Zack had been joined by Raoul from security and Denise from station maintenance, and together the three of them were trying to coordinate two hundred and sixty-six aliens from Green Sector, more arriving in a steady stream all the time. Lennier had set up Ambassador Delenn’s quarters and his own just down the hall as makeshift clinics, as the emergency bulkheads sealing off Medlab Three was impregnable as far as they could tell. There were some bumps and bruises from people running into things and falling down in the dark, one probably broken arm, a couple cases of shock, one heart attack, and quite a few hypochondriacs who seemed to think the whole ‘station boarded by some kind of enemy who was ripping people to shreds’ thing was specifically designed to upset their lives.
Zack had sorta thought that Ambassador Mollari would fall into the final category, but instead, he seemed to be...enjoying himself. He was marching to and fro, shouting out orders, happy to do what Zack and Raoul told him to do as long as he could berate everyone while he did it.
“Weapons, you’re supposed to bring weapons! Go back to your quarters right this instant and find something. Surely you have knives, at least. Mr. Allan, you wouldn’t happen to have an extra PPG you could lend me?”
“Sorry, Ambassador,” Zack answered, helping Denise move the last market stall up against the wall, ushering in seven or eight new arrivals. “You’re going to have to make do with your sword there.” Zack had expected Vir to be a bigger help, but the Centauri aide looked even more frightened and twitchy than normal, drifting along in Londo’s wake, twisting his hands together.
“Londo, I think we’d be safer back in your quarters,” Zack heard Vir say for the third or fourth time. Each time, he said it louder and louder, and this time, the cluster of Centauri nearby stopped what they were doing to turn and listen. That was enough. Zack had done his best to try and keep everyone calm, and had been pleasantly surprised by how smoothly things had gone so far (he suspected that most everyone was just relieved to have something to do again, after so many hours cooped up in the dark); he did not need someone getting everyone all riled up. Zack took Vir none too gently by the elbow and steered him toward one of the few remaining clear areas.
“Look, Vir,” he said, trying to sound nice and reasonable, “I understand that today has been a hell of a day, and you don’t know what’s going on. And that can be scary. But the Captain needs numbers, and we’re gonna do what we can for him.”
“That’s what you don’t understand, Mr. Allan. I do know what’s going on.” His voice was getting louder again, and now it wasn’t just the group of Centauri looking their way, it was the Drazi and Brakiri, too. “This has happened before, to a Centauri outpost almost a century ago. It was just a small moon, only a few hundred families. After the nearest colony hadn’t heard from them in over a month, a scout ship was sent out. The families were all still there, but they were dead. Slaughtered. Their logs described a depressurization alarm. Everyone had taken refuge in the farm tent. And that’s where they were all found, almost five hundred people, all dead.”
Londo was coming their way now, looking intently at his aide. “Vir, there’s never been any proof that happened. Everyone knows that the Ellyrian outpost was destroyed by an asteroid impact. The rest...just stories, meant to frighten children.” Everyone was drifting their way, members from nearly all the alien races on B5, listening carefully.
“But it’s not just the Ellyrian outpost, Londo. A transport was lost in hyperspace thirty years ago, but not before the crew managed to relay an emergency broadcast to the beacon: something had boarded their ship, nearly all the passengers had been killed.”
“Something similar happened to one of our trade ships two hundred years ago. It was found drifting in space, not far from its rendezvous.” The Drazi who was speaking looked like he expected some monster to come out of the walls at any moment. “Almost every Drazi had been murdered, torn apart. There was one survivor, hiding in a secret compartment in the hold, but he had gone mad.”
Excited murmurs, and then everyone was telling their stories: a Brakiri war ship on patrol on the edge of their territory disappeared, only to turn up decades later, crewed by ravaged skeletons; a Gaim ship that had also been lost in hyperspace, a mysterious last message; a Hyach scientific station that the authorities had destroyed after finding the research teams dead. The whole thing had the atmosphere of one of those late-night conversations when everyone started telling stories about how rough their jobs were, or their problems with significant others, or the stupid shit they’d gotten into as kids; that heady feeling as you realized that you weren’t alone, that everyone else had the same stories to tell.
