The crack of the bat brought him back to Earth. John looked up to the sky, but there was no way he was going to be able to pick out the flight of the ball now, with the glare of the sun to contend with. Maybe if he had been paying attention in the first place, he could have tracked the pop-up straight into his glove. As it was, he ended up just sort of running around aimlessly, and the ball hit the dirt a good five feet in front of him.
"For Christ's sake, Sheridan!" He'd had a respite from Coach K during basketball season, when she helmed the girl's volleyball team, but now she was back, meaner and louder than ever. "You look like a chicken with its damned head cut off out there. Take a lap."
"Sorry, Coach," he said by rote. He'd probably said it a dozen times since practice had begun. John tossed his mitt to J.P. and took off, meaning to use the lap exactly as Coach K no doubt intended - to get his head back in the game.
He'd been thinking about Esme. Not in a romantic way, not even in an interested way. He'd been thinking about her, and about Lindsay, too, for that matter, and wondering what was wrong with either of them. Attractive women, each in her own way. Bright, charismatic. Certainly interested in him. So why didn't he feel anything for them? Why did he look at them and be able to recognize they were beautiful, but just not care? The answer was, there was nothing wrong with them. There was something wrong with him. It was all well and good to have fallen in love with Delenn - he would never regret that, not for as long as he lived - but was it normal to not be attracted to Human girls anymore? It didn't seem normal. He felt oddly like a...sexual deviant or something. Just last week a man in Mexico City had been arrested when a routine search at the spaceport had uncovered thousands of hours of Minbari porn on his crystal drive. The official charge had been "seditious and treasonous behavior," implying that he was a spy and the porn was a cover, basically, but everyone knew the truth. Here was a guy who was sexually attracted to Minbari, likely in contact with others who were similarly attracted. And he had been arrested for it, and was even now languishing in jail. What about John, who'd actually had sex with a Minbari? Their relationship hadn't exactly been a secret. What must everyone think of him?
John rounded the last turn and headed for the dugout. He kept an eye on the faces of his teammates. They'd been playing together, most of them, for over ten years. This season had been their finest ever, and they were one game away from the state championship. By this point, they weren't just a team, they were practically a single player, one man in fourteen different bodies. As he returned from his lap, he should have been greeted by taunts and catcalls. He should have had a sound slap or two on the ass, maybe a shoulder punch. Instead, he got a weak smile from McCarty and a cold shoulder from everyone else. Had this been happening for weeks and he just hadn't noticed before?
He was painfully aware of how alone he was, sitting on the bench with the rest of the team as they listened to Coach K berate them for wasting her time. Her eyes never landed on his, instead sliding over his face as though he were just an empty space between McCarty and Clifford.
John packed up his gear after practice, taking his time. He dragged it out, just wondering what would happen. No one stuck around to walk back with him to the locker room. By the time he reached his car after stowing his gear in his locker, the lot was empty. He might as well not have been there at all.
A week before the senior prom, the team played in the State Championship game. They went to extra innings, and finally won 4-3 in the thirteenth, on a sacrifice fly to left. John had been in the warm-up circle at the time, and he watched the graceful arc the ball made, glad that he hadn't been the one at bat. He wouldn't have been able to stand everyone pretending to be happy for him. It was better to just hang back, smiling and cheering even though he was mostly ignored, celebrating the team he no longer felt a part of from a safe distance.
Almost a year to the day earlier, EarthForce black ops had been in the middle of tunneling from the New Corning mine on Orion 7 north, toward the archipeligo of Soo-yun. Later, they would not be able to determine what had gone wrong. The wrong charge had been calculated, perhaps, or the density of the rock above was greater than they'd suspected. In any event, the bulk of the mine had collapsed, killing every single one of the black ops team, who had been registered as Earth colonists, average miners out to make a fresh start. EarthGov immediately blamed the Minbari, accusing them of sabotage. And so the tensions began.
Now, a year later, as John's team was buying ice cream to celebrate the victory, a second black ops team completed the final weapons installation in the Potemkin village in Soo-yun. The new tunnel stretched almost eight hundred kilometers, from the secondary city of Ancyrilla to the far northern tip of the continent. There the concrete shells stood waiting. They would appear, from satellite imagery, to be a new Earth colony city. Nsedu would announce that the construction had been kept secret, since the city stood so close to the polar island, where the Minbari colony was located; EarthGov had not wanted to deceive anyone, but with relations between the species as they were...
