Signs and Portents

Chapter Ten

The drakh were punctual, if nothing else. Precisely two hours after the signal had been sent, their fleet came through the Mass Relay. They made for Babylon 5 immediately, their frigates and cruisers forming up around the dreadnoughts and carriers, while the destroyers covered the flanks.

In the War Room aboard the Iwo Jima, Vega allowed himself a grin at the burst of panicked chatter apparently taking place between the station and the Defence Flotilla. The conversations had been recorded days before, and the apparently hasty movements of the small fleet actually placed them around the areas of B5 not covered by the retrofitted turrets and gun emplacements. So far, so good.

The biggest potential flaw in this plan was the possibility that the drakh sensors might be able to penetrate the dust and radiation of the nebula and spot the waiting ambush. The Council fleets relied on sensor buoys scattered throughout the system and linked by QE. This was how the waiting fleets were able to watch the unfolding battle. But if the drakh had the same tech, then the surprise the allies had for them would be a colossal failure.

However, it seemed that the ploy was successful, as the drakh threw their full forces against B5 and its visible defenders.

"So," Matriarch Lidanya noted. "they seem willing to sacrifice their smaller ships to get the dreadnoughts in range of the station."

"They don't seem to value their own lives any more than they do others'." Captain Traynor noted. "In their place I'd concentrate fire on the Flotilla on the assumption that they were guarding weak spots in the heavy defences. Which is, of course, exactly what Sheridan has his people doing!"

"I don't think they're that dumb." Vega remarked, then. "Ha! There go the corvettes! Making for the Flotilla posts. Clever. There's no way a capital ship can stop all those little guys. They'll slip through and skim the station hull, inside the firing arc of the heavy guns and take the turrets down with bombs."

"Fascinating." Remarked Admiral Keroon, of the Steel Claws. "We call that the Sky Walker Manoeuvre, after the extinct clan that invented it."

"Well, they're gonna run into one big shock!" Vega promised. "The StarFuries are waitin' for them!"

"That's what happened to the Sky Walkers." Keroon remarked. "Didn't the drakh agents aboard Babylon 5 warn them about the fighters?"

"Couldn't have done -classified Top Secret." Vega told him. "I'm a Spectre, with full clearance. I knew about the StarFury programme, but even I didn't know any had been deployed till Sheridan mentioned it!"

This would be a trial by fire for the new fighters, Vega knew. The StarFury programme had been born out of the perceived weakness of capital ships to attacks by co-ordinated squadrons of strike craft – a tactic the vorcha had used with some success. The fighters were interdictors, designed for close-in defence. Their boxy, stubby hulls supported four diagonally-placed pylons, each of which mounted an ion drive engine and a pulsed X-Ray laser cannon. Both engine and cannon were swivel-mounted, able to turn in a wide arc. A VI kept the engines aligned with each other, so all the pilot needed to do was move the stick. Each cannon had its own VI designed to maintain tracking on a target designated by the pilot, but able to shift aim automatically to meet a more immediate threat if required. The result was an extremely agile fighter, able to execute fast manoeuvres in a limited space, and to maintain targeting on up to four separate enemy craft while doing so.

While they were too manoeuvrable to be taken down by frigates or cruisers, the drakh corvettes were sluggish compared to the interdictors. Also, like the larger ships, they were low on armour and shielding. The x-shapes of the StarFuries danced around and among them, cutting them to ribbons.

Seeing their tactic fail, and despite the toll taken on their cruisers and frigates by the stations' heavy weapons, the drakh fleet went on to a determined, if reckless, all -out attack. It was the moment Vega had been waiting for.

"All ships, move out!" He ordered. "We have a go! Hit 'em hard!"

Everything went to plan. The quarian element closed with the drakh destroyers on the left flank, while four minbari cruisers, including the Black Star, took the right. The Alliance contingent, a dozen ships of varying classes, attacked the escort fleet, aided by the Defence Flotilla and the continuing barrage from the station.

"Captain Traynor," Matriarch Lidanya said, "the central dreadnought has an unusual structure on the upper hull…."

"I see it." Traynor said. "Looks like a conning tower. Jima?"

"It appears to be some kind of communications array." The AI replied. "I am jamming it, but they are cycling frequencies, I may not be able to continue if they begin to use ones outside our range."

"OK." Traynor said grimly. "We're running silent – if we can take down that tower, it will stop them co-ordinating their fleet. Matriarch, I'll need you to have my back?"

"I have it." Promised Lidanya.

Now as long as nobody on that dreadnought looks out a window…. Vega thought.

Nobody did, apparently, because the Iwo Jima swept up on the rear of the dreadnought, swung over it and blasted the comms tower into wreckage. As the frigate rocketed away, the Destiny Ascension cut loose with her main armament, destroying half the engine cluster. At the same time, Sheridans' dreadnought, the Agamemnon, joined the fight.

