CONSPIRACY THEORY III

(chapters 13 - 19)

By Castor

 

 

 

*****

Part 13

  As he entered hydroponics he saw Corwin squatting in front of the machine, muttering as though he were talking to someone nearby, but the room was empty save the two of them. Sheridan decided to try the friendly approach.

  ‘David? Everything OK?’

  Corwin stiffened but kept working. Sheridan moved closer.

  ‘David. I can’t let you activate it. You know that, don’t you?’

  Slowly Corwin drew himself up and turned to face Sheridan. This was not the nervous young man Sheridan knew. This was an altogether different personality. This one was cold, determined, and saw Sheridan not as an ally in the fight against the darkness that surrounded them, but as an enemy to be defeated. Sheridan fingered his PPG but left it in its holster for now, the cap having been inserted outside to hide the tell-tale whine as the weapon charged.

  Corwin’s eyes flicked to the PPG and then back to Sheridan. He knew. Sheridan sighed.

  ‘C’mon, David,’ he said in the most non-threatening tone he could muster. ‘It’s me. You know me.’ He smiled. ‘Come outside. We can talk about this.’

  Corwin shook his head. ‘You’ve joined them. You can’t be trusted any more.’

  ‘Who, David? Who have I joined?’

  Corwin waved his hand in the direction of Kosh’s ship. ‘The Vorlons.’ He spat the name.

  ‘What’s wrong with the Vorlons? If you know something I don’t I should be told, don’t you think?’ Sheridan kept the easy smile on his face and took a step forward.

  ‘No! Stay where you are!’

  Sheridan froze and raised his hands. ‘OK, OK. I’m not moving, all right? Just tell me what’s wrong with the Vorlons.’

  ‘They don’t tell the truth.’

  Sheridan chuckled. ‘David, I’ve never met anyone who always tells the whole truth. Have you?’

  ‘They make you see what they want you to see. You don’t see what they are, you only see what they want you to think they are.’

  ‘And what’s that, David?’

  ‘Beings of light. Angels. That’s not them.’

  ‘Well, I haven’t seen any angels yet and Kosh certainly doesn’t look like an angel to me. He’s just outside. Why don’t you come out and see for yourself?’

  ‘No!’ Corwin stepped backwards and shook his head.

  Sheridan decided to try another tack. ‘Who tells you these things about the Vorlons?’

  ‘Th...They do.’

  ‘They? Who, the Vorlons?’

  ‘N...no. The voices, in my head. They...they tell me. They always tell me...things. They warn me. I...I trust them.’

  ‘And who are the voices? Where are they coming from? How do you know you can trust them? Maybe they just don’t like the Vorlons very much. Just because the Vorlons have upset the voices in your head doesn’t mean the Vorlons are all bad. Maybe it’s just a personal grudge.’ The stutter in Corwin’s voice made Sheridan think that perhaps he was getting through. The young man was certainly looking more confused now than when Sheridan first entered the room. ‘Tell me, David. Who are the voices in your head?’

  ‘I...I don’t know. They’re just voices. They tell me things. Things I should know. They warn me when there’s danger. They warned me about the Vorlons. Told me I had to call their friends who would come and get rid of the Vorlon.’

  ‘And that’s what you’re trying to do now, is it? Warn the friends of the voices? Why did it have to be done in secret? If the Vorlons are bad why not just tell me? Prove it to me and I’ll help you make the call.’

  ‘You won’t believe me. You already believe the Vorlon.’

  ‘I’m here aren’t I? I’m talking to you. I’m ready to hear what you’ve got to say. I’ve got all the time in the world to listen.' Sheridan fought down the voice in his own head that reminded him he only had as long as it took the Mistral to find them. 'So come on, David, tell me. If there’s a threat to this ship I need to know about it.’ Sheridan watched Corwin carefully. The lieutenant seemed to be struggling with himself. He muttered and shook his head as though involved in an argument. Sheridan leaned against a nearby support strut and folded his arms waiting to see if Corwin could come to some arrangement with the voices. When the argument failed to resolve itself quickly Sheridan tried another tack. ‘What’s wrong, David? Is the creature on your shoulder stopping you from talking to me?’

  Corwin looked up sharply. ‘What are you talking about?’

  Sheridan pointed. ‘On your shoulder. There’s a parasite there. Didn’t you know? It’s been living on you long enough to control you.’

  Corwin glanced at his shoulder and shook his head. ‘No. You’re lying,' he said vehemently. 'There’s nothing there.’

  ‘Oh, you can’t see it normally. Clever, whatever it is. It showed up on one of the medical scans you went through. It’s why we can’t remove that booby-trapped hand of yours. I can have the lab send up a picture if you want.’ Sheridan went to tap his link.

  ‘N...NO! You’re LYING!’ Corwin was shouting. Sheridan shook his head.

  ‘Nope. I’ve seen it. Now if it’s telling you the truth, the very least it should do is show itself, don’t you think? Or maybe it can’t because it’s the one who’s lying. Go on, David. Make the voices show themselves. Make them prove themselves.’

  There was another pause while another internal debate raged inside Corwin. This time the debate was so intense that Corwin began to double over struggling to resolve the conflict. Seeing this, Sheridan decided it was safe to try to edge forward once more. But as soon as he did so Corwin suddenly snapped upright and stared not so much at him as through him. Sheridan gave an involuntary shudder. It was the most inhuman look he’d ever seen. Almost as if the young man had died years before and this was only an animated shell. Then Sheridan’s eyes were drawn to a strange blurring on Corwin’s shoulder. As he watched, tendrils shimmered into being. They crawled and slithered over Corwin’s shoulder and chest, waving at Sheridan like some demented spider as the rest of the creature slowly appeared. A grey bulk, about the size of a fist, was revealed. It was fascinating to watch, but only in the way one watches some terrible accident in progress which one cannot avert. Sheridan stared in horrified fascination, then he edged forward to take a closer look, keeping his hands raised in as non-threatening a gesture as he could manage. He swallowed the bile which had risen to his mouth and leaned forward.

  And the single eye snapped open and glared at him. Immediately Sheridan’s forward momentum was halted and he took a step backwards, instinctively trying to move away from the horror that had presented itself.

  As he watched the tentacles slowly unhooked themselves, drawing long and bloody rapier-like tendrils out of the body of their host. Rippling movement under Corwin’s skin revealed their passage as they pulled away. When the last impossibly long tendril withdrew itself, it’s path indicating it had been buried deep within its host’s brain, Corwin sagged. Sheridan moved to catch him but as he did so the creature suddenly leapt towards Sheridan with astonishing speed and the Captain found himself backing away as fast as he could as the ungainly creature landed on the floor and hurried to reach its new target.

  Activating his link Sheridan fumbled for his PPG. ‘Commander! Get in here FAST!’ He didn’t dare take his eyes off the thing, but not being able to see where he was going he stumbled. As he struggled to right himself his PPG, its clip released in anticipation of use, slipped from its case and clattered to the floor. He reached for it but the creature was already there. He snatched his hand away and continued to back off, looking over his shoulder briefly to try and see an escape route. ‘COMMANDER! SUSAN! For god’s sake get in here!’

