It was a strange place in which to live. Not that the people who lived there had chosen to be there; not for the most part. It was a world of the dispossessed; a place where people went because they had nowhere else to go, and no money to support themselves. A quarter of a million human and aliens were reputed to live aboard Babylon 5, but the truth was probably rather different. Not only did the inhabitants of Downbelow tend to escape official counts and registers, but since the station had been forced to declare its independence, and had been isolated by recent legislation, there had been ever more refugees, and ever more people vanishing into the unregulated underbelly. Escaped Narns, vying for space alongside fugitives from Earthforce, and the usual quota of renegade Telepaths looking for release from the Psi Corps. Throw in the hungry, desperate and ragged representatives of a dozen races - all lured to the 'shining beacon' that the station had set out to be in happier times, and all reduced to penniless squalor by lost jobs or insurmountable debt - and Downbelow became a thriving community of the utterly unknown. Station security couldn't hope to determine who was amongst these watchful, ever-moving 'Lurkers', and for the most part didn't try. Even Babylon 5's well meaning commanders, the mysterious Sinclair and the jovial Sheridan, had never tried to do much about it. There were too many Lurkers, too many changing faces, too much going on. Too much distrust on either side. And so the lower sectors had closed themselves off as much as they could, and a distinct ghetto mentality arose there. Those living on the upper levels hated the Lurkers, and suspected them of every crime, perversion and atrocity. The Lurkers suspected that every upside dweller wanted them spaced. They had all learned to leave each other well alone.
But everything had its exceptions. Undiscouraged by the threat of mugging, kidnapping and murder, not at all bothered by the increasingly unlikely rumours of disease, or terrorist activity, or the wildly hysterical tales of gangs of inter-species slave traders, there was at least one frequent visitor to the upside of Babylon 5 who was just as much at home in Downbelow as he was in the distinctly cheerier world existing above it. In point of fact there were times when Marcus Cole, Ranger, wanderer, and inveterate meddler, felt considerably more comfortable in the grey, dark world of the dispossessed than he very often did in the brighter, louder, more complicated place that had spawned it. It had taken him very little time to become a familiar figure to the Lurkers; somebody who came and went whenever he pleased, and cared nothing for rules, regulations, or the entreaties of people in uniform. He fought the more unpleasant elements with a cheerful zeal, he seemed willing enough to share what small wealth he possessed, and for many he was the source of the only genuine smiles, the only friendly conversation, they ever experienced. Old women melted at the sight of him, old men basked in the glow of the respect that he showed them, people who had lost all faith in the universe found a little of it returned through his unexpected kindnesses. In no time at all people knew Marcus Cole, and as much as he infuriated station security, so he delighted the ragged inhabitants of the underworld. The situation pleased him, for spreading a little gladness was a part of his mission in life; a way of chasing away the darkness and bringing in the light; something that was every Ranger's duty.
When the war ended, and the older races departed the galaxy, it had seemed like a great beginning. It was a great beginning, for the younger races as a whole. The dawn of a new era, awaited for a thousand years, and heralded by prophecy and legend alike. It meant little to the people of Downbelow, however, and they saw no reason to celebrate. Everybody in the station knew that there was another war still to be fought, but on the higher levels of the station they could at least be glad about the departure of the Shadows. Downbelow the shortages, and the embargoes, and all the other hardships of life in a siege situation bit harder than they did up above, and few people took any real notice of the war's end. Marcus found himself spending more time amongst them then, in between the missions his Ranger work brought to him. Tempers were fraught and everybody was edgy. Security was jumpy from the threat of traitors and spies. Half the station seemed to be sitting on a variety of powder kegs, but for some there were joys to counteract the many difficulties. In Downbelow there was only more hardship.
"Penny for them?" The high pitched, quavering voice of Mabel Montgomery broke into Marcus's thoughts of war, Shadows and Earthforce, and made him look up. He smiled faintly.
"Sorry." He had been miles away in his mind, when he was supposed to be here to cheer the old woman up. She was one of his regulars; one of the people he always dropped by to visit when he was in Downbelow. The widow of an engineer from the days when Babylon 5 had first been brought online, she had been left penniless when her pension had been cut off during the early days of President Clark's regime. Now she lived in a corridor, sleeping under a greatcoat, and earning food by repairing the torn clothes and worn shoes of her fellows outcasts and refugees. Marcus was very fond of her, partly because of her indomitable spirit, and partly because of the warm, fond spark that lit her eyes whenever she looked at him. She had made the repairing of his clothes her particular responsibility; and since he owned only two outfits, and seemed to get into half a dozens scrapes and scuffles a day, her skilled needlework was invaluable. Sometimes, though, it was almost as though he came to be cheered up by her, rather than the intended reverse. She laughed at him.
"Your mind is in the clouds, Marcus. Or whatever passes for clouds out here, anyway. When you're here you're always thinking about other places."
"And when I'm there I'm always thinking about here." That wasn't strictly true, and she knew it, but she smiled anyway and squeezed his hand.
"You're just always thinking. That's your problem. Wherever you are, your mind is somewhere else. Thinking about your Shadows and your dark places, and all the responsibilities you seem to feel you need. You should take a holiday."
"A holiday?" He laughed at that. "I can't take a holiday. We're fighting a war."
"You said that the war was over," she reminded him. "That the enemy had 'gone beyond the Rim', whatever that means. So take some time for yourself. Take a trip."
"A tour of favourite space ports blockaded by Earth?" He smiled. "I can't take a holiday. You know that we still have to fight Earth. Get rid of President Clark, undo all the bad things that he's done..." He squeezed the hand that still lay in his. "Get you back your pension."
"Oh I'm sure that's at the top of Captain Sheridan's agenda, yes. You're the only person in the outside world who still knows that I exist, Marcus. Nobody is going to reinstate me as a proper citizen, and I got used to that a long time ago." She retrieved her hand, and sipped the drink he had brought for her; fresh coffee, in a heatproof mug, obtained from one of his many mysterious sources. Coffee was a rare thing for anybody on the station, even on the upper levels, and it made her feel special to drink it. It reminded her of her husband, and of late nights poring over his engineering plans, staying awake by drinking his own special brew. "Now." Her new tone of voice demanded attention. "I repaired those boots that you left here last time. Goodness only knows what you do to these things, Marcus. If it's not tears in your clothes, it's bits ripped off your boots. How on Earth did you manage to tear off two buckles and three straps?"
"It wasn't on Earth." He smiled, rather vaguely. In point of fact the damage had occurred when he had been thrown into a garbage disposal chute onboard a cargo vessel in Centauri space. He had been lucky to lose just the straps, and not his feet as well. "I lead an interesting life. Sometimes my shoes have to suffer for the safety of the universe."
"You're a madman." She took another sip of coffee, then dug out his boots from the piles of clothing awaiting work or collection. "You should take better care of yourself. The last thing I want is to have you suddenly disappear, and me never knowing what's happened to you."
"You'd know." He smiled at her, in an attempt to lighten her mood. "If anything happens, I'll still stop by. Probably to bring you my wings and my halo to repair."
"What gives you the idea that you'd ever be made an angel?" She laughed at him gently. "They wouldn't want you in heaven, Marcus. You'd drive them all mad within a fortnight, and they'd send you right on back to the land of the living."
"I hope not. We've already got one man on the station who came back from the dead. I think that's enough, don't you?" Digging out a few coins, he dropped them into her now empty mug. It was more than the agreed sum, as usual, but he always insisted that the extra was for the pleasure of her company. He didn't get many conversations, as a rule. Arguments with Susan Ivanova, lessons and instruction from Ambassador Delenn, and brisk, precise orders from Captain Sheridan. Lennier talked with him, though was usually too busy. Stephen Franklin talked with him, though again was usually far too busy. G'Kar met him sometimes, in one bar or another, to share a drink and talk about how best to help the many Narn refugees - but little of it was the relaxed conversation of friends. Mabel was one of very few people in Marcus's circle of acquaintances who didn't have ulterior motives or one hundred and one pressing responsibilities to keep her distracted. He appreciated that. Besides - in a strange, uncertain way, she reminded him of his mother; and he knew that he reminded her of the son she had lost to the Earth-Minbari War. That had made him uneasy at first, for he had learnt in the last year or two that his first loyalty was to the Minbari, rather than to the 'home' planet he had never seen; and it was hard to listen with great sympathy to the anti-Minbari ranting of damaged veterans and the eternally bereaved. Mabel had been different though. From the outset she had blamed nobody. In that conflict there had been no foolish politicians letting situations slide out of their grip; no ambitious statesmen looking to write their own chapter in history. It had been nothing more than a mistake, and everybody knew that now. Everybody who wanted to listen. Mabel no more blamed the Minbari than she did the Centauri, whose technological gifts had put the humans out amongst the stars in the first place. Marcus liked that about her. It showed that she had a fair heart.
"Thank you for the coffee." Stowing the money away in the folds of her copious clothing, she handed him back the mug. "I don't know how you do it, Marcus, but it's always welcome."
"The coffee isn't a problem." It wasn't - he got that from Susan Ivanova's little plot in the station gardens, although he would never have let the fiery commander know that. It was the fresh milk that was the difficult bit. He had his sources though. He always did. "I'll be back soon. Bring you some more."
"I suppose I should be glad that you take such lousy care of yourself and your clothes. If you ever get around to buying another coat, I doubt I shall see you nearly so often."
"I'd come anyway." He smiled fondly at her, not seeing the bent, old woman with the wrinkles of a thousand hardships, but rather the dignified person she had been before they had ever met. "And anyway; what would I do with another coat? I can only wear one at a time. If I bought another one, I might actually have to buy some furniture, so I'd have something to keep it in."
"You're a strange sort." She shook her head, exasperated. "Most of the people down here would give anything to have a room, and the chance to buy a little furniture; and you go out of your way to avoid it, and spend half the nights you're on the station camping out down here."
"Yes." He looked a little humbled. "If I could get you--"
"I'm teasing you, Marcus. I'd not leave my friends. I won't go back to civilisation until we all do. Maybe when President Clark is gone, it'll be a new start for all of us. It'll be nice, if that's the case."
He squeezed her hand. "I wish I could make you some definite promises."
"There's no need for that. I don't want your promises, Marcus. I don't want anything from the world above. Not anymore. All I want is a little fairness. You soon learn that there's not a great deal else you need. Not really."
"I know." Marcus lived simply; in many ways he always had. There hadn't been room or money for luxuries on the mining settlement he had lived on before his Ranger days, and the Minbari had taught him all kinds of things that defied the instincts of so many races. No need for luxury, no need for wealth, no need for great comforts. It was the kind of teaching that made the Centauri goggle in disbelief and despair, but it worked for him. But then he had chosen it. The inhabitants of Downbelow, living in conditions that made his Spartan existence seem opulent, had for the most part chosen nothing of the kind. He let Mabel's hand go, and patted his repaired boots in satisfaction. "If I can't promise you wealth and a little cottage by the seaside, though, what can I do for you?"
"You've paid me. You've paid me more than we agreed, you've brought me coffee and conversation, and you've let me see that smile of yours. I consider my services more than fairly bought." Her eyes narrowed slightly. "But..."
"But?" He had been ready to go, but he was just as ready, now, to stay. Eagerness flickered into his eyes. Part of it was inactivity - there was not so much for him to do, now that the battle with the Shadows was over, and even though Sheridan sent him on forays and errands all over Earth- and Centauri-occupied space, that wasn't always enough to keep him busy. Another part of it was the genuine desire to do something for Mabel. Something that meant more than merely keeping an old woman company, and bringing her coffee he had stolen from Susan Ivanova. She looked cautious.
"I don't know, Marcus. An old woman's foolishness..."
"Old women have been revered as wise in almost every culture across the galaxy for good reason." Except possibly by the Vorlons, but then it was rather difficult to be sure whether or not they even had old women. He tried to imagine an old female Vorlon, and had to give up. Some mental images were just too hard to conjure up. Mabel was laughing at him, as though she too were trying to picture an old lady Vorlon.
"Wise? Me? Anyway, most cultures haven't revered old women; they've abandoned them for being mad. I don't know. It's just... I have a friend down here, Marcus. A very special friend. We swap stories, and we pool our resources to buy food. A little something special in all this hardship, you know? Well just lately he's seemed uneasy. Nothing that he could put his finger on, he said. Nothing concrete. Just things that made his hackles rise without him quite knowing why. You know what it's like down here. Goodness knows there are enough illegal goings-on, which means there are all kinds of people hanging about the place. Shady types, doing peculiar things. But this was different. He seemed so sure."
"Really?" Marcus was intrigued; he couldn't not be. Such things were guaranteed to spark his imagination, and make him wonder at what might be going on. Mabel nodded.
"Then the last time we met, he said that he was sure people were disappearing. Not the usual way. People always appear and disappear down here; it's the nature of the place, you know that. Refugees, outlaws and all sorts come in one day, and then leave the next. The underground railroad, all that kind of thing. Things that people don't think half of us know about. But that's all normal; the kind of thing that's been going on for as long as this station has been operational. What I'm talking about is something different. You know the kinds of people who live down here, Marcus. There are those who are coming in and moving on. No matter how poor they seem to be, you know that they won't stay. They've got other places to head for. But there are others that you know are never going to leave. Not until somebody finds one of them knifed after a fight, or dead from some disease; and then the only reason they leave is because their bodies get fired out into space. And now they're disappearing too. Jacob travels from one end to the other of Downbelow, all the time. He sees things." She looked older suddenly, and drawn. "And then yesterday he didn't come to our rendezvous. I waited for hours, but he didn't come. He's never done that to me before, Marcus, and I'm worried. I can't help it. I have to know what's happened to him."
"And you'd like me to look into it?" Concerned for her though he was, secretly he was almost delighted. Something to do; a mission upon which to concentrate his mind and his energies. She frowned.
"Do you think it's worth it?"
"Worth it?" There were many possible answers that crossed his mind then. Did she want to be told that yes, it was worth it, to reassure her that she and her comrades counted for something? Or did she want to be told that no, it probably wasn't worth it, to reassure her that her friend Jacob had probably just got drunk somewhere, and wasn't in any danger? He settled in the end on the middle ground, and shrugged slightly. "I don't know. I'd like to help you put your mind at rest, certainly. I'll have a look around, and see if I can track down your friend. Jacob, you called him?"
"Yes. He doesn't really have another name. Or at least if he did, he doesn't bother with it anymore. Lots of people don't, down here. It's all a part of leading a different life to before, I suppose."
"I know." Marcus also had two names, and preferred not to use the second. In the flashy world that was Babylon 5's official side, it was harder; people expected him to have two names. In Downbelow, just as in the company of Rangers, one name was more than sufficient. Some didn't even bother with that. "And where might I find him?"
"I don't know. Like I said, he travels all over the place." She lowered her voice, as though unwilling to risk her friend by revealing details about him, even now that he might be dead. "He's telekinetic, you see. He came here to escape the Corps, as he had seen what they did to his parents. They were supposed to breed with partners who had been chosen for them, but they loved each other." She shrugged. "Well, if you know anything at all about the Corps, you'll know what it's like. The funny thing is, the selective breeding is to try to create just the sort of person that Jacob found he was, and he was the result of a forbidden joining. His parents tried to run away with him, long before he found out what he was, but they were captured and finished up drugged. You've probably heard stories about that, too."
"Yes." Marcus was thinking of Susan, although he had rarely heard her mention her mother. It was just one of those things that people seemed to know, without ever being entirely sure where they had first heard it. "The Psi Corps like drugs, by all accounts."
"Quite. Well Jacob ran away, once he realised that he was never going to get his parents back. He's been running ever since, since he was ten years old. He was fifteen when he found out that he was telekinetic, as well as telepathic. He can do things that people here will pay him for, and Babylon 5 has been the first permanent home he's ever had. He loves it here, even in Downbelow. Marcus... I know that he'd do anything for anybody down here. If he's right, and there is something strange going on, it would be just like him to get himself mixed up in it. You will try to find him, won't you."
"Of course." He took both her hands in his, and smiled at her as reassuringly as he could. "I'll look into this. If it's at all possible, I will find him. Wherever he is."
"Thank you." She smiled again, brightly as she had before she had unleashed her fears. "You can't miss him, anyway. He's about seven feet tall, and he's got the build to match. He has one of those nowhere-in-particular accents that people sometimes pick up when they spend their whole lives wandering, and he has a wonderful head of white hair, and a big bushy moustache. You certainly can't mistake him for anybody else - or anybody else for him." Her smile faded again. "That's why I'm so worried, I suppose. It's not as if he's very anonymous down here. Not amongst the other Lurkers, anyway. But nobody at all seems to have seen him."
"There'll be a perfectly good explanation." Suddenly he wanted nothing more than for that explanation to be mere drunkenness. She could tell her friend off then; rail against him for worrying her, and for missing their date, and then forgive him and be happy. If Jacob turned up just like almost every other missing Lurker, though - sprawled in a forgotten corridor with a knife in his ribs, or a laser burn over his heart - then there was a chance that Mabel would never be happy again. Marcus would hate to see that happen. She was a sweet woman, and she deserved to have her friend back. He managed to smile as though truly confident of success. "I'll get right on it. I have nothing else to do for the next couple of days."
"Thank you." Her relief was clear. He merely shrugged.
"Thankyou. I hate to be inactive, and much though I enjoy reading, there's a limit to how much of it I can do without going mad." He clutched his mended boots to his chest, and dropped into an exaggerated version of the Minbari bow he used so often. It always made Mabel smile, which was why he did it - and he was gratified to see her smiling now. Taking his leave, he left whilst she was still smiling, for that was the image of her he liked to carry in his head. Better that than the worried, lost little look that he knew would take over her face as soon as he had gone.
"So where can you be, Jacob?" He asked the question aloud, not caring of the looks that it got him. There was no response from any of the people around him, but his own voice answered him inside his head - if Jacob could not be found in Downbelow, then perhaps he should be sought outside of it? There was one man who might know about it, if Jacob had suffered some unfortunate fate, and it was to him that Marcus went now.
Besides, even if there was little chance of finding Jacob in a hospital bed, it was always good fun to bother Stephen.