Traynor took her ship to assist the three minbari cruisers and a volus bombing frigate who were engaging another drakh dreadnought. Between them, they kept the big, lumbering ship occupied long enough for the Destiny Ascension and Agamemnon to deal with the first dreadnought and bring their heavy fire to bear on the second.

The third drakh dreadnought had fallen foul of the geth mining squadron. Five big, slow ships, designed to work in dangerous asteroid fields, in orbit above disintegrating planets and even in the coronas of stars. Their armoured hulls and heavy shields shrugged off the warships' fire as if it were raindrops. In return, they bombarded the enemy vessel with missiles and laser fire. With a ponderous grace, they surrounded the dreadnought, then unlimbered their mining projectors. These sent out powerful particle beams meant to slice asteroids and even small planets into rubble. They cut through the drakh hull like tissue paper.

With their most powerful ships gone and their command structure disrupted, the drakh nonetheless continued fighting, fiercely and recklessly, until finally only the carriers were left. With their squadrons decimated, and armed only for point defence, these ships were helpless. Vega and Sheridan held back, giving them a chance to run for the relay. But instead all three detonated themselves.

"Shit!" Vega said. "What kind of…?"

"A human should ask that?" Lidanya asked. "Many cultures on your world decreed, and even celebrated, suicide as a response to defeat."

"That was way back." Traynor responded. "We like to think we've grown up a little."

"A little, perhaps." Lidanya allowed, with the hint of a smile.

"Once again," Ashiara was saying, "we have seen how, by working together, we can overcome any threat. We thank all concerned.

"Most especially, we extend thanks to our newest associates, the minbari, for their prompt and valiant response to our request."

"My thanks, Councillors." Admiral Keroon, tall, spare, stern-faced, bowed, hand on heart. "However, we must not forget our primary purpose in coming here. With all respect, we must demand the return of Captain Draal and the cruiser Black Star."

"The Black Star is, of course, minbari property, and is yours to take." Councillor Vakarian replied. "Regarding Captain Draal, we have received representations from Commander Vega, Councillor Alenko and Ambassador Locutus concerning your likely actions toward him. May we ask for clarification?"

Admiral Sireen, of the Sky Riders, was not as old as Keroon, and her face and expression were hard, rather than stern. Her voice crackled with suppressed anger as she spoke.

"The code and customs of the Warrior Caste are clear. Draal besmirched the honour of his caste and our clan by requesting and receiving help from non-minbari. It is the duty of a minbari warrior to fight and die beside his clan and caste, or alone if necessary. It is our duty to answer calls for help from allies, true. But to accept help from outsiders in a fight which was ours alone shows only weakness to our enemies.

"This is unacceptable, and in order to preserve the honour of the clan, Draal must be relieved of his command. Given his actions both on this station and in the recent battle, we will not be stripping him of rank. He will be assigned to a more suitable command, and will have the chance to redeem his standing in due time.

"Should anyone here disagree, I am prepared to defend my judgement in combat!"

"Dumb." Grunt remarked. "Real dumb. 'Cause if that's a challenge, I accept it and I promise I'll hand you your skinny minbari ass!"

"Nobody's throwin' out any challenges here!" Vega interrupted. "As Captain Draals' CO in the skirmish, I'm responsible for his actions. He was acting under legal orders, against known hostiles, and that's that!"

"Even if we accepted that argument, as I am inclined to do," Keroon said, "the fact still remains that Captain Draal sent out a distress signal before you arrived, Commander Vega. That such a signal was sent is not, of itself, proof of weakness. The fact that it was not sent on secure, coded channels only used by our fleets, however, but on open channels, indicates a willingness to accept help from anyone. That is the core of the disgrace, and that cannot be answered for by anyone except Draal himself."

"We do not dispute your authority, Commander Vega." Sireen stated. "You are a Council Spectre and carry command authority among the minbari as you do among other Council and associate species. Had you happened upon the situation accidentally, or become aware of it by other means, there would be no case. It is in the fact of sending out a call for assistance that could be answered by non-minbari that the dishonour lies."

"May I confirm that it is you intention to reassign Captain Draal?" Councillor Vakarian asked. On receiving an affirmative from Sireen, he continued. "Well in that case, I believe we can resolve the matter and save you a job.

"Captain Draal, step forward, please."

Draal, who had said nothing so far, came to the railing which separated the Council from the rest of the chamber. Garrus bent a stern gaze on him and announced.

"Draal of the Sky-Riders, by order of this Council you are hereby appointed to be an operative of the Special Tactics and Reconnaissance Corps, with all rights, duties, privileges and responsibilities this carries.

"Do you accept this honour and burden?"