  Hydroponics aboard the Telemarchus used a system in which the plants were suspended from racks below which were narrow reservoirs of water. The racks and the reservoir were situated on two levels: one on the ground and the other around chest height. They ran in rows and it was between two of these that Sheridan was now being forced. There was nothing heavy Sheridan could throw at the creature and while he did grab handfuls of the plants and hurled them as hard as he could to try and impede its progress it simply emerged from the other side of the tangled mess and kept going. It had a single aim: to find and merge with a new host. The old one had been revealed as having insufficient power for its creators and so had been abandoned. The host it was chasing had been identified as ideal and the creature would continue in its single-minded purpose until that host was captured or dead.

  Sheridan turned in the narrow space between the racks in an effort to put more distance between himself and the creature. But the slight pause was all it needed and it caught his ankle and began to scuttle up his body seeking purchase in its favourite and most efficient spot.

  Sheridan pulled at the tendrils, trying to drag them off him. He managed to break one off and it writhed in his fingers before he dropped it to the floor in disgust and took hold of another that was sliding across his chest.

  Ivanova appeared, her PPG in hand. She’d had to struggle with a lock that had unaccountably seized immediately after Sheridan had entered the room. Now she saw him fighting with what appeared to be an over-sized spider that was making concerted efforts to stab him with its ungainly and multi-jointed limbs.

  ‘Kill it! For god’s sake kill it!’

  ‘I can’t shoot it!’ she yelled. ‘I’ll shoot you!’

  ‘Stun it then. I don’t care. Just get this thing off me!’

  She re-calibrated the PPG and aimed a shot at the centre of the creature but it kept moving.

  ‘SHOOT IT!’ Sheridan’s cries were growing desperate. The creature seemed to be sprouting more and more tendrils. Like the hydra, as Sheridan pulled one free another took its place, and he was finding it hard to keep up with its constant stabs towards him from so many sources.

  Ivanova let off a shot. Somehow the creature managed to avoid the blast and Sheridan received the full force of it instead. Stunned, he lost his balance and fell, landing with a sickening crack. The creature seized its opportunity and raised one foreleg above Sheridan’s neck. In the pause before it struck Ivanova let off a second shot and a third, both of which hit the creature squarely in its body.

  The shots jolted the creature from its purchase. Immediately Ivanova aimed and fired once more. The blast blew the rest of it from Sheridan’s body. It was still moving, though it was clearly disorientated. Ivanova shook her head, amazed at the creature's resilience. Quickly thumbing the setting to kill she took careful aim (for the creature was still uncomfortably close to the Captain) and fired, blowing it apart.

  A few pieces rained down and Ivanova rushed forward to make sure they were inert. Some still writhed even though they were no longer connected to the body. They wriggled and dragged their smoking ends towards Sheridan's prone form. Sickened, Ivanova kicked them into a pile and cremated them with the PPG. When she was sure the creature was dead she tapped her link.

  ‘Ivanova to Medical. I need a trauma team in Hydroponics ASAP. The Captain is down.’

  ‘On our way,’ came the voice from the link.

  Ivanova knelt beside Sheridan and reached under his jaw to find his pulse. ‘Captain? John? Come on.’ Conscious of the sound she had heard as he hit the floor she carefully prised open an eyelid but there was no response. She felt his neck fearing a break, and then saw a stain of blood on the floor and felt the wetness on her hand. He was bleeding heavily from a cut on the back of his head and there was every evidence of concussion. Fearing further injury she placed her hands either side of his head to hold it still and waited for medical to arrive, watching the blood slowly pool around her fingers. The wait seemed interminable but, at last, with a loud crash the trauma team entered hydroponics.

  ‘Commander?’

  ‘Over here! Quickly!’

  The gurney was not really designed to fit between the rows of plants but they managed it. Immobilising his neck and placing a compress over the gash they lifted him carefully onto the gurney and rushed him back to medical.

  A scan revealed a hairline fracture but nothing more. The gash was sutured and Ivanova stood by waiting for Sheridan to regain consciousness. As she waited a body bag containing Corwin was brought in. Franklin, his face showing the puffiness of interrupted sleep, followed it.

  ‘Is it safe?’ asked Ivanova.

  Franklin knew what she was referring to and nodded, calling up the schematics Kosh had been examining earlier. A code was at the bottom. Franklin tapped the screen. ‘Kosh found the code. Another second and...‘ Franklin raised his hands to indicate the devastation the explosion would have caused.

  ‘Can you remove it?’

  ‘Yeah, I think so. The connections are straightforward now that parasite’s gone. Most of the neural connections were severed when it left. That’s what killed him. It was the only thing connecting his brain to most of the rest of his body.’

  ‘Then cut the hand off him.’

  ‘What? Why?’

  ‘Because when we bury him I want him to leave that nightmare behind.’

  Franklin was about to point out that Corwin would not know the difference but he changed his mind and nodded, ordering the tools he would need.

  ‘Make it a clean job, Stephen.’ Ivanova fought to control her tears but her voice still caught in her throat. She'd liked Corwin. It was an ignominious end to a young man who had known too much pain in his life. She was determined he would carry no vestige of that pain into the grave and whatever afterlife the universe would allow.

  ‘I will.’ He followed Corwin’s corpse around to another cubicle and, when he reappeared, he held a bag, the outlines of the hand stretching the black plastic. ‘I’ve sealed it up. It’s just him now.’ Ivanova nodded. ‘What do you want me to do with this?’

  ‘Can you deactivate it or change the code?’

  ‘Yeah, I think so. Thanks to Kosh. Why?’

  ‘It’s a weapon. You never know, we might need it before this is over.‘

  Franklin stared and then shook his head. Ivanova's pragmatism could be a little hard to swallow sometimes. He handed the bag over to an orderly. ‘See to it that Dr Watkins gets this when she comes back on shift and tell her to change the code. The information she needs is in the data file.’

  ‘Yes doctor.’ The orderly left with his gruesome load.

  A groan from Sheridan’s bed drew their attention back to the living and Franklin hurried over to prevent Sheridan from sitting up too quickly. ‘Woah! Steady there, Captain. You’ve had a nasty crack on the back of your head and some mild concussion. Don’t get up too quick or your breakfast‘ll come straight back at you.’

  Sheridan growled. ‘I haven’t had any breakfast!’ He reached back to feel the lump. ‘Ouch! Jeez, what happened?’

  ‘That thing on Corwin’s neck decided to find a new host. You told me to shoot it.... I missed.’ Ivanova was covering her embarrassment and fear by stating the facts as baldly as possible. ‘When you went down you hit your head.’

  Sheridan nodded carefully, but the movement still caused him to wince. ‘What took you so long?’

  ‘The lock jammed. We had to shoot our way in.’

  ‘Is there enough of the lock left to check whether it was an accident?’

  ‘It’s being checked now. I suspect Corwin had tampered with it. That...whatever it was, that ‘piece of a Drakh’ probably told him to so it’d have time to infect someone else if he failed.’

  ‘Nearly succeeded. How long have I been out?’

  ‘Not too long. The stun probably helped to keep you out longer than...'Suddenly she couldn't keep up the facade any longer. 'Jeez, John. I’m sorry! ‘ She raised her hands in defeat and let them drop to her sides.

  ‘Not your fault,' he smiled, and then his face took on a more serious look. 'You killed it, didn’t you?’