"No! Emphatically. Completely. Unalterably. No!"
"Stephen have I ever got you into trouble? Given you any reason for such a negative reception?"
"Yes." Stephen Franklin, chief of medicine aboard Babylon 5, was very definite in his answer. "And yes. Frequently, on both counts. If you want to spend your days crawling around in Downbelow looking for some lost soul, that's your affair - although I'm sure that somebody up here could probably find you something better to do if you bothered to ask - but don't try to get me mixed up in it. I have a department to run."
"Which is why I came here. If anything has happened to this man, he'll have been brought here, right?"
"Probably. Depending on who found him; or if he was found." Stephen folded his arms, and glared at his sometime companion. "Alright. Give me a description, and I'll tell you if he's been through here. But that's all that I'm doing. I am not embarking on some fool crusade hunting for somebody who probably doesn't want to be found; and if he does is probably beyond helping now anyway."
"You have a cruel streak, Stephen." Marcus's eyes twinkled, but his voice was accusing. "The man who turns such a cold shoulder to the plight of the Lurkers surely can't be the same man who risked his career trying to help escaping Telepaths?"
"Don't try to appeal to my better nature." Stephen scowled, well aware that Marcus was right. The Ranger had an uncanny habit of cutting through to the heart of things, and he knew exactly how to play upon Stephen's morals. "I care as much about the Lurkers as anybody else, but I only have one pair of hands, and they're doing far too much work as it is. With the limited resources we have at the moment, I can't treat everybody anyway. It just isn't possible."
"And the people who live up here are more important?"
"Marcus..." He sighed. "You know how it is, and so do they. Now are you going to tell me what this man looks like, or do I have to guess?"
"Lots of white hair, and a moustache. He's a big man, apparently. Very big."
"Then he hasn't been in here." Stephen turned back to the samples he had been studying when Marcus had arrived. "Goodbye then. We'll have to have a drink some time. Preferably when you're in a less energetic mood."
"Who's energetic?" Jumping up to sit on the table top, close enough to Stephen's microscope to make his work extremely difficult, Marcus folded his arms and swung his legs rhythmically. "You're sure about Jacob?"
"You don't want to check your records? Make certain?"
"Marcus, if I'd seen a giant snowman come through here on a gurney, I think I'd know about it; and I'd have noticed it in the reports if it had happened when I was off duty. Now kindly go and get in somebody else's way for a while. I have work to do."
"Work that takes hours, when you'd much rather be doing something else. You're not supposed to work too hard, Stephen. Remember what happened last year?"
"You think I'm going to forget?"
"I think it pays to be reminded." Slowly and gently, so as not to disturb anything, Marcus moved the microscope aside. "There's a very sweet old lady who's wondering why the one true friend that she has in the world has gone missing. I know they're an annoyance to you, Stephen. To you and to Security. I know that they clutter up the station, and spoil the official look of the place, and that they stop it from looking like the nice clean place you all want it to look like--"
"Now wait a minute!" Stephen was beginning to simmer now. "You're making me sound like some heartless monster. I have nothing against Lurkers!"
"You just wouldn't want your sister to marry one?!"
"If I had a sister, the only person I would object to her marrying would be a certain extremely annoying Ranger who doesn't know when to shut the hell up and go away." The doctor pulled his microscope back into place in front of him. "I'm sorry for your sweet little old lady, and for her fancy man. I'm sorry that he's missing and possibly dead, and I'm really - really - sorry that you and she are probably the only people who'll ever care enough to try to find out. But that doesn't make me any less busy."
"Or any less of an old misery."
"All I'm asking is an hour or two, Stephen. Look, we've worked well together in the past haven't we?"
"We're still alive, if that's what you mean."
"Well then. Look, I need somebody to come along, and--"
"Marcus, you're a self confirmed loner. The only reason you want me to come along is because I can open doors with my medical override. And that, my friend, as I have explained countless times before, is for emergencies only."
"That's not the only reason I want you to come." Marcus smiled cheerfully. "You've no idea how it helps with Security if I have somebody in a uniform tagging along. Plus you being one of Sheridan's staff works wonders with the civilians."
"You have a way of making me feel truly valued."
"You've been working far too hard. Again. The change will do you good. Half an hour - an hour at the most - and you'll be back here working on your samples, as though nothing ever happened. And you'll have done a sweet little old lady a good turn. Just think how well you'll sleep tonight."
"An hour at the most? Marcus, last time you promised me that we wound up being arrested by some overeager Narn security guard, and spending all night in the brig before Zack came by to let us out. I have no intention of repeating that experience."
"Not even for a friend?"
"Marcus--" He broke off almost immediately, frustrated, exasperated and, despite himself, increasingly amused. There was something of the child in the Ranger now, sitting there on the table, swinging his legs, toying with a piece of medical equipment that he clearly couldn't identify, and looking at Franklin with an expression of hopeful enthusiasm. It was so much a contrast to the ultra-professional, ultra-capable one man army that he could so quickly become, that Stephen found himself smiling. The expression had an immediate affect upon Marcus; he jumped from the table, absurd cloak swinging about his legs, and headed for the door.
"Come on then."
"Marcus!" He tried to make it sound like a reprimand; tried to use his authority as head of medicine, or his position as a bona fide member of the station's crew, to bring the other man in line; or even just to check his exuberant stride. Naturally enough it didn't work. Marcus tossed him the portable scanner he had been playing with, and Stephen caught it, startled, almost dropping it again. "Marcus..."
"That's my name, Stephen. No need to waste it." The other man had almost gone. Stephen glared after him, fuming quietly. He could just let the idiot go; there was nothing forcing him to follow. Hadn't he said often enough that he was staying here? That Marcus would just have to face this latest escapade alone? There was absolutely no compulsion to follow the dark-clad shape as it strode briskly towards the end of the corridor. No compulsion at all. Stephen was still thinking that as he hurried on out of Medlab One, and put on an extra burst of speed to catch up with his friend. He had no idea why he was tagging along, and he was almost certain that he would regret it, but... well, what the hell. It might be nice to make some sweet little old lady smile. It had been a long, long time since he had really got the chance to do that. Marcus made no comment, but he slowed his stride slightly to accommodate Stephen's company, and smiled his gentle, private smile. An hour, thought Franklin, with real resolve. I'll give the infuriating son of a Drashig an hour. After that I'm going back to work. And, after all, what was there that could possibly happen in just an hour?
It was as though he was being taken on a tour of Downbelow's most popular hotspots. Tiny bars, some no more than a handful of barrels of extremely illicit liquor stacked in an alcove, others apparently almost as well stocked as the Zocalo. A makeshift cinema of sorts, where a flickering screen played ancient films recorded on cracked data crystals to a paying audience. A shambolic room filled with broken furniture, apparently used as a brothel. Franklin had spent time in Downbelow more than once in the past, not least when he had been on his spiritual quest a few months before, but he had never before seen the extent of it all. The cinema and the brothel surprised him, although he wasn't sure why. Wherever intelligent life settled, be it alone or in communities, little luxuries soon emerged from the wasteland. Downbelow was no different. What surprised him most of all was Marcus's familiarity with it all. He wandered through the rooms, through the corridors, as though he had lived there all of his life, sharing greetings with the people that Stephen had only ever seen in the past as hollow-eyed, unresponsive loners, with no use for anybody. They welcomed Marcus though, even joking with him; but every time he asked after Jacob he met with blank stares. Nobody knew where he was, it seemed, although everybody appeared to know him.
"Your hour is nearly up," declared the doctor, after some fifty minutes spent in one of the most enlightening walks that he had ever enjoyed. Marcus flashed him one of his spontaneous, infectious smiles.
"I still have some time yet."
"You really think you're going to find him?"
"I'll find him." Marcus looked serious all of a sudden. "Dead or alive, I'll find him. And you, my dear doctor, are a vital part of my plan."
"I haven't felt very vital so far."
"You'd be surprised." The Ranger slapped him on the back. "That last place we stopped by was full of the kind of people who cut throats first and ask questions later. They only let us in and out of there alive because I promised you'd give them medical supplies."
"You did what?" Franklin shook his head. "Marcus, I--"
"They're not asking for drugs, or anything else that they can sell. Just what they need. People get hurt down here a lot. They get sick much more easily than they do up above. They just want something that'll help them to look after their people a little better. You won't be breaking any rules by giving them some basic antibiotics."
"Not any rules, no. Just my neck." Stephen offered the other man a faint smile. "Every time I go somewhere with you, I seem to wind up in a situation that all my instincts tell me to run from. Anyway, what are we getting from the deal? I'm giving them medical supplies, but all we seem to be getting in return is a lot of unhelpfulness."
"I know. And probably half of the people who say that they haven't seen Jacob are lying." Marcus scowled, his mercurial temper swallowing his earlier smiles. "That's an awful lot of unhelpfulness. I'm hoping that by working out who's lying and who isn't, we might be able to figure out where he could be."
"That doesn't sound very likely."
"Well I admit as a plan it's far from perfect." Marcus shrugged. "Come on. There are still a couple of places I want to check before I start back at the beginning again."
"Start back at the beginning?" That didn't quite make sense to Franklin. Marcus offered him a lopsided smile, that went hand in hand with a very bright gleam in his eyes.
"With extra coercion. Asking nicely only gets you so far."
"I'd imagine." Stephen looked unhappy. "Is that where I come in? Because medical man or not, I don't really want any--"
"Don't worry, Stephen. I wouldn't take you along on that sort of expedition. Besides, the onlookers don't tend to stand by and let their friends get beaten up by inquisitive visitors. You'd only get in the way." Marcus frowned suddenly, head cocked on one side for a second. "Come on. Like I said, there are still a couple of places I want to check."
"Yeah, but..." Stephen had been about to ask if Marcus hadn't just heard something, but he fell silent at a flicker in his companion's extra-bright eyes. Great. This was really great. Just the kind of thing he had hoped to have happen to him when he had woken up that morning. Marcus's hand had fallen to his Minbari fighting pike, currently resting innocuously enough in the inner pocket of his coat. "Marcus..."
"There's a community just up ahead." Marcus was speaking in a slightly louder voice than normal, his bounteous good cheer perhaps ever so slightly false. "The Widows of Lamarsken, they call themselves. They were all married to a smuggler from one of the outlying worlds, who met his end in a shuttle crash just outside docking bay three last year. Lovely ladies. Unpredictable though. The first time I came down here they hung me upside down by my ankles for three days, and debated whether or not to use my skin to furnish a nice new set of drums."
"What?!" Stephen had been walking on as instructed, and it was only as he turned to query this last, bizarre statement, that he realised Marcus was no longer just behind him. Instead he was further back along the corridor, pike extended, every muscle in his lithe body as tense as it seemed possible for them to be. He saw that Stephen had stopped, and gestured for him to keep moving. Stephen did so, and as he headed on around a corner in the corridor, Marcus's ever bright and chatty voice carried on. "Of course, I managed to persuade them to let me down, although I had to promise to perform three favours for them in payment. The first was to fetch them some floral material for a nice new set of curtains. The second was to find some interesting house plants to brighten up their rooms. The third was--" With a thump that was unmistakably that of the pike hitting flesh, he fell silent. A second thump followed, and Stephen broke into a run, heading back up the corridor just in time to see Marcus deliver a fourth attacker into blissful unconsciousness. He grinned, and twirled his pike in triumph like some hulking and hirsute Majorette performing a particularly difficult manoeuvre.
"We were being followed," he declared. Stephen nodded.
"So I see. Do you recognise them?"
"No." He crouched down, turning the four over. Two were human, a third was a Drazi, and a fourth, somewhat unexpectedly, was a Centauri. All four were ragged and half-starved, like most of the occupants of Downbelow, and the weapons they had been carrying were obviously makeshift. Marcus whistled through his teeth.
"You don't get many Centauri in Downbelow," he commented, beginning to go through the pockets of his four victims. Stephen nodded.
"I've certainly never seen one before. I have heard rumours of discontent on the Centauri Homeworld though. There are a lot of people who were unhappy with Emperor Cartagia, and the way he was running things. A lot of the Centauri were unhappy about what's been going on on the Narn Homeworld, too."
"Sooner or later people will always find a voice to speak out against evil things being done in their name." Marcus frowned down at the unconscious Centauri. "None of which tells us why our friend here was following us with a very unpleasant looking club made out of pilfered engineering tools." He kicked the offending weapon away. "They don't look like thieves."
"You can tell?"
"Not necessarily." Marcus shrugged. "It's just that thieves thieve. It's what they do. So they tend to look rather better off than the rest of the Lurkers. They're not quite so wasted. They don't look quite as grey and starving as the others. This lot look like they haven't had a square meal in days." He frowned suddenly. "Now that is interesting."
"What is?" Stephen leaned closer, and Marcus pointed to something that the Centauri - and, apparently, the Drazi and the two humans - was wearing. A cross, fashioned out of wood by a talented hand, and hung on a piece of string around his neck. It was a cross such as had been used for centuries on Earth, as part of the Christian religion, and as such was familiar to both men. Stephen frowned.
"Do other races use a symbol like that? I've not noticed it on the station before."
"I've not seen it anywhere before. Still, if it's some kind of gangland badge, it might have been one of the humans who came up with it." Marcus let go of the little cross, and let it fall back down onto the Centauri's chest. "And it's only two intersecting lines. It could easily be a coincidence."
"I thought you didn't believe in coincidences?" Stephen stood up, looking both ways down the corridor. Marcus shrugged.
"I have a talent for believing most fervently in whatever seems most prudent at the time." Only the faintest gleam in his eyes suggested that he might have been joking. "We're not all Foundationists like you, Stephen. And anyway, coincidence or not, we're wasting time talking about it now. I want to press on. We'll worry about who these people are later, when we've finished asking questions about Jacob."
"Ah yes. The Lamarsken Widows." Stephen frowned unhappily. "They're not really likely to try making us into drums, are they?"
"No." Marcus grinned at him happily. "Not at this time of the year, anyway. Relax Stephen. That was all just talk for the benefit of our friends. The next community we come to down that corridor is a bunch of refugee Narns who are waiting to be shipped out to neutral territory. And they have absolutely no need of drums." He straightened up, apparently forgetting about the four slumped figures in an instant. "And I shall be promising them your medical assistance again, incidentally."
"Don't mention it." He frowned. "Actually, you'd probably better take that literally. Even Captain Sheridan's patience isn't limitless, and since he's inclined to leave the little details to Susan Ivanova, I really wouldn't recommend--" He broke off suddenly. Stephen, who had just begun to head onwards down the corridor once again, stopped and threw his eyes heavenward. Surely he hadn't heard somebody else following them? He turned back, expecting to see his friend with pike extended, once again flat against the wall in an attempt to catch some prowling Lurker unawares. Instead he saw the Centauri, clearly no longer unconscious, pointing a tiny handgun up at an extremely irate Ranger. Startled, he took a few steps back towards them.
"Run," Marcus told him, in a pleasantly conversational tone of voice, as though he were not in the slightest alarmed, and was only trying to get Stephen out of the way so as to prevent him from being late for his rounds. Stephen hesitated. The Centauri's eyes flickered towards him.
"Do and you won't get far." Like all of his race that the doctor had encountered he spoke flawless English, though with a different, flatter accent than that sported by the extravagant Ambassador Londo Mollari. Stephen blinked at him in confusion for several moments, not quite certain how the situation had changed so very quickly.
"Excuse me, am I missing something?" he asked. Marcus shrugged.
"Our prostrate friend seems irked about something."
"Irked? Perhaps. You're going to places you've got no business in, asking questions you shouldn't be asking." The Centauri edged away across the floor, so that he could sit up without being at risk of attack from either man. "My friends and I were sent here to persuade you to stay away from things that don't concern you." He kicked at one of his slumped confederates, who stirred, moaned, assessed the situation, and failed completely to rise to his feet. The Centauri kicked him again and he managed it clumsily.
"Take their weapons," ordered the Centauri, managing the awkward task of standing up, whilst maintaining his aim and contriving not to wobble. Injured as he was that was no mean feat. His companion, one of the humans, hauled the second human to his feet, and together they frisked the two prisoners. From Stephen they took nothing more than his Link, but from Marcus they took his beloved pike, and a small Minbari dagger. He watched them disappear into the folds of the Centauri's clothing, his eyes narrowed in the greatest displeasure.
"Perhaps we can take the bully boy antics as read, and just cut straight to the chase." Folding his arms and doing his best to look as though he were still in control of the conversation, Marcus squared his shoulders and tried on his best cold stare. It was the one with which he always regarded a man he had just beaten soundly, or had every intention of beating. He had had long experience of Downbelow, and of its resident Lurkers, and he knew exactly how to deal with them. Or thought that he did.
"Bully boy antics?" The Centauri shook his head, his close-cropped crest so short that it barely fluttered. "You come here, and you accuse us of acting like bullies? Get out of here, and don't come back. We know why you're here. Both of you."
"You do?" Stephen was beginning to think that, even if this Centauri knew why he was here, he himself hadn't a clue. "Why?"
"Don't try to pretend to be innocent." It was the Drazi who spoke, brushing dust from his clothing as he arose from the ground, checking that his carved wooden cross was still hanging from his broad, scaled neck. "Vorlon servants, here to try to take back what never belonged to you."
"Vorlons?" Marcus looked confused. "I appreciate that you don't always get news very quickly down here, but you do know that the Vorlons have gone? They don't live in this galaxy anymore. They've left, with all the other older races, and they're not coming back."
"Oh we know that they've gone. Or that they want us to think that they have." The first of the humans, a tall, brown-haired man with two fingers missing, had drawn a small gun of his own from some secret place within his clothing. He waved it now, in an attempt to look dramatic and powerful. "When they left they blew up their planet, and everything on it. The animals, the plants, the buildings, the technology, the millennia-worth of research and knowledge that they knew the rest of us could benefit from. And the people. Do you know how many people they took, from a hundred planets across the galaxy, throughout time? People they kept frozen for their own use? They were all on that planet when it exploded."
Marcus and Stephen exchanged a look. Such things had been talked about, of course, since the destruction of the Vorlon homeworld. The giant fireball which had destroyed the planet had undoubtedly taken all manner of things with it, and the subject of the native animal life, and of the supposed alien objects of study, was one that made everybody uneasy. The truth, of course, was that nobody knew what had happened; and the Vorlons had made very sure that that situation was highly unlikely to change. Stephen shrugged.
