2260.03.21.0713 ... New Ranger base in the Delphi system on the border between Earth Alliance and Minbari Federation space
"Susan?" I stepped into the fighter bay, senses alert. "Susan, are you in here?" Usually I didn't have any trouble finding my wife and partner, but she seemed off grid today, much to my annoyance. Additional annoyance, I should say, since I woke up alone this morning. That's the third time this week. I stepped up to the Ranger fighter that she's been modifying to carry two people. "Susan?" There was still no response. Opening the hatch, I climbed up into the cockpit and looked around. There was a faint light from the engineering access panel at the rear and I stopped in to find Susan asleep in the cramped space on the floor, her head pillowed on a tool bag.
My annoyance melted away at the exhaustion on her face, although I didn't plan on letting her know that just yet. I gently shook her shoulder. "Susan, why are you sleeping in here?"
She rolled over on her back and sleepily opened her eyes. "Hmm? What time is it?" She yawned widely.
"It's a quarter past breakfast, that's what time it is." I was sure she could sense how I felt, but I put just a little edge in my voice for emphasis. "Why on Earth didn't you come back to bed last night?"
Susan rolled to her feet gracefully. "I'm sorry," she said sincerely. "I wanted to get this last engine tweak finished." She gave me a peck on the cheek. "I really didn't mean to fall sleep here."
"You aren't going to get this damn thing done any faster if you burn yourself out working on it," I replied with some asperity. Then in a gentler tone, "And with you spending so much time training the new officers, I feel like I haven't seen you hardly at all for weeks except on the nights you come in late and collapse in bed too exhausted to move."
"I know," she paused and looked down. "It's just that we have so much to do yet." She rubbed her face with both hands, and then looked back at me somberly. "I have this heavy feeling... Somewhere out there the Shadows are moving and we aren't ready." We looked at one another silently for a minute then she seemed to shake the mood off and touched my mind with contrition and gratitude for my concern.
I couldn't stay even pretend-mad at her. I pulled her into a hug and wrapped her mind up in my own, taking some of the burden from her shoulders. She allowed it for only a moment, then with a spark she joined with me in our private version of Unity that encased us in the sparkling mirror-like bubble of our own little universe. The Minbari of course have a word for it, they call it Na'Shag, One Soul. After a several long minutes of wordless sharing, I reluctantly disengaged. "Come on; let me get you some breakfast."
"You don't have to do that," Susan objected when we got back to our quarters.
"Oh, but I want to," I gave her a cheeky grin and waggled my eyebrows. "Or maybe I just want to keep an eye on you." I traced a light finger down the side of her face.
"I've never given you cause for concern." Susan slipped her hands around my waist and nuzzled my neck.
"No, but you don't see all the people mooning over you." I let my own hands start to wander.
She growled. "That's because I'm too busy kicking the butts of everyone watching you." She nipped me lightly and I squirmed in her grasp.
"You had an awfully long night," I said innocently. "Are you sure you don't want a nap?"
"I've decided what I want breakfast." I gasped as she swept me off my feet and into her arms, and headed towards the bedroom. "And it doesn't include napping." I wrapped my arms around her neck and let her carry me.
With all the timing you would expect from a hostile universe, the comm unit chimed.
Susan set me down gently and sighed. "Ivanova. Go."
"Sech Turval wants to see you," spoke the voice of one of the younger Rangers. "Something has come up."
Susan laced our fingers together as we walked through the base corridors. I kept happily silent the whole way. She had never been one for public displays, but she had started to relax since our Minbari-style marriage ceremony and was doing this sort of thing more frequently.
A young man was with Sech Turval when we arrived. He was barely out of his teens, but with a firm jaw and a grim mouth. He bowed to us in the Minbari way, which we returned.
Turval smiled at us benignly. He greeted us in Minbari fashion as Wintova, joining our names as our souls were joined. "Allow me to introduce you to Anla'Shok Moss. Tell them your story, Shok-zha Moss."
