CONSPIRACY THEORY I

(chapters 1 - 6)

By Castor

 

 

 

OK, since the characters in "Terror" seem to have shut up for now, I thought I'd post this. It's an AU of dubious heritage (a little of Alta and Sue, a little of Gareth Williams, and a little of my screwed mind). As per usual, I have absolutely no idea where this is going, but there is more of this already written if anyone is interested Usual disclaimers. May Joe's characters live far longer in our hearts and minds than they will on screen! I'd like to thank Sue and Tamzin, both of whom merely read this (I requested nothing more), although Tamzin managed to make me see some errors even doing that!!!

  Castor

 

 

 

 

*****

Part 1

  Sheridan gave a satisfied sigh as he checked over the last of the reports and signed it. He picked up the pile of completed reports and carried them over to the low table, ready to take them to C&C when he next went up there. Someone walked in behind him and there was a thump as another pile was dropped on his desk. A voice spoke. It was Ivanova.

  'Today's reports sir. I put the water reclamation reports on the top as I think the system needs an overhaul. We seem to be going over energy estimates by quite a wide margin. I've got Dr. Vincenti working on some revisions to increase efficiency. She thinks she'll have some answers by tomorrow. Thursday at the latest.'

  'Ah nuts!'

  'Sir?'

  'Why is it, as soon as I complete one pile of reports, another one comes to replace it? Couldn't I just have one hour without paperwork?'

  'If you want me to look over them...?'

  Sheridan smiled. He knew Ivanova hated the paperwork as much as he, but she offered anyway and that meant a lot to him. 'No, Commander. I'll get them done.' He stretched his cramped hand and rubbed his eyes. 'Just not right now, OK?' He brought his arms up and worked the kinks out of his back, straightening his jacket reflexively when he finished.

  Ivanova eyed him carefully. Since she'd been assigned to the Explorer ship Telemarchus on the orders of the Minbari government on Earth, she had watched the Captain. He was one of the few survivors of the disastrous Battle of the Line, and then only because he'd arrived back too late to do anything but surrender. She suspected he would rather have died, but at the time he was on the ill-fated Proteus, having been re-assigned after the Black Star incident, and was carrying a large number of wounded civilians from the outlying colonies. While those who could communicate had endorsed his idea of trying to help in the last defence of Earth, when it became clear there was nothing left for them to do they all decided that surrender, rather than suicide was a preferable option. Sheridan himself had been taken and tortured by the Minbari. It was once said that it was he who had instigated the attack on the Black Star, but Minbari news reports after the war confirmed that Sheridan 'Starkiller' had, in fact, no right to the name. He'd merely been on the ship nearest to the Black Star when an engine complication, engendered by her many victorious battles, had struck her down in her prime.

  No one knew all of what had happened to Sheridan while he was in Minbari custody. If questioned, Sheridan claimed that the Minbari had been very civilised after their initial harsh treatment; a treatment he considered justified given their opinion that he had complicity in the deaths of so many Minbari. Of course, everyone knew that no human ship could harm a Minbari one. They were invincible. And now Earth was under the protection of the mighty Minbari Empire. Earth's future was assured. If some of her freedoms had been curtailed in the name of 'planetary security' well, that was all right too. Earth was riding high on Minbari technology and protection. Why jeopardise it by attacking the government? Rumours had reached Ivanova's ears that sometimes troublesome people disappeared only to return a few months later to apologise for their poor behaviour. Each became a model citizen. As, indeed, was Sheridan. For over ten years now he'd been a model captain of a model ship.

  These days the Minbari no longer chose to range widely through the stars, and allowed old Earth captains the task of running the Explorer vessels. Of course, the new Explorer class were nothing like the old ones. These had artificial gravity and were more like flying cities than ships, but they could put on considerable speed when the time came, and had enough fire power to defeat most would-be attackers. Not that many threatened them once they saw the Minbari-Earth symbol on the side. The Narn had made a few feeble attempts on Minbari outposts, but the last had been crushed with great speed and ferocity, and it seemed unlikely that those remaining Narn would even manage another generation, let alone muster enough technology to make further attacks for at least 6 centuries, if then. The Centauri were all bluster but nothing to worry the Minbari-Earth rule. The so-called 'non-aligned worlds' were trying to pull together in the face of an expanding Minbari presence but, as everyone knew, they would soon be absorbed into the New Order. The Warrior Caste knew what they were doing. The weak Religious Caste, though worthy enough if they kept to their temples, had not been able to retake their places on the Grey Council after several had been killed in a mysterious explosion aboard the Council ship. Only one Religious Caste member of the Grey Council had survived, and it was rumoured it was that very individual the Telemarchus was presently carrying as its Political Officer.

  Ivanova understood the need for a Political Officer on most ships, but given Sheridan's record of service she found it slightly odd that such an apparently high ranking Minbari as Delenn had been assigned (or had assigned herself?) to the task. Political officers were usually a prominent feature aboard ships with potential troublemakers. Sheridan was a loyal soldier, and Ivanova had read all the news reports and studied enough to know that the whole Earth-Minbari war was a direct result of human aggression. The Prometheus had a lot to answer for. She counted herself lucky that their opponents had been more civilised than the Humans had been. She sometimes wondered what would have happened if the Humans had won. Probably bent themselves to retribution on a massive scale and destroyed the magnificent Minbari civilisation.

  Ivanova shook herself. It was stupid even imagining such a thing. The Minbari were the most advanced and enlightened people in the known universe. Earth was lucky to be under her protection.

  Sheridan eyed Ivanova. 'Was there something else, Commander?'

  'Political Officer Delenn was asking for you sir. At your earliest convenience she said, but I got the impression that meant now.'

  Sheridan sighed. 'Wonder what I've done? Did she say where I was to meet her?'

  'In the temple sir.' All Explorer ships had a Minbari temple aboard. This allowed the vast majority of those aboard who had converted to the Minbari religion a place to meditate in their free time, such as it was. So far from home it was important that all could keep up their training in those refined arts. 'She wanted me to be there too.'

  Sheridan raised an eyebrow. 'And she said nothing?' Ivanova shook her head. Sheridan shrugged. 'Oh well. I suppose we'll find out soon enough. You say she's there now?'

  'Yes sir.'

  'Well then, if you're ready we'd better get going. We don't want to keep Delenn waiting.'

  Ivanova smiled. 'No sir.'

  Sheridan reached for the cloak it was traditional for senior officers to wear in the presence of the Minbari command. He noted that Ivanova had brought hers with her and she slipped it on as they left his office.

  Walking along the corridor side by side, the Minbari cloaks flowing out behind them, Sheridan and Ivanova made an impressive sight. Officers and non-coms stood to attention as they passed and then went about their business without further speculation as to the activities of the commanders. To do so would be totally un-Minbari: an insult to any true Earther of the New Order. And so the two reached the temple without interruption or comment.

  Sheridan placed his hand on the door scan panel and spoke. 'Summoned, I come.' Delenn's voice sounding, to Ivanova's ears, slightly shaky, emanated from within. 'Enter, and welcome.' Ivanova turned to Sheridan and he raised his eyebrows. Apparently he too had heard the hesitation in Political Officer Delenn's voice. What could possibly be so bad as to shake the implacable Minbari? The swoosh of the door opening forestalled further speculation and the two entered the darkened temple with the illuminated Triluminary glowing at the far end.

  Delenn was a small, cowled figure kneeling in front of the Triluminary. Forming the traditional salute Ivanova and Sheridan bowed in unison and awaited the order to raise their heads again. As they stood waiting they heard Delenn rise and turn. Then she said something neither would have predicted.

  'Computer: Security mode six. Voice authorisation Delenn. Release on my command only.' A tiny noise from behind them confirmed the order and Sheridan risked a glance to Ivanova. What in Valen's name was going on? Security mode six not only locked the door but shut off all communications. There was no way the ship's crew could communicate with them, or vice versa, until Delenn rescinded the order. Whatever this was, it was bad.

  'You may stand straight.'

  The two straightened but kept their eyes respectfully downcast. Delenn regarded them for a moment. With their eyes down they could not see her fear, and she doubted she could continue if they were watching her. Nevertheless, what had to be done would be easier if they were looking at her, at least if she were to use the less painful method. It was risky. Frankly, it terrified her. But Valen had never intended what was happening, and as a representative of the Religious Caste and the only surviving Satai of the Old Order it was time the truth were told. The only question was, could she trust these two not to have her arrested for Un-Minbari activities before she could convince them of who they really were.

  She sighed. She'd gone over this a thousand times. Two thousand! She'd managed to persuade the Council to assign her to keep an eye on Sheridan and Ivanova. Both were considered something of a threat to the New Order, if only because no one knew whether the techniques used on them were permanent or not. Since Delenn herself was an irritant, putting all the most irritating stones in one oyster had seemed a most effective way of solving the problem and the Council had agreed with minimum fuss.

  Now Delenn would find out if the stones would destroy the oyster or create a pearl. She cleared her throat and put as much steel into her voice as she could muster. 'You will look up.' Sheridan nearly choked. 'It is disrespectful!'

  'So is disobeying an order. Look up.'

  Wondering if they were to be struck down on the spot Ivanova and Sheridan slowly raised their eyes. Delenn pushed the cowl off her head and looked at them long and hard. Ivanova tried to drop her eyes once more but Delenn forestalled her with an angry glance. Inside, Delenn was quaking, but she knew she could not allow these two to see her fear until they knew the cause.

  'Captain Sheridan. Do you know who I am?'

  'You are Political Officer Delenn.' Sheridan couldn't work out if this was some kind of trick question. Was he being castigated for the rumour of her Satai status? He himself had only heard of it the day before and had firmly reminded the young officers that it was Un-Minbari to discuss another's personal history if they did not choose to divulge it. He'd hoped he'd stopped the rot before it had grown too far. Perhaps he had not moved fast enough?

  'And what else?'

  That was it then. She *was* testing him. He tried to prevaricate. 'I'm sorry, I don't know what you mean.'

  'Did you know I was also Satai Delenn of the Religious Caste?'

  Sheridan instantly looked down and noticed Ivanova had beaten him to it. No one was allowed to look a Satai in the eye. 'No Satai.'

  'Liar.'

  'Satai?' A cold sweat broke out on Sheridan's forehead. To be called a liar by a Satai was tantamount to being spaced. He wondered how things could possibly have gone so far downhill so fast.

  'Look at me!'

  'Satai! I...we....' Sheridan was at a loss for words. He was caught between strict training and a direct order. To violate either was grounds for severe punishment. Whatever he did he was damned. How in Valen's name was he supposed to respond? He heard Ivanova's muttered 'help!' and knew he was not alone in his confusion.

  Delenn cursed loudly. The Warrior Caste's programming was too good. Not for the first time she wondered how many had been made to pay the ultimate price for its perfection. She had prepared for this moment, and while she had hoped to be able to break the barriers without the use of more drugs, she could no longer see a choice.

  'Never mind. Sit down here.'

  Visibly relieved that the dilemma had been resolved Sheridan and Ivanova moved slowly to the positions indicated and seated themselves on cushions on the floor. Delenn picked up a flagon of liquid and poured three cups from it. Carefully she slipped a pill into Sheridan and Ivanova's cups, leaving her own free. She then handed the cups out, taking her seat opposite the two commanders.