  She nodded. ‘They’ve scraped up whatever fragments they could to try and find out some more about the thing. It’s in a jar in the labs.’

  Sheridan grunted and then turned back to Franklin. ‘How soon before I can leave here?’

  ‘You *should* stay for observation for 24 hours but I know you won’t do that. Scans don't reveal any internal damage. Just hang on a little until the dizziness and nausea passes.’

  ‘Any sign of the Mistral?’

  Ivanova shook her head, now feeling on more solid ground. ‘Nothing so far. Your gamble seems to be paying off.’

  ‘Kosh’ll probably know before we do. I’ll make sure he tells us.’

  ‘This had better work, John.’ Ivanova didn’t hide her scepticism.

  Sheridan smiled. ‘It’ll work.’ But as Ivanova looked into his eyes she could see that deep down he wasn’t as convinced as he sounded.

  *****

  Sheridan tried to leave the medical facility an hour later and the orderly ended up clearing up the mess as his stomach rebelled. The next time he tried he was more circumspect but it appeared his brain had settled down enough to cope. Franklin, satisfied there would be no residual effects, gave him some pain killers for the thumping headache and Sheridan arrived in his office sporting a bandage and feeling rather more prepared to face the coming storm.

  As he pored over some papers he suddenly realised he was not alone. Looking up he saw Kosh had entered and was watching him.

  ‘I wish you wouldn’t do that.’ Sheridan muttered as he put down the flimsy he’d been reading.

  Kosh remained silent, his ‘head’ cocked to one side, the iris pulsating. Sheridan leaned on his desk and stared straight back.

  ‘Can I ask you a question?’ There was no response from the translator on Kosh’s suit so Sheridan took that as a yes. ‘All that stuff you showed me. Did you show the same thing to Ivanova?’

  ‘Yes.’

  Sheridan considered all he’d seen. ‘And this is what things *would* have been like if the Warrior Caste Satai had accepted Sinclair as Valen?’ Kosh remained silent. Sheridan shook his head. ‘I’m not sure I can handle this. I mean, that’s quite a story you told. Does Delenn know about it?’

  ‘No.’

  ‘Are you going to tell her?’

  ‘You must decide the future that is.’

  ‘You mean *I’m* supposed to tell her? Forget it!’ Sheridan leaned back, contemplating the image of Delenn that Kosh had put into his mind as it wafted before his memory. And then there was the man he had been in that other universe. Was it so much better? Kosh had not been able to tell him the end of the story, but he had enough to know that his end was far closer there. He considered that thought. In this universe his end might be tomorrow! Still, at least here he didn’t know for sure. Knowing how long he had left -- that didn’t appeal very much. From what he had seen his other self had coped, but he hadn’t been entirely fooled. Sheridan knew his ways of covering his feelings. Who better? And his other self had not been happy. But that Sheridan’s sadness had not been so much for himself as for his soon-to-be wife, Delenn. He shook his head. Too much, and downright weird. Still, she *had* looked different. He could understand the attraction. But her looks had only been a part of it. Was the Delenn in this universe anything like that other Delenn? They had the same background until the Battle of the Line, but then, so did he, and he didn’t recognise much of himself in the other Sheridan. Anyway, he was in love with Susan, wasn’t he? He shied away from the doubt. Was it so hard to say? Or was she just a dalliance? No! He wouldn’t take that. There was more to their relationship than that. And then there was that Ranger or whatever they were called, Marcus. What was he? Did he even exist in this universe? If they came across him would he be anything like the man Kosh had shown him? He realised that he would be having a long talk with Ivanova as soon as circumstances allowed. As for the whole stuff about the Vorlons and the Shadows...

  Sheridan looked up. ‘Why did you tell me that? Why did you admit we threw you out?’

  ‘Our time is past.’

  ‘So you’re saying you agree with this ‘Lorien’ creature you showed me? I bet you're popular on your home world.’

  Kosh remained silent, but there was a hint of sadness that Sheridan could almost feel. He looked curiously at the Vorlon. ‘You’re an outcast, aren’t you?’ Still the silence. ‘Can you still help us? I mean, if you’re alone...’

  ‘The artist paints with many colours.’

  Sheridan sighed. ‘Your translator needs a translator,’ he muttered.

  ‘You will understand, in time. I will teach you.’

  It was the longest clear sentence Sheridan thought he had ever heard from the Vorlon and he sat up. ‘Teach me what? About you?’

  ‘How to fight legends.’

  ‘Legends like the Vorlons and the Shadows huh? You’re giving me the tools to destroy you, Kosh. You’re even helping me.’

  ‘It is time.’

  Sheridan stared at his desk contemplating the Vorlon’s words. Then the translator’s music filled the room again.

  ‘Sheridan. It is time.’ There was an urgency Sheridan had not heard before. He looked up and realised that this time Kosh was not talking about the other world or a future that might never be. He was talking about the Mistral.

  ‘How long have we got? Can I send out the message?’

  ‘Yes.’

  Sheridan tapped the communications link on his desk. ‘Sheridan to Ivanova.’

  ‘Ivanova here.’

  ‘Send a message to Minbari High Command. Tell them we’re still waiting for instructions.’

  ‘Understood.’

  Sheridan heard the tension in Ivanova’s voice. He didn’t want to see the looks on the faces of the command crew when they learned who they’d been waiting for. The console bleeped again.

  ‘Message sent. High Command says the Mistral is on its way. They sounded slightly put out.’ There was grim humour in her voice.

  ‘I bet. All right, here we go. I’m coming up to the command deck.’ He looked up to ask Kosh to do his part but as he did so the link beeped again.

  ‘Captain, the Vorlon ship is moving away.’

  ‘Understood.’ He turned to Kosh. ‘I hope you’re right about this.‘ He stood up, straightened his jacket, and indicated the Vorlon was to precede him out of the door. Kosh glided out, his massive bulk barely clearing the sides of the doorway.

  As Sheridan followed his thoughts strayed once more to the images he had seen. Then he shook himself and looked up. He couldn’t afford to be distracted right now. Those were for another time. He bent his mind to the upcoming meeting.

  *****

  As the Mistral appeared through the hyperspace jump gate Sheridan steeled himself for the hail. It was not long in coming.

  ‘Captain Sheridan. I am Alyt Lennier. We are coming alongside.’

  ‘Very good,’ Sheridan bowed to the image, maintaining the illusion that all was well with the Telemarchus. ‘We have been waiting for you.’ He was careful with his language. The Minbari were prone to a more formal speech than Humans and those who worked for the Minbari tended to use the Minbari forms, even in private. Since his release from the drugs Sheridan had noticed his old speech habits returning. He couldn't afford to give himself away through carelessness. Formality would save all their lives.

  Lennier stepped aside and a man, his head shaved and with piercing blue eyes, stared out of the viewer. Garibaldi.

  ‘Your ship is sending out inaccurate signals, Captain. Open communications channels. I want to check your system.’

  ‘We have?’ Sheridan signalled for all communications channels to be opened and watched the boards light up as the scans from the other ship went through his computer. He felt mildly violated but quickly smothered the feeling. He was a loyal captain of a loyal ship acceding to the demands of his superiors. His was not to wonder or question, and certainly not to feel violated by an understandable response from a superior officer. Despite his rationalisations, however, the feeling remained and he covered it by emphasising his co-operation. ‘I do not understand, but I will get to the bottom of it. My apologies if this has caused you concern.’