And no one, not even the vast majority of the colonists on Orion 7, knew what was trundling up the tunnel to the edge of the narrow strait between the land masses. Only twenty-six kilometers separated the Minbari from the fake village. The Minbari wouldn't have time to finish processing the data before the bombs were falling on their heads.
Six days before prom, John recorded two messages. One was for the Friends of the Minbari. In it, he explained in greater detail his idea for a space station to be shared among all the various species in the galaxy. He used all his notes, even the ones that weren't much more than scribbles on random pieces of paper. He was keenly aware of the faces behind the camera, but most especially that of Esme, smiling at him proudly. It was the expression his imaginary Delenn had worn, that night at the station.
When he went home, John recorded the second message. "It's been a month, Delenn," he said, unable to keep his voice free from anger. There was bile in the back of his throat. "A month. I can't believe, after everything we went through, that you would just drop me, just like that. That you wouldn't even say goodbye. I could have understood it if you'd never sent me a message at all, if you had decided after you went home that you had to just move on with your life, but after three months of sending messages back and forth you just stop one day? I can't believe you would do something like that to me. I never would have guessed you to be capable of hurting me like this."
John shook his head, wanting to tell her he was taking a girl to prom this weekend. Not just any girl, but Lindsay. He wanted to hurt her, wanted to slide the knife under her skin, wanted her to lay awake at night, torn up by grief and anger. He wanted to scream. He wanted her in front of him right at that moment, to shake, to accuse, to ignore, as she had done to him.
He turned the recording off and shoved the crystal into his sock drawer. He wasn't planning on sending it, but he wasn't going to delete it, either. John flung himself onto his bed, facing the window, too upset to read or eat or sleep or do anything but glare at the darkness. He didn't see his sister, standing in the hall, peeking through the crack of his barely-ajar door. She held a crystal of her own. Like she had for three weeks, Lizzie could not work up the nerve to give it to him.
Five days before prom, a shuttle landed at Ancyrilla's spaceport. The manifest would show that it carried one hundred and eighty-two crates of fertilized bioengineered soil, to be spread in the fields outside the city. The crates actually held one hundred and eighty-two dead bodies. Men and women who had signed up to leave Earth for good, who wanted a fresh start on a colony, to carve out new lives for themselves. Nsedu had ordered their deaths to be quick and painless - she was no monster.
The crates were taken to the tunnel, and driven north.
Four days before prom, John went tuxedo shopping. Dad was home on a two-day furlough, before he was off again, this time to a meeting of some of the smaller worlds, afraid that they might end up caught in the middle of what now seemed to be the inevitable Earth-Minbari war. "I can talk to my boss if you want," he said to John, as they walked through the store. "Maybe bump the meeting back, or send Raul in my place. See you go to prom."
"You sure you don't want me there?"
John just looked at him, and thankfully, he seemed to get the point. John knew that he wouldn't want to sit around for two extra days anyway, just to see him in a tux before he walked out the door.
"And you don't just want to wear my old tux?" Dad asked, not betraying himself with even the slightest twinkle in his eye.
"Dad!" The tux in question was the one he'd worn to his wedding. It was horribly out of fashion, narrow and black - black! he looked like an undertaker in it - with straight legs. "I don't know, son," David said, "you might be able to bring it back into style."
"I doubt that." They stopped in front of a mannequin wearing a cream colored tuxedo with a lilac vest and cummerbund. The kerchief tucked into the front pocket was a darker purple. "What do you think of this one?" John asked.
"You kids today," was all that David said. He wouldn't get outright approval on anything he picked out, he knew. Dad was pretty cool most of the time, but he had no style to speak of. John understood that it was hard to keep changing as the years went by, but some of the stuff his dad wore...it was like, did he ever look outside?