"Maybe you're right. The Vorlons turned out to be a ruthless people. But what makes you think that we're working for them, and what is it that you think we're after?"
"Of course you're working for them. You came down here asking questions about Jacob. Nobody comes down here asking after Lurkers unless they're really after something else." The second human, scrawnier than the first and sporting an overgrown tumble of dusty red hair that looked far too big for his head, spoke up with overdone bravado. "Besides." His eyes turned to Marcus. "Everybody knows about the Rangers. Entil'zha. That's a Vorlon word."
"It's probably a Vorlon word." Marcus spoke with an undeniable pride, as he always did where the old title was concerned. "It comes from Valen. That's all that anybody knows. And we're here looking for Jacob because we want to find out where he is. He's the friend of a friend, and he's gone missing."
"That's as may be." The Centauri didn't look convinced. "Just understand that it's not very healthy to be asking the kind of questions you've been asking. Leave here and don't come back. Forget all about Jacob."
"Sorry." Marcus was not about to be turned away, especially with such an unsatisfying explanation. "Can't do that. Promised somebody, actually, so we're going to find Jacob, and we're not going to give up until we do. A very good friend of mine is very worried about him, and I intend to deliver him back to her. So get used to it. Whatever it is you think that the Vorlons might want back, I don't care about it. I'm not working for them."
"You're a Ranger." The red-headed human did not sound especially anxious to be convinced. "That puts you with the Vorlons."
"The Vorlons murdered millions of innocent people." Beginning to lose his temper, Marcus closed the distance between himself and his accuser without care for the tiny guns on display. "Rangers do not ally themselves with murderers."
"You won't be dissuaded?" Quite suddenly the Centauri sounded like a judge about to pass sentence. In his hand the tiny gun whirred as it powered up ready to fire. Stephen pushed forward.
"Now wait just a minute," he demanded, anxious to try to bring some sanity to the proceedings. "You can't just accuse us of things we don't even understand, and then start throwing your weight about. We're here for a perfectly harmless reason, and whatever you think we might want, you're wrong."
"Maybe." The Drazi's small dark eyes glittered. "And maybe we're not willing to risk that. You have to leave here, and you have to forget all about Jacob. If you don't, we can't be responsible for what might happen."
"None of that makes any sense." Almost as infuriated as Marcus, Stephen tried to advance on them, though by now the foursome all had guns, whirring in preparation to fire. The Drazi grabbed his arm, pulling him back as though to stop him from making some attempt to dash for freedom. Stephen tried to break free, his exasperation bubbling over. He had never been a fighter, at least by profession, but he was more than capable of handling himself. Had it been anybody other than a Drazi who gripped his arm, he might have succeeded in escaping, but the hard, scaled hand that held him was just too strong. He heard a shot, though coming as it did from one of the tiny guns, it didn't make much sound. The blast went close by him, and he felt its faint heat. Marcus let out an oath, rushing forward with a speed that wasn't entirely advisable given the amount of firepower on display. Another gun fired, and caught by a close range blast, Stephen sagged in the Drazi's grip.
"Stephen!" Shocked, Marcus dropped beside him as the doctor fell limply to the floor, freed in the same instant by his captor. The Ranger fumbled anxiously for a pulse, reassured when he found one, but angered anyway. His eyes turned furiously to the brown-haired human who had fired both times.
"He wasn't any threat to you. Do you like firing on unarmed men?"
"Not particularly." The human actually looked as though he might mean it, for there was none of the usual aggression in his eyes. He looked almost apologetic, as, perhaps, did the Centauri, when he levelled his own gun at Marcus.
"You won't walk away from this, will you." It wasn't a question, and even looking down the barrel of the tiny gun, Marcus had no intention of lying. He met his accuser's eyes with a cold, steady stare.
"No." He turned back to Stephen then, caring more about his unconscious companion than he did for what was about to happen now; for what seemed to be unavoidable. The gunshot, when it came, was quiet enough, but the blast still did its purpose. Hit at close range in the back, the Ranger tumbled forward on top of his oblivious friend.
There seemed to be a lot of people around. People standing; looking. People sitting, or crouching, or leaning; all intense in their scrutiny of the two men lying on the floor in their midst. Stephen raised his head rather groggily, and frowned at the assembled masses. They were a ragged bunch; Lurkers then. Apparently they were still in Downbelow. Sitting up as slowly as he could, in case anybody thought he might be a threat, he took a look over at Marcus. The Ranger was awake as well, propped up on one elbow, and glaring at all and sundry.
"What's going on?" asked Stephen, partly to discover whether his dry throat was still capable of assisting speech, and partly because it seemed a sensible thing to say. Marcus certainly didn't seem inclined to ask it; he was too busy glaring, and being Marcus. He would probably insist that his Ranger training had enabled him to assess the entire situation before he had even regained consciousness, therefore rendering questions unnecessary - but Stephen suspected that he was just sulking. Sulking or glowering. With his natural tendency towards the dramatic, he was equally inclined towards both.
"You were asking questions that didn't concern you." The voice was polite, even gentle, but stated its purpose firmly. "It was considered necessary to prevent you from continuing, and from attracting attention to things that we would rather remained undiscovered."
"That doesn't explain why we were shot." Stephen's still muddled brain located the speaker at last, and instructed his faintly unfocused eyes to look up at him. He saw a tall human, with a neat red-brown beard and nut brown eyes. His expression was not remotely threatening or unpleasant; instead he appeared benevolent - rather like a priest or kindly grandfather. Like the four in the corridor he was wearing a carved wooden cross around his neck, and his hands were folded around a leather-bound book. Stephen was surprised to see it; books were uncommon in his experience, especially on the station. Everything seemed to be about data crystals these days.
"Shooting you was hardly our first choice." The Drazi they had met earlier stepped forward now. There was a look of kindliness about him, too, realised Stephen; he hadn't noticed it before. It seemed unnatural to see a Drazi with gentility in his eyes, but this one seemed determined to defy expectation. He smiled now, his expression infinitely patient. "We apologise. Fully."
"We all apologise," added the man with the nut brown eyes. He stepped forward, crouching down beside the two men, and offering his hand to Stephen. "My name is James."
"Stephen." He gave the information freely, and without a thought. It seemed the natural thing to do. "He's Marcus."
"You are welcome, Stephen and Marcus." James shook hands with the doctor as he spoke. "And now - you're not injured?"
"No. Just stiff." Stephen stood up, allowing James to help him. Marcus rose alone, his eyes watching everything and everybody with suspicion, though the hostility had gone from his face. He was nothing if not polite, and he could match gallantry with gallantry. He wasn't sure, though; Stephen could see that. The doctor sympathised. He didn't understand this either.
"You're a medical man." James was looking at the flashes on Stephen's uniform. "And this insignia on your right arm - it's a representation of the Isil'zha, which your friend also wears. Are you a Ranger yourself?"
"No. It's a symbol. A sign of our alliance." Stephen's eyes trailed back to Marcus, looking for a warning to be silent, but he saw none. There were less dangers now that the Old Ones were gone; less reason to fear people discovering their alliances and plans. All the same, he was used to the secrecy. It seemed natural to be careful of what was said.
"The continuing togetherness of human and Minbari." James nodded in satisfaction. "It's a good thing to see. Former enemies, who fought a bitter war, coming together to face their shared future together. One day Narn and Centauri will join together likewise. The different tribes of the Drazi will live in peace - and not just as they have been recently, to fight the Great Battle against the Shadows." He smiled at the expression on Stephen's face. "Yes, we know about that. There is much ignorance in Downbelow, but I flatter myself that you won't find any of it here. We may not know the finer details of your uniform, but we know of the battles you've been fighting, and of the ones still to come. It's said that Earth is as evil an enemy as the Shadows ever were. That there are servants of the Shadows still scattered about the galaxy that have yet to be defeated. Enemies whose true nature is not yet known. We have been kept well informed..." He smiled then, the most happy and contented smile that Stephen thought he had ever seen. "Great teachings have been brought to us, which perhaps you will appreciate yourselves."
"If you're so enlightened," put in Marcus, speaking for the first time since regaining consciousness, "why did you shoot us? We're no threat to peaceful people. A certain lady is looking for information about a man named Jacob, and we intend to find him for her. Nothing more."
"Yes." If appearances could be believed, James was genuinely sorry. "Jacob came here looking for us. He was suspicious about certain things, but he's here with us now."
"Unharmed?" asked Marcus. James smiled faintly, and nodded.
"Unharmed. And here he will remain until we are all gone. As will you."
"What?" Suddenly coming back into the conversation, his suspicions leaping back to life, Stephen stared at James in shock. "We can't stay here. We have duties elsewhere. We don't want to stay here."
"And I apologise for that." James seemed fond of apologising. "You must understand the delicacy of our position, though. We have amongst us... one who must remain secretive, for now at least. The time is not yet right for him to reveal himself, and besides - there are those who might communicate the fact of his presence here to the Vorlons, and who knows what they might plan to do with him? They killed all the others. All the people they were holding on their planet, from all the worlds and all the times. They died when the Vorlon homeworld was destroyed. If the Vorlons learn that one survived, they might return to kill him. They guarded all their belongings and their knowledge most jealously, as I'm sure you're aware."
"They did, yes." Stephen was still angry. "But that doesn't give you the right to kidnap people. We are not staying here."
"You'll want to." James sounded convinced of that fact, his gentle voice brimming with confidence. "As did we."
"It's a funny thing." Marcus was stretching his arms, for all the world like some lazy soul arising late from bed, and enjoying a leisurely awakening. "But I don't appreciate being kept somewhere against my will. Merry smiles don't make a man my friend. Now stand aside, all of you, or there'll be more broken skulls in this room than you can count."
"My dear man..." James was still smiling placidly, still speaking with the voice of gentility and reason. "You cannot hope to defeat all of us, and there's really no need to try. We are peaceful people. We've already apologised for turning our guns against you. We would rather not use them again. But if you're proposing to start a fight in here, where there are children as well as adults, we will use our superior numbers to stop you."
"The odds are less than forty to one." Marcus's eyes drifted around the room, discounting the children, and those who didn't look like they could fight too well. "Less, if Stephen lends a hand. I've fought worse, and probably will again." He stood with an unmistakable pride, even if, as Franklin suspected, he was bluffing furiously. "Come on Stephen. We're leaving."
"We can't let you do that." For the first time James sounded less than calm, less than peaceful and welcoming. "It's against our code to use force or violence, certainly against guests, but we can't let you leave here. There's too much at stake."
"Your friend is in no danger from the Vorlons." Stephen was as anxious to leave as was Marcus, but was rather less enthusiastic, or confident, about the idea of a fight. "Even if he did somehow survive the destruction of the planet, they'd have no reason to come back for him. They've gone for good. We don't even know for sure if they're still alive, at least in the way that we understand it."
"Nobody has ever returned from beyond the Rim." Marcus spoke to confirm Stephen's claim, although he cared far less about whether it was believed. "The Vorlons are gone. And who is this man, anyway, that you think he's worth all this bother? What's so great about one person? Where's he from? Which planet? Which time? When Stephen here doesn't report in, Security will come looking. There might be fighting; even gunfire. Your people could get hurt. Is that what your Vorlon refugee is worth?"
"That. More." James smiled placidly, the light in his eyes not fanatical; just gentle and warm. "You couldn't imagine, friend Marcus, just how very much he's worth. To me, to my companions, to you - to the entire universe. And in answer to one of your questions, he's from Earth. Just like you and me."
"I'm not from Earth." Marcus had felt less loyal to the planet of his ancestors with each new piece of madness perpetrated by President Clark and his various minions; and James's attempt to appeal to a sense of species unity did nothing to change his mind. Instead he looked over at Stephen. "Come on," he said shortly, and with gentle determination. "We're leaving."
"We can't allow that." James's voice was suddenly sharp, though it was regret rather than anger that showed on his face. Around him the others of his company moved as though directed by unheard orders, blocking the route to the door, and standing shoulder to shoulder to reinforce their barrier. Marcus thought sadly of his pike, no longer in his possession, then stepped forward anyway. He had his fists, his training, the tricks and skills taught him by warrior caste Minbari. These people, for all their numbers, were thin and wasted Lurkers. No match for him, if they didn't all come at him at once. He remembered their guns and scowled, then clenched his fists. Sod the guns. He could still beat this sorry lot.
Left behind, Stephen saw the rakish grin cross the Ranger's face, and groaned. He knew what that grin meant. It was the grin he had seen just before Marcus had piled merrily into a free for all in the Zocalo a few weeks before. The grin he had watched, with trepidation, as it had burst into being in some other, unnamed bar in a disreputable part of the station, when five drunken Night Watch members had dared poke fun at Delenn. It was a grin that meant trouble. It was a grin that made Stephen very nervous. He clenched his own fists, and tried to walk up beside Marcus with the same kind of swagger.
The false confidence proved entirely useless, for the gang rushed at them all at once, only James and the few children present holding back. Stephen found it supremely hard to dodge thirty punches all at once, but needless to say Marcus seemed in his element, laying about him in a typically over-enthusiastic way, his cloak billowing with its usual dramatic flare. He would have cut quite a dash, had the odds not been quite so overwhelming; but there was likely none other who could look so wildly spirited whilst being borne to the ground by sheer weight of numbers. If there were any prizes for grace under fire, or for indomitable enthusiasm, Marcus would win them all hands down - Stephen was willing to concede that much. Personally, his own apparent approaching demise at the hands of a mob was something he was less inclined to jolly along with such boundless energy.
"Stop this!" The voice came from the back of the room, where the children had gathered, and where James still waited. It was a voice that carried authority, though not in a harsh and powerful sense. It was a voice of warmth, that seemed to ask kindly for obedience, rather than demanding it. Stephen felt his hands stilled in mid punch, though Marcus fought on. Only when he realised that his opponents were no longer fighting back did he slow to a halt and look up. He saw, as did Stephen, a frozen tableau of suddenly sheepish men, milling about and trying to look as though they hadn't just been fighting. Behind them, standing amongst the children, and dressed in a robe so white it seemed almost to shine, was a man. He was a full head taller than any of the other adults present, and he had long blond hair and a luxurious beard. Bright blue eyes shone with a radiance that was quite captivating, and his smile almost seemed to glow as well. He shook his head, now certain that he had the attention of all of those present.
"There must be no fighting." He had the sort of voice that carried even without volume; a soft, warm, friendly voice that complemented and enhanced the serenity of his face. Stephen found himself feeling almost guilty for his part in the brawling. The voice laughed, as though recognising his embarrassment. "We wish only for peace, not for violence. That is why we have all come together. All those who follow me strive for peace, and one day it shall be theirs. One day the whole of the universe shall know peace."
"Very altruistic." Marcus was not in a particularly peaceful mood. "It's a pity that you and your followers don't show the same equanimity towards people looking for their friends."
"You want to know that Jacob is in good health." The strange, almost unearthly man smiled his warm and gentle smile, and stepped aside. Behind him was a door leading to another room, and the shape of another big man was clearly visible there. A man of powerful build, with a tumbled thatch of snow white hair, and a huge, thick moustache. He was watching the events unfolding in the main room, but he showed no interest in joining in with them. Instead he merely folded chunky arms, and watched steadily on. Marcus walked past everybody, including the bearded blond, pushing a path through to the stranger he had been sent to find. Jacob stared back at him, through eyes wrinkled at the corners, his mouth set in an ambiguous line.
"We've never met," he observed, in the neutral accent of a man who had never had a country, nor even a planet, that was home. "But I know who you are. You're Marcus Cole."
"Yes." Marcus shook the hand that was offered, noting the strength in the grip. "Mabel was worried about you. She asked me to come and find you."
"Dear Mabel. I sometimes think she cares too much." A fond smile deepened the crinkles around Jacob's eyes, although his mouth didn't change shape at all. "But you shouldn't have come. There are secrets here, and apparently they have to be kept. You won't be able to leave now."
"So we're told." Marcus looked back at the room, with its company of people who professed to want peace, but who had shot him and later attacked him just in their desire to protect one of their number from a non-existent threat. Unbidden his eyes drifted to the tall blond man, with his strange aura and oddly bewitching smile. "But we have no intention of accepting any offers of a room for the night. We're getting you out of here."
"I'd be very surprised if you managed it." Jacob followed him as he left the back room, heading out into the crowded space that awaited beyond. The group - it was hard not to think of them as a cult, with their matching necklaces and strange loyalty to their blond figurehead - milled about, clearly uneasy, murmuring amongst themselves. Only the blond man said nothing, his captivating blue eyes watching all with an air of placidity. Stephen came to join them, looking as uneasy as the atmosphere felt.
"You've got him." He sounded relieved, though still tense. "Let's just get the hell out of here, okay? And remind me to be somewhere else next time you want to go looking for somebody."
"You're all heart, Stephen."
"No, I'm all sense. Something in which you're sorely lacking." Franklin looked around, at the line of people blocking their way to the exit. "An hour, you told me. I am really going to make you pay for this, Marcus."
"Nobody is going to stop us from leaving." Marcus moved into the lead, not stopping until he was face to face with one of the members of the living blockade. It was a Narn, standing shoulder to shoulder with a Centauri. If he hadn't been so annoyed, the Ranger might have taken more time to wonder at that, and at what could bring the two together, when their races loathed each other so very much. The Narn stared back at him, red eyes bright and determined. A Narn, as G'Kar had shown on more than one occasion, had a tendency to be an immovable object. There would be no getting to the door without some serious violence, that much was certain; and despite his earlier bravado, even Marcus was not ready to believe that he could fight a Narn and win. Furious, he spun to face the man who was so obviously the centre of all this; that unearthly blond with his unsettling aura of gentility, warmth and peace.
"And yet you say you don't want any violence," he challenged, the sarcasm clear in his voice. The blond smiled.
"Nobody will stop you from leaving." His words had an immediate effect upon James, who stared at him in obvious shock.
