the cliff, where he had stood the previous day and seen the Drigol for the first time. There were two people up their now, their blue skin just visible, their tattered robes showing them to be more Drigol. Guards, undoubtedly. No matter the fun down here; somebody had to stay on the alert. He stared up at them, thinking about waving, wondering if he should offer to take their place for a while. One of them started to turn, ready to march away to some other sentry point - then crumpled suddenly, and fell to the ground. Marcus frowned, already sitting up, already reaching for his pike, not that it would be much good down here. The second guard fell. Marcus leapt to his feet. He was opening his mouth to shout out; beginning to sound some kind of warning; but there was already people appearing up on the cliff. Twenty of them. Thirty of them. Huge, broad, uniformed. The Azari military. He was yelling then; shouting for everybody to run, to scatter, to look for shelter, but a shadow was falling across them all; a huge, ominous shadow that had come silently and swiftly from nowhere, and now had a definite form. A ship. A huge, black, soundless warship, its hull bristling with guns. Around him the Drigol were starting to scream.
It was a dream, wasn't it? He had drifted off to sleep by the lake, and now he was dreaming. He must be. But he knew that he wasn't. The warship had opened fire, and pulse cannons burnt the earth, chewed up the flowers, evaporated the surface water of the lake. The Azari military were coming down the cliff, their own guns firing, their own targets falling, flowers and petals seeming to be burning everywhere. Scattering everywhere. Garlands burning, wreaths exploding. The cooking fires raging out of control. Marcus shut it all out, running for the advancing military. He had no gun, he had no armour - but he was a Ranger, and he had fought hard odds before. He swung his Denn-Bok. Nobody had been expecting it. The lead soldier went down in a shower of blood. The others were coming then, but he was amongst them and they couldn't use their guns. Not on him. Just on the others. Again and again his pike flashed and leaped; again and again he spun and ducked and wove. They were using their rifles like clubs, but he was fast. He was angry; lethally so; and he had all the righteous energy of the Army Of Light - but he was also hopelessly outnumbered. He had fought ten before, and won; twelve, fifteen, twenty. But he couldn't fight a hundred. Not that he didn't go on trying. On and on whilst the pulse cannons blazed and the fires raged on, and the screaming of the Drigol began to fade. Not until the Azari bore him to the ground, through sheer weight of numbers, and he could no longer see or breathe. No longer do anything but listen; until the screams ebbed and faded, and there was nothing left to hear.
He awoke to discomfort, and the strong sense that he had been worked over by experts. A metal floor; a grimy metal floor; and the buzz of quiet conversation. Inside the warship then, he reasoned, and opened his eyes to find out. Sure enough, the place had the look of a ship about it; metal plating and grilles, electrical leads up in the ceiling. There were a lot of people around, too. By the look of things they had all been herded into the hold. He sat up.
"Marcus!" Asham was sitting beside him, his face badly bruised, the skin now patched in blue and grey-black. He looked pale and deathly tired, or perhaps just sickened. The wreath that the girl had given to him earlier in the day was in his hands now, twisted out of shape, tattered and wretched. Marcus smiled grimly.
"Devel?" he asked. Asham nodded.
"He's alive." He sounded grateful for the display of concern. "They killed nearly half of us, Marcus. Nearly a thousand of my people, gunned down in their droves."
"And Maroch?" Marcus couldn't see him, but a hand landed lightly on his shoulder.
"Here, my friend." Maroch also bore the marks of battle, the grey-black of his own bruises giving him and Asham a similarity of colouring that could almost have made them look related. Asham smiled at him.
"Friend Maroch managed to get most of the children into the lake. A few of them are a little scalded, but I think they're all still alive. If it hadn't been for his quick thinking, I don't like to wonder at how many of them we would have lost."
"Children die all too easily in battles," muttered Maroch. He looked embarrassed at Asham's gratitude. "What was I supposed to do, Asham? Those were my people shooting at you. I couldn't do anything to stop them. The least that I could do was try to help minimise the damage."
"Perhaps." Asham fell silent, looking out at the sea of people, all huddled together in the dark, dirty room. "I wonder where they're taking us?"
"They didn't kill everybody outright. They must have something planned." Marcus didn't like to wonder what. A show trial? Was the warship going to crash somewhere, once the crew had evacuated, and deal with the Drigol problem nice and cheaply? There were all kinds of things that a government could do to rid itself of unwanted sections of its populace. History had that much to tell. Asham was still looking away.
"I wish that I could believe they just want to relocate us," he said quietly. "Put us somewhere else, where they can forget about us. They want us gone from where we live so that they can have their settlements and their research centres, and so that they can check for natural resources that were out of reach when they believed this part of the world to be poisoned. We'd be willing to move away if we have to. They never seem to think about asking us."
"You shouldn't have to move," muttered Maroch. He was clearly feeling terribly guilty, but Asham didn't feel able to put his mind at rest, and Marcus didn't know what to say. Asham grunted a wordless reply.
"Is this everybody?" asked Marcus eventually. Asham nodded.
"Everybody who survived," he said unhappily. "Oh don't get me wrong; there are other settlements. Two that I know of, both quite a lot smaller than ours. I doubt that either of them would have any chance of defending themselves if we can't."
"If this is part of some concerted new campaign, I doubt any of them have a chance." Maroch looked like he could kick himself. "I'm sorry Asham. I--"
"Do you think hiding from the truth is a better idea?" Asham managed to smile at him. "I have no illusions, Maroch. I'm just glad that I had the chance to get to know one of the true Azari. At least now I know that you're not all killers. That you're not all bad people."
"Then you feel rather more charitable towards my people than I do right now." Maroch looked around at the Drigol, wondering what they were thinking of him. They had all been friends just a short time before. Now he felt terrible. Terrible about what had happened; about what was going to happen; and about what these thousand odd people were feeling towards him. He was what they must hate most right now; a representation of their hated enemies. Their oppressors. Their murderers. All sense of warmth had gone. Marcus didn't know what to say to either of them. Asham was watching him now though, a reflective look upon his face.
"Marcus..." he began, apparently without knowing how to continue. Marcus didn't press him, but merely met his gaze and waited. Asham sighed. "Marcus, I don't think that they're likely to kill you as well. Nobody would ever know if they did; I appreciate the fact that there's nobody who's going to come looking for you - without wanting to seem insensitive about your position - but all the same, I don't think they'd do it."
"I might not be planning to give them a choice," suggested the Ranger, who was still simmering about his earlier inability to make any real difference to anything. Asham smiled very faintly.
"I hope that you'll be more sensible than that, my friend. If they don't kill you, I want you to promise me something. Get off world as soon as you can. Go somewhere. Anywhere. Tell the people that you find there about our situation. Tell them about the Drigol, and tell them what's being done to us. What has been done to us. Maybe they can bring some pressure to bear. Maybe they can do something. Like I said, there are still two more settlements somewhere, and they might have a chance even if we don't. Something might still be done for them. So you forget about being angry, and about risking your life just to fight back against these people, and you promise me, Marcus. You too Maroch. I don't know what they'll do with you, but again they may well let you live."
"I promise." Maroch looked pale and sick, but he also looked grave and determined. "I promise that I'll go straight back to my ship, and fly to the first inhabited planet I know of. I'll get in touch with journalists, and the Interstellar Alliance, and everybody else who might be able to do something to help out here. And if I can't do that, Marcus will. He has the Rangers on his side."
"Although admittedly they might be rather surprised to see me." Marcus nodded slowly. "Alright, Asham. If it's what you want, then I promise. But it hasn't come to that yet. They might not be planning to kill any of us. And even if they do try, we might be able to stop them. This is a big ship. If we could get control of it..."
"A useless dream, my friend." Asham smiled at the idea anyway. "There may be a good number of us, but we don't have any weapons, and we can't get out of this room. Even if we could, we'd never find our way to the control room. And even if we could do that, we'd never be able to fly this thing. Between us we've read all of the books in our library, and there are plenty of books there on the technicalities of flight; but to put it into practice?"
"Not a problem," mused Maroch. They both looked at him and he shrugged. "We have compulsory military service, I'm sure you know that, Asham. I've done more than one tour of duty in a warship like this. I think we're in the primary hold, in which case I can take you to the bridge easily. I know the way better than I know the way around my own house. As for flying it; that's simple. It pretty much flies itself once the course is laid in. All you'd have to do is watch a few instruments, and you'd soon get the hang of that. Marcus must know something about flight too."
"The only ships of this size that I've flown have been ones of Minbari design. Rather different I'd imagine." Marcus shrugged. "But the theory is usually the same."
"The only problem for you would be translation." Maroch managed a rather shaky smile. "If we could only deal with the crew, the rest would be easy; if we could get out of here."
"Which is very likely impossible." Asham shook his head. "It's nice to have dreams and ideas, but there's no sense in being too fanciful. It's hopeless. I'm not fool enough to believe otherwise. We're unarmed. They have guns."
"They may not be able to fire them. Certain parts of the ship are too sensitive for the discharge of high energy beam weapons." Maroch frowned, and dug his hand into a pocket, producing a small grey cylinder. "And we're not entirely unarmed. I was able to retrieve this, Marcus. By the time anybody got around to realising which side of the battle I was on, I'd managed to work out how to fold it up. Nobody thought to take it away from me."
"Wonderful!" Marcus climbed to his feet, pleased to discover that his injuries didn't object too much, and extended the pike. It was marked with blood, dried now, and he cleaned it off as best he could on his coat. It would need a proper clean later; caring for the Denn-Bok was impressed very firmly upon everybody who ever had cause to learn the use of one. He folded it up again, and stowed it away. "Still; one of these isn't much use against goodness knows how many of them."
"A full crew would be three hundred on a ship of this type," filled in Maroch helpfully. "I'd doubt that they'd take a full compliment on a job like this one though. We may all have been brought up to hate the Drigol, and these people may be well trained soldiers; but you couldn't count on that many people to take part in a full scale massacre without at the very least kicking up a fuss. I doubt there's more than half the full crew on board."
