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The Secret of Arias - Chapter 4

The tall trees of the jungle did not last long, and the two IPX rovers quickly found themselves in another world entirely. Gone was the lush vegetation, and in its place was a dark mockery of the healthy jungle that existed in the sunlit regions. The remnants of the ancient jungle could still be seen, tall trunks of once great trees reaching for the sky, reminding those who saw them of fire blackened ribs. But, that was all that was left, the rest of the jungle was gone, replaced with a low forest of giant fungi and other stunted plants.

Despite the feeling of devastation this view engendered, Susan found it eerily beautiful. It might not have the same feeling of wondrous life about it that the jungle did, but there was beauty to be found here nonetheless. Several species of plants possessed a phosphorescent glow to their leaves, and they gave the forest a faint glow, as if it were lit up by millions of fairy lights. It made her feel almost sad to watch the rovers tear into the forest of fungi like giant hungry beasts, destroying everything in their path.

That feeling soon passed though, as Susan realised that the lack of tall trees and jungle was making the going a lot easier. The tallest of the fungi barely even made it up to the top of the rover's wheels, and while there were a few taller plants, the journey should pass a lot quicker now. With luck it could cut the travel time from the originally expected day and a half, to a little over a day. If they followed the same path on the way back, the return trip would be even quicker. For a brief moment, Susan allowed herself to hope that this mission would be over a lot sooner than she had originally imagined.

Dr. Melis though, soon put an end to that hope. "What's that," he asked in a curious tone, pointing towards the window. Outside could be seen a small hill the rovers were currently passing. It was fairly unremarkable as far as hills went, but Melis seemed to have found something interesting about it.

"That's a tree," Susan replied, peering out the window in the direction the doctor indicated. On top of the hill it was just possible to see a tall tree-like shape jutting out from the summit.

Melis shook his head in disagreement. "No, it is too regular to be a tree. I think it is some sort of construction. Look around you, all the other trees are only there because they have vines and other parasites growing all over them. This one is alone on the top of the hill, with nothing growing anywhere near it."

Susan frowned, but then realised he was right. What she had first taken to be the bare trunk of a dead tree, was in fact something else entirely. "It looks like a pillar of some kind," she mused, watching the object carefully as the rovers were forced to alter their course to go around the hill.

"I think we should check it out," Melis said, looking excited by the prospect. "It might be important, and we can't pass up the opportunity to let something like this slip through our fingers."

"It is probably nothing," Susan replied. "Anyway, we are on a rescue mission and don't have time to check out every interesting object we might happen to pass. Mark it on the navigation system, and you can take a look another time. If it is here now, then I doubt it is going anywhere anytime soon." As she spoke though, a strange feeling was beginning to creep into her thoughts. At first she dismissed it, but then the feeling began to grow in strength. It was as if the pillar was calling out to her, urging her to come closer.

"It won't take long," Melis argued. "All we have to do is walk up to the top of that hill. It would take ten minutes at the most. It might have something to do with this storm, and if that's true then we can't miss this opportunity."

Despite her better judgement, Susan found herself agreeing. "Very well, Doctor," she said. "We will investigate, but only for fifteen minutes, no longer. I don't want to hold up this mission any longer than necessary." She turned to the marine in charge of the rover's sensors, and communication system. "Signal the other rover of our intentions," she ordered. "Tell them to stop and wait until we return, and also that no-one else is permitted outside without my permission."

"Understood, Captain," came the snappy reply from the sensor operator.

Talia looked at her with a faintly worried look on her face. <Are you sure you know what you are doing, Susan?> she asked telepathically. <I thought you didn't want to stop every time some interesting artefact appeared.>

<I know I said that,> Susan replied. <But there is something interesting about this pillar, something very interesting indeed.>

"Captain," the sensor operator suddenly interrupted. "Major Logan wishes to join you if you are going anywhere outside the rover, and asks if she can send a bodyguard along as well."

Susan's first thought was to turn down the Major's request, but after considering what they faced, she agreed with the idea. After all, she didn't know what was out there, and despite the strange compulsion she felt to examine this object, she wasn't about the go outside without protection. There could be anything waiting for them out in the darkness. "Tell the Major to join us as soon as she can," she said, getting out of her chair and moving towards the rovers hatch.

Talia and Melis quickly joined her, and all three left the command cabin together. As she walked down the narrow corridor towards the hatch, Susan felt almost as if she were being guided somewhere, and that her feet were travelling almost without her direction. Normally she would have found this most alarming, but for some reason what was happening to her seemed right. She felt as if there was something important about this pillar, something she had to see, and that if she didn't see it, then something bad was going to happen.

Jarz stopped his pursuits of the alien machines for a second, just long enough to pluck two juicy white worms from the pile of broken mushrooms that marked the passage of the rovers. After wiping the dirt off them, he dropped them into his mouth, relishing the soft, honey-like flavour of their flesh. Then, he turned his attention back to tracking the aliens.

Actually it wasn't a difficult task, their machines had left a trail even an untrained hatchling could follow with ease. Despite the devastation though, Jarz realised that the environment had suffered little permanent damage. Floating through the air in front of him, the scout could see thousands of tiny white filaments, spores from the damaged fungi. Soon they would settled and grow, replacing their damaged parents. In about three weeks there would be almost no trace of the damage caused.

He didn't have time to stand around and watch the spores floating about though, he had aliens to track. After tossing another couple of worms into his belt pouch for an afternoon snack, he continued his run, following the wide trail the rovers had left. To his surprise, he soon caught up with the two alien machines, stopped just down the trail from where he had found the worms. He quickly ducked into behind a fallen log, crouching down so they could not see him.

There he watched as a small group of aliens set out from their machines, making slow progress across towards a nearby hill. Jarz scratched an itchy spot on the top of his round head, wondering why the aliens had abandoned their machines. From what he had been told, they were not very mobile through this sort of landscape, and he wondered why they would try to walk through the forest of fungus without their machines. Curious, he edged closer.

It was then he saw it, a tall pillar riding above the hill. He knew at once what it was, and who had put it there. Like many things in his society, the pillars were something that only a few were every permitted to know the truth about. But, despite this, stories always seemed to filter down to the lower ranks. So, like the other younger warriors, Jarz had heard the story of these pillars, and the creatures who had made them.

It was rumoured that before she came to this world, the Mistress had been enslaved by an evil race of creatures that travelled among the stars. Jarz knew about stars, of course, having seen them during his journeys through the jungle beyond the Mistress' domain. To him though, they were just lights in the sky, and of little value to anyone. The Mistress, however, seemed to put great value in them, and the stories often mentioned of her desire to return to the stars and rain vengeance down on those who had wronged her.

This evil race that had imprisoned her was also supposed to be responsible for the construction of the pillars. Legend said that the evil ones built them as a barrier to prevent the Mistress from escaping her prison. They were also said to have been a warning to others who may come, like the aliens who now walked on this world, a warning that none could resist. Jarz knew as well that the Mistress had ordered them all destroyed centuries ago, but somehow this one must have survived the search, for here it stood, still intact. For a moment he thought about informing his superiors back in the fortress, but chose instead to wait and see what happened when the alien's reached the pillar.

After spending the last five minutes walking across this dark landscape, Susan was beginning to change her opinion of its beauty. Up close, it lost its gloss, and began to resemble a rotting corpse. The mushrooms and other fungi became parasites, leaching away the life from the world, and the phosphorescent glow of the leafy plants took on an eerie, ghost-like quality. But worst of all was the stench of rotting vegetation.

Inside the rovers there had been no smell at all, but outside the stench of rot hung heavy in the air, permeating everything. Susan and the rest of the small group that had set out to investigate the pillar were wearing filter masks, but they provided little protection against the smell.

So, they had been forced to put up with it, trying to ignore it as they slogged slowly through the muddy soil towards the top of the hill. Fortunately there must not have been any rain recently and the ground was still reasonably hard. Susan could tell that if it had rained any time in the past week, the ground would have been so soft that they would not have been able to walk up the steep slope of the hill. As it was, she had already slipped over once, catching herself just in time. Dr. Melis had not been so lucky, and shortly after starting up the hillside found himself sliding back down again, his expensive suit now covered with mud. It certainly hadn't done much to improve his attitude.

"How much longer," he called out for the third time in two minutes.

She choose not to answer this time, just continuing her walk up the hill. Melis grumbled about arrogant Earthforce officers, but didn't slow his walk. Behind both of them Talia and Major Logan were walking slowly up the hill, conducting their own private conversation. Susan felt a brief stab of jealousy, before dismissing it, remembering with the absolute certainty that only joined minds could give that Talia was in love with her, and not about to leave her again.

Turning back to the climb, Susan continued on, walking as fast as she could. The feeling of being drawn towards the strange structure had grown, and with it a feeling of profound disquiet. Susan now felt as if she was being led there by some power beyond her control, but when she tried to slow down or turn around, found that her feet would not obey her commands, and that she was compelled to continue on.

Finally the group made it up to the summit of the small hill. Before them, rising out of the muddy ground was the object of their expedition, a dark stone pillar. It looked as if it had been crafted by some primitive tribe, and they could almost imagine the pillar being chipped out with stone axes and chisels.

"Well, that doesn't look like much," Melis said, a tone disappointment in his voice. "It was hardly worth coming all this way for."

"It's Vorlon," Susan replied softly, her voice seeming distant. She felt herself pulled closer, and despite trying to resist her hand slowly raised to touch the stone surface of the pillar.

"How do you know," Melis asked in surprise, looking over at her. "Have you seen this sort of thing before."

Susan didn't reply. Instead, she reached out to touched the pillar. She found its surface smooth and cold, with no indentations or other markings. It was like touching stone, but it didn't feel like stone, instead it felt somehow alive. Then, she felt a faint electrical shock run through her, and suddenly she no longer stood on the muddy hilltop. Instead she was elsewhere, somewhere cold and almost equally desolate.

It took a few seconds for her to realise exactly where she was, but then she recognised the snow-covered street she stood on as the same one her family's home had been on, back when she was a child in St. Petersburg. In front of her lay an old store, a place her father had always forbidden her to go near during her childhood. She remembered always wanting to find out what was inside the store, but she had been too afraid. She was an adult now, but she still felt a feeling of growing trepidation at the sight of the boarded up windows and cracked paint.

Finally, she summoned up enough courage to take a step forward, and moved closer to the darkened doorway of the store. Then, out of the shadows of the doorway, the figure of her father appeared. "Do not go there," her father said, his voice sounding the same as she remembered. "There are bad things in here." Her father then turned and looked down the street, and Susan followed his gaze to see her childhood home in the distance. For some reason it was glowing, and it seemed to exude a sense of warmth and comfort. "Go there," the image of her father said. "You will be safe there. Do not venture into the darkness, only death awaits you."