"If we let them go--"
"If we let them go, it might cause trouble." His gentle leader spoke with natural authority, in a steady, calm voice. "But if we keep them here we would be doing a great wrong. We can't keep a doctor from his patients, or a man from his friend. We can't keep people prisoner."
"We can't let anybody know about you." James spoke with the utmost respect, but there was a trace of desperation in his voice. "You know the dangers."
"Of course I know the dangers. But I've learnt that dangers shouldn't be run from. At the very least one should always wait to see what's going to happen." The strange man held out his hands, palm up, in a universal gesture of good will that made him appear weirdly familiar; somebody that both Stephen and Marcus felt that they knew. He smiled his placid smile, and his eyes seemed aglow with inner light as he turned back to Marcus and the others. "You can leave now. All three of you. I'm sorry that you've been detained for so long, Jacob. I wasn't aware of your presence here until a short while ago. I'm sorry that there was such unpleasantness earlier, too. It won't happen again." His blue eyes surveyed his people with a haughty confidence that came from born authority, and an utter conviction that his word would be taken as law. "We will not be using guns again. Any of us."
"As you say." James lowered his eyes respectfully, then taking the simple statement as a definite order, drew a low calibre laser pistol from inside his tattered jacket and threw it onto the floor. Around him the other armed members of the company were doing likewise. Even the Drazi and the Narns threw down their guns, without complaint or hesitation. The blond smiled and nodded in satisfaction.
"And now there will be no more shooting, and no more violence." He seemed pleased. "And you, my friends, may leave here without fear of being stopped or hurt. All I ask is that you don't spread the tale of our presence here. Let us keep our secrecy, for now at least."
"If you want secrecy, we won't deny you." Stephen was just glad that they were going to be allowed to leave. The last thing he had wanted was a fight, especially when there was a chance that firearms might be involved. He was a man of medicine, and such things broke his heart. Marcus, needless to say, looked suspicious; but it was a demonstration of the kind of man he was that, even though he clearly didn't believe they were going to be allowed to leave, he headed immediately for the door. Nobody made a move for the guns, and only one man blocked his path; but it wasn't to stop him from leaving. It was merely to hand over the pike and the dagger that had been confiscated earlier on. Marcus took them with a brief nod of thanks, then swept from the room with typical dramatic flare. Stephen and Jacob were not far behind. One of the gang stopped Steven briefly to hand back his Link, and it was with some relief that he pressed it back onto his hand, though he did nothing more than offer a quick thank you before chasing after Marcus. He had no wish to be trapped if somebody changed their mind, and rescinded the guarantee of a safe departure. It was not until they had travelled along several corridors that any of the threesome slowed, and looked back, and began to breathe more easily. Stephen whistled softly.
"Well I've seen some crazy things in Downbelow," he said wearily. "I've heard reports of crazy things. But that? Narns, Centauri, Drazi - all joining together, and claiming to be working for peace? I'd believe in the Mimbozi space dragon before I believed what I just saw."
"The Centauri and the Narns have just been through a horrific war," muttered Marcus, who was still walking onwards, albeit more slowly. "Maybe some of them just got sick of all the fighting."
"Maybe they did. But that? Come on, Marcus. You're not telling me it's the kind of thing that's likely to start happening everywhere. Even now that the Centauri are leaving the Narn homeworld, there's still a lot of ill feeling that isn't going away. And what about the Drazi? They're looking for peace now?!"
"It's the man who leads them." Jacob seemed subdued, wandering along with his eyes fixed to the floor, and his hands clasped behind his back. "He's... not like other people. He has a feeling to him. An aura... I'm a telepath. I'm sure Mabel trusted you enough to tell you that, Marcus. I feel things when I'm around people, even though I try to avoid it. The things that I felt when I was close to him... They were extraordinary."
"I wonder who he is," mused Stephen. Jacob looked up briefly.
"I know who he thinks he is," he offered. Stephen glanced over at him.
"Thinks? He's suffering from delusions?"
"I don't know where delusions begin and truths end." The big man shrugged his powerful shoulders. "You're the one who's better placed to know things like that, doctor. But think about it. A man of peace. A man who extols the beauty of peace. A quiet, magnetic man with an indescribable aura, and a strange power over all the beings who come before him. Peoples of all kinds will follow him, unquestioningly, in the pursuit of one definite aim. And think of the crosses they all wear. Delusions, doctor? Try picturing him with a halo over his head, and tell me who his followers think he is."
"A halo? Why would he have--" Franklin froze in his tracks. "No. You're not serious?!"
"He claims to have been taken from Earth more than two thousand years ago." Jacob spoke in a voice that, whilst seeming to be matter of fact, carried less scepticism than Franklin would have expected. "He's a tall man with long blond hair and a beard. A man who almost seems filled with an inner light. He claims to be striving for peace, and for an end to all wars, and to love all life and all peoples. He's alive when by anybody's reckoning he should be dead. Atomised by the explosion of a planet."
"He's unusual alright. I won't deny that. But you just killed the whole theory right there. He has blond hair. Blue eyes. He's white. If you're saying what I think you're saying, he should be brown skinned and dark-haired. He should be speaking Hebrew, Aramaic, even Latin. Not English. Even if he had managed to pick it up somehow thanks to the Vorlons, he should be accented at least." Stephen drew in a deep breath, calming his runaway tumble of heated words. "And besides, the entire notion is ridiculous. You're saying he thinks he's Jesus. Do you have any idea how many people have claimed that over the centuries?"
"He's hardly the first, true enough." Jacob nodded slowly. "But I know what I've seen, doctor. How many of the deluded people that have made that claim over the years could bring together so many disparate elements in a quest for peace? And explain the aura he has about him. You've been near him. You know what it's like." He shrugged. "Or maybe you don't. Maybe you have to be a telepath to have felt that. All I know is that I've seen the way his mind works, and I like what I see, in a strange sort of way. You're a doctor, and I respect that. But a telepath sees things that medicine can't. I've seen inside madmen's brains, doctor. The only time you've done that is during an autopsy. I can see their minds at work; feel their minds at work. His mind doesn't feel like a madman's."
"There are many different kinds of madness." Stephen glanced back along the corridor, although they had gone too far to be able to see any sign of the strange room they had just left. "Every brain works differently."
"True. I suppose." Jacob smiled gently, his eyes showing a warmth that Franklin rarely saw in the Lurkers. He found himself smiling back.
"Would you like to come up to the medlab? I could give you a check up, make sure that--"
"That I'm eating right? That being in Downbelow hasn't given me any killer diseases? That I'm not going crazy myself?" Jacob shook his head. "I'm in fine health, thank you, doctor. And our possibly significant acquaintance didn't hurt me either. It wasn't me who got shot. The only thing that's bothering me is not being able to find a convenient explanation for everything I saw back there."
"If you're sure."
"I'm sure." Jacob looked over at Marcus, who was now standing in the middle of the corridor a few feet away, arms folded, face unreadable. "I should drop in on Mabel, and let her know that I'm okay. Thank you, Mr Cole. I don't think that they'd have hurt me, but I will admit that I was beginning to get rather bored."
"Being held prisoner is a lot more boring than most people give it credit for." Marcus smiled lightly. "Give Mabel my regards."
"I will." Jacob shook hands with Stephen, then left. The other two watched him disappear off down the corridor, walking with a light step that belied his considerable size. Only when he had gone did Franklin turn back to Marcus. He raised his eyebrows questioningly. Marcus frowned.
"What do you mean, 'what'? I'm waiting for the apology. An hour, you promised me. An hour, no trouble, just a missing man. And what happens? I get attacked, shot and kidnapped, by a gang following somebody claiming to be Jesus." He shook his head. "Why do I listen to you, Marcus?! Why do I still let you lead me into these things?"
"Because you have a taste for adventure, and you like my winning smile." The irrepressible Ranger offered that very smile as though in proof. "Come on. I'll buy you a drink to say I'm sorry."
"I'm going back to work. An hour, remember? One. We've been at least two."
"Doesn't matter if you waste a bit more time then, does it."
"Another ten minutes. And I promise not to get you kidnapped again." He smirked. "Today, anyway."
"You really do love to get in the way, don't you." Stephen had to smile. "Susan Ivanova is right about you. You really are one irritating bastard."
"Susan said that?" Marcus sounded faintly interested, as though it were an honour to have been mentioned in conversation, however insultingly, by the object of his unlikely dreams. Franklin shook his head.
"You're not still hoping for a miracle there, are you?"
"I don't know that I believe in miracles, Stephen. But perhaps, occasionally, I do believe in romance."
"Romance? Where Susan is concerned, I think miracles are more likely." Franklin had to laugh. "Ten minutes, huh?"
"Not a minute longer."
"I'll believe that when I'm back in Medlab One, and you're a pleasantly long distance away." The doctor nodded briskly. "I suppose I would quite like a drink."
"Great." Marcus strode on down the corridor, toying absently with his pike as he did so. "Um, Stephen?"
"If you're going to ask me if I think that man back there really is the Son of God, don't bother. It's not Him, Marcus. It can't be."
"Actually I was going to ask you if you think we've seen the last of that lot." Marcus looked troubled, and certainly felt it. He could sense that things were wrong in Downbelow, and it made him uneasy. A new cult, no matter who the leader, could disrupt the balance of power, annoying the people who liked to think that they were in control of the station's murky underside. He was going to be spending more time down here over the next few days; of that he was certain. Franklin merely shrugged.
"Who can tell? He didn't look as badly off as the others. Maybe he'll get passage off the station. Go somewhere else."
"Maybe." Marcus nodded slowly. "Maybe." He didn't believe it. Neither, in all honestly, did Stephen. They both thought that they would be hearing from the new cult again soon, and neither was surprised when that proved to be the case. Given the nature of things, and the way of the station, it was all more or less inevitable. Nothing stayed quiet for long on Babylon 5.
It had taken a long time for things to get back to normal on the station; not that they ever really had got back to normal. 'Normal' was an increasingly elusive benchmark that was rapidly ceasing to have any relevance at all to life onboard Babylon 5. John Sheridan had died, and then returned from the dead, and Michael Garibaldi had disappeared, only to be returned from the clutches of the Shadows; event after event apparently designed to prevent everybody from feeling at ease with life. Then had come Garibaldi's resignation, whilst Sheridan, changed by his experiences, had led what had seemed like half the population of the galaxy into battle against the older races. The continuing escalation of hostilities from Earth had only added to the chaos, and the jostling and wheeling and dealing for supplies and equipment to keep the station running were worse than they had ever been in the previous year. Nobody on the command staff was getting much sleep, and far from hoping that things would ever get back to normal, most of them had forgotten what normal was. Life revolved around the war room, just as it had since the war against the Shadows had first come to the station, and normality had been well and truly lost. Susan Ivanova wondered if it hadn't just followed the older races beyond the Rim, and bidden the galaxy a last and total farewell.
Which might explain why she was sitting in the war room having a heated discussion with Marcus about coffee, which was the last thing she had expected would happen when she had come on duty early that morning. If normality truly had run away off beyond the Rim, she suspected that Marcus Cole might have had something to do with its departure. Marcus didn't just eschew normality - he seemed to wantonly flaunt it. She had at first mentioned the coffee simply for something to say, so that he didn't launch into one of his peculiar anecdotes, or begin singing, or merely gaze at her in what he apparently thought was an adoring fashion whenever he hoped she wasn't looking his way. To that end she had mentioned that she thought some of her secret crop of coffee had disappeared, and by the look of it on more than one occasion. 'Secret' wasn't a terribly good way of describing her little experiment in illicit gardening, since half of the crew seemed to know about it by now, but none of them would ever have dared to steal from her. Ivanova had an incendiary reputation. Smiling easily, Marcus had told her about the potentially deadly coffee-mite, a small, ten-legged creature native to Zeros XII, which was apparently capable of devouring ten times its own body weight of coffee in the space of a day. He described the little creature in merry detail - the blue sheen on its wings, the shape of its antennae, the peculiar speed and shuffle of its gait, apparently caused by caffeine overload - and all without being remotely concerned by her obvious disbelief. Susan Ivanova knew full well that there was no such thing as a coffee-mite - or, at least, not a blue-sheened one from Zeros XII, with a bite reputed to be powerful enough to poison a grown man through the sheer power of caffeine. Marcus carried on anyway though, blithely describing the occasion when, he claimed, he had himself been called in to help with a case of a particularly bad coffee-mite attack when running errands on Zeros XII a few weeks before. The victim had swelled to twice his usual size, and had turned a particularly lurid shade of green. Susan rolled her eyes, and before very much longer had accused him, not only of lying, but of deliberately turning the conversation away from her stolen coffee. She accused him of stealing it himself, he became highly indignant, and soon enough they were arguing ferociously about coffee, Zeros XII, Marcus's trustworthiness in general, and the possibility that all Rangers were raving buffoons. They were still hard at it when Stephen Franklin came in, followed closely by Sheridan and Delenn. The boisterous pair snapped to attention then, Marcus after a fashion, but they still glared daggers at each other. Sheridan raised an eyebrow.
"Something we can help you two with?" he asked. Ivanova coloured slightly.
"Er... no thank you, captain. It's nothing that I can't handle myself." She shot Marcus a sidelong glance that could have fried an egg if there had happened to have been one handy. "Just a minor irritant that needs to be squashed."
"I see." Sheridan exchanged a smirk with Delenn. "Alright, you all know why we're here. We've been doing this every week for long enough by now. Marcus? Have we got that reply back yet from Zeros XII?" His answer was a faint smile from the Ranger, and a hostile glare from Ivanova, but Sheridan knew by now not to ask too many questions where that pair was concerned. Marcus was all business again by now anyway, his lanky frame poised in the Minbari equivalent of standing to attention, the earlier heat gone from his eyes. He made his report briskly and briefly, like a man born to fulfil his duty, with no other interests in the world. Sheridan knew that Delenn suspected the Ranger to be just that.
It was a brief meeting. Delenn spoke of events back on her own planet, that might be of importance to the grand plan for liberating Earth. Zack Allen stopped by to give a security report. They talked about supplies; about Garibaldi; about the latest offences against public liberty committed by President Clark back on Earth; about the way things were going between the Centauri and the Narns. It was the usual run of reports and shared gossip that might, they hoped, carry shreds of truth; that might help to turn events in their favour, and bring them closer to achieving their goals. It had become a part of the routine now, ever since their first official meeting on the very first day that Marcus had come aboard Babylon 5. There had been no war room then, and everything had seemed to be a close kept secret, but the procedure had all been the same. After forty minutes of exchanging information that probably wasn't going to be of any use, and hearing reports from possible allies who might be able to help, but more than likely wouldn't until victory was certain, Sheridan leaned back in his chair and heaved a tired sigh. He had been working too hard, as usual. Susan could see it in his eyes. He didn't seem to have stopped for so much as a breath of air since returning from Z'ha'dum. She worried for him - but then she worried for all of them. Goodness knew they all needed it.
"Anything else?" the captain asked. Everybody exchanged looks. There were plenty of things that they could all mention; the uneasy mutterings they had heard, the whispers that came from all quarters, the threats of traitors onboard; but they all kept quiet. It wasn't anything that everybody didn't already know about, after all. Nothing concrete, nothing that could inspire any direct action. In the end only Franklin stirred, nodding his head slowly to show that he had something he wished to bring to the table.
"Stephen." Sheridan was all ears. He had come to have great respect for the tenacious and complex doctor. Franklin looked thoughtful, thinking his words through before continuing.
"I've been getting a lot of cases through the medlab just lately," he said in the end. "Lurkers, but not the usual stuff. Usually I get a steady dribble through. You know the sort of thing. Diseases from the cramped conditions, malnutrition, injuries from fights. We've all seen them."
"True." Sheridan smiled faintly, encouragingly. "So what is it now?"
"Fighting. Of a sort." Stephen looked towards Marcus, apparently mulling something over. "I've been getting quite a few people through who have been attacked. Beaten up pretty badly. Thing is, they're all members of a particular gang, or cult, that's recently sprung up in Downbelow. It looks to me as though this cult is being targeted, and I'm a little worried. None of them are the type to fight back. They've taken a vow of peace, and there are children who are members. Sooner or later somebody is going to get seriously hurt. The last patient I had only escaped that himself by the skin of his teeth. He could very easily have been killed."
"You think we should offer this group some protection?" asked Sheridan. Franklin nodded.
"Maybe. I'm worried. They're a sort of... well, a sort of a Christian group. A new one. I don't know what they've done to annoy the other Lurkers so much, so maybe it's just good old fashioned religious persecution. But I don't want to get any dead bodies brought for autopsy when there could have been something done to prevent it."
"Fair enough. I'll get Zack to send some extra patrols through. Just tell him where to find these people." Sheridan smiled one of his old, broad smiles. "Well if that's all..."
"Er, captain?" Marcus sounded hesitant, but he spoke up anyway. "I don't think that Security is the answer. Whoever these people are, they seem to have a definite agenda. They're here for a particular purpose, and I think we'd do better to find out what that purpose is. Why they've sprung up here and now, and who the person is that they're following. I know a little about them. I might be able to talk to them."
"You think they might be dangerous?" asked Ivanova. He glanced over at her, the humour of their last exchange apparently completely forgotten.
"No. At least, not intentionally. Not on the surface. But I do know that if they think Security is paying them extra attention, they're going to go underground. You all think that you know this station, but I could hide a school of blue whales down there and you'd never find them. One little cult could vanish easily enough."
"Perhaps that would not matter?" suggested Delenn. "If they do not mean any any harm, perhaps their disappearance would cause no harm."
"Perhaps." It wasn't in Marcus's nature to argue much with Delenn. "But the other Lurkers would be able to find them even if we couldn't. If these people disappeared to us, it wouldn't necessarily mean that they'd also disappeared to others. They would still be in danger from whoever has targeted them." He exchanged a look with Stephen. "They're not exactly a run of the mill cult."
"Do I take it that you two have some experience of them?" asked Sheridan. Stephen nodded, looking faintly sheepish.
"Yes. Marcus and I met with them a few weeks ago. We sort of promised to keep them a secret, but now that they could be in danger I'm not staying quiet. Besides, I think I'd like to find out a little more about them."