  'Drink.' Sheridan and Ivanova did as ordered without question. Delenn sighed. If she had put poison in the cups in full view they would have drunk it just as quickly on her command. To see so noble a people so thoroughly cowed broke her heart. These were to be giants who would one day walk among the stars, not slaves dependent for their every breath on the mighty Minbari Empire. In her mind Delenn spat the term. A mighty empire that uses programming and drugs to keep its people in line is no mightier than a carrion eater. In the war that was to come the Humans needed to be free. They would need all their differences and cunning to survive. Delenn was sure the Minbari too would be doomed without the innovative spark that the Humans had once had in abundance. Whether, once the war was over, the Humans would turn on the Minbari to wreck their revenge for past injustice Delenn did not know. All she knew was that if they weren't given a chance neither race would survive, and Minbari death at the hands of an understandably resentful species would be preferable to the death of all at the claws of the Shadows.

  She watched in silence as the drug started to take effect. At first Sheridan swayed slightly and then caught his balance, shaking his head as if to clear it. Ivanova finally lifted her hand to rub her eyes and then quickly put it back in her lap. Delenn waited a few seconds longer to be sure the first stage was almost over and then spoke.

  'The drug I put in your drinks has three stages. Do not worry. It should not kill you. What it will do is weaken the barriers that have been put on your minds, and so allow you to perceive the truth when I speak it to you. The first stage relaxes you. You will find you are no longer capable of standing. You will not pass out as that would defeat the purpose, although you may wish you had. I'm afraid the second stage is somewhat painful. As the drug attacks those in your system that hold you in thrall your system and your programming will, naturally, seek to defend themselves. It is somewhat akin to the withdrawal symptoms common to addicts. Since you are both fit and healthy I see no reason why you should not survive this stage.' Privately she prayed there would be no complications. If either died now it would be extremely hard to cover the cause without destroying the bodies completely, and no one but Delenn could have had access to the drug. The bloody hand of guilt, with the intention behind the act branded on the palm, would be pointed straight at her, and the Warrior Caste response would almost certainly be prolonged and extremely painful. Death she could bear. Disgrace on herself and her clan was something else again. 'Once that stage is over and your heads have cleared somewhat you will enter the third stage. During this time you will be free once more. I will tell you what has happened to you and try to release the memories trapped within you.'

  She fingered the Triluminary in her pocket. Not a symbol this time, as was the case with the one on the wall. This was the real thing. All her researches told her this should work. Indeed, that it was the only thing that would at this stage. Once she had freed these two she hoped they might tell her who else to release who might be able to find a more efficient method of freeing the others. The drugs which kept the people of Earth under control were in the water they drank, the food they ate and, aboard ships, sometimes even in the air they breathed. The drug had no major negative effects on Minbari, except a slight nausea or occasional headache which could be overcome, so it was all the same to them either way. Once Ivanova and Sheridan were free the first thing to do would be to allow them access to her own food stores since they were drug free. Next they must find and release a group of humans who could investigate the drug and work out an efficient and safe antidote, as well as making available non-contaminated food and water. This would necessitate taking on supplies from a non-Minbari approved source, which is why a large number of the crew would either have to be mentally free or physically restrained when the time came. Otherwise they would obey their orders to avoid as poison all such foods and, quite correctly, commandeer the ship to preserve it against these un-Minbari activities. The only other option was to somehow remove the drug from the food and water and wait for nature to take its course. But the drug was mere reinforcement. No one knew how long it would take for the effects to wear off if, indeed, they would at all. There was not enough time left for this option.

  Ivanova entered the second stage with a jolt. She began to shiver uncontrollably and then collapsed. With minimal muscle control she nevertheless managed in her pain to assume a foetal position, the muscle spasms induced by the war going on in her system drawing her knees up to her chest. Sheridan remained still but Delenn could see he was in great pain and struggling to control its outward manifestation. It was only a matter of time before he lost that struggle and Delenn stood up and walked behind him, ready to catch him should the inevitable collapse hit so hard as to cause him to strike his head on the floor. Unconscious he was of no use to her. She saw him begin to shake and knelt behind him. Astonishingly, he managed to turn his head and look at her. Like a rabbit caught in the glare of a headlamp Delenn stared into his eyes. The eyes of a furious madman. Worse, the eyes of a furious and very sane man, driven mad by others and only now realising the depths of that pressure. Fighting for every word he managed to force out his contempt.

  'You bastards! What have you done to us?!'

*****

Part 2

  Delenn was so surprised she nearly missed him when he fell, but rallied in time to guide his head onto her lap as the convulsions overtook him. She had felt sure it would need the Triluminary as well to free them. Was the drug alone so powerful, or had the programming so tenuous a purchase that it only needed a breath to be knocked away? How strong must Sheridan's will be that it could surface so readily once the smallest fraction of the barriers had been lifted? He was still staring at her but now foam was forming around his mouth and Delenn retrieved a handkerchief from her pocket and carefully wiped it away. His trembling was still building whilst Ivanova's had slowed some time ago. Delenn became worried. He should have passed the middle mark around the same time as Ivanova and by now be nearing the end of the second stage. Instead he was still building up to the apex. Suddenly he convulsed violently, his back arching and driving his head hard into her lap. He let out a yell of fury and agony that tore at her heart. Desperately she tried to think of a way of lessening the pain when, just as suddenly, he collapsed. Fearful that the drug had killed him she reached for his pulse. It was there, powerful and fast but slowing perceptibly. She wondered how long he would be unconscious and carefully laid his head on the floor before moving on her hands and knees to Ivanova. She was still in the last stages but there was only a hint of the shaking that had manifested itself so terribly in Sheridan. Ivanova carefully drew herself up into a sitting position and looked at Sheridan.

  'With all due respect,' she spat. 'I'm with him. What *have* you bastards done to us?' Ivanova too? Delenn shook her head and sat back on her haunches. After a pause she looked up into the face of her accuser. 'I assume I will not need to go through the final stage then?'

  'If you mean remind me of what has been done to us, no. I remember every moment. And you call yourselves civilised?!' The disgust on Ivanova's face sparked Delenn's own fury.

  'We were, and most of us still are! I am not responsible for the Warrior Caste's excesses!'

  'Not responsible? Did you try to stop it? Did you offer any resistance whatsoever? How dare you claim you're not responsible!?'

  'Of course I offered resistance! Why in Valen's name do you think I'm here on this forsaken ship at the edge of nowhere?! Do you think Satai's are normally permitted or ordered to take up the ridiculous post of political officer?' Delenn's fury was fuelled both by Ivanova's accusations and her own knowledge that she had moved too slowly. Fear had made her hesitant, and now she was facing the consequences. She was trying to justify herself, but ten years of stalling could not be so easily dismissed.

  'Oh give me a break!' Ivanova wiped the sweat from her eyes and used the edge of her cloak to wipe the spittle from her chin before removing it with an expression of loathing. She hurled it as far away from herself as possible in her weakened condition. 'They needed someone to keep an eye on us. They couldn't risk Starkiller remembering who he really was, or me remembering what you did to my family.'

  'It wasn't me.' Delenn said dejectedly.

  'It was you by association. You ARE responsible, Delenn! You complied with your silence.'

  'And if I had not complied. If I had screamed my protestations from the roof of the Great Temple, do you think we would be here, now, having this free conversation?'

  'She has a point, Susan.' Sheridan's voice, though croaky, was strong enough to interrupt them. He groaned as he pulled himself up into a sitting position. 'Though that doesn't mean I won't kill you once I can stand up again.' He groaned again and rubbed his head. Encountering the robe he followed Ivanova's example and tore it off in disgust. He rubbed his hands through his hair a few times as though trying to reach an itch inside his skull and then smoothed the hair back into place. 'But right now, you're more useful to me alive than dead. I assume you have some sort of plan as to how the hell we're supposed to release the rest of the ship?'

  Delenn nodded. 'But it depends on you. Is there anyone aboard who could find a less drastic method of breaking the drug's hold?'

  Sheridan thought for a while. His memories from before the time he became Captain of the Telemarchus were clear. He remembered the torture, the drugs, the programming, each and every scream of his soul as it was crushed under a Warrior Caste boot. He fought to see through the eyes of the stranger who had commanded the Telemarchus, spoken to her men, knew their faces but not who they were. After a while he looked up sharply and, as one, Ivanova and Sheridan spoke the name.

  'Franklin!'

  'Who?'

  It was Ivanova who responded. 'Lt. Franklin of the catering division, as he now is, used to be Doctor Franklin. He has,' she corrected herself, 'had, a brilliant mind.'

  Sheridan nodded. 'If anyone could work this out, he could, assuming he's still capable. The trick will be to free him.'

  'But once freed, and once he's worked out an antidote, he'd be in the perfect position to administer it to the crew without their realising it.' Ivanova added.

  Delenn nodded. 'Then we must bring him here as soon as possible.'

  Sheridan eyed Delenn thoughtfully. 'Why are you doing this?' he said at last.

  Delenn slowly stood up, rubbing her thighs where Sheridan had bruised them in his convulsions. 'Because I must. Because this is wrong and I saw no other way to correct that wrong.' 'And?' Sheridan knew a half answer when he heard one.

  'And because there is an enemy massing. One the Minbari cannot defeat alone. One who can only be defeated by difference. By the unexpected. By free peoples who can think and act alone if need be.'

  'Oh great! So after all you've done you now want us to help you? You must be out of your mind.'

  'Not for my sake, nor for my people's. For the sake of all. I would not blame your people if you destroyed us. But if the death of the Minbari race is the price the galaxy has to pay for freedom, then I believe we should be prepared to pay it.'

  'Very noble.' The sarcasm in Sheridan's voice was not lost on Delenn. 'And once we beat your enemy, will you simply march back in and steal our souls?'

  Delenn shuddered, the image of a Soul Hunter flashing in her mind. 'We could not. You will not be taken twice by the same trick.'

  'Now there I agree with you.' Sheridan tried to stand up but he was still too weak and sat down again heavily. 'But I don't agree to bringing Franklin here immediately. Give it a day or two. Let's see if we can keep up the facade in the face of the crew. If we can't, only we'll pay the price. If we can, we'll be able to teach him a few tricks before he trips up and gives us all away. He's a good man, but he can be a bit impulsive. And it'll give me a chance to check the rest of the crew. I need to know if there's anyone we can't trust. I know your people, Delenn. Apparently better than you do. There's no way they'd have only one person keeping an eye on us. We're too important and too risky. There'll be a stooge somewhere. Someone who seems like one of us but who's a Minbari spy. We need to track that person down and remove him or her first. Only then will it be safe to start freeing the other ships.' Sheridan paused and then added 'Who is this enemy you're so afraid of?' 'They are called the Shadows. We have no other name for them. They are ancient, and more terrible than you can possibly imagine. They are Lords of Chaos. The Minbari defeated them once, long ago, but then we had the help of the First Ones. This time we are alone. The First Ones went beyond the rim millennia ago. The younger races are all that is left to face them.'

