Over one hundred thousand ships controlled by nearly three million crew gathered for what Sheridan, I, and Lorien intended to do at Corianna Six.
We expected—in as much as we could expect anything when doing that which was utterly without precedent—for the Shadows and Vorlons to recognize us and decide to grant our self-determination, or for them to deny us standing and kill us all. One or the other. Lorien said it expected the former. Most of us expected the latter. But if we did nothing, we would die anyway. So we tried to do what we could with what we had.
No plan survives contact with a superior enemy.
Our command staff had been scattered across nine ships to direct the battle portion of the engagement. Their orders were to fight to prove that every state would stand behind us at any cost. The fleet was to prove that point or die in the effort. Retreat was not permitted.
On White Star three, our own hands and minds were left free to do what was necessary to attract the attention of our opposite numbers among the Shadows and Vorlons, to deliver to them our message: we were no longer willing to be proxies in an ideological war fought for the glory of others.
Communications were lost with all nine command ships within seconds of both Shadow and Vorlon forces entering battle. We had hoped that was merely the result of an inopportune technical failure aboard our own ship. The ship reported itself as fully functional; Sheridan and the crew worked frantically to test systems to prove the ship wrong.
I made myself useful by remaining silent. I was not—and certainly am not—qualified act as a crew member of a warship.
Without our communications links we were almost completely ignorant of events around us. Our only information came from our ship's sensors – only bearing and spectra for every detectable object. But, short of aiming our telescopes at each contact, nothing more. We could make only educated guesses at allegiance, damage, or survivors.
Then we all heard a voice that yelled inside our heads: “Live with what you have done.” I could not tell if it was Shadow or Vorlon—I still do not know—but I could feel its contempt. Its anger. And its disgust. Aimed at Sheridan and I.
Lorien vanished from in front of our eyes.
Sheridan and I looked at each other with the expectation that we were about to die. Lorien was our only hope of surviving what we had started. Without it, we had little hope of securing the attention of the Shadows or Vorlons; and without doing that, we had no hope of doing any more than becoming the deceased refuse of a failed idea that the course of history could be changed.
The crew remained professional throughout. They knew what was at stake, but they also knew that any misstep could cost us any chance of survival, no matter how small, that we might have.
Slowly, the systems aboard ship were re-validated to the point that Sheridan would trust what the ship saw. It took much longer to accept what we saw.
Where the Vorlon ships had been there was now nothing.
Where the Shadow ships had been there was now nothing.
That would explain why we were still alive to contemplate the Universe around us.
Where the command ships had been was now only wreckage.
That alone was fifteen thousand crew. Dead. Instantly.
The utter horror of what we had survived emerged gradually.
It was an agonizing time of minutes until the ship's sensors completed a full sweep of the sky and made educated guesses to categorize all that remained.
Where a third of our fleet had been was now only wreckage.
That is what it took for Sheridan to break his professionalism. “Dear god. What the fuck happened here?”
If any of us knew, we would be explaining it. Was what we had suffered over? Where had the First Ones gone? Would they return? Did the rest of the galaxy still exist? We could not even begin to speculate.
Gradually, the mesh network that allowed the fleet to communicate reformed itself.
Contingency plans were put into effect to determine who held rank over whom. Situation reports were taken to verify that no threats existed, to aid those that were damaged and in immediate danger, to confirm that what we had seen was what all had seen, and to tally the numbers of the dead.
In an hour we knew more than we had. Everyone here had heard the same voice in their heads. Everyone here had seen the Vorlon and Shadow fleets vanish. And everyone here agreed that a third of the forces we had brought had been reduced to debris no larger than sand.
A million dead. In an instant.
So many lives. Gone.
One death is mourned. A hundred deaths are mourned. A thousand deaths are mourned. But a million dead in one instant atrocity—the mind is not equipped to process that. The response is only numbness.
But those of us who had survived, were safe now.
I unfastened my seatbelt and put my hand on Sheridan's shoulder.
I had never before seen him look so worn down; so devastated. This was not how things were supposed to happen.