"Things being the way they were, it's probably a good idea to know about the other people who are living on the station." Sheridan nodded. "Fine. I'll hold back Security for the time being. Investigate by all means, doctor, if that's what you want - but be careful. Downbelow can be a dangerous place, and there's usually a lot more going on down there than any of us are aware of. It's a good place for spies to hide out."
"I'll be careful, captain." Stephen's eyes trailed back to Marcus. "Much though it's probably against my better judgement, I'd appreciate a little help. I don't know my way around down there as well as you do."
"Of course." Marcus nodded thoughtfully, his mind apparently on other things. "Whenever you want to get started."
"Let's say sooner rather than later. That way there's time to hand this over to Security if you two can't handle it alone." Sheridan stood up. "Alright, thank you everybody. Stephen, keep me informed."
"Will do, captain." They all stood up as Sheridan and Delenn departed, and as soon as they were gone, Ivanova threw an annoyed look at Stephen and Marcus.
"You two, on your own, are planning to go into Downbelow to talk to some weird cult? Look, at least let me come with you, or organise some kind of bodyguard."
"That's what I'm going along for," cut in Marcus. "We'll be fine, Susan."
"Famous last words. Everybody says that they're going to be fine."
"And most people are," pointed out the Ranger, his voice as cool and calm as it so often was when he was in duty mode. "Or everybody would be dead."
"Very funny." She had turned irritable and sharp, which was generally her way of covering when she was worried. Obviously the idea of the pair of them facing possible danger bothered her a lot more than she was ever likely to admit. Stephen smiled, recognising the truth behind the daggers.
"We'll stay in touch," he told her. "I have my Link, and I'll make sure that Marcus doesn't stray off on his own."
"Just make sure that you're careful." For a moment she seemed to be softening, then the hardness came back. "We can't afford to lose any more people, with everything that still has to be done."
"We'll be careful not to diminish your fighting force any more than is necessary." His tone only faintly ironic, Marcus kept his face straight. Teasing Susan Ivanova was one of his favourite sports, but his mind was on more serious matters now, for the most part. Susan glared.
"Oh, get yourself killed. See if I care. Just make sure you send Stephen home unharmed first. Fighters we can replace. Doctors are far harder to come by."
Stephen raised an eyebrow. "Thank you. I think."
"Don't mention it." She turned to head for the door, having a thousand and one things of her own that needed to be dealt with. "I'll see you when you get back."
Marcus grinned. "That an invitation?"
"Only if you're buying." Brisk and distant as ever, she marched smartly out. Marcus watched after her, the expression on his face one of faint amusement, as well as undisguised fondness. Stephen laughed.
"I can't believe you're still interested. Marcus, she couldn't keep you more at arm's length if she had you nailed to a pole."
"Maybe." The Ranger turned suddenly to face the doctor, and a bright smile lit his face momentarily. "But there's one advantage to being kept at arm's length. At least she's not pushing me any further away."
"Hope really does spring eternal with you, doesn't it." Stephen had to smile. "There anything you want to sort out before we leave? I'd like to get going as soon as possible."
"I'm ready to go at any time." Marcus lived in a permanent state of readiness to be off wherever circumstances might demand. At any moment Delenn or Sheridan might think of some new mission; some new errand for him to run; and his own investigations and network of independent informants were forever throwing up new directions in which he might turn. He travelled light, and there was nobody to whom he might feel the need to say goodbye. Stephen nodded his understanding; he should have guessed. To Marcus Cole there was nothing more to take on any voyage than the clothes he wore; that and the pike resting ready in its pocket. It was simplicity itself, and certainly had its advantages over the way in which the rest of the station's staff worked.
"Well I can't be quite so quick off the mark. I'll have to get somebody to fill in for me in the medlab at the very least. Say an hour?"
"Fine." Marcus nodded his brisk nod. He was efficiency and practicality itself, the contrast striking in comparison to the playfulness that made up the other part of his character. The way he had been earlier in conversation with Ivanova, and his attitude when he and Stephen had last headed into Downbelow together, might have been the actions of another man entirely. "I'll meet you in Grey Sector in an hour. You know the barter's market?"
"Yes." Franklin had bought more than one meal at the sprawling, ramshackle market when he had been on his Walkabout the previous year. It was a place where the right money could buy almost anything, from dried fruit to a professional hitman. "Okay. An hour." He hesitated. "Marcus, do you think we're wasting time? Should we just step back and let Security handle this?"
"Who knows?" Marcus apparently didn't care. Possibly he just wanted a new venture to embark upon; a new challenge. At any rate it mattered little to him whether their interference was truly needed. He had decided that he wanted to get involved, and so he was going to do precisely that. "I'll see you in an hour, Stephen." With that he was gone. Stephen hesitated before following, looking around at the staff of the war room as they went about their business, all monitoring a thousand threats in nearby sectors of space. There was always something going on, onboard Babylon 5. A myriad complicated things, happening everywhere all at once. Life was never simple; never still; and always there were new things coming to disturb what little peace there was. Chaos, at each and every turn.
"Everything alright, Doctor Franklin?" asked a passing ensign, bustling past with his arms full of star charts. Franklin nodded, smiling faintly. Sure, everything was fine. He had just been through one war, there was another on the way, and he was about to go down into the station's criminal underbelly to contact a man who claimed to be Jesus. All par for the course, really, with the way that things were now. Franklin had come to appreciate that. Unlike Susan Ivanova, he didn't still search for the old normalities. He found new ones to welcome instead.
Downbelow could be a very welcoming place, after a fashion. It had the atmosphere of a bustling town, but one where there were no divisions between the inhabitants. Everybody there was in the same boat; everybody was hungry; everybody was struggling to survive. Stephen felt it swallow him up as he and Marcus left the upper levels of the station behind; felt the clamour and the jumble of activity close in around him. It was like visiting a noisy family, he thought, though a noisy family with a sinister air about them. Violence was never very far away in Downbelow; it was all too easy to get on the wrong side of people who would kill over the smallest things. Since he was here now to look into particular acts of violence, it wasn't easy to forget the dangers that lurked in every corridor. Three laughing children ran across his path, chasing a home-made ball, and he smiled at them as they went. They didn't smile back. He was an outsider, he realised; he might have switched his uniform for nondescript civilian clothes, but he still didn't look like a local. He looked like somebody from the clean, ordered world above, where everybody had enough to eat, and Security was there to prevent all the murders and violence. The upstairs world of abstract enemies. Marcus caught the direction of his attention, and smiled.
"Feeling like an outsider?"
"I am an outsider." He watched the children disappear into the crowd. "Don't you notice it? The way they stare? The suspicion? I thought it would be better out of uniform, but actually it's worse. In the uniform at least most of them know that I'm a doctor. They seem to like that."
"You stand out too much in the uniform. It makes you too easy a target." Marcus was clearly still in his efficient mode, with all joking abandoned. It was a phase he went through from time to time, which Stephen never really understood. They could be so friendly together sometimes; share laughs and jokes even when Stephen would rather be left alone to get his work done in peace - and yet at other times there were no laughs to be had at all. The Ranger's single-mindedness bothered him at those times, but there was no way of challenging it. He could only try to understand what inner forces drove the man.
"I don't think I'm a target," he said in the end. "The enemy isn't down here."
"You look into the stars too much, Stephen. We've fought our wars on too big a scale, and you look for enemies out there now. The servants of the Shadows, the allies of Earth. The big picture. Don't forget the smaller details."
"People with grievances that aren't about ownership of the galaxy. People who think that the captain should be helping them get enough to eat, rather than worrying about who rules the Earth, or who has ownership of its colonies. I'd imagine that the head of medicine would make a nice hostage for a desperate gang trying to keep their children safe."
"You sympathise with them." It wasn't an accusation; Stephen could see the sense in his companion's argument. It had just always intrigued him how very much the Ranger seemed to care for the lost souls of Downbelow. Marcus shrugged.
"I spend a lot of my time down here. I've seen the effect that the sanctions are having on these people. You think it's difficult for you to get supplies, when Earth won't let any ships through? Think how it is for these people. Their only hope is with dealers who charge ten times the price that anything is worth. People down here don't understand about the Shadows and the First Ones. They don't care about our war. They don't even care what's happening to their friends and relations back on Earth. But if somebody suggests to them that there might be a way to end the sanctions, they're going to listen, far sooner than they're going to listen to us telling them that what we're doing is for the best." He smiled suddenly, the seriousness of that other side to his persona switching itself off with startling speed. He was all irreverence again, like a child let out of school for the afternoon. "Although admittedly it's hard to tell where new Christian cults, alleged Sons of God, and exploding Vorlon secrets fit into any of this."
"I shudder to think."
"Well don't shudder too much, Stephen." Marcus slapped him on the shoulder, in what was apparently meant to be a rallying fashion. "It's not a good idea to show weakness in a place like this."
"Very funny." The doctor rubbed his shoulder, which had rather objected to being rallied. "Now where are we heading for? Do we assume they're still in the same place?"
"In their position, would you stay in the same place?" Marcus shook his head. "They'll have moved elsewhere, and if feelings against them are as strong as you seem to think they are, I don't plan on asking any of the locals where to look."
"Then how do we find out where to go?" Stephen was beginning to think that the operation could be over before it had begun, but Marcus flashed him a cheery smile and nodded to one side of the room.
"I was planning to follow those two people over by the dried fruit stall. They're wearing crosses."
"Doesn't mean they're members of the cult."
"True, I suppose. But most people wear crosses made out of metal, not ones that look like the party pieces of an over-enthusiastic carpenter." Marcus was hovering between efficient mode and his more light-hearted persona now, watching the two he had pointed out whilst still devoting a part of his attention to Franklin. "Come on doctor. Let's see what your shadowing skills are like."
"It's been a long time since I went on a covert mission," confessed Franklin. Marcus laughed.
"You've never been on a covert mission. At least, not by Ranger standards. But it shouldn't matter too much. I doubt that they'll kill us if they see us."
"I'd rather they didn't, certainly." They were moving now, following the pair as they finished their business at the dried fruit stall. Almost immediately they had left the market behind them, and were heading, faster and deeper, into Downbelow. The stalls disappeared; the sense of cheerful companionship and merry chaos was gone. In their place were silent corridors and bare pipes; graffiti scrawled on scarred metal; huddled figures trying to sleep, scattered along the way. Many were wrapped in what seemed to be every piece of clothing they possessed, stirring restlessly, pursued by their dreams. The two from the world above trod carefully, stepping over an out-flung arm here and a pile of rubbish there, always on the look out for a possible ambush. Nobody seemed interested in them, though. Nobody seemed to care. By the look of them, the people who lay sprawled in this grim place had lost the ability to care about anything. It showed in their faces, and the huddle of their bodies. Stephen recognised the signs of half a dozen banned substances, but he knew that there was nothing he could do here. Not today, and not alone. He hurried on past.
"You know where we're going?" he asked in the end. Marcus shot him a look. Talking, clearly, was not an ideal part of being covert. Franklin felt like kicking himself. All the same, given the lack of cover it seemed ridiculous to assume that they hadn't already been seen. The question was merely whether or not they had been recognised. Stephen could hope for some degree of anonymity now that he was out of uniform, but Marcus was like a big beacon in his resolutely unsubtle Ranger's clothing. It seemed it could only be a matter of time before somebody challenged them; before one of the many members of the strange cult appeared and demanded to know their business. Stephen remembered how willingly they had all given up their guns, but without their commander present they might not be quite so quick to adhere to the paths of peace. Marcus, of course, did not seem remotely concerned.
They had been walking for perhaps a quarter of an hour when the two men up ahead slowed to a halt. Marcus pulled Franklin back into the shadows at the side of the corridor, but there didn't seem to be any need. Neither of the pair looked back. They merely opened a door and disappeared through. Marcus raised a questioning eyebrow.
"Could be. Do we knock?"
"Might as well. It's worth a try." Marcus walked on ahead, hand conspicuously close to the place in his coat where his pike rested. Stephen caught him up.
"Just... knock on the door?"
"You're the one who wanted to make sure that they're all alright, and we can't very well do that by standing outside in the corridor. Anyway, they're not dangerous."
"If that man is who he says he is, Stephen, then--"
"He's not Jesus." The doctor rolled his eyes. "Honestly Marcus, do you believe every romantic tale of strange men with historic identities?"
"Only the really interesting ones." The Ranger grinned at him, entirely unapologetic. "It doesn't much matter if he is who he says he is or not, does it. If he's going to claim to be Jesus, he's got to play the part. And being a violent killer isn't really a part of the persona. Not the way that most of us understand the stories, anyway."
"Yeah. Right." Franklin shook his head. "One day somebody ought to do a study to work out what it is about this place that brings so many odd things to it. I mean, King Arthur? Jesus?"
"It's the ideal. The notion of a safe haven for all." Marcus rapped smartly on the door with his knuckles and stood to one side. "Knowing that everybody will get a friendly welcome, whoever they are."
"That's the theory." Stephen eyed the door with considerable trepidation. If whoever was inside came out shooting, he was going to have some very sharp words with the guardian of the afterlife, especially if His son turned out to have been the one behind the gun. From inside the room came the sound of footsteps, and Marcus's fingers tightened momentarily upon the pike. Stephen was tempted to reach for his gun, nestling in the small of his back, but he forced himself to remain immobile. Let the gun stay a secret. It might be more useful that way.
When the door hissed open, it revealed a room even less comfortable than the group's last headquarters; a place with stains on the floor and junk piled up against the walls. Some basic furniture stood here and there, and a makeshift bookcase had been set up. It was no worse, really, than any other place in Downbelow, but it had an air of the pathetic about it; as though the people who lived here, at the end of a corridor full of collapsed addicts, had been pushed out of the few places that were rather less uncomfortable. There was little opportunity to stand and stare, however, for almost immediately a familiar voice assailed them, and James was walking over with his arms outstretched. A huge smile lit up his face, as though all signs of former enmity were lost. Stephen, who had been expecting some glowering at the very least, was rather taken aback.
"Stephen! Marcus!" James had the voice of a benevolent priest; an old man of God welcoming wandering parishioners back into his flock. It was somewhat off-putting. "Welcome back. Welcome back."
"Hello." Stephen exchanged an uncomfortable look with Marcus. "We, er... we wanted to drop by and see how things were. How you're getting along. There's been some violence in recent days, and--"
"Violence is as violence does." James was still beaming. "They strike at us, but we do not strike them back. Soon their own anger will be self-defeating."
"That's as may be. We couldn't just stand back and watch the casualties flood in." Stepping over the threshold, Stephen looked around. He saw much that he had seen in their first refuge; people gathered around, living and sleeping in the same room; children in ragged gatherings, with prematurely aged mothers watching over them. "We're here at the command of Captain Sheridan. He wants to know that you're all well cared for."
"And that we're not here for any hostile reason?" The voice came, once again, from the back of the room; from a place where a tall blond man stood head and shoulders above the others. A man of striking appearance and gentle, almost doe, eyes. He held out his arms, in a universal gesture of welcome, and smiled engagingly; endearingly. "Captain Sheridan is a sign of the times, my friend. A proof that our age is soon to be upon us. I'm interested to know that he thinks of us."
"Captain Sheridan cares for everybody. It's what makes him such a good commander." Stephen looked around again at the assembled cult members. Many of them sported bruising; showing that the patients he had received up in Medlab One had been only the tip of the iceberg. There had been many victims of assault who hadn't reported for treatment. "He's asked us to find out why you're here, and what you all want. Whatever your intentions, you're causing unrest down here, and that could be bad for all of us. The last thing we need is fighting on the station."
"People have always faced the unknown with weapons in their hands. People have always fought the unfamiliar without waiting to see if it's possible to make friends with it first." James's words brought him an indulgent smile from the cult's charismatic leader. "It means a lot that you came back to us. People meet us here. People spend time with us, and listen to us, and then they depart. But you came back. We hoped that you would."
"We came back to make sure that you were alright." Stephen felt much as though he were talking to himself. James was just beaming at him, and many of the others were coming forward now; clapping the bemused doctor on the shoulders, shaking his hand. Marcus was keeping aloof of it all, but he was watching everything with his usual quiet scrutiny; his usual sense of detachment. There were people swamping them, clamouring with welcomes and congratulations, smiling and laughing and chattering. Stephen began to feel somewhat disorientated.
"We just want to talk to you," he protested, but somebody was hanging a wooden cross around his neck; somebody else was pounding him on the back. Both of his hands were being shaken, and it was rather like being pinioned. Held helpless, as though in the grip of an enemy. He started to struggle - then suddenly he was free, being dragged still half protesting into the centre of the room. Marcus, he realised with relief, pulling him out of the scrum and into a place where he could breathe. He smiled a confused thank you, but the Ranger wasn't even looking at him.
"You seem to have got the wrong idea," he was saying, in his usual precise voice. "We didn't come here to join you. We came here to find out who you are. What you are."
"And we'll be happy to answer your questions." It was the leader - the alleged Jesus, coming towards them with his broad, warm smile turned up full, his arms held out in their usual position of welcome. One hand touched Stephen's shoulder, and one touched Marcus, seemingly in an attempt to embrace them both. "You're amongst friends. There's no reason to hide behind officialities and ceremony, now that you're here."
"We're not hiding behind anything!" Marcus sounded as though he were getting hot under the collar, and Stephen laid a hand on his arm to calm him.
"We don't mean to be rude," he interjected, as firmly as could whilst still trying to sound friendly and polite. "But really there does seem to have been some confusion here. We've not come to ask if we can join you. We've come because we need to know who's living on the station. We have enemies everywhere, and we have to know who we can trust."
"You have enemies everywhere because you think combative thoughts." The hands on their shoulders squeezed slightly. Marcus tried to break free, but found that the man holding them was remarkably strong. He released both of them at that sign of a struggle, but it would have by no means been easy to have broken his hold by force.
"We have enemies everywhere because a lot of people want to stop us freeing Earth," he said pointedly. Their host smiled benignly.
"As you say, perhaps."
"When we met before, James told us that there was no ignorance here. That you all know what's going on out there." Stephen's eyes sought out James, but the human showed no sign of remembering such a claim. He was merely smiling at all and sundry with the warm eyes of contentment and peace. It was almost disconcerting. Seeming to realise that some kind of reaction was expected, the man came forward, shaking one of Stephen's hands with both of his own, and nodding his head enthusiastically.