  'So you turn to us, when you defeated us so easily?'

  'Not easily. We had better technology, but you had the will. The end was inevitable, but the Warrior Caste thought it would be over within a year at most. They were not prepared for your resilience, your ingenuity, or your courage.' Delenn paused and then added in a murmur 'Starkiller.' Sheridan's head jerked up. 'And how long have you known that, Delenn?'

  'Since the beginning. I had family on the Black Star. All the Minbari know the truth, but we could not have Humans believing they could beat us. So we rewrote the history books and gave your people a different story.'

  Sheridan shook his head. 'Ten years. Ten YEARS Delenn!! Why did you wait so long? How many have died because your people can't bear the truth? And what about those who haven't? I don't know who I am any more. You've stolen the last ten years from me. How are you going to give me those years back, Delenn, huh? I've been a stranger to myself and my friends. You didn't even let me remember my wife!'

  Delenn shuddered. 'We couldn't. We didn't know what her death would do to you.'

  Ivanova gasped and watched Sheridan's reaction. There was a long pause before he managed to find his voice once more. When he did, it was barely a whisper.

  'Dead? When did she die, Delenn?' He moved across the floor and grabbed her by the shoulders, forcing her to look at him. 'When did she die?!' he yelled.

  'In the last bombings. Her body was found in the rubble. I'm...I'm sorry.'

  'Sorry? You're sorry?' Sheridan's laugh was chilling. Ivanova moved over to him and laid a hand on his shoulder. He looked up and she saw the tears he was fighting to keep in check. 'All this time,' his voice cracked but did not break. 'All this time you've known and you could've done something. Why did you wait so long, Delenn? Why?!' The last came out as an angry shout and Ivanova squeezed his shoulder but held her peace.

  'Because I did not know everything. Because I wanted to be sure.' She hesitated before finishing. 'Because I was afraid.' At Sheridan's incredulous stare she straightened. 'Do you think a Religious Caste member cannot be intimidated by the Warrior Caste? My fellow Satai's were killed. They only missed me because I was late to the meeting and I was weak. Too weak, then, to be a worry to them. I was young, inexperienced. If they had killed me as well it would have looked suspicious. But they could not risk my finding out. So I was posted from city to city as a governor, and finally managed to persuade them to post me here. It took time, patience. You cannot move too quickly in Minbari society without drawing attention to yourself. I could not afford that.' A slight haughtiness returned to her face, 'And neither can you. I am trusted now, at least as much as a Religious Caste Satai will ever be trusted. I have played my part and done it well. Be grateful. I can help you now in ways I could not have helped you before.' She stood up. 'And do not forget who I am. I have released you and will help you because we have a mutual enemy massing on our borders. But do not make the mistake of thinking you are indispensable to me. If necessary, I could have you killed and I doubt the Warrior Caste would be too upset. You are a worry to them, Starkiller. That is why they wanted you far from home. If you died out here it would be a service to them and any excuse would be accepted. You have your chance. Do not abuse it.'

  Sheridan was at a loss for words, and it was Ivanova who spoke.

  'Have you any idea what you've started, Delenn?'

  Now it was Delenn's turn to whisper, and there was a tremor of fear in her voice. 'The future.'

  *****

  It took Ivanova and Sheridan a good hour to recuperate sufficiently to be able to leave the Temple without their experiences showing in their demeanour, but then they spent another ten minutes working out how best to present themselves to the crew. They'd been in the temple a long time. Longer than simple meditation would explain. It was decided that the best plan would be to leave looking as though they had experienced the dressing down of their lives. A stiff gait, a slightly anxious expression, and the look of hidden terror that such a long sojourn with the ship's political officer on the rampage would engender. It didn't take much to generate the expression. The terror both felt at the thought of what they were about to do would suffice for that part. The stiff gait of one trying not to show their experiences would help to cover any remaining stiffness in their limbs. As for the cowed look of a beaten slave who feels lucky to be alive and is grateful to their master, if Delenn's earlier comments were not enough, she added one more.

  'Think on this. I had no idea whether or not the drug would kill you. I was risking your lives in the hope that my researches had been accurate, and I was by no means sure I had all the facts. The Warrior Caste do not willingly dispense information on the drugs they use in such cases. I felt it was worth the risk, but it *was* a risk. In tests of an earlier version I gather the seizures killed well over 500 of your people.'

  Sheridan and Ivanova left appropriately subdued by the news, their cloaks completely failing to hide the dejected stoop of their shoulders. Crew personnel as ever stood to attention as they passed, and while they would not gossip, the knowing looks passed between them was assurance enough that the two had succeeded in their aim.

  It was decided that they should make their way to their own quarters and remain there for a few hours. After a dressing down it was normal for crew members not in combat to secrete themselves alone to dwell upon their failures and meditate on how to rectify the situation. When a call finally came through to his quarters Sheridan hesitated before answering and was relieved to see the face of Lt. Corwin on the other end.

  Corwin was in charge of communications and it was quite appropriate that he be the first to break the silence.

  'Sir. Just checking in for orders.'

  'Thank you, Lieutenant. Has Political Officer Delenn spoken with you?'

  'Yes sir. Do you wish to add anything to the dispatch?'

  It had been decided that Delenn would report on a number of minor offences (including the rumours as to her position) as a major breach of protocol for which the Captain and first officer had been roundly chastised. She had also suggested that until a semblance of Minbari order had been restored to the ship it should be taken off the active list which, of course, would make Sheridan and Ivanova's task all the easier.

  'No. I'm sure it's all correct and in order.'

  Corwin looked around him carefully before quietly saying 'She's a bit of a martinet, Captain. I'm sorry you got hammered so hard.'

  If ever he'd heard a test, this was surely it and Sheridan was immediately suspicious of Corwin. He responded in the only way he could. 'Lieutenant! One more utterance like that and you'll be on a charge. Do I make myself clear?! I failed in my duty and Political Officer Delenn has made me see the error for what it is. But now I've been corrected do not think I won't pass the rod along. We are all responsible for this ship's failure. We have a duty to the Minbari Empire, and I'll not fail in my duty again and neither will my crew. Your violation has been noted, Lieutenant. Don't make me put it in writing.'

  Corwin went white and Sheridan began to doubt his earlier suspicions. 'No sir. Sorry sir,' he stammered. 'It won't happen again sir.'

  'I suggest when you finish your duty cycle you go to the temple and meditate on your error.'

  'Yes sir. I will sir. Corwin out.' The link went dead and Sheridan contemplated the blank screen thoughtfully. If the mole was Corwin, he'd be in the perfect position to contact the Minbari headquarters and sell them all out. If he wasn't, he'd be a perfect ally. The uncertainty made Sheridan's stomach clench. He needed to talk to Ivanova, but first he needed to be sure his room was safe. As if on cue his doorbell cheeped and admitted Delenn. He snapped to attention and bowed his head respectfully. He didn't know if there was a bug or a camera in his quarters and he was taking no chances.

  'Captain, I believe you have been informed of the communications that have taken place?' As Delenn spoke she quietly slipped a device from her sleeve and activated it. Sheridan, with his head still bowed, kept his eye on the indicator light as he responded to the question.

  'Yes Delenn.'

  'Have you meditated on your failings?'

  'I have, Delenn.' The light glowed red and Sheridan fought to control his breathing as Delenn, with a casual stroll, homed in on the source.

  'And are you satisfied with Minbari justice in this instance?'

  'I am. You have been very fair.'

  Delenn reached a lamp fitting and then took a slow look around the room. 'Your quarters here are very fine.'

  'The Minbari have been generous, Delenn.'

  'As ever.' She corrected.

  'Of course.'

  'More fair to you than to me it would seem. You have more room than I. I will commandeer this room forthwith. Give orders that my belongings are to be moved here immediately. You will occupy my room. I see no reason why the Human captain of this ship should have better accommodation than the Minbari Political Officer. You will oversee the removals yourself, Captain. I am sure your crew can be trusted, but of course it is a wise person who trusts with care, don't you agree?'

  'Yes Delenn.'

  'You are dismissed. See to it at once.'

  Sheridan formed the sign of the Triluminary, bowed and left. Delenn had kept the device she was using carefully shielded in her palm for which she was now grateful. Whatever the camera hidden within the light fitting had seen, it was not the source of its discovery. The question was, who was watching? Delenn strolled around the room considering the few items Sheridan possessed. She kept the device on and got a second signal. Homing in on it she discovered the source. A curious globe which, when she shook it, created the effect of seagulls flying around a lighthouse. The door opened to admit an ensign assigned the task of removing Sheridan's stuff. Turning quickly and feigning surprise she dropped the globe which shattered, spilling the water and seagulls which skittered across the floor. Detecting the one which was the problem she stepped back on it as she glared at the ensign.

  'You fool! Do you not think to ask before entering a room?'

  The ensign's face was ashen. 'I'm sorry, I had no idea you were here. I was ordered to clear out the Captain's room immediately. I beg your forgiveness.' He bowed, his body a picture of fear and dejection. Satisfied she had achieved her aim Delenn relented.

  'I will not be so ready to forgive if you make the error a second time. Now fetch cloths to clean up this mess. I don't want my belongings damaged by lying in water.' As the ensign left she moved into the bedroom, making sure several other seagulls met the same fate as the first. She cursed as she stepped on them for the sake of the camera and, once she was certain the bedroom was clear, smiled with her back to the lounge. The ensign's timing had been flawless. In fact, it couldn't have gone better if they'd planned it. The rest of Sheridan's belongings were clear and she oversaw their removal with her customary disdain. She'd checked her own quarters before she left just to be sure, but apparently even the ever-paranoid Warrior Caste had not seen her as a threat, for which she felt both grateful and mildly insulted. She was determined it would be the last time they'd underestimate her although, for now, it suited her purpose very well to be thought an irrelevant pawn in a greater game.

*****

Part 3

  Sheridan, meanwhile, was receiving his belongings with a mixture of pleasure and shock. He tried to remember all the things he might have said in that room before and decided that while under the influence of the drugs there'd been nothing of which he'd been culpable. Thank god for Delenn's attention to detail. And now he had her quarters which were, in truth, slightly smaller than his own, although the difference was so little it was barely noticeable. He noted the absence of the globe and sighed as the ensign reported the accident. The globe had been a gift from his wife before he'd left Earth to fight against the Minbari. He remembered that now. He mourned all the years he had owned the globe, carried it with him wherever he went and never quite known why it had meant so much to him. He wondered if, perhaps, in another possible world, they were happily married. Then decided that given his devotion to star-ships and hers to archaeological digs, the chances were that if they had been it would have to be a long distance relationship. He shook himself. No point in dwelling on might-have-beens. He had to concentrate on what was. But the loss still caused a pit to open in his stomach.

  The door chime sounded and the door opened to admit Ivanova. It was not uncommon for the two of them to meet together in his quarters to discuss ship's business, but he was curious as to how she had discovered his new location so swiftly.

  'I saw your stuff being moved and Delenn's crystals being carried into your room. It was a logical swap. I take it your room was bugged?'

  'Twice over, apparently. One in the lamp and one in the snow globe.'

  Ivanova shook her head. 'That was a stinking trick. That was special to you, wasn't it?'