He finally settled on the cream tux, but with a powder blue vest and darker blue cummerbund and kerchief. The owner of the shop had pushed him hard to buy a hat as well, and brand-new shoes, but David had worked them adroitly out of that situation with nary a blink of his eye. They walked back to the car under a sunny sky. It was a bit breezy, and John noticed for the first time that when the wind caught his dad's hair, it blew back easily. It was thinning out on top, and it was grayer than he remembered. John concentrated on watching his feet, fighting down a shiver.
"So this girl you're going with..."
"You, uh, serious about her?"
Maybe a week ago John would have smarted off something mean, but he'd been thinking about her quite a bit, ever since he'd met Esme. The truth was, he'd gone to school with Lindsay for years and years; he had moved to the district in second grade, and she'd already been here. They might not always have been friends, per se, but they had always run in the same circles, and he usually got along with her pretty well. Things had been weird when Delenn had been here, but it was hard to blame Lindsay for that. He knew now that she liked him a lot, more than she would probably admit to. It would have been hard for her to see him take up with another girl, let alone an alien one. Maybe she hadn't always handled it in the best way, but she was a teenager. What teenager handled this kind of thing well?
"She's okay," John said cautiously. "I think the prom's really important to her, so I want her to have a good time."
"Well, um," David said, eyes scanning the street beside the lot. They had reached the car, but David just stood there, bouncing his keys in his hand, not making eye contact with John. "Well, you just be sure that you. John, that you. Be careful. Is what I'm saying."
Oh, Dad, John thought with an internal smile. He wondered if his old man had ever suspected he was giving it to Delenn. Probably not. At least he wouldn't have had to worry about an oopsie grandkid. The thought sobered John, and he felt his usual melancholia settle back over him, like a warm, faintly-cloying blanket. "I don't think of Lindsay like that. No reason to worry." They got into the car, and John realized he was a bit offended. Had he ever said that he and Delenn were quits? Why would Dad just assume that he was ready to move on with another girl? Surely they thought better of him than that.
By the time they made it home, John was halfway-convinced that he needed to phone Lindsay right away. Change of plans. I can't go with you to prom. I'm still in love, completely in love, and it would be wrong of me to go to the dance with you. It would be like going out on a date. It is a date. And that would be cheating, and I can't do that. But then Mom and Lizzie were cooing over his tux, and making him try it on, and he couldn't bring himself to pick up the phone.
Three days before prom, a shuttle left Minbar. It carried three passengers, besides its small crew. The man who sat on the bridge was unhappy, but it was his duty to accompany his aide. He was also worried, and nervous, and anxious, and angry, and tired.
It was a dizzying mix of emotions, and the man had a difficult time sorting through them. He gave instructions to the crew, then retreated to a private room in the back of the shuttle. There the man attempted to meditate, but it was difficult to focus.
His aide joined him after a few hours. The man would have snapped at anyone else daring to disturb his peace, but he could not yell at her, this young, yet brilliant, acolyte. The sight of her still took him aback, but the man thought he was getting better at hiding his reaction. She, of course, was too polite to let on that she noticed anything.
"Why do you worry, Master?" she asked, eyes pointed reverentially downward. The man gestured to the pillow beside him, and after a moment's hesitation, the acolyte joined him.
"The Humans might destroy us long before we reach our destination. They may not listen to us. They may refuse to see you." These were all concerns they had discussed a hundred times before, in the nearly interminable last two weeks. The man looked at her face, in so many respects the same face he had remembered from before her initial departure, and yet still so changed. There was a moment of the old xenophobic fear, but the man pushed it aside and refused to give it another thought.
"We know these things," the acolyte said. She was all calm and tranquility, a serenity on her face unlike anything the man had ever seen before. She utterly believed in the rightness of her path, which more than anything was what convinced the man to accompany her in the first place. He only hoped they were not traveling to their deaths.
Two days before prom, the sirens went off. "Are they serious?" McCarty said loudly, and the other students either laughed or grimaced. "We've only got a week left!"
"To the door, line up," Miss Van Houton said briskly. She held out her lectern at the front of the line. "Thumbs as you go, get moving."
The line filed out, everyone putting their thumb to the screen as they went, the first checkpoint. They would do the same as they entered the basement, confirming that no one had been left behind. This was easily the tenth time they had done this drill in the past month, and it was becoming tiresome, even though they all welcomed the break from class.
