There was an open hatch just in front of them. Something had broken the bottom of the door. Sheridan and Delenn stood there, just looking at it. They had made it halfway to C and C, passing closed door after closed door, walking through empty corridors, and now this. Something had opened this door by force.
"I'm just going to peek inside," Sheridan whispered, unable to keep from feeling embarrassed by how afraid he felt. He was ten years old again, trying to work up the nerve to walk down the hallway at night, past the open door of the bathroom, knowing that there was something waiting for him inside. He forced himself to duck under the half-open door, and he only needed one look to confirm his suspicions. He stepped back out.
"Another dead body." Then Delenn shocked him by brushing past him to enter. He followed her in, baffled. She circled the body slowly, then pulled the sheet off the nearby bed and covered it. "Delenn, we need to get going."
"I will tell you what is on this station. Here, let's move away from the door."
"You want to talk here?"
"It's already been here, John. It will not return." She sat down on the floor in the corner, the couch between her and the door. To see her, you'd have to walk at least a couple paces into the room. Sheridan joined her, finding it hard to rest. There was so much adrenaline in his system at this point, his muscles felt jangly, on fire.
“So you know what did this?”
“I think so,” Delenn said, her voice low, turning her napkin ring over and over in her hands. “I have only heard stories, the kind one tells late at night, in the hopes of frightening others.”
“Minbari tell scary stories,” Sheridan said, amused. He wondered if she’d intentionally put it that way in the hopes of relieving the tension some. He wouldn’t put it past her.
“The stories say that long ago, when the First Ones came into being, there was a race that struggled to maintain the same levels of technology as the others. They were consumed with jealousy, with wrath. They could have made compromises, shared the resources of their system, bartered, traded - but they refused. They attacked the other races, not in open war, but secretly, quietly. They learned how to make the attacked blame each other. They learned how to slip in to any ship, any station, any planet, and take what they needed without anyone ever knowing.
“But as the centuries and then millennia wore away, they no longer cared for military secrets, or weapons, or money. They began to infiltrate and terrorize and kill for no reason at all. The First Ones finally came to recognize the monster in their midst, and banished them. By then, however, they did not care. They had no use for the light of suns, for the feel of a planet beneath their feet. All they wanted was death and ruin.
“Now they live in the dead spaces between the stars. We call them Carnifex. Butchers. Valen named them; there was no word in any of our tongues before him that could describe them. To the Centauri, they are The Bloody Ones. They strike without warning, leaving a ship filled with dead bodies as the only evidence they ever ventured forth. This is their only purpose now - to kill, to torture, to mutilate. To bathe in blood. And now they are here, on this station.”
Silence. Sheridan stared at his hands, and felt the weight of responsibility crush him. Two hundred and fifty thousand people on Babylon 5, locked up, waiting to be killed. He had to do something, but he couldn’t even begin to guess what his next move would be. He had nothing but a PPG and a pocket knife. How was he going to win back the station?
Footsteps, in the distance.
Sheridan stood, feeling something strong gather inside him. One of them was coming, and he would kill it before it killed anyone else. He could do this. He would do this. He slipped toward the door, listened. The footsteps came from down the corridor, around the turn. Coming this way.
He felt Delenn’s hand on his back, distantly. He shook his head, knowing she would see the movement silhouetted against the emergency lights. Sheridan slipped out, silent, and moved to the opposite wall. Put his back to it, moved toward the intersection. It was coming, and he would wait, and when it turned the corner he would shoot it dead.
It stopped. Just before turning the corner. He couldn’t hear a thing, but he could sense a presence, no more than two meters away. Sheridan felt a single drop of sweat make its way down the side of his face. Hyper aware, arms tense in front of him, PPG steady as a rock. He inched forward - was it trying to draw him out? He could move toward the opposite wall, get the angle he needed, but he would lose his cover. Every thought, every consideration of strategy, flashed through his mind in fractions of seconds.
He would move on the count of three. One. Two.
