It was the dawn of the third age of mankind – ten years after the great war between the nations of Terra and Minbar.
Fifth Fortress Babylon was a dream, given form. Its creators intended it as a way to prevent another war, by creating a place where all the people of the great nations – Terra, Minbar, Centaurus, Narn, and even the mysterious recluses of Vorlon – could work out their differences peacefully.
It serves a port of call – home away from home – for all sorts of travelers: diplomats, hustlers, entrepreneurs, and wanderers. It boasts a great marketplace where all the goods of the world were traded, provides sanctuary to those in need, and serves as the one neutral place in the world - a walled garden where the seeds of peace could be nurtured.
Representatives of all the people of the world, surrounded by two million, five hundred thousand tons of solid stone . . . all alone in the night, the one light that shines brightly for all to see.
It could be a dangerous place, but it was the world’s last best hope for peace. Once there had been other beacons, but they had all gone dark, and the people of Terra lost interest in building any more of them, in inviting other nations to help build them.
This is the story of the last of the Babylon fortresses. The year is 2258. The name of the place is Fifth Fortress Babylon.
Knight Commander Jeffrey Sinclair knew that his post as the marshal of Fifth Fortress Babylon was a hollow honor, a poison tucked inside a sweetmeat. He still had friends in high places, it was true, but his enemies outnumbered them – and even his friends were unwilling to stick their necks out too far on his behalf. It suited all of them to allow him to deal with the thorny problems Fifth Fortress Babylon faced until he either solved them – at which point Sinclair fully expected to suffer a sad but fatal accident – or until the problems solved him. Some days he was unsure which option sounded better, but Sinclair found he simply could not quit. If he quit, his enemies won – and the odds of a sad but fatal accident increased. Terra’s newest leader, Elector Santiago, made many flowery speeches about the potential of Fifth Fortress Babylon, but Sinclair had seen no changes in either treasure or importance for his post.
Sinclair greeted the challenge of each day with a vow to simply do his best, in the best tradition of the mystics who had educated him.
His position reminded him of a troupe of traveling acrobats he had seen once, and how they had performed some truly amazing feats, such as leaping blindly through hoops of fire and walking on a thin rope stretched between towers, with no net to catch them. Somehow, those men and women had made it look effortless, as if they did not know that a fall would be enough to break their bones and steal their breath. Sinclair was unsure whether he walked on a tight line or leapt through flaming hoops, but he knew that one fall would likely kill him – and put the few people he trusted in danger for their support of him. Supporting him could be dangerous as well, but while there was breath in his body, Sinclair could protect the few people he called friends.
So he told himself that he simply must not fail. More importantly, he believed in the idea of Fifth Fortress Babylon, knew that it deserved more than lip service to empty ideals. It deserved someone who truly believed in it.
Sinclair believed in Fifth Fortress Babylon.
Once, he had believed in himself and his future – as had any number of people. His father David had been a fine and honorable knight who served his leader bravely and was killed when Jeffrey was old enough to remember him, still young enough to miss the man in shining armor who threw him in the air and made his mother smile. The Elector of the time had called his knights to do battle with a rogue nation called Dilgara, and David Sinclair had gone forth with his shield to do his duty.
His widow Gildea and his two young sons had received that shield back with the Elector’s regrets. It hung in his family hall today, a symbol of service and sacrifice. Gildea was a scholar of literature, and she gave her sons a great love and appreciation for the beauty of a good story, and its ability to help them take refuge inside their own imaginations. But she also taught them the rules of crafting a story and helped them to understand how stories could be used to deceive, how skilled wordsmiths could cloak unpalatable truths in a veneer of charming lies, and how to read a story with more than one set of eyes – how to enjoy a story even as one searched for the truth within. He had not realized it until he was much older, but his mother’s teachings were just as important as his father training him how to swing a sword. Maybe even more so, Sinclair thought sometimes. He would welcome an enemy he could defeat in a simple swordfight.
David Sinclair was not the first of their line to fall in battle, and Jeffrey Sinclair had a premonition that his father would not prove to be the last one who died in that fashion. From time past remembrance, the men of their family had been knights, warriors who fought in support of the causes of their land and their Electors. In time, Jeffrey had followed in his father’s footsteps, fighting for his Elector when the people of Terra made a grave mistake. They had grown over-proud and incautious, believing that their dominance of the Dilgaran people and their easy relations with the Centaurians would set the mold for all such relations.