Susan frowned, suddenly realising that, while the person in front of her might look like her father, there was none of the warmth and love she was used to. "Who are you," she asked, while at the same time opening her mind and attempting to read the thoughts of the being standing before her.

The results of her telepathic probe were immediate, not to mention violent. The false images of her father, along with the image of the street, vanished, exploding into a riot of colour and light. When her vision cleared she was standing in on a white plain, standing in front of an encounter-suited Vorlon. "Do not go any further," the Vorlon said, its voice sounding almost identical to Kosh's. "There is danger here, go back before it is too late."

Susan felt a feeling of fear begin to rise inside her. Despite that though, she managed to say, "I must." She became vaguely aware of a throbbing in her head, making it hard to think. She concentrated for a second and the throbbing left her, and with it went the feeling of fear the Vorlon had been generating. "There are people I must rescue. If I don't help them, they may die."

"Let them die," the Vorlon replied. It felt like Kosh was once again speaking just to her.  "You must not go any further, or you too will die. This world is quarantined, and none may walk on its surface without our permission. If you proceed you will be destroyed." The Vorlon turned around again and in the distance she could see a spark of light. "Go there," it said. "Go home, and leave this world while you still can."

Susan felt a feeling of rage well up in her. She had been through a lot during the Shadow war and since, and the thought of the Vorlons still being able to tell her what to do, made her more than a little angry. "I will not leave," she said harshly, backing up her words with all the telepathic muscle she could muster. The image of the Vorlon seemed to waver for a second and then suddenly it vanished and Susan found herself standing before the pillar once more.

"I said, have you seen this kind of thing before," came the voice of Dr. Melis from beside her.

Susan blinked to clear her head, and turned around to look at him. "No, I haven't," she replied.

Beside her the pillar suddenly began to break up, large shards of rock sliding off and landing in the mud. Susan turned back just in time to see the pillar break in half and fall to the ground. As it shattered Susan felt her mind clear, and the compulsion that had been pushing her all the way up the hill faded away, becoming nothing but a memory.

"Well, that was unusual," Talia said, poking a fallen piece of the pillar with a muddy boot. "I wonder why it did that."

"It was probably because I touched it," Susan replied, not wanting to tell anyone about what she had experienced. Perhaps later she would tell Talia, but she didn't want the rest to know about the warning. This mission was already dangerous enough without everyone worrying about non-existent enemies. "Come on, lets get back to the rovers, we have wasted enough time on this already."

The others nodded, and after pausing to pocket a piece of the pillar, even Dr. Melis followed her back to the base of the hill. As she walked Susan wondered about the warning the Vorlon had tried to pass on to her. Perhaps there was something else alive on this world, something dangerous. After all, this world had never been settled by the Vorlons, and it was a life supporting planet, a rare commodity in a universe full of rocky worlds with no atmosphere.

Then there was the strange circumstances of the Sturt's crash landing. The story of the energy drain just hadn't matched what she had seen when the shuttles had landed in the clearing. Neither shuttle pilot had reported even the slightest drain on their systems, and although it was possible that it didn't start until the ship had been there for a while, it still didn't match the story told by the IPX crew. On the other hand, she wasn't about to turn back and give up on her mission now. Compared to what she had faced before, this was nothing.

The lightning seemed to crash into the collection towers with increased vigour this morning, Azrak noticed, watching the rolling clouds rotate slowly in the sky above the fortress. He wondered if it had something to do with the arrival of this new group of aliens. He was beginning to get a very bad feeling about this mission the Mistress was about to send them on. It was as if some great change was coming, and when it arrived he wasn't sure he was going to survive.

Sighing, he turned back to look at the force he had gathered to carry out the Mistress' will. They were the finest warriors he had even had the chance to work with, a perfect mixture of experience and youthful vigour. Among his people, a male was not counted among the warriors ranks until he had reach the age of ten thousand cycles. Until then, he was only a worker, slaving away on the construction sites, or maybe a miner or servant. Azrak was five times that age and could barely even remember his time as a worker.

For a moment he felt old and tired, but then he remembered that however old he was, the Mistress was older. According to the records she had lived for nearly a million cycles, perhaps even more. Azrak shook his head, trying to image what it would be like living for that long. His life was nearly over, with perhaps another five thousand cycles left to him, if he was lucky. But she would survive long after he was gone, living forever.

Her voice stopped any further thoughts though, snapping his attention back to the throne. "Assemble your warriors, Azrak," the Mistress said. "I have arranged a special surprise for you."

Azrak nodded and gave the order for the warriors to form up into ranks. They quickly complied, although he noticed that a few were sneaking the occasional glance in the direction of the throne. He looked over, but saw that the Mistress hadn't noticed, so he decided not to discipline those responsible. After all, for most of those here this was their first visit to the throne room, and therefore a day to be remembered. He wasn't about to spoil it for them. Instead he made his way over to the Mistress' side and took up his position.

"What is this surprise, Mistress," he asked.

She turned to look at him, and when she replied there was an amused tone to her voice. "If I told you that then it would hardly be a surprise, would it." Then, seeing that Azrak didn't really understand her humour, she signed and explained. "Do you remember your concerns about the alien's weapons?"

"I was not concerned," Azrak quickly cut in. "I don't fear anything. I was merely interested to know how we were to capture creatures with such weapons." He then paused, and looked a little ashamed at interrupting her explanation.

She didn't seem to notice, waiting until he had finished speaking and then continuing. "I have asked artisan Kaj to build some protective clothing for you, something to stop the alien's weapons from harming you."

"Clothing?" Azrak asked, the tone of his voice leaving her in no doubt what he thought of the idea. The Chosen warriors usually wore as little as possible, claiming more clothing would restrict their movements, and make them vulnerable to predators like the Jurm snake. Of course, the fact that the Jurm snake was only found in one small region of the swamp didn't enter into the matter. The Mistress had once voiced the opinion that the warriors wore as little as possible so they could pose and hopefully attract the attention of the females, but she had not ordered them to do otherwise, so the practice had continued.

"This is important, Azrak," she said. "Without this protection you would be vulnerable to their weapons. With it, they will have no effect on you, and you will be able to capture them easily."

As soon as she finished speaking the doors opened, and artisan Kaj, followed closely by a group of her apprentices, entered the throne room. The gathered warriors quickly snapped to attention, standing as straight as they could. Grateful that the shadows she had gathered around her hid her smile, the Mistress gestured for Kaj to approach.

Standing beside the throne, Azrak's attention was not on the females, but rather the stacks of dark material they carried. It was tough looking, like the shell of a Tosim beetle, but at the same time it looked flexible. He wasn't happy with the idea, but he had to agree that if this was going to protect them from the alien's weapons then it had to be good. He had viewed the recording made by Pathfinder Jarz, and seen on the ISN broadcasts what the weapons could do. Faced with that evidence he had to admit that he was more than a little nervous about facing them in combat.

Kaj quickly made her way across to the throne, and ordered the piles of armour dropped on the ground. She bowed in the direction of the Mistress. "I am here as requested Mistress," she said after rising to look her leader in the eye. She was an impressive creature, tall for a female and well muscled from her long years in the workshops. Despite her age, her scales still gleamed a brilliant emerald colour, attracting the attention of many a warrior when she had time for dalliances. Even Azrak, who rarely found himself interested in a female these days, felt rising lust at her appearance.

"Good, Kaj," the Mistress relied. "Azrak here has just volunteered to be the first to try on the new armour. Please outfit him at once."

Kaj bowed again, and then turned her gaze on the leader of the warriors. Unlike the warriors, her gaze held no hint of romantic intentions, instead she observed the warrior only to determine what size armour he would require. After making the measurements visually, she turned to her apprentices, most of whom were her own hatchlings, and ordered them to begin fitting the armour.

Azrak looked a little nervous as the females swarmed around him, strapping on the dark, leathery material. Before he could complain though, most of his scales had vanished beneath the smooth armour, and he had an opportunity to examine himself. The armour felt strange, and would take some getting used to, but it seemed to fit him like a second skin, so smooth and flexible that it hardly even restricted his movements at all.

He quickly flexed his muscles, and found that the dark material expanded with his body, allowing him full movement in his upper arms and legs. Kaj looked him over with a appraising gaze, and asked a couple of questions about the fit. Based on his answers she made one minor adjustment, and then stepped back to pick up the final part of the armour, a large round section meant to go over the head.

Azrak immediately started to complain. "I will not wear that," he said to Kaj. "It will restrict my vision."

Artisan Kaj looked at him with a frown marring her beautiful face. "You must," she replied. "If you do not, then the circuit will not be complete and the suit will not work." Seeing Azrak's confused look, she muttered something about stupid males and pointed towards the centre of the warrior's chest. There, embedded into the material was a large blue crystal. "That is the storage crystal," the artisan explained. "It will collect the energy from the alien's weapon so it doesn't harm you. If you do not wear the head piece, then the circuit will not be complete and the suit will not work."

Azrak stared at the crystal for a second, and then relented, allowing the artisan to fit the head piece. To his surprise it wasn't restricting at all, fitting perfectly over his head, while still allowing him to see clearly. He turned towards the throne and looked at the Mistress with a questioning look on his face, as if asking her opinion.

"It will do," the Mistress said, standing and walking slowly over to Azrak's side. "As long as the suit makes them invulnerable to the alien weapons, then it will do." She turned back to Kaj and asked, "did you bring it."

The artisan nodded and passed over a small PPG pistol, one taken from one of the earlier captives. The Mistress weighed the pistol in her shadowy hand, as if getting a feel for the weapon. Then, in one swift motion she levelled the pistol and Azrak's chest and pulled the trigger. The warrior jumped, certain he was going to die. But, instead the bolt of plasma energy impacted on the suit with little effect at all, just a faint stinging feeling.

Looking down, he saw the front of the suit crackling with blue energy. The explosion of energy didn't last long though, quickly drawn off by the crystal. He looked up at the Mistress. "It seems to work," he said, realising that she had only fired because she knew it would not harm him. That, and the fact that she wanted to show the warriors gathered in the room why they needed the armour.

"Indeed it does, Azrak," she replied, tossing the pistol back to Kaj and making her way back to the throne. With a weary sigh, she lowered herself down onto the cushioned seat, and continued to speak. "This suit will protect you, and as you have seen it will make you invulnerable to their weapons. They will be at your mercy."

Azrak nodded, and turning around to look at his warriors saw that many of them were already examining the armour, as if eager to try it on. He gave the order for them to do so and then turned back to the throne. "Perhaps now you will tell us of our mission?"

