CONSPIRACY THEORY II

(chapters 7 - 12)

By Castor

 

 

 

*****

Part 7

  The guard left. Once the door was shut Delenn turned to Franklin. 'I hope I have not damaged it too badly. I just pulled a wire out, but I had to have an excuse to bring it up here.'

  Sheridan sighed. 'Wow. You had me going there for a minute!'

  'And me,' Franklin added. 'You're good at this.'

  'I had better be if we are to come out of this alive. Which we will not if you are not more careful, Captain.'

  'I'm sorry?' Confusion seemed to reign supreme this morning.

  'Commander Ivanova spent the night here. While it is not specifically against regulations, this is hardly the time to start an affair!' Delenn went to the monitor while Sheridan tried to marshal some kind of response. He looked to Franklin who grinned at him and then turned to the task of repairing the equipment.

  'Computer, put me through to the cook.' The cook's slightly sweaty face appeared on the screen.

  'Yes Delenn?' It was apparent the man was surprised to be summoned by the Political Officer, but even more surprised to see Franklin at work on something in Sheridan's room. Realising she was permitting him to see too much Delenn stepped squarely in front of the screen.

  'We have had some sabotage in the laboratory. Lieutenant Franklin assures me he can fix such things. Is this true?'

  'I have no idea. He has been good repairing equipment down here. But perhaps someone from engineering, or the labs...?'

  'Who are far too busy right now. Very well. If he proves inadequate to the task I will want an explanation from you.'

  'Me?! Why me?!' The cook forgot his manners in his astonishment at being singled out again. Sheridan stepped up to the monitor.

  'Is that how you normally address the Political Officer?' His voice was edged with steel.

  'No sir. I just, well, I mean...' He gave up. 'No sir.'

  'Glad to hear it!' Sheridan walked away again to look at a report and to help screen Franklin from the cook's roving eye.

  'The Captain was swift in his correction. I will be swifter in my punishment if you do not have my breakfast delivered to his room immediately. We have much to do here. You will bring food for Captain Sheridan, Commander Ivanova and Lieutenant Franklin as well.' She turned to Sheridan. 'I assume you have not eaten yet?'

  'No, Delenn. I do not usually eat breakfast.'

  'Have you ever tasted 'teh'par'an?'

  'No. If I may ask, what is it?' He was curious as to where this conversation was going.

  'Cook, I wish for the Captain to sample a Minbari delicacy. Please bring an extra portion with his breakfast and my own.' She turned back to Sheridan. 'You will eat, Captain. We have a long day ahead of us.'

  Sheridan bowed. 'Yes Delenn.'

  She turned back to the cook who bowed in a similar fashion. She turned off the monitor.

  'There. That should help with the rationing a little. I find I do need some food, Captain. The days are proving a greater strain than I imagined. If you do indeed not take breakfast, then I am sure Commander Ivanova and Dr Franklin will be happy to relieve you of your portion as well as mine.'

  'Ah, no. That's OK. I think I can manage something. I'm very grateful, Delenn, for everything you're doing.' He smiled and found Delenn looking at him curiously. 'What?'

  'I believe that is the first time you have smiled at me. Thank you.' Delenn seemed genuinely pleased by his actions.

  'Humans don't smile much when they're afraid, Delenn.' It was Franklin who spoke, his head buried in the innards of the laboratory equipment. He extricated himself, wiping his hands. 'There, that should do it,' he muttered, more to himself. He turned back to Delenn. 'But once we're free again you'll find we can laugh and joke and smile, a lot.'

  Delenn looked from Franklin's smiling face to Sheridan's. She found their expressions infectious and the beginnings of a grin began to build. At that moment the door opened to admit Ivanova and Corwin. Instantly her face was schooled back to seriousness. She turned her back on Corwin and looked at Sheridan. Her expression was filled with sadness. Sheridan steeled himself. The news for Corwin was not good.

  Sheridan put on a smile for Corwin's sake. 'Lieutenant. How are you feeling?'

  'Better now that I'm out of that cell. The beds aren't very comfortable.' He gasped as he remembered who else was in the room. 'Sorry, Delenn. I meant no offence.'

  'And none is taken. They were not meant to be comfortable, Lieutenant.'

  Corwin nodded and then looked from one to the other expectantly. Ivanova, who had sensed the exchange between Sheridan and Delenn and had some inkling of what was coming had bowed her head over the reports and now stood up.

  'Captain, I've finished the last of these for you. I think I'd better get up to C&C and make sure everything is clear there before I begin my security duties in the labs. Do you want me to alter course?'

  'No. We need to sort out that relay first. Any news from Dr Vincenti?'

  'Not yet. I'll see if she's got anything once I'm in C&C,' Sheridan eyed her and she nodded. 'I know, I'll be careful.' She turned to Franklin. 'Good luck, Stephen. I hope you find something out soon.'

  Sheridan suddenly remembered Delenn's earlier order to the cook. 'Commander? What about breakfast?' At that moment the door-chime rang to admit a crewmember carrying food trays which he set down on the table. Ivanova considered the unappetising addition to Sheridan's plate that she guessed was the Minbari delicacy.

  Delenn understood her reluctance. It did not look too appealing, but she had her reasons for choosing it. 'I suggest you eat it, Commander,' she said, indicating her own plate. 'It may not look like much, but it is one of the most nutritive substances known to us. I assure you, you will need nothing else this day.'

  Sheridan also wore a cautious expression. 'If it's so good, why haven't we had it before?'

  Delenn sighed. 'It is, as I said, a delicacy. In this one selection I have probably used up over half the ship's stores. We will not be able to replenish our stocks any time soon, if ever. Eat it, Captain. You have a trying day ahead of you.'

  Ivanova reached out and took a small piece of the tofu-like substance from Delenn's plate, while the latter delicately picked at the rest of the meal. In texture it was not unlike Flarn, although it's colour was rather more lurid by Minbari standards. She placed it hesitatingly on her lips and nibbled thoughtfully. When there was no immediate negative reaction she risked a larger bite. Sheridan and Franklin watched her carefully.

  'Well,' she said at last, 'I wouldn't give it points for flavour, but it does seem to be having some effect. I was feeling pretty tired.' At this, Franklin grinned at Sheridan who had the courtesy to blush slightly. Delenn, on the other hand, scowled while saying nothing. Ivanova continued, registering Delenn's look while choosing to ignore it. 'You know, I think I could put up a good fight with a bear now, and it seems to be building.' There was another pause as she ate some more. 'Actually. This stuff is pretty good. Try it, John!' She was sounding more and more enthusiastic by the second.

  Curiosity won out and Sheridan took a mouthful from his own plate, Franklin reaching over and following suit shortly after. Again there was a pause before each began to feel the benefits. Sheridan gave Delenn and admiring nod.

  'Not bad at all. If we could find a good source for this we could hold out indefinitely.'

  Corwin was the last to sample it, taking the other portion from Delenn's tray with a nervous smile. Still wary of her he wanted to wait until he was sure it was safe. Delenn smiled sadly at him. Of all those present, he would need it the most this day.

  Delenn ate her own meal in silence while the praise for the teh'par'an slowly grew around her. While the portions had been small, they nevertheless more than fulfilled the needs of all there. When it was finished Ivanova turned to go.

  'Commander.' Delenn's voice held a warning tone. 'Stay, please.'

  Ivanova nodded and sat down near Corwin. Delenn sat opposite while Sheridan moved to his other side, opposite Ivanova. Corwin looked up, noticing how he was suddenly surrounded. His nervousness returned and he turned to Delenn.

  'You know something, don't you?'

  'I am very sorry, Lieutenant.'

  Sheridan closed his eyes and shook his head in mute sorrow.

  'What's happened? Is my family all right?' Corwin was still holding out hope, or perhaps it was that he couldn't accept what his senses were telling him was coming.

  'Lieutenant...There is no easy way to tell you this.' Delenn paused before continuing. 'When were you assigned to the Telemarchus?'

  'Two years ago.' He still looked bewildered.

  'And when did you leave Earth?'

  'Six months before that. I had a Lieutenant's exam to sit and they sent me to Mars before I moved out here.' He put on a small smile. 'I decided to take my leave there and went mountain climbing. I, I could have stayed home a little longer, but I'd never been mountain climbing on Mars and it sounded like fun.'

  Sheridan nodded. 'That's OK. We all do things like that.'

  Delenn held Corwin's gaze. There was a long pause before she said the words they all dreaded. 'Lieutenant. Your family was dead before you reached Io.' There, she'd said it. She waited for the backlash.

  'No.' He shook his head slowly. 'That's not possible. I spoke to them only a few months ago.' He looked around nodding in support of his own statement. 'I got a holo-message from them. They were fine. I...I can show it to you. I still have it.'

  'No. What you received was manufactured. They used pictures, recordings and information previously supplied. It was not real.'

  'Yes. Yes it was! I saw them, I tell you!'

  Sheridan placed his hand on Corwin's shoulder. 'David...'

  'No! She's lying. I know my parents. I saw them!' The volume of his cries increased with his desperation.

  Sheridan tightened his grip as he felt Corwin shaking under his hand. 'David. You know they can do this. As long as they have enough information they can create anyone.' Corwin was still shaking his head vehemently and Sheridan sighed. 'Look, I tell you what, you say you still have the last recording they sent you?'

  'Yes.' Corwin's eyes were red-rimmed and his voice cracked as he spoke, but there was a spark of hope in his eyes.

  Sheridan shook his head sadly. 'No, don't get your hopes up. Give it to Ivanova and she can put it through some analysers, see what comes up. If it's been manufactured we can tell. OK?' Corwin nodded and he tried to smile. Ivanova squeezed his hand in reassurance. 'We'll find out, David. I promise you,' she said quietly.

  Delenn turned to Sheridan. 'Meanwhile, Captain. We have to see what we can do about his hand.'

  Franklin, who was examining the controls of the lab equipment now looked up. 'Hand? What's wrong with it?'

  Sheridan released his grip on Corwin's shoulder with a final squeeze and a pat. Corwin smiled up at him in gratitude and Sheridan nodded. 'Show him David.'

  Corwin rolled up his sleeve and removed the artificial skin from the mechanical hand. Franklin squatted down in front of Corwin and whistled.

  'Phew. Pretty slick.' He reached out and Corwin snatched the hand back. 'It's OK, I won't try anything.' Corwin relaxed, allowing the doctor to take the hand between his own and turn it as far as anatomy would allow. He looked up. 'I assume it's tamper proof?' Corwin nodded. 'Then I won't touch it here. I'll wait until we're in the lab. There should be some EM dampening equipment down there. We should be able to detect if there's a signal coming from it or the device is completely internal. Then we can look into deactivating it or replacing it.'

  Sheridan was watching Corwin. 'Stephen, he has some severe scars from torture. Could you take a look at them? See if there's anything else hidden under there, that sort of thing?' Franklin turned on his heel and looked at Sheridan. As Ivanova distracted Corwin ostensibly to ask if he was all right, Sheridan mouthed /Check him out!/. Franklin nodded and stood up.

  'Come down to the labs as soon as you can. I'll see what I can do.'

  Satisfied he had done everything he could for Corwin for the moment, Franklin went back to the machine, did some final checks and then took a small sample container to the sink unit, filling it with water. He took it back to the machine and dropped it into the analyser, flicking a few switches as he did so.

  'David?' Ivanova added, also standing up. 'Don't forget to give me that data crystal will you?'

  'No, I can get it now if you want.'

  Ivanova smiled. 'Sure. I'll come with you. Otherwise it'll look a little odd. You spend one night in the brig and then are wandering the ship without a guard? You know what I mean.' They left together and Sheridan turned to Delenn. 'There's no chance it's real is there?'

  Delenn shook her head. 'None. Since there is a second copy of all ship's communications sent to the political officer, I checked before I came to you. I know the message he is referring to, and I can assure you it is a forgery. But he would not accept that from me, so I thought it best to remain silent.'

  Sheridan grunted. At that moment, Franklin swore. Sheridan and Delenn both stared at him. 'What is it?'

  'Ah, it's this damn machine. It must have some kind of lock-out built in. It's claiming the water is all clear, but there has to be something in there so it's not telling all it knows.' He put his hands on his hips and gazed at the machine thoughtfully for a minute. 'I wonder if...?' He squatted down again and begin to fiddle with the machine's innards once more. After a while there was a small spark and a whiff of ozone. Franklin grunted. 'There. Got you, you little...' He switched the analyser mode back on and re-checked the sample. 'Dammit! Still nothing! Maybe if I check...' He went back to brooding over the innards and Sheridan turned to Delenn.

  'If I know Stephen, he'll stick at that all day and night if necessary until he's got it sorted. Meantime, how long do you think we can stay out here before the Minbari High Command get suspicious?'

  'They are always suspicious, Captain. But if you mean how long before they send someone out demanding an explanation? I would say another day at most. Probably less.'

  Franklin swore again. 'Why you lousy no good sack of...' He hit it with his fist. There was a beep, a flicker and Franklin stared at the viewer. 'Well, whadderyer know? That fixed it!'

  Sheridan and Delenn crowded around the machine to see the results, but they were almost meaningless to them. Franklin, on the other hand, was beaming like the proverbial cat. He pointed to a line on the read-out. 'There's your culprit, Captain. I'll have to analyse it a little more before I understand it's constituents, but at least I know where to start.'

  Sheridan nodded, trying to look as though all this made sense to him. 'So how long?'

  'That depends on how it's constructed, how it reacts with other chemicals, that sort of thing. There's a limit to what I can do here, but if I can work out those details then as soon as I make it to the lab I'll be able to begin working on an antidote.' He looked up and saw Sheridan's face. Explanations were not what the man wanted. He wanted answers, and quickly. Franklin sighed. 'Captain, I'll work as fast as I can, but right now I couldn't tell you how long it'll take. What I *can* tell you is that the faster you leave me alone to get on with it, the quicker I'll be!' He smiled to take the edge out of his comment.

  Sheridan nodded. 'Then we'll leave you to it.' He turned to go but Delenn stopped him.

  'Before you go to your office, Captain, we need to talk. The Temple would be the best place, I believe.'

  'Delenn, if this is about me and Ivanova...'

  'In the Temple, Captain. Dr Franklin needs some peace and quiet.'

  Sheridan went to the closet to fetch his spare cloak and followed Delenn out of his quarters, locking the door behind him. As they walked Ivanova and Corwin caught up with them.

  'Captain, I'm taking Lieutenant Corwin back to the brig for the time being, then I'll go to C&C. Apart from the report we discussed, is there anything else you need me to look into?' She looked from Sheridan's face to Delenn's and then back to Sheridan's. 'Or should I be somewhere else?' It was Delenn who answered. 'As soon as you have dealt with Lieutenant Corwin, I would like you to join the Captain and me in the Temple. We have much to discuss.'

  Sheridan's expression was a mixture of repressed anger and frustration, but he said nothing. Spotting a crew member coming around the corner, Ivanova bowed. 'As you wish, Delenn.' She turned to Corwin. 'You know the way, Lieutenant.'

  'Sir.' Together they marched away.

  Sheridan kept his head bowed as he walked. Partly to hide his increasing fury, and partly to give the right impression to the ship's crew. Once they were inside the Temple and the place had been checked and locked, however, he threw caution to the winds.

  'What the hell is this all about?!'

  'Is that how you normally address Minbari officials, Captain?' Delenn was still standing haughty and proud, but Sheridan no longer cared.

  'It is when they put their nose where it doesn't belong. It's none of your damn business, Delenn!'

  'If your actions endanger this ship then it is my business! You cannot afford to act out of character, Captain. Not yet. You have shown no interest in the commander before now, yet suddenly, without warning, you spend the night together.'

  'We could have been going over reports, watching Corwin, chatting about the day's events, anything!'

  'All night?' Her voice was quieter, but there was no less menace in it.

  Sheridan moderated his own tone in response. 'It's not unheard of for senior offices to talk all night when things are busy. Sometimes you just can't sleep. A couple of hours on a couch is all you can manage.'

  'But that's not what happened, is it? And if I can see that, is it not possible the rest of the crew might spot it too? Dr Franklin was hardly blind to what happened!'

  'Stephen has know me for years. He and I were part of a mission to try and end the Earth-Minbari war. The mission had to be aborted because the Centauri went and screwed it up before we could get the job done, but by that time we'd gotten to know each other. Of course he spotted it. Friends do!' His voice was rising again.

  'So do enemies, Captain, and we do not know how many enemies we may have aboard this ship.' At that moment the door chime indicated Ivanova's arrival. Delenn opened the door and then locked it again behind her, ignoring Ivanova to continue her comment to Sheridan. 'Can you afford to place so many lives at risk? Not just all of us who are a part of this conspiracy, but all those who would be a part if they only had the chance. And what of those who will die if we do not begin our work to protect ourselves from the Shadows? With what right do you condemn all of them to death or slavery? Is one night with the Commander here worth all that?'

  Ivanova looked up as Delenn drew breath and laid a hand on Sheridan's arm before he had the chance to respond. 'Delenn, please. You're Minbari. We're not. Humans do things a bit differently. It's not going to be as big a surprise to the crew as you might think. And, um, I sincerely hope it won't be just one night!'

  Sheridan smiled at her and then looked at Delenn. 'She's right. Look, we'll be careful, I promise, but it's not the big deal you seem to think. Not for humans.'

  Delenn sighed. 'You are forgetting my people, Sheridan. Suppose one of you is captured or, Valen forbid, both of you? Do you think they will not use each of you to get to the other? It is dangerous.'