Down to the basement, to the long corridors that twined through the earth. The school had been built during the Long Winter which had only ended almost forty years ago, and the town was riddled with tunnels like this, a way for people to go to and fro without having to venture outside into the cold. Thankfully, Miss Van Houton's classroom had been on the first floor, so they were among the first to enter the tunnel. "We don't have to stick our faces in anyone else's ass," McCarty smirked as he and John got to their knees, crouching forward and facing the wall.
"Quiet!" There was no talking during the drill. At least, there wasn't supposed to be - a distinct murmur filled the corridor, as everyone whispered to their neighbor.
"We rented a couple rooms at the Hilton outside town," McCarty confided. "You gonna bring Lindsay over after?"
"No." John's back already hurt from ducking over. It was likely to be another fifteen minutes of this. Did anyone really think that if the Minbari attacked, cowering in the basement would save anyone?
"You just gonna take her into the back of your car, then?" McCarty's voice was filled with faint, if somehow admiring, amusement.
"I'm not going to have sex with her," John hissed, perhaps a little louder than he intended.
"Then why are you even going with her, man?"
"Just shut up." John locked his fingers more securely around the back of his neck and closed his eyes, trying to retreat within. Nick expected him to have sex with Lindsay. His dad expected him to have sex with Lindsay. Did Lindsay expect him to have sex with Lindsay? It was something that was just now occurring to him, and John didn't like where the thought was taking him.
The truth was, he wasn't so sure about his willpower. He was lonely and tired, and Lindsay was gorgeous, and he wish he knew that he'd be able to say no if she propositioned him someplace, if she surprised him with a kiss, if she pressed her body against his. John wished he had that much faith in himself, but he just wasn't sure.
By the time the drill ended and everyone filed back upstairs, it was nearly the end of the day. Sumalong called it early, sending everyone home. John drove without once knowing where on the road he was, sense memory guiding him safely to his doorstep. He flung his bag on the floor inside the front door and then flung his body with equal force onto the couch. He was going to just lay here for a few minutes, then he was going to shove a peanut butter sandwich into his mouth, and then he was going to take yet another practice test. Last night he had finally managed an 18, which made him think he was going to pull this off after all. He had a theory that he needed to skip all of the questions on ethics first, get history and tactics out of the way, so he could take his time on the former.
But first, he was going to just lay here. Five minutes to do nothing, to think of nothing, to feel nothing. John wished he could just pull his emotions out completely, a cable he could unhook and then that would be that. It would make everything so much simpler.
He sighed, and before he knew it, tears threatened to overwhelm him. He had no idea where they'd come from. John put a hand over his face, willing the stupid tears to go right back where they'd come from.
"John?" a quiet voice called out. John rubbed fiercely at his eyes and sat up. Lizzie stood a few feet away, visibly trembling from head to toe. She held something in her hands.
"I'm just tired, Liz," he said, but that didn't take away the nearly-terrified look on her face. John looked closer. She was holding a data crystal.
"The package just said Sheridan," she said, her voice wan and barely audible. "I thought she'd sent a message to all of us. I'm sorry I never gave it to you...I..."
John was up, something white-hot and ugly pounding through his veins. "You...you..." he sputtered, a hundred obscene and horrible things crowding in his brain. He snatched the crystal away from his sister, ignoring the way she cried out in pain. "Fuck!" he finally choked out, running to the stairs, needing to get into his room immediately.
"I'm sorry, Johnny!" she called out, distantly, but John ignored her. He would deal with her later. He locked his bedroom door and shoved the crystal into the screen with shaking fingers. How long had Lizzie had this? Why hadn't she given it to him before now? As he waited for the message to load, he wondered what Lizzie had seen. This was the last message that Delenn had sent him, obviously.
Had she broken up with him, weeks ago? Was that what Lizzie had been trying to hide from him?
The message was ready. John waited to give the command for the vid to play. If he just didn't play it, if he never watched it, then it would be as if it never happened. He could just tell himself that she was busy, that she was going to record him another message, that everything would be okay.