"There's no ignorance here," he said, although it was a claim that suddenly carried no conviction. "We know all about the battle of Light against Dark. It's our battle too."
"I'm sure it is." Smiling without much warmth, Marcus took a gentle but firm hold of Stephen's elbow, and began to lead the way to the door. "And we'll be happy to pass that along to Captain Sheridan. If we can be sure that you're not about to turn around and sell us out to Earth, that's all we need to know."
"Yeah." Taking his grateful cue from the Ranger, Stephen let himself be led to the door. He put up one hand to remove the cross from around his neck as he did so, but almost immediately James's hand closed around his.
"You don't want to do that, doctor. When once you wear the cross; when once you accept the Great One into your heart; you are accepting it all for life."
"I don't remember accepting anything." Beginning to feel even more uncomfortable than before, Stephen shook off the other man's hand. "Look, we don't want to offend anybody. I certainly don't. But I didn't ask for this cross, and whatever you may think, I didn't come here to see about joining your group."
"Led astray by a false god." James shook his head, taking a step back. As if on cue, the others in the room shook their heads as well, moving away from the duo, and at the same time effectively cutting off their route to the door. Marcus's expression darkened, and although he barely seemed to have moved, the pike was suddenly in his hand. It remained unextended, but his readiness was clear. Stephen shook his own head, confused,
"A false god?" It sounded peculiar at the very least to be accused of such a thing by people who followed a man claiming to be Jesus. "We don't have a false god."
"You follow Sheridan." A short, chunky Drazi shouted it almost like an insult. James tried to hush him, but he shouted it again anyway. A tall, stately-looking Narn echoed the cry, and soon any number of them were pushing forward, shaking their fists and yelling about Sheridan. Stephen found himself yelling back, arguing that Sheridan was no god, and made no claim to be; that none of these people had shown any dislike or distrust towards the captain before; that he was just a man doing his best to keep the station operational. Nobody seemed inclined to listen. Only when Marcus's pike snapped out to its full length did they fall silent.
"We're leaving," he said firmly. "I don't want to know what issues you people are dealing with. I don't care. Just get out of the way. One at a time or all at once, I'll move every one of you if you don't stand aside."
"Such aggression." A human was shaking her head, her wide dark eyes filled with sadness. Several of her compatriots patted her shoulders as though to commiserate. Stephen and Marcus didn't bother to point out that the members of the cult themselves were being more than a little aggressive. One amongst their own number did that, though, moving into the centre of the room with his blue eyes shining and his blond hair spreading around his shoulders like a golden cape. He seemed to gather all the light in the place, soaking in it, basking in it, letting it surround him with an unsettling radiance.
"People. Citizens." His arms were held up and out again, forever trying to gather everyone towards him. "Brothers, sisters. Is this what I've taught you? Is this the tolerance, the love of peace, the gentility toward all? Why are you arguing? Why are you raising your voices? Is this what I've taught you?"
"Our apologies, my lord." James bowed his head, although he made no move to step aside and stop blocking the way to the door. "There must be peace at all times."
"Exactly." He was rewarded with another of the warm, warm smiles that seemed to please him so greatly. Stephen tried not to glower too much.
"Then I take it there'll be no problem with us leaving?" He pulled off the cross and held it out to James, but the older man refused to take it. Instead he moved away slightly and averted his eyes. Jesus shook his head with a slow, sad rhythm.
"You insult us," he said, his voice taking on a mournful tone that suited his deep and gentle eyes. "Why return to us if not to join us? Why accept our cross if you had no intention of wearing it? Once before you came to us through no choice of your own, and I allowed you to leave. But you returned. You sought us out."
"I keep telling you!" Stephen was losing his temper now, something that he had been trying hard not to do. "We did not come here to join you. I didn't ask for that cross. And with the greatest respect for your religious sensibilities, we are getting the hell out of here right now!"
"You returned to us." Jesus was smiling in the most bewitching fashion, his eyes crinkled at the corners, his teeth seeming to reflect all his gathered light. "You came back to us. Returned of your own free will."
"And now we're leaving of our own free will." Marcus moved between Stephen and the supposed holy man, his pike ready in his hands; but even as he was holding it, ready for action, it shrank back to its original size. He frowned at it, confused, and extended it once again, but immediately it shrank once more. Jesus smiled at him.
"Violence cannot be allowed," he said gently, rather like a kind old man speaking to a small child. "We are people of peace. You cannot come here with your weapons, and try to do harm to the children of God."
"Then let us leave." Determined not to be dismayed by his trusted weapon's refusal to do his bidding, Marcus headed once again for the door. Immediately the members of the cult closed ranks, standing shoulder to shoulder before the door, smiling benignly even through their obviously antagonistic stance. Behind him Stephen swallowed the last of his reservations about using weapons in the presence of children, and drew his laser gun. Almost instantaneously, with a sudden, inexplicable force, the gun was torn from his hand, to fly away across the room and slide under the single rough bookcase.
"No violence, doctor. There must never be violence." The self-styled son of God shook his head sadly. "But your ways are still the ways of the outside world. You've not yet learnt the rules of your new way of life. We'll help you, of course."
"This is crazy. You people weren't so damned hostile before." His exasperation rising now into real anger, even if it was anger tempered by a kind of pity, Stephen stared around at the assembled group of misfits as though appealing to them all. "You shot us before, but you seemed genuinely sorry about it. You let us leave. There was none of this enforced membership madness."
"You chose to come here this time," insisted Jesus, his expression still entirely without malice or the sign of apparent ill intent. "You returned to us."
"We came to ask you some questions!"
"Perhaps. But you did come. We allowed you to go, and you returned. From the hotbed of danger and false prophecy that exists in the world above, you came here. Leaving the presence of the false god Sheridan, you came here. We appreciate that."
"Sheridan's no false god. He's no god at all." Marcus had none of Stephen's desire to retain some small measure of patience. He just wanted to leave, and get as far away from this strange place where peace was enforced so unpleasantly. A Drazi cocked her head on one side, frowning at him in clear fascination.
"But he claims to have returned from the dead. He claims to have gone to the place of the dead, and to have returned from there, alive again."
"So does somebody else not a million miles away from here," growled Stephen. Jesus laughed kindly.
"But I speak the truth, doctor; and I can prove it. If you don't believe the first tale of my arising - known and spoken of for thousands of years - then you can't deny my second. I survived the destruction of the Vorlon homeworld. An entire planet and all that existed upon it exploded around me, and yet I survive."
"So you say," challenged Marcus. He tried again to extend his pike, but this time it shrank even before it had fully grown. Jesus nodded.
"So I say. And so, perhaps, might many others. But my claims are true. You see the way that your weapon refuses to be used against me or my people. How the good doctor's gun fled from him rather than be fired in anger in my presence. Strike a blow, Marcus Cole. I insist. Strike me, and see how well you fare. I cannot be injured, and nor can my people. I am who I claim to be."
"Your people can't be injured?" Stephen shook his head. "I have three of you up in Medlab One right now who might argue with that. Two have pretty severe head injuries, and the third had four ribs broken by a pair of drunken traders."
"Unfortunate incidents. Most unfortunate. But sometimes, when I'm not present, these things will happen. I use my powers to protect my followers, but if they're out and about without me, sometimes there's nothing that I can do." He lowered his head, looking regretful. "Such things pain me, but there seems to be no preventing it."
"I thought you were supposed to be omniscient?" muttered Marcus. Jesus laughed aloud, although some of his followers were less than pleased by the comment.
"Omniscient? You're mistaking me with my father. When I'm here, in this body, I'm a man just like any other - after a fashion. What sense would there me in my walking amongst you if I'm given omniscience? I have certain powers. Certain abilities, yes. But I can't do everything. I can't be everywhere. I can't save everyone. And so my followers are attacked by people who hate us because they don't understand what we are." He shook his head, face marked by grief. "And one day, perhaps, one of my followers will be killed, and there will still be nothing that I can do about it."
"We all knowingly take the risks, my lord," intoned James. His leader nodded in acknowledgement.
"Thank you, James. Thank you. As ever your support is appreciated." The blue eyes turned to look once again towards Marcus. "And you. Do you come here to add to the problems of my supporters? You claimed to be concerned for our welfare; to be coming here in response to these attacks; and yet you threaten us with weapons."
"We were fighting back. We came here in good faith, as friends, and you refused to let us leave. You refused to accept that we're not willing to join you." Marcus had never been the religious type, although he had learnt a lot from the spirituality of the Minbari, and had come to embrace their beliefs at least in part. He had no interest in this man, and whatever he or his followers claimed to believe. "Just why is it so important to you to gather people around you? What do you want with them?"
"Heretic," muttered the stocky Drazi who had shouted at them earlier for their loyalty to Sheridan. "He wants us because he loves us. Because he leads us to better things. There will be no more war! There will be no more violence! Have you not seen the rest of the galaxy, human? Have you not seen the battles, the deaths, the destruction? Whole worlds obliterated by the Vorlons; whole races annihilated by the Shadows? He shows us that there can be a better way, and in return he asks only that we do not leave his service. This is not a great price to pay."
"We'll see. When the times comes for him to reveal what he really wants from you. We'll see." Marcus stuck his obviously useless pike back into its resting place, then swung around to address the room at large. "He's getting at you, and you can't see it. When we met before, you were different people to now. You saw things differently. You were far more willing to listen. Now? Now you can hardly think for yourselves at all. He has some kind of hold over you."
"He is our leader in all things. We belong to him." A Centauri, still proud and tall and regal in his bearing, seemed happy to flaunt the loss of his independence. A Centauri, in the usual way of things, would bow down only to his emperor; never to a religious figure from another race. This one seemed ready to set aside all of that. It was a remarkable thing to see; a creature as proud as a Centauri, willing to dedicate his life to peace at the behest of a member of a race that most of his kind saw as inferior. But this was a 'blessing' with a sting in its tail, Marcus was sure of that. How could it be anything else?
"You belong to him?" It seemed such a stupid thing to say; such a mindless acceptance of nothing. Belonging came in many shapes and forms, but there was no denying the sense in which this breathless devotee meant it. Unable to hold itself back any longer, the anger suddenly burst forth in Marcus, and he began to push his way through to the door. Forget these idiots, seethed his mind. Forget them, and just get out. Leave them to their obeisance and their invocations to their alleged god. Grabbing hold of one of the shoulders that formed so effective a barrier to the door, he let his strength and skill work for him. A bigger person was no an immovable object when the balance and the pressure were right. But the shoulder did not move. Instead he felt his hand begin to let the man go.
"What the-?" He fought it; he tried to hold on still; tried to push the man away. He couldn't. Helpless, he watched like a spectator in his own body as his hand released the man he had grabbed, then fell back, useless, to his side. It felt as though he were fighting against a powerful force, and he looked over at the supposed Jesus with angry eyes. The self-possessed blond smiled at him, smug somehow, and faintly sinister. Over the heads of his supporters he looked, whilst their attention was taken up entirely with Marcus - and unobserved by those who followed him, his eyes glowed with a cold and unpleasant light.
"Take our friends to the store room," he ordered, his voice still warm even if his eyes had momentarily held such ice. One or two of the cult members moved instantly to do his bidding, taking Stephen by the arms and pulling him across the room. As they came for Marcus he felt the force upon his arm fade away, and for a brief moment he was once again free. Then he was being pulled back alongside Stephen, to a place where the junk piled against the walls framed a door. It didn't slide open, but had to be opened manually.
"You can't keep us here." Stephen was more angry than he had been in some time; the stupidity of it all seemed to make his temper all the worse. Here they were; arriving as friends, trying to renew old acquaintances; trying to help these people - and they were being treated not only as enemies, but as though they were a danger to something. A real threat, to whatever the cult believed itself to be about. He struggled and he shouted, but it was not enough to stop him from being thrust through the door. He stumbled over bits of pipe; bits of grating; any number of surplus pieces of equipment from one of the station's many refits. They thudded and clanged as he stumbled over them, and he had to fight to keep his footing. Seconds later Marcus crashed into him, and the pair of them almost fell. It was the wall that held them up in the end, coming towards them out of the murky darkness, showing the room to be far smaller than they had first thought. For a moment there was light enough to see each other; to see the wall they had fallen against, and some of the rubbish at their feet. Then the door slammed shut and there was nothing.
"Damn it!" Punching the wall, Stephen shouted the words at the ceiling, invisible now above his head. "Damn it!"
"Breaking your hands won't do any good." Marcus sounded remarkably calm. Stephen glared at him furiously, but it was less satisfying when he knew that it couldn't be seen. He contented himself with kicking moodily at the rubbish on the floor, then turned his attention back to the room.
"Lights!" There was no response; no computerised equipment clicked into life. "Lights!"
"This is Downbelow. Even where there is voice-operated equipment, it's rare that it actually works." Moving past his companion, Marcus felt around the walls. "Some of us can still remember how to use light switches, though."
"Very funny. You think there is one?"
"It's a storage compartment. They're no good unless you can see what's stored in them." Tripping over pipes and coils of wire, Marcus carried on feeling his way about until his struck a little raised patch. It was familiar to him - the mining colony he had lived on for so long, back in his old life, had had light switches rather than voice-pads. Switches were cheaper to install, easier to maintain - just the thing for ragged, forgotten installations in regions of space where nobody ever wanted to go. Grasping at the tough metal switch he jerked it down, and with a bright yellow flicker the light came on. Stephen blinked.
"Well that's better. I think."
"Only marginally." Marcus looked around at the room. It was small - eight feet across and perhaps twelve feet long, the floor almost entirely invisible beneath the layers of detritus. Above them the ceiling was a grey slab, broken only by a strip of light and a small grate for ventilation. "Oh well. I've spent nights in worse places."
"You're either one hell of an optimist, or you've had some pretty awful nights." Stephen pushed aside some of the junk so that he could sit down on the floor, and smiling faintly Marcus followed suit.
"A bit of both, really," he said in the end. "The Minbari taught me to always look on the bright side of life, in a manner of speaking. But now you come to mention it, I have had some bloody lousy nights. There was one I spent recently on Maximus IX, when three of us had to hide out from an Earth Gov security patrol. All night in a sewer - and you know how basic the colony on Maximus IX is. Believe me, its sewers are even more basic. And that's being polite. It's not easy to put off breathing all night."
"Remind me never to go along on one of your little trips." Stephen had to smile. "None of this stuff bothers you, does it. You are one strange man, Marcus." The Ranger shrugged.
"Takes one to know one."
"Oh, you think? Why am I strange?"
"One or two reasons." Marcus smiled teasingly. "Dedicating your life to digging around in the intenstines of various lifeforms... agreeing - suggesting - that we come down here into who the hell knows what... and sitting there now, fiddling with your Link, which none of them saw fit to take away from you, but not actually doing anything with it. Are you waiting for somebody to call you, or are you actually going to use the thing?"
"I don't know." Stephen smiled awkwardly. "I'm just not sure if I want Security to come blasting in here. Not yet. There's something weird going on down here alright, but I can't help thinking that most of those people are just innocent bystanders."
"True. But they're innocent bystanders who have just conspired in kidnapping, and if our friend Jesus has anything to say about it, quite possibly murder as well. You think they'd balk at killing, if he told them it was the only way to get the peace they're all so desperate for?"
"No. No, you're probably right." Stephen traced the Link with a finger, still dubious about activating it. "I don't know. If Michael was still Head of Security, then maybe it would seem more like the thing to do. I just feel that Zack's an untested commodity, you know? I don't know if I can trust him to handle this right, or if he'll just burst in here and start shooting people."
"Mr Garibaldi trained Zack, didn't he? And he trusted him enough to recommend him for the post. You think he'd do that with just anybody?"
"No. I guess not." Franklin sighed, thinking about the children, and the proud adults from so many different races. The Narns and Centauri, side by side in their desperation for a chance at peace. They deserved that chance, and it seemed unfair that it should all be ended for them. If this was all broken up by Security, the cult would very likely disband. Some of them would wind up in the brig, others might be killed. It would be a long time before any other movement like this would be seen, Stephen thought. A movement where Narns and Centauri prayed together, lived together, and hoped for a bright future together. On the other hand, here he was trapped in some little room, with no option but to listen to the inane ramblings of Marcus Cole, sometime contender for Most Annoying Man In The Galaxy. Not to mention the possibility that the Ranger was right, and Jesus was planning to kill them. Scowling at his own indecision, he activated the Link. Nothing happened. He tapped it again. Nothing. Cross now, he shook his hand hard, but the Link made no sound. No beep told him that it was ready for use, no voice came over the little speaker. It was as though it were just an ornament fixed to the back of his hand; not a communications device at all.
"That's strange." Stephen peered at the Link, as though closer examination might show him what was wrong. There was no sign of any damage; not that it would very likely be visible if there were. A Link was a small device, with concealed circuitry that was for the most part far too small to be seen by the human eye. Stephen shook the thing again, just to be sure.
"Trouble?" asked Marcus. He didn't, thought Stephen, sound wildly surprised.
"Looks like it. I can't get this to work. It's weird. Even if the communications net is down, I can usually get the computer to respond." He frowned. "Were you expecting this?"
"Not exactly. Suspecting it, maybe. I can't see the Son of God being stupid enough to leave us in here with a communication device, can you?"
"Don't call him that. And no, I guess not. But what are they doing? If it was a jamming device I'd still be getting some kind of reaction from the Link."
"I don't think it's a jamming device. At least, not like you mean." Marcus drew out his beloved pike, which had failed him so conspicuously earlier on. "The way that this reacted, the way that that gun flew out of your hand. The way it felt when I couldn't make my arm work. It was like some kind of power at work. I could feel it. Rangers are trained to be aware of psychic attacks. Such things were important when the Shadows were still a threat, and might still be for any number of reasons."
"A psychic attack? That couldn't account for your pike folding up, or my gun flying away across the room, surely? That's a hell of a task for a telepath."
"Not a telepath necessarily. Psychic powers vary. It was something like that, though, Stephen. Something that interfered with my control over my own arm, over the physical presence of the gun in your hand. Something that's obviously capable of stopping your Link from operating the way it's supposed to."
