January 30, 2262, Hyperspace.
"And finally, we can report that the latest addition to the Earth Alliance fleet, the soon to be commissioned EAS Rasputin, has finally been completed and now awaits her first captain at the construction yards orbiting Neptune. As we reported recently, Captain Susan Ivanova, previously stationed on Babylon 5, has been given command of this, the first production model of the new Warlock class destroyers. As part of our continuing coverage of this momentous event we will be bringing you a special report on the commissioning ceremony in tomorr..."
Earth Alliance Captain Susan Ivanova slumped dejectedly back into her seat as the viewscreen flickered and the Earthforce insignia replaced the ISN reporter's face. She had wanted to take command of her new vessel as quietly as possible, and then fly off into space and away from the reporters and questions she faced back on Earth, and even on Babylon 5. That did not look like it was going to be possible though, ISN was still regarding her as some sort of hero and insisted on covering her every move. Another officer might have welcomed their attention, but all Susan wanted was to be left alone to forget about what had happened, to forget Marcus and the sacrifice he had made for her.
When Susan had been offered the captaincy of the first of the new Warlock destroyers by Earthforce she had jumped at the chance to return to Earth. The civil war was over, and had she remained she knew the memories of what had happened would have eventually driven her into depression. Earthforce seemed eager to take her back, and with the amnesty for all those who served on Babylon 5, or in the fleet that had ended Clark's rule, they had even been willing to forget the roles she had played during the bloody civil war. It was not only Earthforce that was willing to forgive either, everyone on Earth seemed busy trying to forget Clark, to erase his memory and deeds from their minds.
Susan had found, however, that she could not forget, or forgive so easily as everyone else. The civil war had come close to claiming her life, and had it not been for the sacrifice of Marcus she would have been dead, nothing but a memory to those who knew her. So she had run, away from Babylon 5 and those who cared about her, and most importantly away from the memories that still haunted her dreams. She had returned to Earth, but even on her homeworld, she did not found the peace she sought. To those who had suffered under Clark's rule she was something of a hero, one of the most prominent of those who had fought against the tyrant to save them. ISN in particular had taken an interest in her, and seemed intent on following her around wherever she went, ensuring that her face was plastered all over their news bulletins, despite her wishes.
She had suffered through weeks of this, hating every minuted, but now finally she was to take command of her new vessel and with it hopefully earn some peace and quiet to recover from the memories that still plagued her from the previous two years. Susan did not believe for a minute that things would change much once she was on the Rasputin, but at least she would be working again, and could bury herself in her work, as she had done so many times before. A holiday had not helped, even when she returned to her hometown of St. Petersburg.
Her family home was gone now, repossessed by Clark's agents, probably in retribution for her siding with Sheridan. She had not really cared much about the old house; it had not really been a home for Susan since her mother died, but she still felt pangs of loss. Mustering up her courage, she finally had gone to see the graves of her family, but found nothing to guide her there. Instead, she was reminded of other more recent deaths, of Marcus, of Talia, and of all the others who had served under her on Babylon 5 and who were no longer alive today. She had spent only two days there, most of the time lying on the hotel bed crying.
Then had come the trip to Earthdome, the meetings with President Susanna Luchenko, and other top officials. They had only kept her busy for a little over a week though, before packing her off to Station Prime to await a flight for the Neptune-Beta research centre, where she was to join her new command. She waited for weeks on Station Prime as the commissioning of the Rasputin was delayed repeatedly for various reasons. There in the little room she had been given she had found plenty of time to think out her past, and the memories that plagued her.
She remembered Talia, the woman she had thought would be her one true love, and the way she had been snatched from her arms. They had only spent one night together, one night of passion that remained etched in Susan's mind. She had given herself to Talia totally, feeling their minds echo their love for each other. She had held back nothing, giving all that she was to a woman who was taken from her the next day in the cruellest way possible. She had gone to see Talia before she left, but could find nothing of her Talia left, not even a trace. The woman who she loved — and had loved her — was now a cold, empty shell, filled with a being that embodied all the cold duplicity that was the Psi Corps.
During her time on Station Prime Susan realised that she had never really recovered from Talia's loss, and it had shaped her every waking moment from that day on. She had given up on love and thrown herself into her work, trying to forget Talia, forget what they could have had together. At night though, when she closed her eyes she could not forget, and the image of Talia, walking away from her, out of her quarters and her life was forever etched in her mind. Every night she dreamed of her, imagining ways for them to be together again, but every night Talia left just the same. She had dreamt about Talia every night for a year, and then, just when she thought she might be getting over her, along had come the Shadow war, and Marcus.