It seemed like it was going to get out of hand soon enough anyway, but then Vir grabbed Londo by the arms. “Londo, don’t you see? The Bloody Ones are here.” It was like there had been a perfectly timed beat of silence just as Vir said it, and his words carried through the crowd. One Centauri woman let out a gaspy little scream; the rest of the Centauri were talking loudly now, and a few were making for the exits.
“Stop! Everybody just stop.” But no one was listening to Zack. A young Minbari shouted out, “The Carnifex!” A Drazi was tugging at Zack’s uniform, trying to get his attention. “We call them rakizi, the destroyers. The destroyers, they're here.” Raoul was running his way, shouting something, but Zack couldn’t hear him. He could feel the panic about to explode, and in a few minutes, if he didn’t do something, he’d have a mob on his hands.
He shot his PPG into the ceiling. Once. Twice. Everyone fell quiet, a still, sullen silence that Zack didn’t like. But he kept his voice nice and calm, lowered his weapon, and turned to get a look at everyone as he spoke.
“I want everyone to listen very carefully. It doesn’t matter what’s on this station. Bloody ones, destroyers, Carni-whatevers. It doesn’t matter. Humans have a lot of scary stories too; vampires, werewolves, zombies. Maybe they’re on the station, too. It doesn’t matter. It won’t do any good to just hide and hope it goes away. None of your stories mentioned anything other than the odd, insane survivor. If we just scatter and hide, then we’re just doing what they want. They wanted us all alone, in our quarters, waiting. I for one am not going to do what they want. I’m not just going to sit and wait for some monster to come along and kill me. I’m going to stand and fight. This is my station, and no one’s going to take it away from me. Maybe we were all afraid of scary stories when we were kids, but we’re not kids anymore. Well, except for you kids over there, but if I remember anything from when I was little, I would have jumped at the chance to go hunt some werewolves or some ghosts.”
Zack paused, looking around. He thought his words were getting through, but it was hard to tell. There were a lot of scared faces still around, a lot of people who looked like they were just waiting for the chance to cut and run.
“Look, I’m not saying you can’t be scared. I was scared earlier, too. I was hiding in my closet, okay? But now we have a chance to get out there and do something. We have a chance to defend ourselves. So let’s grab our weapons, let’s calm down, let’s split up into teams, and when word comes from the Captain, let’s get out there and kick those Bloody Ones the fuck off our station!”
Silence for a beat. The teeter-totter was balanced right in the middle. Then Londo was clapping furiously, coming up to grab Zack’s shoulder with one hand, hoist his sword in the air. “Then I will be the first to enlist!” And then like dominoes, everyone was cheering, knives and bats and guns and plenty of things that weren’t supposed to be on the station up in the air, and even Vir had a fist raised. Zack had a mob on his hands, all right, but they were his mob.
Franklin came out of the isolab, and would have given just about anything if he could only have fifteen minutes in the hottest shower imaginable. He felt filthy, even though he’d worn a full contamination suit during the autopsy of the slain Carnifex. He’d found plenty of things during his examination, all of them troubling, none of them immediately helpful. He’d report everything to Sheridan - their links were still online, which he found more worrying than anything else - and hope he could make sense of it. The stims had worn off awhile ago, and Franklin felt groggy, tired, irritable.
Leshke was still fiddling around with the Babcom. She’d yanked the emergency power supply clean out of the wall, had done the same with every unit in Medlab One, and would have ducked under the emergency bulkhead to try and find other open rooms to poach if Franklin hadn’t stopped her. She had shown a few other patients how to hook them together, and now they had a string of batteries all lined up, still hooked to the defibrillator; Franklin didn’t think that would do any good if another Carnifex showed up, though. They had telepathic abilities, that much was obvious, and he figured that whatever trick they devised would only work the one time. Still, it was the best they had.
“Dr. Franklin. Stephen.” It was Hobbs, coming his way. “Why don’t you try to get a few hours rest? Everyone’s stable and taken care of for now.”