She nodded, and activated one of the display screens. It quickly lowered itself from the ceiling and when she switched it on, it bought up the image of the alien's landing. The warriors quickly focused their attention on the screen, as many had not seen this before. After allowing them to see the entire report once, she changed the view until it showed a picture of the two rovers.

"I want you to capture one of these machines, " she told the gathered warriors. "With your new armour it should not be too difficult."

"What about the aliens?" one of the warrior asked, before closing his mouth in a hurry and looking at the throne with a slightly frightened gaze, as if afraid he would be punished for speaking out of turn.

Both his commander, and the Mistress, however, chose to ignore his indiscretion. "I want them captured," she replied. "Whatever you do, I do not want them injured in any way. Bring them back here with the machine."

Close to the throne, Azrak leaned forward and asked a question in a low voice. "Am I to consider the lives of these aliens as more valuable than my own?"

She considered the question for a second before answering. "No, but I would prefer that none were injured during this mission. My plans may be compromised if any aliens are injured, but I do not want any of your warriors to be killed."

He nodded in understanding, and then he saw that she was growing tired. He had seen her like this before, whenever she tried to walk or do anything but sit on her throne. Realising that she needed to be alone, he quickly hurried over to his men and ordered them to leave, along with the artisan and her apprentices. Then, with a low bow in the direction of the throne, he also followed. He still had questions about the mission, especially why it was being conducted at all, but knew that the Mistress must have her reasons for what she did. All he could do is bring back the alien's machine as she had requested.

Back on the throne, the Mistress felt her strength beginning to fade away. Usually when she was this tired she would retreat to her personal quarters above the throne room, to be alone until she recovered. Today though, her fatigue was too great and before she could call for her servants to assist her she succumbed to her exhaustion and slumped over. Her breathing, which had been ragged and desperate, grew more regular as much of her body slipped into unconsciousness. Then, the shadows she had shrouded herself with faded away, and she gathered herself into into a ball, hugging her knees, while resting her head against the cushioned arm of the throne, her dark hair cascading down the side of the tall chair.

Across the throne room, a small door opened, and through it stepped her counsellor, Morkazz. He had been told by Azrak of the Mistress fatigue, and had hurried to see what he could do. Approaching the throne though, his thoughts of assistance changed to amazement, as he glanced on the true features of his Mistress for the first time. Suddenly everything she was doing made sense, and he realised why she had hidden herself from his people, and why she was interested in these aliens.

He knew also that the others must not find out yet. While they would still respect her when they knew the truth, they did not need distractions right now, not when she had important work for them to do. Setting his staff aside, the old servant reached down and gathered the Mistress' tiny figure in his arms, carrying her across the throne room. After a quickly worded phrase a set of stairs suddenly appeared, spiralling their way down from the ceiling.

Morkazz looked at the stairs and sighed, realising the pain he was going to be in after he climbed them. Concern for his Mistress filled his thoughts though, and so he carried her up the stairs to her personal quarters, ignoring the jolts of pain shooting up his injured leg. Above him, the doorway in the ceiling spiralled open and allowed him entrance into the Mistress' personal quarters. He had never been here before, and knew that she permitted none but the blind female servants access here. He also knew that these were special circumstances, and so he continued.

Stepping into her room, he looked around in amazement, surprised by what he saw. Strange devices that he had never seen before filled the room, and most strange of all was a large piece of furniture covered with soft looking cloth. Before he could decide what to do, a voice spoke. "Put her down on the bed," it said.

Morkazz looked around, before suddenly recognising the speaker. It was Harj, one of the blind females who served as the Mistress' servants. Before the Mistress' arrival the blind and lame were left to die, but after she had become the leader of the Chosen, the Mistress had ordered that they be made her personal servants, which not only kept them alive, but also gave them a purpose in their lives. Morkazz himself owed his life to this decree, for otherwise his existence might have been over when he had been injured during a hunting accident, the tusks of a Tosim beetle slicing open his leg and leaving him lame.

"The bed?," he asked. "What's that."

Harj pointed towards the strange piece of furniture he had seen earlier. "That is a bed," she replied. "The Mistress likes to rest on it when she is tired. Put her there and then leave. My sisters and I will help her."

Morkazz nodded, and then gently lowered the Mistress onto the bed, watching as she seemed to melt into the soft material. "Will she be all right," he asked.

"In time," Harj replied, as she reached down and pulled the soft covering on the bed over the Mistress' body. Morkazz realised, that although she was blind, she knew this room better than he did with his full vision. Then, when the Mistress was safely tucked up in her bed, the blind servant looked up at him. "You saw her?"

Morkazz nodded, before remembering that Harj couldn't see his movement and saying, "Yes I did."

"You will not tell anyone," the female servant said firmly.

The servant was only small compared to Morkazz, but he knew that her devotion to the Mistress was such that he couldn't even think about disobeying her commands. "I won't," he promised.

Harj nodded, as if satisfied. "Good. Now go, she will recover in a few hours. Return then with her elixir, she will need it to fully recover."

Morkazz nodded and started back down the stairs, ignoring the worsening limp in his leg. He did not know what the Mistress would do when she learned that he had seen her true face, but he would obey her no matter what. She had given his people so much, and asked nothing in return. She was the heart and soul of his entire race now, and the small fact that she was not one of them was not about to make to make him betray her now. In fact, he felt even more devoted to her than ever now, realising that she had devoted centuries of her own life to help those not even of her own species.

The two rovers had driven through the day and into the night, following the invisible path that led towards their goal, the tiny dot on the map where they would hopefully find the crashed survey ship. As they moved further and further away from the jungle, the landscape had changed again. Gone were the forests of fungi and stunted shrubs, and they had found themselves in a dank swamp.

Instead of the straight path they had been following, the two rovers had been forced to continually bypass the pools of stagnant water, weaving their way across the swampy ground. This had made the going a lot tougher than expected, as along the shores of the swamp a new kind of forest had grown. Now, instead of a low forest of fungus, a tightly woven mass of plant life had blocked their path. Vines seemed to clutch at them as they passed and more than once they had been forced to use the cutting lasers, mounted at the front of the rovers, to slice away a path through the vegetation.

However, as day passed into night, the trees had faded away and the landing party found themselves driving across a plain of reeds. The ground was soft and slippery, but the rovers were equipped for such conditions, extending sharp spikes from their metal wheels. These spikes extended just before the wheel touched the ground and then retracted as it left the surface, allowing the rovers to grip the slippery ground properly.

Satisfied with their progress Susan had ordered the command crew of her rover to get some sleep. Then, after she made sure the rover's driver would wake her if there were any problems, she had allowed herself the luxury of a short nap. She had only originally planned for a couple of hours rest, but those two hours soon turned into six. The ride through the reeds was very comfortable and smooth, and the hissing of the reeds against the rovers outer surface, strangely relaxing.

In the command cabin Sergeant Drake finished his shift at the controls, and passed on that responsibility to one of his soldiers. Somehow they had managed to complete this change over without waking anyone, despite Drake's replacement dropping a heavy clipboard on the metal floor. It had struck the floor with a loud bang, a noise that echoed around the room for what seemed like forever. No-one woke though, and the only reaction came from Talia who turned in her sleep and muttered something inaudible.

That had been three hours ago, and now the landscape outside was beginning to change again. The reeds were starting to thin out, and ahead could be seen another forest. This one was different again, appearing to be made up entirely of eerily glowing trees, their phosphorescent nature visible even from this distance. It was like driving down a dark lonely road, and then seeing the lights of a town in the distance. This time though, the glow wasn't from anything man made, but instead it came from the trees themselves. Each different variety seemed to glow with a slightly different colour, creating an amazing mural of yellows, whites, and reds.

The new driver, Private Alexi Hvasanov, didn't see the beauty in the scene though. Instead he groaned as he realised that he was going to have to wake the Captain. He had enjoyed the past three hours. It had been somehow restful and relaxing, just driving across a flat landscape, with nothing to worry about but keeping the rover in a straight line. He was about to call out when he suddenly spotted something, a path that seemed to lead through the forest. He glanced down at the navigation display, and saw that the needle indicating the required direction was pointing straight towards the path.

Almost amazed at this sudden stroke of good luck, he turned the rover onto the path. The forest closed around the rover, and for a moment Hvasanov had the impression of driving down a tunnel of light. For a moment he seriously considered switching off the rover's lights, which currently shone only on the road directly ahead of him, and relying solely on the glow from the forest. But reason soon reared its head and he dismissed that idea. While the phosphorescent glow was strong, it was nowhere near powerful enough to light up the path in front of him like the double row of spotlights mounted underneath the front of the rover. So, he just sat back, and concentrated on driving, watching the incredible forest pass by.

So rapt was he in the forest, he didn't notice the obstruction until it was too late. Suddenly, a log appeared across the path, blocking their passage. For a second Hvasanov's blood ran cold, and he could see disaster approaching. But, the log looked bigger than it first appeared, and he sighed in relief as he realised that the rover was going to pass over it without any major damage. He didn't have time to slow down though, so it was still going to cause a bump.

Then it struck, the rover shuddering as it hit the fallen log. The log, rotten with age, exploded under the weight of the massive machine, sending shards of wood in all directions. It wasn't as bad as he had originally thought, but the damage had already been done. Behind Hvasanov the Captain stirred in her seat. After a long yawn Susan opened her eyes and blinked, before glancing down at the sheepish looking driver with a questioning expression on her face.

"Sorry for the bump, Captain," he said apologetically, before turning his attention back to the rover's controls, intent on keeping an eye open for any further obstructions.

Susan frowned for a second, wondering who the new driver was. It took a few seconds for her sleep clouded brain to dredge up the order she had given Drake about a roster system for drivers. This private, she realised, must be the sergeant's replacement. After rubbing her eyes to clear them of the last vestiges of sleep, and yawning again, She looked around the command cabin.

In the sensor operator's chair, the same marine who had been their the previous day was fast asleep in his chair, his snores resounding around the cabin like a chainsaw. She shook her head in amazement, wondering how she had managed to sleep through that racket. Behind him, Talia sat curled up in her chair, somehow also still asleep. She was resting her head on her hands, and there was a faint smile on her lips as if she was dreaming. Susan watched her for nearly a minute, marvelling at the way Talia still looked so beautiful, even when she was fast asleep.

Unclasping the safety belt from around her waist, Susan walked across the gently swaying cabin to Talia's side. The telepath looked so comfortable that Susan didn't want to disturb her. Instead, she brushed aside a few errant strands of hair and turned around to speak to the driver. It was then she noticed that Dr. Melis was missing. She stared at his empty seat for a few seconds, before asking, "Private, where is Dr. Melis."

"I don't know, Captain," Hvasanov replied with shrug of his broad shoulders. "He wasn't here when I arrived to take over from Drake."