  'Anna's last gift. I never knew it until now.' He cleared his throat, 'How are you coping?' He watched her move through his room as though in a daze and she sat down heavily on the settee.

  'Not good. I walked into my room and it felt like a stranger lived there. I barely recognised my own stuff.'

  'Did you show it?'

  'No, though I had to catch myself. Delenn said she'd check my place out over the next few days, but I think we can take it for granted it's probably bugged.'

  'I don't think we can relocate you too fast. It'll look obvious. I'm afraid you'll just have to live with it for now.'

  'Great! Hope the son of a bitch enjoys seeing me in the nude!'

  'If he's Minbari he probably doesn't give a damn. Assuming it's a he of course.'

  'Apart from Delenn there ARE no Minbari aboard this ship.'

  'So unless it's being beamed back to Earth...'

  'Which would use up a helluva lot of energy.'

  'And which would show up in the reports...'

  As one they turned and stared at each other.

  'The water reclamation!' Ivanova exclaimed. 'That would explain the excessive energy output.'

  'But how come it didn't show up before?'

  'Because they only recently activated it?'

  Sheridan was trying to work it out in his head. Why the sudden attention to the ship? Unless... 'Or it's been running for ages but was better camouflaged.'

  'Someone could have been re-working the reports. Someone who's no longer in a position to do so.'

  'Who's be re-assigned lately?'

  'Lt. Falmer has just moved to engineering, and Corwin was put in charge of communications.'

  'Corwin? You know, he tried to catch me out earlier. Made a disparaging remark about Delenn.' Ivanova raised an eyebrow. 'I corrected him, of course.'

  'Of course.'

  'So now we know how, and probably who, the question is, can we stop it without it being too suspicious?'

  'I'll see what Dr. Vincenti has to say. If she spots it, she will have to be put on our group ASAP.'

  'If she doesn't, she's either stupid, or covering it up, which would put her up there with Corwin for ship's mole.' He sighed and sat down on the other end of the settee, his head in his hands. 'I'll be honest with you. This whole situation scares the hell out of me.' Ivanova watched him but said nothing. 'I don't know who I can trust and who's working the Warrior Caste dispatch. I'm assuming there's only one but there could be more. Heck, this whole damn ship could be nothing but spies. And as for Delenn...'

  'You can trust me.' It was said quietly and Sheridan raised his head to find Ivanova's honest face gazing intently at him. He smiled and leaned back, closing his eyes.

  'Thank god for that. Without you here beside me I think I'd go nuts. Jeez, I hate conspiracies!'

  'It's hard keeping a secret. I know. I've had to keep one all my life.'

  Sheridan opened his eyes and turned to Ivanova who was now staring at the carpet. 'I'm sorry?'

  'Look, given what we're in now I guess you've got to know. My mother always told me to tell no one, but the Psi Corps aren't here now, and I reckon anything which might help us would be useful.' She paused and Sheridan leaned forward, concern in his eyes, but he kept silent. 'Damn! I thought this would be easy.' She hesitated again and he reached out and quietly covered her hand with his own in mute support. She smiled and covered it with her other hand before clearing her throat.

  'John, I'm a latent telepath. Not much, probably not even a P1, but I can sense things. Feelings, doubts. They have to be pretty strong but I do get them. I used only to be able to read my mother. When she realised what I was doing she stopped me, told me not to say anything. She even taught me how to fool the tests they give you in school. Anything to stay free of the Corps. I don't know if that Minbari shit they gave us has affected it, but it seems to be stronger now.'

  Her voice had become croaky as she fought to hide the tears of fear and relief that threatened to overwhelm her, and she cleared her throat again before continuing. 'Delenn was truly sorry about your wife, John. And she is genuinely afraid of the war she said is coming. I think she's quite willing to sacrifice everything to stop the enemy, but I don't know what else she's hiding. For the time being I think you can trust her.'

  The mention of his wife brought back the sense of emptiness in Sheridan and he was silent. Ivanova tightened her grip on his hand. 'John. I'm here if you need me, you know. Not just for this, for everything. If you need to talk, I can listen. It's not much, I know...'

  Sheridan shook his head. 'No, it's enough. And it's stupid. It's been more than ten years since she died. Long enough to mourn.'

  'You can't mourn if you don't know.'

  'No.'

  It was said so quietly. So simple a statement of fact, and Ivanova knew it was tearing him apart. She sat quietly beside him as she felt the emotions surge within him. As they peaked he gasped, struggling to hold in the tears of loss and wasted years. Ivanova quietly put her arm around his shaking shoulders but did not speak. Sheridan was not a man for great displays of emotion. He could laugh and smile, be stern and angry, even sad sometimes, but he could not tolerate a loss of control. Underneath the soldier's exterior he had a soft heart and he felt it was his weakness. So tears usually mutated into anger. That they had not done so already was either proof of the depth of his despair or a compliment to Ivanova: that he trusted her so much as to let her see him at his weakest.

  He struggled once more, pulling free of her to clench his fists in his lap. 'Sorry, Susan. I'll be OK in a minute.'

  'You can take your time. I'm in no rush.'

  'No, but you shouldn't have to see me like this.'

  'Like what? A human being? I'd be more worried if you weren't feeling anything.' He pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and used it quickly before clearing his throat once more and turning to smile at her. But the smile never reached his eyes which were red and sparkling with the tears he would not let fall. He rubbed at them as though irritated that they should betray him and then took a deep breath, all business once more. Ivanova lifted her arm from his shoulders and sat back.

  'Thanks. It's good to know I have a friend, Susan.'

  'Always.'

  'Look, um, I know you don't want to use it your talent but, well, Ivanova, can you...?'

  'Sense the mole?' She smiled. It would be hard, she knew, but it had to be done. 'I don't know. If the person is near me and upset enough, yes, I think I could. Emotions such as fear are pretty loud. We'd have to scare whoever it was big time. Any ideas?'

  'Some. Not sure. Maybe we could drop some hints that there's gonna be a major shake up. Put them off guard. Disrupt their routine. I'll think of something.'

  'Well, like I said, I'll try.'

  'That's good enough for me. I can only ask you to do your best.' He took her hand in his and squeezed it. Now *she* needed reassurance and he knew just how to do it. 'Look, Susan, I haven't been able to say anything until now, and if I wait it may be too late, but I wanted you to know. You've been a damn fine first officer, and a good friend. Maybe I said that in the wrong order, but you know what I mean. Either way, I couldn't have wished for better.' He smiled and this time it did reach his eyes. 'I'm glad you're here with me.'

  'Hey, what are friends for?'

  There was a certain forced humour and Sheridan knew she was still struggling with her revelation and the feelings of vulnerability that came with it. He smiled a little ruefully. 'I'm only sorry I couldn't help you before.'

  'Not your fault.'

  'No, but I don't like to see friends in pain. I'm here if you need me, Susan. Now, at least. You know that.'

  'Looks like we're here for each other, no matter what.'

  'Uh huh.'

  She paused and then he felt her facade finally give way. He pulled her into his arms as she cried into his chest. 'Oh god, John. What have we gotten ourselves into?'

  'I don't know, Susan. I really don't know.' He stroked the back of her head and hugged her, trying to impart a reassurance he didn't have. She knew it, but she was grateful for his efforts. The two sat there for some time, trying to master their fears ready for the dark days ahead.

  *****

  It was three days before Sheridan managed to engineer a meeting between Delenn and Franklin. He'd kept an eye on food preparations whenever he was passing through the mess hall and seized his chance the moment it presented itself.

  'Cook! What do you call this swill? Are you trying to poison us?' The cook, clearly shaken by the sudden summons, was wide eyed with fear as he spoke. 'N-n-no sir. Is there something wrong?'

  'Yes, there's something wrong. Do I detect alcohol in this?' Sheridan had seen Franklin through the hatch pouring something from a bottle into the sauce being served up with the dinner. It had been done before and normally he remained silent. The crew enjoyed those occasional tastes of alcohol Franklin surreptitiously slipped into the sauces, always leaving Delenn's special food free of the contaminant. But this time it was the perfect excuse. 'Need I remind you that alcohol is strictly prohibited on Minbari-Earth ships?'

  'Sir, it wasn't me. It was Lieutenant Franklin who did that without my permission.' On the surface Sheridan scowled but inside his heart leapt. He knew the cook was a snivelling coward. Any pressure was guaranteed to be deflected to the nearest lower ranker at top speed. It had just been a matter of ensuring it was Franklin's turn to get the blame. Sheridan maintained the facade a little longer. 'Indeed? And you have no control over your subordinates?'

  'Sir, he did it without my permission. I can't watch everywhere at once.'

  'So you admit you are not up to the task assigned to you?'

  'Sir, I gave the orders.'

  'And it's your duty to see they're carried out, correct?'

  The man was sinking fast. 'Yes sir, but if he flagrantly disobeys...'

  'Are you trying to tell me you don't sample the food you serve up here?'

  'Yes sir, all the time,' Sheridan regarded the slightly portly shape of the cook. That much was certain at least. 'But he did it after I tasted it.'

  'So you know exactly when he did it, do you?' There was a mildly twisted pleasure to be had from seeing the man squirm, and Sheridan wanted to prolong the experience a little longer. The cook's eyes were wide-eyed with terror, flicking around the room in a desperate search for a way out. Crew members entering saw his expression and either sat down quickly totally engrossed with their meal, or suddenly decided they weren't that hungry after all and left. The cook was now gabbling. 'No sir. I mean yes sir. I mean, well, it must have been after I checked it if I couldn't taste it and you can.' There was a plea for understanding in his voice.

  Sheridan scowled and then pretended to contemplate this reasoning. 'Hmm. Send Lt. Franklin to me. Immediately!' He added the last when the cook hesitated.

  'At once sir.'

  Franklin kept his eyes fixed firmly on the floor as Sheridan gave him a dressing down in front of the crew. 'You know standing orders as they apply to alcohol, don't you Lieutenant?' Franklin nodded. 'Yet still you do it. May I ask why?'

  'It seems to improve the crew's morale sir.'

  'Ah, so now you see yourself as morale officer do you? And isn't that post strictly the domain of myself and the political officer aboard this ship?'

  'Yes sir.'

  Sheridan paused, silently observing the young officer, and Franklin steeled himself for what was to come. 'It is beyond my authority to correct you when you seek to assume the political officer's sphere of governance. I leave that to her. Once she's finished with you, and assuming you're still capable of movement, you'll be put on 48 hour detention, to be followed by clean up duties. You can begin in the labs. I gather we're to collect biological samples from Cygnus 4, including some rather offensive swamp dwellers who were killed in the Minbari attack on that world yesterday.' Clean up duty was an unpleasant task at best and far from top priority in the Warrior Caste mind. Such a necessary evil was well suited to a non-active ship, and preferable to having them floating in space doing nothing until they returned to active service. 'I'm sure the labs will be delighted to have someone else to clean up the mess for them. Now report to Political Officer Delenn.'

  Franklin turned as smartly as his fear would allow and left. Sheridan looked back to the cook who was standing respectfully as far away from the proceedings as protocol would allow. 'As for you, don't think you've escaped lightly. I have my eye on you, and if you don't want to find yourself cleaning the heads for the next 2 years I suggest you keep a closer watch on your crew. Is that clear?'