"Willingly." Draal replied.

"Then it is so ordered." Garrus confirmed. "As of this moment, you are the first minbari Spectre!" He turned to the minbari admirals. "Does that resolve the issue?"

"With honour to all parties!" Keroon affirmed. "Do you agree, Sireen?"

"I do." She assented. "That said, I would probably agree with anything that helped me avoid a duel with a krogan!"

"Maybe you're not so dumb." Grunt allowed. "Can we get something to eat now?"

Jima and Captain Traynor had hacked the drakh systems during the battle and downloaded as much data as they could. The key finding was the location of the drakh homeworld and the two colonies they maintained. They also discovered that the drakh had committed almost their entire remaining fleet to the attack on Babylon 5.

"It seems their masters -whoever they might be – had all but abandoned them." Traynor told Vega as they lay snuggled together. "It was only a few years ago that they ordered the drakh to start building ships again and to prepare to attack Council races. Just about the time that the Vorcha War ended. Coincidence?"

"Hell, no." He replied. "Somebody out there – the Shadows or whatever they call themselves - doesn't like the idea of the Council and all these races being allies. They think we're a threat to them, or maybe they just don't like the way we do things.

"But the drakh are finished, there's a fleet leaving Palaven tomorrow. Turian, Alliance, salarian and quarian ships with krogan and geth ground forces and asari commando special forces. With luck, the drakh will pack it in. If not, their funeral."

"True enough." She allowed. "But why does this feel like it's only the start, James?"

Hugo Schmidt was aware of the weight of history he carried. The Night Watch was only the latest in a line of brotherhoods that stretched back to the 12th Century. From the Knights Templar had come the Teutonic Knights, from them the Illuminati. The Illuminati had, under the leadership of Hugos' famous ancestor Johann Schmidt, the Red Skull, become HYDRA. From HYDRA had come Cerberus and now the struggle had been taken up by the Night Watch.

The aims had not changed. The establishment of humanity as the dominant race in the Galaxy was only a part, and not the most important. The true goal was to breed a superior race of human, the Overman. A true human, bereft of conscience, above morality, answering only to himself and his peers and subjecting all others to his rule, simply because he was able to.

Schmidts' predecessor, the Illusive Man, had dragged Cerberus off course in his quest to control the Reapers and use their technology to improve humanity. The correct route, Schmidt believed, was via breeding. He himself was the product of generations of controlled breeding that had begun when the Red Skull founded his own version of the Nazi Lebensborn organisation. He still carried some of the modifications passed on from the serum which had changed his ancestor into a superhuman. These had been preserved through the generations, and, in Hugos' case enhanced by the genetic engineering techniques of the late Henry Lawson.

The result was an almost perfect type of the Aryan ideal. Tall, broad-shouldered, slim-hipped, with blond hair, chiselled features and cold blue eyes. Far from typical in an age where interbreeding meant most humans were dark-haired and brown-eyed. Humans such as the man standing before him.

"Mr Morden, we had assumed you dead." He remarked.

Morden smiled quietly. "Death is not always the absolute state people assume." He replied. "Consider your predecessors' work on Commander Shepard.

"I see you keep a portrait of Shepard here, close to that of your ancestor, the Red Skull."

"Shepard was one of us." Schmidt said, turning to look at the portrait. "Nature, or accident, still sometimes produces superior types, and Commander Shepard was one. He never reached his potential, his damaged childhood and flawed military training left him at the service of men and women far inferior to himself. Except for his mentor, Admiral Anderson, who was another superior but damaged man."

Morden put his head on one side. "I would have thought that Andersons' race would have told against him."

"That was the Hitler Theory, that only one race could produce superior humans." Schmidt said. "The Red Skull, like the Illuminati who came before him, understood that any race can produce superior humans. The key is purity of breeding, keeping the races separate and unmixed. It is the mongrelisation of humanity that has left us unable to dominate the Galaxy as we should.

"We have the techniques now to regain that lost purity, and to accelerate the natural process of evolution. What we lack is the power to make our changes happen. Now you tell us your new associates can help. What do you offer?"

"What do you want?" Morden asked.

On a small dark planet, alien beings spoke in clicks and rustles.

"They are small. A mere crumb of what they once were."

"They will suffice. A pebble may start an avalanche, if it falls in the right place."

"The humans are now at the foundation of this Council. But a crack in the foundation is often enough to topple the edifice."

"Why the humans? The krogan served our needs before, why not again?"

"The krogan are no longer what they were. They have tasted defeat, and will not risk it again. They also will not permit themselves to be manipulated any longer."

"What of the Unseen Ones? They threaten us directly, in a way no other race can."

"They are a new part of this community. Not long since, they were perceived as an enemy by all. It will take only a little to reignite that hatred."