The young man swallowed hard, but his voice was steady. "My father was a mining engineer. He went to work for the Cole Mining Company on Arisia III about a year ago, taking my mother with him. I was at school on Earth at the time. A little over six months ago, the Shadows destroyed the Arisia colony, killing everyone. So I joined the Rangers." He took a deep breath. "My father's sister works in the mine on Ganymede. She just sent me a coded message. They've discovered a Shadow vessel buried there."
Susan and I looked at one another. I had a sick feeling in my stomach and Susan touched my mind comfortingly.
Turval put a kindly hand on Moss' shoulder. "Anla'Shok Moss of course wanted to immediately go and investigate, but he must finish his training, and I felt that perhaps your talents would be best suited for the task."
Susan and I bowed in unison. "Yes, Sech Turval," I said.
"Well that doesn't sound too difficult," Susan said on our way back to quarters. "Head to Ganymede, talk to the lead scientist."
"You're forgetting the part about the Shadow vessel," I said dryly. "I knew we'd encounter one sooner or later, but I would have preferred later."
"Well you could stay behind," Susan said in a carefully neutral voice, shrugging her shoulders casually. "This is an easy one."
I could feel the hope behind the thought. It wasn't that she didn't want my company; she just wanted to spare me the upset. I kissed her cheek. "I said I'd never leave your side, and I meant it."
Getting to Ganymede was easy enough. For the right number of Earth credits, the Captain of the ore hauler wouldn't see or hear anything.
Once it landed, we stayed hidden until the crew debarked, then slipped out. We Joined hands and minds and looked around carefully. For having such an aura of mingled anticipation and dread, the spaceport was surprisingly empty. Its pale gray walls matched the drab landscape of dust covered ice outside.
It did not take long to find Moss' office at the back of the building. The door opened quickly after we knocked and we were pulled brusquely inside. The office belonged to a middle aged woman of medium height with gray hair that looked windblown and bright almond shaped eyes. She was wearing clean if worn coveralls and light boots. Once we were in she glanced around the port quickly before jerking her head back in and shutting the door.
"I didn't think you guys would get here this soon," she said looking us up and down approvingly. "This place has been weirder than a Thakallian cat with three tails and two heads."
"Winters and Ivanova," I said, indicating myself then Susan. "What's been going on?"
She nodded at us each in lieu of handshake. "Who the hell knows? They found a morbidium lode and bored for deeper core samples. The drill hit something about 100 meters down and stopped. At first it appeared to be just an electrical short, but when they went over to examine the drill, the operator and everyone else touching it were dead." She looked sad for a moment then shook it off.
"They shut the whole place down to investigate until some mining company manager showed up and did a lot of yelling about production and made them power up again, everything except the morbidium drill." She started pacing restlessly. "The very next day an IPX bigwig showed up with a Psi Cop in tow, sent the manager away and shut everything down again."
She paused and I prompted her to continue. "What happened then?"
"They brought in a couple of big excavators and raised that thing to the surface." She stopped pacing for a moment. "That's when the creepy nightmares started." She looked down at the floor. "Everyone within five kilometers has been getting them. An unearthly scream and images of a ship like they've been showing on ISN; that's when I knew it was one of those things my nephew has been telling me about."
Susan usually lets me do most of the talking, so I was surprised when she asked, "What have they done about all the miners?"
"They moved all the men out to the furthest barracks. After a day or two, they allowed work on the outermost shafts only, but everyone is still restless and production is a fraction of normal." She went over to a dust covered window and brushed a clear spot in the middle. "See that dome to the left?" she asked, pointing. Susan went and peered out.
"They brought four of their top xenoarcheologists with a bunch of equipment and built a research facility over the thing. They've been analyzing it non-stop night and day since they finished."
Susan seemed about to say something else when Moss dropped heavily into the chair behind her desk. "And then there's yesterday's commotion."
Moss looked right at me. "Dr. Mary Kirkish, their lead scientist, disappeared."
Convenient. Just the person we wanted to talk to, Susan said silently. I agreed. "Any idea where she's gone?" I asked.
"Either she's hiding here well enough that the Psi Cop can't find her, or she's dead, or she's left Ganymede. The only ships leaving over the last week have all been going to Mars, so that's where they're looking." Moss opened a back door to her office carefully and glanced around before exiting and waving us after her. "Let's find someplace to stash you guys for the time being."