If she had never met Talia, never experiencing her total love and total abandonment, things might have been very different with Marcus. However, she had, and because of this, Susan had never seen the love Marcus offered her until it was too late. She had concentrated on her work, always serious and committed, never for a moment allowing him a thought. She had seen that he might be interested in her, but so were many others on Babylon 5. Like the others who had shown her any interest, she had turned Marcus down, her mind still on the past. Then, when she had finally let herself realise that he had truly loved her, it was too late and he lay dying by her side, his life drained to save her.
She had not wanted to be saved though, hating him for bringing her back and condemning her to walk alone forever. She would have welcomed death, as a final freedom from her isolation, a peaceful end to all the tragedy that had plagued her. Marcus had taken her from her peaceful final sleep, sacrificing himself and leaving her alone, and with even more baggage to carry than before. She hated him. She hated the way he had never told her of his love, hated herself for not at least giving him a chance. She knew it would not have made a difference though; she was incapable of love now. She had given her heart to Talia during that one night in her quarters on Babylon 5 and when Talia had left, she had never given it back.
In her tiny room on Station Prime, she could not even bring herself to end her own life, to take away the pain forever. She could not give up what Marcus had given her without feeling guilty. It was as if she was trapped by her own guilt, doomed to live alone... forever. She had left Babylon 5 to escape the past, but had only found herself trapped by it, trapped by her memories and her lost love, and trapped by her duty to Marcus. She did not want this, she did not want the memories, did not want the responsibility, but it had been given back to her anyway.
For three weeks she had been stuck on Station Prime, never leaving her quarters in case someone recognised her. She feared being forced to sit through their fawning gestures of gratitude and requests for autographs. It had been three of the hardest weeks she had ever had to live through. Over the past two years on Babylon 5, she had always been too busy, and never had enough time to sit and think, and now that she did, she did not like what she was thinking.
Finally the call from Earth Central had come and she had left the Station, boarded the shuttle with the two crates that contained all her belongings, and set out for the short trip through hyperspace to the Neptune jumpgate. The blinking light on the screen, and the synthesised words of the computer informing her of the incoming message, had been one of the most relieving moments of her life; finally something to grab hold of, direct action to mask the melancholy hole in her soul. She had thrown herself into the packing, although she had never really unpacked her belongings after their trip from Babylon 5. After dressing once again in the blue of Earthforce, this time with the single gold bar indicating her new rank, she marched out of the room and across the station, the perfect picture of an Earthforce officer.
She had boarded the shuttle with only a small bag, containing a few important items and had found herself the only passenger. On a shuttle that could hold more than fifty, she was alone. They had waited while porters from the station had delivered her packing crates and then the shuttle had left on the long flight to the Neptune jumpgate. She had strapped herself into her seat so she did not start floating across the room when the shuttle stopped accelerating and returned to zero-g. Then settling in for the flight she had turn on the monitor to ISN to catch up on what had been happening.
There had been the usual stories about Babylon 5 and the new Alliance as well as coverage of the upcoming election; one that Susanna Luchenko seemed likely to win. The story on Babylon 5 had bought a faint smile to her lips as she though of John, even more wrapped up in affairs of politics. She remembered when he had first come aboard how he had hated the paper work, and sitting behind his desk, how he had threatened to quit over it, until she had convinced him otherwise. Still he was happy now at least, a loving wife, and his friends around him. Susan wished she could have stayed, remained with Babylon 5 and the people she had grown to care for, but every time she had to go to Medlab she would have remembered what had happened there, and knew that she would not have been able to live with that.
Then the final story, the one about her had come on and in annoyance she had closed down the vid to avoid having to listen to yet another story about her. Instead, she stretched in her restraints and looked around the shuttle, looking for something to take her mind away from her troubles. There was nothing there however, just a few scattered bits of paper floating about the cabin and her packing crates strapped down securely toward the back of the shuttle. There was not even a porthole to look out and watch the swirling chaos of Hyperspace.
She had always liked that about the Whitestar's. Even when she had been unable to sleep there was always the porthole to look of, out into Hyperspace. For some reason Hyperspace always had a calming effect on her and there she had always slept peacefully and without the horrible dreams that plagued her on Babylon 5. Susan remember the times she had spent there, the time she had spent with Marcus, and how she had been so blind to the way he looked at her, his loving eyes always following her around. She cursed herself again for not being able to see what was obvious. Still it was too late to worry about that now, Marcus was dead and she was doomed to live without him, and without love.