"So you say, but we have doubts. We have waited too long this time. In former cycles, this did not matter, as the Reapers would return and we could begin again. But now the Reapers are destroyed. The cycles have ended. We must succeed this time, permanently, or fall forever."

"Not so. If defeat seems certain, we can end the cycle ourselves, whenever we choose. Our opponents will not confront us directly, the rules of the game forbid it."

"Our opponents are not the only ones who can match us."

"The others will not intervene either. The Leviathan no longer care, so long as we leave them be. The Q have left this plane. The TimeLords have their own law of non-interference, and will merely watch.

"If we cannot bend these races, this cycle, to our will, then we will cleanse it and begin again!"

Matriarch Tulina did not like to sit in the presence of the vorlon. Not only was it impolite to sit when her visitor clearly could not, it was also disrespectful to the being she had come to see as a mentor. For over seven hundred years, Tulina had followed her faith, rising to become a leader among its' adherents. But it had been centuries of painstaking study, not inspiration. To find that inspiration after so long was a gift, and Kosh had given her that gift.

Now, however, he was asking more of her. For the sake of her faith, she was willing to do more, but she was still asari, and she wanted to know why.

"Why the humans and krogan specifically?" She asked. "The others are already showing signs of greater interest."

"The others already understand the basic need for order and unity." Kosh told her. "But krogan and human resist."

It was true, Tulina admitted to herself. Many krogan still placed their clan before their people as a whole, and resented even the enlightened dominance of Clan Urdnot.

As for humans, they were almost the plague her mother had considered them. Incredibly fertile, they already outnumbered most of the other races – even free of the genophage, the legendary krogan fecundity was barely comparable. But beyond that, many humans struggled with the concept of unity. The race seemed to have a deeply-embedded resistance to authority. They made a cult of freedom and independence – for communities and individuals. It was even institutionalised by them. Commander Shepard, humanitys' greatest hero, had been a maverick, prepared to disregard orders and discipline to follow his own code. Historically, much of human history had been made by other such people- rebels, individualists, even traitors.

"Then we must redouble our efforts." She agreed. "It will not be easy."

"The most difficult task is the most rewarding." Kosh replied.

Being the Shadow Broker meant being ahead of the game as much as possible. Liara had already had some information on the narn and centauri, but was now in a position to get much more. Current intel she could make use of when needed, of course, but being Liara T'soni, she was more interested in the historical records. In particular, those dealing with the drakh and their mysterious masters. Her people among the military forces now dealing with the drakh would take care to get all the information they could to her, but she might as well make a start with what she had.

Not that there was a great deal. The narn had had no dealings with the drakh, only the centauri. They hadn't known the extent of the attacks the Empire had faced, only that the centauri had withdrawn from Narn in a hurry and never returned. As for the Shadows, if it were not for the ship Na'Toth had discovered, they would have remained only folklore. Respected folklore, playing as they did a major part of the writings of several Prophets, but still only stories.

The centauri knew more. It appeared that the centauri-batarian war had been a short but lively affair. Though technologically and militarily superior, the centauri had been at peace for so long that their senior posts were now held by competent administrators rather than experienced soldiers. The batarians had made significant inroads before the centauri had managed to adjust their hierarchy. The result had been a decisive but not crushing victory for the Republic.

However, matters had barely settled before the drakh had launched an all-out assault. Their suicidal recklessness was even more of a threat than the brutal tactics of the batarians had been, forcing the centauri to abandon much of their Empire to reinforce their core worlds. Nevertheless, they were holding their own, until the Reapers came. The advent of the Reapers did not diminish the drakh aggression, and the result was that only a remnant of the centauri people survived, having fled to their last redoubt -the world they now occupied.

That world the Reapers had ignored, or not reached before their defeat. The drakh, with their now greatly-diminished fleet, had attempted occasional desultory raids. But they seemed to have lost their fervour. Captured drakh, for instance, stopped committing suicide and seemed resigned to their fate. Under interrogation, they simply complained that their masters had abandoned them, left them adrift and without purpose.

These masters had occasionally been seen by centauri. Strange black vessels that intervened in battles, not to end, but to prolong them. Powerful warships that appeared from nowhere, wrought havoc, then vanished. Information recovered from drakh databases held hints, small pieces of information that it took Liara days to piece together. Orders that came from other sources than drakh command. Messages to leaders giving strange directions about who to kill or spare or to take prisoner. Instructions to place 'Keepers' on certain people and then release them. A series of coded co-ordinates that seemed to point to the Rim, beyond Terminus. A name -Z'ha'doum.

Place or person? Liara wondered. Even she had few resources that far out. There was only one person who could prosecute a search in those unknown spaces, and even he would need time. Time they may not have.

The End

The story will continue in When the Shadows Fall