“I’m fine.” He was thinking about the Carnifex’s desire for blood. The way it had sent one of its minions up here asking for it, the way it had paused and considered when Franklin had brought it up.
“You’re no good to anyone if you’re half-asleep,” she went on, and Franklin felt the familiar frustration start to build up. He hated being nagged, especially when he had work to do.
“I said I’m fine!” She left then, and he had half a second to feel bad for snapping at her, but then he was back to thinking about blood. He would have to do weeks of tests to learn how the Carnifex’s digestive system worked, if they actually consumed the blood as a source of nutrition or not. But the specifics didn’t matter. What mattered was the blood.
Franklin went to the pharmacy, locking the doors back up behind him. He started pulling bottles down, filling his pockets.
9 February 2260
Ivanova was sick to death of crawling around inside stuff. First between the bulkheads in her quarters, then up and down the ducts, miles and miles, and now they were crawling around in Downbelow, working their way up to auxiliary power in Brown Sector from, well, below.
“That’s great, Menendez. Keep at it.” Sheridan cut the connection on his link. The team of pilots had just offed their third big monster, their fourth creepy zombie slave. Only one casualty for seven kills. Ivanova was jealous. She wanted to be out there killing some shit, not crawling through what she was pretty sure was a pak’ma’ra feeding trough.
“All right,” Garibaldi said, on point for the time being. They stopped behind him, and Ivanova begrudged the moment of rest. She wanted to keep going, get up there, as quick as they could. “We’re coming up on the water reclamation system. Big open room, but lots of cover. Let’s split into two pairs, one moves forward while the other covers, back and forth, and just see-saw across.”
“Okay,” she said, moving forward to sit next to Garibaldi. That Sheridan and Delenn would pair up together was a given. She still didn’t know if they were together-together or if this was one of those ‘today is very stressful and we keep almost getting killed’ things, but as long as Sheridan stayed on task she wasn’t going to say a word. She’d been worried about him, those first two minutes after Delenn had killed the Carnifex, and he’d practically mauled her, but he seemed mostly back to normal now.
None of them had talked about that experience, as though they just wanted to pretend it hadn’t happened. Most of the haunted look had left Delenn’s eyes, but she was still sometimes a fraction of a second to slow to answer, sometimes had a look like she was someplace else; Garibaldi was quieter than usual; Sheridan more jumpy.
Ivanova herself was pissed. She was beyond pissed, she was livid. She was beyond livid, she was nearly fucking apoplectic. That thing had gotten inside her mind. She had felt it rooting around the edges, trying to sneak in, and she had done her best to block it out even as she had been about to piss herself with terror. Just before Delenn had killed it something had gotten in, some shred, some hint of something alien and evil.
Ivanova felt like there was something still in there.
“Delenn, you should probably have a PPG if you’re going to be covering us.” Garibaldi passed back one of the spares, and Delenn turned it over in her hands, that look on her face again, like she wasn’t understanding anything she was seeing. Sheridan brushed her hair back from her face, looking at Delenn with such naked tenderness that Ivanova had to glance away for a moment, feeling like she was intruding.
“Are you going to be able to use it?” she asked, not wanting to get hit by friendly fire.
“Of course. One aims and shoots, correct? That shouldn’t be a problem.” Now that sounded more like the Delenn she knew, and Ivanova took a deep breath, knowing they were about to get going again. She reached over and squeezed Garibaldi's bicep for a second, and she saw him barely nod. Then they were up, ducking around piles of crates and under huge pipes, coming to the entrance of the water reclamation system. Enormous tanks in rows, connected with pipes of all sizes; generators still thumping away; scaffolds and equipment standing abandoned and eerie. They scurried behind the nearest tank, then covered around either side as Sheridan and Delenn joined them. Then they went forward, while Garibaldi and Ivanova covered them, waiting till they were behind the next tank until they went forward themselves.
They were making good time till the fifth tank, when Ivanova slipped on a puddle and did something to her ankle. Garibaldi stopped, came back to help her, and the three of them huddled around her.