But it was the best we could do.
Sheridan looked up at me and we silently agreed that he would stay here to help the fleet reorganize.
I motioned for my aides to follow me from the command room to the hangar that was serving as our office area.
My aides and I discussed what to say to the other survivors, Minbari and otherwise. The discussion was very much dominated by fear; fear that once we were close enough to settled space to communicate with the galaxy at large that we would learn that the rest of the galaxy would be in ruins; fear that even if that the Shadows or Vorlons had vanished they would soon return to destroy what they had left. But, those were things we about which we had no control. All we could do was deal with the present that was within our sight and knowledge.
We settled on acknowledging the living and the dead, but making little comment on the future we had survived to see. Because we did not know what shape that future would take.
We prepared a short prayer to be read to the Minbari who were here, and then a statement for Sheridan and I to read to the other races.
What I said to my own kind is this: “Those who were ours will be reborn into the future they helped create, in whatever form it will take. Those who were not ours died, without suffering, in the hope that others may live. There is no higher honour. All we can do now is care for the living.”
It was not something from Ritual and Practise, but there was hardly any precedent in the history of our civilization for what to say in response to what we had witnessed, and what remained for us to discover.
I took the statement we had written, for the benefit of the other races, back to the command room to show Sheridan. He was doing what he always did in times such as these: distracting himself with work. He was coordinating the salvage of the battle, ensuring that ships which were not fit to return to their home territories were evacuated; ensuring that ships which needed repairs were repaired; ensuring that ships which needed fuel were given it.
I asked him when there would be a safe pause for us to address those who had followed us into this fight and he had no answer. “I'll be finished when everyone who's still alive can make it home.”
I left him to the task that had become his calling. There are many things I wanted to say to him about the art of delegation and the importance of caring for the mind as well as the body, but it was not the time.
We all deal with grief in our own way.
I went back to the room that was my office, alone, turned down the lights, and kneeled in front of a single candle, weeping, for all of those who had followed me and had hoped for better. Had deserved better.
If the First Ones could vanish entire fleets at a thought, then we never had any chance but the one they gave us.
We were not children or even insects to them, but instead toys. Toys to be broken, put away, or preserved at their will.
* * *
In eleven hours Sheridan informed me that what remained of the fleet was stabilized. He was exhausted. But now was the time to thank all of those who had followed us to this end.
My aides set up a video camera—I still remember; it was fixed to a heavy tripod and wired to the ship's network with an awkwardly long orange cable—for us to deliver our address:
So many have died here today that their numbers are nearly incomprehensible. Their sacrifices must never be forgotten because their deaths were in the hope that others may not just live but live in a better future.
Do not thank us for bringing all of you to this point to do what we have done; thank those who have died for their sacrifice. There is no honour in leading others to death, but there is no higher honour than to die in the hopes that others may live.
What we will face next, as we return to our homes, is something we cannot yet know, but all that is important now, is to care for the memories of the dead and the welfare of the living.
We thank you.
It was certainly not a speech in the Human style, much less in the style of Sheridan's preference, but it was what needed to be said.
The time aboard ship was now night; Sheridan and I sat for a meal in the Human style. The food was excellent but we hardly ate more than nine mouthfuls between us.
That was the only way we could react to what had happened around us.
A million dead. In an instant.
The outcome at Corianna Six that was recorded by history is evidence that the Universe practises not its own form of hope but rather its own form of sadism.
* * *
Sheridan and I retired to the room where we both slept and established ourselves in beds that faced each other. I dimmed the lights to the minimum brightness for safety and closed my eyes. I did not expect to sleep.
“I keep running it all through my mind, Delenn. Was there anything I could have done differently? Were you and Ivanova right that Lorien was not to be trusted? Were the Bakari right that we're going to find that our homeworlds were blown to bits while we were distracted here?”
I opened my eyes and looked at Sheridan.
“This is not something we did, John. It is something that was done to us. We cannot blame ourselves for being the victim of an enemy so powerful. That is something that we had no control over. No matter what we find at our homes, we did the best we could with what we had. We have no choice but to deal with that.”