"So we only have one hundred and fifty armed men to fight." Asham's tone of voice was light; even joking; but it managed to be firm at the same time. The conversation was over. He didn't want any more discussion of plans to take over the ship. Maroch bowed to his authority.
"Shame there are no windows down here," he said in the end. "There's a lot of this part of the planet that I haven't seen before. I didn't recognise some of the plants growing beside the lake, and there's bound to be others that I don't know. Seems a shame not to see them now."
"Are we low enough?" asked Marcus. Maroch shrugged.
"I can't be sure, but usually you can tell in one of these things when you're rising, and we didn't seem to go up very far. We'd know if we'd left the atmosphere, anyway. This is a cargo hold; it's not fitted with all the comforts of long haul space flight. Once you hit space the lights go out. And they haven't."
"Then we're still on your homeworld, at least to a degree." Marcus wished that he could work out why. They must be going somewhere, and for a reason. As if in promise of an answer, a loud grating noise came from the far end of the hold. Maroch glanced up.
"The doors," he said, although by then the others had guessed what the noise meant. The three of them stood up, Asham motioning for his compatriots to remain seated. Some half a dozen soldiers entered quickly.
"Anybody who tries to move won't make it very far," shouted out the first, in an ugly, grating voice rather like the sound of the door. He didn't use a language that Marcus recognised, and he realised that this must be his first proper experience with the local language. Asham frowned too, showing that the native language of the Drigol was different to that of the Azari, at least to some extent. Despite the guard's likely intentional failure to warn against movement in a language that any of the prisoners save Maroch could understand, still nobody moved. The guard looked almost disappointed. "The Azari, the human and your leader are wanted by the captain," he added, letting his eyes float lazily over the prisoners, even though it must have been obvious to him which were the three that he wanted. Clearly he enjoyed the sight of the captive Drigol huddled together in the cold, hard space. Maroch stepped forward. The threat about not moving hadn't impressed him, for he felt sure that nobody was going to shoot him; not if he was intended for an audience with the captain.
"We're here," he said pointedly. The six guards stared back at him, showing disappointment at the lack of resistance. The first one shrugged his massive shoulders.
"Fine. Get moving. And if any of you tries anything, I'll start shooting the others."
"There won't be any need for that." Maroch turned to his two companions, switching back to English with barely a thought. "They want to speak to the three of us upstairs. Go easy. I think tempers are a little frayed."
"So I gather." Taking the lead, Asham walked forward with his head held high. He didn't speak to his people; there seemed little point in risking deviating from his orders just for a pep-talk. Marcus and Maroch followed on after him, trying to ignore the many eyes that followed their progress. The Drigol were watching everything with suspicion, and what looked like a general loss of hope. The guards moved aside to let them pass through the doorway, but they did it with the air of people who enjoyed knowing that they had the upper hand. There was tension in everything, and the dark metal corridor that stretched away out of the hold sang with it, in every echoing footstep.
"So we were in the primary hold," said Maroch, apparently rather pleased at having been right. The guards eyed him sourly, but none of them said anything. He wondered if they even understood English. Even though it was a common character trait amongst the people of his world that they liked to learn languages, there were those from the lower social orders who never had the opportunity. Libraries and educations tended to cost money; especially if you wanted to learn about other worlds. Unless you were the Drigol of course, in which case such things cost lives instead. Strange to think of them, over the years, risking everything to amass a library of their own. He didn't blame them. Why deny your children an education just because you were outcasts? Although the true Azari had been denying many of their own people an education for generations, just because they couldn't pay for it.
"Does that help us at all?" asked Marcus, with faint amusement. Maroch blinked, momentarily wondering if he had spoken his thoughts about education aloud. He caught on, and shook his head.
"About the hold? No, not really. I was just glad to see that I still remember my way about one of these things. I wonder if we're going to the bridge?"
"And if there's any chance of us seizing control when we get there?"
"Something like that." The Azari smiled, somewhat embarrassed. "Although I confess that that mightn't have been one of my better ideas. The chances of us taking on even half the ship's crew and winning - or even surviving, come to that - are about a thousand to one."
"We'll see what they want us for, first." Asham spoke quietly, but the tone in his voice was hard. His words surprised the others, for before he had been completely against even the discussion of taking over the ship. Now it almost sounded as though he was willing to give it a go. The guards pushed them onwards, obviously annoyed with the talking, and they proceeded in silence for some way, down the corridor, around a ninety degree bend, a fair distance upwards in a distinctly rattly lift. Maroch broke the silence, when the lift doors opened, by loudly declaring that they did seem to be on their way to the bridge. The corridor that they were in now looked just the same as the one that they had been in before, but Marcus and Asham didn't like to argue. They were pushed on down the corridor, to a pair of large, faintly imposing, black metal doors. One of the guards pressed a button on the bulkhead, and the doors slid open. On the other side, unmistakably, was the bridge. Maroch beamed triumphantly.
"See? The bridge."
"We see." Marcus allowed the guards to push him into the large room, despite the fact that he had been in the act of entering anyway, perfectly happily. He wanted to be in there, after all. Asham was looking about with an obvious interest that he was not doing a great job of disguising. It was a room full of consoles, adorned with what looked like an extremely unnecessary amount of flashing lights, and a definitely unnecessary number of buttons and things that beeped. It looked like it was supposed to have a staff of about thirty - at least five of whom would have been surplus to requirements as far as Marcus could see - but currently held only twelve. Twelve tall, chunky, uniformed Azari, all staring at the new arrivals as they came through the door. It wasn't the greatest welcoming committee that he had ever encountered.
"Captain." Maroch smiled politely at the man in the command chair; an imperious type in a uniform that suggested style rather than practicality. The man nodded back at him.
"Captain," he returned, somewhat coldly. His eyes carried the hint of disdain that was so often bestowed upon traitors. "It's Captain... Maroch, isn't it?" He spoke with faint disinterest, his tone of voice showing that he already well knew the answer to his question. Maroch nodded.
"I'm honoured," he said, clearly without meaning it. "And whom do I have to honour of addressing?"
"Captain Grash," the imposing figure declared, in a manner that suggested the name was supposed to mean something. Maroch nodded, indicating that, to him at least, it was a name that carried some weight.
"Hero of the Battle Of Morek," he announced to his companions, neither one of whom showed the apparently requisite awe. "Space pirates," he qualified. "They used to attack our geological vessels. For the minerals. Captain Grash destroyed every one of their vessels by shooting one of his own and setting off a chain reaction. An interesting tactic, though not one that I'd be terribly comfortable trying myself."
"Yes, well we're not all traitors and renegades, are we, Maroch. Presumably you'd have sided with the pirates." Grash rose to his feet, clearly deciding that it was time he flaunted his superior height over Marcus and Asham. He paced up and down, eyeing them both with a calculating interest. "And here we have the real prize. Not the traitor. Not even the man from another time that the medical research lot are so anxious to get back. But this." He stopped in front of Asham and looked him up and down. "I confess I'd expected something a little more impressive from a race that's been such a thorn in our sides for so many generations. I'd certainly assumed that you'd be bigger. More... impressive. You're really not all that much to look at, are you."
"I suppose that depends on your point of view." Keeping his voice even, Asham glanced across at Marcus, who was following the conversation with a well hidden interest. He hadn't been expecting it to be conducted in English, but clearly this pompous soldier wanted to be sure that all of his prisoners understood what was going on. Grash nodded.
"I suppose it probably does, yes. And from my point of view, you're really not all that much to look at. You're barely the size of one of our adolescents. You don't look as though you could fight one of them without coming off worst. And your skin... the hair... no wonder they call you people deformed."
"We're happy with the way we look." Asham's voice was cool, still carrying its accustomed dignity. Grash harrumphed loudly.
"Yes, well. Apparently the research lot are rather interested in the way that you look." He clearly didn't share the fascination. "You're lucky; if it had been up to me you'd never even have been taken prisoner. I could easily have shot down the whole lot of you. But I had my orders. Somebody wants to know what makes you tick, Drigol. And that somebody plans to find out."
"I beg your pardon?" The back of Asham's neck was beginning to prickle, and the sensation was an unpleasant one - though not as unpleasant as the suspicion beginning to form in the back of his mind. "How exactly do they plan to--"
"Research. Fascinating area or so they tell me." Grash turned away, pacing back to his chair with imperious steps. "Long overdue, the scientific types say. They want to find out why you are what you are. Why you differ from us, and how. The way you work, the way you don't work. Perhaps it'll lead to a greater understanding of ourselves, although personally I don't see how. At any rate, the whole lot of you are being taken to our biggest, best and most impressive medical laboratory - which, apparently, seems to have been constructed for just this purpose - and in a very short space of time our finest scientists will be... getting under the skin of the Drigol problem, shall we say. Captain Maroch will probably receive a custodial sentence in one of the outlying prisons - I haven't been made privy to those details. Still, treachery carries a fairly heavy penalty as far as I'm aware, especially for somebody who works in the public sector. The only question apparently remaining is what to do with you." His eyes alighted upon Marcus, who was staring at him now with the sort of shocked, horror-stricken expression that was generally only a hair's breadth away from a violent explosion. Grash smiled at him. "I see that you don't think much of our plans for the Drigol. Perhaps it's yourself that you should be worried about. Nobody in this galaxy knows about you, human. Nobody. The Interstellar Alliance isn't going to be sending investigators to find out what happened to you if you never reappear in your own part of space. And there really is a lot of interest in you amongst the scientists. Something to do with long term cryo freezing. I suspect they want to take you apart and see what the effects were."
"This is..." Words failed Maroch for a moment; something that did not happen to him often. "This is insane. Criminal. Unacceptable. Captain Grash, I demand to speak to somebody in authority - and real authority, I mean. Not you. Somebody in government. You can't expect to turn Asham and his companions over to scientists who plan to dissect them. They're just like us."
"Looks like it." Grash sat down again, waving an arm disinterestedly. "Anyway, it's not up to me. I'm just here to deliver the goods. Just be glad that nobody's found any reason for dissecting you yet, Maroch. If I suggest that you might have been brainwashed, you might be finding yourself under the knife after all."