"It's not broken," she whispered, probing her fingers into the already swelling flesh. But it hurt like a son of a bitch, and it was going to slow them down, and Ivanova felt like smacking herself. Of all the fucking things, she had to slip in a puddle.
"We can pull up for a little bit," Sheridan said. "Let you put it up, just give it a chance to rest."
"No can do, boss." Delenn pulled off one of her long stockings, and used it to tightly wrap the ankle, give it some extra stability. Ivanova wondered how many first aid stations they had passed, with actual bandages, and pain pills, and other wonderful, magical things they were sure to need at some point. She thought about how they had never heard back from the three sergeants who were supposed to run some recon around the fringes of Brown Sector. She remembered the Carnifex, the blood all over it. That ghost in her mind. "I'll be fine. I had to walk around on the broken foot last year; this is nothing compared to that. Let's get a move on."
Ivanova went straight for the next tank, Garibaldi hurrying to keep up. She knew she didn't have anything to prove, but she also felt like the others, Sheridan especially, were just looking for an excuse to take a break, and she was not going to be the excuse. Ivanova fully intended to sleep in her own bed tomorrow night, which meant they needed to get this finished. They were going to get the lights back on, they were going to open the doors, they were going to meet up with everyone, they were going to find all the murderous sons of bitches that had crashed the party, and if Ivanova had to kill each and every one of them herself, then she would.
It was a monotonous, slow journey across the room. There were hardly any emergency lights in here, and most of what light there was bounced off the water tanks and the scaffolds to make ominous shadows. And as much as Ivanova wanted to convince herself otherwise, she was moving slower and slower, favoring her ankle. It had started to stiffen up, and each step was making it worse.
"Susan, let's take a break," Garibaldi said, and it wasn't a suggestion this time. They waited for Delenn and Sheridan to join them.
"Water, water everywhere," she said, and now that she was aware her mouth was dry it was all she could think about. She heard Sheridan's little grunt, and then Garibaldi put his arm around her. He had a nice shoulder to rest her head on, and Ivanova quit fighting it. She was going to rest. Just for a minute, though.
"How are you doing?" Ivanova almost answered before she realized that Sheridan was asking Delenn. And what was she, a dirty sock? Delenn murmured something in response, and then Ivanova closed her eyes and let herself doze a bit.
Garibaldi had her up on her feet sooner than she would have liked, which is just why she hadn't wanted to stop and take a break. Now she just wanted to find a nice, dark corner and curl up and sleep. It took a few minutes to wake herself back up, and then they were back to ducking around the tanks, covering the darkness, trying to see into shadows and hear anything over the gurgling of the water through the pipes and the roar of the generators. It was a little easier going, though; Garibaldi had taken the knapsack she’d had slung over her shoulders, with the supplies from the Grey Sector storage room. He must have done it while she’d been half-asleep. She was appreciative and annoyed at the same time. Felt a little like her old self again.
Nearly across the enormous room, Ivanova was struck with the sensation that they were not alone anymore. She hadn't heard anything, still didn't see anything, but all the shadows were suddenly imbued with menace. And then Ivanova felt herself overcome with a suffocating sense of dread, of imminent danger. It was so powerful and so sudden that she was afraid for a second that she would throw up. She grabbed Garibaldi, who had started around the next to last tank, and pulled him back. She didn't think she was going to be able to get breath enough to speak, and Garibaldi finally put one hand on the back of her neck and pulled her head close to his.
"Susan, what is it?"
"We have to go back. We have to get out of here."
"Is it your ankle?" Ivanova didn't even feel her ankle anymore; that pain had been totally knocked out by the warning signs going off in her mind. She was shaking her head wildly, and Garibaldi grabbed onto both her shoulders.
"We have to go. We have to go now." She pulled away from him, looked around the tank toward Sheridan and Delenn, one tank ahead of them, both looking back their way. Ivanova gestured for them to come back, and that's when they came for all of them.