They had not been prepared for their first meeting with the warriors of Minbar. The knights of Terra had been arrogant, too full of their earlier victories to see the Minbari for the dangerous threat that they were. They had underestimated the war magic of the Minbari, sorcery that made the most skilled human sorcerers look like children chanting “Abracadabra.” That arrogance had almost cost Terra its very existence. The war with Minbar had changed everything – for Terra and for Jeffrey Sinclair.
Jeffrey Sinclair, the knight who was captured after making a brave and futile attempt to ram a Minbari siege engine at the last stand Battle of the Line, trying to make space for one last desperate sorcerer to cast one last desperate spell to save all they loved. In his heart, Sinclair had not expected to survive, but had wanted to make his inevitable death in the final hours of the war count for something more than more pain for his widowed mother. He had refused to think that his mother would not survive, of the very real possibility that no one would survive.
Jeffrey Sinclair, the knight who had been inexplicably released by the Minbari after being held prisoner for an entire day and night, just before the Minbari came to the table not only offering peace, but eager for peace, eager to end the war on favorable terms. There had been a lot of suspicion at the time, but Terra’s leaders had wisely decided not to look the gift horse in the mouth. In many ways, Sinclair thought, it was an uneasy peace. Many Minbari warriors had reportedly wanted to continue fighting a war they could have easily won, but the Minbari leaders had decreed otherwise. Sinclair had heard them referred to as the Grey Council, but not much else was known about them.
Jeffrey Sinclair, the knight who had stumbled back to Terran lines injured, disoriented, and unable to remember anything that had happened since he lined up to ram the siege engine – not even being captured or interrogated or tortured, although he thought it was likely he had been questioned. It was as if his mind had been made blank. He simply could not remember any of it.
Jeffrey Sinclair, the loyal knight who too few people now trusted. He had been honored, as had all the survivors of that battle, with the special medallion that still hung in his spartan quarters, and treated as a hero.
But Sinclair heard the whispers, and knew that he needed to walk carefully, knew that his life would never be the same. Some said that the Minbari had cast a spell on him, although Sinclair could see no reason why. He was a skilled knight, a passable poet, a man who valued knowledge for its own sake – but he was simply not special to anyone besides his mother.
All of these things had set his feet on the path he now followed. Jeffrey Sinclair, hero of the Line, chosen to safeguard the last of the Babylon fortresses – a decision driven by the Minbari.
He wished he knew why his feet had been set on this path, where that path led, but he also knew that even if this path ended in fire and death, he would walk it to the very end.
At least, Sinclair reflected as he sat in the garden watching the sunrise illuminate the towers of Fifth Fortress Babylon, he was not walking the path alone. He was unsure if he believed in destiny, but he felt something had put certain people in his path. Fifth Fortress Babylon was a crossroads for people of the many nations, but Sinclair had found it was also something of a crossroads in his own life. He was not without friends and allies – some that he had brought here and some who had found him.
Michael Garibaldi, the most paranoid man-at-arms he knew, was here to guard Sinclair’s back and wrestle his own demons. The two of them had saved each other once after being betrayed by the same forces, becoming closer than brothers in the process. There were few people he trusted more, although the young female knight Terra Forces had sent to be his second-in-command was quickly becoming part of that group.
Sinclair was under no illusions that the powers that be had sent Susan Ivanova to him for her best interest. She was as hot-headed as he remembered being in his own youth, but she was learning to control her temper and be more watchful. If he had to fight another battle, however, Susan Ivanova was definitely the person he wanted to watch his back. For one, Ivanova knew something about secrets. Sinclair thought he might know hers, and he would guard it as closely as one of his own. He hoped that she would eventually feel safe enough with him to confirm his belief. The young doctor Stephen Franklin, the son of one of Terra’s fiercest warriors, was also a valuable ally, knowledgeable about medicine and military matters. He did not quite count the resident sorcerer, Lady Talia, as a friend, but Sinclair was fairly certain she was not his enemy. The Sorcerer’s Guild, however, was another story altogether.
