Once Upon a Legend
Disclaimer: Babylon 5 and its characters don't belong to me. The characters mentioned all belong to J. Michael Straczynski, and my amateur efforts probably can't do justice to his work.
"Once Upon a Legend"
by Christine Anderson
aka Anla'shok Ivanova
"Babylon 5 was the last of the Babylon stations. There would never be another. It changed the future, and it changed us. It taught us that we have to create the future, or others will do it for us. It showed us that we have to care for one another, because if we don't, who will? And that true strength sometimes comes from the most unlikely places. Mostly, though, I think it gave us hope, that there can always be new beginnings, even for people like us."
- Anla'shok Na Susan Ivanova, 2281
John Sheridan's death marked the end of one era and the beginning of another. I knew that I would be a part of that era as I'd been a part of the last one, but I had no idea what role I was to play, not then. When the letter arrived, I dropped everything to go to Minbar, just like the others- the ones who'd managed to survive this long, at least. I had every reason to go, and absolutely none to stay- I wasn't happy where I was, anyway, and one of my oldest friends needed me, needed all of us. So I answered the call I had been dreading for twenty years.
Before I left, I went to see Marcus. His cryo tube had been transferred to Earth when they started clearing things out of Babylon 5 in preparation for its decommissioning, and somehow, maybe because my name was on those twenty year old orders, the thing was given into my care. I found it damned ironic- two decades and millions of light-years, and I still couldn't get rid of him. But the years had done a lot to ease my anger, at myself and at him, so I didn't turn away when, the night of the cryo tube's arrival, I found my feet carrying me along the corridors towards it. I said a lot that first night that I might not've said if he'd been alive- but to be honest I really don't know. Time and trial have changed a lot about me, and I can't look back upon my past so objectively anymore.
Marcus's cryo tube had been there about a week when the guard spilled into my office, a Ranger who wasn't even out of breath on his heels, fist still clenched, and the truth was that I wasn't surprised to see him, or the message he carried. It was as if Marcus' arrival had woken something within me, something that remembered things I didn't want to, something that knew the years had been counting down ever since, and that the day we were dreading was coming very, very soon. Or maybe it was just that Marcus's reappearance rattled me enough, and brought up enough ghosts of years so long gone to haunt my sleepless nights and my dreams, that the past was already awakened within me, so that I had a new appreciation for what I was facing. If you want to call it appreciation.
The Medlab techs were used to seeing me at odd hours, and no one said anything to me that day, only nodded as I passed into the small room, empty except for the cryonic suspension chamber containing all the sum of my fears and regrets, and of my dreams.
"It's time," I said. "I promised a long time ago that I would go- we all did." I held my breath a long moment before letting it out in a deep sigh. "And I guess we're all going- those of us who are in any shape to be going anywhere, that is." I laughed. "Maybe I should pack you along, too, and we can prop you up in the den after dinner. Maybe then you'll decide to come back and haunt me- either way you'd be back where you belonged, with your friends." I realized I was crying, and wiped the tears away with the back of my hand. "We're going to have this conversation a hundred more times, I can already tell you that much. You should be there, not instead of me, but with me. There should have been a way... Anyway, there's a shuttle waiting for me, and when it takes off I need to be on it. I could wish I'd accepted Delenn's offer of my own White Star, but I didn't think I'd have room for it in my office with all the other ridiculous junk I haven't been able to stop them from giving me." I rested my hand against the glass for a second or two, then pulled it away. "See you in a few days."
Marcus didn't answer, not that I expected him to. Death seemed to be the only thing that could shut him up, which was pretty much what I'd figured twenty-two years ago when he first came to Babylon 5. Somehow I didn't find being proven right about that as amusing as I might have back then.
All of this has faded into legend now, and these days there are stories told that have nothing to do with the truth of any of our struggles, won or lost. And I suppose that means we have come full circle, from fighting legends to being made into them ourselves, but all I can think of is how far we've come to lose so much and gain so little. I know that we have built things that will endure, that history will remember our names with awe, even though our own government once wanted us dead probably more than it wanted anything else in the known universe, but they will never remember us the way that we remember each other, and they'll only know the tales of what we did as stories, not as memories. And we, who lived them, will never be able to see things the way in which history chooses to remember us, because it will never be told quite the way it happened. I understand that, but it reminds me that there are only a few of us who know what it was really like before they called us legends.