With a deep sigh, Susan closed her eyes, determined at least to try catch up with some of the sleep she had lost over the past few weeks. To her surprise she drifted off almost as soon as her eyes closed, into a sleep that was for once was mercifully empty of the nightmares that had been her constant companions in recent months.
"Captain, we are about to return to real space."
The voice of the shuttle's pilot cut into her sleep and wearily Susan dragged her eyes open and pulled herself upright. For a moment she was confused about where she was, but an itch at the back of her neck soon reminded her though and as she scratched it she cursed all Earthforce tailors, and the poor quality of their uniforms. Although good by Earth standards, she was used to the softness of the form fitting Minbari uniforms. She had even worn them when off duty, instead of more casual clothing she had favoured when Earthforce uniforms were still common on Babylon 5. But now she was back with Earthforce once again, and the old uniforms had been pulled from the back of her cupboard, and sat uncomfortably on her body, itchy, cumbersome, and in her honest opinion, ugly.
Still she was a captain in Earthforce so had to at least look the part, and at least when she was annoyed with the itchy uniform she didn't had to think about other darker things. Susan smiled as she smoothed out the slightly wrinkled uniform, thinking that perhaps there was still some hope for her. She might have suffered greatly and lost all she cared about but she was about to get what she had always wanted, ever since the day she first signed up, a ship of her own. She could only hope it had been all worth it.
The screen in front of her was blinking, a message informing her that the shuttle was about to fire its braking thrusters and exit to real space through the jumpgate. She quickly checked her restraints, but found them secure and then gripped her armrests as the shuttle's frame shook as its thrusters fired. There was none of the smoothness she had known on the White Star's, but it was still nowhere near as bad as she remembered from previous journeys.
The shuttle travelling between Earth and Neptune was ancient compared to the new Phoenix class shuttles on Babylon 5, with their inertial dampening and smooth hyperspace to real-space entry. They were designed for space though and this one, a five-year-old Moa class shuttle, was made to land both on a planet's surface as well as dock with stations and starships.
A shudder ran through the vessel and Susan knew that they were back in real space again, having just past through the Neptune jumpgate, one of four that could be found in Earth's solar system. This one was the original; part of the ancient jumpgate network that had been created by an unknown race long before the younger races ever went to the stars. It had been patched up and repaired many times since the people of Earth had first become aware of it existence, and until the construction of the jumpgate near Io, it had made Neptune an important part of the Earth Alliance. The Neptune gate was also the one the Centauri had used when they had first contacted humanity, claiming to long lost cousins. They had then built the Earth jumpgate to speed up travel between Earth and the Centari worlds, and before long humans also learned how to construct their own gates and began to spread out spread across the galaxy.
Still in the hearts of many, the Neptune Jumpgate still held an important place. There was even a small museum dedicated to the first Centauri-Human meeting on Triton, largest of Neptune's moons. It was once a place where all who could came to visit, to see the place where the first meeting of humanity and another race had taken place, where the research vessel Kraken had found the ancient gate just in time to see if flare into light and the massive form of a Centauri battle cruiser come leaping through. Fortunately, the Centauri had proven to be friendly and their arrival had opened the way for humanity to reach for the stars.
The museum was not why most people had come to Neptune though. As humans colonised other worlds the thirst for fuel and resources became ever greater. Mars was colonised and the process of stripping it bare of all its minerals began, and Neptune with its ancient jumpgate became the largest fuel-producing centre in the Earth Alliance. All starships needed fuel, and for the Earthforce vessels that meant hydrogen to power fusion reactors and thrusters, and Neptune, like all the gas giants, had hydrogen in abundance. Many years later, after the construction of the jumpgate near Io the importance of Neptune slipped as the Jupiter Mining Corporation stole the markets from Neptune's independent companies with its cheaper prices and shorter travel times. For those companies who sought to make a living outside the control of the megacorporation that the JMC had grown into, Neptune remained a popular destination, but no longer was it was the sole source of fuel for Earth's ever growing fleet of starships.