Love had found him here as well. Catherine Sakai was one of the few women who had dared to join the ranks of Terran knights, and she and Jeffrey Sinclair had shared a definite spark. Although Catherine had found another path besides Terra Forces – the path of an explorer and guide – her work had brought her to Fifth Fortress Babylon. Their relationship was nothing like the love stories he had grown up on at his mother’s knee, but Sinclair knew that he would not trade it for anything in the world. He and Catherine might brangle and fight and yell, but he had come to understand that such friction was part and parcel of the passion they shared. Catherine might infuriate him beyond words at times, and he might spend sleepless nights wondering about her safety, but he was quite sure that he could not survive without her.
Then there were the unlikely allies he had found here. Delenn, the senior Minbari representative at the fortress, was the most unlikely of all. He had avoided contact with Minbari since the Battle of the Line, so he had been quite surprised to learn that they had requested him by name. On the one hand, it only gave people who already did not fully trust Sinclair more reasons for that distrust. On the other hand, his study of the Minbari culture since he came to Fifth Fortress Babylon had convinced him that the Minbari were people of honor.
He found their meditation rituals soothing, and their poetry was fascinating – Delenn had recently lent him a volume of historical poetry by one of their most famed poets. Some of their fashion choices were a little strange, such as the open-faced helmets they wore, shaped like shells, and just the thought of the crown-like headpieces both sexes wore over short cropped hair gave Sinclair a headache, but on Delenn it was quite graceful. She was the first non-warrior Minbari he had any real contact with, and he found their discussions to be quite enlightening. Delenn was also the one member of the fortress’s council who Sinclair could generally count on to be rational, calm, and supportive.
She was certainly easier to deal with than Londo Mollari or G’Kar – the Centaurians and the Narn had been fighting viciously since before the Terrans encountered them, and Sinclair suspected that the two nations would fight until one of them was destroyed. Certainly, that seemed to be the attitude of their two local representatives. Sinclair had confided in Ivanova that he would not be surprised if they were one day found with their hands around each other’s throats, both of them dead. The Centaurians had some bizarre hairstyles as well, teasing it out to form a halo (the bigger the hair, the more important the Centaurian was), but while they could be drunken fops, Sinclair had a healthy respect for their fighting talents. The Narn were also fierce fighters, hard-eyed barbarians who favored reptile-skin armor, and Sinclair respected them as well. At least he knew that if he had to fight a Narn, it would be head on with plenty of warning. The Centaurians favored less-direct methods, such as sharp knives in dark corners or poison slipped into a wineglass. Separately, either one was fairly easy to handle, but together they were a headache worse than any hangover Sinclair had ever experienced.
And then there was the Vorlon representative, Kosh. Sinclair had no idea what the Vorlon even looked like – in his experience, no one did. They were a reclusive people, and when Kosh did attend the council, he was swathed in veils that obscured his features. The Vorlons were rarely willing to join the council or take action in concert with any other group, but Sinclair had learned that they preferred to deal with problems in their own fashion that rarely made sense to Sinclair. Others might pose and posture, but the Vorlons could act like lightning when they felt like it. The trick was figuring out what motivated them. They had sorcery unlike anything he had ever seen, and Sinclair was glad that the Vorlons seemed to be on Terra’s side. For now, at least.
Fifth Fortress Babylon was many things, but it was never boring. As was his habit, he watched the sun rise over the fortress – his fortress – while he let his thoughts wander, wondering what challenges today might bring.
The weekly council meetings were rarely boring. Even when the business was routine, there were all of the various conflicts – most notably the Centaurians and the Narn. Sinclair had a certain amount of sympathy for the Narn, who had spent a long period being ruled and enslaved by the Centaurians, but his patience was limited. G’Kar was unable to let any bad act of Londo’s pass unmentioned, and he was always trying to gain an advantage over his adversary. G’Kar’s hands were none too clean, despite his continual attempts to claim the moral high ground. Sinclair was also painfully aware that if the Narn had the chance, they would crush the Centuarians into dust. Their most recent conflict was centered around a troupe of Centaurian acrobats that included a member who was made up to resemble a Narn – and used as the butt of several rather crude jokes. G’Kar, of course, was incensed that the suffering of the Narnish people was being mocked, and threatening violence if the troupe did not leave. Londo’s response had been to proclaim the troupe under his personal protection, and the two of them had nearly come to blows.