  'Delenn, if they capture either of us before we get this thing going we're going to lose everything anyway. It won't matter whether Ivanova and I are apart or together. And if they capture us after we've managed to sow the seeds on other ships it'll be too late. Another will take our place. If there's one thing I've learned over the years it's that once you start something like this and get it going it has a life of its own. The people no longer count once the idea has taken root.'

  Delenn sighed. 'Captain. How quiet could you remain once they begin to torture Ivanova in front of you?'

  'As quiet as I can remain when they begin to torture me. I couldn't hold out before, Delenn. Your people can get the information they want when they want it. We simply have to make sure we're not caught.' Delenn looked at him hard. 'All right, at least not get caught until it's too late to stop the avalanche.'

  'You are determined to carry on with this, then?'

  'For the time being. If things don't work out, then OK, but if they do...' He looked at Ivanova for confirmation.

  'Honestly, Delenn. It'll be all right.'

  Delenn sighed. There was no way of talking these two out of this. She drew a deep breath and moved on.

  'You will have to return to normal space shortly. Commander, you must check the reports from Dr Vincenti, assuming she has filed one.'

  'I was just on my way.'

  Sheridan interrupted. 'Ivanova? Get the department heads up to C&C. I've an announcement to make.'

  Ivanova nodded to Sheridan and then bowed formally to Delenn, an act which surprised Delenn. Then she turned to the door which Delenn duly unlocked. As the door closed behind Ivanova Sheridan took in Delenn's expression.

  'You look surprised.'

  'She bowed to me. I did not think she would show me such respect after all that has happened, especially since you are no longer required to do so when not in front of the crew.' 'Respect is paid where it's due. You've played fair with us. We don't need drugs to show respect, Delenn.' There was mild reproof in Sheridan's voice. 'We only need a reason. You've given us plenty. Is there anything else we need to discuss?' She shook her head. 'Then, if you'll forgive me, I've a ship to run.' He too bowed and then left. Delenn shook her head.

  'I wonder if I will ever understand these Humans?' she muttered. She turned to the symbol of the Triluminary and bowed, standing there for some time afterwards to contemplate its simplicity and meaning. 'So simple and yet so complicated in all its meanings.' She decided the Triluminary and the Humans had much in common. She turned and left the Temple.

*****

Part 8

  Sheridan stopped off in his quarters to check up on Franklin and to drop off his robe. Franklin was still muttering, but he seemed to have made some progress. Since he did not indicate a desire to share his discoveries just yet Sheridan left him to it, locking the door again behind him. By the time he entered C&C Ivanova and the department heads were already there. He looked at her and she nodded, tapping a flim which lay in front of her. Dr Vincenti's report had arrived.

  Sheridan cleared his throat. In response to a barked command from Ivanova the staff snapped to attention. Sheridan nodded his thanks. 'Since we do not have a communications officer at present, and Commander Ivanova will soon have other duties assigned by Political Officer Delenn, I will monitor communications until Lieutenant Corwin returns or a suitable replacement has been found. In the meantime, we are beyond communications range anyway. We will, however, be returning to our designated path shortly via sector sixty-five.'

  Several crew members exchanged looks. Sector sixty-five was a known hazard to shipping being a major asteroid field, and while the ship could undoubtedly handle it, it seemed an unnecessary risk. Sheridan took in their expressions.

  'As some of you know this is an asteroid field. We'll be doing weapons practice on the way back. This ship has had no battle experience in over seven months, and given our poor performance of late I want to make absolutely certain we're one hundred percent in every field on our return to service. There will be a weapons drill this afternoon in preparation. I expect all department heads to be ready by fourteen hundred hours. Any questions?' None were forthcoming and Sheridan considered his senior officers in silence for a few seconds. 'One more thing. This may be a practise, but that does not mean a poor performance will be acceptable. I expect you to treat this as though it were the real thing, is that clear?' There was a chorus of nods. 'Good. Dismissed.' As the department heads filed out of C&C Sheridan turned to Ivanova. 'Reports, Commander?'

  'Just one we need to discuss. The rest are on your desk awaiting your signature.'

  'Very well. Lieutenant Rhodes. You have the con until I return.'

  Rhodes drew himself to attention and saluted smartly. 'Sir!'

  Sheridan nodded and left C&C, Ivanova behind him. When they entered his office she passed him Dr Vincenti's report which he read in silence. 'Hmmm,' he said at last. 'See to it that Delenn receives a copy of this as soon as possible. I want everything in place before fifteen thirty hours. You know what to do. Dismissed.' Ivanova nodded and turned on her heel. 'Oh, Commander?' She paused at the door. 'I'll want to discuss the results of today's drill once the reports are in. My quarters, twenty hundred hours?' Ivanova nodded and smiled.

  *****

  By the time Sheridan set the drill in motion Dr Vincenti had spent an interesting time in the temple with Delenn. Her report would have been a disturbing read to those not already in the know. As it was, her expressed concern that there appeared to be some kind of unauthorised communications device tapping directly into the energy reserves of her department was music to the ears of the conspirators. Twenty minutes after the ship's entry into the asteroid field the 'unauthorised communications device' was a rather large paper-weight that would need considerably more resources than the ship could provide to ever operate again. Dr Vincenti saw to it that all the damage could be explained as an unfortunate short in the energy relays caused by asteroid impact. Until the ship was theirs the conspirators could not afford to tip their hand to anyone. Sheridan watched carefully as they came within range of the beacons. He had modified the console to detect everything that could be deemed a communication and was ready to trace anything that was not official. He noted the despatch on location that was automatically sent by the ship once it detected a receiving beacon. This allowed the Minbari to know the location of their fleet at any given time, even if the crew of a given ship were dead. It made salvage so much easier. Sheridan noted the source and copied the message to decode it. He would have use of such a device in the coming months. The crew performed well during the drill. Annoyingly well, in fact. Sheridan began to despair that an asteroid would impact with sufficient force to explain the demise of the 'paper-weight.' He ordered an extreme (but not unheard-of) manoeuvre during a particularly thick patch of asteroids and smiled grimly to himself as the ship was rocked by an asteroid that got through the defences. Several of the bridge crew, on the other hand, grunted in dissatisfaction and tightened defences. Nothing more escaped their attention.

  When the drill was over and the ship was clear once more Sheridan sat back and took in the faces of his crew. Their tense and frustrated expressions told him they knew they could do better. He couldn't resist a smug smile and it grew as he saw a returning smile from the crew. 'All right, people. You know where we went wrong. It was an extreme measure, but in battle such manoeuvres can save lives. You recovered well. Next time you'll do better. We'll stay here for another day. Once I've reviewed all the reports I'll decide whether or not we need to run another drill.' He turned to Rhodes. 'Damage report?'

  'There seems to have been a minor explosion in the water reclamation system generated by a power over-load. Other than that, the ship is functioning normally.'

  Sheridan nodded and stood up. 'Very well. The crew can stand down from battle stations, but I want them to remain on alert until further notice. I want a meeting with department heads in my office in two hours, by which time I expect all the reports to be completed. Understood?'

  'Sir!'

  Sheridan nodded and left the command centre. As he strolled down the corridor he risked humming a little tune of satisfaction to himself. Those crew members who passed him smiled, pleased to see their Captain in a good mood again. It proved they could meet his exacting standards. The news that the Captain was so happy spread through the ship like wild-fire, and there were not a small number who suggested the successful drill was not the only reason for the change (although adding that, of course, such gossip was un-Minbari and should not be spread).

  Sheridan entered his quarters to see Franklin pouring over a data pad.

  'How's it going?'

  'Pretty good. Got a bit hairy for a minute during the drill. I take it we got hit?'

  'Uh huh. Took a lot of doing, too!' Sheridan was still grinning.

  Franklin laughed. 'Only you could be in a good mood because the crew screwed up!'

  'Actually, they didn't. Not really. I was pushing them hard and they recovered almost immediately. Nothing else got through. Once we've got the drugs sorted out we'll have a crew who could stand head to head with any single Minbari Cruiser and win.'

  'In that case, let's hope once they realise what we're doing they have the decency to attack one at a time.'

  Sheridan grunted. They both knew the chances of that. He changed the subject. 'So, have you got some ideas?'

  'Plenty.' Franklin rubbed the back of his neck and stretched out the kinks in his back. 'Certainly enough to be going on with. There's nothing more I can do until I get down to the labs.'

  'Well, that'll be tomorrow morning, first thing. Need any help clearing up?' Sheridan eyed the disaster zone that was his lounge.

  'No. I can clear up. I'll leave the reports with you. Ivanova can bring them down to me in the lab tomorrow. Safer than carrying them back to my 'quarters'. What about the transmissions? Found a solution?'

  'Why'd you think I needed an asteroid hit?' Sheridan winked and Franklin smiled.

  'So Dr Vincenti is on our side then?'

  'Uh huh. Delenn dealt with her earlier. But it's a slow process. The faster we can get to the source, the happier I'll be.'

  'And then what are you going to do?' Franklin sat down on the couch and looked hard at Sheridan.

  'Huh?'

  'Well, let's assume we manage to take over this entire ship no problems. That's a tall order in itself.' Franklin leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees. 'But how are you going to spread the news once we're all free? You can't exactly send a message to each Minbari-Earth ship announcing there's a rebel in the fleet and if anyone would care to join them we'd be happy to hand over the antidote. They'd blow us up as soon as look at us.'

  'I know, I know. I haven't worked that bit out yet. I'm open to suggestions, though.'

  'Don't look at me. I'm just the doctor.'

  'You're a great help!' Sheridan shook his head and started to glance over a report.

  'Speaking of which. I take it Corwin is still in the brig?'

  'For the time being. I need to be sure. This resistance he has to the drugs strikes me as odd. Anyway, until we can deactivate that booby trap he's using for a hand I'd rather keep him in a confined space.'

  'I'll run the checks tomorrow. It didn't do anything out of communications range, so it's not set to destruct without some kind of command. Still, it could be an internal system that will act in its own defence.'

  'I have complete faith in you, Stephen.'

  'Hah! I'm all you've got right now.'

  Sheridan gave a rueful grin. 'Well, there is that of course.'

  'Anyway, let Dr Vincenti know the results. She might be able to come up with something while I'm keeping Corwin company in the brig.' Franklin stood up and began to put the equipment away. Sheridan looked up. 'Computer. Time to my next meeting?'

  The emotionless voice provided the information. 'Fifty-five minutes to scheduled meeting with department heads.'

  Sheridan wrapped up the report. 'I'm going to look in on Dr Vincenti. I'll be back in time to see you sent back to the brig.'

  'Good. I have to admit it does look a little odd. Me being here in your room all day.' Sheridan finished tidying the files. 'Delenn helped resolve that one in her conversation with the cook. If anyone asks, you were fixing that.' He pointed to the equipment. 'I'll see you later. Thanks, Stephen.'

  Sheridan left, locking the door behind him. When he reached waste reclamation he found Vincenti and a few techs still tidying up the worst of the damage caused by the exploding communications device.

  'Everything all right down here?' he asked.

  'It is now!' she replied. She was still considering the mangled equipment.

  Sheridan regarded the Maria Vincenti for a moment. She had to be in her early 30's, fit -- as those in the Minbari-Earth fleet tended to be (the cook was a glaring example of an occupational hazard) -- but with a stocky build. She had a no-nonsense feel about her. You got the impression that once she set her mind to something, nothing and no one would stop her from getting it. Perfect. Exactly what the doctor had ordered. Sheridan found himself chuckling at the joke. 'Did I say something funny?' She turned around and stared at him, hands on hips. He might be the captain of this ship, but right now he was in her domain and she was in no mood to be played with. Her manner bordered on insolence.

  Sheridan considered his response. He could just slap her down, but this was not the time. He needed every hand he could get working flat out. On the other hand, it didn't hurt to set the standard from the start. Especially since some of the technicians were staring at her in horror. 'Hardly. I was thinking about something else. And I resent your tone Doctor.'

  Vincenti looked surprised. As Sheridan held her gaze his calm exterior belied the inner voice that screamed at her /Look around, you idiot! Play the damn game!/ After a moment she seemed to realise what she was doing and dropped her hands in shock.

  'My apologies, sir. I....I was distracted.'

  Sheridan nodded. 'Understandable, given what has happened down here, but hardly an excuse.'

  'No sir.'

  Sheridan waved it aside. 'Doctor, your services are required in the labs, so until further notice I'm reassigning you. Commander Ivanova will be the officer in charge and I expect you to take your orders from her. Be assured, they will be MY orders and I expect them to be followed.' He gave Vincenti a long, hard look, partly for the benefit of the technicians, and partly to drill into her the need to be circumspect.

  'I understand, sir.'

  Sheridan looked around at the technicians, some of whom were still watching the exchange. Realising they were being noticed they quickly bent to their duties. Sheridan gave a satisfied grunt and then turned to the communications device. 'Sorry about that. Asteroids can be a little unpredictable.'

  Vincenti looked up and saw the ghost of a smile on Sheridan's face. She nodded. 'So I noticed. Are we all clear yet?'

  The double-entendre was not lost on Sheridan. 'Probably. But we're going to run some final checks, just to be on the safe side.'

  'Understood.'

  'You're to report to the lab at zero seven thirty tomorrow. I also look forward to hearing your full report. I'm sure yours will be rather more involved, given this department is the only one that suffered any damage throughout this exercise, so I'd like you to drop it by my quarters after the department heads meeting. Say nineteen thirty hours? That should give you time to complete it.'

  'Yes sir. It will be done.'

  'Good. I'll let you carry on.' Sheridan turned on his heel and left.

  Vincenti continued gazing at the corridor by which he exited for some time after he had disappeared form sight. One of the technicians approached her.

  'Is there something wrong, doctor?'

  Vincenti shook herself and turned to the technician. 'No. Just thinking.'

  'About what?'

  She turned on the technician. 'That it's bloody typical it has to be MY department that gets wrecked and ruin an otherwise perfect exercise!' The technician scurried away and Vincenti surveyed the damage. 'Yep,' she muttered to herself, 'Bloody typical!'

  *****

  Sheridan dismissed the department heads at nineteen hundred hours having listened to and received all the reports apart from waste reclamation. He mulled over them while he awaited Doctor Vincenti's arrival. They made impressive reading. Even he had to admit the crew had proved themselves more than worthy. He only hoped the same high standard would be maintained once the Minbari influence had worn off. In fact, he hoped the standard would improve. They certainly would need it.

  At nineteen thirty precisely the door chime went off. Sheridan, by now in his shirt sleeves, didn't even look up from the reports.

  'Come.'

  Vincenti walked in, the report in her hand. As the door closed behind her Sheridan put down the digital pen with which he'd been making notes and looked up, reaching over the low table for the report. She handed it to him in silence. When he said nothing she cleared her throat.

  'Um, Captain. I wanted to apologise. I was out of order.'

  Sheridan nodded. 'Yes, you were. But it's hard when you first make the change. Just don't let it happen again.' He favoured her with a smile and she relaxed.

  'Thank you, sir.'

  He dropped the report on the table and stood up. 'Thank you for the report, but that's not the reason I called you here. I assume Delenn explained the safe parts of the ship.'

  'Yes, sir, she did. But with the communications device now permanently out of order....'

  He interrupted her. '...we still need to be wary. Delenn is running checks on the rest of the ship, as is Ivanova. We can't be certain until every inch has been gone over thoroughly. Don't underestimate the Minbari, doctor. They've had a lot more practice at this than we have.'

  'Yes sir.' Vincenti looked dejected.

  'I'm not a hard-ass, doctor. But we can't afford a single mistake, by anyone. Anyway, I called you here because Doctor Franklin wanted you to take a look at the results he's got so far on the drug.'

  Vincenti was surprised. '*Doctor* Franklin? I thought he worked in the galley?'

  'He did. That doesn't change the fact that before the war he was one of the most experienced xeno-biologists on Earth. He even did some work on the Minbari. As I recall, he burned his notes rather than have them used by the military.'

  'But why?'

  'Because of a little thing called the Hippocratic Oath. Or does that surprise you?'

  'Frankly, yes. I doubt the Minbari would have been so ethical.'

  'Maybe so. The fact remains he's the best hope we have right now, but he can't work alone. He's left me his notes on the drug. I want you to take a look at them tonight. Tomorrow you'll be helping him to try and find an antidote.'

  'Understood.'

   Sheridan handed over a data crystal. 'I've made a copy, but I assume you understand the need to keep these confidential for now?' Vincenti nodded as she put the crystal into a pocket. 'In that case, you're dismissed.' Vincenti turned to leave but as she reached the door Sheridan stopped her. 'Don't forget, Doctor, it was a Minbari who was ethical enough to let us go.'

  Vincenti paused at the doorway and turned back. 'Permission to speak frankly, sir?'

  'Granted.'

  'Delenn told me some of why she's doing this, but it sounds suspect to me. Do you believe her?'

  Sheridan considered the question. He'd asked it of himself many times since he'd been freed. Usually in the early hours when he'd woken from a nightmare in which he remembered how unethical other Minbari had been. When he finally gave Vincenti his answer there was no hesitation.

   'Yes, doctor. I do.'

  'Then I will do my best, sir.'

  'That's all I can ask. Goodnight.'

  As Vincenti left she moved aside to allow Ivanova in. Ivanova regarded the doctor's retreating form for a moment before entering Sheridan's quarters properly and allowing the door to shut.

  'She looks a little pissed. Everything OK?' She undid her jacket as she spoke and then draped it over the back of a chair before sitting down.