Franklin had prepared blood and tissue samples from the Carnifex corpse, then set up an experiment that reminded him of early days in med school - injecting the tissues with different chemicals, medications, and solutions, then studying the results under the microscope hooked up to Leshke’s battery chain. He did the same thing with the blood samples. Most of the samples betrayed no reaction whatsoever. One did something very interesting.
Now Franklin was almost done with the injections of everyone in Medlab One. To the patients in the infirmary, it was as simple as injecting the solution into the IVs. Most of the other patients were told they were receiving a vitamin cocktail, which wasn‘t too far off the mark. He told the nurses and technicians the injection was an antibiotic he’d prepared after exposure to the Carnifex, afraid there might have been contamination; one, a young man who Franklin honestly couldn’t remember seeing before, was a little hesitant, but Franklin charmed him in a few minutes.
But Hobbs, he knew, would see through any story he came up with, so he just told her the truth.
"2000 milligrams of Vitamin C. It dissolves Carnifex flesh." Hobbs just looked at him then, holding the syringe in her hand. Franklin became convinced that she was going to throw it in his face, ask for him to step down for the duration of the crisis, even lock him up. Then she rolled up her sleeve, stuck the syringe in her arm, and injected herself.
"Am I the last one?" she asked. He knew what she was really asking.
"I didn't want to take the risk that you'd object."
"I don't know why you don't trust me, Stephen. I'm not just talking about today, either." Franklin walked away from her then, made his rounds even though technically he'd just done so. She followed him, and the rush he'd just felt from doing something even marginally productive melted away into the same old anger.
"Now is not the time, Dr. Hobbs."
"If we're going to get through this, we're going to have to work together. I could have helped you do your tests, distribute the injections. You do not have to carry all of this on your shoulders alone." The sad thing was, he agreed with her. There was no reason why he kept her out of the loop, why he insisted on doing everything on his own, why he fought against his better instincts. And the fact that he knew all of that just made him angrier, made him lash out even more, made him pointedly close the doors to the infirmary behind himself, shutting her out.
There were ten of them. Nine were mindless slaves - two humans, three Narn, a Drazi, and three Centauri. The tenth was Minbari, and he was no slave. Ivanova saw Delenn keep looking at him, could tell she wanted to ask questions, and it was all Ivanova could do to keep from screaming at her to stay quiet. The sense of dread she'd been afflicted with intensified the moment she laid her eyes on the Minbari, and she was sure that speaking to him was the worst possible thing they could do.
Ivanova had gotten one shot off, the others none at all. The slaves were on them immediately, not biting and tearing, but subduing. Most of their weapons were taken away, put aside; Ivanova was very aware of the pocket knife still in her shoe, and was pretty sure that Delenn's denn'bok was still tucked away inside her dress. Their links had been removed, crushed. The Minbari circled them, saying nothing, only looking. There was something wrong with him. Ivanova couldn't put her finger on it - he seemed like the Minbari she saw every single day. He seemed to take particular interest in her, looking at her even while standing in front of Sheridan, or Garibaldi. Ivanova made herself meet his eyes; she wouldn't let him know how afraid she was.
"Little soldiers," the Minbari finally said. "How far you've come." Delenn spit something out then, in her own language, and Ivanova had never seen her so angry, didn't know Delenn was capable of being that angry. The Minbari only laughed. The nine slaves made some awful noise, like choking screams, and Ivanova realized with a shiver that they were laughing, too.
"Are you working with them?" Sheridan asked, his fists clenching at his side. "With those monsters? Why would you do that?"
"I have no interest in explaining myself to you, little soldier." And around them he went again, a slow circle, eyes moving up and down their bodies. But especially Ivanova's.
"Listen, buddy," Garibaldi said, and Ivanova envied how smooth his voice was, how calm he seemed. "I don't know if this is a for-hire situation here or what, but you are in way over your head. Your bosses? Not that nice."
The Minbari stepped close to Ivanova, and she was afraid he was going to touch her. She could feel her skin crawl. He answered Garibaldi, but his eyes never left hers.