We are a small club, and growing smaller, and I think this is what makes me sad more than anything else- that one day we will all be gone, and nothing will be remembered just as it happened. No one will remember that along with the great battles and grand speeches, along with the things we did that no one said could ever be done by anyone, along with the death and rebirth of my best friend, there was a hell of a lot of very human suffering- even among those of us who weren't human -and a hell of a lot of fear.
History will tell you that John Sheridan was never afraid, but I know better. All of us know better. We saw him on the day he came back from Z'ha'dum, and the way he held Delenn, as if he'd never thought he would see her again, said more plainly than words ever could, that he had been afraid.
Fear gets a bad rap, and of course it's something that we don't expect our heroes to ever be human- or Minbari, or Narn, or whatever -enough to feel, but the truth is, like a lot of things, far different from what the legends and the propaganda masquerading as history will tell you. And before we were all written into myth by people who never knew us or the world we lived in, fear was our constant companion. I was never alone in those days because it was always with me.
I was afraid during the Shadow War, afraid as I never had been in my entire life. You couldn't face the terrible darkness that threatened to cover the universe then and not be afraid; only the fools weren't, and most of them didn't last very long. Even now I could list the names, friends and colleagues I never saw again because they underestimated the threat of the Shadows, because they were too stupid to be afraid.
It's ironic, though, how focused we were on the Shadows at the time, how we failed to remember that there were other things that could kill us, too... Civil war, friends turned against us, and this crazy thing called time. So many of us survived the Shadows only to lose our lives in other ways, on other battlefields. Some died in the name of things worth fighting for, in the name of good causes, but others... others died for no reason at all. Arrogance, stupidity...love.
I think of Marcus a lot more now than I ever used to- maybe because I've just discovered how impossible it is to get rid of him. And I can't help wishing, again, still, that things could have been different... for him, for me, for us. Because the truth is that I loved him, but I didn't know what love was- I'd seen it twisted, shattered, broken, far too many times by that point, and by the time I was ready to even face the idea that maybe it didn't have to be that way... by then it was too late, and I was left with one more missed chance, one more regret, but this one worse by far than a lot of the others.
I used to tease him about unicorns, but what I never said was how much I'd liked them as a girl- or how, despite my cynical remarks, I was truly awed that someone could be, in that day and age, so pure of heart and spirit and not be ashamed to admit it, even to someone like me, who, for whatever reason, had his love, his devotion, and never even deserved it.
I doubt, somehow, that history will remember that with anything approaching accuracy.
I'm not surprised by that thought, because it's one I've had for years, but it annoys me more than it used to.
It's strange how the past is suddenly more clear to me than my own present or future has been for years. I remember Babylon 5 as if it were yesterday, Babylon 5 as I knew it, first with Sinclair and then with Sheridan, and the faces I used to see there every day. I remember most especially the ones who I will never see again in my lifetime- Londo, Lennier, G'Kar, Lyta, Sinclair, Marcus... and all of them no less a part of my family, of my blood, then Ganya or my mother or father.
They say that eventually the pain of losses such as mine will fade. What they don't tell you is that in the years when you are growing old and your friends are dying, that pain, and the memories that go with it, returns even stronger, until you feel the weight of it on your shoulders, so heavy you wonder if you'll ever be able to lift your head and see the sky again.
That was how it was for me, on the day the letter came in the Ranger's hands, on the day I knew at last my best friend was dying. The ones who write our stories and sing our songs will never know a lot of things, and this is one of them- that you can do everything right, can do all the things that they will remember you for far beyond your own lifetimes, and that a day like this one can come, and suddenly you feel as if you haven't accomplished anything, as if nothing you did was worth a damn, because it can't save someone you love.
Twenty years was more than John or any of us expected him to have, considering, and yet I realize suddenly that it's not enough anymore, not when it's almost over, and the rest of us face a lifetime without him.
And then I think that the pain I feel is nothing beside what Delenn is going through, and I can see the same realization in the others' eyes, and so we don't say anything. But we never have to, because Delenn sees it anyway. She doesn't see it the way that we do, though- to Delenn, our pain is the same- we are all losing someone we love, someone who we have known and cared for all these years, through more of hell and high water than any one person or group of them should ever have to see.
And I realize suddenly that this, too, is a part of why we are here- to share not just our memories and what time John has left, but to share our pain when he is gone, as well. When I left Earth I told them I didn't know when I would be back, and the others must have done the same, because John and Delenn's home has the sense of old friends settling in for a long visit. I think this is the way he wanted it, all of us here to stay as long as we were needed, or as long as we needed each other.