  'Yeah. She doesn't trust Delenn yet. She'll be OK though.' Sheridan invoked the lock before moving to the cupboard in which he kept the liquor.

  'Vincenti or Delenn?'

  Squatting in front of the cupboard he looked over his shoulder. 'You too?' 'I dunno. She growing on me, but I guess it's hard to trust someone who's the enemy.'

  Sheridan shook his head. 'I'm seriously beginning to wonder who is the enemy.'

  Ivanova did a double take. 'I'm sorry?'

  Sheridan brought the glasses over and poured two. Then he waited for Ivanova to down the first before refilling her glass and settling down with his own. He raised his glass in mute toast to which Ivanova responded and sipped his drink. 'If everything Delenn says is right they're going to be our allies before this thing is all over.'

  'Maybe so, but not now.'

  'No. Still, we'd better get used to it. I can see a future in which our two species are working side by side as equals.'

  'Not if Minbari like Neroon have their way.'

  'Hmm.' He stared at the wall. 'Politics, they say, make strange bed-fellows.'

  Ivanova chuckled. 'I don't think we're that odd. And I can live without the image of one of us sleeping with Delenn!'

  'Oh, I don't know. She's not ugly. Just different.' He was teasing her, but she rose to the bait.

   'You're not serious!'

  'You don't think it would work?' He struggled to keep a straight face. Ivanova merely raised her eyebrows and put her head on one side. He grinned. 'No, of course I'm not serious. Apart from anything else, I like hair on my partners. And that bone could cause serious damage!' He put his arm on the back of the settee while his other hand rested the glass on his thigh. Ivanova stood up to refill her glass and then settled back, allowing him to pull her closer.

  'On a serious note, I do trust her, and I find I'm starting to like her. It's a hell of a risk she's taking. I mean, considering what they could do to us, it's nothing to what they'd do to a Satai of the Grey Council. Especially since she's already in their bad books.'

  Ivanova was silent for a while and then 'That part worried me a bit. *Are* we taking too much of a risk?'

  He looked at her, letting his fingers stroke through her hair. 'What do you mean?'

  'She's right, John. If they caught either of us...'

  'Let's not think about that, OK? If we get caught, things'll be bad enough. Unless...' he shifted slightly to look at her. 'You aren't having second thoughts?'

  'You know me, I'm always second-guessing myself. But even if I did have serious doubts...' at this point she smiled '...and I don't -- it's too late now. The news is all over the ship.'

  'So much for gossip being un-Minbari!' He put his glass down and rubbed the back of his neck. 'Hmmm. Long day. Still, I was impressed with the crew. They performed well.'

  'Uh huh. Captain hard-ass had to be appeased!'

  'Is that what they're calling me now? And I just told Vincenti I wasn't.'

  'Not when I'm around, but I have my sources.' She grinned. 'They like you, but then they always have. You run a tight ship, John, but it's one people can be proud of.'

  'Then let's hope they're still proud of it when they realise we're the fleet renegade!'

  'How much longer, do you think?'

  He sighed and picked up his drink again. 'I don't know. Franklin seemed to have some ideas when he left. I gave the notes to Vincenti to look over. As a fellow scientist he seems to think she may be able to help him.'

  'But she's not a medical doctor.'

  'No, but chemical bonding and behaviour is something she can handle. I just hope between the two of them they can come up with something quickly. Now we've started I find I just want to get it over with as soon as possible.'

  'It could take years, John.'

  'I don't think we have years.' He moved his shoulders to try and work out the kinks. 'Ahh. I think I need to get some sleep.'

  Ivanova reached back to feel the muscles at the back of his neck. They were as taut as steel cables. She put her drink down and patted her lap. 'Put your head down here. I might be able to do something about that.'

  Putting his own drink on the table he complied, pulling one leg up to press against the arm of the settee while the other draped over the end. Ivanova slid along until he could stretch out more comfortably. She worked on the muscles of his neck and shoulders for a while before moving to his temples. Rubbing her fingers in circles over them she slowly eased the tensions, watching his face relax under her touch. She smiled. He was a handsome man. She'd heard a few whispered comments to the effect that she was a lucky bitch to get him. Apparently there were not a few members of the crew who envied her the chance. She laughed to herself. Sheridan, feeling the slight movement and hearing the quiet sound spoke without opening his eyes.

  'What?'

  'I was just thinking. There are some members of the crew who would give their eye teeth to be where I am right now.'

  'Hmm. Worth keeping in mind. Who, precisely?'

  She slapped him. He opened his eyes and grinned. 'Just keeping my options open!'

  'I'll get you for that!'

  He reached up and pulled her to him, savouring the long kiss. As she pulled back he winked. 'I look forward to it.' He settled back again, closing his eyes once more. She put her hand on his chest, feeling the steady rise and fall of his breathing. His collar button was undone and she undid the next three so she could slip her hand inside and feel the warmth of his skin.

  It was some time later that Ivanova awoke. She hadn't realised she was so tired. Sheridan was asleep, his head turned to one side on her lap. Her hand was still resting on his chest. She stroked over his skin and he stirred.

  'Sorry, John. I think we both need to go to bed.' He grunted but didn't move. She gave him a nudge. 'C'mon. I think my legs have beaten me to it.'

  'Hmm?' He opened his eyes lazily and then, realising how uncomfortable she must be, started with a jerk. 'Sorry!' He got up and then squatted down before her, rubbing her thighs to bring some circulation back. She stretched out a leg and he rubbed the calf of it before she let it drop to the floor again. He stood up, pulling her to her feet. 'OK?' She nodded and together they walked to the bedroom.

*****

Part 9

  The next morning he rolled over and looked at her as she lay still with her eyes closed. Carefully, so as not to disturb her, he stroked her cheek and pushed her hair out of her face. He shook his head and sighed. She opened one eye.

  'That was a long suffering sigh. What's wrong?'

  He shook his head. 'Nothing.'

  She stretched and rolled over to look him full in the face. His hair was tousled and his face still puffy from sleep, but there was a deeper weariness there. 'Yeah, right. It looks like it. Come on, John. If you can't talk to me...' She left the sentence unfinished.

  He fell back into the pillows, one arm flung over his head, and stared at the ceiling. 'We can't move any faster, but we can't afford to move so slowly either. And I STILL haven't worked out how the hell I'm going to persuade other Minbari-Earth ships to support us. All our hard work'll be for nothing if we can't spread the word.'

  She thought for a moment. 'Do you know anyone on other ships?'

  'There's Sinclair on the Telos. I think he'd work with us. We were at the academy together before the war. He was pretty badly injured at the Battle of the Line. He tried to ram one of the big cruisers.'

  'And he's still walking around? How come?'

  'Dunno. He sort of disappeared for 24 hours. I heard later he was very confused and suffering from amnesia. I guess he missed.'

  She ran her fingers along his jaw and then turned his face to her. 'Then you may have a starting point. And I'm sure Delenn has allies. She can't be the only one of the Minbari who believes there's a war coming, unless she's just crazy.'

  'Hell of a risk if it's all in her imagination.'

  'Then I think we can take it for granted she's probably got allies. Why not ask her?' She continued to stroke over his whiskered cheek. As she leaned down to kiss him she whispered 'Later.'

  He smiled.

  *****

  'Delenn, have you any allies among the Minbari-Earth fleet who know what you're doing?' Sheridan was sitting at the desk in his office looking over the latest report from Franklin. Apparently he felt he was near to a break-through and he found something amusing in the solution, though he refused to divulge it.

  'No one knows what I am doing. I could not afford the risk. But I have allies who I believe would stand by me if I asked them.' She didn't need to ask why. She knew what would be required.

  'I hope you're right.' Sheridan tapped at the report. 'I wonder what Stephen thinks is so damn funny?'

  'Perhaps we should go down to the labs and find out?'

  Sheridan grunted and got up. Delenn preceded him from the office and they marched down to the labs. When they arrived they used the intercom to let Ivanova know who was outside. Ivanova's voice was full of muffled laughter as she released the lock and allowed Sheridan and Delenn into the labs. As soon as the door closed again beaming smiles appeared on all those who were working there, leaving Sheridan and Delenn staring at each other in confusion.

  'What the hell is going on? Stephen. I assume you've found an antidote?' Franklin nodded, still grinning. 'So what's so damn funny?'

  Franklin cleared his throat. 'The easiest chemical in which to dissolve the antidote,' he paused for effect, '...is alcohol.'

  Sheridan stared. 'You're kidding?'

  Franklin, still grinning, shook his head. 'Nope. I tried a load of others, but alcohol is the most effective. Works like a charm.'

  'You've already tried it on someone? Who?'

  A lab technician staggered out of the shadows, hiccuping quietly. 'Me shir,' he slurred, trying to bring his swaying form to attention.

  Sheridan stared at the drunken technician in amazement before turning on Franklin. 'Are you telling me we have to get the crews totally snockered in order to free them?'

  Delenn looked quizzically at Sheridan. /Snockered?/ she mouthed. Sheridan indicated the technician's state of inebriation. She nodded.

  'Ah, no.' Franklin looked a little sheepish. 'It doesn't actually take that much. It's just that, like most of the crew, Peter here hasn't touched any alcohol in several years. A couple of glasses rather went to his head. And, uh, well, we did decide to celebrate a bit.'

  Delenn shook her head. 'I suggest you stop celebrating. This technician cannot leave the labs until he has sobered up, and neither can any of you. The crew will smell it on your breath. And where are you going to get enough alcohol for the whole crew?'

  'Luckily, alcohol is one of the simplest chemical compounds. It's probably why it worked so well. Not too many other things that might hamper or interact with the antidote. Anyway, it's very easy to make.'

  Sheridan looked around in exasperation. 'Is there any way we can just release it into the air ducts or something?' When Franklin raised his eyebrows Sheridan sighed. 'Well, it's gonna look mighty odd having a party on board a Minbari-Earth ship with the booze flowing like water! And we can hardly give the crew of other ships a few crates of poteen and tell 'em to go have a good time on us!'

  Franklin nodded and smiled 'I know. Yes, it'll work as an aerosol as well as a liquid. Probably work even better, actually. The dispensers can be adjusted quite easily. I've already managed to synthesise enough of the antidote and its carrier to deal with the entire ship in aerosol form, and there's more on the way if you want to use the liquid method.' He indicated a large pile of containers in the corner of the room. 'You have to admit though, given the Minbari response to alcohol, it's rather ironic that it should be our friend in this instance?'

  'But not good for us, Doctor. Have you any idea what happens when a Minbari touches alcohol?' Delenn was not happy with the situation.

  'Yes, I *am* aware of the reaction, Delenn. Which is why on *this* ship I think a party might be a better idea. Of course, you'd have to give the Captain permission for one in front of the crew, and we'd have to have a reason. Parties on that scale don't just happen.'

  Sheridan nodded. 'I can provide the reason, I think. We're just coming up to the 15th anniversary of the end of the Minbari-Earth war. It's the day after tomorrow. I'll put the crew through another weapons drill. If they perform half as well this time as they did last time, the combination should be excuse enough. That is,' he looked at Delenn, 'assuming you can come up with a reason why alcohol be permitted aboard this ship?'

  Delenn sighed. 'Dr Franklin has been handing out alcohol to the crew for some time. No one will think it odd that the substance is aboard. At least no one who ever ate his food.' She put her hands on her hips and glared at the command crew. 'I notice that the matter of reporting all such transgressions of the Minbari code was ignored where those special meals were concerned.' She looked accusingly from one to the other. Ivanova looked down.

  'Um, well, actually, there were a few who reported it. To me as a matter of fact. I decided it wasn't worth bothering you with.' She stared at the floor for a moment longer and then looked up. 'But it worked out all right, didn't it?'

  'Hmm.' Sheridan looked at the technician who was leaning at an angle that threatened to destabilise at any minute. 'Prop him up or something, would you?'

  Franklin helped the hiccuping technician to a chair where he sat with a broad grin on his face shaking his head. 'Imagine,' he muttered to himself. 'All thish time I was sherving with Shtarkiller Sheridan, and I never knew it. Woo hoo!'

  'And for god's sake keep him in here until he sobers up! Honestly, Stephen. Couldn't you have hung on until the whole crew was just as bad?'

  'I had to test it, and I wanted to see how much it took. Actually, two glasses is ample. After that he started to shake his head and ask what was going on. Turns out,' and here he winked at Ivanova who was beaming again, 'that Peter here is actually a strong telepath. The drug apparently affects that as well.'

  Sheridan thought for a minute. 'Well, I guess it makes sense. Otherwise all the telepaths would know what was going on. That or you'd have to kill them all. I wonder how many others we have?' He looked around, suddenly noticing something. 'Where's Corwin? Did you manage to see to his hand yet?'

  Franklin sobered fast, as did Ivanova.

  'Oh lord!' she said, running for the door, 'I forgot about him! He's still in the brig! I'll be right back.'

  Delenn made a grab for her. 'Oh no. Not like that. I can smell your breath from here. I will go.'

  'Delenn.' It was Sheridan who spoke. 'You didn't answer my question. How are you going to explain that amount of alcohol freely flowing?'

  Delenn paused. 'I will not. What I will do is say that I expect you to ensure the crew celebrates their successful battle drills and the anniversary of the war in an appropriate manner, and that while you are doing so, I will be in the temple, or my quarters, or wherever you think is best.' She walked back, her face suddenly deadly serious. 'Captain. Once your crew remember who they are and what we have done, do you honestly think they will leave me alone?'

  Ivanova looked horrified. 'She's right, John. If we don't protect her they'll crucify her before we can explain.'

  Sheridan thought for a moment. 'OK Delenn, you'll have to stay in my quarters while the party's going on. Franklin and Corwin can protect you.'

  'What about you?'

  'I'm going to be making the rounds with the Commander here. If there's a time when things are going to go wrong, this'll be it. In any case, we have to make sure everyone gets the antidote and that's not going to be easy. Even with Franklin's buttering people up in the mess hall I'm sure we've some dedicated teetotallers around. Stephen,' he turned to the doctor. 'Can you introduce it to the water supplies at the same time?'

  'It'll taste mighty weird. The alcohol covers the flavour of the antidote quite effectively, but alcohol in water is pretty distinctive. Still, if they've got no choice...' Sheridan shook his head. 'No, not good enough.' He thought some more, then he turned to Ivanova. 'Susan, can we selectively affect the air filters? I want to keep my quarters clear so Delenn is all right, but flood the rest of the ship with the aerosol version. At least that way we'll know we've got them all.'

  Ivanova shook her head. 'Flood the ship and it'll get to your quarters whether you like it or not. There aren't any air locks between there and the rest of the ship.' She paused and then added, 'Well, strictly speaking that's not true. There are the emergency bulkheads which would work just as well, but if you drop them you'll seal the whole area off for at least a day.' She put her hands on her hips and mused. 'No, the only way around this would be if Delenn were somehow kept in an isolation area while the ship was being flooded, and the only one available is in the Medlab. Not a place you can secure that easily.'

  'Breather mask?'

  'It's a thought.' Franklin mused.

  Delenn was looking from one to the other, wondering how far her position would deteriorate before they recognised the obvious solution. Finally she sighed. 'Might it not be a better idea if I simply used my personal shuttle for some R&R while the rest of the ship is, uh, 'celebrating'?'

  Sheridan snapped his fingers. 'Of course. Perfect! Problem solved!'

  Delenn nodded and left the room, failing to see Ivanova's frown as she did so. 'What?' asked Sheridan after Delenn left.

  'You trust her that much?'

  'Susan, we've got to. Do you really want a homicidal Minbari prowling the ship when half the ship's crew is in the mood for a fight?' He looked around. 'Well? Anyone got a better idea?' They all looked at each other and shook their heads. The technician hiccuped quietly. Sheridan frowned at him and then looked at Franklin who shrugged.

  'You better get used to it, John. You're gonna see a lot of that the day after tomorrow.'

  'Woo hoo!' Peter mumbled again, and then slid slowly to the floor.

  'Oh boy.' Sheridan shook his head as Ivanova and Franklin bent over the drunken technician and tried to make him comfortable.

  When they were finished Sheridan spoke again. 'Ivanova, have you found anything else aboard that could be a communications device?'

  'Nothing. Neither has Delenn so far as I know. You?'

  He shook his head. 'No unexpected calls when we came back into beacon range. There was the automated location signal. I'm going to work that one out and see if I can hack it. It might be useful if we can make them think we're somewhere we're not.'

  'I can help you with that,' Ivanova grinned, 'I always did like hacking computers.'

  'Subversive!'

  'Sounds like the ideal qualification to me,' Franklin replied.

  Sheridan growled. 'What about the message for Corwin? Did you check it?'

  Ivanova sobered. 'Yeah. I did it down here while Stephen and Maria were working on the antidote. It's faked.'

  'Shit!' Sheridan ran his hand through his hair and began to pace. 'Ah shit. Sometimes I hate my job.' He stuck his hands in his pockets and stared into the middle distance before raising his eyes to the ceiling as though inspiration could be plucked from the tiles.

  Ivanova watched him quietly for a few seconds before uttering the words on everyone's mind. 'How are you going to tell him?'

  He focused on her. 'Straight up, how else?'

  'I've got the recording here. I can show him, John. It's pretty obvious once you run it through the decoders and check the tags.'

  'Thanks. Doesn't make it any easier though, does it?'

  'He knows, deep down.'

  'Yeah.' But Sheridan didn't look convinced.