Susan frowned, remembering that he had been here when she ordered everyone but the driver to get some sleep. Then she also shrugged, and decided to take his seat, which was after all the one set aside for the rover's commander. The doctor would probably appear in due course, and she only hoped he wasn't going to be any more irritable than he already was due to his lack of sleep. That was assuming of course that he wasn't sleeping somewhere else. Given the amount of baggage he had bought with him, Melis probably had a mattress inside one of his bags, and was even now asleep on a soft bed somewhere.

She yawned again, then stretched, trying to work out the kinks in her muscles. Then, still feeling tired for some unknown reason, she looked out the front window at the forest that was rushing past outside. She frowned, realising that although the rover was passing through a thick forest there was almost no noise. Before, when they had gone through the thick vegetation near the swamp the noise had been almost deafening. "Where are we?" she asked Hvasanov.

"Um, in a forest, Captain," he offered

"I can see that, Private," she said. "Why is the rover getting through it so easily."

"We are on a path," the driver replied. "I was going to wake you when we reached the edge of the forest, but then I spotted this path, and decided to go down here instead."

Susan raised an eyebrow at that explanation and moved closer to the window, looking down to where the lights from the rover lit up the path ahead of them. She quickly determined that what Hvasanov had said was correct, they were indeed travelling down a path. However, there was something about it that was wrong. It was too regular, too clean to be natural. Naturally occurring paths like this just weren't possible. Nature was curved, it didn't have straight edges, and this path was most definitely straight. It shot like an arrow from the edge of the reeds, right through the heart of the forest.

It was obvious that someone, or something built this path, but for what purpose Susan couldn't even begin to imagine. She didn't have long to think about it though, as in the chair beside her Talia stirred and softly called out her name. Susan quickly looked over, but saw that the blonde woman's eyes were still closed, which meant that she must have called out in her sleep. Then the rover struck another bump and Talia's eyes flickered open.

"Good morning," Susan said.

"Is it morning already?" Talia asked, sounding faintly disappointed. "I was just having the most wonderful dream."

Mindful that they were not alone, Susan didn't ask Talia what her dream had been about, although she had a pretty good idea. She knew that some of the command staff probably knew about their relationship, but she didn't want the rest of the crew to know, especially when it went against standard Earthforce policy. Of course, Talia wasn't actually a member of Earthforce, but she was a telepath, which in some ways might be considered worse.

So, instead of asking out loud, she kept reached out with her mind. <Was it about me?> she asked telepathically.

Talia looked at her and smiled. <How did you guess?>

<You were calling out my name,> Susan replied, a faint look of amusement on her face.

Talia blushed. <Did anyone else notice?> she asked, glancing around the cabin. Then she realised that no-one else was here except her, Susan, the driver, and the snoring sensor operator, who seemed to be able to sleep through anything. She stared at the driver for a moment, but he still had his eyes on the road, and his thoughts were on things other than her possible relationship with Susan.

Then she noticed someone missing. "Where's Melis," she asked, switching back to normal speech.

Susan was about to say that she didn't know, when a noise behind her distracted her. Looking towards the passage way, Susan saw the errant Dr. Melis suddenly appear. clutching a chunk of rock in his hands. "This is amazing stuff," the doctor said excitedly, taking the last remaining seat. He didn't seem to notice that Susan had stolen the central seat, which had been his the previous day.

"What's that?" Susan asked, looking at the curious rock he held.

"It is a chunk of that pillar," Melis explained. "I have been examining it. It has some very interesting properties indeed. It appears much like normal stone, but when you look closer it is possible to see that it is also alive."

"Have you been up all night with that?" Susan asked him.

Melis looked confused by that question. "What do you mean?" he asked. "It has only been an hour hasn't it."

"Try seven hours," Susan said, shaking her head in amazement. "We are nearly at our destination. With any luck the Sturt should be just over the other side of those hills." She pointed out of the front window at a line of hills that were just coming into view in the distance, appearing as little more than as dark blobs.

Melis glanced briefly out the window, but it was too dark to see any details. "Well I guess I was distracted then," he said. "I was back in the lab, checking this rock with every experiment that I could think of."

Susan realised that he meant the small on board lab that the rover possessed. It was right at the very back of the vehicle, behind the passenger and cargo sections, and was mainly for examining samples to determine their worth before sending them back to the mother vessel for a more thorough analysis.

"I think you might have been better served getting some sleep," she said.

Melis looked indignant. "I feel fine. Anyway there will be plenty of time for sleep when we get back to the Rasputin. If I feel tired I can just use stims."

Susan looked less sure. Stims were never a replacement for real sleep, as Franklin had proved back on Babylon 5. However, she didn't want to spend the morning debating the matter with Melis, so conceded the argument and turned back to Private Hvasanov. "Where is the other rover?" she asked.

The driver quickly scanned his instruments, before snapping his eyes back to the path in front of him. "They are about a kilometre behind us," he replied, not taking his eyes away from the window.

Susan frowned. "Why are they all the way back there," she said. "Get me them on the link."

Hvasanov nudged his companion in the sensor operator's chair. The other marine was instantly awake, cut off in mid snore. "Was is it," he asked.

"Call up the other rover," Susan told him. "I want to speak to them."

The sensor operator nodded, and without even a trace of sleepiness, activated the link to the other rover. The connection crackled with static, probably caused by the storm overhead, but everyone in the command cabin could soon hear the voice of Major Logan over the speaker. "What is it?" the Major asked.

"Why are you so far back?" Susan asked her. "I want us to keep together. Otherwise we could lose you, or you lose us. It is safer for everyone if we remain close together."

Logan's reply sounded slightly irritable, as if she hadn't got a lot of sleep during the night. "I will do what I can, Captain," she said. "Logan out."

Susan wondered what was eating the Major today, but decided not to press her. Instead she turned back to the window and watched the dark landscape outside slowly passing by. The forest of glowing trees was starting to thin out now, and the rovers were now starting to head into a range of small hills, the ones she had pointed out to Melis earlier. Fortunately the path they were on seemed to head through a small gap in the hills, ensuring that they wouldn't have to climb to get over them.

Once again the feeling that the path had been constructed by some intelligence struck her. For a second the warning the Vorlon's had left behind came back to her, and Susan wondered if there wasn't something to it after all. Perhaps there was an alien intelligence out there, watching them and luring them in. For a minute she even wondered if the rocket from the Sturt hadn't been a ploy by this invisible alien, designed to bring them down to the surface so they could be eaten or have their bodies mutilated by sharp instruments, just like in the old vids.

Shaking her head she dismissed the idea. If the readings were correct then the Sturt was just over the other side of these hills. Her goal was close and it wouldn't pay to let irrational fears eat away at her confidence. She needed to be strong, to be a leader. Somewhere close by was the object of their mission and she would be damned if she was going to turn back now, especially because of some message from a now vanished race.

Azrak held up his hand, calling a halt to the march. Far below he could see something out of place, two sets of lights making their way towards the gap in the hills. Nothing he knew created light like this, except the devices the alien bought with them. Certainly none of his people would ever waste energy in this manner. This meant that the lights must mark the locations of the two machines he was sent to attack. He quickly called up his second in command and pointed out what he had seen.

"Look," Azrak said, pointing down towards the lights. "There are our targets. You see how one is slower than the other. We will capture that one. That way the other one may not realise that its companion is missing."

"Where do we attack?" his second asked.

The tall general stopped and thought for a second. Then the solution came to him. "There," he said, pointing towards the base of the hill. "The path leads through there, and then splits in two. The aliens will be going to meet with their companions in the swamp, so they will go down the main path. We will capture the second machine before then, and take it down the side path. That is also the quickest way back to the fortress."

The slightly shorter warrior at his side nodded in agreement. "That is a good plan. The side path also leads to the construction area, and it is a straight journey from there to the fortress. Now all we need to do is stop this machine."

Azrak nodded, his mind already working on the problem. He could see that the alien machines were still some distance from the hills, while his men could be at the ambush site in less than a minute. That should give him plenty of time to come up with something. He looked back at the rest of the warriors. "Come," he ordered. "We march."

The warriors, all clad in the new armour, quickly gathered up their equipment, which consisted mainly of their weapons and a small bag of food each. Only seconds later they were ready and resumed their march, making their way down the steep hill slope towards the chosen ambush site.

Overhead, a crash of thunder sounded, and slowly at first, but then growing in strength, rain began to fall. Soon torrents of water were falling from the sky, turning the soft ground of the hillside into slippery mud. The warriors though, marched on, the long claws on their feet allowing them to grip the slippery ground with a lot better traction than most other creatures could achieve. They ignored the rain, allowing it to run off their armour. Even if it could reach their skin they would not have been worried. Their scaled hides were not troubled by a little rain, and the importance of their mission would have negated any discomfort anyway.

Lily peered out of the rover's window in frustration. It was all very well for the Captain to tell her to go faster, but this rain was making it impossible to see anything, let alone where they were going. She found the Captain's orders more than a little irritating, almost as though Ivanova was speaking to her like a child, asking her to keep up or be left behind.

Then, she sighed, realising that she had little choice. "Try to catch up with the other rover," she told the driver. Unlike Susan she hadn't allowed any of the IPX scientists in the command cabin, restricting them to the passenger section only. Instead, she had two marines, the only two on this rover, runing the controls. That had meant that each marine, including Lily herself, had been forced to take a shift driving, while the others slept.

"It is difficult going, Major," the current driver, Private Hawke replied. "Visibility is down to almost nothing in this rain."

Lily was about to tell him to try anyway, when a loud clang sounded through the entire rover and it shuddered, coming to a sudden stop. "What the hell was that," she asked. "Did we break an axle or something."

The other marine, Anderson, quickly scanned the sensor console. "Everything looks fine here, Major," he said. "These vehicles should be able to get through almost anything, so I don't think it is anything wrong with the rover."

"What then?" Lily asked.

"Just a minute," Anderson said. "I will bring up the external camera."

She looked over his shoulder as one of the screens in front of him cleared to show the image of a large log caught behind one of the front wheels, the right one by the look of the picture. "That is the problem," Anderson said, pointing to the log. "Someone will have to go out and cut it away."

"I will do that," she replied, without a moment hesitation. "Hawke, you can come with me."

The driver nodded, and switched off the rover's systems before following Lily towards the hatch. There she said a few words to the IPX scientists, informing them of what had occurred, before opening the hatch and stepping out into the rain. It was still pouring down, and visibility had now been reduced to only a few metres. Lily was forced to feel her way along the edge of the rover, searching to the troublesome log. Her uniform was quickly soaked, but she ignored it, turning all her attention on completing the task at hand.