Even dying, he thinks of everything. And that's so- so- John, that I burst into tears at the thought, and couldn't seem to stop. I wasn't sure if I was hysterical or finally beginning to grieve, but I realized that I was laughing, too...
I looked up to see a hand holding out a tissue, and the hand was John's. That's when I knew. "Damn you," I said between gasps of laughter. "You really do think of everything!"
I hadn't seen him laugh like that in years. It made me glad I was there, glad I'd been able to do something, however little it was.
"You know I try, Susan," he said.
I shook my head. "I'm sorry. It's just- I finally realized something. All this time we thought we were here for you, and we are, but we're also here for each other."
He nodded. "We've always been strongest together, and we've always been able to do more as a group than we ever could have alone. There's a strength in old friends, Susan- I learned that a long time ago. And what that strength can do..."
"I'm going to miss you." It was the first time I'd admitted out loud that he was dying.
"I know, Susan. But I had a good life, and I did- I did more than I ever thought I could. And the important thing is that today, I laughed and talked with my friends, that I saw all of us together again, the way it should be..."
I agreed, but couldn't help adding, "The next person who sends me an invitation like yours, John, is going to find the experience very painful."
John laughed. "It wouldn't have been the same without you, and this just proves my point..." He paused. "I want you to promise me something, Susan."
"Name it." There wasn't anything I wouldn't have done for him at that point, and he knew it.
"History has already come to some peculiar conclusions about all of us and the things we've done," he said. I couldn't help but smile at his phrasing. "Well, no, actually, what I meant to say is that they've got some damned screwed-up ideas about what happened, and someday there isn't going to be anyone who knows the truth as we know it here today. That bothers me, Susan, it bothers me a lot. If they're determined to write us into history, the least they can do is be accurate about it. See if you can't keep them honest, Susan."
"Too late," I said. Then, "If you ask them, you're the one I should be asking to perform miracles, not the other way around."
John laughed. "I'm beginning to understand why the Gray Council kept their members' names a secret- wish I'd thought of that when we were setting up the Alliance!"
"I'll do my best, John."
"That's all I can ask... There's something else, too, and not only is it more important, but it's probably a little more feasible. David is old enough now to have known his dad's old friends before those crackpot historians got ahold of them, but some of the others, Mary Garibaldi and Franklin's kids, for example, aren't and I want you and the others to... To look after the next generation. Tell them the truth- tell them we were cold and tired and scared during the Shadow War, that we lost as much as we ever gained, that going back in time with Babylon 4 was probably one of the most terrifying experiences I've ever had... Tell them, Susan, tell them all of that, and the rest of it, too- the real, honest-to-God truth, as much of it as you know."
The others ask, what will my children, my grandchildren, say about me? Will they understand the way we lived and fought and loved and died? Will they ever understand that twenty years of (relative) peace with Delenn was worth more to John Sheridan than a full lifetime of war? And this was John's answer- that they will know. They'll know because we will tell them, because some of us will pass it along orally, and others will write it down. Because we will teach them everything we can, and they in turn will teach their children, so that even hundreds of years after all of us are gone, our descendants will know the truth- that they did not descend from legends, but from living, breathing people who had friends and enemies, people who made bad decisions and did stupid things, people who knew as much about pain and suffering and loneliness as they did about love everlasting, or love that knows no borders.
I have no children, no grandchildren, and I somehow doubt I ever will. It wasn't something I used to give a lot of thought to, but I think now that if a lot of things had been different... I might have. I might have had a daughter and named her Sofi after my mother, a son named after Marcus' brother, or my own. And at least we'd have had that much going for us- that we'd have no lack of potential namesakes, with so many of our dear ones already dead and gone.
None of the others even tease me about it anymore. It's like we all figured it out, all at once, myself included, after Marcus died, that that was my one shot and I'd missed it, and, well, so sorry, too bad, life goes on, right? And sometimes you're lucky, like John was lucky- sometimes you find someone else. But I remember Marcus and the other Rangers who fought with us during the Shadow War, and I remember- "We live for the One, we die for the One", and I understand. You can reach a point, at the end, where there is no one else- not even you- and you know that there never will be again.