  *****

  Corwin's reaction was predictable and it took some time to calm him again. Once he'd railed against the universe, himself, the Minbari, and everything and anyone he could think of, he sank to the floor sobbing. Sheridan and Franklin stood silently by offering what little support they could by their presence. Delenn, who had come in for the loudest insults, merely sat quietly and waited for Corwin to master himself. Corwin looked up and saw a silent tear flow down her face. As their eyes met he saw in her a pain that rivalled his own and he realised she was as upset about her people's actions as he, albeit for different reasons. He pulled himself together.

  'I...I'm sorry, Delenn.' He looked up at those around him. 'Everyone. It's just,' he cleared his throat. 'It's just gonna take me some time to get used to.'

  Delenn and Sheridan nodded but said nothing. Franklin seized the moment.

  'David, let's take a look at that hand of yours. See what we can do about it.'

  Corwin shrugged and rose to his feet unsteadily. Nothing mattered any more. You could see it in his gait, his eyes: his whole body language spoke of one who had been finally broken. What the Minbari had never achieved in all their tortures, his friends had managed with a few short sentences declaring the truth. Sheridan put his arm around the young man's shoulders and helped him over to a chair Franklin had set up by the EM dampening field. Corwin sat like a rag doll, responding to the touches of those around him, but otherwise completely uninterested in his surroundings.

  Detectors and scanners were switched on and tuned to the area. Nothing would escape it. Any signal the mechanism gave out would be concentrated within the area, enhanced and fed to the waiting computers. As Corwin inserted his hand into the field with Franklin's gentle encouragement, a holographic representation was projected onto the display table. After a long pause Franklin sighed. 'Well, it *is* booby-trapped. Why it hasn't gone off so far I'm not sure. I can only assume it's waiting for a command it hasn't received yet.'

  'Can you defuse it?' Sheridan asked.

  Franklin peered at the display. 'Not sure. Let me work on it for a while.'

  There was nothing more the rest of them could do there. It was time to begin the set-up that would enable the party. Sheridan turned to Ivanova. 'We're going to have another drill. Alert the department heads. We'll turn back into the asteroid field in two hours.'

  Franklin looked up. 'Can you make it three? I don't want to be in the middle of something here and be hit by another asteroid.'

  Delenn shook her head and turned to Sheridan. 'Captain. You should know. Before I fetched Lieutenant Corwin I returned to my quarters and checked in on Minbari High Command. They've sent a ship after you to see why you have abandoned your assigned course.'

  'Did you explain about the battle drills?'

  'I did, but they were not satisfied. They want to check the ship for themselves.'

  'Damn! How long before they get here?'

  'I would estimate they will arrive by fifteen hundred hours tomorrow afternoon. Your crew must be ready to deal with them before then.'

  Sheridan looked at the rest of the staff waiting to hear his decision. 'So much for the drill. Looks like we're gonna get a taste of the real thing. Stephen, do the best you can. Maria, you help Stephen. Find a solution to that thing as soon as you can. If we can't find one by the time they arrive, David will have to be put in an isolated section of the ship. If they think we're compromised they may activate it and I can't afford him to be anywhere vital if it goes off.' He looked at Corwin. 'I'm sorry, David. We're going to do everything we can, but I have to think of the ship first. You understand?' Corwin nodded silently. Sheridan looked at him for a moment before turning to the doctor. 'Stephen. If worst comes to worst, could you amputate his hand?'

  Corwin swallowed but remained silent. He was aware of the conversation going on around him. It was simply that it was uninteresting. There was nothing important any more. He felt as though he were cocooned in a cotton wool shell. Sounds there were around him, but they seemed muffled. The words no longer made sense and he did not have the energy to try and comprehend them. He nodded when he thought people expected it, he responded when it was demanded. Beyond that there was nothing. The little voice that sometimes spoke to him entered his head, reassuring him that it would be all right. That one day, soon, They would come, and when They did he would have all the answers again. He ignored it. Even that didn't matter now.

  Franklin shrugged. 'Depends on how it's connected to the rest of him. It may be set to go off if it's separated from him.'

  'See what you can do. Oh, and I suggest you grab some breather masks. The party is out, we're just gonna have to flood the ship ASAP. Susan, that part is down to you. Do you know what to do?'

  Ivanova nodded. 'The air filtration system needs to be over-ridden, but that shouldn't be too hard. When do you want me to turn it on?'

  'About fifteen minutes after I give the order for all personnel to return to their quarters. They're going to be angry in many cases and they'll want to take it out on the ship and everything else that strikes them as Minbari. Someone *may* do something stupid. I'd rather have them locked in their own rooms until I can explain everything. I'll give you the all-clear when I've checked the internal sensors.'

  'Understood.'

  'OK, this is it. Delenn, you've got one hour and fifty five minutes to get to your shuttle and get away from the ship.'

  'I understand, Captain.'

  'When you return, this place will have changed. I suspect there will be some who'll have a hard time accepting you as we have. I'll meet you myself when you return and see to it that you make it safely back to your quarters. Once there I suggest you remain in seclusion until I tell you it's safe to come out.' He paused and, for a moment, Delenn seemed to shrink in front of him. He reached out and gripped her shoulder. It was a surprising gesture and she looked up curiously. 'We're very grateful, Delenn, and the crew will understand eventually, but it's gonna take some time. OK?' She nodded. Sheridan drew himself to attention and bowed, forming the sign of the triluminary.

  Ivanova did the same. Over by the detectors Franklin and Maria saw the gesture and they, too, bowed. Corwin, his hand presently incapacitated by the machinery, placed his other hand on his heart and lowered his head.

  The gesture was not lost on Delenn. She drew herself up and bowed deeply to the crew. Then she smiled at each of them before turning and leaving the lab.

  Ivanova turned to Sheridan. 'She is quite a lady, isn't she?'

  'She is that.' Sheridan nodded. 'OK, let's get moving. We haven't much time.'

*****

Part 10

  'Attention. This is your Captain speaking.' The voice echoed around the ship and crew members stopped what they were doing and waited.

  There was silence in C&C as Sheridan wondered what exactly he was going to say. He'd considered several different approaches on his way up here, and none sounded particularly convincing. He'd finally decided on the direct approach. For once, the Minbari indoctrination that said 'understanding is not required, only obedience' was going to work in his favour. Normally, mindless obedience did not appeal to him. This time he was counting on it. He cleared his throat. 'Lock down all safety seals and return to your quarters. I repeat, lock down all safety seals and return to your quarters. This is not a drill. All locks will be engaged in fifteen minutes.'

  The bridge crew stood there, too stunned to speak. Why would he do this? There was no external threat, no internal damage. What could possibly make the Captain want to confine the crew to their quarters? He stared at them, trying not to show the fear that was crawling up his back. 'Do you have a problem following orders?'

  'But...but sir...' The young ensign whose name Sheridan had temporarily forgotten voiced what everyone else was thinking but were too afraid to ask. 'Why? There's no threat to the ship.' He looked bewildered. The rest of the crew, while as eager as he to hear the answer, surreptitiously distanced themselves from the soon-to-be-target of their Captain's fury.

  'Because I say so, Ensign. Do you NEED another reason? I'd be happy to supply as many as you wish while you spend the next several days in the brig!' Sheridan's stentorian tones made the ensign jump and the rest of the crew hurried to comply without any further discussion. Sheridan had his reasons. The Captain always had his reasons. If they didn't know them now they would in time. For now theirs was not to reason why, theirs was but to do, and they did, as fast as was humanly possible. Ivanova stood beside him watching over the operation. With her hands clasped behind her back she followed the Command and Control crew out, ordering those who paused to query each other to get moving or face her. There were no further delays.

  Sheridan sat in the command seat, his hands sweating with the enormity of what he was about to instigate. He wiped them off on his trousers. 'Commander. You know what to do.'

  'Yes sir. It's ready and set. I've got the system wired up to the main control console.

  'Has Delenn left yet?'

  Ivanova checked the docking bay. A single Minbari flyer was negotiating its way out of the bay. She tracked it as it left the ship and moved to a holding position some distance from the ship. Suddenly, the flyer disappeared.

  'What the...?'

  Sheridan shook his head. 'It's all right, Commander. She's still there. It's a cloaking device. The ship's sensors could lock on if we wanted them to. They'd just have to be recalibrated. I didn't think it would be a good idea if she could be found.' He turned his chair and looked at Ivanova. 'Agreed?'

  Ivanova nodded and then returned to the console. 'Activating internal sensors.' She scanned the ship. Wherever she found signs of people moving too slowly, or not moving at all she engaged the local PA system having determined the identity of the crew members who were lagging. 'Ensign Cortez, Ensign Peterson. Get to your quarters at once!' The two dots that indicated the errant ensigns suddenly started to move. She scanned some more. 'Ishigawa, Lieutenant Knight. Get your butts out of the corridor and into your quarters, now!' There was a pause and then 'Your OWN quarters!' The two dots separated. Another scan. 'Jones, Black, Rodriguez, if I have to come down there and deal with you three personally I will. Now move!'

  As soon as Ivanova was sure the decks were clear and every member of the crew accounted for and in their quarters, she stepped outside C&C and retrieved the two breather masks she had hidden in an access panel. Handing one to Sheridan she nodded and he engaged the locks. As doors that were not already closed slammed shut all over the ship, and locks clicked on those doors that were shut, Ivanova and Sheridan looked at each other. The great booming sound from the docking bay indicated the last of the doors had finally been shut. Sheridan was using an emergency procedure more common when a ship was under attack. By locking all the doors any hull breach would be contained in the smallest area possible. But this time it was not the foe outside but that within the ship that made Sheridan nervous. All the quarters had air vents. Within seconds of Ivanova releasing the antidote the Telemarchus would stop being an organised, well ordered and maintained Minbari ship. At best it would be a determined renegade. At worst, it would be a barely operational disaster zone with a dead man as its Captain.

  Sheridan looked at Ivanova. 'Some of the crew aren't old enough to have needed reprogramming by the Minbari. They're going to be more confused than any once this thing starts and they see how their fellows react.'

  'And more dangerous.' Ivanova raised an eyebrow and Sheridan nodded.

  'They'll feel they've got to stand by the Minbari. That the rest of the crew have gone stark raving mad.' He looked up. 'Computer, access Political Officer Delenn's Crew Manifest.'

  'Password required.'

  'Password Isil'zha.' Sheridan pronounced the new word carefully hoping he'd remembered it correctly.

  'Password accepted.' The crew manifest appeared on the screen. Not the one that Sheridan and Ivanova were used to seeing. This one listed all the crew members and what they had done before the Minbari reprogrammed them. Ivanova gave Sheridan a querying look.

  'Delenn told me before she left.'

  'Have you had a chance to check the manifest yet?'

  'Not really. I glanced over it to make sure we didn't have any murderers or terrorists. What have we got?'

  They looked over the lists of names and birth-dates and experiences. There were a surprisingly large number who'd been pilots during the war. Of the younger crew members Sheridan was pleased to see that while many were not old enough to have fought the Minbari in the armed forces, they had been old enough to enlist in the various resistance movements that sprang up after the occupation began. Even if their task had only been to carry a message or keep a look out, the children of Earth had made their own unique contribution to her defence. Only Corwin, who they knew about, and two others were simply too young to remember the details of how Earth had once been before the occupation. Sheridan sighed.

  'Release the antidote, Commander. Let's get it over with.'

  Ivanova nodded and contacted the lab. 'Stephen, we're about to go. Are you ready?'

  'Ready as I'll ever be. Good luck.'

  'Thanks. Ivanova out.' Sheridan and Ivanova looked at each other for a long moment, each drawing a deep breath before fitting the masks. 'Ready?' A nod. 'Here we go.' She activated the mechanism.

  The actual event of releasing the gas was something of an anticlimax. Not because it didn't work, but because it worked so well. Ivanova was determined there would be no tell-tale hissing noise from the air vents and, indeed, there was none. The only thing which indicated the passage of the antidote through the ship was the internal sensor, now calibrated to detect alcohol molecules.

  'How long do we keep it going?' Sheridan's voice was muffled by the mask, but the built in communicators ensured Ivanova heard every word.

  'Franklin said to wait about 5 minutes. By then the ship will be flooded. It'll also stink like a cheap brothel.' Sheridan rolled his eyes and Ivanova smiled, 'Whatever. Anyway, he says that as soon as the oxygen to antidote/alcohol level aboard drops below this point,' and she indicted an arrow against the readouts, 'we turn it off.'

  'Then what?'

  'Then we wait. The internal communications systems are on, but they can't call each other yet, only here. I guess we wait until the calls start to come in.' She shrugged.

  Once the indicated level was reached Ivanova shut off the gas. She waited for a few minutes before turning on the air filters, and then flooded the ship with extra oxygen. This last was both to help flush out the rest of the antidote and help the victims of its method of release sober up as soon as possible.

  Once the air in C & C was clear, Sheridan and Ivanova removed their masks and awaited results. A light blinked on the communications console. Sheridan paused and looked at Ivanova. She shrugged. This would be the test. There was no point in delaying. He activated the link. The voice at the other end sounded furious.

  'This is Lieutenant Commander Nabib of the EAS Yorktown. What the hell is going on here Captain?'

  Sheridan smiled. 'Welcome back, Lieutenant Commander. What is going on is Earth is retaking this ship. I assume you don't have a problem with this?'

  'No SIR!'

  'Do you feel up to dealing with your section? We need command officers on the lookout for trouble ASAP.'

  'What do I tell them?'

  'Calm them down, and explain the Captain and first officer are fully aware of what's happening and will be making an announcement within the next 30 minutes. Make sure they realise we need this ship intact.'

  'Consider it done.'

  Sheridan released the lock on Nabib's quarters, giving him a security code to access all the other rooms. Closing that connection he responded to the next incoming call from another section. Ivanova took over as recovering officers were allocated to sections and she re-directed confused crew members to them.

  Sheridan noted with dismay there were still a number of crew quarters not calling in. He contacted one only to be met with the sound of crashing and angry yells. He checked the manifest. The crewman had been a senior member of a resistance group that had been brutally quashed by the Minbari. He was the only surviving member and had, apparently, seen most of the others die before his eyes. Why the Minbari had killed them rather than simply mind wipe them as they had so many others, Sheridan couldn't guess. He turned to Ivanova.

  'This one's going to be trouble. Who's on that section?'

  'Lieutenant Stephenson.'

  Sheridan activated the link. 'Lieutenant Stephenson. This is Captain Sheridan. You have a problem in your sector.'

  'I know, Captain,' came the lieutenant's strained voice. The sounds of crashing and yelling in the background bore witness to the fact that Stephenson was on the scene. 'We're trying to get him to calm down. Don't worry. We can handle it.'

  'OK. Keep me up to date. Sheridan out.' He checked the other crew members who were not responding. In three cases the crew members were asleep. One was still drunk and was not averse to telling the Captain his opinions. Sheridan stifled a laugh and ordered the ranking officer in the area to make the crew member take a cold shower. Thirty minutes after the first call had come in chaos still reigned on the Telemarchus. Sheridan shook his head. 'I'm going to make the announcement. It might calm things down a bit. The longer I wait for the slow ones to come around, the more annoyed the others are going to get.' Ivanova nodded. 'Activate PA.' Ivanova pressed the relevant button and Sheridan cleared his throat. 'Attention. This is your Captain speaking.' He waited to give crew members time to settle down.

  All over the ship the crew paused in their discussions and looked up. A few who continued arguing were hushed by their fellows. 'You're confused. Some of you are probably hung over.' A few of the older ones laughed, while those too young to have ever had a hangover before shook their heads carefully. 'It will pass. We've released into the ship's air ducts an antidote to the drugs the Minbari have been using on us. This crew is no longer under Minbari influence. That does NOT mean we can go on the rampage. The Telemarchus is a good ship. I know because I know the crew who made it one of the best in the fleet. But now we need to make it something more. A Minbari ship is on its way here to find out where we've been. Needless to say, they'll not be happy when they discover what's happened here. But they, too, are humans under control. When they arrive this ship must look perfectly normal. Under no circumstances should anyone do or say anything that could give the game away. The only way we'll free the fleet is quietly. An all-out show of force before we're ready will just get us all killed. To that end, everyone needs to carry on in the same posts they've held before. I know there are senior officers who've been assigned tasks more suited to the lower ranks. I know there are others who've risen in the ranks since the Minbari occupation. We have a superfluity of officers aboard this ship. I can only assume the Minbari decided to put all their rotten eggs in one basket. That was their mistake and it's one we're going to exploit. But to do that we have to work together. As we take over other ships positions will open up and senior officers will be assigned. So for the time being, hold where you are and keep performing the duties you carried out before.' He drew a deep breath and then continued. 'As you know, we have a Minbari political officer aboard this ship. Before any of you think to take revenge on her I would point out that it was she who released your senior officers and so enabled them to release the rest of the crew. Anyone who attacks her will answer to me personally. Now return to your stations. If anyone is incapable of doing so, report in. Medical will be with you shortly. Finally, would all medical personnel who are not presently assigned to medical, and all telepaths please report to C & C. That is all.'

  He snapped off the PA and turned to Ivanova. 'Well, we're in it now. Release the locks.'

  The dull boom of the outer doors to the shuttle bay was dying away as a call came in from Delenn.

  'I have been monitoring your communications, Captain. When do you think it will be safe for me to come aboard?'

  'Not yet,' Sheridan responded. 'Let me get the telepaths up here first. I'll get a security detail with a few teeps alongside and come and meet you. Just to be on the safe side.' Sheridan distinctly heard a sigh of relief. 'What was that for?'