She soon found the log, wedged behind the front wheel on the right side of the rover. It had been splinted by the impact, but was still stuck behind the wheel, preventing the rover from moving. With a nod to Hawke she grabbed hold of one end and dragged it away from the wheel. To her surprise it came free fairly easily. She had been thinking that she would need a laser cutter to get it out. At least something was going right for her today.

Then, a muffled sound behind her suddenly snatched her attention away from the log. She spun around, just in time to see Hawke being dragged off into the darkness by a large black monster, its hand covering his face. Seeing two more of the monsters approaching through the rain, Lily quickly knelt down and drew her PPG pistol. When the monstrous beings didn't stop, she levelled the weapon with the closest one and pulled the trigger, squeezing off several shots.

The plasma energy hit the creatures all right, but instead of killing them it only seemed to slow them down temporarily. The energy seemed to play across their bodies, before being drained away by something. Then they were on the move again, heading straight towards her. Lily quickly turned and ran towards the hatchway, hoping that the rifle she had stashed inside would prove more effective. As she ran she squeezed off another couple of shots, scoring direct hits both time, but not stopping her attackers.

Then, she suddenly found herself lying on the ground, something having swept her feet out from beneath her. Another of the creatures, this one even larger than the others, loomed over her, clutching a greenish-yellow sword in its hands. Lily tried to get away, but the creature lowered the sword to her throat. "You will not move," it said in perfect English.

If their sudden arrival had surprised her, the fact that they spoke English left her gasping in amazement. The creature seemed to take her lack of movement as submission and reached down to snatch the pistol from her hands. Lily let him take it, realising that it wasn't any use against these creature's anyway. Instead she decided to go along with whatever they wanted, looking for a chance to escape later.

The tall alien standing over her turned away and looked towards one of the others. "Are they all captured?" he asked.

The other alien nodded. "Yes, General Azrak. Most were not warriors like this one. There was only one other who resisted, and it has now been captured. The others did not resist us."

"Good Hataz," Azrak said. "Take this one on board and put it with the other warriors."

The alien called Hataz nodded, and grabbed Lily in its claws, slicing into her uniform, but fortunately not her skin. It then dragged her onto the rover, and along the passage way to the command cabin. There she found herself tossed into a corner with Hawke and Anderson. "What the hell is going on, Major?" Anderson whispered to her. "Who are these guys?"

The aliens in the room looked around as if interested in what Anderson was saying. She quickly motioned for him to be quiet, but it was too late. The tall one called Azrak looked at her and said, "You are the one known as Major?"

Lily sighed, realising now that these creatures were highly intelligent, and it was going to be difficult hiding anything from her. "That is my rank," she replied. "My name is Lily Logan."

"Lily Logan," the creature said, as if trying to get a feel for the name. "I know of ranks. The Mistress told us about them. I am General Azrak, leader of the Chosen. You must come with us, the Mistress wants to speak to you."

"And what if I don't want to speak to her?" Lily asked.

Azrak looked confused. "Why would you not want to speak to the Mistress?"

"Never mind," she replied. "What are you going to do with us."

"Do you know how to make this machine move?" Azrak asked her. He pointed a claw in the direction of the controls as he spoke.

Lily glanced over and Anderson, as if searching for help. But, the other marine could offer nothing, so she turned to the alien general and said, "yes, I know how to drive the rover."

"Rover?" Azrak asked. "Is that what this machine is called?" When Lily nodded he looked pleased. "Then you will drive this rover for us," he told her. "You must drive it to the fortress. The Mistress awaits you there."

The other aliens then moved closer and hustled her into the driver's seat. "Drive," Azrak said again. "We will show you the way to go."

Lily sighed again, and switched on the rover's power supply. She realised that against such opposition she had little chance of escape, at least not until she knew a little more about them. However she had no intentions on letting them get away with the rover either. Realising that the alien's knew absolutely nothing about how the vehicle worked, she flicked a several switches on the control board. One switch activated the rover's communications system, while the other shifted fuel from the main tank to the reserve. With any luck the other rover would pick up their signals, but if that failed then the fuel transfer would soon exhaust the reactor's supply, shutting it down. She glanced over her shoulder and smiled when she saw that the alien's hadn't noticed anything. There were always other ways to fight a battle, and Lily was a master of finding a way out of even the stickiest situations.

Cradling the tiny phial of the glowing elixir in his cumbersome hands, Morkazz made the torturous journey back up the stairs to the Mistress' personal room. Behind him the stairs retracted, each step disappearing shortly after he had taken his foot off it. Progress was slow, as not only was the staircase tall and narrow, but with each step the pain in his lame leg seemed to grow worse. The counsellor gritted his fangs, and continued the journey, finally stumbling into the room at the top of the stairs.

The room looked much the same as when he had left last night. The only difference was in the Mistress. She was now sitting up on her bed, her pale skin gleaming in the dim light. Kneeling next to her, the blind servant Harj, was running a strange object through the Mistress' dark hair. Morkazz knew about hair of course, the prisoners in the mines below also possessed it. The Mistress' was different than the prisoner's though. It was longer, and much darker. In fact it was so dark that it seemed to absorb the light.

Morkazz shuffled his feet, feeling suddenly nervous about approaching the vulnerable, not to mention visible, form of his Mistress. He would not have felt the same before he had seen her, thinking her all powerful and invulnerable to injury. He knew different now, having seen how weak she really was. She seemed to sense his presence though, and motioned him to approach. He did so cautiously, not wanting to damage anything in her room. As he came closer she held out her hand, and with only a moment of hesitation he dropped the phial into her palm.

She tugged the stopper, and then swallowed the elixir in one quick gulp. Morkazz watch as her body shuddered for a second, and then she turned her head around to face him. "It is not working, Morkazz," she said, sounding a little sad.

"What, Mistress?" he asked, having no idea what she was talking about. He wasn't aware of anything that wasn't working. Perhaps she meant the attack Azrak and his warriors were carrying out on the alien machines. There had been no word back from the general, but that could also mean that he had not carried out the attack yet."

"The elixir," she replied, looking down at the empty phial in her hand. "It is no longer sustaining me as it once did. I seem to need more and more each day. Soon there will not be enough to keep me alive."

"Do you need another?" Morkazz offered, trying to avoid staring at her. He hadn't had time the previous night to get a good look at her features, but now he could see more. She was very similar to the aliens, but at the same time there was also something different about her. Had she been one of his race he might have been able to pick up what it was, but he was not adept at spotting the differences between the different aliens yet. All he had managed to determine so far was which ones were male and which were female, and that had taken him nearly a day of observation.

"No," she said, declining his offer of another phial of elixir. "Keep the three that are left in reserve. Soon I may need them."

Behind her, Harj finished whatever she was doing to the Mistress' hair and put the strange object aside. Morkazz glanced at it, noticing that it was made of wood, and was covered with what looking like the spines of a Guni beetle. The counsellor wondered why the Mistress would need to have something like that brushed through her hair. He realised that not possessing hair himself meant that there was much about it that he didn't understand. However, why anyone would subject themselves that that sort of torture was beyond him. The Mistress though, hadn't seemed in pain from Harj's ministrations. In fact, she had seemed almost peaceful.

"Perhaps we could siphon off more energy from the fortress," he suggested. "That would create more elixir, and..."

"I am afraid that the elixir is no longer what I need, Morkazz," she said, interrupting him. He looked back at her face, and saw that She was looking thoughtful, at least that was the impression Morkazz received. He knew he couldn't tell for sure, not being totally comfortable with reading her expressions. He was used to only seeing her eyes, and the fact that he whole face moved when she was talking was still something new to him.

"Besides," she continued. "The fortress is already running on minimal power. If I drained away any more then it would begin to die."

Morkazz looked confused by the mention of the fortress dying. He didn't see how a structure could die, especially something as large as the fortress. He began to wonder if the weakness she was feeling was beginning to effect her more than ever. Then he remembered that she had just taken the elixir, and her strength was at its greatest right now. Curious about her comment he asked, "how can the fortress die?"

The Mistress leaned back and allowed Harj to begin to work on her hair again. The servant quickly began to wind strands of the Mistress' hair around each other, creating some unfathomable pattern. It looked almost to Morkazz like the servant was trying to weave the Mistress' hair, just like one would weave a basket.

"The fortress has grown too large, Morkazz," she said, interrupting the counsellor's observation and focusing his attention back on their conversation. "And the collection towers can no longer supply it with all the energy it needs. Like me, it needs energy to survive. I require the elixir, you eat food, and the fortress needs raw energy. Also, just as you would die without food, it can not survive without energy."

"I understand, Mistress," the counsellor replied, although he was still a little fuzzy on the details. But, if she said it was so, then it must be true. "Shall I order more workers to the construction sites then? The next tower is almost complete and with more workers it can be finished by the end of the month."

The Mistress shook her head, much to the annoyance of Harj who was braiding her long dark hair. Despite being blind the servant was doing a good job, her work nearly half finished already. "No, not yet," the Mistress replied. "What is needed is something else. The cloud must be destroyed."

Morkazz frowned. The Chosen had tried for centuries to make it through the great ice field to the device that the Mistress said was creating the cloud. Every time though, they had been driven back by the extreme cold that surrounded the device. "How can we do that?" he asked.

"I have a plan," the Mistress replied. Then she glanced back at Harj. "Are you finished?" she asked.

Harj bowed low. "It is done, Mistress."

"Good, now get my robe."

Harj bowed again and hurried out of the room, heading through a door that Morkazz had not noticed before. As soon as she had left the Mistress looked up at Morkazz. "I must ask you something, Morkazz," she said. "Do you understand why the others must not know what I am."

Morkazz nodded. "I believe so, Mistress."

She stood for the first time since he had entered the room, and crossed to the counsellor's side. He could now see that she was dressed only in a thin white robe. Her body was still mostly visible through it, and he could see that she resembled the female aliens. Before he had time for further observation though she placed her hand on his arm, sending a cold chill running through his body.

"When it is time, I will tell them," she said softly. "But for now, it must remain a secret. You must not tell anyone yet, they would not understand."

"I will not tell them, Mistress," Morkazz promised.

"Good," she replied, removing her hand and turning away, looking towards the door Harj had vanished through.

Morkazz looked torn for a moment, but then finally decided to ask the question that had been troubling him for much of last night. "Mistress..." he began falteringly.

"I was, Morkazz," she said, somehow anticipating his question. "I was, but now I am... something else."

Morkazz nodded, not really understanding what she meant. He didn't want to press any more though, just in case he upset her. Fortunately, Harj soon returned, brining with her another of the blind female servants, along with a large pile of dark cloth and several other items. Turning her back on Morkazz, the Mistress slipped out of the white robe and allowed the two servants to quickly dress her in the black one. Morkazz had a brief glimpse of pale skin, and then it was gone, hidden behind the dark material of her robe.