  ‘You will wait until I have finished my scan. Garibaldi out.’ The screen went dead.

  Sheridan looked around at the crew. Several had paled when they saw the Mistral. More colour had drained from their cheeks when they saw their worst fears confirmed in the form of Garibaldi. Sheridan nodded.

  ‘Stay calm, people. We’re where we were supposed to be. Just do your jobs.’ He projected more calm than he felt but he was relieved to see many smile, albeit half-heartedly, and return to their tasks without further comment. They trusted him. Now he had to prove himself worthy of that trust. Whether he would or not depended on Kosh.

  *****

  The minutes and then the hours ticked by. As Sheridan had predicted the scan took some time to complete. While they waited Sheridan tried to go over more reports but he was distracted and ended up pacing C&C. Images kept flashing through his head. Worries about the Mistral and images of the other universe blurred until his head began to swim. Looking up he saw Ivanova frowning at him. She, too, was nervous, but she was doing a better job than him at covering it. He tried to pass off his worries with a lopsided grin but she shook her head and indicated the door. When they were both outside Ivanova looked at him hard.

  'This isn't just about the Mistral, and you're making the crew jumpy. What's wrong?'

  'Kosh.'

  'Ahh.' She nodded and smiled. 'We can talk about it later. It's another world, John. It's not this one.'

  He frowned. 'Do you wish it were?'

  'I'd've liked the war to have ended at the Battle of the Line with a Minbari surrender but otherwise...' she considered the question. 'On the whole, no. Do you?' She raised an eyebrow as she sensed conflicting emotions inside him.

  'I wonder if there's a universe out there where everything worked out good all round. That world, this world, they're as bad and as good as each other.' He sighed. 'A little peace. It'd be nice.'

  'You'd be bored out of your mind!' She laughed at his rueful chuckle and then turned serious once more. 'But I don't regret us.' She reached up, putting her arms around his neck. He bent to kiss her and what started as a reassuring but brief touch soon deepened. He pulled her into his arms and held her tightly.

  'No. You're right. This is better.'

  They stood there for a while, preparing for what was to come in the comfort of each other's arms. Finally Sheridan gently kissed the top of her head and pulled back.

  'Ready?'

  'Always.'

  He raised an eyebrow and she grinned. 'I meant for the Mistral.'

  'So did I.' But she gave him a wink as she turned back to C&C. Sheridan shook his head and smiled. He could face anything now.

  They hardly had time to take up their positions once more before Garibaldi hailed the ship, the scan having been completed. His message was, as ever, brief. Garibaldi had never been known to waste words in all his years working for the Minbari. It was one of the things about him that made Humans nervous.

  ‘I am coming aboard, Captain. Meet me in the docking bay.’ The screen winked out again before Sheridan had a chance to acknowledge the message. He looked up at Ivanova.

  'In a hurry, isn't he? Do you think we've rattled him?' she asked.

  'I wish.' Sheridan called up the display and watched as a single shuttle emerged from the Mistral and moved towards the Telemarchus. At the halfway point a jump gate opened and the Vorlon ship appeared. There was a collective gasp from the command crew and Sheridan grinned, quietly opening all channels to monitor the traffic. If all went to plan he knew this would boost morale.

  ‘Unidentified ship. You are in Minbari space. State your purpose.’ It was Lennier who spoke. Sheridan nodded to himself. So far so good. The Vorlon ship did not respond and Sheridan waited for the next line. ‘Unidentified ship. You are in violation of Minbari space. State your purpose or prepare to be fired upon.’ Still nothing. The next message was predictable enough. ‘Captain Sheridan, bring your weapons on line and aim at the alien ship.’

  ‘Yes sir.’ While Lennier was technically the same rank, as a Minbari he automatically outranked Sheridan at the same level. It was therefore his duty to defer to the Minbari and he obeyed without hesitation. The shuttle was closer to the Telemarchus than the Mistral and its pilot was straining the engines to cover the intervening distance as fast as possible. As Sheridan watched the Vorlon ship closed and then, suddenly, the shuttle disappeared. Before Lennier could call for Sheridan to fire the Vorlon ship opened a jump gate and disappeared. As per the plan Sheridan promptly hailed Lennier. ‘What was that? Where’s the shuttle?’ He hoped he was convincing. If he wasn't the game was up.

  ‘It has disappeared from our sensors. Have you anything at that end?’

  ‘The alien ship got close to the shuttle and then, as you say, it disappeared. I think it may have taken it, or destroyed it, but there is no wreckage. Who was aboard?’

  ‘Security officer Garibaldi and his aide, Crysar.’

  Sheridan’s heart skipped a beat. Both in one swoop! Better than he could have dreamed! He hoped his expression didn't betray him. ‘I cannot find the alien ship on my sensors, Alyt Lennier. You?’

  ‘Nothing. I am coming aboard.’

  ‘Is that wise? I mean, it happened once already...’ Sheridan left the rest of the sentence hanging. The implication was clear. Delenn, who had been monitoring the situation, now linked in.

  ‘Captain. I will deal with this. Alyt Lennier.’ She bowed to Lennier who responded in kind. ‘It is good to see you, although the circumstances are unfortunate. I think you should close the distance between our ships. It would give the alien less room to manoeuvre should he return while you are in transit. I agree that we need to talk. I will meet you in the docking bay.’ She paused and then added, 'May Valen bless your house.'

  Sheridan was sure he heard Lennier take a sharp breath but the Minbari's face remained still and he bowed once more. Delenn responded before the link was severed. Sheridan left C&C to join her in the docking bay.

  'What was all that about Valen? I swear Lennier was surprised you said that.'

  'It is a sort of code. I was warning him that there is a lot more going on than meets the eye and that preparations for the great war that is to come have begun. He will not be surprised when he comes aboard.'

  'Was that wise? You're sure you can trust him?'

  'With my life.'

  'Yeah, well it's *our* lives I'm rather more worried about, but if you say so.'

  Delenn remained calm throughout the docking procedure, a calmness that irritated Sheridan who was finding it impossible to stand still. At one point as he paced Delenn turned and gazed at him. He shrugged but continued his pacing.

  'How are you feeling?' she asked at last.

  'Hmm?'

  She indicated the bandage on his head. He reached up absent-mindedly. 'Oh, that. Fine, fine. Franklin gave me some painkillers for the headache. It'll probably come back and hit me later, but for now...'

  'What happened?' She had not had the chance to be briefed on the events in hydroponics. Sheridan looked over her shoulder and saw Lennier emerging from his shuttle.

  'Long story. I'll tell you later.' He indicated the air lock and Delenn, with a last questioning glance, pressed the release button and stepped in to the docking bay.

*****

Part 14

  'Delenn.' Lennier was formal, but Sheridan could hear a happy note behind Lennier's facade. As Delenn reached the Alyt she pressed her hand to his chest and bowed, a gesture he returned. There was obviously something between these two and Sheridan felt oddly left out. He wished Ivanova was at his side, but she was still up in C&C keeping an eye on the Mistral.

  Delenn turned and indicated Sheridan. Lennier bowed and Sheridan returned the compliment, though not as deeply. Lennier cocked his head at the minor breach of protocol and Delenn stepped into the breach.

