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Where The Stars Are Strange

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The flash of black fire from the Shadow vessel masks the stomach-dropping lurch as the rip in spacetime grabs her. Catherine's hybrid fighter whines, pained, as Cathy pours all the power of her remaining engine into escaping that jagged hole into nothing. She can hear Jeff over the comm, Get out, get out--! and the scream of the Shadow ship as it comes around, too close and too fast. She has a heartbeat to be glad Jeff insisted on pressure suits inside the new fighters, and another to decide that it isn't going to matter. Her control panel lights up in colours it shouldn't be capable of, everything tilts sideways, and the universe turns inside out.

And then utter silence. Catherine's vision clears to show her a clear starfield, turning slowly in front of her viewscreen, empty of either Shadow or Minbari ships. Half the control board is flashing danger, and smoke is creeping into the cockpit from her fighter's damaged left flank, but she's a lot less dead than she should be. Her earpiece buzzes static as she carefully nudges the fighter out of its spin. Cathy cycles through the comm channels, frowning. If her instruments can be trusted, she is utterly alone.

The hair-raising sense of weirdness she's felt all day in Sector 14 has disappeared as suddenly as everything else, and that makes her gut clench. She has to get back to the others, but where are they? As she bends to check life support readings, her hand brushes the time stabilizer on her suit. She calls up the star charts instead. She is--well, she's exactly where she was. Probably. Sort of. It is as if someone has taken all the stellar landmarks and shaken them slightly.

By several centuries. Into the past.

She doesn't panic, not right away. Her instincts kick in and she inventories her assets, turns the ship towards the nearest source of help. Maybe she has it all wrong, Cathy tells herself. She doesn't begin to freak out until she limps back to Epsilon 3 and the Great Machine is gone. She must be more than five hundred years in the past.

The ship that picks her up, just before she runs out of oxygen, is Minbari. The Warrior caste hasn't changed much in thousands of years, and she thanks God--and Valen, just to cover her bases in this place--that their language hasn't either. She's got an accent that makes them decide she and her ship come from one of the Religious caste fleets, but she can understand them. She tells them she was attacked by dark ships out of deep space, and they look at her like she's being overly dramatic. Alyt Kayinn's second accuses her of typical Religious obfuscation of things everybody knows, and that's how she finds out they're at open war with the Shadows.

"The Shadows took everything I love," she tells the Alyt. "In Valen's name, let me fight." She thinks they'll tell her to meditate away her anger before she's allowed to fly, but this is a Star Rider ship that's just had its ass handed to it by the enemy. No one here is looking for enlightenment.

The little Vorlon hybrid ship purrs when she slides back into the cockpit.

Cathy isn't sure of the precise date, but as best she can tell, the Mongol Empire covers half of Earth, and Europe is either dying of the plague or fighting over Jerusalem. The Warriors and the Religious caste aren't on much better terms, but the crew of the Khon'vah are a single focused blade. The warship launches fighter pilots in sets of three, and Cathy finds something of a home with a pair who has recently lost their third. They do not take to her immediately, missing their own, but others of the crew care less that she is a stranger and more that they rout more servants of the Shadows with the stranger's skills. Between her little fighter's ability to heal itself of most injuries and her own dogged determination, she earns a certain amount of respect for Katrenn the foreign pilot.

When the camaraderie starts to include her, it feels a little like Jeff's Rangers. It also feels like Earthforce in the early days of the war. The first time Cathy wakes from a dream where she is not sure if the enemy she's targeting is Shadow, Minbari, or human, the irony chokes her.

They are all fighting for people not yet born; it's only more personal for her. Every encounter with the Shadows leaves her more afraid for Jeff in the future, who doesn't know how bad it will be, whose Rangers aren't ready yet. We walk in dark places, she thinks, We live for the One, and wonders if Valen takes on aliens in his Anla'shok. Except no one here has heard of the man everyone in her time says saved them all.

She forgets the taste of pancakes and curry and red wine, and when she starts to lose English and Cantonese she decides to keep a diary. She writes down every word she can remember of Tlingit and Russian and Latin, too, and tries to picture the people she learned them from. Her own face surprises her in the mirror sometimes. She misses Jeff with a quiet low ache that she can't bear to think about for more than a few minutes at a time. They've spent so much time apart in the years they've known each other, but even when she was so angry with the man she never wanted to speak to him again, there was always the chance for reconciliation. She was going to marry Jeffrey Sinclair.

Two months after Cathy arrives, the Shadows blow the starbase they're operating out of all to hell.

Six months in, Cathy starts to wonder if somehow she's fallen into a universe where Valen never existed. For each Shadow ship they blow out of the sky, there seem to be five more. Cathy's no great strategist but she can tell Kayinn's people are losing this war. Her own history says they won, but then Cathy never expected that the fierce Warriors fighting and dying in the first Shadow War would be her friends. Without the starbase, Warrior and Religious ships cluster in small irregular groups, fighting scattered defensive battles and uncoordinated sorties. The Minbari have alien allies; some of them are on better terms with various Minbari commanders than the commanders are with one another. Alyt Kayinn's favourite Narn courier avoids Cathy--Centauri with hair like hers don't occupy his world but they aren't Narn's greatest friends either--which is fine with her. He's a telepath, and there's so much she can't let outside the confines of her own head.