It came around the corner, and even as Sheridan’s finger began to squeeze the trigger, he saw that it was Ivanova, her own PPG aimed right at him, her eyes wide. They both froze for a second, and then he had her crushed in a bear hug, never so happy to see someone in his life.
“You okay? Susan, you okay?” She was nodding hard, her hands bunched in his jacket. He pulled her with him back to the open room.
Lennier had prepared first. He had changed into simpler garments - freer, less restrictive of movement. He had eaten a light meal, drinking plenty of water. He cleared his quarters of obstructions. He emptied his bladder and his bowels. He found his denn’bok, placed it nearby as he arranged himself on the floor, in the corner of the room.
After some time spent in the dark, the communication system dead, the hatch inoperative, Lennier came to the conclusion that it was likely that other systems would fail soon. It would be best to conserve his air. So he prepared, and then he entered a deep meditative state. He let his heart rate fall, his breathing slow. There was nothing he could do but wait, and if the worst came to pass, the amount of air in his quarters would last a reasonably long time.
Before his thoughts turned inward, Lennier hoped that Delenn was safe.
Hours ticked by, and he did not move. He melted into the darkness of the room.
Lennier had not set any alarm to rouse himself, and had not given himself a prompt to come immediately out of the meditative state should any external stimulus present itself. So when the door to his quarters was wrenched open, Lennier remained where he was, only very slowly cycling back up to full consciousness.
A Carnifex entered.
It was hard to believe now, hands bound behind her back, marched by some kind of demon toward Brown Sector, but this morning had been the best morning of her life. It had earned that distinction by following the best night of her life. Julius had finally proposed. It would be at least a year, probably two, before they'd be able to actually go through with the ceremony, but just knowing that they were promised to each other had been enough for Laetitia.
She already had a husband back on Mars, of course, picked out for her by the Corps because of their genetic compatibility. A child she had never seen, hadn't named, didn't care about. She knew Julius would prefer a real ceremony (she didn't even have to read his mind to know that; he was definitely the more emotional of the two), but a spiritual joining on Proxima Three would be good enough. More than Laetitia could have hoped for.
They'd been on their way to grab something to eat when the alarm sounded. They ran, but it seemed every door they came to had just been closed. By the time they made it back to their own quarters they couldn't get in. Julius kept trying to reassure her that the hull breach was nowhere close, that they should just find a quiet corner and wait, try to stay out of the crew's way. They found their corner, but it wasn't quiet; Laetitia's mind could hear drums pounding in dark places; nasty, slithering sounds up and down the walls. She was only a P3, nothing, really, but she felt like she was on Dust - everything was open to her, everything was pouring into her, she couldn't stop it. When the killings started, it was all she could do to not rip at her own face, and Julius had had to hold her tight.
She had known the thing was coming long before it ever reached them, and she had tried to run, pulling Julius along with her, but she was already so exhausted. The monster hadn't been alone; there was a Minbari with him, as cruel as any nightmare she'd had when she'd been a child during the war. The Minbari had entered her mind, held her fast, and made her watch as the monster had torn Julius to shreds.
They had reached their destination. The Minbari pushed her into a room. There was another teep in there; their minds said 'hello' as soon as they saw each other, even though she didn't recognize the Centauri man and was certainly in no mood to chat.
"What's going on?" Laetitia asked again, as she had asked and asked the entire walk here. She expected nothing but silence, but this time the Minbari answered her. The coldness in his voice was dreadful to hear, and Laetitia thought for the first time that day about how she might kill herself. It would not be the last.
"All in good time." He closed the door as he left them, and Laetitia dug her nails into her palms. She would not cry. She was afraid that if she started, she would never stop.
"Are you hurt?" the Centauri asked, and Laetitia went over and sat by him on the floor. She looked around the room - some kind of monitoring station for the water reclamation system. The chairs had been removed, and the desks, but the monitors were still in the wall, and they were all still active. The Centauri touched her mind, a gentle brush, the equivalent of a hand on her shoulder. "Are you hurt?"
"I'm fine. My fiancé is dead."
"So is my daughter."