"Nothing is that powerful. Nothing psychic. It couldn't be."
"That we know of, no. Human telepaths aren't supposed to be that strong, but look at your friend Lyta Alexander. By all the laws of human telepathy she shouldn't be able to do the things she does. But she does them. Other races have other abilities."
"You think that guy out there...?"
"Whatever he wants to call himself. You think he's capable of this kind of feat? That he can throw away my gun just by looking at me? Marcus, he's human. Human telepaths just don't come that powerful. And don't go telling me that he's the Son of God, because I don't buy that either."
"There has to be some explanation! He spent time with the Vorlons, remember? Whoever he is, there's the possibility that they made him that powerful. And even if he isn't, he'd certainly want his followers to think that he is. Nothing says godly more than the occasional miracle."
Stephen nodded unhappily. "True."
"Exactly. Disarming your enemies as if by magic is a hell of a party trick for impressing likely recruits, and think what it must look like to the people he's already converted. He'll have them eating out of his hand like never before."
"You think he's getting some help from somewhere?"
"Either that or he really is the Son of God, yes." Marcus made his way quietly to the door, which had no lock and hung barely closed. He opened it a crack. The cult members were still out there, all kneeling on the floor at the feet of their god. He was intoning some prayer or incantation, and they were hanging on his every word. Sensing that he was being watched he looked straight at Marcus, over the heads of the faithful, smiling with cold, mocking humour at the man observing his show. It was an ugly grin that took over his face then; a grin that showed all the ill intent the figurehead possessed, but which he went out of his way to hide from his followers. Slowly, deliberately, he raised a hand, and pointed it like a gun at Marcus's head.
"You see anything?" asked Stephen. It was a mundane sentence, but it broke the spell that seemed to have to woven itself in the air between watcher and watched. Marcus shook his head.
"Nothing. Nothing important, anyway." He let his eyes drift over the crowd, all kneeling, all with their eyes closed and their heads lowered. What did this man, with his tricks and his hidden smirks, have in mind for them? What was he planning? At first Marcus had believed that the man might be harmless; just another person claiming to be Jesus, and trying to preach and teach. Certainly he had talked sense, about an end to war and a cessation of violence. It was hard to continue believing that he was harmless now though, with James behaving as though he had been brainwashed; with maddened talk of their not being allowed to leave; and now, with that unpleasant smile chilling the air above the heads of the faithful. Men, women and children, all gathered at the feet of a man who might, for all that Marcus knew, have been planning to kill every one of them. Very slowly the Ranger eased the door back until it was almost but not quite closed.
"Well?" asked Stephen.
"There's a lot of people out there. I don't think we stand much chance of getting past them."
"Yeah." The doctor was not in one of his more patient moods. "I'd worked that one out for myself. What's going on?"
"Some kind of prayer meeting. They can't love him enough, and he's delighted. He saw me watching, and that certainly wasn't any godly smile he sent my way. Not unless we're talking about evil gods."
"We have to show that he's a fraud." Stephen bent to play with some of the junk that lay about on the floor. It felt better to have something to fiddle with; something that could bear the brunt of some of his frustration. "We have to think of something we can do to show that lot that he isn't who he says he is."
"Which doesn't help if he is who he says he is," pointed out Marcus. Stephen glared at him.
"You think he's Jesus? You think that two thousand years ago, a Hebrew woman from the Middle East gave birth to a little blond-haired, blue eyed son who spoke fluent twenty-third century English? He is not the real thing."
"Ah." Marcus was smiling the way he so often did when he knew that he was making Stephen's blood pressure rocket. "But if he was the real thing, He could speak any language he wanted, couldn't He. Just because he talks like us, it doesn't mean that he isn't who he says he is. Ultimate power at His disposal and all that."
"And he uses that ultimate power to make his accent sound right?"
"He wouldn't be able to spread his word very well if nobody could understand him, would he."
"Marcus, do you want that psychopath to be the Son of God? Really?"
"It would make me a little less confident in the universe if it turned out that he was."
"Well then." Stephen leant back against the wall. "How did he manage to get that gun out of my hand?"
"He may have had some help." Marcus went over to sit down beside him. "You're probably right about a human telepath not being that powerful, but a telekinetic might be. Remember a certain telepath for hire?"
"Jacob is telekinetic?" Stephen remembered the man well of course; he was the reason he and Marcus had found these people in the first place. The reason they were here now. "Why would he work for this guy though?"
"I can't say for sure. I don't know him well. Only slightly, by reputation. He's never had any loyalties, and he's always taken any job that was offered him, ever since he came to the station. Maybe a would-be saviour of mankind - or man-and-alienkind - wanted a little help making a name for himself."
"Maybe." Stephen stretched out his legs, trying to avoid the more painful looking items of junk. "You know, this started off as a good day. I got to the medlab, and I'd hardly been there five minutes before I saved a man's life. I did the crossword during a break, and I completed it. The food I ordered for lunch actually tasted the way I wanted it to. And now what? I was supposed to be spending this evening in the Zocalo with a very beautiful engineer who helped to fix the cooling system in Medlab Two last week. Instead I get to spend it with you, in a cupboard."
"I could turn out the lights again," offered Marcus. "That way you could pretend that it's your beautiful engineer who's sitting in the cupboard with you."
"Thanks, but no thanks. Sitting in a cupboard, oddly enough, isn't what I was hoping to do with her this evening. I think it might destroy the mood just a little."
"Suit yourself." Marcus picked up the nearest piece of junk, and weighed it in his hand. "Of course, if I was your beautiful engineer, I could probably make something useful out of all of this. Then we could get out of here."
"If you want to leave, you only need ask." The voice came from the widening doorway, where a familiar, bearded man was standing. He was beaming down at them, as warm and kind as he had been before he had allowed Marcus to see his real smile just moments before. "Of course the answer will most likely be no, but it might be worth your while to ask anyway." He bowed his head, apparently with reverence. "I am known for acts of charity and kindness. Goes with the territory."
"Ha." Stephen pushed himself to his feet. Somehow Marcus was already standing. "You're no more the Son of God than I am."
"Well if you're the Son of God too, my father has been holding out on me all these years." The cult leader leant against the wall, armed folded, looking anything but godly. "You don't believe me, do you. I can tell."
"Should we believe you?" Stephen glanced past him, through the open door. The others were still kneeling on the floor, their faces showing utter rapture, their eyes closed. Some of them were probably within hearing, but he knew that none of them would hear. There were far too far gone for that. "I'm not seeing any proof."
"True faith means never needing proof." The blue eyes glittered, teasing and amused. "But you'll find that out for yourselves, when you join me properly. Give me a few days, doctor, and you'll be as devoted as dear James. You'll be defending me against all gainsayers, spreading my word, and shouting down Captain Sheridan as the fraud that he is. A sign of the times, indeed. Claiming his own immortality, and trying to turn the people against their true Messiah."
"Captain Sheridan isn't claiming anything. He's not immortal." Franklin shook his head. "Look, we're not joining you. As a matter of fact, nobody else will be joining you. When we don't report in, Security will come. Now we went through this once before. You don't want your people dying. You don't want that kind of violence."
"They don't want that kind of violence." Jesus jerked a thumb at his followers, his expression suddenly showing disgust. "You're right; I don't especially want them dead. But I don't care about the violence. I never did. I let you go before as a gesture to my followers, and it was one that they lapped up. There were a few who weren't fully committed to me, but that was the last proof I needed that I was the magnanimous, benevolent soul they'd been looking for. All these wars, doctor. They create people desperate for peace. Ready to grasp at every straw. And they all flock to me."
"And once they were willing and able, our mutual friend Jacob did something to them to seal their loyalty." Marcus's eyes were like ice. Jesus merely laughed at him.
"You're a bright man. Jacob has been very useful to me, I'll admit that. He can use his various abilities in any number of ways to help my cause. Together we can convince the sceptical, and reinforce the beliefs they already hold. You'll have noticed the change in James? He used to question me, every now and then. Now he rarely speaks unless I tell him to. I think that the change was for the better, don't you?"
"Not really, no." Stephen couldn't sound as cold as Marcus; his voice lacked the necessary edge. He could, however, sound as fierce and as disgusted as a situation might require. He had an expressive voice, and there were times when it begged to be used. "What do you want from him? From all of them?"
"I need an army." He was casual about it; it was something obvious, to him; something that he had thought about a million times, and which all made perfect sense. "My own army, that'll fight for me, and do whatever I ask them to do, without any hesitation. I'll need that, where I'm going."
"Which is where?" Stephen wasn't really expecting an answer, but he was hoping that now the talking had begun, it would continue. Jesus smiled, and for the first Stephen saw the cruel glimmer that Marcus had witnessed before, when he had peered out at the assemblage during their prayers.
"In search of my father." The smile had become horribly cold; a mockery of the warmth he had always displayed before. "I'm going to find him, and depose him. His time has been and gone. His days are over. My army will topple him from power, and destroy all his angels. We'll set up a new domain. A new rule in heaven. My rule. It's only fair. Every other son inherits his father's empire in the end. Why shouldn't I?"
"Er... because you're round the twist?" Marcus said it so pleasantly that it hardly seemed like an accusation, let alone an insult. Jesus smiled at him, just as pleasantly.
"Madness is a matter of opinion."
"Fine. Sure." Stephen wasn't going to get into arguments about sanity. "Just tell me this - how exactly are you going to find your father? People have been trying since humanity first decided He existed, and none of them have succeeded yet."
"That you know of," pointed out Jesus, quite reasonably. "And besides, doctor, the advantage I have over them is that I know where to look. He's my father. I know where He is."
"Where is He?" demanded Marcus. If he was trying to catch the other man out, or make him falter, he was disappointed. Jesus smiled on. The ice had gone from his eyes, and although he was no longer trying to use his charisma against his guests, a proportion of his warmth shone again in his smile.
"Where else? At the centre of the universe."
"There's no such thing." Franklin shook his head, annoyed. "The universe doesn't have a centre, or edges. Not in the geometrical sense. You can't get to the centre of the universe."
"Of course not. The way into heaven is not supposed to be easy, doctor. If it was, people would be going there all of the time. You have to know how to get in, and you have to be welcome to enter. Who could be more welcome than the ultimate Prodigal Son?"
"They'll never follow you. Nobody would be fool enough to be a part of a mission like that." Stephen, almost always a rational thinker, could not see how somebody would want to go on such a fool's errand. Marcus nodded.
"Besides which, they want peace. Why would they want to fight a war in heaven, against angels? That's pretty much as anti-peace as you can get."
"They'll do it because I demand it of them. Because they follow me in all things, thanks to Jacob. And because I'll tell them that it's the only way to get their peace." For a second something truly terrible flashed in his eyes. "And it's only fair. He sent me to Earth to be killed, and when that was over, was that enough? No. For two thousand years the Vorlons kept me. They froze me, they experimented on me. They prodded and poked at my mind. And did my father come to rescue me? Did He lift one finger, use one tiny percentage of His omniscience to save me? No. He left me there. He left me to be blasted and battered and torn by the force of an exploding planet, and didn't so much as ease my pain. No. He deserves whatever He gets, now. And my army and I will deliver His sentence upon Him. With interest."
"Listen to yourself. You're not making any sense!" Stephen took a step forward, trying to appeal to the man, but Jesus lashed out before it became clear exactly what the doctor's intentions were. His fist caught Stephen across the head; a staggering blow showing that, whoever Jesus was, he had a strength far in excess of anything normal for a human of his size. Stephen crashed to the ground and Marcus reacted in an instant, leaping at his attacker and delivering a pair of sharp blows that would have dropped any normal man. Jesus barely flinched. For a second his eyes burned, then one hand shot out and snapped closed around the Ranger's throat. He squeezed hard, and pushed the other man back against the nearest wall.
"Non believer," he spat, his face contorted with fury. "Follower of a false god. Adherent of an alien faith. You fight me. You don't convert. You don't abandon your insulting beliefs. I am living proof of the veracity of the Christian faith!"
"You're bloody mad." It was not the best comeback ever, but it was the best that Marcus could come up with, let alone force out through his constricted throat. His captor's face twisted into an expression of such utter hatred that even Marcus was momentarily taken aback - then suddenly he was being released, pushed aside, discarded with contempt. He almost fell, but made it back to an upright position soon enough to try to prevent Jesus from leaving through the half open door.
"I can't let you do this," he said, his voice hard. Jesus smiled at him; once again all warmth and gentle merriment.
"You think that you can stop me? That you can fight all of us? Perhaps there's not enough of a spark in your mind for Jacob to play upon. Perhaps I can't make you follow me. But I can make you leave me alone."
"I don't think so." Marcus had faced impossible odds before, and fought opponents who were many times stronger than himself. Unless they were very wrong about the true identity of this man, he couldn't very well hit any harder than Neroon. Few beings could, unless they were Narns, or Grahvian swamp gorillas. Or, admittedly, the presumably super-powerful Son of God. "I don't know who you are. Who you really are. I don't care. But I am a Ranger. It's my duty to protect people like this; people you've fooled into doing your bidding. People you're using. If you're lying, they'll wind up dead. If you're telling the truth, they'll still wind up dead, but as a part of something more terrible than any being from any planet should ever have to imagine. Whoever you claim to be, there's a darkness in you that I can't stand by and allow to spread."
"Fine words." Jesus nodded slowly. "Very fine words. But they mean nothing to me, Ranger. Your insignias belong to an army I don't acknowledge; an authority I don't recognise. You follow a code of belief that I see as an insult to everything I am. You're a meddler - you and your groggy doctor over there. He's not a Christian either, is he. He claims a new religion, that doesn't know what its boundaries are. I should kill you both."
"You think that your followers will be blind to that, the way that they're blind to all of this? Are you willing to take that risk?"
"I can take any risk." Jesus sounded disparaging. "I can do anything. I can't fail, it's a part of who I am."
"Any risk?" Stephen was standing again, now; leaning against the wall and looking pale but firm. "You can fight us, yes. You're strong, certainly. But can you fight everybody on the station? We can stop you from leaving. And in time Jacob's hold over your followers will begin to wane. They'll get their own minds back, and they'll leave you, especially if we have you in holding cells at different ends of the station. All it'll take is for Captain Sheridan to decide we're overdue to return, or for Security to realise that we haven't checked in; even for our resident telepath to notice the increase in telepathic activity occurring on the station; and the entire force of Babylon 5 will combine to stop you in your tracks." He rubbed tenderly at his jaw. "It's possible to hide a whole army down here, and that's just what you've done. But getting the army off the station is a different matter altogether."
"Then perhaps I won't wait for your telepath to sit up and take notice, or for your captain or your security chief to take a look where they're not wanted. Perhaps I should accept that I've got all the followers I can expect to gather, and that it's time to set out and see what we can find."
"And leave now? With no ship prepared or stores laid in?" Marcus shook his head. "Don't be a fool. You'll never make the centre of universe without food, extra power cells, bottled water... Even if you're not a regular human, your followers need feeding. It's likely to be a long voyage."
"Not necessarily. All that I need is to get into a jump gate portal. From there I can twist and bend space to my will. I can fly anywhere." For a moment the blue, blue eyes were wide and hot and round, seething with peculiarities. "No, I think I can manage without many long months of planning and gathering. Perhaps it really is time to leave."
"You'll never make it off the station." Marcus tried to plant himself in front of the door, but Jesus pushed him aside with no effort. He made no move to seal them into the room again, however, and didn't even bother closing it after him as he left. Marcus gave chase instantly, but from the moment that their leader was once more amongst them, the cult members were rising from their dream-like state, and turning to face both Jesus and the two intruders. Marcus skidded to a halt. His hand was going automatically to his pike, but he knew that to try to use it would be pointless. He didn't really want to hurt any of these people - and besides, he would never be allowed to use it. He could see Jacob now, standing at the far end of the room, a hood pulled over his head. There was a detached look to him; a sense of separation from the world, which came perhaps from the necessity that he constantly use his mind's extraordinary powers. He was watching Marcus, Stephen and Jesus intently, a faint frown upon his face. Jesus didn't acknowledge him, but presumably Jacob did not expect him to. He was an employee here; nothing more or less; and that was something he understood. All of his life he had moved from one job to the next, trying to earn enough money to live. The details meant nothing.
"My people!" Striding into the crowd with his hands raised above his head, Jesus spoke in the voice of a preacher. "My people, listen to me! I have seen visions; been shown things that make me fear for all of us. We have always known that we are here in the den of the lion. We have always known that there are dangers to us here from non-believers, and followers of Captain Sheridan. And now the time has come for us to leave."
"We should leave." James was nodding immediately, his face one again showing rapture. "This is no place for us. We should go somewhere that isn't full of fighting and unrest and so many types of conflict."
"There's no conflict here." Stephen took a few steps forward, expecting to be silenced by Jesus, but the bearded blond made no effort to intercede. "Not of the kind that you mean. You're welcome here. All of you. Babylon 5 has always welcomed all peoples. All races, all creeds. It's the whole point of this place. The reason it was built."
"True." Jesus nodded slowly, a sadness in his eyes. "The shining beacon. I've heard about it. Heard of it even during my time with the Vorlons. The last great hope for peace. Such a wonderful dream. But we all know that it was just a dream. It didn't work. What began as a shining beacon has become tarnished. We believed in Captain Sheridan as the man who could keep the peace for us, but with every passing day he builds his own legend at the expense of all else. He claims to have died and been reborn. He claims to be the right man to lead the universe into its future. We have no place here now; not with a man like that. We must leave."
"If you leave, you'll die." Stephen again stepped forward, trying to appeal to the crowd, but seeing immediately that he was having no effect. They were focused entirely upon their leader, and cared nothing for the doctor's words. "He's got some crazy plan in mind. Believe me, if you go with him you'll die."
"If you stay here, you'll die." Jesus was smiling triumphantly, knowing that his followers would never listen to somebody else in his place. "Even if it's only a spiritual death, it's still a death of sorts. We must stay together, and we must leave this place now." His smile became more gentle; almost paternal, as he delivered the coup-de-grâce. "I think it's time that we went in search of my father. It's been too long since I was home, at his side, and when I go there I want you to come with me. Will you come?"