"If we needed to get to Mars, what would be the fastest way?" Susan asked quietly. Our assignment was to speak to her after all, so if she had left, we would have to follow her.
Moss thought for a minute as she led us down a long bare hallway. "There's a supply ship due in about twelve hours; that would be your best bet."
Twelve hours was enough time. Susan and I exchanged a glance. We need to get over to the dome and check things out, she said in my mind. Reluctantly, I agreed.
While Ganymede's thin atmosphere was almost entirely oxygen, it wasn't exactly breathable by human standards. But we had Minbari style breather masks in our kits, and Moss left us in a small locker room that the pilots used to clean up between runs. After a little exploring we found two of the protective suits that the miner's used out on the surface.
We set out, picking our way cautiously through the rugged terrain. We could see the rim of an impact crater a few kilometers away, its dark jagged peaks silhouetted against the full bright face of Jupiter. It was beautiful in its own stark way and I paused to appreciate it for a second before Susan urged me on. We kept to shadows as much as possible, the brightness of Jupiter providing light almost equal to normal daylight.
"Susan, what's morbidium?" I asked and we picked our way across the jagged icy surface.
"It's used to make the firing coils in PPG's," she replied. "Even though Ganymede's crust is almost entirely ice, the meteor impacts in this region have churned up large rock formations from the rocky mantle below. They mine them for all kinds of minerals, not just morbidium." She jumped down off a small boulder of ice and turned to give me a hand. "But morbidium is one of the most lucrative ones, so they'll go to considerable lengths to find it."
Which probably explained why someone would set up a mine in this inhospitable place, I thought. I shivered in the bitter cold that seemed to seep through my protective suit.
It was only about a kilometer to the research dome, but it seemed to take hours to get there. The dome would seem to get closer but we would go around wind-sculpted ice formations and it would seem to be further away again. Finally we went up a rise of choppy ice that was like trying to walk up a sand dune, sliding back partway with each step. Susan and I hung onto one another for balance the whole way and I was panting with exertion when we reached the top.
We paused to catch our breath and looked down on the dome complex immediately below us. The wireframe and clearsteel dome sparkled with faint frosty crystals in the light of Jupiter. A sprawling cluster of pre-fab buildings surrounded and cradled the dome in its center. Dimly through the clear dome we could see a large strangely-shaped dark object.
After a few minutes, we picked out way carefully down to the complex. Susan poked her head cautiously into the first building we encountered. "Water reclamation, looks like," she said. "They must melt down the ice and purify it."
It was deserted. We passed it by and made our way to the next building. Going around the corner we saw a curved oblong structure that hugged the arc of the dome, apparently attached. Susan gestured towards it. "That'll get us in pretty close."
We slipped to the closest entrance on one end of the long building and found it unlocked. The door had a light seal lock, nothing like the airlocks you'd have in space, but just enough against Ganymede's atmosphere. We slipped inside and Susan lifted her breather and took a cautious breath before signaling me that it was safe to breathe. I removed my mask and sniffed the air. It was still and sterile, and didn't have all the normal smells you'd expect from human habitation in a closed environment.
This building also appeared to be deserted. We found a conference or projection room that looked unused. There was a cafeteria and break room full of gleaming coffee pots and never-used serving trays. We wandered through office after office all with brand new desks stocked with the usual office supplies, but not one personal picture or memento was to be found.
I was feeling vaguely uneasy about the place when Susan said, "This place is giving me the creeps." It was uncanny how she could echo my thoughts, even when our minds weren't touching.
After the offices, we came to a high ceilinged foyer and the main entrance. It was stark and utilitarian, but it could have been full of brightly colored and raucous Soomian swugs and we wouldn't have noticed. Because the wall to our right was the clearsteel wall of the dome and afforded us a perfect view of... It.
Roughly horseshoe shaped, it had long projections of various lengths coming out of the sides and back. Like a vast spider, if spiders had eighteen legs. The skin was deepest black, but if you looked closely enough there was a pattern on it. It wasn't so much another color, but rather a change in reflectiveness that gave the appearance of cracked glass when the light shifted over it.