Corfo put his arm around her, and they held hands. Normally this would be too much for a telepath, that much physical contact with another, but it was good. It made them strong. They built three sets of walls around themselves, nice and high, and filled the space in the middle with beautiful things - flowers and birds and songs. They walked through their garden, and waited.
Ivanova was kneeling beside the body, the sheet pulled back. She shook her head, covered him back up, and joined Sheridan and Delenn in the corner.
“I knew him. Station maintenance. His name was Jay; he was a nice guy. Very prompt.” Sheridan slung an arm around Ivanova’s shoulders, the other arm around Delenn’s waist. He rested his head back against the wall, and gave his mind a few moments of rest from the endless churning of options and plans that had been running through it non-stop. Just thirty seconds off, holding his girls, thinking about nothing. He'd already filled Ivanova in on what Delenn had told him about the things in control of the station; he pitied the first one of them she ran into after seeing the look on her face. “So you two weren’t trapped behind a hatch?” Ivanova asked, draining a glass of water.
“No, we were,” Delenn answered. “I climbed inside the wall, and the Captain directed me to cut certain wires and put them together.”
“Hooked the power into the mag seal,” Sheridan said, wondering if they could get up into the ductwork, just crawl all the way down to Grey Sector. “Is that what you did?”
A pause. “Yes. That is exactly what I did.” Sheridan felt a smile on his face, hugged her close for a second.
“Come on. What did you do?”
“What you did. That’s what I did.”
She sighed then. “I didn’t have enough light to see much more than the outlines of things. So I crawled all the way back to the hatch, then up to the mechanism at the top of the door. It took...a really long time to get the cover off. I dropped the screwdriver once.”
“Hey, at least you had a screwdriver.”
“Then I just had to find the manual mag release. Up on my tiptoes, hands over my head, doing everything by feel. I have to admit, the only thing that got me through it was the mental image of you trying to shove that big Midwestern corn-fed body of yours in between the walls.” Sheridan chuckled, and then he knew it was time to go.
"We could get up into the ducts," he said, standing, giving Delenn a hand up. "Crawl down to Grey Sector."
"That's at least a mile."
"You have a better idea?"
"I was heading down to security," Ivanova said, checking Jay's closet. "I wanted to find Garibaldi."
"We stopped by security on our way here. Tapped some morse code out on the door, nothing. He must have been out on his feet when the balloon went up."
"Damn. Hope he made it in someplace safe. Oh, here's a flashlight. That'll be good to have. I wonder why Jay didn't get it out."
"He probably forgot," Delenn said. "I imagine many people are quite frightened, too frightened to think clearly."
"Well, I don't intend to keep it that way," Sheridan said. "I want to get up to Blue Eight. Let's go." The three of them walked out, back into the dark.
They'd taken the Minbari woman's body into the isolab, and Franklin performed as much of an autopsy as he could with the instruments he had available. He hadn't learned much - she was malnourished, covered with bruises, cuts, most of which looked old and faded. Internally everything looked pretty much normal. Whatever had been controlling her - and Franklin was sure that there had been some outside influence, that at the last moment of her life he had finally seen the real her - it had left no visible trace that he could see.
Diana had died half an hour before, mercifully slipping into unconsciousness at the end. They were out of Narn plasma; most of it was down in Medlab Three in Green Sector. Franklin was afraid that they'd lose Na'Thar soon, as well.
There were enough ambulatory patients in good enough health that they'd been able to post at least two by every entrance, though; five by the emergency bulkhead that had dropped in the main corridor to seal off all of Medlab One. If someone else slipped through, Franklin hoped they'd be able to keep the door open, get back into contact with the rest of the station.
"What battery-powered machines do we have that aren't being used right now?" he asked Hobbs, coming back from her rounds.
"They're all being used."
"Any not vitally necessary?"
"What are you wanting to do?"
"Daisy chain the batteries to the computer. I want to look something up." Hobbs looked at him then, as though he were crazy. "She said a word, just before she died. 'Carnifex.' I've never heard of it before.