Today, however, the biggest surprise came from Delenn. When all of the routine business had been handled – Sinclair only had to raise his voice once – she stood. It might be just his imagination, but she seemed ill at ease to Sinclair.
“A courier brought word this morning of the death of one of Minbar’s greatest warriors, War Leader Branmer,” Delenn announced to the council. “As part of the mourning ceremonies, his remains will be carried to all of the major Minbari population centers, beginning with Fifth Fortress Babylon.”
Sinclair was somewhat taken aback. He rarely considered it in such terms, but there was a sizable Minbari population in the fortress. War Leader Branmer had been one of the chief strategists of the war between Terra and Minbar, and to all accounts he had been an honorable warrior. Sinclair had heard rumors that he had withdrawn in recent years due to his anger over the peace, but very little was known about him. “Will you require any assistance or special arrangements?”
“I do not believe so,” Delenn said after a moment. “The display will be held in the Minbari quarter, although non-Minbari are also welcome to attend and honor his memory. The escort party should arrive tomorrow afternoon.”
“We will be prepared to render appropriate honors,” Sinclair assured her. “Is there any other business?”
When no one spoke, Sinclair brought down the gavel he used to preside over the meetings. He waited for the rest of the crowd to disperse. Delenn remained in her seat for a moment longer.
“Shall we walk in the garden?” Sinclair said after a moment. It was not his imagination, he decided. Delenn was ill at ease.
“I would appreciate that,” she said quietly.
Sinclair sat on one of the benches and watched Delenn examine the newest addition to the garden, lush red roses with a heady scent. His mother had sent the cutting to him, so that there would be a little of the Sinclair manor here in the fortress.
“These flowers are quite unlike any that we grow in Minbar,” Delenn said as she closed her eyes and inhaled.
“They are beautiful,” he agreed. “You seem troubled, Delenn.”
She drew a deep breath but said nothing. Sinclair was beginning to wonder if she was going to say anything when she finally spoke. “The party escorting Branmer’s remains is being led by the Shai Alyt Neroon.”
Sinclair knew that name and could understand her apprehension. Shai Alyt Neroon was certainly no fan of Terra and had made no secret of the fact that he felt Minbar should have completed their conquest. He was a fearsome warrior and rumored to use dark magic to ensure his success. Sinclair was unsure if he gave any credence to that, but he certainly did not want to have to fight the man.
“We will be prepared to receive the Shai Alyt with all appropriate honors.”
“I anticipate he will be…difficult,” Delenn said. “He and Branmer were great friends, and he will be mourning his personal loss, as well as the loss for Minbar.”
“Did you know Branmer?” Although he considered Delenn a friend and ally, Sinclair was aware that he knew very little about her personal life.
A slight smile played about her lips for a moment. “I was honored to count Branmer among my friends.”
That was intriguing. The Minbari were divided into three castes – warrior, religious, and worker – and from what he understood, inter-caste relationships were relatively rare, particularly between religious and warriors. “Allow me to offer my condolences on the loss of your friend, Delenn.”
She inclined her head. “Thank you.”
Sinclair rose. “I bid you good day, Delenn.”
“Good day, Knight Commander Sinclair.”
Garibaldi and Ivanova joined Sinclair in the rooms he used for official business. He made it a point to meet with them daily, so that they could discuss any issues that arose.
One thing that was never in short supply in Fifth Fortress Babylon was issues.
“Shai Alyt Neroon?” Garibaldi started pacing the office. “I’ll be sure to have the honor guard heavily armed.”
“I want them turned out in their best tabards,” Sinclair said, choosing to ignore Garibaldi’s sarcasm. “We will render all appropriate honors. And for the love of all that is holy, keep the quarrel over the acrobat troupe confined to the Centaurian quarter. The last thing we need is for that to spill over and cause embarrassment.”
“The three of us,” Sinclair continued, “will also be turned out in our best tabards.” He chose to ignore the grumbles from Garibaldi. “We will also attend the visitation and pay our respects to Branmer.”
Ivanova cleared her throat. “Are we going to permit the Minbari to retain their weapons during this visit?”