  'Lennier, Captain Sheridan and this ship are no longer under Minbari control.'

  Sheridan felt his heart give a startling thump. Chalk one up to Delenn for sheer bluntness! Yet Lennier only nodded, sparing Sheridan a look before turning his attention completely to Delenn.

  'You think that wise?'

  'It is time, Lennier. It is almost too late. Our enemies grow stronger every day.'

  Lennier smiled tenderly at her and Sheridan looked away. 'At least they are not barbarians. You are all right.'

  'Captain Sheridan is an honourable man.'

  Sheridan turned back to see Lennier looking at him carefully. 'And you, Captain. Do you understand what is to come, or do you act merely from a wish to free your people from our dominion?'

  Sheridan drew himself up. 'I'll not deny that my first wish is to free the people of Earth. But if what Delenn says is true, we'd be foolish not to help.'

  'Minbari do not lie, Captain. It is dishonourable, and Delenn is nothing if not honourable.' There was a hint of challenge in his voice.

  Sheridan would not be cowed and rose to the challenge. 'Among yourselves I'm sure that's so. But you can't deny the Minbari have been lying to us since the day you took over our planet.'

  'Do you not lie to your own children to keep them happy or protect them?'

  Sheridan bristled at the patronising tone but managed to contain his anger. 'We're not children, Alyt Lennier.'

  'My apologies, Captain. The Minbari are an ancient race. We were building mighty temples and cities before your race learned to walk upright. Against us most of the races in the universe are children.'

  'Perhaps. But we are not YOUR children. The time for lies is over.' Sheridan allowed his anger to creep into his voice.

  Lennier was undaunted and waved it aside. 'As you say. I look forward to your proving this to me in due course.' His gaze slipped from Sheridan as if the Human were a piece of vaguely interesting flotsam that had now been identified and was no longer considered of value, and he bent his whole attention to Delenn. 'Your message warned me of changes, Delenn. What has been happening here?'

  Delenn noticed Lennier's dismissal of Sheridan and could see the latter's barely controlled fury. Smiling inwardly at the effectiveness of Lennier's tactic she also understood the need to make these two get along for the sake of the future. 'Much is due to Captain Sheridan's work, and that of his officers here.' She bowed to Sheridan who returned the gesture fully while remaining tight lipped. Lennier turned back to Sheridan, curiosity plain on his face.

  'Apparently you have hidden depths, Captain.'

  'You have no idea.' Sheridan gave a smile that had nothing to do with humour.

  'Hmm.' He turned back to Delenn. 'I take it that was a Vorlon ship I saw earlier?'

  Delenn nodded. 'We could not afford to have Mr Garibaldi or Crysar aboard until your ship was secure.'

  'Most especially Crysar I would have thought.'

  'As you say. Kosh will bring them back when we are ready.'

  'Kosh? He is here?' Delenn nodded. 'Apparently the wheel has turned faster than I thought. How did you free the ship?'

  'Again, Captain Sheridan's officers found the cure. I merely provided a conduit.'

  Sheridan smiled grimly at Delenn's repeated attempts to make Lennier notice him. As Lennier turned once more and graced Sheridan with a longer appraisal Sheridan held his gaze.

  'I see. Captain, you have a champion in Delenn, and she does not give her support lightly. If she believes you are worthy of my attention, as she evidently does, then I bow to her judgement. We have much to discuss. Come. I would rather we discussed this in a less open area. Would your quarters be acceptable?'

  Surprised by the Alyt's sudden change of humour Sheridan merely nodded mutely.

  'Good. I know the way.' And he marched towards the airlock without looking back, Sheridan and Delenn following along behind.

  'Um, Delenn?' Sheridan muttered when he felt Lennier was sufficiently out of ear shot.

  'Yes Captain?' Delenn wasn't looking at Sheridan but she turned when he didn't respond immediately. 'Yes?'

  'I don't understand. I mean, what's going on here? He's, well he's....' Sheridan waved his hand over the back of his head 'His head crest indicates Religious Caste, yet he's an Alyt. I thought that was Warrior territory only?'

  Delenn nodded. 'Lennier was born Religious Caste. After our...' she paused, evidently finding the words distasteful, '...after we subdued your planet Lennier decided his path lay more with the Warrior Caste. He has done well in so short a time.'

  'And are you and he...?'

  Delenn looked at him sharply. 'That is none of your concern, Captain.'

  'I disagree. If my relationships are of concern to you...'

  'This is hardly the same thing!'

  'Isn't it?' Sheridan stopped in the corridor and looked at her. 'Are you so sure?' He looked into her eyes and waited. Finally she relaxed.

  'Very well. In answer to your question, we have begun the ceremonies.'

  Sheridan grunted. 'As long as we all know where we stand.' They finished the walk to his quarters in silence, but Sheridan glanced at her from time to time and was secretly pleased to see she was feeling slightly uncomfortable. //Now you know how *I* felt!// he thought to himself. She looked up and he smiled. 'Just thinking, Delenn. Lennier will make an interesting ally.' Delenn looked hard at him but the smile remained fixed in place. Finally she frowned and looked away. His smile widened. //Got her!//

  When they reached his quarters Lennier was already waiting for them. He eyed them briefly as Sheridan unlocked the door and then indicated that Delenn should precede him. When Sheridan went to follow Lennier calmly interposed himself and went in first. Sheridan grunted quietly under his breath but held his tongue. This warrior was going to be an ally. He couldn't afford to lose his cool with him just yet. Later, perhaps.

  Lennier had calmly seated himself in Sheridan's favourite chair and John was forced to settle for leaning on the counter. Anything but admit the warrior was getting to him. Delenn sat down in her usual spot and arranged her clothes around her. Sheridan reached into the cupboard and pulled out a bottle of whiskey and a glass. Lennier frowned.

  'Do you mean to insult me, Captain?'

  'No more than you're doing to me.'

  Delenn raised her hands. 'Enough. This posturing will get us no where. Lennier,' she turned to the Minbari, 'despite his ulterior motives, I think the Captain was intending to make a point. Captain?'

  Sheridan looked at the glass in his hand briefly and then put it back on the table top, nodding. 'OK. The cure for the drugs your people put into our food and water is spread through the ship using alcohol.'

  Lennier started. 'Delenn? Are you...?'

  'It is all right, Lennier. Captain Sheridan ensured my safety before the antidote was released.'

  'Not to mention that of my crew,' Sheridan muttered. Looking up he added, 'A homicidal Minbari is hardly something I want aboard my ship, Alyt Lennier, as I'm sure you appreciate. But Delenn is too important to risk. You needn't worry. For the time being she's in safe hands with me.'

  'For the time being...?'

  'I'm sure you'll want her aboard your ship in due course. And the time will come when Earth ships will only have Earth personnel aboard.'

  'You over-reach yourself, Captain. Or perhaps you forget how much of your fleet is a result of Minbari technology. I wonder if you could manage without us. I wonder that you ever did.'

  'All right. That's ENOUGH!' Sheridan slammed the bottle down on the table and stood up. 'This is MY ship, Alyt Lennier. I'll not be insulted in my own quarters aboard my own ship. If you've got a problem with me, then fine. Let's sort it out here and now. Otherwise, let's quit with this bullshit and start working together.' Sheridan braced himself for the response. Lennier stiffened and then felt Delenn's gentle touch on his hand. Looking down his eyes moved up her arm to her face. She smiled and nodded. He relaxed.