While the building we were in was deserted, there were people in the dome. The floor around the ship was strewn with instruments and sensing equipment of every shape and size. The researchers moved around purposefully, not looking at one another and thankfully not at us.
After silently observing for a long while, Susan said, "It sounds kind of like Kosh's ship."
I looked at her in surprise. "What do you mean?"
"Kosh's ship whispered. We had to keep all the maintenance personnel out of its bay because it talked to them in their sleep and scared them. But I liked listening to it." She nodded towards the black vessel. "The vibrations are slightly different, deeper and darker somehow, but I can 'hear' it the same way."
I had never gotten close enough to Kosh's vessel to experience that, so I opened my mind to see if I could pick anything up. It was there, but I was distracted from examining it by the minds of all the researchers. Every single one of them was reciting the same mind numbing chant. "Mary had a little lamb; its fleece was white as snow." It was the chant that telepaths repeat over and over to prevent their thoughts from leaking out to be casually scanned. But none of them were telepaths.
I shared this with Susan. "Isn't there supposed to be a Psi Cop around?" she asked. "Maybe they're afraid of him."
"Maybe," I said doubtfully. There was something here that I just couldn't put my finger on. "But perhaps it has something to do with the dreams Moss was telling us about. If people five kilometers away are getting nightmares from this thing, imagine what it must be like to be this close at all hours."
I held my hand out for Susan to take, and we slipped into Unity. The world shifted and clarified to our sight, the innumerable properties of matter and energy adding colors beyond the visible spectrum to everything within our perceptual range. We had been working to increase that range and extended our senses to their maximum.
There's the Psi Cop. He stood out against the background of other minds like a beacon. We passed over him lightly, searching for any stray thought that might give us any information on what they'd discovered about the ship or what had happened to Dr. Kirkish.
We were about to give up when we touched something alien. No adjective exists to fully encompass the obsidian glacier which we sensed. It was as frigid and empty as the vacuum of space, as lightless as the void beyond the galactic rim, and at our touch... it awoke.
It was the Shadow vessel and it cried out at our touch, a piercing scream that lanced through us painfully. Frightening, and yet frightened; awoken before its time. It was so alone, with a childlike fear of that loneliness, and it tried to latch onto anything, any mind. Trapped in perpetual sunless shadow, we were the closest solace it could find. It reached into us and we projected comfort. We rocked with its righteous hurt at its abandonment; we burned with its righteous anger at its betrayal. It quickly became too much for us and we tried to pull back, but discovered we could not.
Pitch, we decided, was a good adjective... light absorbing, sticky and entrapping. For every pull of ours away, long ropy tentacles entwined us further; tendrils of us and tendrils of it bleeding together around the edges like colors on a palate. It tightened and coiled snake-like around us; the more we struggled in our panic the more entangled we became and the stronger we were held. We inhaled its darkness and it filled us, merging us further into the stygian depths of its consciousness.
We were lost for an uncounted time until an intense cry of possessive wrath slashed across the bonds that forged us to the alien consciousness. We were entrapped and helpless against the furious psychic pounding, not even able to cry out. But the Shadow drew in the Psi Cop too, and soon he was fighting it with a violent roar and a thunder of psi energy. We were buffeted painfully from both sides, caught in the crossfire. Eventually even a Psi Cop must tire however and in his weakening struggles, a pulse of our own will that must have come mostly from Susan's warrior heart lanced out. In the sudden wildfire that ignited, we finally burst free of the Shadow, the Psi Cop escaping with us.
Tired he may have been, but he enough energy left for us and gave us no time to recover. He probed again and again, short sharp jabs that kept us off balance until our Unity dissolved and were once again Talia and Susan. "Come on," Susan gasped, "We have to get out of here." She dragged me bodily to the door, helped me put my breather back on, and we plunged out into the thin atmosphere of Ganymede.
Before long I stumbled and fell to the icy ground, so exhausted and numb that I could hardly move. The roaring darkness still filled me and I knew Susan was shouting something at me, but I couldn't hear and couldn't move. My last memory was being hoisted over Susan's shoulder in a fireman's carry, and then everything went blessedly quiet.