"Now wait just a minute. I--"
"Captain..." Asham's voice was quiet and gentle, though as firm as ever. "Please. I don't want you risking harm just to argue a point for me and my people. We never expected mercy. You know that."
"But this?! Asham, do you know what they have planned for you? Experimentation? Dissection? You'll all die horrible deaths! You can't--"
"Captain." Asham smiled at him almost as a father might smile at his son. "As I said, we never expected mercy. We've never asked for it." He looked towards Grash, who seemed rather disappointed. Apparently he had had his own motives for informing the prisoners of what lay ahead, and it had presumably involved begging and violence. He certainly hadn't been counting on level-headedness and dignity. "Captain Grash? May I be permitted to return below decks now? I should be with my people, to prepare them for what lies ahead."
"Hmm. Huh." Grash was searching for words, or more specifically for insults. In the end he merely waved dismissively at the guards. They crashed to attention, and Marcus felt his arms taken from behind. It was all that he could do to fight back the urge to lash out; to unleash his anger; to let these people know exactly what he thought of their plans for his friends. He let them pull him back though; let them snatch him back out into the corridor; until the doors slammed shut and the repugnant Captain Grash was gone from sight. Only then did he pull his arms free, pointedly and with energy, and glare hard enough at the guards to deter them from taking hold again too soon. He drew in a deep and furious breath.
"That was illuminating," commented Asham. The guards began to prod them back down the corridor, and Maroch looked across at him as they walked.
"Illuminating? I'd choose a different word. Hideous? Evil? Unimaginable? Asham, I--"
"Don't worry, my friend. I assure you that I do comprehend the situation fully. I discouraged any further displays of rage simply because they would have achieved nothing, save perhaps for causing your death or injury. And if you're dead or injured, you're not going to be of any use to us."
"Use?" Casting a furtive glance at the guards, unwilling to trust that they couldn't understand what was being said, Maroch leaned closer. "Then you have something in mind?"
"No. Sadly not. But clearly we must try something. I may appear calm and accepting, Maroch; but if you think that I have any intention of allowing my people to be used as experiments in some ghastly programme of scientific research, then you can think again. My people have every right to life - unthreatened life - as do yours. And we will fight for that right."
"We have to take the ship." Marcus spoke very quietly, although his voice managed to carry well to his two companions. Maroch felt a thrill of excitement, though at the same time he was already telling himself that it was hopeless. A useless dream, just as Asham had said back in the hold. This time, however, the Drigol leader was nodding.
"It would appear so."
"How?" Maroch was stunned. He had suggested it before more as a desperate fantasy than with any real sense of it being possible. He couldn't begin to imagine how they might accomplish it. Marcus, however, seemed to be far ahead of him.
"Take the ship," he mused thoughtfully. "And fly it away from here. Right away. You don't have any chance on this planet, Asham; but others would welcome you. Fly far away and don't look back."
"I'm inclined to think that you might be right, my friend, however much I love my own planet." Asham shook his head sadly, his eyes on faraway sights. For the first time they saw the anger that he must be feeling; but he was skilled enough to bring it back under control straight away. "But firstly we must take the ship. Firstly we must get back into that control room, and take care of the soldiers there. Of Captain Grash. And we have the rest of the crew to think about. All before we arrive at our destination."
"Which can't be long." Maroch felt his heart sink still further. The warship was undoubtedly travelling at a good speed, and there were only a limited number of places where this big new research centre could have been built. None of them were hugely far from the lake where they had been captured. They surely must have only a very limited time left. The situation felt more hopeless than ever. Marcus, however, was beginning to smile.
"We might just have a chance," he said, speaking in the sort of distant voice that suggested he was merely thinking aloud. "It's a long shot, mind."
"We'll take whatever shot we can." Asham stole a glance back over his shoulder at the impassive members of the guard. "Just what is this plan?"
"When we're back in the hold." Marcus looked as though he was planning to sink into thought, his eyes taking on a faraway look of deep consideration. Maroch didn't like to wonder what was going on in that peculiar mind. Whatever it was, it was unlikely to be very sensible. How could it be when the topic of thought was taking over this ship, with its large, armed crew? Granted the Drigol were in the majority here, but they hardly had a position of power. It all seemed so ridiculous. So insane. And so horribly, horribly necessary. He hoped that Marcus knew what he was doing; if not, the consequences would be fatal. But then, he thought to himself, as the lift ground to a halt, and he stepped out into another black metal corridor, dying in battle was probably preferable to being dissected in some laboratory. When you had nothing to lose, useless dreams were better than no dreams at all. Asham and his people were going to die anyway. The least he could do, he supposed, was offer to die with them. Strangely the thought made him feel better than he had felt in some time.
The hold was silent, eerily so given the contained, echoing quality of the place. The lack of speech, lack of any real noise, was emphasised ten-fold. Nobody asked what had happened, but Asham told them anyway. He knew that he had to. Even then nobody spoke.
"We have two choices," he told them, feeling as though he were handing out their death sentences himself. "We can fight, and perhaps gain control of this ship, or we can allow ourselves to be led to our deaths. I don't plan to do the latter, but your lives are your own. At least until we get to where we're going."
"But surely there's nothing that we can do?" One of the men, whom Marcus vaguely remembered beating soundly during the contest earlier in the day, looked up from his place comforting a small child. "There's no way out of this room."
"Oh there is." Marcus was looking about, taking in every inch of the black metal bulkheads and flooring. "As it happens we're surrounded by ways out; we just have to know what to do with them."
"And are you planning on letting any of us in on the idea?" Maroch, caught between frustration, anger and anxiety, with Marcus being the cause of none of them, realised that he was directing the three feelings at the human anyway, and scowled. "None of us can see any way out just now."
"In a moment." Marcus fixed him with his bright, dark stare. "Is there an auxiliary bridge? I know that a lot of ships have them, but what about Azari vessels?"
"Yes, there should be one. Up one level. It'll have limited function of course, but you can fly the ship from there, and do one or two other things. Marcus--"
"And can you lock out the main bridge? Stop them from regaining control?"
"Of course. It's one of the functions of an auxiliary bridge. You need the ship's security code though, and even then anybody determined enough could break in through the door eventually. They'd only need a bit of time and some heavy duty cutting gear; and believe me, they'll have both."
"Shouldn't matter." Marcus was nodding slowly. "Okay. The security code. Do you know it?"
"Know it? This isn't my ship!"
"No, but you said that you served on these things in the past. Can you make an educated guess?"
"I-- Well yes, actually. Since the assumption has always been that another Azari would never be a threat, anybody with military service behind him could probably guess. All the same..."
"Just think. The code."
"It'll be letters and numbers. The letters will be part of the ship's own serial number and the numbers the year of its manufacture. But Marcus--"
"Never mind the doubts. Can you make a guess about the year this thing was built?"
"I can certainly make a guess."
"Fine. How about the serial number?"
"It'll be inscribed in the deck plating somewhere." He sighed again, clearly tired. "Marcus, it doesn't matter anyway. We can't get out of here. This isn't going to work."
"Worry about that later." Marcus was already searching, pulling aside sleeping children, and smiling cheerily at anybody who looked likely to complain. He found what he was looking for in the end; a heavy piece of metal plating with something stamped on it. He couldn't make head nor tail of it, but it looked hopeful. He waved Maroch over, and the big captain nodded.
"That's the serial number. The first half of the security code should be the three letters prefixing it."
"So what about the year of manufacture?"
"I really think you're getting a lot of hopes up over nothing here." Maroch recognised the stubbornness and determination in the human's eyes, and shook his head wearily. "Alright, alright. This is the same kind of ship that I did my military service in - you can see that it's been in service a while. So go back perhaps fifty years. A little more. I'd say... some time between 5930 and 40."
"That's a pretty big margin for error!"
"That's hardly my fault!" Maroch sighed. "Alright, look. I joined up for my military service in 5938. I did my basic training on a vessel like this one. Just like this one. It looked very new; only a few years in service at the most. So we assume that this class of vessel was probably commissioned between about 5933 and 35. But I'm just guessing."
"Three years to choose from is better than ten. So now you know what the security code will be?"
"Could be! We still have three possible years, remember! That makes three possible codes."
"Then write them down." He fumbled around in his pockets, but could only produce his faithful bouncing ball and a piece of coloured Minbari crystal. "If you have anything to write on, that is."
"I don't." Maroch was beginning to look decidedly testy again, but a small hand pulled very gently on Marcus's long coat. It was Devel.
"Here." His voice was more accented than his father's; he didn't have anything like the fluency with alien languages that his elders enjoyed; but he had understood enough to know the crux of the problem. He held out a piece of heavily creased, apparently hand-made paper, and what looked like a crayon. It was blue, and the crushed flowers that gave it its colour stuck out along its length like flies trapped in amber. Marcus smiled.
"Thank you." He handed the crayon and the paper to Maroch. "Now write."
"Fine. If you want to snatch at the stars, you're the fool who's going to get his fingers burnt." Maroch scrawled a succession of spidery symbols on the paper. "Now what?"
"One of these is the code that'll give the auxiliary bridge full control of the ship?"
"No. One of these will possibly give it full control. I can't give you any assurances."
"But you've given me your best guess. I don't believe in luck, Captain. If we're supposed to get out of here, one of these codes will be the right one." He took the piece of paper, and stared at the symbols - all meaningless to him of course. Maroch folded his arms again.
"So now what? Where are these ways out that you said were all around us? How exactly do we get to the auxiliary bridge?"
"We don't. There'll be other things for us to worry about." Marcus gestured about the hold, at the several air vents that were dotted about the place. "Those are the ways out."
"Them? Are you insane? Marcus, even you couldn't fit through them, and in case you hadn't noticed, we're all just a little bigger than you are."
"So you are." Marcus's eyes drifted to Devel, still standing beside them, and listening with a frown of heavy concentration. "But those vents are just the right size for some of us."
"The children? You want to send the children crawling about out there? They won't be able to get out into the corridor to free us, you know. There are armed guards out there. There's sure to be."