  'Very well, Captain. I...apologise. And you're right. This is for another time. We have more important matters to discuss. Mr Garibaldi...'

  '...Is presently being held in stasis aboard the Vorlon ship. He can be held there as long as required together with his telepathic friend, or so Kosh informs me. The question is, do we want them both to be returned?' He leaned back again. 'What do you know about Mr Garibaldi? I mean, before he was brainwashed?'

  'He was a soldier, Captain. I believe you call them 'ground beaters'?'

  'Ground pounders, yes. And?'

  'He fought for Earth. He was caught during our initial assault I believe. Most of his battalion surrendered but Mr Garibaldi refused to. He was eventually subdued. We recognise courage when we see it, Captain. And resourcefulness. We knew we could use it to our, uh, advantage. During reprogramming I believe they discovered he had some natural talents in the areas covered by security. Covert operations and the like. We merely fine tuned those abilities and turned them to our needs. Once he is released I believe he may make an excellent ally.' He paused, 'There is one slight problem, however.'

  'Which is?'

  'Mr Garibaldi has an allergic reaction to alcohol. His body seems to be chemically incapable of dealing with the substance, yet there was evidence of his regularly imbibing it, and to the considerable detriment of his system. I do not know what it does to him, our medical tests merely revealed the anomaly.'

  Sheridan sighed. 'Great! You mean he's an alcoholic?'

  'If that is your term.'

  Sheridan tapped his link. 'Sheridan to C&C. Where's....' The door chime bleeped and Sheridan looked up. 'Enter.' The door opened to reveal Kosh. Sheridan sighed. 'Never mind, C&C. Sheridan out. Come in Kosh.' How in the world the Vorlon knew he wanted to talk to it Sheridan had no idea. A subject for another time, perhaps. 'Excellent timing as ever. Kosh, this is Alyt Lennier.'

  Lennier stood and bowed to the Vorlon. Kosh inclined his 'head' in return. Delenn remained seated but nodded in deference. Kosh moved further into the room and the door slid shut.

  'So,' Sheridan resumed. 'We now have two problems: how to release Mr Garibaldi without sending him on a bender, and what to do with Crysar.'

  'If I understand Dr Franklin correctly, the alcohol was merely the method of disemination. It may well be the drug can be directly injected into the system without it.'

  Sheridan nodded at Delenn's comment. 'So as long as he's delivered here without incident we should be all right. Now what of Crysar?'

  'He is loyal to the Minbari, Captain. He cannot be changed. It would be a violation of his honour. He has sworn an oath to root out Human insurrection.'

  'But if we explained that this is as much to your advantage as to ours?'

  This time it was Lennier who shook his head. 'Delenn is correct, Captain. Crysar is excellent at what he does because he has a closed mind. There are no exceptions -- no grey area. Merely black or white. I have seen him and listened to him. I assure you I know him well.'

  Sheridan noticed the look on Lennier's face as he spoke the words. Even the Warrior was disturbed by Crysar it seemed. Sheridan wondered what had transpired between these people to make Lennier so uncomfortable, but he knew Lennier would not offer the information. Something more for him to investigate when he had the time. He looked from Lennier to Delenn and back again. 'So what does that mean?' he said at last.

  'It means, Captain, that Crysar cannot be allowed to live,' Lennier sighed. 'He would destroy us all. But he is Minbari, and Minbari do not kill Minbari.'

  'So who...?'

  'It is done,' said Kosh simply. Delenn gasped, and out in the whirling red of hyperspace the Vorlon ship ejected the sleeping body of a Minbari.

  Sheridan stared. 'Just like that? You snuff out a life so simply? How..?'

  'It is done,' Kosh repeated and went silent. Delenn stood as Sheridan advanced on the Vorlon and interposed herself between Sheridan's fury and Kosh's implacable encounter suit.

  'Captain. Kosh is right. We cannot risk being caught so early. I weep for the loss of a soul...' She paused and Sheridan saw tears sparkling in her eyes. For a moment he saw a flash of another world, another Delenn, weeping in his arms at the loss of a child, a being, an entire race. He felt himself move towards her, only to be forestalled by Lennier who stood and put his hands protectively and lovingly on her shoulders. Sheridan took a step back and shook himself as Delenn reached up to touch Lennier's hand and smile sadly at him.

  She cleared her throat and looked back at Sheridan. 'But he will be reborn in another life. I would rather that than mourn the loss of the future and any hope any of us has of a better life.'

  Sheridan was still stunned. 'But you just don't do that. You can't kill someone with just a thought! It's...it's...' He was going to say inhuman but the word was hardly appropriate. These were aliens and they dealt with their problems in a totally different way. So coldly efficient. No wonder the human race had had such trouble defeating them. He shook his head. So very different. Could the alliance they were building withstand such differences? He looked at his companions. It would have to, he decided. For now, at least. He reinforced his mental note to look up the full report of Crysar's activities at a later date. Something didn't feel right. 'Very well,' he said at last. 'And what of your ship, Alyt?'

  'You have the antidote here? Enough to effect the change?'

  'We do.'

  'Then have your crew put it in my shuttle. I will do the rest.' He paused and looked at Delenn and then turned back to Sheridan. 'I believe it would be useful if some of your crew could be aboard to oversee the change. With your permission, I will return to the Telemarchus once I have prepared for the release and remain here with Delenn. Is this acceptable to you, Captain?' Sheridan looked distrustfully at Lennier and Delenn. Lennier noted the look and nodded. 'I understand your concern, Captain. I assure you the Mistral is my ship and I will return to her once she has been made safe. I have no wish to steal your command.'

  'All right,' Sheridan said slowly. 'Kosh, can you hang on to Garibaldi until we've done what we have to?' Kosh nodded. 'Then perhaps we should get started. Alyt?' He indicated the door.

  'Could I have a few moments with Delenn in private first, Captain? I will come to the shuttle when you are ready.'

  Sheridan nodded and tapped his link. 'Sheridan to Franklin.'

  'Franklin here.'

  'Bring the antidote to the docking bay. You know what it's for.'

  'Understood.'

  'Sheridan to Ivanova.'

  'Ivanova here.'

  'I'm leaving you in charge of the Telemarchus until I get back. I'm going over to the Mistral. I want you to pick out some people to accompany me. At least three telepaths and the best officers for co-ordinating the release of the Mistral. Alyt Lennier will return to the Telemarchus during the exercise. I expect you to see to it that the crew treats him as they would Delenn.'

  'Understood.'

  'And when I get back, we'll talk,' he added. Lennier looked up but said nothing. Delenn looked curiously at the Captain.

  'I'll be here. Ivanova out.'

  'Talk?' Delenn asked.

  'Another matter. Private,' he added as Delenn began to form another question. Delenn nodded and turned back to Lennier.

  'You can use my quarters until I get back. After that I'll need them. It'll take a few hours to settle things down on the Mistral. I'll contact you when everything's ready. Alyt,' he bowed to Lennier. 'I'll meet you in the docking bay in half an hour.'

  'I will be there.'

  Sheridan nodded and left. Kosh hesitated for a moment before bowing and following the Captain.