"It's Latin. It means 'executioner,' 'butcher.' That's what they called Pompey the Great." Now Franklin was even more confused. Why would a Minbari have said something in Latin just before she died? Most Minbari struggled with English. Hobbs laid a gentle hand on his arm. "Dr. Franklin, we have enough to worry about right now. We need to concentrate on keeping what patients we have alive.
She was right. But Franklin had the feeling that ignorance about what was going on out there was the worst possible thing right now. "I know. Still, next time you go around, look and see if there's anything we can unhook and use, as long as its removal won't put anyone in immediate risk." She wasn't happy about it, but she nodded.
Executioner. At least one of them on this station, and it had somehow gotten access to their systems, locked everyone up. And it wanted blood. Franklin crept back to his office, slipped a stim from his desk drawer into his pocket. He wasn't going to use it. He just wanted to know it was there. Just in case.
Blue Eight. Just as deserted as Blue Seven, Six and Five. From here a duct went straight across the station to Grey Eight, where the main power grid was housed. Ivanova was unscrewing a vent, Sheridan and Delenn on either side, watching the corridors coming and going.
"One more," Ivanova whispered, and Sheridan hated being out in the open, felt completely exposed. He had never thought he would look forward to crawling around in some air ducts, but he was practically itching to get in. They'd be much faster just walking down, but he didn't think they'd make it. The Carnifex (Carnifexes? Carnifexi? He'd have to ask Delenn some time.) wouldn't want anyone to have the opportunity to wrest control of the station back, so he was sure the open routes would be well-guarded.
"We're in," Ivanova said, and climbed inside. Sheridan gestured for Delenn to go in next. She unsnapped the top of her dress, and then she was reaching right down the front of it, stowing her napkin ring down in her cleavage. Sheridan felt heat rise to his face, and looked at the floor.
“You were married, correct?” she asked, snapping her dress back up, and he nodded, confused. “Then it’s reasonably certain you’ve seen a woman's breast before.” And with that, she climbed into the wall, leaving him nonplussed. He took up the rear, pulling the vent back up into the hole; they had to leave it unscrewed, but as long as no one examined it too closely there should be no sign they'd entered here. He followed Delenn into the darkness. It wasn't as tight in here as he'd feared; there was barely enough room to hunch over and crab walk, though that would be hell on his back after awhile. It wouldn't be long before they were crawling. He felt bad for Delenn, trying to move in that dress of hers.
Then they were on their way. It was pitch black again, only hints of light as they passed vents on their way; Ivanova wanted to save the flashlight till they needed it. Sheridan tried to keep track of distance, counting a meter every five steps, figuring his pace wasn't as long as it usually was. No sound but their breathing, the metal of the duct creaking occasionally. He wished they could talk to each other, keep their minds on something else, keep time from melting into something insubstantial and untethered, but he wasn't sure how far the sound would travel, if they’d be heard in the corridors. It wasn’t worth the risk.
He lost count of his steps. Wondered what Delenn was thinking about. He was thirsty. He banged his head on a low-hanging pipe, bit back a curse. Then Sheridan practically crawled over Delenn, who had stopped.
“What’s going on?”
“Shhh!” Ivanova, just ahead of Delenn. Sheridan shushed. Listened. There was something moving in the duct a level above them, about fifty meters ahead. The sound was barely there, just the slightest indication, almost subliminal, of movement. Before Sheridan could say a thing, Ivanova was knocking on the top of the duct. Morse code.
They waited, utter silence. Then, more of that shuffling sound, a bit louder, coming their way. Knocks.
“I-D” Sheridan could sense Ivanova looking back his way even if he couldn’t see it. He knocked on the duct himself.
Whoever was above them was hurrying back their way. Then almost above them, quick knocks.
“J-O-H-N I-S T-H-A-T Y-O-U”
Sheridan grinned in the dark. He didn’t know where he’d been, if he’d been caught somewhere, and if so, how he’d gotten out, but he’d had the exact same idea that they’d had. Garibaldi was also on his way to Grey Sector.