After fastening the robe, Harj handed the Mistress a thin circuit of green metal, set with several large emeralds. The Mistress quickly slipped it around her head, allowing it to rest just above her ears. Then she turned back to her counsellor, and Morkazz felt a sudden flash of understanding. He knew now what was different about the Mistress from the aliens. She lacked colour.

The aliens were a very strange race, their skin seeming to alter colour with the changing conditions. When they were afraid it was pale or white, but when they were working hard it changed to a reddish colour. The Mistress' skin never changed colour, remaining the same pale white no matter what she was doing. Of course Morkazz had not seen her like this much, but somehow he knew that no matter what activity she was involved in, her appearance would not change.

"How is your leg, Morkazz," she suddenly asked, looking faintly amused at the way he had been staring at her.

He quickly diverted his eyes downwards towards the ground. "It is fine, Mistress," he replied. "There is no need to trouble yourself over me."

"Rest your leg on the bed," she ordered him. Not wanting to make her angry, Morkazz quickly complied, although he could see nothing that she could do that would be any good. The finest healers had tried to repair his injured leg, but with only minor success.

She walked slowly across the room and picked up a small knife that sat on the top of a wooden chest. Morkazz looked at the knife with a faint feeling of fear as she walked back to his side. She did not use the knife on him though, instead slicing open her own thumb. Morkazz winced as the razor sharp knife cut through the pale flesh, feeling the injury she had dealt herself as if it were cutting into his own flesh. She held her thumb over his leg and he watched as two drops of glowing blood dropped from the wound onto his flesh.

A tingling sensation flowed through his leg, and as he watched the two drops of blood seemed to disappear, as if they were absorbed by his skin. The tingling soon stopped, and then he realised that the pain in his leg was gone, completely vanished. "What have you done?" he asked in amazement.

"It will not last," she replied. "But for the next couple of days you should be able to walk without pain. I think that is a fitting reward for your assistance."

"Thank you, Mistress," he said, tears of joy coming unbidden to his eyes. Almost all of his adult life he had been forced to walk with a limp, but now, if only for two days, he would be able to walk without pain. Any doubts that he had about the Mistress' intentions towards his people were gone at that moment.

The Mistress smiled at Morkazz's glee. She glanced down at her thumb, pleased to see that the wound was already gone. She still felt weakened by what she had just done, but it was not as bad as she had first though. Replacing the knife on the chest she took Morkazz by the arm and led him towards the stairs. "Come," she said. "We have work to do."

"Yes, Mistress," her counsellor replied eagerly. He felt more energetic that he had even done before, and his body had never felt this alive. It was as if this Mistress' blood had revitalised him, making him strong and youthful again. Shaking his head in amazement, he allowed himself to be led away.

She hadn't noticed his surprise, or the spring in his step. Instead she just continued talking. "The first thing I need you to do is make some alterations to my throne. What happened yesterday must never occur again. Then we must get in contact with Azrak. He should have captured that machine by now."

Morkazz nodded in agreement. He too wanted to know how the general's mission was proceeding. It was close to the time when he should have reported it, and if he didn't call soon it would suggest that perhaps his mission was not proceeding as planned. While he had full confidence in the warrior, and in the armour that the Mistress and Kaj had designed, Morkazz was still a little nervous. He didn't know how much of the Mistress' plan revolved around capturing one of these alien machines, but it seemed important to her, and if it was important to her, then it was also important to him.

The rain pelted down on the surface of Arias for all of twenty minutes, and then, as quickly as it had begun, it stopped. Behind, it left a thick mist that rose out of the swampy landscape and cloaked everything in a dark fog. Oblivious to the fate of Logan's team, Susan's rover ploughed on through the mists, its powerful spotlights illuminating enough of the path for them continue toward their destination.

Inside the command cabin, Susan shivered. She had been watching the mist for several minutes now, and it was starting to get to her. At first it was just another obstacle to confront, but now it took on another form altogether. The mist seemed to clutch at the rover as it passed, as if trying to drag them down into the muddy ground. Susan knew it was only her imagination playing tricks on her again, but she couldn't help but feel a chill run down her spine as she watched the eerie landscape passing outside.

Then a voice called out to her and she dragged her attention back to the warm cabin. Corporal Howell, the marine in charge of the rover's sensors, was looking up at her. "What did you say, Corporal," she asked.

"I said that we are picking up a signal, Captain," Howell said, pointing to something on his console.

Susan felt a surge of anticipation and leaned forward to see what he was pointing out. On one of the monitors, a distorted image crackled and wavered. "Is that all?" she asked. "Can't you clear it up a little."

Howell shook his head. "Sorry, Captain. That is the best I can do. There is too much distortion and interference to get a clean signal. All I am getting is a very dodgy video image, no audio so far."

"Who from?" she asked, trying to make some sense of the distorted image. "Is it from the Sturt?"

"No, I think it is the second rover," the corporal replied. "But the interference is playing hell with these systems. All I am picking up is the odd image, and nothing more."

As he spoke the picture suddenly cleared, and Susan caught a brief glimpse of Major Logan. Then the screen went black. "Lost it," Howell explained. "Either someone switched off the transmitter, or they passed behind a hill."

"Can you get them back?" Susan asked.

Howell shook his head. "I'm not even picking them up on the sensors any more. If I knew where they were I could use a narrow band transmission, but I don't, so there is nothing I can do."

Susan frowned. "I hope nothing is wrong."

"Perhaps we should turn back and look for them," Talia suggested, a faintly worried look on her face. "Something might have happened to them."

"I thought you didn't like Logan," Susan teased. Then to Howell she said, "keep trying to raise them. Scan for any signal. If you get anything let me know."

"It was Logan that didn't like me," Talia replied in an slightly offended tone. "I have been trying to be nice to her though. After all, we do have to work together."

Susan nodded, but her attention was no longer on Talia, instead she was focused on the front window. outside, a swamp had suddenly appeared, seeming to surround them. "Be careful," she ordered Hvasanov, who was still driving the rover. "We don't want to end up stuck in this swamp."

The marine nodded, and slowed the rover, edging his way past the dark waters. "It looks like we might to have to turn around," Talia commented. "I don't think the rover is made for swamps."

Glancing out of a side window, Susan nodded in agreement. The swamp was all around them now and, despite all of its other abilities, the rover was not made for swamps. She was about to order Hvasanov to reverse his course when Dr. Melis, who had been quietly occupied with his chunk of stone, suddenly shouted out, "Wait." With a trembling hand he pointed out the front window. "What is that."

Susan peered out of the window in the direction he indicated. At first she didn't see anything, the mists reducing visibility to almost nothing, but then it appeared. The wind had changed, and the mists began to recede. Then, like some prehistoric monster, a gigantic shape began to slowly reveal itself. As she watched the shape changed from an indistinct blob into something much more familiar. The curved tentacle-like prongs at the front of the shape, and the petal-like wings at the back left no doubt as to the shape's origin.

"It's a Vorlon ship," Melis said, confirming what they could all now see.

Everyone stared out of the rover's windows in amazement, looking at the huge shape of a Vorlon transport. It rested in the swamp, looking as though it had just been parked there while its owner went out for a walk. The hull seemed intact, and it was impossible to determine how long it had been there. It could have landed last week, or it might have been here for centuries. It looked almost as if it was waiting for someone, or something.

"We have to take a closer look," Melis said softly, breaking the silence that had hung over the command cabin. Still examining the Vorlon vessel for any signs of life, Susan just nodded in agreement.

Lily's face remained as impassive as ever, but inside she was smiling, very satisfied with her work. On the console in front of her, the red line showing the amount of fuel left in the main tank was slowly creeping towards empty. Beside it, a green line displayed the reserve tank level as almost two thirds full. In the rough terrains the rover was designed for, the possibility of a hole in the fuel tank could spell disaster, so a means of transferring fuel to a second tank was of vital importance. The reserve tank was there specifically to replace the main one if it was damaged, so it hadn't taken much effort for Lily to pump the fuel between the two.   However, now came a more difficult task, convincing the aliens that it is a mechanical fault when the fuel in the main tank finally ran out.

The three aliens crammed into the command cabin had been keeping a close eye on her and the other two marines. She wasn't sure how many more of the creatures there were on the rover, but she was certain that she wouldn't be able to take on all three on her own. The other two marines, privates Hawke and Anderson, were of little use. Once she had been chosen to drive the rover, the alien commander, the one they called Azrak, had ordered them manacled.

The manacles appeared to be made of the same metal as everything else the alien's possessed. She didn't know exactly what it was, but neither of her men had been able to break through their restraints. In a mirror conveniently mounted on the dash, she had seen both of them trying to open the manacles, but despite their training neither had been successful. The manacles didn't appear to have a lock, and somehow the metal fused together after they were clamped shut around the marine's wrists.

Lily herself didn't have any restraints at all, but she was being closely watched by the aliens. The leader, Azrak, had left the command cabin shortly after ordering her to turn down a side path, away from the path that lead towards the crashed IPX survey vessel. But, despite his absence she hadn't seen any chance for escape. One of the three remaining aliens had been constantly badgering her with questions about every tiny detail of the rovers operation. Most of what she had told him had been blatantly false, but the alien seemed to nod as if he understood every word.

The other two aliens were less talkative, but made up for that in watchfulness. Already they had spotted Hawke trying to free himself, and threatened him with injury if he tried to do it again. Lily wasn't sure if they would carry out their threats, but the sight of the two huge aliens, with their long, sharp claws, and equally dangerous swords, had put a stop to any future escape attempts. At least they had for the moment. Lily was still hoping that her plan with the fuel tanks would work. The alien's obviously wanted to capture the rover, and if it broke down, the distraction that caused might enable her to find a chance of escape.

Somewhere in the back of the rover were several mobile transmitters. If she took one of them, and set off across the jungle in the general direction of the Sturt's supposed location, then perhaps she would get lucky. Of course, she would prefer to make it out of here with the rover, and all of its crew, but if that wasn't possible then she intended to raise the alarm. Then, with some starfuries, the rest of the Rasputin's one hundred and twenty marines, and the four experimental battle tanks locked away in storage on the warship, she intended to come back and kick some alien butt.

At least that was the plan. There were still so many variables that Lily didn't want to plan that far ahead just yet. Right now her main concern was organising some sort of escape attempt. After that was successful she could start planning a rescue, assuming that she didn't manage to free everyone in the first attempt. She glanced down at the console again, while at the same time trying not to attract the attention of the alien who was crouching behind her. The gauge showed only two minutes of fuel remaining in the main tank. They weren't going to get far with only that amount of fuel left, so she flicked the switch above the indicator, turning off the pump that had been working away nicely for the past fifteen minutes.