To the pilot of Susan's shuttle though, it still seemed very busy region of space indeed. Five large tanker ships filled his vision as the shuttle left the jumpgate and began the short trip toward the planet beyond. Carefully he threaded his way past the giant cylindrical shapes of the tankers and the smaller tender vessels bringing the hydrogen from the gas mines around Neptune. Easing back on the shuttles deceleration, he pointed it away from the main colony and headed out across Neptune's northern pole towards the research station. Behind him, the jumpgate flared again as a large commercial liner enter normal space, probably carrying a load of tourists bound for the museum, or maybe new workers for the mines.
Below, reaching deep into the gas giant's atmosphere, gas mines themselves could be seen, their lights resembling a sprinkling a tiny stars against the dark-blue surface of the planet itself. Thousands of metres high, the mineshafts stretched from the storage silos and refineries in the upper atmosphere to the collection sites deep beneath the surface. To the shuttle pilot they looked like gigantic needles, plunging into the surface of the vast blue sphere that was Neptune. At this distance, both they and the planet still looked small, but as the shuttle powered towards Neptune's dark side they loomed larger and larger in the pilot's view.
Eventually, after another ten minutes of travel, even they passed by and the shuttle was travelling over unclaimed atmosphere, heading for its destination, the research station Neptune-Beta. After the war with the Minbari, stations like Neptune-Beta had sprung up across the Earth Alliance, all devoted to expanding the EA's grasp of spacefaring technology so that never again Earth would be threatened with annihilation as it had against the Minbari. Neptune-Beta was one of the least secretive of these stations, but one that would eventually been used to produce the most powerful vessels that the Earth Alliance had constructed to date.
During the civil war, President Clark had been aided by dark allies, who had never truly been exposed to those back home. Using the technology of these aliens, researchers on Neptune-Beta had modified the standard Omega class vessels and turn them into the horrific vessels that Ivanova had encounter in a battle last year, a battle that had left her battered and dying. The vessels she had encountered though where nothing more than a modified version of an already existing vessel, but the had been the forerunners of a whole new class of vessel, the Warlock destroyers, widely rumoured to be the first Earth Alliance vessel that was capable of going up against a Minbari warship and surviving.
In a low orbit over the dark side of the gas giant, the Neptune-Beta complex looked like a dark spider's web of metal and silicon, spreading out across the atmosphere of the gigantic planet. Lights from the habitation cylinders and the construction yards gave the whole structure and eerie glow, something totally alien from the smooth dark globe that was Neptune in the background.
As the shuttle grew nearer, it was possible to see the outlines of three massive vessels filling the space of the construction yards. One, a strange dark-hulled vessel, which seemed to draw in light rather than reflect it, was moored near the far end of the station. Had the pilot been even closer he would have been able to see the name, EAS Warlock, emblazoned along its side, but one look at that vessel made the pilot wish that he would never be caught near it. Although he could not put a name to it, he had a feeling that something was very wrong with the vessel, something frightening and almost evil. Spotting the landing lights from the docking ring, he almost breathed a sigh of relief as he turned his shuttle away from the black-hulled vessel.
The other two vessels looked completely different, one was just a basic construction framework swarming with the lights of the workers and machines busy putting it together. However, when the pilot lifted his eyes to the third vessel he saw what it was they were working on building, a vessel of a type he had never seen before. It was long, easily as long as the Omega destroyers, but at the same time its hull was a lot larger, at least twice the width and height of the Omega's. The rotating mid-section that had contained the crew quarters and bridge on the Omega's was gone, and the whole hull looked smooth and clean. It was probably the most impressive vessel the shuttle pilot had seen in his five years of flying passengers around the solar system. He wished he had more time to examine it further but he was nearly at the docking ring and he did not think that he would be allowed to stay over the station's airspace on the way back to Earth, especially considering classified nature of much that was being worked on here. Even at this distance, he could see the spiky shapes of orbital defence platforms, ready to shoot down any unauthorised vessel that approached.
With a sigh of disappointment, he manoeuvred the large shuttle past the destroyer and with the controlled ease that came from experience, he fired the thrusters and carefully slipped the shuttle into the rotating docking bay he had been assigned. A loud clunk sounded behind him and with a jarring thud the shuttle came to a rest against the metal floor of the dock. Looking out the front window, he could see the clouds of rushing air filling the chamber as the atmosphere was restored. Behind a window across the other side of the dock, he could see a small collection of Earthforce officials waiting, probably for his passenger. Then remembering his duty, he spoke into the microphone to alert his charge that she had arrived and could get ready to disembark.