Sheridan rubbed his eyes with his hands. “That doesn't make it easy to deal with.”
“I believe that was the point. We were forced to accept that we have limits, and whoever killed so many of those who followed us knew that their deaths would be painful for us. They knew how to hurt us, personally, and they did.”
I said no more. I did not want to tempt fate by pointing out that things could have been, on a personal level, far worse. The First Ones could have killed one of us in agony, in view of the other, so the other would be forced to live out a long life in anguish and grief.
I looked at Sheridan.
Killing one of us to punish the other is largely what they had done. The killing had just been done before the battle. And the punishment would last, for me, for most of my life.
“Would you think less of me if I said I would execute Lorien if I could?”
Sheridan looked up at me.
I struggled to say something—anything—other than what was on my mind.
“Lorien could have stopped the Shadow cycles millennia ago but chose to do nothing, until the moment you landed on it. Hundreds of billions died because it lacked the initiative to stop what was happening. Some things, deserve punishment.”
“I dunno. I don't know how much complete aliens can be judged by our standards. Hell, you and I have enough problems understanding each other and we're both flesh and blood. To whatever Lorien is—or was—or whatever, we're nothing more than bacteria. We don't consider it xenocide to take an antibiotic.”
To anyone not Human I would have said that allowing xenocide of sentient beings must be unacceptable for any being to be worthy of life; but Sheridan was Human, and to say that would have been to go far too close to places we did not go.
“That is a perspective I can see.” That was all I said.
We lay in silence for a few moments.
“I wish you folks put a double bed on these things,” Sheridan said.
“Because I'd really like to go to sleep with you in my arms tonight.”
The Human habit of mixing the erotic with the comforting was something I had not yet become used to. I could have arranged something, but, in that moment, what he wanted was not what I wanted.
“Good-night, John, I love you, you who are the brightest star in my sky.”
* * *
Three days later there was nothing more to be done at Corianna Six. Those who would survive were ready to depart; those who had died were far beyond help.
Sheridan and I released the fleet components personally. Instead of speaking through interpreters, we memorized the phonetics to give the departure orders in the native language of each species' forces. It was a pointless gesture, but some cultures consider such things important, and leadership is often far more about perception than reality.
The surviving forces of the Rangers and those of my own caste were the last to leave. They would escort us back to the Babylon station, at which point the fleet would split; most would return to our home territory while others would remain as the station defence force. We did not know what the future would bring, but we were sure we did not the destruction of Babylon to be part of it.
We still had at least one enemy, in the name of Earth Alliance under the rule of President Clark, after all.
Sheridan and I were legends now, and as much victory over the Shadows meant that our lives no longer mattered to the course of history, killing us would be a victory for President Clark, cursed be his name, and his followers. And that is something neither of us wanted, not the least because it would lead to Earth dying in an an orgy of violence exceeded only by that which was the consequence for the killing of Dukhat.
* * *
From the vantage of twenty-five years later I am aware that many will be disappointed that I can offer nothing further regarding what happened at Corianna Six. But I cannot. I survived the Atrocity but I can say nothing more than what I have said and can contribute no analysis that would contribute anything of value beyond the millions of words that have already been written in the intervening years by scholars, philosophers, and dilettantes.
Lorien, the Shadows and Vorlons vanished on that day with no explanation. One million of us died. I can offer nothing further.
Some things are unknowable.
* * *
Some things became clearer once we became close enough to the developed galaxy to re-establish communications. The fact alone that there was still a Minbari extranet to connect to said much – that at least some of the populated galaxy did not lie in ruins.
At 118 bits per second—the most that could be sustained at our distance to the nearest communications relay—very short reports of status were slowly exchanged.
I was told four thousand emails awaited, from the entities that reported to me, on the homeworld and on the Babylon station.
It would take weeks for me to catch up.
And then I slowly realized that, simply having so much work outstanding meant that the home world and Babylon still existed.