  The cook nodded but said nothing.

  'I said is that clear?!' Sheridan allowed his voice to rise and had the satisfaction of seeing the cook grow smaller before his eyes.

  'Yes sir. As crystal sir.'

  Sheridan nodded, dismissing the cook who left with a speed belied by his bulk. Sheridan stood up, pushing his chair back so that it scraped loudly on the floor, and turned to the rest of the crew who were sitting quietly at their meals, pretending they hadn't seen or heard anything of what had just transpired.

  'This is a Minbari-Earth ship in disgrace. It's disgrace is a direct result of such transgressions. I will not have the Telemarchus kept on the non-active list for one moment longer than is necessary. But neither will I insult the Minbari by offering them a ship at less than one hundred percent efficiency and respect. It is the duty of every crew man and woman to ensure this ship returns to active service and honour as soon as possible. When you return to your stations I expect you to pass that message along. Understood?'

  'Yes sir,' came the chorus of voices as heads bowed in respect.

  Sheridan nodded and pushed the plate away. The alcohol content had been sufficiently high for him to smell it, thus ensuring he did not have to taste it knowing the drugs it contained. He'd been dining off Delenn's generosity for the past three days and the food was a vast improvement, albeit the quantities were a little sparse. Fasting was a common act of contrition so his failure to eat in the mess hall was hardly unusual. He left instructions that until further notice food was to be delivered to his cabin. An order which helped to reinforce his opinion of the cook's ability to control his own station. He left the mess hall and went to his office. Two hours later he received a summons from Delenn and duly assumed the robe and marched out, collecting Ivanova en route.

*****

Part 4

  As the two entered the Temple they found Franklin still shaking but relatively aware of his surroundings. Sheridan looked at Delenn.

  'Did you need the Triluminary this time?'

  Delenn nodded. 'It did not require much more, but some. He seems to be recovering.' Sheridan knelt down beside Franklin and then turned a worried glance to Ivanova. She squatted down beside him and placed her hand over Franklin's briefly before releasing it and giving a slight shake of her head. He was clear. Franklin looked up in annoyance.

  'What the hell was that about?'

  'Nothing,' Sheridan assured him. 'How are you feeling?'

  'Like I was run over by a truck. What the hell is in that stuff?'

  'Well now, Doctor Franklin. That is precisely what we want you to find out.'

  Franklin eyed them both for a few moments, and then a smile grew on his face. 'That's why you gave me lab clean-up duty, isn't it?'

  'Yeah. Sorry about that, but I couldn't think of another way of getting you to the areas you need access to. The 48 hours detention in your own quarters should give you time to clear your head a little. Which brings us to the next issue. So far we know both my quarters and Ivanova's were bugged. We can't have Delenn wandering around every room on the ship checking it out, so assume until you're given the all-clear that your room is similarly watched. That means you must not, either by expression or word, reveal the fact that you're no longer under control. You've got to act at all times as you would in front of a Minbari, because that's who's on the other end of that bug. My room and the temple are clear. If you need to speak to me you'll just have to wait until I come down to check on you in the labs, or engineer some reason why you should be ordered to report to me. Stephen, this is important. When you get back to your room carry on as if nothing had changed. Do you meditation, plan you self correction. They can't listen in on our thoughts, not when we're alone anyway, so take the time to think through how you would have behaved in the past and make sure you stick with that. Do you understand me?'

  'Yeah, yeah, yeah.' Franklin was still trying to clear his head and Sheridan took him by the shoulders and shook him. He looked up into Sheridan's face. 'I've got you, Captain. Every word.'

  'Good. Next point. We think there's a Minbari stooge aboard this ship, but we don't know who it is and for all we know he or she may be a telepath. That means that unless you're alone, or with myself, Delenn or Ivanova, you've got to guard your thoughts as well. It's hard, I know, but we've all been trained by the Minbari. They've given us the tools to fool them. So use them!' Sheridan sat back heavily and delivered his final message. 'We need that antidote as fast and as safely as possible. But you'll be working alone. Unless I tell you otherwise, face to face, you've got to assume everyone is the enemy. That includes those you've thought your closest friends. I don't care how long you've known them, don't trust them. If there's someone you think ought to be brought in on this let me or Ivanova know directly, and remember the only safe places to tell us are in here or in my room. We're monitoring both constantly. If the situation changes I'll let you know. We'll check out any potential allies and release them using this method until you can work out a safer one. Any questions?'

  Franklin raised his eyebrows. 'About a million.'

  Sheridan laughed. 'OK. Can you summarise a few of the more pressing ones?'

  'OK. You admit your own quarters were being watched. How do you know the labs aren't in the same category?'

  'Delenn's gonna spring a surprise security check on them this afternoon. She'll check it out then.'

  'Isn't that going to alert them if it's bugged? She's getting around a lot these days!'

  'No.' Delenn's soft response took Franklin by surprise and she elaborated. 'I've been rather lax in my own duties of late. A fact I reported in my last despatch. I've assured the Council that since the deterioration of this ship's security can be attributed directly to my own failings I intend to rectify the situation immediately. There will be a number of surprise security checks over the next few days. The labs will merely be one among many others.'

  Franklin nodded. 'OK, assuming it IS bugged, what do you plan to do about it?'

  'That'll depend on the nature of it. We know the video feed is being beamed straight back to Earth, presumably using way beacons to boost the signal strength. I gave the command yesterday to move further out. We're not supposed to move more than half a light-year from the nearest sub-space beacon. Within the next few hours we should be slightly beyond that. I'll wait as long as I think I can safely get away with, then give the order to pull back. That'll give us a window to do some checking. When we do turn back I've plotted a course that will take us into an asteroid field. The ship can handle it fairly easily. I'm going to use it as an excuse for weapons practice. Lord knows they're going to need it soon. I have no doubt a few will hit the ship. There's going to be an unfortunate accident in water reclamation. Of course we'll get the system back on line within a few hours, but it'll be minus the energy feeds that supply the transmitter. If they ask, we'll just say we'd noticed an unacceptable drain on resources which was traced to damage received during a collision, and that we've corrected it. Officially, not even Delenn knows about that feed, so she can back us up. And they can't say anything without tipping their hand.'

  'Very clever,' said Franklin, nodding. 'How long have you had to think this through?'

  'Only a few days,' Sheridan admitted. 'This time last week I was as drugged up as you were.'

  'How are you staying clear?'

  'Delenn's keeping us supplied from her own stores right now, but the supply is limited. We can't keep this up much longer. Ivanova and I are already on short rations and Delenn is fasting. That way it looks as though she's just eating her usual amount so no flags go up. But we've got to find an antidote that's safe and can be distributed quickly throughout the ship within the next ten days. Minbari can't fast longer than that. And in that time we have to find the mole.' Sheridan looked at Franklin and nodded. 'I know. It's a tall order, but that's the way it has to be. Can you do it?'

  'I can try, but the 48 hour suspension is gonna cut it very fine. Is there any way I could get started sooner?'

  It was Delenn who spoke. 'I can collect some things from the lab when I go down there this afternoon and drop them off in the Captain's quarters. You can work in there until you begin your clean-up duties. What do you need?'

  Franklin shook his head. 'More than I think you can bring down with you without it looking suspicious.' He thought for a moment and then moderated himself. 'Well, I can refine the water to find the drug itself. That won't take too much. At least then I'll have a starting point.' 'Good. Let Delenn know what you need. I'll put Ivanova on duty in the lab while you're there and make a general order that you're to do the job alone.'

  Ivanova rolled her eyes. 'Great. So while he's trying to find a cure, I get to clean up the lab! Terrific!'

  Sheridan gave a rueful grin. 'Yeah. Sorry about that, but hopefully it won't be too bad.'

  'Are you kidding? Have you any idea the mess the lab makes when it does an autopsy?' 'And it will have to be a very involved one,' Delenn said thoughtfully. They all looked at her and she added 'To explain how long it is taking him to clean it up.'

  Sheridan grunted. 'Look, Susan. I'll try and find someone else to add to clean up duty who's with us. But we haven't the food to go around for too many.'

  'I know, I know. I'll manage.'

  'OK. Ivanova and I will leave first. Stephen, you can go about ten minutes later. Remember what I said about your room. I'll send an order for you to come to my quarters tomorrow morning so you can get started. The pressure's on, Stephen. Do your best.'

  Franklin nodded and Sheridan clapped him on the back. 'It's good to see you again!'

  'Yeah. You too.' He turned to Delenn. 'I don't know why you're doing this, but if it helps any, you're doing the right thing.'

  Delenn nodded. 'I know.' She sounded sure of herself, but as Sheridan watched her he thought she looked more alone than anyone he'd ever seen.

  Sheridan and Ivanova left together, leaving Delenn and Franklin discussing the latter's requirements from the labs. As they walked they quietly discussed Franklin's error for the sake of those they passed in the corridor. As they entered C&C together Ivanova stiffened. Trying not to look too obvious she scanned the room. Someone in there was not what they appeared. Sheridan sensed her sudden stiffness but walked to his station without comment or a backward glance, calling out orders and demanding status updates to keep his mind full of ship's business and away from his real concerns.

  'Sir?' It was Corwin who spoke.

  'Yes Lieutenant?'

  'The course we're on now will soon take us beyond our designated range.' Ivanova looked down at her console but her mind was reaching out to Corwin. She sensed a tumble of emotions, but the loudest was fear and a sense of impending isolation. She grunted and looked up.

  'Are you questioning the Captain's orders, Lieutenant?' she said in dangerous tones.

  'No sir. I was just reminding him that we have a standing order to remain within one and a half light years of the nearest subspace beacon.'

  'And you think the Captain doesn't know that?'

  'Well, sir...'

  'And is it not possible that the Captain could have received orders that over-ride that command?'

  /Nice one, Ivanova,/ thought Sheridan, and waited to hear Corwin's response.

  'Sir, as officer in charge of communications I would be aware of such a change.'

  Sheridan exploded. 'Are you telling me you scan private conversations between myself and the Minbari High Command?!'

  'No sir.' Corwin was speaking formally with a calmness that began to worry Ivanova. He was too sure of himself. 'But since you haven't received any communications in the past few days...' Delenn entered the room. 'But I have, Lieutenant, and I can assure you I DO have means of receiving messages without your intervention. Or does that surprise you?' She turned to the navigator. 'Remain on the present course.'

  'Aye sir.' Whatever else happened, the ship's Political Officer had final authority over ship's operations. If she gave the order no one was about to risk court-martial or worse by disobeying.

  Corwin's calm fled as he snapped to attention. This was an unexpected twist. 'No, Delenn.'

  Delenn walked slowly around the command centre, glancing from station to station until she reached Corwin. She stared at him for a long time before continuing. 'I have been checking through your records, Lieutenant. I am not at all happy at what I see.'

  Corwin looked thoroughly confused. 'Wha..?'

  She interrupted him. 'You have been using this ship's communications system for your own private messages, have you not?'

  'No!'

  Delenn held his eyes long and hard before he collapsed and admitted his actions.