His mouth was so dry that at first he didn't make a sound when he tried to speak. John swallowed painfully, and tried again. "Play message."
Delenn recorded all of her messages in the same place: a garden, equal parts rock and foliage, with only a very few flower blooms here and there. It was a beautiful place, and John wondered if it was the garden behind her house, or perhaps her temple. She never said. The first thing he noticed was that there was no garden. He was looking at a wall, made up of flat facets of varying heights and widths. It looked like one big crystal, cut and polished to bring out the most beauty and light. Only after John registered that he was looking at a different location did he realize that he was looking at a different Minbari.
The person standing in front of the crystal wall was not Delenn. It was a man, and though there was nothing in the frame to indicate scale, John could tell that the man was very tall. He was an imposing figure, his bone crest significantly thicker than most John had seen. Most astonishingly, the Minbari had a goatee. A neatly-trimmed, iron-gray goatee. John didn't even know that Minbari could grow hair at all, but before he could wonder about it, the man began to speak.
"This is a message for John, of the clan Sheridan." The man's voice was deep and gravelly, and his accent was almost identical to Delenn's. John found himself standing up a little straighter, even as a rumble of fear worked its way through his gut. The man continued. "My name is Dukhat. Upon Delenn's return to Minbar, she entered my service as an acolyte. It is difficult to explain how this relationship works to a non-Minbari."
John felt like hurtling through the screen and punching this tall, bearded Minbari right in the face. He had a relationship with Delenn? He had to be at least twenty years older than she was!
"Delenn is my aide. She performs duties on my behalf, and learns at my side. In return, I owe her my protection. I was unaware until recently the frequency of your communication with her."
The Minbari said it as though the communication was one-sided. Delenn had sent just as many messages to John, maybe even more, before her messages had abruptly come to a stop a month ago. There had been one, sent about six weeks after her deportation, that John had probably watched a hundred times. He had watched it just two days ago, as a matter of fact. I miss you so much I feel that I must break into pieces, she confided in a breathy whisper that went straight to his groin. I think about you constantly. John, we will be together again. I promise you that.
The tall Minbari man went on. "Delenn is back with her people. This is where her life is, and where it shall remain. Any further messages sent by you will be confiscated. I will not allow you to fill her head with nonsense. I will not speak to you of this again."
A cold rage worked its way through John's body. All the messages he'd sent over the last month, his promises of love and devotion, his hopes and fears, every word he had said to Delenn, they had all been interdicted by this tall Minbari son of a bitch. He became suddenly sure that he had told Delenn nothing of this, that he had confiscated her messages just as neatly, leaving her to believe that it had been John who gave up on her, John who had moved on abruptly, with no warning.
The Minbari looked as though he might say something else, but instead he picked something up from the bench beside him. A robe, which he slung over his broad shoulders, drawing it around his body.
A gray robe.
In that moment, as Dukhat of the Grey Council nodded curtly at the recorder and terminated the message, John felt nothing but despair.
One day before prom.
A shuttle came through the Io jump gate. A Minbari shuttle. Alarms went off, defenses were readied, and ultraviolet comm channels to Geneva were opened. The shuttle docked at the Europan spaceport, a full compliment of Furies as escort, guns locked and loaded.
The three passengers were met by an almost overwhelmingly-hostile reception. A squad of Marines stood at the ready, at the base of the shuttle's lowered gangway. When the man and his aide descended, they aimed their weapons. When the acolyte walked down, her white robe fluttering gently in the breeze, the Marines looked at each other, confused. She had drawn the hood up over her head, her face entirely obscured. The Minbari were taken to a wardroom, where they were left for a full hour with no word of what was happening.
The Earth president appeared on the comm screen. She was grave, furious, and, though she would never admit it to anyone, deeply terrified.
The Minbari made their offer. It was simple, straight-forward. The president told them she would have to consult with the Senate, though she already knew the offer would be accepted.
The youngest of the Minbari, a slender female acolyte, stepped forward. The president wondered if perhaps she were disfigured, and that was why she had her face hidden. Then the acolyte drew back her hood.
The president's arms fell limp to her sides. Her hand knocked over the mug on her desk, spilling lukewarm tea all over the surface. She did not notice.