It's funny that I think of this now, because Delenn asked me if I would be willing to take over leadership of the Rangers, and while I said I needed some time to think about it, the truth is that Delenn was right- I was not happy where I was, and I wasn't doing anything that was worth doing; hell, I hadn't done anything that was really worth doing in more years than I wanted to remember. There was only one choice that made sense then, and I knew it as well as Delenn did. What I needed that I lacked was the one bit of strength that would push me past thinking the words and into speaking them aloud. And I think Delenn knew that, too, because she just nodded and agreed to give me the time, and I hugged her before going off to bed. I can't remember the last time, prior to that, that I'd hugged anybody. It had been long enough that I'd forgotten how much comfort an old friend's arms can offer, and I wasn't sure which of us got more out of our hug that night, Delenn or I. We both had the same horrible knowledge- that another of our dear ones was about to pass beyond our reach, that our small little club was about to get a whole lot smaller.
John was special, though- he'd always been special. He, like Delenn, was one of those who was a legend in his own time, and I know that wasn't easy for him, because it kept him from doing a lot of things he wanted to, kept him from living the way he'd have liked to, in peace and quiet. But- we used to joke about this, and yet I know it's true- he wouldn't have known what to do with a life of peace and quiet any more than I would; we were both soldiers, and neither of us would've known how to exist that way, without something to fight, something to build, or at least something to do.
I was useless back on Earth- worse than useless, actually; redundant. They didn't need me any more than I needed them, and it was a thought I couldn't escape, try as I might. I was tired of trying, tired of living day after day, surrounded by people young enough to be my own children, who knew me as a legend so far before their own time that I might as well have been a relic, an antique.
More than twenty years ago, a man sworn to darkness destroyed lives with one simple question- What do you want? And though I'd have done something painful and permanent to Morden if I'd caught up with him at the time, now I have an answer to that question- not for Morden or the Shadows, only for myself.
I wanted to be useful again. I wanted to put my experience to use and do something worth doing. What Delenn said appealed to me, a lot as a matter of fact. The idea of building something... I liked that, and I knew what my answer would be.
A few days after John's death, we left Minbar together, those of us who he had summoned, and we were joined by Zack Allen on Babylon 5. One last look around the place for those of us who had survived it, the last of the original group of crew and diplomats...
It felt wrong to see the place so empty. Our footsteps echoed in the halls, and all around me I felt the weight of years, of all that had been seen and done there. So many of the pivotal events of my own life took place on or around Babylon 5... and now it was obsolete, redundant.
The only thing that seemed right about it was that the station would not outlast John Sheridan, who had been so much a part of all that it was.
We didn't speak much, while we were there, Delenn, Vir, Stephen, Michael, Zack, and I. I guess it seemed to all of us like six tired voices wouldn't ever sound like the quarter of a billion we'd have heard in the old days, and there was no point in trying to recreate what could never be again.
Each of us walked a bit of the station alone, lost in our own thoughts, remembering. As I did this, for a moment I saw things as they'd been, saw my younger self moving quickly along those halls, eight or nine different urgent things on my mind, and people scrambled to get out of my way. Mostly they bow and scrape now instead, as if I were some kind of royalty, and if this amuses me and I burst out laughing for no apparent reason, they can shake their heads and say to each other that after all she is quite old, she's been places we'll never dream of, done things we can't imagine, and it's to be expected that she's gone a bit soft in the head by now, isn't it?
Sycophants, the lot of them. They don't know nearly as much as they think they do, either- things are clearer to me now in some ways than they were twenty years ago. None of them understand, and yet they're trying to hang off of my coattails, hoping for- I don't know what. Fame and glory and all the other stupid things that come with costs so much higher than anyone would ever willingly want to pay...
I felt odd that morning as I put on my uniform, weighted down with yards of gold braid, knowing I'd never wear it again.
I'd been almost sad when, at the end of the civil war, we returned to EarthForce and its unique brand of fashion sense. The uniforms Delenn had made for us during the war were so simple, so practical... even the dress version was something you could comfortably work in. EarthForce, though, apparently never expected anyone with the rank of General to have any need, let alone any wish, to do anything even approaching what might be called 'work'.
The truth was that while I wore the uniform well enough, I never felt as if I really belonged in it. I stood there in my ridiculous monkey suit alongside my oldest friends, and didn't hear a word of the decommissioning ceremony. I could hardly bring myself to watch it- I figure I've got enough depressing memories, and I'm not in desperate need of another.
I almost decked the idiot Earth had left in charge of the station until its decommissioning. The only thing that stopped me was the vague idea that it wasn't really the time or the place...and then I thought, what the hell, and did it anyway. Maybe they were right about me going soft in the head. Who was I kidding? There would never be a place more right than in the shadow of B5. Babylon 5 changed me, changed all of us, and made me a lot of what I am. But the truth is that I am still who I was back then, older, I'd like to think at least a little wiser- and maybe a little less interested in finding the diplomatic solution to things, as opposed to just smacking the smug little bastard.