  When the door had hissed shut Lennier turned Delenn in his arms and kissed her. 'I have missed you.'

  'And I you, Lennier. I have been too long alone.'

  'Captain Sheridan seems a good man. For a Human.'

  'He is, and do not underestimate the Humans. They will save us all.'

  'Or damn us.'

  'It is a risk we must take. I trust him.'

  Lennier smiled. 'Then I do as well. I have never known your trust to be misplaced, Delenn. But why did you pick him, of all the Humans? He is, after all, Starkiller, and we both had relatives on the Dralafi.'

  'I studied his records. He is a good man, an honest man and a skilled tactician. On our world he would be a great warrior.'

  Lennier frowned. 'I hope you do not expect us to make him an honourable member of the caste, Delenn.'

  'Of course not. But he is what he is, no matter whether the castes recognise it. But he is a strange mixture. On the surface he is Warrior Caste. Inside I am not so sure. I sense more to him.' She frowned and then shook her head. 'It is of no matter. What matters is that you are here with me once more.' She pressed his hand to her cheek and he gently stroked down her jaw and then pulled her forward to kiss the side of her bonecrest. She shuddered at the touch as it sent fires through her body.

  'Soon my love. Soon we will face the last ritual. Are you ready?'

  'I am. I think, perhaps, we should move sooner rather than later. We do not know what the future will bring. I can face it better knowing you are with me heart and soul.' She reached up and gently stroked the deep scar on the side of his face, a record of another battle. 'This has healed well.'

  'You do not think I look too like Neroon?'

  She shuddered, and this time the movement was born of hatred rather than passion. 'Do not speak of him. He shames us all. Young Lieutenant Corwin said that Neroon had watched his interrogation and torture. He is not the Warrior I once knew.'

  'No feelings left for him, then?'

  She shook her head vehemently. 'None. Torture is not our way, and to take such apparent pleasure in it...' She paused. 'Let us not talk of such things. We will have to deal with Neroon at some point. I would as soon not think about it until I must.'

  'Then we shall not.' He pulled her into his arms.

  *****

  Kosh paused as he followed Sheridan and the latter sensed a change in the air. He looked back.

  'What's wrong?'

  'They are near.'

  'Who?'

  'Shadows.'

  The name was enough to send a shiver through Sheridan. 'How near?' he asked carefully.

  'Their time is not yet come.' The air cleared. 'They have gone.'

  Sheridan frowned. 'What was that all about?'

  'A problem, perhaps. For the future.'

  'Terrific.' Sheridan straightened his jacket. 'You're sure they've gone?'

  'Yes.'

  'Then let's hope they don't come back before we're ready for them.' Sheridan turned back towards the docking bay. Kosh paused another second and then followed.

  *****

  Out in hyperspace a black ship, its mottled hide moving and glistening in the dull red light, shimmered as it collected a body floating in space and went on its way. Another few seconds and the Minbari would have died. As it was, the body lived, but the soul screamed.

*****

Part 15

  Jason, Peter and Talia were waiting for Sheridan when he arrived at the docking bay. Dr Franklin arrived a few minutes later with two large containers filled with the antidote which the tech crews promptly loaded into Lennier's shuttle. Lieutenant Commander Nabib headed the crew of 8 who would help deal with the crew of the Mistral as they came out of the drug. Once everything was loaded, and while they waited for Lennier, Sheridan turned to the assembled group.

  'OK, we've done this once and it worked out. But this is another ship and a crew we don't know. I'm going to take a look at the crew manifest before we dock. I'll alert you to any potential problems. Alyt Lennier will be our passport through all this. As far as you're concerned, once we're aboard the Mistral what he says, goes. He knows his own ship. Now remember, when we dock you've got to act at all times as though you're still under control. Don't, under any circumstances, drop hints or suggestions to any of the crew about what's going to happen. They'll sell us out as soon as look at us at this stage. And make sure you don't give the game away by your actions or speech either. Just in case there's a mole aboard, watch your thoughts as well. Talia, Jason, Peter? I expect you to keep an eye on that side of things. They don't know we've got telepaths, so that's our ace in the hole.' Sheridan looked at the telepaths and sighed at the signs of fatigue. 'I know I've been working you a lot lately, but you're the best we've got. I can only hope we find a few more on the Mistral to help spread the load. Talia,' he said, when he saw she had raised her eyebrows at the earlier compliment, 'I know you're just a P5, but I've already seen how you work. You're damn good. What you lack in telepathic abilities you make up for in skill and intuition. Use it.' Talia nodded and smiled. 'Not to mention a smile like that could make most men pause for thought.' He grinned as she blushed. Lennier walked into the docking bay and looked around. ''Ten-shun!' Sheridan barked and followed his own instruction, bowing formally to Lennier. 'Alyt. We're ready.'

  If Lennier was surprised by Sheridan's show of respect he did nothing to show it, saluting in the Warrior Caste style before turning to the crew. 'Once everything is in place I will be leaving the Mistral in your hands, ladies and gentlemen.' He seemed to have some trouble uttering the terms and the compliment was not lost on the crew. Several nodded in response. 'Look after her for me, and give me a ship I can be proud of again. We have a long way ahead of us. In your language I believe the correct term is 'Good luck'.' He entered the shuttle and Sheridan followed. As the crew settled into their seats and strapped themselves in Lennier gave Sheridan access to the crew manifest.

  'Hmm. I see you've been doing a little reorganisation of your own, Alyt,' Sheridan muttered as he saw the same pattern of senior ex-Earthforce officers and specialists he'd seen on his own ship.

  'I knew Delenn would call on me one day. I wanted to make sure I was ready. The Mistral and the Telemarchus will lead the way. They must be the best. We cannot afford to fail.' Sheridan nodded.

  'What about bugging devices. We found quite a few aboard the Telemarchus. Is your ship clear?'

  'I think you were more of a worry to Minbari High Command than I, Captain. In any case, we carry our own security feature. If the Mistral had any problems, Mr Garibaldi would be aware of them. Knowing what would happen I have performed occasional checks on the ship, in private,' he added. 'We only have the same beacon device that you have. That can be modified should it be needed.'

  'So I discovered,' Sheridan muttered and continued reading the manifest. Lennier received clearance from the Telemarchus and smoothly piloted the shuttle out of the docking bay and towards the Mistral.

  'How are you going to get the containers to air-recycling without raising suspicion?' Sheridan asked as he continued to read.

  'Understanding is not required. The crew will do as I tell them. They have been well trained in the Minbari ways. If I tell them I wish it to be so, it will be done. Delenn is right, though,' he mused.

  Sheridan looked up. 'How so?'

  'Our strictness may be our doom if we are not careful.'

  Sheridan considered Lennier for a moment. 'Look, it's up to you, but until things settle down on your ship you might want to keep a few of my people around you. We had a little trouble when we first broke free. Someone who couldn't bury the hatchet anywhere but in a Minbari head.' Lennier looked sharply at Sheridan. 'No, it's all right. We got him in time, thanks to the telepaths. I guess what I'm saying is, be careful. You're right. We can't afford to screw this up.'

  'I thank you for the offer, Captain. We will see if I need to accept your generosity.' He checked his readings and acknowledged a general communiqué from the Mistral before turning back to Sheridan. 'Do you see anyone you believe might be carrying a 'hatchet'?'