  'I wondered if you might take advantage of your position to, uh, 'blow me out of the sky'?' Delenn sounded nervous. Sheridan growled.

  'If you have so little faith in my word, I wonder why you've trusted us so far?' There was a hint of sarcasm in his voice.

  'My apologies, Captain. That was uncalled for.'

  'Damn straight! Stay there. I'll contact you when we're ready. Sheridan out.' He snapped off the communication and sat staring at the console for some time. Ivanova stood by waiting for him to speak. 'Damn Minbari!' he said at last.

  'I can understand her fear, John.' He looked up sharply and she raised her hands. 'No, I know you wouldn't do anything like that. But she's used to the sort of treatment she gets from other Minbari. She can only judge by what she knows, and she's got a lifetime of experiences of their methods versus just a few days of us.' She smiled. 'She'll learn.'

  'Hmmm.' Sheridan wouldn't be drawn on the subject. There was movement outside and Sheridan looked up to see a number of people walking into C&C. Some were C&C crew and Ivanova asked them to wait outside. After this, all meetings would be held in his office or in room more suitable to the numbers. But for the time being Sheridan wanted to stay in C&C.

  As they filed in Sheridan stood, indicating they were to make themselves at home. As they fanned out around the control area, occupying whatever chairs they could find, Ivanova stepped back in, shut the door, and leaned back on a console to watch.

  When everyone was settled Sheridan cleared his throat. 'For those who are not telepaths and are very confused right now...' he began. A couple of people smiled. Sheridan nodded. 'Quite. Anyway, here's the deal. Delenn knows, or at least she strongly believes, that there's a force out there amassing its strength. When it's ready, it's gonna come after all of us. She's of the opinion that the only way we can beat them is if we stand together. Human AND Minbari.' There was a snort and Sheridan turned to the source. 'Well?'

  'Sorry, Captain. But she's stretching it a bit, isn't she? I mean, even if she's telling you the truth -- and I wouldn't put it past her to lie through her bone crest -- what on Earth does she think would persuade us to join forces with her people. After all they've done to us they'll be lucky if we don't kill them all or give them a taste of their own medicine.'

  'And if we do that, we're all dead. She believed in it enough to free us,' he indicated himself and Ivanova, 'and to help us free those who could work out an antidote to the drugs.' He paused and took in the faces of those in front of him. He sighed. He'd been stupid to expect they'd take his word for it. Somehow Delenn had a way of making you believe her, but second hand the information just didn't seem to carry the same authority. Not in this situation. He shrugged. 'Look, you can talk to her yourselves when she gets back. But right now, this is all in the future. It may not even come to it if we're lucky. Our immediate problem is freeing the rest of the fleet.'

  'No, our IMMEDIATE problem is that cruiser that's about to come for a visit.' Sheridan gave the young woman who was speaking a stern look but she waved it aside. 'We're not stupid, Captain. And even if we stuck to the old Psi Corps rules and didn't scan you, you and the Commander there are broadcasting your worry loud enough to be heard by a P2.'

  Sheridan shook his head. He'd forgotten what it was like working with telepaths. It had been so very long since he'd known they existed outside the Minbari. The brain-washing he'd been given had told him (among other things) that Humans were not evolved enough to have telepaths in their ranks. Another lie that would have to be rectified in due course. 'All right, all right. I take your point. Yes, that cruiser IS our most immediate concern, but it's merely the vanguard of the problem we're ultimately facing. How are we going to free the fleet? Now frankly, I'm hoping you people can help. There are a lot of telepaths under Minbari control, as well as normals, so it's in your interests as well.'

  'And when we've done all you ask. When Earth is free again...'

  'I'm glad you're saying 'when'.' Sheridan smiled and the woman had the grace to relax a little.

  'Captain, do you remember Psi Corps? Do you know what people had to go through? Do you think we all want to return to it?'

  'The Corps is Mother, The Corps is Father. They were good to us.' The young man speaking had a quiet authority and he gave the woman a hard stare.

  'Good to you, maybe Jason. Some of us haven't such happy memories.'

  There was a chorus of murmurings in the room which slowly grew as heated arguments began. Sheridan raised his eyes to the ceiling and waited to see whether the discussion would die down of it's own accord. When it became apparent it wouldn't he clenched his fist and thumped the console hard. 'That's ENOUGH!' The sound ceased and a number of astonished looks were turned on him. 'We can worry about that once we're all free. Right now this is the only ship that has a hope. And we won't have that unless we pull together. Now it's up to you. Either you help us, or I'll just space the lot of you!'

  Ivanova raised her eyebrows. Under normal circumstances she doubted he'd go that far, but looking at his face right now she wasn't so sure. Sheridan wasn't finished.

  'I've neither the time nor the patience to deal with this sort of in-fighting and neither have you. The only reason you're here to discuss it is because we've been freed. The rest of the fleet doesn't have that luxury. If you don't want to help then fine. We can just fight it out right here and now and then when that Minbari-Earth ship turns up tomorrow they can blow us out of the sky while we kill each other trying to prepare for a future we're never gonna see. Or,' and he calmed his voice and stilled his features, 'we can work together for the common aim. Now which is it to be?'

  There was a pause and Sheridan looked around. The telepaths were clearly conversing in their own 'language' to decide their response. He shook his head. 'And if we can't trust each other enough to talk out loud then there's not much point in carrying on.'

  The woman stood up, sweeping her blonde hair away from her face as she spoke. 'You're right, Captain. I'm sorry.' There were murmurs of agreement around the room. 'And we'll help you. Our problems aren't yours. At least not right now. But before the end, those of us who've suffered at the hands of Psi Corps will be happy to fill you in on why we're not happy.'

  'Fine. I look forward to it.' The woman gave him a look which needed no telepathy to be interpreted. 'Whatever. OK, ratings. Just what kind of a force have we got here?'

  'P-5 here,' said the woman. 'And the name is Talia Winters.'

  'Ms Winters.' Sheridan bowed and she sat down. 'OK, what else?'

  'Jason Philips, Captain. P-11.'

  Sheridan whistled. 'That's one stop short of Psi Cop isn't it?'

  'Yes. My rating may be higher. That was taken before I'd fully matured.'

  'Explains why he loves the Corps,' Talia muttered. Sheridan growled. She raised her hands in surrender. 'Sorry.'

  'Vaska Turgenev. P-6.'

  'David Solomon. P-5.'

  'Kai Shin-lo, Captain. P-6.'

  And so the roll call continued. By the end they had three P-5's, one P-4, two P-6's, a P-11 and a P-10. Sheridan nodded. A small number, but far better than he could have hoped for, and two who were quite powerful. And, of course, there was Ivanova, who was keeping quiet in the background. Her rating was yet to be determined. Something which would be worth investigating later Sheridan felt sure. He smiled to himself. Not that he hadn't been engaging in various investigations into her other talents already. He schooled his thoughts when he realised several of the telepaths were eyeing him and Ivanova. So much for keeping that one discreet!

  'All right. First things first. When we're done here I want you two,' and he indicated Jason and Peter, the technician who has since sobered up and was now able to think quite clearly, 'to come with me. We'll get a security team together to come down to the docking bay and meet Delenn's ship. The rest of you will be my eyes and ears. If anyone doesn't like what we're doing; if we have a Minbari sympathiser in our midst, I need to know about it.' He raised his hands to forestall the comments gathering on the lips of those assembled. 'I know, I know. It's against all the rules. But, as has already been pointed out, Psi Corps doesn't exist any more. If we're gonna pull this thing off we need every advantage we can get. And if your fellow crew members don't like it, well I'm sorry. But we're up against the wall right now. So any problems, you report them to me immediately. Now,' and he turned to the remainder of the group who'd been watching the exchange with quiet interest, 'as for the medics here. What have we got?'

  The count revealed two specialists (one in neurophysiology, the other in haematology), one general practitioner, and eight fully trained nurses. Sheridan shook his head.

  'You know, I'm seriously beginning to wonder how so many skilled people wound up on the same ship. I think some questions are gonna have to be asked. OK, right now Doctor Franklin is heading up the medical facility. His expertise is in Xenobiology but he's also a good all-rounder. He solved the problem of the drug and I want him to stay in charge. Anyone have a problem with that?' The medics looked at each other and then shook their heads. Most were more than happy to let someone else handle the tedium of paper-work if it left them free to get on with what they did best. Franklin had already proven himself a capable man and besides, after witnessing the telepaths the medics seemed to be determined to be easier to handle. They all realised that egos could wait and ruffled feathers were the least of their problems.

  'Good. I want you to sort out Medlab. Work out what we need and what we're short of. And I want some more work done on this drug. See if there're other ways we can break it down. OK?' More nods. 'In that case, with the exception of Jason and Peter, you're dismissed.' The assembly rose and left, going their separate ways to carry out the tasks assigned. Sheridan activated the internal com-link. 'Security detail, report to docking bay four, on the double.' He turned to Ivanova. 'You know, we're gonna need a good head of security around here. Any ideas?' Up until now security had been a minor concern aboard the ship. There was a security detachment available for trips to the surface of planets, or there as an honour guard for visiting dignitaries (not that the Telemarchus often had those), but on a ship such as this the people regulated themselves. It would be 'un-Minbari' to behave in a manner detrimental to the ship's well-being. Now, the entire ship was 'un-Minbari' and there was little doubt in Sheridan's mind that, given time, all the old quirks and resentments would rise to the surface. He needed to be ready when the time came.

  But Ivanova drew a blank. 'No one I know here. We could put Baker in charge for now.'

  Sheridan tried to visualise the efficient but rather slight man Ivanova was referring to. He knew the regulations backwards, but he was far to much of a by-the-book man for Sheridan's tastes. Of course, all that might have changed with the release of the drug's hold. 'Check him out,' he said at last. 'But if he's still got that pole up his ass I think we'll have to find someone else.'

  Ivanova nodded. 'Will do. Do you want me to come down to the docking bay with you?'

  'No. Right now I need an officer on deck who can deal with questions and monitor our situation. Let the C&C crew back in and you stay here. I'll see you later.'

  Ivanova nodded and Sheridan departed, the crew outside stepping aside to let him past. When he reached the doors outside the docking bay Peter and Jason were already there together with the security detachment. Sheridan drew the telepaths to one side.

  'Everything OK?'

  'A general feeling of resentment,' said Jason, 'but I'm not sure if that's because of us or Delenn or the whole situation. A mixture of all three I think, Captain.'

  'If the situation changes we'll let you know.' Peter added. 'Jason and I are strong enough to stop anything should the need arise.'

  Sheridan nodded and activated his link. 'Ivanova. Patch me through to Delenn 's shuttle.'

  There was a pause and then 'I am here, Captain.'

  'You can come in now, Delenn.'

  'Understood.'

  Through the small porthole in the door Sheridan could see Delenn's shuttle come in and land smoothly on the docking bay floor. The doors closed and a green light indicated the area had been re-pressurised. Sheridan opened the door and marched out, the telepaths calmly separating so that one marched behind Sheridan and the other behind the security detail. As Delenn alighted from her shuttle Sheridan advanced, helping her down the slope to the door. The security detail surrounded the two of them while Peter and Jason brought up the rear. As they marched back to Delenn's quarters Sheridan felt the eyes of those crewmembers they passed boring into them. At one point he felt the mental equivalent of a tap on his shoulder and heard Jason's voice in his head say 'Captain, stop. There's trouble ahead.' Sheridan duly called a halt as the telepaths and two front security guards moved forward. As they turned the corner there was a cry and a PPG shot went wild, hitting the ceiling. Instantly, Sheridan grabbed Delenn and pushed her against the wall, covering her with his own body while four of the security detachment surrounded them. The other four moved forward to help the two running point. There was barely a struggle as the crewmember was brought under control and soon Sheridan heard Jason speaking aloud.

  'All clear, Captain.'

  Sheridan released Delenn who stared at him. 'Sorry, Delenn. That was a little rough but I didn't want you to be hurt in the crossfire.'

  'No. Not at all, Captain. I...I'm very grateful.' Any lingering doubt she had regarding the Captain evaporated and was replaced with new respect. Sheridan nodded briefly but didn't notice her change of heart.

  'You OK?'

  'Yes. I am fine, thank you.'

  'Good.' Sheridan turned to deal with the recalcitrant crew-member who was now being brought before him, struggling against the tight grip of the security guards. 'Name?'

  The man ignored the question and looked at Delenn. 'Why didn't you let me kill her? It would have solved all our problems.'

  'Name!'

  The man turned and looked at Sheridan with contempt. 'You really do trust her, don't you? I thought it was just a front to give us a chance, but you're a Minbari sympathiser! You make me sick!'

  'NAME!!'

  The man simply looked at Sheridan but remained silent. Peter looked up and, at Sheridan's curt nod, got the information requested.

  'His name's Leo Black. He was part of a resistance operation that was completely wiped out by the Minbari in front of his eyes.'

  'Get out of my head!'

  Peter shrugged. 'Then tell the Captain what he wants to know.'

  Sheridan had some sympathy for the man and moderated his tone, quietly motioning for Peter to step back. 'You? I thought Stephenson was taking care of you?'

  'He couldn't handle me. He's a fool. You're ALL fools!' His voice was rising to a yell. 'They'll kill you! Don't trust them! None of them can be trusted. I know, I've seen it!'

  Sheridan sighed. 'You four,' he indicated the security officers, 'and Peter. Take him to the brig. I don't know what we can do to help him now but at least down there he can't cause any more trouble.' The officers saluted and manhandled Leo away. As they turned the corner the man was still screaming.

  'She can't be trusted I tell you. She'll get us all killed! It's a trick. They'll find us. She'll help them. They always do!'

  'Shut him UP!' Sheridan yelled after the officers. A second later Leo slumped in the guard's arms, asleep. Jason turned to Sheridan.

  'He'll be all right. Peter just knocked him out for a bit.'

  'Hmm. Not the way I like to handle my crew, but right now I don't see an alternative. I'll *try* and get through to him later. Meantime, let's get Delenn back to her quarters.'

  The rest of the journey proceeded without incident and once Delenn was safely inside Sheridan dismissed all but two of the security detail, arranging a shift change of guard duty outside her quarters for later.

  As the door closed Delenn collapsed into a chair. Sheridan eyed her quietly. At last she looked up.

  'I'm sorry, Captain. I'm sorry for what my people have done. I, I don't know what else to say.'

  'There will be others you know. On this ship or on another one. It's going to be hard guaranteeing your safety. But so long as I'm in charge of this ship, I'll do everything in my power to keep you safe.' She nodded and stared at the floor. 'I do have a question, though.'

  She looked up. 'Yes?'

  'Ivanova and I went through the crew manifest. The real one I mean. We seem to have a lot of highly qualified crew aboard this ship. More than could be put down to coincidence. Care to explain?'

  'It is one of the reasons I had to move slowly. I wanted to get as many people aboard this ship who would be able to help. But I could not get all I would wish. As it was the Minbari High Council was becoming suspicious. It is why I decided the time had come to release you.'

  'Ahh.' He put his hands behind his back and moved around the room. 'Anything else you've been up to in the background I ought to know about?'

  'The Minbari in charge of the ship that is coming to investigate. I believe he will help us.'

   'Name?'

  'Lennier. He was my aide for a short while. He is....was, rather fond of me.'

  'Was?'

  'It has been some time. But I do not think his feelings have changed.'

  Sheridan got the impression Delenn rather hoped they hadn't, and not just because it would help them in their fight.

  'Well, let's hope you're right.'

  Delenn nodded. 'I too hope so because, unfortunately, his head of security is going to be a problem.'

  'He HAS one?'

  'Lennier's ship is often assigned tasks that have more...uh...potential for trouble than most.'

  'You mean front line rather than clean up duty?'

  'Yes. In fact, his ship usurped the position of the Telemarchus. It would have been your post had I wished it.'

  'And why didn't you?'

  'Because you would have been assigned the best of the human officers available as security chief. And I did not feel we would have been safe with that man aboard.'

  Sheridan blanched. 'HE'S on board?'

  Delenn nodded.

  *****

  Aboard the Mistral the head of security was already checking and double checking the messages sent by the Telemarchus. He didn't like what he was seeing. The secret security cameras were all off-line as were the audio bugs. He should have been receiving any number of visual and audio messages and all he got was static. Telemetry was coming in fine but he was beginning to doubt the veracity of that message as well.

  He was proud of what he did, and he did it well. He was known for the sixth sense he seemed to have for ferreting out problems, and he had the tenacity of a bulldog when it came to finding the truth. He'd served the Minbari well and they were good to those who proved themselves in their service. His obsessive-compulsive nature, natural suspiciousness and attention to detail ensured he'd risen quickly in the ranks. Now he was the most noted and, to those who were against the Minbari, feared member of their human security force. He loyalty was unshakeable. His faith in them complete. No one stood against the Minbari while he was around.

  He checked his chronometer. Within fourteen hours they'd know if the crew of the Telemarchus were traitors. And if there was one thing Michael Garibaldi hated it was a traitor.

*****

Part 11

  Ivanova stared at Sheridan in horror. 'Michael Garibaldi?'

  He nodded. 'Yep. Looks like we're gonna get the biggest test right at the start.'

  'But you say Delenn reckons Lennier would be on our side?'

  'Well, on hers which might not be quite the same thing.'