Alright, maybe a lot less interested.
"It's strange," I said to my friends while the commander was backing very quickly away, apologizing at great length for whatever offence he might have shown me, "I thought that twenty years would have changed me."
"In some ways," Delenn said. "But in others...not at all."
"You're sure about this?" I asked her. "You're certain I'm the right choice?"
"Susan," Delenn said, "you are the perfect choice. Never doubt it."
And I didn't. The others went their separate ways after they detonated the explosive charges planted throughout B5 (they'd offered each of us the honor and we'd all politely declined; in Delenn's words "We have built it, let others be the ones to destroy it"), returned to the lives they had built for themselves, but I returned to Minbar with Delenn onboard the White Star. From there, as we traveled towards home, I placed a call to EarthDome, and gave my not exactly heartfelt apologies to my supeirors, and the President herself, when she insisted on speaking to me. It was, ironically enough, Marie Crane, after all these years. I spoke my piece to all of them, and if they didn't really understand what I was doing or why, there wasn't a whole lot they could do about it.
I spoke to my secretary, still as patronizing and useless as she'd been when I had left her on Earth what felt like a lifetime ago, but she did agree to pack up the things in my apartment (and, unfortunately, the small fortune in gold-plated plaques and statuettes gathering dust in my office). There was one thing I wouldn't leave in her hands, though, and for that I called Stephen. He seemed a little surprised- I guess he'd wondered what had happened to Marcus's cryo tube, though probably a lot of others would have forgotten it existed altogether -but then he nodded, said something about the thing ending up where it belonged, and promised to send the cryo tube on to Minbar.
The cryo tube arrived twenty four hours later, with a handwritten note taped to the outside: Fragile. Do not fold, spindle, or mutilate. I laughed, and silently thanked Stephen for his humor and his help.
My new home was a small house in the Ranger compound in Tuzanor, once used by Valen, then Sinclair (then Valen again, and at that point it gets really confusing and my eyes cross if I attempt to puzzle it out any farther than that) but I spent most of my first few days on Minbar with Delenn, settling in and sorting things out. She gave me the uniform of the Anla'shok Na as soon as I got to Tuzanor, and I changed into it as soon as I could.
There was something right about my reflection in the mirror as I settled the Ranger's cloak about my shoulders, and I knew that Delenn had been right. I was where I needed to be, where I belonged, and if anything in the universe was worth doing, this was it. I still had a ways to go, but I was happier than I'd been in a long time, looking forward to the work that was ahead of me.
Between one thing and another, it was a while before I had a moment to stop and think, but when I did I put things together pretty quickly. As much as Delenn had needed someone she trusted, the right someone, to fill the position of Ranger One, I needed to be here for my own reasons, too, and she knew it. Maybe she'd always known it.
Through meditation I found a peace I'd never thought to know in my lifetime, and once I had it, it was never that far out of reach.
I learned the use of the fighting pike, the denn'bok, from another old warhorse, Turval, and found not only a good friend, but a strength and a balance within myself, something that seemed to grant me the quiet grace every Entil'Zha I had ever known had seemed to so effortlessly possess.
And one day, after I had trounced Turval at last on the practice field before the newest of the trainees, after the denn'boks were recessed once again, I gathered those new initiates around me, and waited for silence. Only when it came did I speak. "Let me tell you a story... a story of truth and terrible darkness, and of the greatest friends I have ever known. A story I promised I would tell, a story that needs to be told, so that the important things we know aren't lost forever..."
"Anla'shok Na, with all respect, we know this story," a human male spoke up.
"No," I shook my head. "You don't know this story. No one knows this story except for those of us who were there, because we were there. And if you will shut up and listen, I will tell you the truth not as people would like to see it told, but as it really was. I will tell you the truth behind the legends, and ask that you remember it and pass it on.
"It began more than twenty-five Earth years ago, with two men who were among the best of my friends- Jeffrey Sinclair, and John Sheridan, before the first- or the last -of the Babylon stations. Most people don't know that their paths crossed a time or two... or that they spoke about life and love, Sinclair of a surveyor named Catherine Sakai, and Sheridan of an archeologist named Anna. All four of them would end up going to strange and dangerous places. Some of them would even manage to come back..."