"I'm betting that there are." Marcus was speaking softly now, but with gentle, firm assurance. "The children will have to be the ones to go to the auxiliary bridge. They can seal themselves in, input the codes, gain control of the ship - and then probably open these doors from there. We outnumber the Azari. Sheer force of numbers will be on our side."
"If, the children can get to the auxiliary bridge. If they can gain control. If they can let us out of here. They could just as easily all get shot. What if they can't open the hold? We'll be stuck in here whilst the military breaks into the auxiliary bridge and kills them all. What if they crash the ship? They've never flown it before. What if the codes don't work in the first place?"
"And what if they do?" Marcus looked around at the children, some of them impossibly young, others lithe and strong, just like young Devel. The adolescents; the tough, stronger children that he had watched fighting so well at the contest, were already too big to make it through the air vents. This really would have to be a job for the young. He lowered his eyes, not quite ready to face Maroch's disbelieving stare. "If we don't escape, the children will die too. It's their lives that are at stake."
"No." It was Asham, moving forward to stand alongside Marcus. He had been keeping very quiet since announcing their situation to his people, listening to the ongoing argument about security codes without any apparent interest. Now he laid a hand on Marcus's shoulder. "He's right, Maroch. The children will die too. It's their fight, just as much as it is that of all of the Drigol here today. I don't like to think of them having to do this, but clearly somebody has to. And if it has to be them, then it has to be them." He looked down at Devel, who had clearly understood enough of the conversation to know what was happening. "Did you follow all of that?"
"Not... quite." The boy looked very proud all of a sudden; very much his father's son. "But enough."
"And can you explain to them how to get to this 'auxiliary bridge' from here?" Asham's calm, determined eyes stared straight at Maroch, showing quite openly his fear for what he was asking his son to do. Maroch nodded.
"I believe so." Without another word, he took the piece of paper back from Marcus and drew a roughly sketched map. He pointed to the hold on it, then to a square that represented the children's goal. Finally he turned in a rough circle, eyeing all four of the air vents, and pointed to one of them in particular. "That one. If we can get it open, that's the one we want."
"Good." Asham nodded curtly. "Then the two of you get to work opening it. I'm going to speak to my people. I can't send Devel alone."
"He'll need at least three people with him," Maroch told him, still clearly unhappy with it all. "When you've got your volunteers, bring them to me, and I'll give them a quick lesson or two in how to handle one of these things. Hopefully all they'll have to do is set the computer to fly itself, but they'll still need to know what they're doing."
"Thank you." Asham bowed his head, a troubled man going off to make a terrible request. Marcus and Maroch watched him leave, then turned their attentions to the air vent.
"It's probably never been opened," Maroch commented. Marcus nodded.
"Then we'd better get to work, hadn't we." He extended his pike, and jammed one end into the grille. It should hold; he had never known anything yet that could snap a Denn-Bok. "Grab hold of this."
"And then pull." Maroch smiled very faintly. "You'd better be stronger than you look, my friend."
"I am." Marcus smiled too, equally faintly, and equally without any humour. "And very, very angry."
"Ah." Maroch laid hold of the makeshift lever, and nodded understandingly. "Then perhaps we have a chance after all."
The grille, with predictable disregard for their strength and their anger, took a great deal of time to break free. When it came at last it did so with such a rush that both men fell, and the grille itself crashed after them. Only the unexpected cushion of Maroch's sizeable chest prevented it from hitting the ground; which would have caused a noise that would have been impossible to disguise. Maroch didn't really appreciate the blow, even if it had preserved their secrecy. He coughed noisily, badly winded and left with extremely sore ribs. Marcus helped him to stand.
"I know it won't make you feel much better," the human offered with a characteristic lightness of tone, "but it was very considerate of your chest to stick itself in the way just then." Maroch growled something in his own language, and Marcus raised an eyebrow.
"It's remarkable what transcends the language barrier, isn't it."
"I speak nearly one hundred languages with full fluency, my friend." Recovering enough breath to speak properly, Maroch managed a faintly agonised smile. "And I've discovered that certain swear words sound almost the same in all of them."
"No wonder they're the first foreign words most people learn." Marcus peered into the air vent. It really was very small; no doubt a security precaution. Whoever had designed the ship had probably never imagined that one day it would be children planning to illegally take control. He heard footsteps, and turned around to see Devel coming their way, leading four children of roughly his own size. One was female, the other three male, and they had the poise that showed that their training as fighters had already begun. They didn't snap to attention, but that was just about all that they didn't do. Devel put his hands behind his back and straightened his shoulders.
"So you're my students." Maroch eyed them all sadly, with the horrible feeling that this might be the last lesson they would ever learn. "We'll need a translator. I can't be sure that you'll understand everything otherwise."
"That will be my task." The voice was that of a aged-looking female Drigol, speaking to him in fluent Azari. He smiled his appreciation of the gesture, then turned to Marcus; but the human had gone. Maroch frowned.
"Where-?" he began. Devel pointed.
"Over there," he said without preamble. Maroch looked. With the speedy and silent tread that had helped to make him such an excellent Ranger, Marcus had taken himself almost to the other side of the hold. He seemed to be looking for weapons amongst the largely unpromising collection of junk left in the room; a few pieces of rusted pipe that might be useful, and a much larger number of other things that clearly wouldn't. Maroch wondered what he had in mind, and hoped that it was something that would get them out of the hold, whether or not the children could open the doors. He tore his attention away from his roving human friend, and switched it back to the little class in front of him. The first children he had ever taught; the first and most important lesson that he would ever give. The eyes that stared up at him were terribly eager; terribly proud; and he found himself believing, for the first time, that the little band might just be capable. Children they might be; the sort of children with which he was familiar they were not. Besides; there were none of them who had any chance. Gathering them about him, with nothing but Devel's drawing paper and crayon to help out, he began to talk fast.
When they sent the children off, Marcus wasn't there. Maroch couldn't see him anymore; the human had gathered together a group of Drigol and was talking to them earnestly, hidden from sight by their company. There were eight of them; all the ones that he had considered to be the most adept at fighting, either because of their skirmishes with him, or because of other fights that he had seen them engaged upon during the contest. After his hunt for possible weapons, he had armed them somewhat optimistically with three lengths of old pipe, a broken plank, a very short length of chain and an exceedingly rusty spanner. The other two would have to go unarmed. Gathering them together by the door, already in eager anticipation of a liberation that might never come, he got them all earnestly rehearsing with their makeshift weapons. When - not if, Marcus thought fiercely - the doors opened, they would have an unknown number of guards to deal with; quickly, before they could open fire. After that they were to be the vanguard of the Drigol breakout; the main soldiers fighting a very uncertain battle. One hundred and fifty Azari was quite an obstacle to freedom, especially given the average size of the race; and presumably they would all be armed. A thousand raging Drigol could put up quite a fight themselves though - and that, coupled with the advantage that the foothold in the auxiliary bridge ought to give them, should make victory certain; if not exactly easy.
For Devel, such confidences and worries were a minor consideration. All he knew about was the closeness of the air conditioning pipe; the way that the hard metal pressed against his thin shoulders, and the jutting bolts and seams between sections dug into his knees. The paper inside his ragged shirt crackled against his skin, and heated by his increased body temperature, it gave off a thick crayon smell. He hushed his companions, worried by the sound they were making as they crashed against their metal surroundings. Anas, the youngest of them, trailed behind, and they had to try to hurry him along. Despite the fact that they were in an air vent, there didn't seem to be much air, and the atmosphere soon grew close. The tension didn't help. Even though he was highly nervous about all that he had to do next, Devel was relieved when they reached the grille that Maroch had told him to watch out for. Unlike the grille in the hold this one was far less heavy duty, and with a bit of necessarily noisy kicking, it swung open, hanging precariously on what seemed to be a hinge. Now Devel knew that they were working with borrowed time.
He jumped down, landing heavily, not bothering to be quiet or careful. Instead he raced to the central console. Behind him Feros was also landing, dashing to the doors and shutting them with a blow to a safety panel fixed to the wall. Devel heard the doors clang shut with even more noise than his kicking at the grille, and started to work faster still. He couldn't remember the codes. Dragging the paper out, he turned it over, staring at the figures. They didn't mean much to him; they were in Azari, and his own language differed substantially, but Maroch had assured him that it wouldn't matter. Feverishly he began pressing buttons; the big white one to power up the console; three small red ones, in sequence, to tell the computer to expect the code - and then the first code itself. Nothing happened. The computer screen blinked at him. He licked his lips and typed in the second code. Nothing. The third code. Still nothing. Outside the door he heard footsteps; shouting; fists hammering on the door. If he couldn't gain control of the ship, those doors would open in seconds. He stared at the paper. At the codes. Remembered what Maroch had said about years. The years when the ship might have been built? He thought that that was what the conversation had been about, although he hadn't known all of the words. He took a chance. The strange human might not believe in luck - but Devel did. Hoping that he was interpreting the unfamiliar numbers correctly, he tried the next year up in the sequence; 5936 instead of 5935. He pressed the key-in button, no longer able to breathe - and the computer screen flashed at him, and told him that he was in. He felt the strength threaten to leave his legs, but didn't dare to close his eyes as he wanted to do.
"Places everyone." His voice wasn't as strong as he wanted it to be, but then none of the other children were looking as strong as they would probably like. They gathered around him; young Anas to the security console, Feros to look for the control that should open the hold; Damon to navigation and Elis to the flight controls. She, of all of them, knew the Azari numbering system, and she might have some chance of programming in a course. Devel was happy to leave her to it. He was typing, from Maroch's instructions, checking that he had full control, fighting to keep the ship from spiralling crazily now that the main helm was useless. He didn't really know what he was doing; didn't really understand. Only when the ship began to shake and buck beneath his feet did he realise truly what new danger they might be in. He swallowed hard. Elis was typing with a speed that suggested she had been doing it all of her life, even though this was the first time she had ever seen a keyboard. The ship's shaking grew stronger and more violent, and Anas called out a warning that more people were approaching the door. Devel didn't care. He couldn't worry about that. Hopefully that would be something for the adults to worry about; if they ever managed to get out of the hold.