Four thousand emails were no longer much of an inconvenience.
Everyone aboard ship celebrated, in a modest way. If nothing else, we would have homes to return to.
As we came closer to the communications relay, our transfer rate improved and, gradually, reports arrived of what had happened in the rest of the galaxy during the Atrocity.
We were not the only ones to witness the disappearance of the Shadows and Vorlons. The had seemingly vanished from all of populated space. Which meant, more or less, that we had won all.
Centauri Prime had been confronted with a Vorlon planet-destroyer but it, too, had vanished when the Vorlon fleet vanished from our sight. Which, I suppose, was a good thing for the Centauri.
Most of the Centauri fleet had been exterminated fighting, to no effect, against the Vorlon strike force. Which was a good thing for everyone who was not Centauri. The era of renewed Centauri expansionism would be over for decades if not longer.
Earth, seemingly, continued as it had, its leadership in complete denial of the conflict in which they had chosen the wrong side, and in complete ignorance by its population of what had happened in the past years. Their propaganda remained transfixed on the petty issue of the Babylon station's independence and on how I had 'corrupted war-hero Sheridan into becoming a traitor to the Human race.'
If one assumed, as often seemed to be the case, that the default position of Humans was to serve the interests of the Shadows then Sheridan was certainly a traitor to Humanity. And for that we must all be eternally grateful.
I told my aides I wished to hear no more of Earth unless something about them changed: I make no habit of listening to, or arguing with, noisy fools. They are better equipped at what they do and enjoy it more.
Babylon continued as it always did. My correspondence was mostly consular—visas, asylum requests, work permits, and so forth. That sort of thing I delegated to Lennier for all but the most questionable of cases.
The crews of the fleet that accompanied us began to relax, and to celebrate in less modest ways.
Ivanova, from a ship near us, congratulated Sheridan and I on a task completed.
On the home world, Dasraal and the others in the leadership of my caste extended to me their ritual congratulations on victory over the Shadows—and on my own survival. I extended to them my ritual rejection of praise by stating that all that was earned, was owed to the dead.
From my clan leader, Calenn, was only a broadcast to the women of our clan that permits for childbearing would be rationed for the next year to avoid overloading maternity facilities. Fears of a birth surge were instead wishful thinking on Calenn's behalf at best.
To say my clan leader and I had nothing in common would be an understatement.
The greetings from my personal friends were as one would expect. Mayan wrote me a poem. Masdrenn engaged in his usual habit of referring to me as 'furryhead'—something both unrelated to my hair and very unfitting for a man who was second in rank within my caste, but personal friendships among Minbari of very high rank are strange things.
Darshan, speaking—as she did in that era—only for the Workers, believed that I had done the best that was possible. She wished me well, but, with the Shadows defeated, the political alliance between our castes was also at an end.
The thick headed cowards known as the Warriors said nothing. Nothing at all.
My caste was again to stand alone against darkness.
* * *
Sheridan and I spent many hours discussing what, if anything, should be done about Z'ha'dum and Vorlon space.
Ultimately, we decided to very quietly surveil the territories of the Shadows and Vorlons but to otherwise leave what was found alone unless the need arose. Not knowing the circumstances of their disappearance meant that we were deeply unsure of how much we dared do to their former (?) territories without possibly provoking them into returning in force.
Two small wings of White Stars were sent to launch probes to surveil Z'ha'dum and Vorlon space.
The probes to Vorlon space were destroyed by the Vorlon defence system.
Which told us that the Vorlons might still be active. Or might intend to return.
The probes to Z'ha'dum encountered no signs of activity.
Which told us little.
I was sorely tempted to order Z'ha'dum levelled to molten crust but decided the risks of burning what appeared to be peace were too great.
Even twenty-five years later, history has yet to be conclusive about that decision.
Bombarding Z'ha'dum may have spared us the Drakh. Or it could have released them sooner. That is something we cannot know.
* * *
In our down time, Sheridan and I planned how we were to make our returning entrance to the Babylon station. Petty in comparison to everything else that had happened, but definitely essential.