Fortunately the alien who had been watching her didn't notice. He was still playing with the hand held holographic game she had given him to keep him out of her hair. She had found it stashed under her chair, and passed it off as a driving simulator. The alien didn't seem to mind that it was actually some sort of golfing simulation, and had been playing with it for the past two minutes. His clawed hands couldn't grip the controls properly, but that didn't stop him trying as hard as he could, as if mastering the game meant that he would be able to drive the rover.

Lily chuckled quietly to herself and turned back to watching the road in front them. The path was fairly straight though, so all she really had to do was keep the steering column steady and the rover pretty much drove itself. All she had to do was wait until the fuel ran out, and the crisis would begin. Breathing deeply, she began to prepare herself for possible battle. Lily had served in Earthforce for nearly fifteen years, an in that time she had picked up a lot of habits. Most members of the marine corps were like her, having their own little routines and traditions that they had to go through before they were ready to fight. Lily knew one old sergeant who had prepared for battle by spitting three times in the direction of the enemy and muttering an old war poem. Her own routine was less unusual, just a simple pattern of breathing, steeling her nerves and hardening her will.

Then, looming out of the darkness ahead, something appeared that broke her concentration. It looked like a gigantic spire, although it appeared to be only half finished. Scaffolding and cranes could be seen clustered around the tower, signs that this was definitely a building of some sort. It it confirmed all of Lily's worst fears. She had been hoping that the aliens were not advanced enough to be erecting complex structures. They were obviously intelligent, the fact that they could learn so quickly, and also that they spoke English, which she assumed they must have learnt from members of the Sturt's crew, proved their intellect.

Actually, she didn't really believe that could have learnt to speak English from the Sturt's crew. But, she had to find some reason for the alien's being able to speak perfect English, and that seemed the most logical. She hadn't seen any sign of a translation device, and even if they had been using one, no translator she'd ever seen, alien or human, had produced distortion free speach in real time. The alien's voices were deeper than the average human's, but despite this it was still possible to understand perfectly every word they were saying, without a translator's tell-tale distortions.

Before she had time to think further on the matter, one of her guards was pointed out the window towards the half complete tower in the distance. "Go there," he said, pointing again to emphasise his message.

Lily nodded, and turned the steering column in the direction the alien had indicated. At the same time, her eyes flicked down to look at the fuel indicator again. There was now less than a minute of fuel left. Looking back out the window, she began to work on her breathing again, ready for whatever might happen when the fuel ran out.

Then, a shudder ran through the rover, and ever so slowly it began to decrease its speed, creeping to a halt as its fusion reactor ran out of fuel. Even if the alien's did find out what she had done, Lily knew that it would be hours before they managed to restart the reactor. The reactor was never meant to be shut down, and when it had been, a cold restart took a hell of a long time and was devilishly complicated.

"What has happened," the largest of the aliens in the command cabin asked. "Why are we not moving. Make us go again. The Mistress is waiting for us."

"I don't know what's wrong," Lily said, flicking switches and pushing buttons as fast as she could, trying to give the impression that she was doing all she could to restart the rover. While one hand was busy with the controls, she sent a quick signal to the two marines with the other, letting them in on her intentions. The EAS marines had an entire language of hand signals, so it was not difficult to pass on a message without the alien's noticing, especially when they were more interested in what was wrong with the rover.

"Fix it," the alien demanded, edging closer.

"I am not sure I can," Lily said. "Everything has just gone dead."

"What is happening," a new voice asked. "Why have we stopped.

Lily glanced over her shoulder to see the alien leader squeezing down the passage way from the cargo section. The other alien's bowed, and briefly held their clench fists over their chests, in what Lily assumed was a salute. "I do not know," the second in command replied. "The warrior alien said that it is dead."

"This is a machine, no a creature," Azrak replied. Then he looked at Lily. "You will repair it. The Mistress expects me to bring this machine, and will be angry if I do not."

"Then she is going to be disappointed," Lily replied, trying to keep a faint note of fear from creeping into her voice. "I can't fix it. I am not an engineer, I don't repair these things, I only drive them."

"What is an engineer?" Azrak asked, looking at her with a curious expression on his face.

"Engineer's design things," Lily replied. "Like these rovers, but also starships and a lot of other things."

Azrak nodded. "Ah... like artisan's then. I understand. Are there any of these engineers in this machine."

Lily shook her head. "No, not one. We didn't bring any with us."

Azrak frowned and then looked thoughtful. After nearly a minute of this, he looked at his soldiers and said, "take them all outside. I will contact the Mistress and ask her what we must do. She will know."

The other alien's nodded, and quickly began to herd Lily and the other two marine's outside, although not before slipping a set of manacle's around Lily's wrists, dashing any hopes she had of a quick escape. She soon found herself standing outside on the damp earth, a gaggle of frightened IPX scientist gathered around her, looking to her for hope and direction. Lily wasn't sure she had much to offer though.

The alien leader followed them outside and moving away from the rover, he pulled something from his belt. Lily watched as he casually opened his 'hand', dropping the device. It didn't fall; but floated in the air before him! Lily raised her eyebrows at that, realising that she was witnessing something defying gravity. Now she was beginning to get seriously worried about the technological level of these aliens. Earth was only just beginning to learn the secret of artificial gravity, and it certainly hadn't learned how to create anti-gravity, which allowed objects to float inside a gravitation field.

She pushed aside her amazement though, and concentrated on trying to hear what was being said. But the voices were too faint, and she couldn't understand anything. The conversation didn't last long, and Azrak soon returned. He had a relieved look on his face, at least that is what Lily assumed his expression meant. Some of the alien's expressions she could pick up at once, but others were more difficult to read.

"We continue on without the machine," he told his warriors. "The Mistress only wants the aliens, and their possessions, not the machine." He turned to his second in command. "Go to the construction site and return with the workers. We will need them to carry all of the alien's possessions to the fortress."

The other alien nodded, and hurried off in the direction of the tower. Azrak turned to the rest of the gather warriors. "Ten of you will remain here to help Huzin. The rest will come with me and escort the prisoners back to the fortress. See that none escape, the Mistress wants them all."

The warriors nodded and quickly hurried to follow his orders, most moving to guard the humans, while the rest began to dismantle parts of the rover. Lily realised that when the alien leader had meant possessions, he had included everything that was mounted on the rover, including all the external sensors and probably even the doors. The alien obviously could not tell what was part of the rover and what was just cargo.

Then Azrak approached the collection of frightened scientists and the three, still defiant marines. "You will all come with me," the tall alien warrior said. "The Mistress awaits you, as do the others of your kind. Do not try to escape and you will no be harmed."

"And if we do try to escape?" Lily asked.

"Then you will be hurt," Azrak replied, his voice leaving no doubt in her mind that he would personal take care of her punishment. "The Mistress has ordered that none be killed, but she also want all of you to come with us. She will not be angry if you obey her. If you do not, then she will be very angry."

"Do you always do everything the Mistress tells you?" Lily said, wondering if perhaps she couldn't stir up some trouble among the alien's ranks. There was always the possibility that this Mistress was some sort of tyrant, lording over the lesser aliens. Of course it was equally likely that she was the female equivalent of the aliens, and they formed some sort of hive-like arrangement.

Azrak did not seem interested in her barb, instead he just replied, "Of course. That is the way of things. She orders and the Chosen obey her. There is no other way."

The warrior then moved away from Lily, and the rest of his soldiers began to herd their human captives down the muddy path that led up towards the construction site. The two marines looked at her, as if asking if they should resist. She shook her head, and allowed herself to be led away from the rover. It was now obvious to her that these aliens were a lot more than they originally appeared. They might not have powerful energy weapons, but they were still very advanced. It didn't look likely that she was going to be escaping any time soon.

As they slowly walked away, Lily glanced behind her, watching forlornly as the aliens began to tear the rover apart, stripping it of anything that might be of value. Antennae, sensors, everything except the massive wheels, was quickly torn from the outer hull, and boxes of supplies were soon being carried out from inside. Even her favourite PPG rifle was pulled out of the cargo locker where she had stowed it and thrown onto the growing pile outside the rover.

Susan, along with the other three members of her small team, slowly made her way through the shallow swamp, her clothing now thoroughly soaked by the cold water, and her boots heavy with caked mud. "I am beginning to think that this might not have been such a good idea," she said, swatting at a buzzing insect that had been hovering around her for the past minute. The insect retreated for a few seconds, but then promptly returned... with two of its older, and much larger brothers.

"We have to check this out," Melis replied, the insect inhabitants of the swamp steering clear of him for some reason. "The chance to examine an intact Vorlon vessel is too good an opportunity to pass up. It will be the find of a lifetime."

"Right now I am more worried about what has happened to Major Logan and her rover," Susan replied, wondering again why she allowed Melis to talk her into this, not that it had taken too much convincing. Part of her had to admit that the idea of recovering an intact Vorlon transport was quite exciting, but another part was worried that this might be some sort of trap. Everything she knew about Vorlons suggested that they would not just leave examples of their technology lying around.

She glanced back along their path, and could see the faint lights of the rover in the distance. The mist that had appeared after the rain stopped had grown thicker again, and now it was almost impossible to see more than a few metres in any direction. Fortunately the rover's spotlights were very powerful and they cut through the mist like a knife, shining in the direction of their goal. That didn't stop Susan from feeling almost alone in the swamp, her only companions the cold water and the insects gathering over her head.

Actually she wasn't that alone, the tall figure of an EAS marine was just in front of her, carefully scanning the swamp with infra-red goggles. While behind her was Melis, and even further back another marine took up the rear, her PPG rifle clutched tightly in her hands. So far nothing dangerous had appeared, but Susan didn't want to take any chances. That was why she was grateful that Talia hadn't insisted on coming along. Fortunately, this time Talia had readily agreed to remain behind, saying that she preferred the warmth of the rover to a cold walk through the swamp. Susan was beginning to wonder if she should have remained in the rover as well.

Then, the marine in front of her suddenly stopped, without even a word or gesture of warning. Susan only just managed to pull up in time to prevent herself from running headlong into his back. Walking around the imposing obstacle of the marine's body she looked up at him in annoyance. "What is it?"

The marine didn't reply, but instead held up a hand to point in the direction they had been travelling. Susan follow his gesture, and then she saw what the marine had spotted. Out of the mists the Vorlon ship had appeared again. When she had been back in the rover, Susan hadn't really realised how big this thing was. Up close it seemed to loom above them like some dark cliff face, only it wasn't a wall of rock she faced, but a wall of blackish-grey metal.