  They were in Sheridan's quarters. The ship seemed to be ticking along smoothly and Sheridan had left the officers he trusted most in charge so that he and Ivanova could grab some much needed rest. The officers had strict instructions to contact Sheridan should anything untoward happen. In addition, several of the telepaths had volunteered to wander the corridors keeping watch. The crew might resent it, but Sheridan had given a message on the PA system explaining why it was in the interests of all those loyal to Earth to accept the telepath protection for now. Jason had subsequently contacted Sheridan to let him know that the anti-telepath feeling had muted somewhat. While they might not like the concept, the crew understood the need.

  'How the hell has Lennier handled Garibaldi?' Ivanova asked, leaning back on the settee and looking up at Sheridan as he paced the room.

  'So far, I assume he hasn't had to.'

  'Is there any way we can get a message to this Minbari Lennier without Garibaldi intercepting it?'

  'I doubt it. Anyway, I don't want to risk letting him know what's going on until we're sure where his allegiance lies. Delenn may trust him, that doesn't mean I do.'

  'Well, we're screwed. What are you going to do?'

  'I've been thinking about that,' he said, sitting next to her on the settee and leaning forward on his elbows. 'First of all, I'm going to have Jason scan him from a distance. See if he's doing this because he believes in it or because he's under the influence of the drugs. Delenn is trying to find out what she can about him from before the war. So far all I've managed to dredge up is that he was a ground-pounder. If we find he supports the Minbari of his own free will, we'll separate him and the telepaths can knock him out. Then we can arrange an accident for him. If he's under the influence we'll free him and see what happens.'

  'And suppose we free him and he STILL thinks the Minbari are his friends?'

  'Then we kill him.'

  'It's been tried, John. He's hardly popular even with those loyal to the Minbari. So far he's managed to escape every assassination attempt.'

  'Which raises another question. Is he just lucky, even better than we know, or a telepath?'

  'If he was a telepath he wouldn't have been a ground-pounder. Psi Corps didn't let their kids play anywhere they might get shot!'

  'True,' he mused. 'Which means he's good. But he doesn't know this ship is free, and he doesn't know we've got powerful telepaths. That gives us an advantage.'

  'Will it be enough?'

  He sighed. 'I hope so.'

  The communications console blinked announcing a message from Delenn. Sheridan went to the console to accept it.

  'Captain. I've managed to get something. I do not think you are going to like this.' She paused and Sheridan stepped closer to the screen.

  'Well? What is it?'

  'Garibaldi often works with a Minbari by the name of Crysar. He's a telepath. A very powerful one, but only one. Crysar normally works in the background. He is aboard The Mistral, but I think if you can get the two separated we would still have a chance.'

  'And what about the telepath?'

  Delenn sighed. 'I do not think he cannot be allowed to survive this mission.' 'You don't think he could be persuaded to our cause?'

  'Not at all. He is warrior caste, Captain, and a close friend of Neroon. I suspect the association may have as much to do with Mr Garibaldi's rise through the ranks as his own talents.' Sheridan shook his head. 'I can't kill a friend of Neroon. We'll have the whole Minbari fleet on us in a second.' He ran his hand through his hair and turned to Ivanova. 'What the hell are we going to do?'

  Ivanova shrugged. 'Call in the telepaths. Fight fire with fire. It's the only thing I can think of.'

  'Captain, if there is anything you need me to do, you have but to ask.' Delenn's concern was clear.

  'Thanks, Delenn. We'll work something out. If I need you I'll let you know. Sheridan out.'

  Sheridan contacted Peter and Talia, the two telepaths presently on duty in the ship, and asked them to report to him immediately. A few minutes later the door chime announced their arrival. As they settled into the chairs Sheridan spelled out the problem to them.

  Peter whistled. 'Crysar? I've heard of him. Nasty piece of work. Explains why Garibaldi is so good at what he does, though. So what do you want us to do?'

  Sheridan sighed. 'Take him out, any way you can.'

  Talia shook her head. 'It's not going to be easy. He's higher than a Psi-cop. Even all of us together aren't enough to deal with him. And he'll sense us checking on Garibaldi.' She snorted. 'He'll sense us aboard the ship!'

  Ivanova shook her head. 'Never mind that. He'll sense the state of this ship the second he steps aboard. He can't be allowed on here.'

  'Of if he gets here he can't be allowed to leave or warn anyone else.' Sheridan was pacing again, trying to find a way out of the problem.

  'How about an accidental energy discharge? Just blow their shuttle to hell before they have a chance to get aboard,' Ivanova suggested.

  'And have Neroon's fleet here in less than a day? You honestly think we'll be able to explain THAT one away?' Sheridan continued pacing.

  'What if the accident occurs aboard the Mistral? Then it would be nothing to do with us.'

  Sheridan looked at Peter. 'Can you arrange that?'

  'No, but I think Delenn could, through Lennier.'

  Sheridan shook his head. 'We don't know Lennier would support us. He may be a close friend of Delenn but that's no guarantee he'd approve of what we're doing.' He thumped the table top. 'Dammit, I need more time, and time is something we just don't have. They'll be here in...' he checked the chronometer, 'less than thirteen hours. How the...' he paused and spun on his heel, staring at Ivanova. 'The locator!'

  Peter and Talia both stared. 'The what?' Talia said.

  'Every ship in the fleet sends out a location signal automatically and regularly so the fleet command know where everyone is. I've been making copies. We've got a depth of three so far. If we can work out the code and then send a different signal on the next send...'

  'You can't suddenly relocate us somewhere else. They'll know it's a trick.' It was Ivanova's turn to show up the flaws in his plan.

  'The message gets sent out every 3 hours. We've just had one. That gives us three hours to break it and send a course correction on the next. Then we can send it further afield on the next few. Four location signals later we could be light years from here.'

  'Three hours? It's not much John.'

  'It's better than nothing. Come on. Let's get started.'

  *****

  Two hours later they'd still got nothing and tiredness and anxiety were turning the room into a tinder box.

  'God DAMMIT!' Sheridan yelled, slamming the data pad he'd been using down onto the table. 'I'm beginning to think we should just blow up the Mistral and run. Take our chances with the next ship they send.'

  'The next ship they send won't be just one ship, and you know it.' Ivanova was equally frustrated and her tone was clipped as she worked on another possible solution.

  Sheridan stared at her and then turned to the communications console. 'Hell, if I'm going to be up all night, Delenn can be too. Maybe she can shed some more light on this.' He contacted Delenn. When she answered it was clear that she had been asleep. Sheridan envied her. Right now sleep was something he desperately needed. 'Delenn. We've got a problem and we need you, now. Bring a data pad with you.'

  She nodded. 'I am on my way.'

  She arrived in a matter of minutes, still slightly dishevelled but in a much better mental state than those she encountered. Sheridan outlined the problem and Delenn set to with her data pad. After a few minutes she looked up.

  'You do realise the bulk of the code uses the Minbari Warrior Caste tongue as its source?'

  As one the others looked up. Ivanova found her voice first. 'You mean you can crack it?'

  'I mean I can understand it. There are parts which do not make sense to me, but the rest is clear. Here, I will show you.' She linked the pads together through the main computer system and downloaded the translation of the Warrior Caste tongue. Sheridan whistled as the text became plain.

  'So the missing bits are the encoded location signal. OK, message one: ship's co-ordinates were...' he tapped into the pad and brought up the information, cross referencing it to the encoded sections of the text. 'And message two...OK. Three? Right, so here's what we've got.' He routed the information to the other pads. Ivanova let out a whoop.

  'I think I've got it! Hang on...' she tapped away for nearly a minute, raising her hand to forestall Sheridan when he tried to ask what she was doing. 'Wait, I need to check it first.' The telepaths looked at each other for a moment and then Peter looked to Ivanova. Ivanova stopped dead and slowly raised her head. 'Don't you EVER do that to me again!' she snarled.

  Peter was taken aback. 'You're a telepath!'

  'Not much of a one, but enough to sense when someone's scanning me. Now back off!'

  Peter raised his hands in surrender. 'Ok, OK. I just thought if we could see what you were doing we could do the double check as well and save some time. Sorry!'

  Ivanova was still looking daggers at Peter and Sheridan stepped into the breach. 'Ok, Susan. I know how you feel, but Peter was only trying to help. He'll know better next time. Heck, I'd've probably done the same thing if I could! Now come on, what have you got?'

  With a last scowl at Peter, Ivanova downloaded her work to the other pads. Everyone bent to check the results.

  'How the hell did you know to use THOSE prime numbers?!' Sheridan was amazed. Delenn nodded approvingly while Ivanova looked smug.

  'When I was working in the resistance we managed to break into the code the local forces used. I've been trying to make it or a variation of it fit ever since we started but with the warrior caste stuff at the start it just wouldn't. The Minbari are a bit like the Nazis in World War 2. They think their code is so secure they rarely bother to change it. I'm using a minor variance. When they did change it they tended to go up and down prime numbers using a key which seemed to be based on multiples of three. Those in turn were determined based on the time of the year, certain religious ceremonies...'

  Sheridan interrupted. 'Enough! Why on earth would they use these things?'

  'Three is sacred to the Minbari, Captain.' Delenn put her data pad on the low table and began to explain. 'Religious ceremonies are fixed and known to all, but they are different for each caste and vary according to the year on Minbar. I imagine the theory was that if the code changed another warrior caste Minbari would merely have to remember the time of year on Minbar and adjust accordingly. No prior message confirming the change would have to be sent. Since they were on Earth whose orbital cycle is different to that of Minbar they probably thought no one would understand their system.' She turned to Ivanova. 'Which makes me wonder how you managed to work it out.'

  Ivanova grinned. 'It may be different, Delenn, but it's still a pattern. It's just a question of working out the key.'

  'There is more to your discovery than that I am sure, but no matter. Captain, where do you want to tell the Mistral we have gone?'

  Sheridan considered for a moment and then called up the schematic of the location transmission device on his pad. He stared at it for a while, checking things and then a slow smile spread on his face. At last he looked up. 'Absolutely no where.' He said.

  Ivanova stared. 'I'm sorry?'

  'We're going to tell them we're exactly where we are.' His smile was growing into a laugh and Ivanova was getting annoyed.

  'You kept me up half the night to work out the code, got Delenn out of bed, got these two' she indicated Peter and Talia, 'to give up their night as well to tell us at the end of it that we're not going to use it?! You have GOT to be out of your mind!'

  'Nope. Rule number one, Ivanova: know your enemy.' He looked around at the sea of blank faces. 'Look. Garibaldi is smart, and he knows something's up. He's going to expect a trick like this. So what we do is we send him a message telling him we're still here BUT,' and he held up his hand, 'BUT we make sure there's a small error in the code. One which could be explained EITHER by a fault in our coding or by a mechanical fault in the equipment. Now, if you get a message that tells you someone's going one way, but there's an error in the message which makes you think the code may have been broken, and you suspect the people sending it are up to no good, are you going to follow that course?'

  'No. I'd go looking in the opposite direction.'

  'Or?' he prompted.

  'Or...anywhere but where the signal says the ship is!'

  'Exactly. Now, follow my reasoning here. He's going to go looking everywhere but here to find us. Eventually, he'll come back here. When he does he's going to be pissed as hell and demand an explanation. And our explanation will be a fault in the mechanics which caused the ship to send a false signal and was nothing to do with us. He can even check it if he wants and the machine will tell him exactly what we want it to.'

  'But once he's aboard to check it our position as renegades'll be blown anyway.'

  'But if he thinks we're renegades he's going to want to check us out BEFORE he comes aboard. It's hard, but you can link up the two ships so the check on the internal systems can be done remotely. So in addition to any time wasting we manage to get him to do before he finds us, we'll have another 5 hours or so once he finds us before he can do a thorough systems check and realise it wasn't out fault. Well, not according to the check, anyway. I said I needed some time, and this is the best I can come up with. I reckon it'll take him at least a day to find none of the places he thinks we might be pan out. At that time he should send a message to Minbari High Command saying we're renegades, or at least highly suspicious. Then, when he finds we're where we were supposed to be all along he's going to have to send another message saying he made a mistake. That's going to screw his credibility a bit. We can even send a message to Minbari High Command ourselves just before he's going to find us asking where he is because we've been sitting here waiting for him and we need orders. So we come out clean as a whistle, he looks a fool, and he's gonna be mad as hell when High Command tell him to stop being an idiot. And when people are angry, they make mistakes. What I'm counting on then is he's gonna be so mad he's gonna want to deal with it all himself, WITHOUT his usual back up in the form of Crysar. If he brings a Minbari along with him it'll look like he can't do it alone. I don't know the man, except by reputation, but I know he's the sort who'll go it alone to prove his point. His pride and his reputation won't allow him to have a Minbari with him to board what's apparently a perfectly legitimate ship that's just made him look a fool. Once he's aboard and if he thinks there really IS a problem, THEN he'll send for Crysar, but by then we'll have him where we want him.' Sheridan looked at those around him who were staring at him as though he'd grown another head and feathers. 'Well?'

  'Man, talk about involved!' Peter muttered.

  'Captain, is this not perhaps a little too convoluted, even for Mr Garibaldi?'

  'You saying you don't think it'll work.'

  'John, she's saying you're making a lot of psychological assumptions about someone you admit you only know by reputation.'

  'Yes, but look at that reputation! And think about how Minbari High Command are going to react. They get a message saying there's a ship on the run. What are they going to do?' 'Given who's aboard? Scramble everything in the area to come gunning for us.'

  'Yep, and when it's all revealed to be a mistake on his part, how are they going to react to all those valuable ships sent on a wild goose chase?'

  'I believe you used the term 'mad as hell' before.' Delenn offered.

  'Exactly. And who is going to be the centre of their fury? The ship that's done everything it was told to do, and which has been sending in reports on how they've been doing extra weapons practice and working their tails off to make up for their earlier disgrace? Or the one that sent them on that wild goose chase in the first place?'

  Ivanova was unconvinced. 'It's still a lot of assumptions, John. And what if he comes straight here anyway?'

  'Then we're no better off than we are now, and we may as well use that faulty weapons fire you suggested before. Look, if anyone has a better idea I'm open to suggestions. But if we run and they catch us, which we all know they will, we're dead in space and they'll blow us up without even bothering to check. If we don't run and they catch us, which they might not for a while if this works, we have a chance. It's slim, I'll admit, but right now it's all we have.'

  'But we have not got a solution to the original problem that was what do we do when Crysar comes aboard and realises what is happening.' Delenn pointed out.

  'But at least I have a little more time to work on the problem. It's over a day at least. A heck of a lot can happen in a day.'

  'John, miracles don't happen that often.' Ivanova's Russian pessimism was running rampant.

  'Then maybe we're about due for one.' Sheridan shrugged. 'Let's just hope something happens or I can come up with something better in the interim.'

  'Hope. Is that all?'

  'It's all we have.'

  *****

  The odd ship with the corruscating surface opened its petal-like tail and slowed as its reverse thrusters brought it to a relative stop. The Being inside had sensed something. An ally in the fight against the darkness, and a soul that, while its full potential was as yet unrealised, could be moulded.

  The Being was sad. It had been wandering alone through space in search of a new hope. Its own people no longer believed there were any left to help them. Once, the Minbari had been the greatest hope of its people. Indeed, they had fought alongside them against the darkness over a thousand years before. The Being remembered. It had been there. But a darkness had fallen over the people of Minbar and they had forgotten so much. Then they had all but destroyed the people of Earth; enslaved them and so taken another ally, another player off the playing field. And all because of an error and a moment of supreme arrogance. For when the truth had been presented the warriors of Minbar had not believed it, had not wanted to believe it, and so had denied it. They would not contemplate the possibility that their souls could live anywhere but within other Minbari. And so they had erased the memory. They could not destroy the man they had taken, for suppose the blasphemy were true? What stain on their souls would there be if they destroyed their greatest leader's soul? But they could not let the man remember who and what he was, and they would not let others know. And so they had destroyed the memory of the man, and killed those of the Religious caste who wanted to embrace the truth. But they had not got them all. The Being knew this because it had been with the greatest of those and had prevented her from being there at the slaughter. She had not understood then, and the Being had left shortly afterwards, knowing the time for hope had past. And it had watched the humans fall into darkness at the hands of the Minbari. But the closed circle had to be completed, and now, it seemed, some members of Earth were awake once more. Awake, but in terrible danger.

  And the greatest of the Minbari religious caste was there with them.

  The ship sensed its master's thoughts and fears and asked how it might help. And its master told it to find the ship that contained the humans who were free. The ship looked into the mind of its master and found all it needed. Setting course it opened a jump gate and the two went into the swirling redness of hyperspace in search of that beacon of hope Kosh had sensed.

  *****

  Since Sheridan understood what he intended better than anyone (in fact, he admitted to himself, he was probably the ONLY person aboard who really understood what he was doing, with the possible exception of the telepaths), it was he who was buried in the innards of the console responsible for the automatic despatch of the location signal. A wire was sparking just above his head which, while slightly disturbing, did provide some illumination in the mass of wires and electronic components with which he was surrounded.

  Ivanova's impatient voice sounded again. 'Two minutes to the next signal. Have you done it yet?'

  'Nearly there,' came the muffled reply. There was a small click and then the sound of something small falling to the deck and bouncing before settling. Sheridan eased his way out and then reattached the sparking wire which would have allowed the machine to record his sabotage had it been attached. He grinned. 'Done it!'

  A few seconds later the console activated and sent out its signal. Ivanova recorded the signal and put it through their decoder. The error was duly recorded and Ivanova nodded. 'Well, it worked,' she muttered. 'Now let's just hope he falls for it.' She reached down and pulled Sheridan to his feet. As he dusted himself off a technician calmly replaced the housing and locked it down. 'What about the bit you removed?'