Things would have been easy if we had unequivocally won: hands waved, in the Western Human fashion, to an assembled crowd; hands taken in the way my caste announces an engagement for marriage; perhaps a quick kiss if the heart moved us; and then nothing more. Nothing said and nothing done but a quiet retreat into privacy.
If we had lost we would not have been alive to return.
But this? A victory at a price so great that it deserved no official celebration? There was no easy answer.
The dead must be recognized, but we wished for ourselves as little recognition as possible. We did what we did, but what was won, was won on the work and sacrifices of those who followed us.
We needed, also, something that could be implemented quickly. The ceremony of my caste to recognize mass death, in as much as it was suitable for a million deaths, would take eighteen days to prepare. That would be too long for the other states to wait, even assuming that they would, in that era, have any willingness to participate in a ceremony of significance to me.
Things were different then.
We also needed a ceremony which drew nothing from Sheridan's native traditions. Only mere thousands of Humans had been with us against the Shadows. The broader Human culture had aligned itself to the Shadows, and, to be blunt, deserved no recognition at all.
Ultimately, Sheridan exposed a side of himself that I never before knew existed and devised a commemoration of his own making.
* * *
We boarded the Babylon station under cover of the internal darkness of its night cycle.
The plaza inboard of immigration was deserted.
Sheridan and I kissed goodnight.
His motorcade departed for the building he called home.
I decided to walk to the embassy compound where I lived.
The streets were normally quiet at this hour, but what they were now was quite something else.
Not one person walked the streets; few lights shone in the windows of the buildings I passed; the only sound I heard, above the drone of fans and equipment, where my own footsteps and those of my guards.
I ordered my guards to break step so we did not sound like an invading army.
We reached the food district.
Not a single bar, club, cafe, or restaurant was open. Even at this hour—unheard of.
I walked to the door of the nearest cafe; one I had often frequented in other hours.
A sign, in English, graced the door:
In recognition of the atrocity at Corianna 6 we are closed to observe two days of remembrance. We will reopen Thursday. Have a meal with someone you care about because the time you have with them will never come again. — Management.
I remember smiling when I read the last full sentence with the realization that my own words were being repeated in translation.
I walked among the establishments and saw much the same sentiments expressed elsewhere by businesses belonging to all of the races which were present on the Babylon station. It was a unified expression of grief driven by what had happened; a shared moment for all of us.
The Babylon station was not just a place but now a community bound by shared experience.
As much as the phrase began as a joke, we were all Babylonians.
I looked to the flagpole on the roof of my embassy building. Only the flag of my caste remained; with the end of our alliance, the flag of the Workers had already been brought down.
Beside my embassy the beginnings of a new foundation—for the embassy of the Workers—were being slipformed. Soon Minbar would speak with two voices.
Those of us who were here may all be Babylonians, but the list of those who were here was still fluid.
* * *
The next evening, Sheridan and I led a procession of remembrance from Embassy Row to the head of the River of Babylon. We started, carrying candles that would float, from my compound and walked spinward down the street. As we passed the embassy of each state which sent ships to Corianna Six, three representatives stepped forward to follow us.
By the time we reached the river we were 249 in number, walking silently in the evening light.
I reached the river and set my candle adrift into the current.
I recited the names of three who had been killed in the Shadow conflict: first Sheridan, then Sinclair, then the name of a member of my caste picked at random from the list of dead.
Sheridan looked at me as I recited his name; he knew well why I said it. But no one else did.
In the days that followed I was ridiculed for my choice; it was thought that I made light of those who had died permanently by grieving for Sheridan's transitory death at Z'ha'dum. But I remained silent and refused to defend myself. Sheridan did not, in that year, want his impending death known to others. It was not my place to break his wishes.
With what is now public about Sheridan's life it should not be difficult to understand why I named him first.
Sheridan followed in reciting three names as he set his candle adrift. The name of his second wife; one of the first people killed by the Shadows in a thousand years. Then the names, selected at random, of two Human dead from the ranks of the Rangers.