  'Well, yes, but only to my family. I wanted to let them know how I was doing. They were only text messages.'

  Sheridan stepped in. 'May I remind you, Lieutenant, that ship's communications are not for private use by anyone except the Political Officer in an emergency. What makes you the exception to the rule?'

  'Sir,' Corwin was getting desperate, 'May I speak to you privately? I think I can explain everything.'

  'I'm sure you can, but perhaps you'd like to explain it out here. I'm sure the crew would be fascinated to hear the details of your family life!' The anger in Sheridan's eyes was only half acting. The rest was supplied by his realisation that this young officer, whom he had trusted until now, was actually a spy: a rat who would sell the ship down the river the second it stepped out of line.

  'Sir, I respectfully request a private interview.' Corwin was staring straight past Delenn and Sheridan, his fear now almost palpable. But there was also something else. Ivanova sensed it, but she couldn't put her finger on it. Sheridan spoke before she managed to pin it down. 'By private, I assume you do not mean to exclude the Political Officer?'

  'Sir, I would prefer if it were just you and me.'

  He wasn't just afraid of being found out. He was afraid of Delenn! Ivanova stepped in.

  'Captain. May I have a word with you?' Sheridan nodded and the two stepped outside to converse in muted tones in the corridor. When they returned, Sheridan looked thoughtful.

  'Delenn, would you mind if I first spoke to this officer in private? I realise it's a breach of protocol, and I beg your forgiveness, but sometimes Human problems can be very...personal?' 'I will expect a full report, Captain. And if I think you've left anything out it will be your head, or your command, whichever you can most bear to lose.' Delenn was laying it on a bit thick, even for a Minbari, but Sheridan understood the need for appearances.

  'I understand.' He turned to Corwin, 'You heard Delenn. This had better be good, Lieutenant. I've no intention of losing my command, my honour or my head because of you. March!' Corwin left with Sheridan behind him. Delenn looked around the command area allowing her eyes to linger on Ivanova.

  'Commander. Attend me, please.'

  'Yes Delenn.' Ivanova and Delenn left the command deck together. The staff returned to their duties.

  Out in the corridor Corwin turned to Sheridan. 'Sir, look, there's a problem. It's not me, I swear to you. I'm under orders.'

  'Shut up, Lieutenant. You asked for a private conversation. The corridor is hardly private. We'll go to my quarters. We can speak there.'

  Corwin nearly choked. 'No sir, you can't!'

  'I beg your pardon?'

  'I mean, well, you can't talk in there, sir. It's not safe.'

  'What in Valen's name are you talking about?'

  'It's bugged, sir!'

  Sheridan looked around. There was no one in the corridor, for which he thanked whatever gods there may be. 'I hope you can substantiate that claim!' he muttered, menace thick in his voice.

  'I can sir. I don't have access, but I know the signal is relayed straight to Earth. Sir...'

  Sheridan interrupted. 'Lieutenant, for your sake and mine shut up! You've said too much already. Now move!' He shoved Corwin ahead of him.

  Corwin's shoulders were slumped as they reached what had once been Sheridan's quarters and now belonged to Delenn. He paused there but Sheridan kept walking. Corwin looked confused. 'Sir, I thought you said your quarters?'

  'I did.'

  'But aren't these...?'

  'They are Delenn's quarters. She complained her own were too small and we did a swap.' Sheridan eyed Corwin. 'Didn't you know that?'

  'No sir!' Corwin was visibly relieved.

  'How in Valen's name can you be in charge of ship's communications and NOT know my room has changed?'

  'Sir, the internal communications system is intelligent. If I tell it to contact the Captain's quarters it'll page me through to wherever you are registered as living, but unless I ask for confirmation it won't tell me where that is. Why would it?'

  'Hmm.' They'd continued walking until they reached Sheridan's actual quarters and he pressed his hand on the door scan and pushed Corwin inside. 'OK, Corwin. You have ten minutes to explain to me what the hell is going on!'

  Corwin paused and looked at Sheridan. 'You're not under control any more, are you?'

  'What's that supposed to mean?'

  Corwin was visibly shaking and Sheridan wondered what had got him into such a state. The young man swallowed and then stood straight.

  'Sir, I'm gonna die either way, so I may as well die for my own kind. There's nothing I can do for my family now.'

  'Your family?' Sheridan was confused. He indicated a chair. 'Sit down, Lieutenant, before you fall down.'

  Corwin collapsed into the chair, his head in his hands. Sheridan pulled up another chair and regarded the young man quietly. Corwin showed no signs of starting so Sheridan prompted him.

  'When you're ready, Lieutenant. You have just under nine minutes left.'

  'Before I start, I have to know. Are you still under control?'

  'I don't know what you're talking about. Now get on with it.' Sheridan wasn't about to show his hand before he was sure what he was getting into.

  Corwin took a deep breath and then blurted out 'They put drugs in the food and drink. Drugs that keep us under control, under *their* control.' He was starting to gabble in his hurry to get everything out before his courage totally failed him. 'But it wouldn't work with me. I'm immune. Don't know why, just wouldn't. So they had to find something else. My family,' he choked and began to sob. 'They took my family!'

  Sheridan regarded the young man in silence for a while until the door chime rang. He opened it to admit Ivanova and Delenn. When Corwin saw Delenn he sank to the floor.

  'Oh god, I'm dead,' he gasped, 'They're dead!' He looked up, tears streaking his face. 'It's not their fault, for god's sake show some mercy. Let them go. I don't mind dying but let them go, please, I beg of you!'

  Delenn stared at Sheridan and Ivanova. 'I am as confused as you are, I assure you.' Sheridan turned to Ivanova. 'Check him out.'

  'As well as I can.' She knelt down and took the young man's right hand in her own. After a few moments she nodded and stood up again. 'From what I can tell, it's all true. His emotions are volatile to say the least. He could be just a very effective liar, but I don't think so. That's the best I can do. Sorry.'

  Delenn tried to help Corwin to his feet but he shied away from her in terror. Sheridan motioned her aside and, with Ivanova's help, lifted Corwin back onto the chair where he sat, a picture of dread, his eyes flicking around the room seeking escape. Retaking his own seat, Sheridan was reminded of the cook. He sighed. It was a sorry sight and all too common under the Minbari regime. Nevertheless, there was nothing Sheridan could do until he knew where Corwin stood.

  Finally, seeming to realise it was hopeless, Corwin sagged. 'It was all a trick, wasn't it? You wanted to test me, see if I'd give in, and I did.' He paused as though evaluating something while staring at the carpet. Then he looked up and a calm had descended. 'Captain, when you were Starkiller I admired you. I had the plans of the Lexington up on my wall at home, but when the Minbari came to our house they destroyed them. They tried to break me, make me one of their stooges, but the drugs wouldn't work. They tried to brainwash me, but they couldn't do it. They even cut off my hand, but all that did was hurt so much I blocked out everything else they tried.'

  Sheridan looked at Corwin's hands. They were both there. Corwin followed his gaze. 'It's false. Look.' He lifted back the uniform sleeve on his left arm and rubbed at the wrist for a moment, then peeled back the skin to reveal the outer coating of a mechanical hand. 'There's a poison switch in there. Once they know what I've done,' he looked pointedly at Delenn, 'once *she* tells them, I'll be dead. It doesn't matter. Nothing matters any more. We're all dead anyway. There's no such thing as a Human now. Even Starkiller's a Minbari.'

  Sheridan reached forward to examine the mechanical hand but Corwin snatched it away. 'Don't try. It's set up so if someone tries to disarm it it'll send out an automated signal and kill me. It may even do something more serious.' He gave a half-smile as Sheridan raised his eyebrows, 'To all of you, I mean. I don't know.'

  Sheridan looked at Ivanova. 'But for that signal to work we'd have to be within one and a half years of a relay beacon, right Commander?' Corwin blinked as Ivanova nodded. 'Computer, current distance from nearest relay beacon?'

  'One point five zero zero one light years. Telemarchus is presently beyond established limits. Automatic navigational over-ride engaged.'

  Delenn cut in. 'No. Continue on present course. Security over-ride; voice authorisation Delenn.'

  'Password required.'

  'Password Duhkat.'

  'Accepted.' The computer went silent.

  Corwin stared wide-eyed at Delenn. 'He was my mentor,' she said by way of explanation. 'She's on our side,' Sheridan added, seeing Corwin's confusion for what it was, 'And you're right, I'm not under their control any more. Neither is the commander, here.'

  'But that doesn't mean we trust you, Lieutenant,' Ivanova cut in. 'I think we need more than a mechanical hand and your say-so on how you lost it.' Ivanova folded her arms and waited. Corwin looked from one to the other, hope flaring in his eyes. 'Do you have anything else?' 'I can tell you where the bugs are all over the ship.'

  'I can find them without your help, Lieutenant,' Delenn said as she sat down on the couch. 'I think the Captain needs something more. For that matter, so do I.'

*****

Part 5

  Corwin undid his uniform jacket and began unbuttoning his shirt. As they stared in bemusement he pulled it over his head and stood up, turning slowly.

  His chest, stomach and back were criss-crossed with scars. There was hardly an inch of him left undamaged. When he finished turning he looked sadly at Sheridan 'And that's not all they did to me. Let's just say children are out of the question.' He sat down once more.

  'But why?' It was Delenn who spoke and Corwin's response held more contempt than Sheridan thought possible in one so young.

  'Do you need a reason? I think you just got a kick out of seeing someone in pain. Especially when you found you couldn't break me with the drugs and telepaths.'

  'Me? I did not...'

  'Your people, then. What's the difference? What was it that Warrior Caste Neroon said? 'We move as one, we are one'.'

  Delenn gasped. 'Neroon? You were tortured by Neroon?' She seemed incredulous.

  'Not directly. He liked to watch. Sometimes he asked the questions. He seemed interested in finding out why I was immune.'

  'Frankly, so are we.' Sheridan shook his head and then turned to Ivanova. 'I think we found your clean-up help. And he can look him over and see if there's anything we can use.'

  'Not to mention deactivate that poison before we get within the beacon's range,' Ivanova added drily.

  Sheridan nodded, then turned to Corwin. 'For your information, Delenn is the one who released us. Now I'm telling you this, but that doesn't mean we can trust you. Right now you couldn't get a message to Minbari High Command even if you wanted to. By the time we get back within range we'll know, or you'll be floating outside.' His voice dropped as he leaned forward until he was an inch from Corwin's face. 'And if you're lying to me, I'll space you myself, one piece at a time.'

  Corwin nodded quickly, but there was no longer any fear in his eyes. He smiled at those around him as he put his shirt back on. 'I won't let you down, Starkiller. I promise.'

  'Call me that outside and you might as well fly a flag in C&C.'

  'I understand, sir. But, well, it's an honour to meet you, so to speak.'

  'Lieutenant...,' Sheridan sighed, 'What's your name?'

  'David, sir.'

  'David, do you know how I did that? I mined an asteroid field and sent out a distress signal. It was the desperate act of a young first officer who thought he was going to die. I'm no hero, David. It was the only victory we had, I'll grant you that, and if I had to do it again I would, but you can get the stars out of your eyes.' He looked at Delenn who was still trying to assimilate her people's barbarity. 'But if we manage to get out of this one alive, maybe I'll have earned it then, OK?' he grinned and Corwin's smile stretched from ear to ear.