"And what makes you think they are the ones in charge?"
Ivanova told herself it was a mistake, told herself that it might very well be the last thing she'd ever do - and then, like so often happened, that very fact convinced her that it was the best possible thing she could do. If it was her last act, then by God, it would be a good one.
She spit in the Minbari's face.
Ivanova hoped that he would recoil, that he would shout out, even that he would strike her. But he just stood there, face still impassive, the barest hint of a smile. The Minbari raised one hand, almost an afterthought. One of the slaves came to him, that same horrible smile frozen on its face, and licked the spit off his face. Then the Minbari took his raised hand, caressed the side of Ivanova's face. She tried to pull away and found that she could not.
It was a struggle to get the words past her lips, but she found that well of anger inside herself and drank deep. "Fuck you, bonehead." She didn't think Delenn would mind the racial epithet, not now. And now the Minbari did recoil a bit, shaking his head. Ivanova felt the oppressive dread lessen a little bit, felt her ability to cordon off her mind seem to strengthen in turn, and not even knowing what she was doing, decided to press her advantage. "Furthermore, you bald piece of shit, if it's the last thing I do, I will make sure that I'm the one who ends your miserable, sorry excuse for a life. I will rip that stupid fucking piece of bone right off your head. I will cut off your fingers and shove them down your throat. I will keep one of your ugly monster fucks alive so that you can watch as I feed the rest of you to it, piece by piece. And before you die, I will be the last thing that you ever see, and you will see me smile."
The Minbari collapsed onto the ground, clutching his head. One ridiculous thought flashed through Ivanova's head - what a pussy - and then all hell broke loose. Like they were on the exact same wavelength, Garibaldi and Sheridan dove for the pile of weapons. Delenn already had her denn'bok out and extended, and started cutting a swathe through the slaves. Ivanova just knelt, slipped her pocket knife out of her shoe, and went for the Minbari.
The blade wasn't very long, but it was sharp. She was preparing for one slice, right across his throat, and just before she made it he managed to get a hand up in time. The knife slid through the palm of his hand with hardly any resistance, and Ivanova watched the fingers fall limp, useless. She sliced right back the opposite way, but he turned his head, and she laid his face open to his jaw bone.
The sound of PPG bursts all around her, the wordless screams of the zombie slaves. Ivanova changed her grip on the knife, then started stabbing down into the Minbari's face. She got his eye, his cheek, and then he pushed her off, amazingly strong. She skidded along the slick floor, and for a second she thought she'd lost her knife, but it was caught somehow in the folds of her jacket. She pulled it out, and she knew she'd have one more shot while he gained his feet. If she could just get up and get right back in the fight, he wouldn't be ready. She'd have him.
She stood, and then her ankle gave out underneath her.
Endless seconds while she got herself back up on her knees, then she looked all around, but couldn‘t see the Minbari. She saw Garibaldi crumpled at the bottom of one of the tanks, and hoped he was only unconscious. Sheridan was beating one of the slave's heads in with the butt of his PPG. And the two other slaves left standing were dragging Delenn to the doors, the Minbari trailing behind.
"John, don't let them take me!" Delenn screamed, and Ivanova struggled to her feet, armed with nothing but a pocket knife. She watched Sheridan run for Delenn, and the last human slave came at him, knocking him back. The Minbari went forward, opened the doors, the Drazi still pulling Delenn with him, an arm against her throat.
Ivanova made it to the pile of weapons. Only a single PPG was left; Garibaldi and Sheridan must have grabbed the others, or they had been scattered. Ivanova felt tired, faint. Raising the PPG was a struggle. Delenn screamed again, and it might have been John's name, but it might not have. Ivanova aimed - better that Delenn die here, quickly, mercifully. One clean shot, that's all she needed, but she couldn't seem to get her vision to clear. Two Delenns swam in front of her, and Ivanova found herself strangely aware that her shirt was wet.
"Susan, no! No!" Ivanova fired at the same exact second that Sheridan tackled her, and then the doors were slamming shut, and the world went dark.
VI. Always Darkest