Eight months in, the Alyt corners Katrenn in the launch bay after a battle and asks for the Religious tech that powers her fighter. Cathy thinks about the timeline and looks at her captain's drawn face, and doesn't have the heart to refuse her. But the little Vorlon hybrid vessel spits and sparks at her when she tries to take apart its weapons array.

She is helping to patch up one of the other fighters when she hears the first rumours. The Vorlons have created a starbase for them out of thin air. The man who rises from obscurity to rally the Minbari seems to have their approval, though rumours vary as to whether he's Warrior or Religious caste. Some say his mother was Worker. Cathy hears his name and thinks It's about time, and that, thank God, it looks like she didn't step on the butterfly that means they're all going to die, after all.

Valen's ship is a menacing black line against the stars. Light slides off its curves in unsettling greens and purples; even after the better part of a year with the Minbari, Cathy has to suppress a shiver when she peers up at it. Alyt Kayinn goes aboard to talk to the great general, but she deploys her fighters just in case something goes wrong. She comes back to the ship looking five years younger and announcing an agreement to work with Valen, and an unexpected request. He wants to meet Katrenn.

Nobody tells her why. When the two white-clad Religious Minbari come to escort her, they are polite and quiet, but Cathy has seen enough military guards in her life to be under no illusions that she has a choice about accompanying them.

They leave her at the doors to a pitch-black room. She steps into the circle of light. Minbari drama, she tells herself, but her pulse speeds up anyway.

"I saw you flying." Valen has a deep voice, strained with some emotion she can't place. "I wanted to know--" She hears him moving in the dark. "I've seen that ship before. I thought the pilot must be...someone remarkable."

What can he want from her? To hire her away from her captain? The voice makes her think of someone tall and grave. She stirs, stuffs her hands into her pockets.

She hears him stop pacing. "Is something wrong?"

She shakes her head. "I'm sorry. You reminded me of someone I used to know."

He's a big man, older than she expects, when he steps into the light. A handsome crest unfurls in small wings above his ears. His robes are brown and grey, and he wears a green jewel. "Good," he murmurs. "I was afraid the change took everything."

She doesn't realize what's out of place for a moment, and then she stares because Valen is speaking English, modern English, there's no way in hell--

"Oh, God, Cathy," Jeff says.

She stares at him, trying to see the man she knows in the thick Minbari brows and bare head. Is there something in the jaw, in the way he smiles at her? If it's a Shadow trick, does she want to know?

"Delenn's device goes both ways," he says, "They knew me, Cathy, they knew me at the Line, because of this."

When she steps closer, she can see that his isil'zha pin is the new kind, human and Minbari linked. There's a scratch on the jewel that she's fingered a dozen times, before. A scar on his cheek she's never seen. "How did you find me?"

"I saw you fall into the anomaly," he says, "You could have gone anywhere, any time, but I had to keep looking--"

Hope wins out and she takes the last two steps forward and clings to him. He murmurs into her hair and she can't stop touching him. There are no chairs--of course there aren't--so after a while they just sink down onto the floor and hold one another. Valen's aides find them an hour later, still clinging so tightly their hands hurt.

They sleep together chastely the first few nights. Skin to skin, in the dark, Cathy can almost pretend he's the same man who kissed her good morning in Tuzanor all those months ago. He runs his big hands up and down her back and tries to find words in any language to describe what has happened to him. The why is easier for him, harder for her. On the third night she straddles his hips on the angled bed that Valen sleeps in now. "Show me," she says, "Come on, Jeff," in the same voice she'd used to push her academy flight instructor against the wall for their first kiss.

Everything about him has changed except for his eyes, she thinks then. Even the way he arches his back, the set of his hips, the sound he makes deep in the back of his throat when she touches him, is fractionally different. Someday she might find this beautiful, but now she only wants him inside her because she needs to know him again. But the way he looks at her--hopeful, a little awkward, wanting so badly for this to work--is all her Jeff, and it's that that finally breaks her. She wraps her arms and legs around him and finally lets the tears come, for Alaska and Hong Kong and Skydancer in the hangar in Yedor, for the Rangers she'd known and every human she will never see again, and for Jeff.

He takes her to Babylon 4. It's grey and blocky and so beautiful she wants to kiss the industrial hull plating.

Valen's acquired something of a reputation for eccentricity among the Minbari. It's not a good thing, exactly, but it means she can marry him with the shortest of Warrior rituals rather than the longer ones they expect of a priest touched by Vorlons. "What took you so long?" she asks him, only half-joking.

"Ask Zathras," he says, "You have any idea how many times we stopped along the way?" He brushes her hair off her forehead; the Chrysalis wouldn't work for her, even if she wanted it. She calls him Jeff in private as much as she possibly can. He makes the "Katrenn" he has to say in public sound like her own real name. He is more at home in his own skin now than he ever was as a human.

She finds she can't leave the Khon'vah, any more than she can leave Jeff, but Alyt Kayinn is resourceful and driven and quickly becomes a pillar of Valen's new alliance. Cathy catches him watching her captain sometimes with a strange nostalgic expression, but all he says when she asks is that he was right about her. He chooses eight more for the first Grey Council.

The sunrise over the City of Sorrows turns the hills pale grey and pink on the morning they start to scout a place for the Ranger training grounds. Cathy drifts off to one side after a while and paces out a square of ground, looking up now and then to check the way the light falls.

"Here," she says when he comes to find her. "Right here."

They build Valen's house together.