"Amazing," Melis breathed. "Do you see that, it's still in one piece." He paused to get an image of the ship on his recorder, and then muttered. "I must get closer."

A slithering sound echoed across the swamp, and Susan glanced nervously in the direction it came from. When nothing appeared, she turned back to the ship and followed Melis and the two marine towards it. The Vorlon vessel appeared to rest on an island in the swamp, and again Susan was struck with the impression that it was waiting for its owner to return.

"Come on," Melis said, wading through the deepening waters of the swamp towards the muddy island.

"Wait," Susan tried to say. But it was too late, the doctor had already gone, the thickening mists swirling around and hiding his passage. Scowling in annoyance at the doctor's impertinent nature, she nodded to the marines, and ordered them forward towards the Vorlon vessel. The tall marine in front of her unslung his PPG rifle and sloshed forward, creating small waves as he pushed his way into deeper water. Another slithering sound reached their ears. Susan and the last remaining marine exchanged nervous glances and hurried after Melis.

Fortunately the deep water did not last long, and Susan soon found herself climbing out of the chilly water and onto the muddy sand of the island. The spotlights from the rover were barely visible now, so the team were forced to rely on small portable torches, which didn't give out much light, but were adequate enough. Overhead the sun must have set again, and the dim twilight of day had faded into the total darkness of night.

Susan's attention was elsewhere at the moment though, and the growing chill in the air did not interest her as much as the sight that loomed above them. Up close the Vorlon ship lost a lot of its beauty, but none of its mystery. Unlike the other Vorlon vessel's Susan had seen, this one was a blackish-grey in colour, looking faded and dull compared to the bright colours of Ambassador Kosh's transport.

It also appeared to have been here for some time. Susan didn't know how long plants took to grow on this world, but if it was the same as on Earth, then the Vorlon ship had been sitting her for at least a century, maybe much longer. A thick growth of vines had wrapped themselves around the vessel, as if they were trying to restrain it, while across the rest of the ship's surface a grey fungus had taken root. Clearly the first impressions she had of vessel during the journey here were wrong; this ship wasn't going anywhere.

A sudden realisation came to Susan, and she knew without any trace of doubt that this ship was dead. She knew that the Vorlon's used organic technology, and had even seen it proven to her by the sensors on Babylon 5, but never before had she thought of a ship dying. But there was no doubt that this is what had happened to this one. Somehow it had been killed, but by what or who she didn't know.

Beside her the two marines regarded the ship with detached curiosity, while Melis swarmed over it like an eager puppy, poking his nose into every nook and cranny. From somewhere he had pulled a small laser scalpel and was using its delicate beam to slice away the plant life that covered the section ship's surface closest to him. At the same time he was trying to balance a recorder in his other hand, making sure he kept a record of his work.

Experiencing a strange urge deep inside her, Susan found herself drawn to the ship. Like the pillar they had encountered earlier, there was something her that wanted her to come closer. Despite fighting the urge with all her will, Susan felt her hand reaching up to touch the fungus covered surface of the ship. Beside her the tall marine suddenly gasped. "Look," he said pointing to the surface of the hull where Susan's hand had touched. Tiny specks of light had suddenly appeared.

Even Melis turned and watched as light flared up around Susan's hand. Bright like the sun, it lit up the swamp like the spotlights had done earlier. All trace of the cold mist began to vanish, while deeper in the swamp two gigantic snakes that had been hunting the four humans quickly turned and swam away, seeking to escape the light. The light grew brighter again, and the moss and fungus beneath Susan's hand began to smoke, before bursting into flame. Susan though, was unharmed, the warmth of the flames not even reaching her skin. She closed her eyes and listened to the voice that suddenly began to speak in her head. "Learn," it said, carrying with it a feeling of authority and order that could only be Vorlon in nature.

Inside her mind, Susan felt a tingling sensation and then the darkness of the inside of her eyelids flared with brilliant light. When the effects of that light vanished, she found herself floating in space, the greenish sphere of Arias far below. Then she became aware that she was moving closer to the jungle moon. Curious she examined the moon and saw that it was much as it appeared now, mostly jungle, but about a third covered by a great storm cloud. She felt a sense of foreboding and again the voice sounded in her head. "The prison," it said.

"A prison?" she queried.

The voice of the Vorlon didn't answer her question, instead it continued with its tale. "The prisoner is trying to escape. From the council I came, seeking to ensure that the wards were secure. They are not..."

From the very centre of the dark cloud, far below her, a pencil-thin beam of energy suddenly lanced outwards, striking Susan directly in the centre of her chest. Curiously she felt no pain, but instead she felt a feeling of weakness, as if her life force was slowly being drained away. Then she began to spiral downwards, falling towards the surface of the world below. In her mind she heard the voice of the Vorlon again. "It must never escape, you must ensure this."

"What?" Susan screamed, but her words seemed to be swept away by the speed of her fall.

Weaker now the voice of the Vorlon responded. "I have waited here until they sent another. You must take up my place as guardian. Ensure that it never escapes. The empire depends on your success. If you are not successful, then we will fall and our cause will be lost with us."

Darkness seemed to envelop her, and then Susan found herself back in the swamp. Opening her eyes she saw the flames and jerked her hand away from the ship as if she had been stung. On the surface of the ship, the flames suddenly faded, but the light remained. "What the hell is that," Melis was saying, pointing his recorder at the side of the ship, where a circle of light had appeared, and in its centre Susan could see the imprint of her hand. She glanced down at her hand. It didn't appeared to have suffered from what had just happened, but a curious tingling sensation remained, tiny pinpricks of pain running across her palm.

"Are you all right, Captain," the female marine asked, looking at Susan with a worried expression on her face.

Susan nodded, then asked, "what did you see."

"You reached out to touch the ship, and then that light appeared. Then, the part of the ship you were touching burst into flames and you pulled your hand away." The marine looked down at Susan's right hand, which she still cradled in her other hand. "Do you want me to take a look at that, Captain," she asked. "I have a medkit with me. There should be something for burns in it."

Susan shook her head. "No it is fine," she replied, in a strangely detached voice. "I didn't get burnt. There was no heat in the flames."

"What did you see, Captain," the other marine asked suddenly, a suspicious edge to his voice.

"This world," she replied, glancing down at her hand again. "And there was something else... a voice. I think it was a Vorlon."

"Amazing," Melis said again, moving closer to the glowing circle, his recorder clutched in his hands. Before anyone could stop him, he reached out to touch the ring of light. Unlike Susan's touch, he produced a more violent response. The light flared again, so brightly it left those watching it temporarily blinded. Only Susan, who had been looking down at her hand at the time, escaped from the fate of the other three. As the flare of light died down, she looked up. The circle of light on the ship's surface was gone.

Then she saw that it was still light around the ship, even though the team's torches were lying forgotten in the mud. She looked up, straight into the eyes of a figure that hovered above the ship. The angelic being hovering there seemed to nod once in her direction before gently lifting itself into the air, drifting higher and higher. As it rose into the air, its radiance dimmed, and soon it was only a faint speck of light. Then, it was gone all together, leaving behind only a feeling of loss and death. With it went the light that had filled the swamp.

The cold chill began to creep around them again, and with it the mist began to return. Susan reached down and picked up one of the discarded torches, while the other three members of the team blinked and rubbed their eyes to clear away the last after effects of the light. Melis let out a short cry of disappointment when he saw that the light was gone. "It's gone," he said, scrabbling at the surface of the ship with his fingernails, as if that would bring back the light.

"And it's time we were also gone," Susan said. She bent down and picked up the doctor's recorder and torch. Shoving them into his hands she said, "we can't stay here any longer."

"But..." Melis began. "We just got here. We have to examine it, take samples and recordings."

"We don't have time," Susan replied. "We have to find the Sturt, and rescue her crew. Then, we are going to get the hell off this world. If you want to come back here and look for Vorlon artefacts then you can, but you will do it on your own time. There is something strange happening on this world, and I don't really want to stick around and find out what it is."

"Sounds like the best idea I have heard so far," the tall marine said, spitting into the swamp. "There is some weird shit going on around here, and I don't want to be walking through these swamps any longer than I have to. This swill is starting to rot my uniform."

"I agree," the female marine said, picking up her torch and attaching it to her rifle. "Lets get back to the rover."

Outnumbered, Melis shut up, and followed the others as they walked away from the Vorlon ship and back towards the distant lights of the rover. As they disappeared into the mists there came a faint noise from the Vorlon ship, almost as if something had just sighed. Then, it began to crumble, the rotten metal of its structure finally giving way and crumbling into dust. The lingering presence of the dead Vorlon had been all that had kept the ship together, and with it now finally passing away into whatever the Vorlon imagined as their afterlife, there was nothing left to hold the dead ship together. However, so quietly did it collapse, not one of Susan's team heard a thing. They just continued through the mists and water, until finally the shape of the rover appeared in front of them, its bright spotlights lighting the way to the warm security it offered.

Standing on the muddy shore were two human shaped figures. As the team made there way towards them, the figure soon resolved themselves into the figure of Talia and the much larger one of Sergeant Drake. "You made it back," Talia said, sounding relieved. She reached down and helped Susan climb back up onto dry land, although in this case the land wasn't exactly that dry. "We were a little worried when that light suddenly appeared. What was that?"

"A memory," Susan replied, trying to wring some of the water out of her soaked uniform. She wasn't having much success though, and soon gave up.

Before Talia, or anyone else, could ask her what she meant by that remark, Sergeant Drake stepped in. "Captain," he said in his deep, gruff voice. "We are picking up a signal."

"From Major Logan?" she asked eagerly.

The sergeant shook his head. "No, we still haven't managed to raise the other rover. This signal is from the Sturt, a Captain Lawton to be precise."

"Then they are still alive," Susan said, relief showing on her face. "How far away are they?"

"About two kilometre's," Drake replied. He pointed over the swamp, back in the direction the Vorlon ship had been. "They're on the other side of this swamp though, so it is going to take us about thirty minutes to make our way around it. That's assuming that we can make our way around it at all."

Susan nodded. "Then we had better get going. Everyone back in the rover." She looked over at Melis. "And no more distractions. We have a job to do, and it is about time we started doing it."

"What about Major Logan," Drake asked.

"Hopefully she will be waiting for us at the Sturt. If she isn't, then we will worry about sending out a search party. Now let's get moving."

There was a general movement towards the rover, with only Melis dragging his heels, still looking wistfully in the direction of the Vorlon ship. Then, with an almost forlorn resignation, he also climbed aboard and the rover started up again, backing its way towards solid ground. Behind them the mist began to clear once more, and the island appeared again. This time though, there was no sign of any Vorlon ship, just a pile of tangled vegetation and blackish-grey dust.

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