  'We will, sir. I know we will.'

  'Then you know more than me. OK,' he was all business again. 'Report back here at zero nine hundred tomorrow. We'll see if we can get that thing dealt with. In the meantime, I'm remanding you in the brig.'

  'Sir?'

  'Alone. I'm taking a risk with you, David. I didn't know you before all this started. I barely knew the commander here, but I have my reasons for trusting her,' /not least since Delenn has given me access to Ivanova's actual record/ he thought. 'Bear with us a little longer. Once we're sure we'll see what we can do about your family. Delenn? Can you find anything out?'

  'I will try. I can make no promises. And until we are back within communications range I have no access to the Earth records. If his family are among the records that were supplied to me I will be able to tell you by tomorrow. In the meantime, I have a security check I have to run. I am late already.' She stood up. 'I apologise, Lieutenant, for the behaviour of my people. I hope I can show you that we are not all like Neroon or his kind. Some of us are the civilised race we claim to be.' She turned to Sheridan 'How are you going to explain this to the crew?'

  'The reasons needn't concern them. His being in the brig will help the illusion, and then being put on lab clean-up duty should finish the job. Once we're done there he can resume his duties on communications with you acting as monitor. No one will question his disgrace then.' Corwin grinned. 'Disgrace I can live with!'

  'Then you're not Minbari-minded, Lieutenant,' said Ivanova. 'I think there's hope for you yet.'

  Ivanova saw Corwin to the brig and locked the system herself, placing an order for zero contact until further notice. The doors were sealed and Ivanova made some minor modifications to the security system before returning to Sheridan's quarters. There, she and Sheridan sat together and watched Corwin on the screen for a while as they discussed what was to be done.

  'He seems genuine.'

  'Yeah,' said Sheridan, 'I know. But I have to be certain. I'm not gonna risk all our lives on an unknown. Once Franklin's seen him and can confirm the damage is real and not just cosmetic, and Delenn gives me the low down on his family, I'll be able to relax. Not 'til then.' 'You mean you can relax at all?' Ivanova's shrewd comment elicited a laugh.

  'You have a point. Let's just say relax a little. Drink?' He pulled out a bottle from under the counter. Ivanova stared.

  'Where the hell...?'

  'I got Franklin to tell me where he kept his stores and had them confiscated. Couldn't let the damned cook get hold of them. He'd throw the lot down the sink!' He twisted off the cap and poured two glasses.

  'As he's supposed to.' Ivanova accepted the drink proffered and downed it in one. Sheridan raised his eyebrows as she held the glass out for a refill. 'Russian. But I'm out of practice. Give me a week and I'll be able to drink the crew under the table one by one.'

  'You carry on like that you'll drink *me* under the table.' He refilled her glass and sat down beside her, the bottle on the table nearby. He sipped it cautiously. He knew he was even more out of practice than Ivanova, and he had no Russian heritage to fall back on.

  Ivanova savoured the next mouthful. 'Hmm. John 'Starkiller' Sheridan drunk under the table. Now that'd be a sight.'

  'That'd be a court-martial in ten seconds if it ever got out!'

  'Your secret's safe with me.'

  'What, that I'm a closet Human? If we pull this off it's gonna be a helluva coming out party.'

  'Then you'd better get in some practice.' She nudged his hand and he looked at his glass for a moment before downing it. He choked a little and his eyes watered, but once he'd got over the shock he smiled. 'Man, that does taste good, doesn't it?' He refilled his glass and offered the bottle to Ivanova, but she smiled and shook her head. 'Not this time. As it is I won't be able to go within five feet of another crew member until tomorrow morning. I'll have to take the long way back to my quarters.'

  Sheridan looked at her for a moment. 'You could stay here.' Now it was her turn to raise her eyebrows and he added 'Well, we need to keep an eye on Corwin. Your quarters are bugged so you can hardly do it from there, even with the beacon off-line. For all we know there may be a recording system somewhere.' He took another mouthful, 'And, um, I could use the company. If you don't mind, that is.'

  'Poor Corwin. No kids he said.'

  Sheridan was slightly surprised at the non sequitur but responded in kind. 'Yeah, poor bastard.'

  'Is that what they did to you?' She was watching him carefully over sips of her drink. The whiskey was warming her insides and raising a flush on her skin. She could see it was having a similar effect on Sheridan, or was that embarrassment?

  'No. They didn't have to. Whatever he's got which made him immune, I sure as hell don't have it. Wish I had.'

  'I don't.' He looked up sharply and she elaborated. 'Well, if you did they would have just killed you. You're too important to let wander around freely.' He grunted and savoured the aroma of his drink before taking another mouthful. 'Anyway, I'd hate them to do to you what they did to him.'

  'Oh, I do have a few scars. Not as bad as him, of course. I used to be ashamed of them. You know, proof I'd been 'un-Minbari'. Now I think I'm rather proud of them. At least I put up a fight. Couldn't win it, of course.'

  Ivanova watched him as he took another long sip and rolled it around in his mouth. 'I'd like to see those scars.'

  He swallowed and looked at her. 'OK.' He put down his glass and began to undo his shirt, his jacket having been discarded when he went off duty just after Ivanova led Corwin to the brig. She put down her drink and reached forward to help him. If he was surprised by her forwardness he didn't show it and he let his hands drop to his sides as she pulled the material from his trousers and pushed it back off his shoulders. She traced her fingers across the scars. Nothing like as bad as Corwin, but there none the less. There was a particularly long and ugly welt which ran from his left shoulder to his right side and she traced it with her finger.

  'These haven't healed very well.'

  'I don't think they cared much about the appearances, so long as they didn't show under a uniform.'

  She undid his cuffs. 'Stand up, let me see the back.'

  He did as requested, turning in much the same way Corwin had done earlier. 'Not very pretty I'm afraid.'

  'Honourably earned.'

  He smiled as he turned back towards her. 'I think so. Now.' He went to put his shirt back on but she stopped him.

  'No, leave it off. I like you like that.' She was openly admiring him.

  'I can't walk into C&C like this.'

  'But we're not in C&C now. And we're not due on for 8 hours.' She stood up and walked around him. He went to follow her movements but she placed a hand on his shoulder and stopped him.

  'I feel like a tailor's dummy!'

  Out of sight of him she removed her own jacket and put it over a chair, then she leaned forward and kissed her way along a scar on his back. It ran most of the way down his spine and looked to have been done with something hot. He groaned, 'Ivanova,'

  'Susan.' She carried on kissing him, running her tongue down the scar and then moving to kiss the next one.

  'Susan. Look, maybe this isn't such a good idea.'

  Her arms came around him and she began stroking her hands over his chest and stomach, tracing the scars. He groaned again. 'Susan, please.' He caught her hands and turned in her arms. 'Don't get the wrong idea. I want this too, but I'm not sure we can afford it. We don't know what's going to happen. If we get involved...'

  'If we get involved we'll be making up for lost time. And we are involved.' She took a deep breath. 'John, if you don't want me then you can just say so. I'll understand, but if you're worried it might somehow compromise us, or our ability to do the job, well, it won't affect me.'

  'I have that much effect on you, huh?' He sounded almost hurt.

  She laughed. 'You know what I mean.'

  He was still holding her hands and as he released them she ran them both up over his chest to his shoulders. He encircled her waist and smiled at her. 'Yes, I know what you mean.' He leaned forward, tentatively, then pulled back. 'You're sure?'

  'I'm sure, John.'

  'Good.' He leaned down and kissed her. He felt her move into the kiss and he deepened it, slipping his tongue between her lips and finding a welcome on the other side. He pulled her into his arms, savouring the touch of her tongue on his, the taste of her mouth, heard her moan softly in response. He let his hands roam over her back and felt his own body responding to her. Pulling back he looked down and began to undo the buttons on her shirt. When he'd finished the cuffs he pulled the shirt out of her trousers and pushed it off her shoulders, kissing the skin exposed beneath. Unlike his own body hers was untouched. Her mother, a telepath, had been killed by the Minbari a week after the occupation began. Her father had died mysteriously a few days later. Her brother had been killed during the war and Ivanova had been brought up by an aunt. But she'd been 17 when the war had ended and there was hardly any bringing up left to do. She'd joined a militia which had tried to hold off the Minbari advance and, after several successful ventures, had been captured during an attack on the Moscow fortress the Minbari had taken as their headquarters. After a spell of reprogramming she had been accepted as a volunteer into the Minbari-Earth forces and had proved her worth in record-breaking speed. The skills which had made her a worthy member of the militia attacking the Minbari made her an excellent officer in their service. And now here she was, first officer on the Telemarchus and in his arms.

*****

Part 6

  He kissed her throat, letting his tongue wash over her. He quickly undid her bra and pulled the straps from her shoulders while he worked his way down to her breasts. She threw her head back and undid the leather thong that held her hair up, shaking her head to let the long hair fall down her back.

  Sheridan slid his hands down under her buttocks and lifted her up, his face buried between her breasts. He carried her to the bedroom and put her down on the bed. He moved to one breast, closing his mouth around the nipple and sucking on it. She arched up and he undid her belt buckle and trousers, pushing them down as he dragged his teeth across the nipple. He kissed his way to the other breast and captured it as he had the first. His hands roamed over her stomach, the caresses soft and light. As he circled her belly his mouth moved back to hers and he kissed her deeply, pushing her into the pillow. He felt her hands fasten on his own belt buckle and he intercepted her, undoing the fastenings and pushing his trousers off, kicking off his shoes with practised ease.

  For a moment they parted to allow them to finish their undressing. Sitting on the side of the bed Sheridan watched her stretch out, her eyes closed as she luxuriated in the feeling of freedom and the knowledge of what was to come. She ran her hands over her breasts, pausing to play with her nipples before continuing the journey down to her thighs. He felt himself stiffen in response. After a pause she opened her eyes and looked at him.

  'Is everything OK?'

  'Very much so. I was just enjoying the view.'

  'Take a closer look,' she suggested. He laughed and rolled over her, pinning her arms back above her head and then gazing down at her.

  'You're a prick-tease, Susan Ivanova. Do you know that?'

  'I try,' she grinned. 'Is it working?'

  'You have to ask?' He pressed himself against her so she could feel his arousal.

  'Hmm. Not bad, but I think we can do better than that.'

  'Not bad?! Why you...' She silenced him with a kiss and freed herself from his hands, rolling him over onto his back. As he lay there she kissed her way across the scars until she reached a nipple which she took into her mouth and sucked. She scraped her teeth across it and then moved by way of another scar to the other nipple, treating it the same way as the first. Then she kissed her way down his stomach. Every scar was attended while her fingers traced a path between them. As she moved lower Sheridan realised what she was going to do and moaned. He parted his legs to give her room and gasped as she closed her mouth around him and began to suck. Her tongue stroked its way around the head and she slowly worked her way down.