Marcus felt as though every nerve ending was on fire as he waited for the hold doors to open. If the children failed - if they were hurt - then he knew that he would always blame himself. Always supposing that he lived through this himself. He could feel the agitation of the others around him, although he had been sure that there were no direct relatives of the five children amongst his eight hand-picked fighters. Everybody felt the tension, though. Everybody was worried about the children, everybody wanted them to succeed for all manner of reasons. Everybody was irritable and afraid. He could hear people pacing, people shuffling, people muttering, but he didn't pay them any real attention. He was focused on the door, concentrating upon it almost completely. His hands felt the Denn-Bok that they gripped in preparation. His mind saw the guards beyond the door, standing where he judged them most likely to be. He heard his own breathing, magnified, rhythmically associating itself with the beating of his heart, and tried to switch his focus to them instead. Relax, breathe, focus. Relax, breathe, focus. And then the floor ran away from his feet.
With a creaking and a groaning that made the ship sound like a creature about to give birth, everything stared to shake. Shudders ran through the frame of the vessel, and the people in the hold rocked back and forth. Several of them fell over. Somebody screamed. Outside the door there was shouting, and Marcus realised that he had begun to hold his breath. His fingers gripped more tightly around the pike, and he put all of his concentration into maintaining his balance as the floor leaped and bucked again. Almost everybody else had fallen over, or was being thrown around, but Marcus was still thinking about the armed guards. He couldn't allow himself to be distracted by a floor that wouldn't stay still.
"What's happening?" shouted somebody. Marcus could have answered - had he understood the question. The children had taken control of the ship; that much of the plan had worked. What they hadn't done yet was successfully get the computer to change the course and begin flying the ship itself. It was trying to obey their new instructions, and the Azari crew's old ones, at the same time. It couldn't last. If one of them didn't get a handle on it soon, the ship would spiral out of control and crash - but he couldn't let himself think about that. Everybody else was distracted. As the doors of the hold at last slid open, he had to remained focused. Had to remain fixed on the guards. They were turning at the sound of the doors opening. Marcus's eight deputies were too busy trying to stand to be able to fight; but by the look of things so were the guards. As the ship gave its biggest, most violent shake yet, Marcus ran for them. He let the ship itself launch him forward. One of the guards raised his gun, but Marcus knocked it aside with the end of his pike, whirling the Minbari weapon around to bring the other end sharply up under the guard's chin. The Azari fell, and Marcus moved on to the second, catching him in the stomach, then on the back of the head as the unfortunate guard doubled up in pain. A third manage to fire off a shot, but the bucking of the ship moved Marcus neatly aside, and the charge hit a bulkhead in a shower of harmless sparks. Marcus knocked the guard's legs out from under him, then hit him squarely in the forehead with the end of the pike. Only then did he notice that the Drigol were joining him, staggering on uncertain feet, but coming nonetheless. He left them to it. They could handle the guards. He had other things to worry about.
There were three men trying to break into the auxiliary bridge. Marcus knocked them all down easily enough; they didn't hear his approach, and two were already unconscious before the third had managed to draw his gun. Marcus smashed the weapon from his hand with the Denn-Bok, then tripped him and hit him over the back of the head. He felt almost guilty at the ease of it all; but not guilty enough that he didn't smile in a gleeful kind of satisfaction. Running on, leaving the children to see if they could sort out their problem, he headed straight for the nearest lift.
Maroch and Asham made a mismatched pair, but a good one. Collecting the guns from the fallen guards, they led the way onwards through the ship, backed up by Marcus's eight assigned deputies at the head of a column of Drigol. Azari soldiers shot at them, here and there. Occasionally a Drigol fell. For the most part, though, it was the Azari who collapsed, shot down or simply overpowered by far too many opponents. Asham had them taken back to the hold and shut in; when they survived. Out of respect for Maroch, perhaps, or just out of simple compassion, Asham had ordered that as few be killed as possible, but the reality of the situation made death hard to avoid.
"Where's Marcus?" asked Maroch, as they forced their way onwards through the ship. The lifts, frozen by the take-over of the ship's main functions, were useless, and Maroch was taking the time to speak as he and Asham sheltered half way up a metal ladder. There were Azari above, and the exchange of fire was becoming lengthy. Asham shook his head
"I don't think he was killed. Gone off on his own most likely. He has a lot to work out, Maroch. A lot to think about. A lot of rage and frustration. I think he feels that he'll do better alone."
"He'll get himself killed is what he'll do." Jumping up suddenly, Maroch shot one of the guards pinning them down, and the second immediately ran off. Asham smiled, and scrambled up the ladder with remarkable speed.
"I don't think so," he said, as he picked up the fallen guard's gun, and passed it on back for one of the other Drigol to take. "I think he'll do just fine."
Marcus, in point of fact, was doing wonderfully, at least as far as he was concerned. This was far better than any friendly contest; this was real battle, with real plasma charges exploding over his head; real sparks that prickled and burned his skin; real, damaging blows aimed at his body and his head. His eyes blazed with exhilaration as he whirled his Denn-Bok like a man possessed, fighting his way past panicking soldiers and furious officers, heading for what instinct told him was the back entrance to the main bridge. The command crew would still be there, trusting in their men to regain control of the ship for them, ready to take over the flying once again. He had little chance of getting onto the bridge without getting shot, but such things were rarely that much of a concern for Marcus. The one thing that he had always been really, truly good at since becoming a Ranger and starting his grand work, was putting his own life at risk. He could endanger himself with aplomb, taking more risks than almost any other Ranger. It was Fate, perhaps, that saw him also come through more battles unscathed.
He reached the bridge just as the ship stopped its shaking, and he whistled softly. That had been a ride and a half. It was probably a very good thing that there were no viewports along the route that he had taken; he was fairly sure that he didn't want to know just how close they had come to crashing.
He couldn't see any immediate way to open the bridge door, so slamming his pike into the control panel on the wall, he fused the local controls in a shower of multi-coloured sparks, and let short circuits and tiny explosions do the job for him. The doors only opened halfway before sticking, but he was satisfied with that. Pushing through the gap, he took a look at the scene that awaited him. Ten Azari, Captain Grash included, all facing his way, and all holding guns pointed straight at him. He smiled coldly, well aware that he had always been taking a mighty gamble. He could so easily have stuck to the main plan; gone with the others. But he was hot and bothered and angry, and everything was making him more so. The idea of going off alone and just letting rip had been more than he could resist. Oddly enough, he wasn't regretting it at all. Not even now.
"Hello." He lowered the Denn-Bok, trying to look unconcerned. "I was passing. Thought I'd drop by."
"Drop the weapon, human." Grash's fury was obvious. Marcus didn't really blame him; having one's ship stolen from right under one's nose was never going to encourage good cheer, after all. He shrugged.
"As you wish." He retracted the pike, but didn't drop it. Instead he waggled his fingers, as if to show that it had disappeared. A simple sleight of hand trick; but often a useful one. Grash frowned.
"I'm a magician." Marcus let his eyes rove around the room, taking in the positions of the Azari, and mentally sizing them up. That was the problem really, he mused - their size. Height was one commodity in which they certainly weren't lacking. Grash's frown deepened.
"You're a technomage?"
"No, I'm an actual magician." Marcus sighed. "Why does nobody ever believe that? Doesn't anybody believe in magic anymore? I could do some more if you like. I tell you what. If you can guess the magic word, I'll restore control of the ship to you. But if you can't... I'll have all ten of you unconscious on the floor within sixty seconds. What do you say?"
"I say, put your hands above your head, and we may not shoot you." Grash spat the words out through teeth gritted at the effrontery of this human should-be prisoner, but Marcus didn't feel particularly inclined to avoid offending his feelings. He shook his head.
"That's not the magic word." The intention to fire seemed to flash in all their eyes at once, and at the sight of it Marcus dived. He hit the floor on one shoulder, going into a roll that showed him a dizzying rain of coloured plasma sparks crackling and exploding harmlessly above him. He had the pike in his hand again as he rolled, extending it as part of the same smooth movement, and ramming it into the legs of two of the soldiers. As they fell down so he came up, spinning neatly and ramming the ends of the pike into the side of one other man, and then the back of a second. The others were turning now, but grabbing the arm of his most recent victim, he pulled him up as a living shield, seizing the man's arm and lifting it up to force him to fire his own gun. Under usual circumstances such a trick would never have worked with an Azari, but this one was so badly winded that at first he could not fight back. Once, twice, three times his gun fired, and each time one of his cohorts fell, until Grash himself at last shot him down. His body, too heavy for Marcus to hold up, collapsed to the floor. Marcus didn't wait to react to the change of circumstance. Hurling himself to one side as the other soldiers centred their fire on his last position, he smelt the burning flesh of his erstwhile hostage, for the shots had caught him instead. It was a bitter, unpleasant smell, but it was, Marcus reasoned, far better than smelling his own flesh burning under fire. Rolling behind the nearest console he came up shooting, and took down another of the soldiers. By now his earlier victims had recovered, and were anxious to save face, but the odds were getting better all the time. As part of the console beside Marcus was obliterated in the sharp explosion of a direct hit, he hurled himself forward over the top, gun abandoned, and pike ready to play. Once again the soldiers were too slow for him, and he felt the heated air behind him of the near misses as he all but flew forward, landing on his hands, and springing back over onto his feet. The pike lashed out, the end ramming hard into the stomach of the nearest Azari, then whipping up to hit him solidly on the chin. He went down and didn't get up. A footstep sounded behind - somebody choosing not to fire at such close quarters perhaps? Marcus didn't stop to think about it. Instead he whirled, using the Denn-Bok as a short range spear. The metal pole caught the stampeding soldier squarely in the middle of the forehead, and he fell without a sound. Marcus wanted to smile in satisfaction, but he reined in the desire, and instead, working purely on instinct, threw himself to one side. He was just in time. A shot passed right by him in a blaze of white and orange, and as he hit a console hard, Marcus winced sharply, then had to duck aside again as a massive, mottled fist came flying towards him. The fist crashed into the console instead, and Marcus, regaining his balance just in time, swung down the Denn-Bok and hooked his foe's legs out from under him. With all the strength he could muster, he heaved, and the Azari toppled forward. His head slammed against the console and he crumpled to the ground. Marcus spun back to the face the room.