The Carnifex extended its senses, listening for blood, feeling for blood, smelling for blood. It had feasted once already, a crunchy thing with thick skin. Now it would feast again, and after, it would continue to feast, until the station ran red. It had waited a long time for this, and would not leave until he had sucked the place dry.
The room was empty. It had come across an empty room earlier, the door already opened. It did not understand. The puppets had sealed the doors. No, this room was not empty. There was something in the corner. The Carnifex approached, claws clicking. Something, yes. A bony one. But it was dead. It did not hear the bony one’s breathing. Cold, blood not pumping strong and thick. It did not move, even as the Carnifex stood directly above it.
It did not look as though it had been feasted upon. The Carnifex thought about sucking the marrow from its bones, but there was no reason to waste time here. There were many other treasures aboard. No end to warm, hot blood. The Carnifex would move on, and leave this dead, cold bony one for another.
They’d only liberated three machines; the rest couldn’t be unhooked without risking the patients using them. A Brakiri in the infirmary named Leshke had volunteered to string the batteries together, and had done so with astonishing efficiency. Franklin had invited her to take a look at the Babcom; she was over there now, poking around in the wires underneath.
Franklin booted the computer up, running it in text-only mode. He didn’t know how long the battery power would last. He looked up ‘Carnifex.” Like Hobbs had said - an entry on Pompey the Great.
“Cross-reference with Minbari.” Nothing. “Look up ‘executioner,” cross-reference with 'Minbari.'” Nothing. “Look up ‘butcher,’ cross-reference with 'Minbari.'” A single entry came up, only three lines. Franklin read them half a dozen times before he grabbed pen and paper to copy them down, then read them half a dozen times more.
The Minbari tell a fable about a dark race of butchers who live in the dead of space. They sneak into civilized places to hunt and kill. A cautionary story for children.
Neither Garibaldi nor Sheridan’s team had given any thought as to how they were going to get out of the ducts. Ivanova was still sitting behind the vent that stood between them and Grey Sector, trying to figure out how to unscrew it from the inside. Garibaldi was tapping from above.
“S-E-E A-N-Y-O-N-E E-L-S-E”
“W-H-A-T I-S I-T”
“Fuck!” Ivanova whispered, and there was just enough light coming through the slats in the vent that Sheridan could see her sit back in disgust. “I don’t know how we’re going to get out. I can’t get my wrist to bend enough. We might have to backtrack.”
“No way. We’ve already been two hours getting here; I do not want to lose another two hours going back.”
“Captain, if you’ve got a better idea, please, I’m all ears.”
“Commander.” Delenn’s voice. Ivanova moved aside, and Delenn ran her hands over the inside of the access panel.
“What are you doing?” Sheridan asked, half expecting her to do a spell or something, the way she was touching the metal, looking at it intently.
“Both of you, please move back.” Then she was pulling her napkin ring out of her dress, putting it right next to the corner. A beat. Wham! There was a flash of something, and where Delenn had been holding a small cylinder of metal before, now she had a seven foot long pike in her hands. One end buried itself in the opposite side of the duct. The other punched the corner of the access panel out, ripped it clean from the wall. Delenn seemed not to move at all, and it was the napkin ring again. She repositioned it on the bottom corner, turned it into a pike again.
“See if you can push it out now.” Sheridan gave her the once-over as he moved close, then pushed out the freed side of the access panel. He was able to bend it enough for the three of them to squeeze out.
“I’m afraid that if there’s anything close by, it heard that,” Ivanova said, her PPG out, covering one end of the corridor.
“I think you’re right.” Sheridan helped Delenn out, still looking at her. “You mean to tell me that that’s what you’ve been carrying around this whole time?”
“It is a denn’bok. A Minbari fighting pike.” Sheridan just shook his head. She never failed to amaze him. Then he leaned just into the duct, knocking one last time.
“S-T-A-Y P-U-T W-E-R-E C-O-M-I-N-G T-O G-E-T Y-O-U”
IV. Into the Fire