  Sheridan waved his hand. 'It's in there, somewhere. I'm not going to look for it. He can find it when he comes looking.' They were both making every effort not to mention the name of the man they were trying to fool. His reputation alone was sufficient to put fear into the crew. There would be time enough for that when Garibaldi came knocking on their front door.

  'Now what do we do?'

  'We wait, and while we're waiting we figure out a way to deal with him when he DOES finally arrive.'

  'What if he contacts us to check on our position?'

  Sheridan gave her a long look. 'Commander, he thinks we're a renegade. He also thinks we don't know that HE knows our signal's been tampered with. If he contacted us he'd give the game away.'

  'Suppose he decides it could be just an error and checks anyway?'

  Sheridan looked at her for a minute before shaking his head as though to clear it of a fog. 'Susan, you could give classes on depression to lemmings. Trust me on this, OK? He's not gonna call.'

  'But if he does?' she persisted.

  'Then we answer him!'

  'But then he'll know we're really here!'

  Several of the crew members in C&C were watching the exchange as though it were a tennis match, their faces reflecting the utter confusion the conversation was generating. 'Susan, the inter-stellar communications run through the same processor as the location signal. A sub-space check is attached to all signals verifying their origin. If he checks he's gonna find the same error.'

  Ivanova nodded, finally satisfied, and the crew members turned to their tasks once more. 'OK, so are we going to go and work on the main problem?'

  'Nope. There's another one I need to check on first, and then I'm going to grab about 5 hours sleep. I'll be able to think more clearly when I haven't got wool for brains. Delenn says she's OK to keep going for a bit, so I'm going to leave it to her.'

  'What's the other problem?'

  'Food. I've asked Franklin to see if he can negate the effect of the drug in the food and water so we can give the crew something to keep them going. He's got people working on shifts to try and work something out. I want to check on how he's doing. Frankly, I'm getting hungry.' A quiet murmur from one of the consoles indicated Sheridan wasn't alone. 'And I suggest you get some sleep too, Commander. We've got a long day ahead of us and I'll need you.'

  'I'd like to check up on the lab myself. See how Corwin's doing? In any case, I can keep an eye on you and make sure you don't stay there too long!'

  Sheridan grunted and the two left C&C. Several members of the crew exchanged knowing looks before settling down to monitor their stations.

  *****

  The news from the Labs was good. They were well on the way to producing an antidote that could be put into the food and water aboard the ship. The main problem they were encountering lay in their attempts to mitigate the rather bitter after-taste. Sheridan sampled their most recent effort.

  'Ach. I see what you mean. It's tolerable, but if you can tone it down a bit it'd be appreciated!'

  'We're working on it.' Dr Vincenti looked as tired as Sheridan felt.

  'Why don't you take a break for a couple of hours? The others here can carry on and you can come back to it with a clear head.'

  The technicians working at the lab equipment nodded. One of them spoke up. 'Dr Franklin will be back in an hour. We've got enough to be going on with. The Captain is right. You need a break.'

  When Vincenti tried to argue Sheridan raised his hand. 'Maria, *I'm* taking a break now. If I go on much longer I'll be dead in my tracks. Besides,' and he winked at Ivanova, 'I suspect the crew would like to be able to open their mouths without me snapping their heads off. Not,' he quickly added, 'that I'm suggesting you'd do such a thing, but there's no shame in admitting you're human, right?'

  Vincenti sagged and nodded. 'All right. Michael?' One of the technicians turned around in his seat. 'My notes are over there. I've worked out the next option if this one doesn't work. You're in charge until Dr Franklin returns. I'll see you later.' She picked up a data pad and looked at it thoughtfully. As she went to leave Sheridan quietly lifted the data pad out of her hand. When she tried to remonstrate he merely raised his eyebrows and she acquiesced. She was too tired to argue.

  After she'd left Sheridan went to check on those dealing with Corwin's cybernetics. The subject himself was no longer there having returned to his quarters some time before, but a holographic representation of the hand was being examined on in minute detail.

  'Anything?'

  Dr Sarah Watkins, the ship's cybernetics expert, turned in her chair. 'A few ideas. We running some simulations now.' At that point the holographic hand vaporised and she shook her head. 'Not that one then! Don't worry, Captain. We'll work it out.'

  'Can it be surgically removed?'

  'Unfortunately not. It's wired into his nervous system and there's something going on there that we don't understand. Looks as though there's been some extensive development of his neural system. Dr Atkins was looking into that. He'll be able to tell you more later. For the moment we're concentrating on the hand itself. The mechanics are complicated but not as complicated as the human nervous system. We'll get it, eventually.'

  Sheridan nodded. Atkins was the recently discovered neurophysiologist. Sheridan suspected he was finding a return to his previous calling a great deal more satisfying than his erstwhile posting to weapons maintenance. Sheridan had noticed that while some had retained their original skills, many had been reprogrammed, presumably because any activities in their known field could bring back unwanted memories.

  'Right. Keep me up to date.'

  'Will do.' Watkins returned to the simulation and Sheridan took a look around the lab. Ivanova placed a hand on his arm.

  'John. Come on. There's nothing more to be done here. Time you got some rest.'

  *****

  When they reached Sheridan's quarters Ivanova turned to bid him goodnight.

  'You're not coming in?'

  'I need sleep as well. It'll be a lot quieter in my room. Besides, it's a pain having to go back to my own room in the morning to grab clean clothes.'

  'You could move your stuff in here. It's not as though either of us has a lot. Or have you had enough of my company?' Sheridan was smiling but there was the smallest hint of genuine concern in his voice.

  Ivanova smiled and reached up to kiss him. 'No. And after we've dealt with the Mistral, assuming we're still here, I'll take you up on that. But even then I'll need to keep my own room. I've been alone a long time, John. It's hard adapting to sleeping with someone after all these years. Sometimes I just need to be by myself.' She shrugged. 'Sorry.'

  Sheridan gave a resigned nod. 'I understand. I'll see you tomorrow. Goodnight Susan.'

  'Goodnight.'

  It took Sheridan next to no time to discard his clothes and climb into bed. He was asleep almost before his head touched the pillow.

  Ivanova, too, had no trouble falling asleep. What she hadn't told Sheridan was that she'd left orders in C&C that she was to be disturbed before he was should the need arise. Hence, in part, her insistence on sleeping in her own quarters.

  Thus it was that a few hours later, Sheridan had the dream but Ivanova got the call.

*****

Part 12

  /Who are you?/

  /What?/ Sheridan was standing in a nowhere land. The featureless plain seemed devoid of all life but his own, yet still he could hear the voice.

  /Who are you?/

  /Captain John J. Sheridan. Who are you?/

  /We are called Kosh/

  /Where are you?/ Sheridan turned but there was no one in sight.

  /I am here/

  Yet still there was no one.

  *****

  'C&C to Commander Ivanova.'

  'Ugh. Just a few more minutes, please!' she muttered into the pillow.

  'C&C to Commander Ivanova,' the voice insisted.

  'Ah hell.' She sat up in bed. 'Accept message, audio only. Yes, what is it?'

  'Commander. We have an unidentified ship coming in.'

  'What?' Ivanova was now fully awake. 'Could it be a Minbari ship?'

  'Negative, Commander. It's a totally unknown configuration. Should I wake the Captain?'

  'Not yet. I'll be up there shortly. Ivanova out.'

  *****

  /What do you want?/ Sheridan asked the darkness.

  /Never ask that question!/

  /This is ridiculous. Show yourself./ Nothing. Sheridan shook his head. /This is a dream./ He tried to wake himself up.

  /No./

  /Then why are you talking to me?/

  /For the future. To save what has been lost./

  /If you want to help me then show yourself. Where are you?!/

  /I am here./

  There was a low noise in the background. Sheridan struggled to hear. It was an irritating, insistent sound and vaguely familiar.

  Sheridan woke with a start.

  'Ivanova to Sheridan.'

  Sheridan cleared his throat. 'Accept message, audio only. Yes Commander?'

  'Sir, there's an unknown ship off our starboard side. I think you need to get up here.'

  'On my way.' He lay in bed for a moment considering the images in his dream. Were the two connected? He shook his head and dismissed the notion. 'Great time to go nuts!' he muttered.

  *****

  When he arrived in C&C all those who could were looking at the monitors which showed the new ship. He joined Ivanova.

  'What have you found?'

  'Not much so far. We've got a reading of two life forms but most of our scans just seem to bounce off it.'

  'Have you tried hailing them?'

  'I thought I'd better wait for you. I know how much you love first contact stuff.' She gave him a half smile. Sheridan was known as an explorer, but this was not the best time to get involved with an unknown species.

  At that moment Delenn entered C&C, two guards either side of her.

  Sheridan was startled. 'Delenn? What are you doing here?'

  'I heard about the new ship. I knew I had to be here.' She looked slightly confused.

  'Knew? How?'

  'I...I dreamed it.' When she saw the look of dawning understanding on Sheridan's face Delenn realised she was not alone. She moved towards the monitor and gasped as the silhouette was revealed.

  'You know this race?'

  'Kosh!'

  Sheridan looked from Delenn to the monitor and back again. 'Kosh? How the hell...?' Delenn shrugged. Sheridan turned back to the monitor. 'Hail the ship, Commander.'

  There was a pause and then there was the same voice Sheridan had so recently heard.

  'We are here.'

  'What do you...' Sheridan caught himself. Ivanova noted the hesitation and gave him a querying look. He shook his head, indicating it was a subject for another time. 'What can we do for you?'

  'I wish to come aboard.'

  Sheridan nodded but Ivanova was having none of it. 'Captain! We don't know who they are!' she hissed warningly.

  'It's all right,' Sheridan replied in an equally low voice. 'He's on our side.'

  'You don't know that!'

  'Yes I do.'

  'How...?'

  Sheridan waved the question aside. 'Later.' He turned back to the console. The ship was far too large for the Telemarchus docking bay so he asked the next logical question. 'Do you have a shuttle?'

  'No.'

  Given the obviously advanced nature of the ship Sheridan found that slightly hard to believe but he decided to play along. 'Do you want us to send one over for you?'

  'Yes.'

  'Master of the short response isn't he?' Ivanova muttered.

  'Very well, I'll send someone over to escort you.'

  'No.'

  'There has to be a pilot. We can't run it on automatic into a shuttle bay.'

  'Yes.'

  'You want someone senior?'

  'Yes.'

  'You want...'

  Ivanova could hear what was coming and grabbed his arm, shaking her head. 'Send me,' she whispered. Sheridan tried to remonstrate with her but she held firm. At last he sighed.

  'I'll send my first officer.'

  'No.'

  'You want me to come over?'

  'Yes.'

  Ivanova shook her head vehemently. 'No way!' Sheridan shushed her.

  'All right. I'll be over shortly. Telemarchus out.'

  Ivanova grabbed his arm as he moved towards the door. 'John, you can't do this. It could be a trap!'

  'I don't think so.'

  'We don't know this race. We don't know what they look like, how many of them there are. We could have had false signals. Anything could happen.'

  'I know them, Commander.' Delenn's voice was small but could have been a shout from the silence that followed it.

  'You do?' Ivanova sounded incredulous.

  Delenn nodded. 'They are called the Vorlons. And one of them, Kosh, saved my life.' 'And is that who's out there?'

  'I believe so.'

  'But you don't know do you? Captain, you can't do this.'

  'I'm going.'

  'Captain!' Ivanova almost shouted.

  'Commander, he asked for me. Delenn says he saved her life and I trust her. He's got no reason to harm me. If I send anyone else it could be dangerous.'

  'Unless it isn't Kosh and it's a trick. And how do we know he didn't spare her for some other reason? Maybe you're what he's looking for.'

  'I think I am, but not the way you mean.' Sheridan looked at Delenn who nodded. He turned back to Ivanova. 'You're in command until I get back.'

  'John, I'm not letting you go.'

  'That's an order, Commander.' He grasped her elbows and held her. 'Susan, It'll be all right. Really. I can't tell you how I know, I just do. Trust me, ok?'

  Ivanova fired her last shot. 'What if the Minbari ship turns up while you're over there?'

  'I doubt they'll want to pick a fight while something that interesting is sitting there.' He smiled and squeezed her arms in reassurance before turning to one of the crew. 'Is there a shuttle ready in the docking bay?'

  'Yes sir.'

  'Good. I'll see you later, Susan. Don't worry! I'll be OK.'

  As he walked out of C&C Delenn turned to Ivanova. 'It will be all right, Commander. Kosh can be trusted. He wanted Captain Sheridan. He will not harm him.'

  'You'd better be right about this, Delenn. Or by god I'll throw you out there after him, and you won't have a shuttle!' Furious, Ivanova turned her back on Delenn and watched for the departing shuttle. Stunned crew members who'd never seen anyone speak to a Minbari -- much less the ship's Political Officer -- in that way waited for the inevitable response but it was not forthcoming. Instead Delenn merely turned and made to leave the command deck. Ivanova turned around.

  'Delenn?'

  Delenn paused. 'Yes?'

  Ivanova tried to say something but couldn't. Instead, she turned to the security guards. 'See to it that Delenn arrives safely in her quarters. She's not to leave again until Captain Sheridan's safe return. Is that understood?'

  'Yes Commander,' the two guards said in unison.

  Delenn smiled a little sadly and left, sandwiched between the guards.

  Ivanova watched Sheridan's shuttle leave and head for the alien ship. 'She'd better be right about this,' she muttered.

  *****

  As Sheridan grew closer to the alien ship he could see that the surface was moving. Only slightly, it was true, but moving nonetheless. The patterns were subtly changing on its 'skin'. A little closer and the change was quite plain. Darker patches swirled together and formed what were clearly words, although Sheridan could not read the script.

  'Neat trick!' he muttered.

  He looked for the ship's docking bay but in vain. In fact, there was no sign of any means of ingress and egress whatsoever.

  'How the hell do you get into this thing?'

  At that moment a portion of the ship morphed before his eyes and extruded itself towards him. In a panic he threw the shuttle into reverse to try and get away from the tentacles that were closing on him but it was too late. He was enveloped by the alien ship and drawn inexorably towards its heart.

  *****

  Back in C&C as the crew watched the shuttle moved closer to the alien ship before it suddenly disappeared from the scanners.

  Ivanova stared. 'What?! Where the hell did it go?'

  The hands of a technician flew across the controls trying to find a frequency on which the Captain's ship could still be seen but there was nothing. He raised his hands 'I...I'm sorry, Commander. It just disappeared!' He went back to trying to find it but Ivanova didn't wait. She rushed out of C&C and headed for the nearest porthole with a view over to the alien ship. Pushing past two crew members so violently that they crashed into a bulkhead she ignored their stunned expressions and ran on. At the porthole she peered out but all she could see was the alien ship. Sheridan's shuttle had disappeared.

   'Delenn! You said it was safe!' she yelled. She ran off in the direction of Delenn's quarters and encountered the Minbari on her way there with her guards. Shoving one of the guards aside Ivanova rounded on the Minbari. 'What kind of a trick is this?!' she cried, grabbing Delenn by the shoulders and shaking her. 'You said he'd be safe!'

   Delenn fought to maintain her composure. 'He is safe, Commander. As safe as anyone ever is with a Vorlon. If Kosh had wished harm on the Captain he would not have attempted subterfuge. His ship is quite powerful enough to destroy the Telemarchus if it so wished. And I would be grateful if you'd take your hands off me.'

  Ivanova struggled to bring herself under control. 'He's disappeared. One minute we could see him, the next minute he'd just disappeared from the scanners. I went to look but there's no sign of him. Where is he?!'

  'I would guess he is inside Kosh's ship.' Delenn's voice was full of quiet authority and reprimand. She did not take kindly to manhandling under any circumstances.

  'HOW? There's no docking bay!'

  'Kosh's ship has its own methods.'

  'If he doesn't come back out within an hour...' She left the threat unspoken. 'I would not advise firing on the Vorlon, Commander. He would destroy you.'

  'Delenn, this is an Explorer Class ship. That's a personal fighter at best. What chance has it got against our guns?'

  'More than you can possibly imagine. Do not provoke him, Commander. The Captain will return once Kosh is finished with him. Until then, may I suggest we try and find a solution to our other problem?'

  'You've got to be kidding?!'

  'Can you think of a better way to pass the time?' Delenn eyed Ivanova and the latter found herself at a loss for words. Delenn's matter-of-fact approach was disarming. The guards stood by awaiting their next order.

  Ivanova sighed and straightened her uniform jacket to cover her own loss of composure. 'You sort out your solutions, I'll sort out mine. Alone.'

  'It would be better if we worked together.'

  'No way! Right now I don't trust you, Delenn. John did and now he's disappeared, and I don't even know if he's still alive. You just screwed up big time.' She turned to the guards. 'Get her back to her quarters and keep her there!'

  The guards saluted and resumed their escort duty, but before they could usher Delenn towards her quarters she held out her hand to stop them and turned to Ivanova. 'He will be all right, Commander. I assure you. And now, perhaps, you understand why I did not think your relationship with the Captain was a good idea. You cannot afford to fly off the handle whenever you think his life is threatened. You will endanger all of us.'

  The slap was quick and hard, and Delenn didn't see it coming. Stunned she raised her own hand to her face to rub at the stinging site. Ivanova's face was cold fury. 'He's my friend and my Captain. Regardless of any other relationship we have that's enough to make me angry right now.' She turned to the guards. 'I told you to get her out of here. Now move before I do something I'm going to enjoy!'

  This time the guards didn't allow Delenn to hesitate and she was pushed down the corridors to her quarters.