There were two of them left, but he knew that if he didn't dispatch them quickly, some of the others might begin to awaken. He grinned, crookedly and breathlessly, and as insultingly as he could manage.
"What do you... think of the... magic display... so far?"
"I think that you're a dead man." Grash was pointing his gun straight at him, and Marcus's mind whirled. He would never get away with another dive forward and roll, and if he leapt to the side, the other remaining Azari would pick him off easily. He had only one avenue left. As Grash's finger tightened on the trigger, Marcus hurled himself backwards. He went over the console against which he had slammed his last opponent, hitting the hard metal floor on the other side with a near stunning force. His head swam, but dazed was better than dead. Rolling over he came up into a crouch, straightening up just as Grash's last remaining soldier came for him. The pike came up as if of its own accord, delivering a blow to the Azari's groin almost powerful enough to make Marcus's own eyes water in sympathy. The soldier wavered, but his gun stayed firm in his hand as he tried to fire it. Marcus smashed the pike down on it, intending to knock it from the hand that gripped it so tightly - but as the two weapons collided there was a blinding flash and the gun's little power pack exploded. The blast was not powerful enough to do anything more to Marcus than make him see stars, but when the gun blew up, it took the soldier's hand with it. He collapsed to his knees, and Marcus hit him solidly over the back of the head. The poor fool was better off unconscious. Wiping a trail of sweat from his forehead, the Ranger straightened and turned to face his final opponent - only to receive such a blow to the side of the head that he collapsed, like the last soldier, to his knees. Coloured blotches passed before his eyes, mingling with the stars still there from the explosion. He gasped.
"You think you're clever, little human." Grash's voice was ugly, his anger an audible force. Reaching down with one hand, he caught Marcus by the back of his coat, and hauled him upright. "But you're not getting out of here." His other hand, seeming unfairly large, closed around one of the Ranger's own hands, giving an agonising twist that made him drop the Denn-Bok to the floor. It clanged and clattered against the metal, then lay still. Marcus's eyes never left it.
"I suppose... that means... this is it?" he asked. He was exhausted and in pain, and still dizzy from the backward dive over the console, let alone from Grash's attack. The captain's grip on his wrist tightened, as though he were wondering whether to break the bones before delivering his killing blow, just to show the superiority of his own great strength. His other hand slid up, abandoning its grip on Marcus's coat, and instead settling around his neck. One wrench and it could all be over. Marcus steeled himself, but not for death.
"It?" Grash didn't seem to understand the phrase, but he wasn't bothered by the finer points of his prisoner's language. Instead he tightened his massive fingers just a little more, letting his strength out slowly, enjoying his moment. Gritting his teeth against the pain, Marcus watched the pike swim in his fading vision, and knew that he didn't have much time left. With all the force he could muster, he stamped on one end. It flipped up, leaping into the air as though called to order, and he snatched at it with his desperate free hand. If he missed.... But he never missed. His fingers closed around the pike, and he rammed it hard into Grash's stomach. The hand around his neck let go, and Marcus whirled, bringing the pike around for another blow - only to have it stopped short as Grash caught hold of the other end. He wrenched it hard and it came free of Marcus's grip. The Ranger stepped back straight away, but Grash's legs were longer, and he halved the distance between them in one stride. Holding the pike in both hands, he slammed it into Marcus's chest, knocking him backwards into a console, and holding him bent there. Marcus struggled helplessly, looking up into the furious green eyes.
"You never stop!" Grash was spitting the words out into a fearful rage, wound up to ever greater heights of anger by the opponent who wouldn't give in. "You keep coming back for more!" He pressed harder, the pike, with his huge strength behind it, now threatening to break Marcus's ribs. "But now - now - you die. In Azar's name!"
"No." He could barely spit the words out, but he managed it. He wouldn't remain silent on that point. Not even if Grash crushed his ribcage first. "In... Valen's... name!" And abandoning the futile struggle against the pressing weight on his chest he tried the last avenue left to him. His hand fell to his pocket, and closed around the shard of Minbari crystal. It was a beautiful piece, which he had picked up in the mountains on his last visit to his spiritual home. None of that mattered now. With his last remaining strength, as the rest of the world turned black, he brought the shard down hard into the back of Grash's hand. It pierced the tough reptilian skin, and the captain gave an agonised howl, letting go of the Denn-Bok and stumbling back. He stared at the shard of crystal now impaling his hand, and screamed aloud in sheer hatred and fury, then came at Marcus like a charging bull. Weak, tired and hurting, Marcus struggled upright, and all but fell aside. Grash collided with the console, and Marcus hit him over the back with the pike; once, twice - half a dozen times. Grash straightened up through it all, the fury burning brighter than ever in his eyes as he came at Marcus again. The Ranger swung the pike, hitting the big Azari on the side of the head. Grash wavered but came on; again Marcus aimed a blow for his head, but this time Grash swatted it aside. He made a grab for Marcus and the Ranger dodged, slipping in the captain's own blood. He fell, landing hard, rolling over in an effort to keep out of his opponent's way. Everything rushed by him in a tangle; floor, wall, ceiling, blood, fallen Azari soldiers, abandoned guns. He grabbed for one, missed, rolled again, and felt a heavy, heavy boot crash into his side. He rolled with the blow, trying to relax, willing his bones not to break, and snatching out at the indistinct blur of the things that he passed on the way. Dead skin. Charred dead skin. Stickiness. Metal. His hands clamped shut around the barrel of the gun, and as Grash swooped down upon him, seizing him by the shoulders and hauling him to his feet, Marcus fired. There was a blast of white, far too close for comfort, and with a roar of fury that was cut off in a choke, Grash crumpled up and collapsed. Marcus went down too, lying still for one brief, beautiful second of relaxation. He didn't have the time to waste though - there was no telling when the others would awake. Forcing himself to his feet, and retrieving both his pike and the crystal, he cast a glance around at the ten fallen Azari. Well... not exactly sixty seconds, admittedly; but then they were a lot bigger than him. Clearly the magic was still his. Calmly, exhausted, but definitely feeling a sense of fulfilment, he crossed to the door control and operated it. The doors slid back and he found himself facing a large number of Drigol, led by his eight chosen deputies and Asham and Maroch, all pointing appropriated guns straight at him. He raised his eyebrows.
"Well that's a nice way to say hello."
" Marcus!" Maroch pushed past the others into the room, pounding the human so exuberantly across the shoulders that Marcus felt his legs buckle. "You're alright!"
"In a manner of speaking." Marcus smiled a tired greeting, summoning up new reserves of energy to hide his near exhaustion. "What kept you?"
"A great deal of angry and very sneaky soldiers." Maroch stuck his gun into his belt. "We put the survivors in the hold. Asham sent some of his people to get the children out of the other bridge, and hopefully restore control to this one." He went over to the helm, patting it affectionately. "Then I can fly us to wherever we want to go."
"Which is where?" asked Asham. Marcus looked around at the bridge.
"You've got a good ship here, Asham. She's old, but she should have years of life in her yet. You could go anywhere. Offer your services hauling freight, or just find another planet to settle on. Given that the rest of the galaxy doesn't even know that you exist, at least as far as we know, there are plenty of places that would welcome you. Like the true Azari, your people have an astonishing gift for languages. That can always be useful."
"True." Maroch nodded seriously. "Computerised translators have their limits, and there are a lot of races who don't like to use them. I've been asked for my assistance before when I've been off-world."
"And it makes sense to take this ship and leave, I know. A great deal of sense. But to leave perhaps forever?" Asham shook his head. "I don't know that the others would accept that."
"They'd rather risk being captured again? Being annihilated?" Marcus didn't look convinced. "Doesn't sound good to me."
"Yes, but..." Asham was still far from sure. "Marcus, would you allow enemies to force you from your homeworld?"
"I don't have a homeworld." Marcus thought about it. "But if I did, then no. Probably not. But then I don't have a thousand people to think about. A thousand people who used to be ten thousand. Not to mention a fine young son who should have a better future than the one that the Azari have planned for him." He shrugged. "But it's not my choice. It's theirs."
"Yes." Asham walked slowly to the nearest seat and sat down on it. Around him consoles hummed, starved of purpose, and waiting to be restored to life. A group of his people began the task of dragging Grash and his companions from the room, and he watched them with eyes set on other sights. "There are the others though. The other Drigol, hiding on the planet somewhere. I don't know where."
"Try to find them and you'll be shot down." Maroch shrugged apologetically. "It's true. They'll send other ships after you. Destroying something of this size within the atmosphere isn't a good idea, but something tells me they'll be willing to risk it. They'll win in a combat situation. You just don't have the experience, even with Marcus and myself to help out. And getting your fellow Drigol onboard would only compound the difficulties - even if we could find them."
"Remember the promise you asked us to make?" asked Marcus. "Go to another planet, tell them what's going on. Ask for help. If you went to one of the older races, or to the League Of... to the Interstellar Alliance... they'd be sure to help."
"A new world. A new life." Asham smiled slightly, and looked at the other Drigol, still waiting in the doorway. "No more living in mountains."
"We'd have to off load the Azari first," pointed out Maroch. "Unless you'd rather leave them where they are for the time being. We know that they can't get out of the hold."
"Might be easier than taking the risk of trying to set them down here. We'd never land this thing, or if we did we'd never get it off the ground again." Marcus frowned thoughtfully. "You'd need shuttles to transport people on and off ship."
"There should be small flyers in the docking area. Fighters, longer range transporters, you know." Maroch drummed his fingers thoughtfully on the helm console. "But nothing like enough for that lot down in the hold. Not without letting the ships come and go, and that would be suicide. Let them find their own way back home from off-world. It won't kill them."