“I think we have to,” Sinclair said slowly. “They will be ceremonial weapons-“
“A ceremonial sword can still run a man through,” Garibaldi said darkly.
“I am sure everything will be fine. The last thing we want to do is give Shai Alyt Neroon the impression that we do not trust him.” Sinclair was far from sure that everything would go well but insisting on disarming the Minbari was definitely a step in the wrong direction.
It was quite a display, with two columns of Minbari warriors mounted on magnificent steeds, in gleaming armor and black cloaks, on either side of the black draped casket. One man walked before the casket, leading a riderless black horse. Sinclair had not realized how widely that tradition had spread. Sinclair, Ivanova and Garibaldi waited at the drawbridge to the fortress with Delenn, who wore magnificent gray robes that were very different from her usual muted blues and greens. The three Terrans wore their best dress uniforms, navy blue with silver embroidered tabards over them. Sinclair noted that Garibaldi had chosen to wear a mail vest underneath his uniform. He hoped that the Minbari did not notice.
“Behold the remains of War Leader Branmer,” a voice boomed as the procession halted. Sinclair had not realized the imposing man leading the horse also carried an enormous war axe by his side.
“On behalf of the Elector of Terra, I welcome you to Fifth Fortress Babylon,” Sinclair said smoothly. “We are honored to bear witness to the remains of War Leader Branmer.”
Shai Alyt Neroon inclined his head as Delenn stepped forward.
“Welcome, Shai Alyt Neroon.” Her voice was melodious, but Sinclair noted there was no trace of the uneasiness he had seen the day before. “We have prepared a place for Branmer, if you will follow me to the Minbari quarter.”
Sinclair watched the procession file by. It was impressive, with the armored warriors riding by in utter silence, except for the sound of the horses’ hooves. A movement at the edge of his peripheral vision caught Sinclair’s attention, and he turned to see the silent veiled form of Kosh standing there. Was the Vorlon watching the procession? What had brought him out of his usual seclusion?
It was most unusual.
Sinclair only hoped it did not mean trouble.
“We have trouble,” Susan Ivanova said breathlessly as she burst into Sinclair’s quarters. “Branmer’s body has disappeared!”
Sinclair lay down the book he was reading, grabbed his own mail vest. He had a feeling it might come in handy. “What do you mean, disappeared?”
“When they went to open the casket for the ceremonial viewing, it was empty. It was apparently not guarded, as they believed it would be safe in the Minbari quarter. Shai Alyt Neroon is furious and threatening everyone, including Delenn.” Susan cleared her throat. “There was a rather large fight between Centaurians and Narns in the marketplace two hours ago, requiring pretty much all of our forces to break it up.”
“Let me guess, over the acrobats?”
She nodded as they headed towards the Minbari quarter. He could hear Neroon from quite a distance, and picked up his pace.
“I expected incompetence from humans, but this is an outrage,” Neroon thundered as soon as he saw Sinclair. “I will search every corner of this fortress until Branmer’s remains and the guilty culprit are found. I will –“
“You will calm down,” Delenn said in a sharp tone he had never heard from her. “You will allow Knight Commander Sinclair to give the orders.”
“We will begin the search at once,” Sinclair said. “There are not many places that a body could be hidden, and surely someone will have noticed.” He sensed Ivanova shifting uneasily behind him and lifted his hand. “I will keep you informed of our progress.”
Once he and Ivanova were safely out of earshot, he turned to her. “What were you thinking in there?”
“You said there aren’t many places to hide a body, but that assumes Branmer is still in one piece.” She looked at him, worry plain on her face. “What if that is incorrect?”
“We’ll keep our eyes open, but there was no need to give Neroon any more suspicion than he is already entertaining. On that note, have a runner you can trust go to the Pakmara encampment just outside the walls, and make sure that they don’t have any new finds.”
Ivanova swallowed, going a little pale. The Pakmara were scavengers, rumored to be cannibals on occasion, and made their living by selling junk. Their encampment was not a pleasant place, but the thought of the Minbari discovering that Branmer’s remains had been defiled was worse. “Where are you going?”
“I’ll be supervising the search,” he said over his shoulder. “The public one, at least.”