  Ivanova watched them leave, shaking with fury. At herself for losing control; at Delenn for so quickly spotting the source; at Sheridan for putting himself in danger; and at the universe as a whole for its general antipathy towards her. As Delenn's rear guard turned the corner out of sight Ivanova turned and then looked up.

  'Why, just when I think I've found something worth having, do you always snatch it away from me? What did I ever do to you?' She knew she wouldn't get an answer but she waited in silence for a moment before returning to C&C.

  *****

  More than an hour had passed and Ivanova had the ship's guns brought on line and turned towards the alien ship. She was about to hail it when the technician suddenly cried. 'Commander! He's back!'

  Sure enough, there on the scanners was the unmistakable silhouette of the shuttle. Ivanova contacted firing control.

  'Ivanova to gun crews. Hold your fire. I repeat, hold your fire but do not stand down.' She turned to the crew members of C&C. 'I'm going down to the docking bay. Have Jason and Peter meet me there together with whatever guards we can muster. I want them all armed and ready for bear.'

  The crew nodded and Ivanova marched out.

  When she reached the docking bay there was only a small number of guards there but more arrived shortly thereafter. By the time the shuttle was in the bay and the doors closed to allow it to be repressurised there was a sizeable force outside the door. Ivanova peered through the porthole and saw the shuttle door open. Opening her own door Ivanova motioned for the guards to take up flanking positions. She drew her own weapon and waited.

  When she saw Sheridan she nearly fainted with relief. Then she saw the Vorlon.

  What the hell was it?

  Sheridan walked up to her, his face stern. 'Commander. What is this?' He indicated the guards with their weapons drawn and aimed at the Vorlon.

  Kosh, for his own part, stood still and waited, the rectangular block that Ivanova took for a head tilted slightly to one side as though curious.

  'We lost track of you for over an hour. We didn't know what to expect. I thought it best to be prepared...just in case...' she trailed off.

  Sheridan nodded. 'OK. I'm all right.' He turned to the guards. 'You're dismissed.' The guards hesitated, looking from Sheridan to Ivanova, then to the Vorlon, and then back to Ivanova. 'I said you're dismissed!' Sheridan's voice rose slightly and Ivanova nodded. The guards promptly lowered their weapons and exited. Kosh moved forward. He appeared to be floating as he moved steadily towards them.

  Sheridan turned to the Vorlon. 'I'm sorry.'

  Kosh tilted his 'head' once more as though in acknowledgement and understanding. Sheridan turned back to Ivanova.

  'Delenn was right. This is Kosh. The one who saved her from the slaughter of the Religious Caste Satai.' Sheridan looked past Ivanova's shoulder for a moment and then back to Ivanova herself. 'Where is Delenn?'

  'Confined to quarters until I knew you were safe.' Suddenly Ivanova found herself feeling awkward. It was not a feeling she liked and she covered it with a stern look directed at Sheridan. 'You scared the life out of me, John!'

  Sheridan considered her for a moment and then said, 'We'll talk about this, later. In the meantime, I think Kosh can help us with our problem. Come on, let's go somewhere we can talk.' As they walked Sheridan contacted C&C. 'I've made the shuttle available to our Vorlon guest, Kosh. He can use it whenever he wants until further notice. Make sure someone keeps it refuelled and ready to go at all times.'

   A disembodied voice responded. 'Aye sir. Sir, the Vorlon ship is closing on us.'

  'Let it come alongside. It'll be keeping us company for a while.'

  'Aye sir.'

  'Sheridan out.'

  Ivanova tapped her own link. 'Ivanova to firing control. Stand down.'

  'Aye sir.'

  Sheridan stared at her. 'Firing control?'

  'Captain, we didn't know what was going on! I had to be ready for anything.' 'Thank god you didn't open fire. I wouldn't have a ship to return to.'

  'So Delenn said, but I find it hard to believe something so small could withstand a full barrage from the Telemarchus.'

  'Appearances can be deceptive, Susan. Don't under-estimate the Vorlons. They're far more powerful than you can imagine.'

  Ivanova gave Sheridan a questioning look. What was it about this alien that made people talk like that? First Delenn, now Sheridan. Curious she turned and took in the tall figure following behind them. To her eyes he appeared to be wearing a curtain attached to a horse collar. Hardly something to inspire fear. Kosh tilted his 'head' and the iris in the front flared briefly. She had a sudden sensation of terrible fear and then great peace. She stumbled and Sheridan caught her.

  'Susan? You all right?'

  'Yeah, I'm fine.' She looked back at Kosh. The iris closed once more and he continued to follow them in silence.

  They reached Sheridan's quarters and entered. He sent a message that Delenn was to be brought to his quarters immediately, together with Dr Franklin. When the two arrived Delenn bowed to Kosh who bowed slightly to her. Franklin stared for a moment and then, feeling it was incumbent upon him to do something he inclined his head. The Vorlon did the same.

  Sheridan cleared his throat. 'Kosh knows who you all are so I won't bother with introductions. What you see is an encounter suit. Kosh himself is inside. His ship will follow us so long as he's aboard. The ship itself is sentient so it doesn't need a crew. He has offered his help. I've accepted it.'

  Ivanova looked singularly unimpressed. 'Fine, a sentient ship and an alien. What can they do?' She folded her arms. She was determined not to let Kosh get to her.

  The alien turned to her and the iris spiralled open. A musical noise filled the air surrounding one word. 'Much.'

   She looked at him. 'Really? Such as?'

  Kosh appeared to contemplate Ivanova for a while before moving towards her. She held her ground although she was feeling increasingly nervous. As he neared her the iris opened once more and Ivanova was bathed in a green light. The musical notes announced Kosh's voice. 'Learn.' Franklin moved forward but Sheridan stopped him and shook his head.

   'It'll be all right. Kosh has a unique way of communicating, and it's much faster than long, drawn out explanations. Just wait a minute or two.'

  Ivanova heard nothing of Sheridan's words. She was immersed in a world only she could see and hear. One in which Kosh made plain to her what had happened and what was to come. When the green light faded Ivanova continued to stare open-mouthed at the Vorlon. Kosh withdrew slightly and Sheridan and Franklin waited for her to speak. After a few seconds she shook herself and then looked at Sheridan.

  'You saw the same thing?'

  'Yep.'

  She shook her head and then looked back at the Vorlon. Then she did a remarkable thing, for her. She stood up and bowed to the Vorlon. 'I'm sorry. I didn't understand.'

  'No.'

  As the music faded Franklin looked from Sheridan to Ivanova. 'Anyone gonna let me in on this?'

  Sheridan shook his head. 'Not right now Stephen. It's too involved and, uh, a little personal. I'll tell you what I can later. In the meantime...' he sat down and Ivanova followed suit. 'I've explained to Kosh our problem. He assures me that he can block the telepath even if Crysar is aboard. With his help I think we can deal with The Mistral and turn it to our side. Here's what he proposes...'

  ******

  In his quarters Corwin was dreaming. The Voice was speaking to him: warning him of a great danger close at hand. No one would understand, it said, because the Being that had come aboard could make people see or hear whatever it wanted. It was clever, deceitful, and very, very dangerous. It was up to him to deal with it. But the Voice would show him the way. It knew the Being. Knew how to deal with it. Corwin had only to contact the Voice's friends and they would come. They had fought those like the Being before. The ship would be safe, but only if Corwin did as the Voice commanded. Corwin woke up and left his room as quietly as he could.

  *****

  Down in the labs Dr Atkins was staring at the readout in front of him. He'd finally managed to analyse those anomalous neural readouts from Corwin. 'Well I'll be damned.' He muttered.

  Fortunately, or perhaps unfortunately, he didn't know the depth of truth in those words.

  ******

  'So that's the plan in a nutshell.' Sheridan finished.

  Franklin looked from Sheridan to the Vorlon and back again. 'And his ship can do this without him being aboard?'

  Sheridan smiled. 'Like I said, it's sentient. He's only to tell it what he wants it to do, and it'll do the rest.'

   Franklin shook his head. 'What I wouldn't give for a few minutes inside that ship.' he muttered. Kosh turned to him and Franklin quickly raised his hands. 'No, I know. But that's one incredible piece of technology.'

  'No.'

  'What, you don't think it's impressive? It is from where I'm sitting. But then I'm probably a million years or so lower on the evolutionary scale.'

  'I think,' put in Sheridan, 'what Kosh means is it's not technology. Not in the sense you mean it anyway.'

  The communications console bleeped and Sheridan acknowledged the message. 'Yes, what is it?'

  Atkin's face appeared on the monitor. 'I think we may have a problem with Corwin, Captain.' The doctor looked grave and rather worried.

  Ivanova stood up, concern on her face. 'What kind of a problem?'

  'I was running checks on that strange neural growth we detected? Look, I think you'd better come down here and see for yourself.' Atkins shook his head. 'I've never seen anything like this before.'

  Franklin was already standing. 'I'm on my way.'

  'Captain, you'd better come down here too. I think this is serious.'

  Sheridan and Ivanova looked at each other. 'All right, doctor. We're on our way. Sheridan out.'

  As they turned to go Kosh moved to follow them.

  'I don't think you need bother with this, Kosh.' Sheridan was trying to stall the Vorlon but Kosh continued to follow them. Sheridan eyed him for a moment. 'Unless you know something we don't.'

  'Perhaps.' The music continued. 'There is danger.'

  If the Vorlon was spooked Sheridan wasn't taking any chances. 'Sheridan to Corwin.' Silence. 'Sheridan to Corwin, respond please.' Nothing. 'Sheridan to C & C.'

  'C & C here.'

  'Locate Lieutenant Corwin for me.'

  There was a pause and then. 'According to the sensors he's in his quarters, Captain.'

  'Send someone down there to check up on him and have them report to me.'

  'Yes sir.'

  Sheridan looked at Ivanova. 'Could something have triggered the booby trap?'

  'If it had I doubt we'd be having this conversation. Hell of a boom.'

  Sheridan grunted and, still lost in thought, he made his way to the labs, the others following.

  *****

  Corwin was eyeing 'the paperweight' in hydroponics. It was the only communications device aboard the ship strong enough to get a signal to the Voice's allies that didn't go via the main communications network. If he could only get it working again he could send a signal and no one would know unless they were still monitoring unauthorised communications. And even if they were, it'd be too late by then. But the equipment had been severely damaged. As he looked he knew the Voice was seeing the damage as well, through his eyes, but it had helped in the past and he had no reason to suspect its motives now. It knew things about electronics Corwin could not even guess. He bent to his task, following the instructions of the Voice.

  *****

  'OK, Dr Atkins. What have you got?' Sheridan didn't bother with pleasantries, nor did Atkins expect them. He pointed to the screen.

  'That,' he said, outlining a mass of neurons which appeared to surround Corwin's neck, 'Is not part of Lieutenant Corwin. At least not originally. That's been grafted on. It's connected to the lieutenant's own neural system in ways that suggest to me it could control him if it wanted to. I'd call it a parasite.'

  Sheridan stared. 'You mean he's got an alien living on his shoulder? How come we haven't seen it?'

  'Not sure about that. I think it has some kind of phasing ability. It's definitely there. You can see it on the scan, but it was a pretty unusual scan in the first place. One of the techs wanted to recalibrate the machine while Corwin was standing there. It should have been a minor adjustment, which is why he didn't ask him to move, but he was a little tired I think and went way past where he should have been. The medical log was still recording and even though this only lasted a second it picked it up. We went back and checked again later and couldn't find anything. I thought it was a computer anomaly. But then Dr Watkins said there seemed to be something odd about the connections between his hand and his brain so I decided to do a little more investigating. It's not a computer glitch, Captain. It's real.'

  Franklin bent to examine the readings in more detail and Atkins vacated the seat for him.

  'You think this could be a danger to the ship?' Sheridan wasn't addressing the question to anyone in particular.

  'I'm not sure...' Franklin began when Kosh's musical notes filled the air.

  'Yes.'

  Franklin spun around. 'You've seen this before?' Kosh remained silent. 'Well, what is it?'

  'Drakh.' Even with the music the name sounded ominous.

  Ivanova turned to Kosh. 'And what's a Drakh when it's at home?'

  'Allies of darkness.'

  'Oh great! We've got one of the bad guys right in our midst. Terrific!' Ivanova shook her head.

  'No.'

  'I thought you just said...'

  'A piece.'

  'A 'piece' of a Drakh? Hell, if just a piece of one is like that I wouldn't want to meet the whole thing in a dark alley!'

  'You will.'

  Ivanova looked at Sheridan. 'And I thought I was depressing.'

  'Never mind that. Stephen, is there any way we can get this thing off him?'

  Franklin was still staring at the screen. 'I don't think so. It's buried right inside his spine and penetrates the brain. It's got connections all over the place. Kill it you kill him.' Sheridan's link bleeped. 'Sheridan, go.'

  'Captain, we're at Lieutenant Corwin's quarters. He's not here, sir, but his link is.' 'So wherever he's gone he didn't want to be found.' Sheridan's musing were interrupted by Franklin's yell.

  'Hey! What the hell's going on here?'

  They turned and saw all the data records regarding Corwin flicking over the screen. Franklin pressed keys but nothing responded. Looking around Ivanova saw Kosh staring (if that was the right word) at the computer screen.

  'What are you doing?' she asked Kosh. There was no response. She stood in front of the screen but behind her the images kept flicking past. She might as well have been invisible. 'What're you looking for?'

  'The key.'

  The images were now centring on Corwin's hand and the booby trap within. Franklin gasped. 'Hey no, you can't do that! At least give us a chance!'

  Still the images persisted and Sheridan's link bleeped.

  'Sheridan, go.'

  'Sir, we're registering a massive build up of energy in your area. What's going on? This is off the scale!'

  'Stand by.' Sheridan turned to Kosh. 'Kosh, can you tell us where Corwin is? If you activate that thing while he's aboard you could kill the rest of us as well depending on where he is. At least give us a chance to get him somewhere safe for the sake of the ship. Let us handle this. If we can't, then you can do what you have to. For god's sake give us a chance!'

  Kosh seemed to hesitate for a moment. Slowly the iris closed again.

  The voice on the link spoke again. 'Captain. Energy levels dropping to normal.'

  'Understood. Sheridan out.' He let out the breath he'd been holding and held up his hand to forestall Franklin who looked like he was going to take a swing at the Vorlon. 'All right, doctor. I know how you feel.' He turned back to Kosh. 'Well? Can you tell us where Corwin is right now?'

  There was another pause and, once more, it was interrupted by Sheridan's link going off.

  'Sheridan, go.'

  'Sir, the Vorlon ship is scanning us.'

  'Understood.'

  After another pause Kosh turned and began to float towards the exit. Sheridan tried to stop him.

  'Kosh, just tell us where he is. We can catch him ourselves.'

  Again a pause, and then Kosh turned and moved to the nearest terminal. He brought up a schematic of the ship and Sheridan saw a glowing dot in the area reserved for hydroponics.

  'Right. Got it!' He tapped his link. 'Sheridan to security, grab a couple of teeps and go to hydroponics. Find Lieutenant Corwin. Do not, I repeat, DO NOT interfere. I don't care what he's doing. Keep out of sight and wait until I arrive. Just don't let him leave. Understood?'

  'Uh, there's only three of us on duty right now sir.'

  'So get some more. I don't care where you pull them from. Just make sure they're not trigger happy. We don't want to blow up the ship!'

  'OK, Sir. I'll do what I can. Security out.'

  Ivanova shook her head. 'Great. The mighty security team of the Telemarchus swings into action again.' She sighed. 'We have REALLY got to do something about that, and fast.'

  'I know. Let me deal with one problem at a time, OK?'

  Together they ran out of the labs and began to jog to hydroponics. As they ran Ivanova turned to Sheridan.

  'Like I needed a work out today!'

  'It'll keep you fit. I do a few miles every day.'

  'You do? When do you find time?!'

  'Department Heads meetings.'

  'Always wondered why you kept ducking out of those!'

  'Advantage of being Captain.' He sprinted ahead of her.

  Ivanova drew up, hands on hips, and took a few deep breaths. 'There has GOT to be a better way of doing this!' She thought for a moment and then grinned. Ducking down a side hallway she reappeared shortly afterwards on one of the scooters maintenance used to get from one end of the massive ship to the other. They were usually stored in the maintenance cupboards and weren't for general use. To be fair, it wasn't that far from the labs to hydroponics, hence Sheridan's decision to run, but Ivanova was a past master of taking the easy route provided it was just as effective. She gunned the little electronic engine and had the pleasure of passing Sheridan with a smug look on her face.

  'Hey! That's cheating!' he yelled after her and started to run flat out. He arrived less than a minute after Ivanova, but considerably more winded. 'I' ll get you back for that!' he muttered, drawing lung-fulls of air deep into his chest.

  'I look forward to it.' She turned to the security officer standing at the ready outside hydroponics. 'Is he still in there?'

  'Aye sir. He's working on some machinery in there. The thing that got damaged during our weapon's practice.'

  'Oh great!' She turned to Sheridan. 'So, what are we going to do?'

  Sheridan drew himself back up having finally caught his wind during the exchange. 'I'm going to go in there and ask him what he thinks he's doing.'

  'Direct approach. Cute.'

  He gave her a look, straightened his jacket and moved to the door. Before activating the panel he turned back to her. 'If he looks like he's going to try something, my pride wouldn't be in the least offended if you came in and stopped him.'

   She nodded, and all joking had gone. 'We'll be here.'

  He turned and activated the door.

 

*****

 

 

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