"I'll ask my people." Asham was beginning to look rather more positive. "But I have to say, it does sound interesting. The idea of seeing some of the worlds that we've all read about. Of testing the languages we've learnt only through old recordings, and from our books. It would be... exciting."
"Then go for it." Marcus was staring into the middle distance, though if he was thinking about something, as he seemed to be, nobody could tell what. Asham looked over at him.
"And what of you, Marcus? And Maroch? There are places here for both of you. Your expertise would certainly be most welcome, as would your friendship and your company. If we decide to head for other places, would you come with us?"
"I'd be delighted." Maroch sounded enthusiastic. If it meant leaving his own ship, and his job and his home, he didn't care. He didn't want to return to his own people now. Asham beamed at him.
"Marcus? You have a life to find. A new cause and reason to search for. I know that. But there's a chance that your future might be with us." He was looking expectant, hopeful, as was Maroch, but Marcus merely smiled sadly at the pair of them and shook his head.
"No thank you. It's a kind offer, Asham, and I appreciate it. But there are things that I have to work out, and I don't think I'm going to do that by staying with you. I have questions that I have to ask alone. Like why I'm still alive. The universe must have some reason for it. I should have died more than three hundred years ago."
"If you had, we would all be dead now, or on our way to our deaths. Maybe that is the reason you're still alive."
"Maybe. But in that case, my cause and reason is already gone. No, Asham. I have to leave. As soon as I'm sure that you're alright handling this ship, I'll take one of the smaller ones that Maroch mentioned, and head on out. I think it's for the best."
"As you wish." Asham looked regretful. "But we shall miss you."
"Thank you." Marcus looked up as he heard the consoles around them beginning to hum anew. "Sounds like the kids managed to switch things back over. Shall we take her out into orbit?"
"But no further. Not yet." Asham rose to his feet. "I have to talk to my people."
"Well be quick!" Maroch set to work on the helm, whilst Marcus crossed to what appeared to be navigation. With a little help from Maroch he didn't think that the unfamiliar symbols would be too much of an obstacle. "Somebody will have noticed our change of course, and they could well send a ship out after us!"
"I'll make it fast." Asham bowed his head, then gathered his people around him and swept from the room. Maroch tapped out a few commands on his console, and point out one or two of the more important controls to Marcus.
"Are you serious about leaving us?" he asked after a moment. Marcus nodded.
"I'm always serious." He shrugged. "Nearly always. But anyway, this isn't for me. I'm not the settling down type, and that's just what Asham has in mind. I need... something else."
"But you have no idea what?"
"Maybe it wouldn't be an adventure if I did." The human shrugged. "I don't know. Since I woke up I haven't known much, to be honest. But I do know that I have to leave. I'm sorry."
"No need for apologies." Maroch fired up the engines and turned the ship towards the stars. "I'm just sad that you'll soon be saying goodbye. We've only just met."
"Maybe we'll meet again. In this universe, nothing is ever certain." Marcus smiled slightly, very briefly, his eyes showing his new friend the troubles and confusions that circled around inside him. "And what about you? Will you regret choosing to go with Asham?"
"No." Maroch's own smile was neither slight nor brief. Instead it was bright and broad. "Do you think I would want to go back to my own people after everything that I've seen? The lies I've discovered? The cruelty I've witnessed? No. Even if I wasn't going with Asham, I'd still be leaving the homeworld. Always supposing, of course, that Asham is leaving."
"He'll leave. What else is there?" Marcus turned his attention back to the console. "Besides - there's a whole universe out there. Who would make the choice to stay behind?"
"You're a dreamer, Marcus." Maroch keyed in a new sequence, and put the ship into a high orbit. "But then in many ways, perhaps so are we all. I also think, however, that you're afraid to stay with us. And that's a different issue, isn't it."
"Not afraid to stay." Marcus stood up, giving the scanner screens one last look as he did so. As yet there didn't seem to be anybody in pursuit. Soon enough the ship would be gone, and it would be too late for the Azari to recapture their prisoners. There was very little left that he could do here. "Just afraid to... who knows."
"I understand, my friend. Just as I understand that you don't want to wait for Asham to return. I suppose lengthy goodbyes aren't your style?"
"Not if I can help it." Marcus looked at the floor. "I..."
"Oh Marcus." Maroch also stood, and delivered another of his favoured warm slaps, which like the last one almost caused Marcus to collapse. "It's been fun. It's been an education. And I thank you for it. I know that you probably don't thank me for finding you, and getting you thawed out; but such is the way of things, my friend. You'll find the docking area two levels down. Head for the back of the ship. The flyers are easy enough to handle, and I doubt that the language barrier will be a problem. Not if you know your way around a cockpit."
"Thank you." Marcus extended his hand, watching it disappear into the much larger mottled hand of his friend. Just about the only friend he had left. "Good luck."
"And to you. I hope that you find what you need, Marcus; but I think that you were wrong. Sometimes some things are certain. I don't think that we'll be meeting again. And I think perhaps you realise that too."
"Yes." Marcus shrugged vaguely, lost for a more meaningful reply. "I..." And he shrugged again, and smiled very sadly, then turned around quickly and left. Maroch watched the doorway for a moment, after he had gone, although he knew that the Ranger would not be changing his mind. Marcus, perhaps, would always belong somewhere else.
It was easy to find his way to the docking area. Easy to gain entrance to the ships. They were all fully powered, and he chose one that looked fast and manoeuvrable, and which carried a good store of power crystals onboard. The controls looked simple enough, but it still took him several moments to fire her up and signal the bridge to open the bay doors. Did he really want to go? He already knew the answer to that question, as he had known it when Asham had asked him to stay. With a deep breath, he slammed his thumb down on the thruster control, and sent his little ship flying out into the darkness, waggling his wings in a farewell that would probably go unseen. And then he was alone. Space yawned hugely around him, vast and empty and endless, and entirely devoid of all the people he had known - and he knew that the reality of it all had hit him fully at last. There was nowhere to return to from this venture. He really was alone.
He flew without a break for three days, all of it in hyperspace, the unreality of that strange state playing havoc with his troubled mind. After that he went to the first inhabited planet he had power enough to reach, and got very, very drunk. Then he got very, very sick. Rather than granting him the numbness he sought, the alcohol, spiting him for his abstinence in the past, served only to emphasise his depression and desperation. Recovered at last he recharged his ship, feeling bitter and angry at his own inability to drown his sorrows effectively, and took off again. This time he didn't stop until he reached the Narn homeworld, but his visit there didn't make him feel any better. Rebuilt long ago, and now a place of beauty and peace, it bore no relics of anything that he could remember. He supposed that that was a good thing; the last time he had been there it had been a smoking ruin, populated by famine-stricken, furious survivors wanting revenge. Now, save for a few tasteful memorials well tended, there was nothing to hint at the old troubles with the Centauri. The residence of the Centauri ambassador was a huge, white building with flowers growing up the walls, and fountains spraying coloured water into little pools. It was a wonderful step forward, Marcus supposed, but it didn't improve his mood. It was more evidence of how far the world had moved on; of how much he had missed. He found a shrine to G'Kar halfway up a mountain, and looked at pictures of the former Ambassador to Babylon 5. He had thought of G'Kar as a friend, although they hadn't had cause to spend much time together. Now here he was revered as a great figure; a mystical leader, if not a religious one. The ironic half smile in his picture showed exactly what he would have thought of such reverence, and Marcus smiled back at it with some sympathy. Still; G'Kar's writings had apparently been a big influence upon the Narns, helping them to claw their way back from the horrors of the Centauri occupation. Maybe the irascible ambassador deserved all the adulation after all.
There was a Ranger training camp on the Narn homeworld. That wasn't a surprise; the Narns had always been a part of the Army Of Light, whether indirectly or in the open. He went there, although he only watched them from afar. Some twenty recruits, dressed in the familiar uniform of new initiates, being relentlessly clobbered by much more experienced fellows as part of a lesson in self defence. Marcus smiled tightly at the sight; apparently the methods of training Rangers hadn't changed, even if it wasn't only the Minbari doing the training these days. He watched them until the pain inside him got to be too much to bear, and then he went on again. His stock of pre-Interstellar Alliance credits amused the people at the spaceport, but they accepted them anyway. It seemed that these days hardly anybody used actual tokens for currency; it was all done with electronic credit transfer. Babylon 5 had used the system in his day, though visitors and Lurkers and annoying types like himself had still relied on the old ways. Now, apparently, he was the only annoying type left.
He went to Centauri Prime next; another world rebuilt after a devastating occupation, although this time not one that he remembered. Here he found memorials to the Emperor Londo Mollari, and also to the Emperor Vir Cotto. Memorials to G'Kar, who had apparently died on the planet, helping to free it from its tormentors. Memorials to the Narns killed during the Centauri occupation there; to the Rangers who had died helping to free the Centauri people. It seemed that the Centauri - always a race who enjoyed the glamorous and the glorious - had thrown that love into feats of spectacular architecture, stonemasonry and metalwork, in an effort to acknowledge the tragedies of their past. Marcus wandered through a hall filled with paintings; magnificent, larger than life effigies of Vir; grand paintings of President Sheridan and Delenn; a vast picture of Babylon 5, named as the first step on the road to peace and glory for the galaxy. Everywhere there were more memorials, more tributes, somehow always managing to stay just the right side of gaudy. The hall opened onto a memorial garden, breathtaking in its beauty, but still somehow able only to depress Marcus further. It had been planted at the behest of a man he had known, who had been dead so long that only his painting remained to oversee his commission. Marcus walked on past scarlet flowers that reminded him of the Azar homeworld; past tiny blue flowers and giant white ones; past trees with wildly variegated leaves and explosions of frothy blossom; past ponds and streams and little marble statues of figures from Centauri mythology; until at last he found himself in a quiet place where the flowers were simpler and more reserved. Roses. Beautiful red ones; bright, big yellow ones; smooth, simple white ones. They climbed, they spread, they rambled; and in the middle of them, almost covered by the flowers, was a little white plinth. The presence of so many roses told him what the inscription on the plinth said before he got anywhere near close enough to read it, but he went closer and read it anyway; six words, neatly scripted in Centauri, English and Russian. General Susan Ivanova. Warrior. Leader. Friend. Vir's words he was sure; it certainly sounded like the once bumbling, but always good-natured, ambassadorial aide. As a Centauri he would have lived longer than any human friend. Touching the white stone and tracing the words with his fingers, he closed his eyes and thought of Susan, and tried to imagine what her life must have been like since he left her. Then and only then, after coming so far and fighting his feelings for so long, did he finally break down in tears. It was late afternoon in the garden; but it was dawn before his strength at last left him, and he fell into a dreamless sleep.