Ten hours later, Sinclair was running out of ideas. It seemed that the entire fortress had been searched, with no luck, no clue, no sign. Neroon had even invaded Sinclair’s own quarters, claiming it was the one place that would not be searched otherwise. Sinclair wondered what he had made of the poetry book. At least the Pakmara angle had been ruled out, he thought with some relief.
It was as if Branmer’s body had never been there at all, and Sinclair found himself wondering if that might be the answer, if this might all be some clever plot to trick Terra into antagonizing Minbar. He discarded the idea, however – that sort of plot was not the sort that would be carried out by a man like Neroon. Neroon and all eight of the honor guard vouched for the fact that Branmer’s body had been in the casket.
Finally, armed with a scrap of fabric he had cut from the inside of the casket, Sinclair sought out Lady Talia, hoping her gift of magical vision would be able to help.
She took the scrap in bare hands, running it between her fingers. “You know I cannot promise anything, Knight Commander Sinclair?”
He nodded. “I know.”
She closed her eyes, still fingering the fabric. This was not the first time she had used her gift to aid him, but the part of him that still believed in prayer was hoping for a miracle. Sinclair had no illusions about what would happen if they could not find Branmer’s body, and he had no desire to fight Neroon.
At long last, she opened her eyes. “Have Delenn’s quarters been searched?”
Sinclair stared at her, thinking that perhaps she was stalling, trying to find a way to let him down easily. “What do you mean?”
“I cannot get a vision of Branmer himself,” Lady Talia explained. “What I keep seeing is the wall hanging that hangs in her quarters.”
Sinclair closed his eyes. Of course Delenn’s quarters had been searched.
Or had they?
“What would I find behind this wall hanging if I moved it?” Sinclair kept his voice low and calm.
Delenn looked at him steadily. “What could possibly be behind it?”
“A clue to the location of Branmer’s body.”
There was a moment of absolute silence before Neroon exploded. “Is this what you have been reduced to, Sinclair?”
Delenn said nothing and lifted the hanging. Sinclair saw the one stone that seemed out of place almost immediately, and reached out to press it, jumping back as the floor started moving almost beneath his feet. He could see the shrouded body in the passage concealed beneath the floor.
“What is the meaning of this, Delenn?” Neroon’s voice was quite calm now, almost too calm.
“I was honoring the wishes of a dear friend, wishes that were being ignored by the warrior caste. Branmer did not want this…display. He wanted peace.”
“You have no right-“ Neroon started towards Delenn, who held up her hand.
“I had every right. Someone needed to do the right thing, and it will be done.” She raised a hand. “I have obtained a lifelike figure which will be placed in the casket, and you will ensure that no one gets too close to the casket. It is the only way to honor Branmer’s wishes and Minbar’s needs. His body is to be cremated and scattered over Lake Tuzanor. In this matter, you will do as I command.”
Neroon stared at her.
“You will do as I command. Leave me with Knight Commander Sinclair.”
Sinclair found this turn of events hard to believe, and could only hope that Delenn had some sort of explanation. When they were alone, she turned to him.
“Please accept my apologies. Fifth Fortress Babylon was the only place that the change could happen without anyone knowing.”
There were a number of questions he wanted to ask, but Sinclair settled for the most pressing one. “What was Branmer to you?”
She smiled a sad smile. “He was a very dear friend, and more. Branmer wished to disavow the warrior caste, but he feared it would cause unrest. Now, he can have peace.”
That night in his quarters, Sinclair lifted a glass of port and contemplated the book of poetry Delenn had lent him.
Neroon and the honor guard were set to depart in the morning, with the figure of Branmer reposing in the casket. But something was still bothering him. Neroon had given up far more easily than he would have expected, had deferred to Delenn despite the traditional rivalry between their castes.
Delenn had looked very different in the stark grey, her features impassive, her voice sharp…very different from the Delenn he discussed poetry with. Neroon had accepted her authority.
The mysterious Grey Council…
Sinclair almost dropped his glass.
“Surely not,” he said aloud to the empty room.
Why would a member of Minbar’s ruling council come to Fifth Fortress Babylon?
“Surely not,” he repeated, as if trying to convince himself.
But somehow, he knew he was right.
The question was, what did it mean? He would simply have to watch her as carefully as he did everyone else.