"You could not keep us away." James took his leader's hands, clutching them to his chest. "There is nothing that any of us could want more than to follow you anywhere. To be asked to go there is a dream come true."
"He's not taking you to heaven!" Exasperated now, Stephen tried to push himself between Jesus and James, doing all that he could to make James meet his eyes; make some kind of contact with him, and hopefully begin to listen. Others were pushing in, though, trying to get as close to Jesus as was James, pushing the non-believer out of the way with the careless jostling of people whose minds were not in the present. The doctor fell back, cast aside like old rubbish, struggling to remain on his feet. He was running out of arguments, but he was determined not to give in. Smiling faintly at his tenacity, Marcus steadied him, and pulled him back out of the way before he could plunge into the fray once again.
"How about directing your energies at a different target, Stephen?" His eyes were on Jesus, but his mind was somewhere else. Franklin frowned over at him, annoyed at being diverted. There were times when Marcus took his unofficial rôle of bodyguard far too seriously.
"What?" he asked, before his unsettled mind guessed at the direction in which Marcus was thinking. "Jacob?"
"Ssh." There was no telling who, if anybody, could hear. The was no telling how much the telepath might be capable of seizing from their minds. All the same, it seemed a reasonable course of action. Perhaps, if Jacob could be distracted, something could be done. Nodding briefly, Stephen edged around the crowd, acting all the time as though his intention were to force his way in from a different direction. He made a few abortive attempts to do just that, to add to the illusion, all the while trying hard not to think of his real aim. The last thing he wanted was to alert Jacob, or give him any more opportunity than he already had, to see the plans in the minds of the two interlopers and guess at their objective. Meanwhile Marcus was trying much the same thing on the other side of the crowd, shouting at the gathered mass of humanity, and telling them above the clamour of their own excited voices, just how insane he thought that they all were. Once or twice he saw anger in their eyes. Something to build upon perhaps? But every time it seemed to fade straight away; sucked into the mindlessness of their devotion. He pulled at the nearest of them, dragging them back away from Jesus, pushing them like a school yard bully. Any reaction would be better than none, he reasoned; a display of anger; an attempt to fight back; anything. He got nothing. Nothing but brief struggles, and a return to the commotion that he didn't feel he could stop. He didn't want to hurt them. Any of them. It didn't seem right to risk causing real damage to people whose only crime was being misled. Out of the corner of his eye he watched Franklin's progress, trying not to be too obvious in his interest, his hand itching all the while to go for his pike. With that in his hands, extended and ready, he could face any foe without concern. Even unbeatable opponents were less worrying with the antique weapon to call upon. Slowly now, his mind as calm as he could make it, to avoid the chance of it being overheard, he manoeuvred into position behind Jesus, let his fingers brush the end of the pike, and then closed his eyes. Sometimes it was better not to watch for an opening with the external senses. They were far too easily confused or overwhelmed. Instead he listened - to the currents of the air in the room, to the movement of feet on flooring - he didn't know to what. He never did. It was merely an exercise he had learnt in the hard training rooms on Minbar, and it was one that he knew to trust. He didn't listen for the sound of Franklin's attack. He merely waited, and let the moment, when it came, come to him.
Franklin had no confidence in his ability to do any damage to Jacob. A man who could throw away a gun without laying a hand on it; who could force Marcus's fists back down to his sides and make a Denn-bok close up at his own command, was unlikely to allow a personal attack upon himself. If he could just distract the man for a moment, though; if he could just weaken his influence even for a few seconds, it was possible that Marcus could make something happen. Making things happen was, after all, one of the Ranger's particular talents. It was a risk, though - a gamble on the chance of taking Jacob by surprise; and given that Jacob could probably see every thought as it formed in Stephen's mind, that appeared highly unlikely. He knew he had to try though, and as Jesus began to shout rousing phrases to his people, telling them of the welcome they were assured in heaven, Stephen spun on his heel and hurled himself at the hooded telepath.
It was a strange feeling that took him then; a sensation of weightlessness and timelessness, as he seemed to freeze in the air even as he was in the act of leaping. He saw Jacob's eyes flash and spark with a new kind of concentration, and he knew that he was caught. Hands that were not real caught hold of him and pulled him back, stealing his strength and his sense of balance, and dragging him backwards away from the man he had tried to attack. He felt useless; foolish for having even tried such a move, and furious that he had not succeeded in it. He tried to struggle, but his muscles barely seemed to belong to him. He wanted to turn his head, and tell Marcus that it was hopeless; that they stood no chance of making a strike against these people; but he couldn't even do that. He couldn't speak, couldn't move his eyes from Jacob's shadowed face. He would have tried to speak to the man, since they had last parted company on good terms, but he could not make his lips or tongue do his bidding. The best that he could manage was a formless growl that came from a throat he could barely master. Even his eyes were working only in stops and starts. Behind him though, unaware of the doctor's helpless struggles, Marcus had made his move at the same moment as Stephen. Pulling out the pike he extended it fully, sweeping it around in an arc that scattered several of the cult members before it came up short against what seemed to be an invisible wall. He made another sweep; another attempt to strike at Jesus with the pike, but by now it was clear that Stephen's attempt to distract the telepath had met with failure. Marcus was not the kind to give in though, whatever the odds. He aimed a blow at Jesus that had no hope of connecting, and saw the horror and the anger that blossomed in James's eyes. Jesus turned then, catching the end of the pike, and twisting the weapon neatly from the Ranger's grip.
"Besieged at every turn by enemies." The cult leader shook his head, and cried real tears in a display of his dreadful sorrow. "Enemies who try to fight us; try to kill us; when all we want is peace. They seek to prevent us from leaving, my brothers and sisters. They seek to imprison us, to keep us apart, to destroy our unity. They must not be allowed to keep us on this station." Very gently he set down the pike, as though even to hold such a weapon hurt his delicate sensibilities. "I leave it to you to decide what should be done with this man, and with his companion. I can never condone violence, but these people came here to divide us, and to lure us from the path of our true belief. You must decide what action is most fitting. I'll stand by the decision you make."
"He tried to hit you." James was almost on his knees, his eyes fixed adoringly upon Jesus. "He tried to kill you!"
"Not kill. Distract." Marcus's eyes went to his pike. "We don't want you dead. We just want to stop you from using these people on this ridiculous fools' errand."
"Don't listen to him!" James spun to face the assembled crowd. "You saw him! You all saw him! He tried to kill the Son of God!"
"If he really is the Son of God one little knock from a pike shouldn't hurt him." To suddenly be faced with an enraged army was more than merely off-putting, and Marcus was somewhat shaken, but he stood his ground and faced them all nonetheless. "If he really did survive a planet exploding, what do you think I can do to him?"
"Perhaps they're just insulted by the attempt?" suggested Jesus. One of his eyebrows was crooked up into an expression of very ungodly amusement. James nodded.
"Insulted by the attempt." The words might not even have been his own. Marcus shook his head, sickened. These people were being used like puppets; puppets with minds of their own, but not ones that they seemed capable of using. He took a step back, fists ready should he come to need them; but not really believing that they would be much use against so many potential opponents. Stephen was nowhere in sight; he tried to move to get a better field of vision, but the pressing and jostling of the crowd spoiled his view, and all that he saw - or thought that he saw - was the doctor struggling in the grip of a handful of the faithful. Where Jacob had gone he couldn't see at all. Desperate now, he looked towards his pike and wondered if he might be able to reach it - wondered if it would do any good anyway - then realised that the mob was going to attack. There was time then for one last look at Jesus, standing tall and blond and proud just a short distance away; for one last glimpse of those warm blue eyes turning icy and insane. Then the crowd rushed in, and there was nothing to see but their anger. Theirs and, however briefly, his own.
Marcus awoke to several realisations, none of which was wildly satisfying. The first was that he had failed; the second was that Stephen was in the bed next to him; and the third was that the medlab was a far less satisfying place when the chief medical officer was in bed instead of being in charge. Whoever was in command at the moment clearly knew nothing about the Franklin-Cole Accord, and had put Marcus into a convalescence bed, attached to all manner of scanners, which complicated the escape process a hundredfold. The Ranger glowered at the ceiling and sat up. At least twelve individual pieces of medical equipment beeped in protest, and a tall, scowling doctor told him to lie back down. He tried on his best look of innocence, and then tried to claim that he didn't speak English, but the sharp commanding voice that came from the other end of the room stopped him in his metaphorical tracks. Alongside him, Franklin laughed faintly. Delenn. She had probably been waiting for them to wake up, and Marcus's cheerful insistence that he spoke only Minbari met its natural defeat in her. She crossed over the room then, her expression one of amusement mixed with gentle chiding.
"You were unconscious when Security found you," she said, in her usual businesslike manner. "Both of you. You need to rest."
"Jesus." Marcus was still sitting up, still ignoring the protests of both equipment and doctor. "Where is he? All of them?"
"Jesus?" This time the voice was Sheridan's, sounding taut and concerned. "Did he get any serious head injuries, doc?"
"Quite possibly." The brisk voice of competence belonged to Doctor Rubina Sita, one of Franklin's more senior deputies. She came over, peering at instruments, clucking with her tongue, and almost shouting at Stephen when he dared to sit up as well. She checked her instinct to remonstrate with him more fiercely , and glared disapprovingly instead, mixing respect for her colleague with annoyance at his refusal to be a good patient. "They were both quite deeply unconscious, and there are any number of secondary injuries. They've been beaten up, and with a great deal of enthusiasm."
"I don't think you're quite getting my point." Swinging his legs around so that he was sitting on the edge of the bed, Marcus pulled off some of the sensor pads that were attached to his arms, silencing the indignant beeping of the machines at a stroke. "Jesus. The leader of that cult in Downbelow. Where did he and his followers get to?"
"Oh." Sheridan advanced, coming into his line of vision, and taking up a position beside Delenn. "He's gone. They all have. They took a ship into the jump gate about an hour ago."
"A stolen ship," added Delenn. "Commander Ivanova is currently attempting to defuse what I believe you call a rather sticky situation, in Launch Bay Three. A very angry trader wants his ship back."
"I ordered a retrieval mission," added Sheridan. "I thought a White Star would catch them easily enough." He shrugged. "But there was no trace of them. Nothing at all. It was as though they'd disappeared."
"Probably for the best. If he thought you were going to catch up, he'd kill them all." Marcus stood up, testing his weight on his legs. He looked over at Stephen, and the doctor nodded his agreement.
"Marcus is right, though I hate to say it. There's nothing I'd like more than to get that madman back here, and get those people away from him, but it would just turn into a tragedy. Damn it!" He hit the mattress with a balled up fist. "I can't believe we let him get away."
"Like I said, they just disappeared." Sheridan was clearly flummoxed. "I've got a crew of very confused Rangers out there wondering what the hell is going on. Any suggestions?"
"Either they found their doorway into heaven, or their pet telepath confused the sensors." Marcus shrugged. "I don't know, captain. They're a complicated bunch."
"Yes, maybe. And I'm going to want a full report as soon as possible." Sheridan was looking from one to the other of them. "Was that just his name, or did he actually think that he was Jesus?"
'Who knows." Feeling suddenly tired, Franklin lay back down. The fatigue, he knew, was as much about his own sense of failure as it was his injuries getting the better of him. "He thought that he was the real thing. His followers believed it too. He certainly wasn't a straightforward human, but then he claimed to have spent time with the Vorlons. They might have done any number of things to him, to stop him from being merely human."
"It sounds like it's going to be an interesting report." Sheridan clapped him on the shoulder. "But in your own time, Stephen. I don't want to get on the wrong side of Doc Sita."
"Highly advisable, Captain." Completely unconcerned by such details as rank, the doctor in question shot him a very meaningful look. "Which reminds me. Didn't we say no more than a minute or two?"
"I believe that we did, yes." Steering Sheridan away from the bed, a faint smile on her face, Delenn nodded politely at Sita as she passed. "And if I may suggest, doctor, should Marcus give you any trouble, merely remind him that it is my desire that he remain here at least until the morning."
"I'll bear it in mind." Sita smiled back at the ambassador; the confident smile of the capable and equal, then bustled off back to her other duties. She didn't see Stephen laughing as Marcus sank back onto the bed he had so recently vacated.
"I'll remember that one next time it's me trying to keep you in here," he said, then had to break off with a wince when his ribs objected to the merriment. Marcus cast him a very dirty look.
"You're not nearly as attractive as your stand-in," he said curtly. "It wouldn't work."
"Oh? And does Susan know that your eyes are straying to my medical staff?" Franklin smiled, sitting up slightly, and adjusting the angle of the bed so that he would still be properly supported. "Seriously. Are you alright? It looked as though they all jumped you at once."
"It felt like it too, but they didn't do as much damage as they could have done. I don't think their claim to love peace was all talk by any means." Marcus turned to look at him, lying on his side with his head propped up on one hand. "What do you think happened, Stephen? Why couldn't the White Star that the captain sent out find any trace of them?"
"Jacob, I suppose. Like that creep said, somehow he's powerful now, and we've both felt it. He more or less froze me in mid air when I tried to attack him."
"Maybe. But a telepath shouldn't be a match for a White Star, no matter how much Jesus manages to boost his abilities. Doesn't it seem weird to you that they could go into hyperspace, and then completely disappear? The White Stars carry Minbari and Vorlon technology. You can't just drop off the sensors like that. Not when the sensors in question have that kind of pedigree behind them."
"So, what exactly? Are you suggesting that that madman really did know the way into heaven? That he really was Jesus, sent mad and crazy for revenge? Marcus..."
"I'm not suggesting anything. I'm just looking for explanations." The Ranger lay back down, staring up at the ceiling. "Where do you suppose they are? Where are they heading?"
"I don't know." It bothered Stephen greatly. They had been good people, he was sure. So many different races, from so many different backgrounds, all coming together in a last, desperate search for peace. Babylon 5 itself had been supposed to provide just that. A last, best hope for a peace that had eluded all of them. Instead the haven had become the centre of the conflict, and so many of the war-torn and weary had wound up there, lost, tired and afraid, and yearning for the one thing that Babylon 5 could no longer provide. It was just the kind of atmosphere in which a charismatic man like Jesus could gather people about him, and promise them all kinds of things that they wanted. The universe had seen such things before, and probably would again. "I suppose they're heading for the centre of the universe."
"Which is where? Nobody has ever been able to pinpoint it. They're flying blind, in some trading vessel, with a man who can't be trusted. Even if he is who he says he is, he's still unstable."
"Yeah." Franklin saw again the small children, the proud Narns, Drazi and Centauri, the energetic, devoted, James. He felt bad for all of them, but there was nothing that he could do for them now. Nothing at all. Failure was never enjoyable. He wanted to sleep, both to combat his lingering fatigue, and to see if perhaps he would feel better when he awoke, but he didn't trust his companion to still be beside him when the night was over. "Marcus?"
"What?" The Ranger was still staring at the ceiling. Stephen couldn't help wondering what he saw in it. Arisia? Minbar? Or the faces of the followers of Jesus?
"You're not planning anything stupid, are you? Like a little expedition to see if you can find the centre of the universe? That would very likely be suicide."
"I'm not going after them, doctor. If a White Star couldn't find them, I very much doubt that I could."
"Even with Lyta's help?"
"Lyta would only be any use if it really was Jacob hiding them from the sensors." Marcus turned his head slightly, breaking his fixed stare at the ceiling long enough to shoot one very brief glance at the doctor. "I've seen enough odd things in my lifetime to wonder if it wasn't something else."
"An open mind, Stephen. Closed minds topple empires."
"Maybe." A silence fell that lasted for so long Marcus thought Stephen had fallen asleep, before finally the doctor spoke up again. "Marcus...? Do you really think that madman was who he said he was? He had no proof that he'd survived the destruction of the Vorlon homeworld. All we know for sure is that he was a lot stronger than he had any right to be. But then he only looked human. He might not have been."
"There are any number of might bes. One of which I don't need to point out."
"Never rule anything out, Stephen. Accept all the possibilities."
"They teach you that on Minbar?"
"Entil'zha said it himself. Once you've accepted all the possibilities..." He shook his head. "I don't know. I don't know. I just want to have the day over again, so that this time we can stop them from leaving. So maybe this time we won't be lying here feeling like hell, and knowing that all the time they're probably flying straight to their deaths." He sat up sharply, and swung his legs over the side of the bed, sitting now with his back to the doctor. "I'm going for a walk."
"Delenn won't be happy."
"Delenn knows who I am. She didn't give any orders. Just a request." Standing up, he grabbed his coat from the locker beside the bed and slung it on. The long tails swished with their usual dramatic flare, but for once Marcus didn't look appropriately swashbuckling. Instead he just looked subdued.
"Don't do anything stupid, Marcus."
"Like heading off after them? I'm not going to. I'm not even going to get Brother Theo to help me demand answers from God. I have more important things to do."
"Such as visiting a friend in Downbelow, and explaining why the one man she's looked at since her husband died isn't going to be visiting her anymore. He was the main reason she had for getting up in the mornings." He turned away, heading for the door. "Sometimes I hate this station, Stephen. It and all the people it attracts to it."
"I know the feeling." Franklin didn't bother saying anything else. He couldn't think of anything. He didn't move as Marcus left the room, and the door swished shut behind him. He didn't move when Doctor Sita came back a few moments later, and cast an impressive glower at the empty bed. He didn't move at all until after he had fallen asleep, and then it was only to stir restlessly, and mutter in his sleep. He was muttering when Marcus found Mabel, and told her that Jacob would not be coming back, and he was tossing and turning as the Ranger held the old woman close, and tried to make her feel a little less alone. When Marcus let go of her she was asleep herself, and muttering in her own unhappy restlessness, so he settled down beside her so that she would not really be so very alone. He didn't sleep, but his thoughts were as troubled as the two who mumbled and rolled. Failure did not sit well with him, nor yet did the old woman's grief, and it seemed as though the whole station shared his distress. Whoever the strange man at the heart of the cult had been, he had left his mark in the shadows of Downbelow, as well as in the minds of the two men he had left behind. His darkness lingered peculiarly, and in unsettling ways. There were nightmares aplenty on Babylon 5 that night.