And where next? When he awoke in the morning, and recharged his ship with the last of his ancient credits, he didn't have a clue where to head for. There was Asham's offer to consider of course, not that Marcus ever really entertained the thought. That way lay companionship sure enough; but also responsibilities that he didn't want. Commitments he didn't want. If he was going to set himself on one course, it had to feel right from the outset. In the end, when he took off from the spaceport at Centauri Prime, he had no idea where he was going. He just pointed his craft at the stars and left it at that.
He didn't go to Minbar, although he thought about it. Maybe another time. Maybe one day when his insides didn't feel quite so knotted up, and his heart didn't feel quite so cold. There was nowhere else. He had learnt by now, to his non-existent surprise, that Babylon 5 no longer existed, and where else was there that was home? Earth might be the home planet of his race, but it had never been his home. He had never even been there. Had never arrived, when Sheridan's fleet had set their sights on the planet, the day that he had turned his back on it all and gone back to revive Ivanova. Arisia was gone; the handful of other colonies he had spent time on during his life were also mostly gone; mined dry and abandoned, or bled dry by Earth taxes during the days before Sheridan's presidency. He had nowhere to go, save Minbar. He thought about joining back up with the Rangers, throwing in with whatever work they did now; but that had no appeal either. He already had his cause. It had been given to him by Valen himself, and by Delenn and Sheridan. It was the cause that had given him reason to live again after his brother's death, and it was hard to accept that it was now gone. Gone like everything else.
So instead he flew. Straight to the nearest jump gate, then on and on in hyperspace until the ship's power crystals were nearly drained. When he came out into normal space he didn't know where he was, save that the jump gate he had just used was one that he had never used before. Turning off the engines to conserve the last of his power, he let the ship drift aimlessly, buffeted and coasted along by whatever eddies and gaseous whirls served to prevent space from ever being a true vacuum. His oxygen ran low, his water store was at critical, he had no food left - and still on he drifted, completely at a loss. If the universe wanted him alive; if there was some reason for him to carry on living; then somebody would come to save him. Something would happen to keep him alive. If not - if not then he was at peace, for life without reason was worse than death, at least as far as he could see.
And his oxygen dwindled further, and soon enough the hallucinations started. Battalions of Rangers, marching through his tiny craft, leaping from distant star to distant star, and shouting ancient Ranger oaths and credos. Valen, borne aloft by seven glowing Vorlons, scattering flower petals from a silken bag. Delenn, completely human, accompanied by a half-Minbari John Sheridan and a half-human Lennier, all quoting Minbari poetry, and muttering cryptic phrases that he couldn't quite hear completely. He told them all to go away, but Valen laughed and threw flower petals at him, and Sheridan said strange things about Shadows and battles. Echoing voices chanted questions that rose and fell in volume. Who are you? Why are you here? Where are you going? He couldn't answer any of them, and tried to say as much, but he couldn't make himself heard over the loud parading of the Rangers as they came back in their droves for another march past. There was no more oxygen left now; nothing more to breathe save what he had breathed already. Everything sounded peculiar; distant and echoing and fragmented. Valen was fading away into the distance, and his flower petals were becoming increasingly insubstantial. Sheridan and Delenn and Lennier were blurring into one giant Minbari head, with mocking eyes and a grey triangle that glowed faintly in the centre of its forehead. After that, with the image of the triangle burning fiercely inside his skull, even the hallucinations left him. There was only blackness now.
He awoke on a hard bed in a bright grey room, with muted strip lighting above him, and gently humming machines all around. For a moment he was confused, wondering if he was still in the hospital on the Azar homeworld, until he remembered that that had been cold and white. This was different. He sat up and looked around. People milled about at other parts of the room, one or two tending to patients, others talking in quiet voices. They were all dressed in crisp white, and they were all human. They smiled gently at Marcus, and told him where his clothes were when he asked. They told him that he had nearly died, but that somehow they had found him in time; but they didn't ask his name. He didn't ask them theirs. He thanked them, without complete conviction, protested politely, but again without complete conviction, when they offered to recharge and restock his ship even though he had no more currency; then he left them without even noticing the name of the ship, or seeing the giant Ranger symbol painted on the hull. He just set off on the next stage of his journey, onwards and onwards until the regions of space that he knew were far behind him. He flew with purpose now, even though he still wasn't sure what that purpose was. The universe, it seemed, wanted to keep him alive. Now he had to find out why. And in stops and starts, lurching from black despair to stoic hope, he flew his ship ever onwards, and let the stars lead the way. It seemed only fitting. The stars were the greatest lights that burned anywhere in space, and what else could the last soldier from the Army Of Light do, but follow them? And gradually, as the suns and the moons and the worlds went by, he came to realise what he had to do. For the first time since he had said goodbye to Maroch, he smiled then - and for the first time since he had last been with Ivanova, he truly meant it.
"But that can't be where the story ends!" When his grandfather fell silent, the small boy looked up in horror. "You haven't told me what he did next; what he decided his new cause was. Why did the universe still want him alive?"
"Ah, well." The old man shrugged his broad shoulders; shoulders that had lost much of their strength, but could still fit into the Ranger uniform he had used to wear. "You know that there was so much that was lost in the Great Burn, Julius. We lost so many of our histories, and our fictions. There's so much that we don't know anymore."
The boy fixed him with a steady scowl. "That's just Earth records. Marcus Cole probably wouldn't even be mentioned in them. What happened, grandfather?"
"The truth? The truth is never easy to pin down. Marcus decided that he still had his Shadows to fight, even if the days of his old cause were gone. Shadows don't necessarily mean ancient warriors from a race long fled beyond the Rim. There are plenty of other dark things that need to be fought. Plenty of dark places nobody else wants to go to. Marcus went far out, further than most members of the Interstellar Alliance ever tried to go, to places that the United Security Forces didn't bother policing. Places full of waifs and strays and wanderers who didn't have anybody else to care for them. Or so the stories say. It's all hearsay though, Julius. Who is there who can tell us whether it's true?"
"But you believe it?"
"Marcus was a Ranger. It was his job, his reason, to walk in dark places where nobody else dared to go. And since he never returned to Minbar, and he never rejoined with the other Rangers, I can only assume that he carried that work on somewhere else. Certainly the tales fit. A man in dark clothing, and piloting a great white ship, going from world to world and fighting the darkness that he found there. They say that his ship was called the Ivanova, and that she was the most beautiful ship anybody had ever seen; although how he came by her I can't say. That much isn't in the stories. Confiscated her from raiders, perhaps. She became a part of his legend though, so there must be some truth in it."
"And then what?" asked his grandson, ever eager for more. The old man laughed.
"My dear boy, this was all hundreds and hundreds of years ago. It's a wonder that we know as much as we do!"
"But how does it end? What happened to Marcus?"
"Did he have a happy ending, you mean? Did he finally find somebody to share his life? Somebody to replace Ivanova in his heart? Not so far as the stories say, no. He fought alone, and always in Valen's name. A lone warrior straight out of the past. And as to how it ended... nobody knows. Once a legend begins it can be very hard to end it. Certainly the stories of his deeds carry on for far longer than is possible. He was only a human, after all. He can't have lived for that long. He's reputed to have said that, if he ever thought he was too old, or too ill, or too injured to be able to carry on, then he'd choose the brightest and prettiest sun that he could find, and fly his ship right into the heart of it. A fine end for somebody who always fought to bring light to the dark places. But nobody knows if he did it. Certainly no body was ever found, at least as far as is known. Some of the tales tell that he went away in the end - that he finally found a way to travel back in time; but since he isn't mentioned in any of the histories, we don't know if it was Ivanova that he went back to. It might have been Valen. It might have been both. More likely he didn't go back at all."
"But nobody knows what happened to General Ivanova after she retired to Centauri Prime," pointed out Julius. His grandfather laughed.
"You're a hopeless romantic, my boy. You'll either make a great Ranger or a terrible poet. Anything is possible in this universe - that much I'll grant you. As to the rest? Well, Marcus always was a strange sort. That much the records are clear on. We know how he chose to begin his new life. We'll never know how he ended it. All that matters is that there are a lot of people who lived because of him; and a lot of dark places that were no longer quite so dark for his passing through them. And that, Julius, is as fine a legacy as anyone can leave. Satisfied?"
"No." The boy smiled. "But I suppose I'll have to be."
"For now, yes. Every year we discover more, my boy. Every year another mystery is solved, another question is answered. Maybe one day somebody will find a great white ship floating around out there, and solve one more puzzle at least. Until then..."
"Until then, enjoy the legend. They still tell it on Minbar. They certainly believe it there." He ruffled the boy's hair. "Now go to bed. Otherwise your mother's fury will be the darkness that both of us will have to fight!"
The boy laughed. "Goodnight, grandfather."
"Goodnight, Julius." The old man watched the boy depart, then heaved up his tired frame and went outside. It was a quiet night, and dark. The sort with thousands upon thousands of stars sprinkled all over the heavens; the sort when it was possible to believe any legend, whatever its unlikely conclusion. The old man smiled up at the sky, and felt for the badge that he still wore, beneath his civilian cloak. A Ranger might always know the limit of a dream, but he also always knew the truth of legends; and the old man believed the tales about Marcus Cole. The truth lay out there somewhere, he supposed; far, far beyond the many stars that he could see; far beyond the many worlds that he had visited. In strange and unfamiliar places, with strange and unfamiliar stars of their own. The stars that Marcus had followed. The stars that he had trusted to one day bring him home.