  He watched her, fascinated by the way she moved. Her hair had fallen forward and he reached down and tangled his hands in it, lifting it away so that he could see and encouraging her to take him more deeply. She weighed his testicles in her hand, stroking the line between them. She took him all and held him, feeling his testicles pull up into his body. She held completely still until the urge passed and then released him. She dropped kisses on his body until she reached his mouth and then fastened onto his lips, pushing her tongue into his mouth to let him taste himself on her.

  Still kissing him, she moved onto her side and guided his hand to her thighs, encouraging him to move between them. He tried to move slowly but she was already beyond the point of gentle, slow caresses. She pressed herself into his hand and he slipped his fingers between the labia. While his left hand found her clitoris, his right closed around a breast, squeezing it gently and teasing the nipple. He broke off the kiss and moved her over onto her back so he could concentrate his touch more easily. He pulled her legs wider and pressed his fingers into her, opening her in readiness. She was slick and warm and he stroked and then rubbed her clitoris, varying the speed and pressure until he could sense she was growing close. Increasing the speed he moved over her, stopping the stimulation just long enough to position his penis just inside her before resuming his rubbing.

  She was moaning and writhing under his touch. He gripped her hip to hold her still so he wouldn't slip out at the wrong moment but kept up the pressure. Her breaths were becoming shorter, more shallow. He could feel his own heartbeat increase and he moved into her, pulling back to rub her once more. Again he pushed, and again he pulled back.

  'Faster, John. Harder. I'm so close. Oh god I'm close.'

  He didn't speak. There was nothing to say. He released her hip briefly to move a wisp of hair from her face and then gripped her again. He increased the pressure and the speed. 'Yes, oh yes. John, I'm gonna come, I'm gonna....Arrrrrhhhhhhhh.'

  As her back arched in ecstasy he sank into her, thrusting deep and fast. He could feel her inner muscles contracting around him and they drew him closer to the edge. A bead of sweat trickled down his face and he tried to shake it away. Susan reached up and wiped it off with a finger that she then put to her lips, closing her mouth around it and licking it. With both hands she stroked his face, pushing his hair back out of his eyes.

  Breathing hard he lowered himself to kiss her and then moved down to her throat. He licked and kissed her before lifting himself up again to drive himself into her more deeply. She wrapped her legs around him, hooking the ankles over his back. He grunted and repositioned himself slightly. The pressure was building, she could feel it in him. She encouraged him with sounds, moaning as she arched her back and writhed beneath him, gripping him tightly with her internal muscles.

  That was the final pressure he needed and he pulsed into her, forcing her up the bed as he drove in as deeply as he could. He smothered her with kisses, hungrily probing her mouth with his tongue while his strong arms gripped her and held her to him. His thrusts slowed as the orgasm faded and his kisses ceased to be desperate and became more gentle and loving. At last he held her face in his hands and gently placed kisses on her eyes and forehead, stroking away the sweat and hair. He kissed her mouth in a long, slow final touch before resting his head on her chest, breathing deeply. His body relaxed and she released him, bringing her legs down either side of his hips. Gently she squeezed his penis as it retreated from inside her, trying to hold it there as long as possible. She wrapped her arms around him and held him as he recovered himself.

  After a while he rolled off her and she nestled in his arms, her head on his chest. She could hear his heart beat slowing and sense the deep contentment that filled his mind and body.

  After a while he sighed.

  'Susan. That was wonderful.'

  She kissed his throat. 'Yes, it was.'

  'Hmm. God that was good.' He sounded so happy and she snuggled up against him. After a while she shivered.

  'Cold?' he asked solicitously.

  'Hmm. Just a little.'

  He released her to pull the bed-sheet up over them both and then wrapped his arms around her tightly.

  'Better?' 'Hmm. Much,' she sighed.

  They lay there wrapped in each others arms for a long time. Finally, Susan shifted and rolled over. Waiting until she'd made herself comfortable he then wrapped his arms around her from behind and they both settled down to sleep.

  *****

  The alarm went off at 6 a.m. Sheridan rolled over in his sleep to find the bed empty. Rising he put on his boxers and walked out into the main room. Ivanova was sitting there watching Corwin.

  Sheridan leaned over her and kissed the side of her neck. She reached up to stroke his face but kept her eyes on Corwin.

  'Everything alright?' Sheridan asked.

  'Yeah, I think so. I woke up earlier and thought I'd come out here to finish my sleep. You snore.'

  'I do not!' Sheridan was adamant.

  'Then last night someone breached the hull! Either way, coming out here wasn't much of an improvement. Corwin has terrible nightmares.' She continued to watch the young man, now curled on the low bunk in the brig but still restless. From time to time Corwin lifted his arms as though to fend off some nightmare attacker. Finally he settled down and Ivanova turned to Sheridan. 'He's gone into a deeper sleep. He'll be quiet now for a while. I wonder if we can take those nightmares from him?'

  'I wonder if he'd want to lose them.' Sheridan padded over to the kitchen to get a glass of water from a bottle. Ivanova followed him with her gaze.

  'That's an odd thing to say.'

  'Think about it. He's got them because he remembers everything that's happened to him. The only reason we didn't is because our memories were either erased or blocked. Which would you prefer?' He took a sip and leaned back against the counter.

  'Having watched him for half the night on and off? I think I'd like to forget.'

  'He won't, until the day he dies. But maybe knowing he can do something about it will help him a little.' Sheridan put the glass down. 'Your rest was a little disturbed last night as well, and not just by the hull breach.'

  She raised an eyebrow at the joke and then looked down again, saddened. 'I know.'

  'Want to tell me about it?' He strolled over and sat beside her.

  'No.' Sheridan looked slightly hurt and she smiled. 'It's not you, John. I know I could tell you if I could put it into words. It's all so...so...unresolved if you know what I mean. Vague. I'm frightened, and I know things are happening to me, but I don't see what. Just a general sense of fear.' She looked up. 'You?'

  'My worst night was after Delenn first released us. It'll get better, or I'll get used to it. There's a limit to how much fear you can feel with the same image night after night.' She gave him a long look. 'Well, OK, it's not easy. But last night helped,' he lowered his voice, 'a lot.' 'Me too. No regrets?'

  'Only that we didn't have the energy to do it again!'

  'Ha! Speak for yourself!'

  Sheridan looked at her. Her legs were curled up under her on the couch. In the absence of a night dress she was wearing her uniform shirt which covered the top of her thighs. He noticed the bottle had been put away once more and the glasses washed and stored. Given they'd have a busy morning with visitors that made sense.

  He shifted across the couch to lay his hand on her thigh. 'Well? We have time.'

  'True. On the other hand, I don't want to walk through the day like a zombie.' She sighed. 'As much as the offer tempts, an hour or so of sleep would probably be a better idea. I guess I'd better get back to my quarters.'

  Sheridan shook his head. 'No need. I've got a load of paperwork to get through before the day starts. You can use my bed.'

  'Need any help?'

  He smiled. She did look tired, but if he'd said yes she would have risen to the challenge and got through the day, somehow.

  'No. Nothing important. Get some sleep. I'll call you before Franklin arrives.' The relief on her face was plain to see and Sheridan smiled as she dragged herself off the couch and went back to the bedroom. She draped the shirt over a chair and for a moment Sheridan revelled in the sight of her nakedness before she pulled the sheet over her. Within minutes her steady breathing and relaxed face told him she was asleep.

  Getting up quietly he picked up Ivanova's discarded uniform and slipped into the bedroom to retrieve his own clothes, leaving hers in their stead. With infinite care he closed the door behind him on the way out. After a quick shower he settled down to the reports.

  He was deeply immersed in them when Corwin's groans made him look up. He watched the young man writhe on the bed for a few minutes, his distress evident. Suddenly he snapped awake, clutching his hand. Sheridan leaned forward as Corwin fell to sobbing on the bed.

  'Monitor off.' The image blinked out to be replaced by the Minbari-Earth symbol. Sheridan contemplated it in silence for a few minutes. 'Ivanova may be right.' he sighed before returning to the reports.

  'Nice to know I'm sometimes right.'

  He turned around to see Susan, looking slightly dishevelled but considerably refreshed, standing in the doorway.

  'Better?'

  'Yeah. I can manage the day, now. Mind if I use your shower?'

  Sheridan indicated the door to the shower and Susan padded across to it, a bed-sheet wrapped around her. Since the water was contaminated, both he and Ivanova had taken to using the vibe setting on the shower units. Luckily, the Minbari had recognised fairly quickly that the solution they used for their own skin was far too astringent for Humans and allowed water showers for the senior staff, with a vibe option for those occasions when water resources were low, or time could not be wasted on drying oneself.

  Ivanova's voice echoed from the bathroom. 'Do you mind if I use your toothbrush? I didn't bring mine.'

  'Go ahead.'

  As with the shower, the toothbrushes actually used a sonic vibration method. No water from an unclean source would touch them. Ivanova emerged shortly thereafter and returned to the bedroom where she quickly dressed herself.

  Sheridan anticipated her next request. 'Use anything you need,' he called through over his shoulder. 'The brush is on the dresser with the other stuff.'

  'Thanks.'

  A report later and Ivanova emerged. She'd clearly put her uniform in the cleaning unit before getting into the shower as it looked freshly pressed. He looked down at his own trousers and got up.

  ''Scuse me,' he said, going to a drawer and pulling out a clean pair of trousers. 'Can't have you showing me up.' He put the discarded pair in the cleaning unit and pulled on the clean pair. As he was buckling the belt the door chime went off. He turned to Ivanova. 'You know they're gonna say something?'

  'Uh huh.'

  'Do we lie or tell the truth?'

  'I'm not ashamed of anything we've done, John.'

  'Nor I, but it might be inconvenient.'

  She shrugged, indicating it was up to him. They emerged from the bedroom together and Ivanova closed the door as Sheridan ordered the outer door-lock disengaged. Ivanova sat down at the table and began looking over the reports. The door opened to admit Franklin, brought by two guards from the brig.

  'Thank you. Commander Ivanova will go with you to release Lieutenant Corwin. I want him brought here immediately.' Ivanova put down the report she was reading and nodded to Sheridan, exiting with the two guards. Franklin stood in the doorway looking slightly nervous.

  'Come in, Lieutenant.' As Franklin entered the door closed quietly behind him. Once it was closed Sheridan dropped formalities. 'How're you feeling, Stephen?'

  'Fine. A lot better than I thought I would after yesterday. Any reason you sent those two goons to fetch me?'

  'I didn't.' Sheridan looked confused as the door chime went off again. This time the door opened to admit Delenn with a guard who was shouldering some equipment from the labs.

  'Put it down there,' she ordered and turned to Sheridan. 'I found this equipment in the laboratory, Captain. Can you explain to me why it has been deliberately sabotaged?' Her voice was a dangerous, clipped staccato and for a moment Sheridan feared something had happened to make her change her mind. Perhaps she would kill them all after all. 'Well?' she snapped.

  Abandoning his thoughts he snapped to attention. 'I had no idea. Delenn, I'm sorry. I will investigate it immediately.' He bowed his head as the guard finished setting down the equipment. 'No you will not. You have enough to do and the laboratory is too important for any mere guard to be left in charge. I want Commander Ivanova to watch over it for the next few days. We will find whoever has done this, Captain. Make no mistake about that!'

 

*****

 

 

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