He had asked me if I objected to his naming of his previous lover; I told him I had no right to be offended. That we were close now did not mean that his life before we came together ceased to exist, or that it ceased to be important to him.
Lennier followed. He recited three names; how he chose them I do not know. And then I heard him whisper his own name. What he meant by that I did not know, nor did I ask. If he had wanted me to know, he would have said his own name in a normal voice.
That was the first suggestion to me that something was beginning to go wrong with the man who had been my trainee and confidant for so many years. By the end of the year I would know how wrong things had become.
Within hours the procession had finished. 747 names recited into the air. 249 points of light set afloat against the darkness.
And then all of us dispersed; most to our homes; some to seek solace in intoxication; and others to bury themselves in work.
We cleared the area quickly, so as to preserve the memory of what we had done here as one perfect moment; before the workboats of the station's staff cleared the candles from the river lest they start fires.
All is transitory.
All is transitory.
* * *
The next day Sheridan and I sat for a conversation to decide what we would do next, both personally and professionally, now that the war against the Shadows was seemingly over. It was a conversation we needed but I feared; because I knew what might be coming.
“John, what do you want to do now all of this, that we have done, has come to an end?”
We were holding hands as Human nearly-weds did.
“I can't say I expected we'd live long enough to ask that question.” He idly turned our engagement band back and forth around my finger. “I want to spend the rest of the time I have left together, but where isn't something I've thought about much.”
He continued, “I like the idea of waking up to the sounds of birds singing outside, you know, without worrying that one of those birds might be a damn drone sent to blow us up. And not having to worry if that extra star in the sky is a ship that's going to bomb us. And have the kids bring us breakfast in bed a few times a year.”
I smiled, in the way that I did when I found an idea that was taboo more alluring than I should. I finally understood what Humans meant by the phrase 'early retirement.'
“You would bore yourself to death within a week.”
“But wouldn't it be nice, just for a little while?”
“As a vacation, for weeks. But not as a vocation, for years.”
Or, at least not as a vocation for me until I am grey in the hair and bitter in the mind.
Even now, that is not something which nears.
“I don't know how much of a need there will be for us again—I mean, unless the Shadows or Vorlons come back, no one is going to need us to lead another galactic war any time soon.”
What Sheridan had said was very true. What we had done in the past week was change the course of history. Forever. But that was much like setting fire to the house in which we both lived. We had been put here, and brought together, for a purpose that no longer existed. And without that purpose, what use were we—and what use were any of the institutions, arrangements, and alliances we had both built to fight a war that was now over?
None that I could see.
And very likely none that any of those who stood behind me would see, either.
That was a much larger problem.
Sheridan squeezed my hand. I barely noticed. “Delenn, what's the matter?”
There was very little I could say about how what we had done might trigger events within my caste and state; in that era internal politics were not discussed with outsiders. I could not say that the presumed defeat of the Shadows meant the end of my calling, and with that, the end of what influence I had within my caste. I could not say that it was traditional for those of us who reached the end of their callings before the end of their lives to chose that moment to die. I could not say that the end of the Shadow conflict would mean the end of the tacit pact between Neroon and I that our castes would bury our differences for as long as the Shadows were active. And, I certainly could not say that I could do nothing to change any of this; until the future was decided by those above me—by those whose names Sheridan did not even know—I was no more capable of direction than the candles we had set adrift on the river a day ago.
I could only say as little as possible. And hope for the best.
“You are more correct than you know. After Valen's War, my people turned inwards and abandoned our contact with other races. Some of us even persecuted those who had brought us victory. What I say here, is that if history repeats, my positions, either as ambassador or entil'zha are by no means assured. And without my power base we are...”
“...Military governor and first lady of a rusting city of 125,000?”
“At best. I was taught to trust in the will of the Universe, John, but for the first time in my life I see no will for me to follow. You may have the retirement you want, on my homeworld, in the house I own, but it may only happen due to the reversal of almost everything I have ever worked for.”