  'Not sure. A couple, perhaps. Nabib?'

  'Sir?'

  'These two,' and Sheridan handed a data pad back to the officer with the names circled 'might be a problem. Position your crew accordingly.'

  Nabib nodded. 'Understood.'

  'You might want to take Jason with you. This Mr Allan seems to have been trouble from the day he entered Earthforce.'

  'Right.' Nabib scowled at the readings and nodded. 'We can handle him.'

  'I'm sure you can. And don't forget to grab some breathers. We don't want you drunk while all hell is breaking loose!'

  Nabib grinned. 'Once the decks are clear I'll grab something from maintenance.' He turned to Lennier. 'Alyt, are there breathers available anywhere near...' he checked the data pad and then handed it to Lennier 'Here and here, near air recycling?'

  Lennier checked and nodded, marking two sites within easy reach. Nabib made a mental note and then handed the data pad to Franklin who nodded.

  Sheridan looked up as the Mistral's docking bay grew larger in the shuttle's windows. 'Well, here goes nothing.'

  Lennier frowned at the phrase but was distracted by the need to clear docking procedure with his ship. He received clearance and they landed with barely a bump. The bay doors clanged shut and the hissing of oxygen entering the bay announced the return of breathable atmosphere. Sheridan took a deep breath and undid his safety harness.

  Lennier took the lead with Sheridan immediately behind him. A security force was waiting for them in the docking bay. Sheridan reminded himself that the Mistral did a lot of front line work and such luxuries to the Telemarchus were a requirement here. He took a surreptitious look at the rest of his crew and mentally saluted them for showing no surprise whatsoever.

  The head of the security squad stepped forward and saluted Lennier. 'Alyt. We have scanned the surrounding area and the available areas of hyperspace. There is no sign of the alien ship. I am sorry, Alyt. We failed you.' The man bowed his head and waited for the blow.

  Lennier shook his head. 'You cannot be blamed when a more advanced ship of unknown configuration is involved. However, I do expect you to study the information we did gather about the ship and plot a course of action to be implemented should it appear again.'

  'Thank you, Alyt.' The man bowed and then waited for his next instruction.

  Sheridan remained tight-lipped and kept his eyes respectfully averted from the conversation, but inside his mind was screaming. /Were we really this bad when we were under the drugs?/ It both horrified and impressed him. Whatever else he could say about the Minbari, their methods were effective. He brought himself back to the conversation in time to hear Lennier order the security squad to help off-load the canisters and carry them to the air re-cycling section.

  'Captain Sheridan's crew have discovered an airborne pollutant that seems to be spreading through the fleet,' he said. The word pollutant had been chosen so that Lennier didn't have to say anything that could be construed as a lie. To say there were drugs permeating the ship's atmosphere would have begged the question as to their origin. To say a virus would have been a lie. This was the best half-way house anyone had been able to come up with. 'I will give the crew the settings to detect whether we are affected. If we are I will order all crew to return to quarters for their safety while we release an antidote. The pollutant affects human crew-members only but the antidote can have an allergic reaction on Minbari. For this reason I will return to the Telemarchus should the need arise. Summon all the help you need to set this up as quickly and as efficiently as possible.'

  'Yes Alyt.' The man nodded, bowed, and motioned for the security squad to help move the canisters.

  Lennier turned to Sheridan. 'Captain. While they are setting things up would you care to tour the Mistral?'

  'I would. Thank you, Alyt.' He bowed and followed Lennier out of the docking bay. A part of him desperately wanted to stay with his crew to make sure everything went smoothly, but on Minbari ships it was considered an insult for a senior officer to directly monitor minor operations. The penalties if a crew failed to complete mundane tasks without error were severe, and duty and honour required all crew members work at their best at all times without supervision. If Sheridan insisted on watching it would either insult the crew, or suggest the task was rather more than it appeared. Neither option was acceptable. And so he left, but was reassured a few seconds later when he felt the touch of a telepathic mind telling him he would not be kept out of the loop. He wasn't sure if it was Jason or Peter since the inner voice did not have the same cadence as the one he heard in normal speech, but one of them was clearly a lot stronger than the records suggested if they could stay in contact once Sheridan was out of sight. He made a mental note to do some investigation later.

  Lennier was the perfect host and clearly very proud of his command. Sheridan was duly impressed. The Mistral was a powerful ship and her lines and internal structure were designed to warn would-be enemies that they were getting in over their heads. Sheridan quickly forgot his mission as he began to appreciate Lennier's pride in his ship. When they reached the command deck Lennier extolled the ship's weapons capability as well as her survey capacity before settling down to program the computers to detect the very drugs they had been designed to ignore on the internal sensors. While he worked he answered the questions Sheridan had not even voiced.

  'Political Officer Delenn told me what we had to look for, Captain. This should not take more than a few minutes. If we are clear we will keep your canisters to offer to any other ships we may encounter should they require them. If not, we will use what you have provided and manufacture our own for use in the future. Delenn also gave me the ingredients. Obviously I had to be certain there was nothing that might harm my crew.'

  'Of course,' Sheridan nodded and waited for the results to come in.

  'Commander Black. I have uploaded the program to your console. Please execute it.'

  'Alyt.' Black bowed to his task. A few seconds later he looked up. 'I am sorry, Alyt. But it appears we do have the pollutant on board.' The man looked moderately disturbed.

  Lennier frowned. 'We will investigate its origins once we have purged the system. Inform the crew they are to abandon all tasks, lock down the safety seals and return to their quarters immediately. Once internal sensors show all crew members are safely in their quarters you and the rest of the command staff will leave the command deck to Captain Sheridan who has handled this before on the Telemarchus and return to your quarters. He will release the antidote once the ship is secure. We believe any allergic reaction is confined to the Minbari but for safety reasons all crew members are to return to their own quarters until this is resolved. I do not want to run any risks.'

  'Yes Alyt.'

  'Captain, it appears I must leave the Mistral in your capable hands.'

  'The Telemarchus is at your disposal for as long as this takes, Alyt. I am sorry you have been caused such inconvenience.'

  'No matter. I will enjoy speaking with Delenn. I will inform you when I am clear. Thank you for your help in this matter. Commander Black, execute my orders and report any problems to Captain Sheridan until I return.'

  'Yes Alyt.'

  Sheridan internally shook his head once more. The commander's vocabulary was limited to say the least. Yes, no, three bags full Alyt! Presumably the man could do more when push came to shove, but Sheridan found he already missed the different atmosphere of his own ship. As though sensing his thoughts Lennier indicated the communications console.

  'Captain. Perhaps you would care to contact your ship and inform them of my return?'

  'Yes, Alyt. Thank you.' Sheridan accessed communications and felt a warm glow when Ivanova's face appeared in front of him.

  'Captain?'

  'Commander. Alyt Lennier's ship has the pollutant so we are activating the antidote. Alyt Lennier will be returning to the Telemarchus. Clear him for docking and accord him every courtesy.'

  'Of course. We will be honoured by his presence among us.'

  /Don't lay it on too thick, Susan. I may gag!/ 'Any sign of that alien ship?'

  'Nothing on sensors, Captain. We are continuing to scan.'

  'Good,' Sheridan nodded. That meant Kosh was still keeping up his side of the arrangement. 'I will see you when this is over. Sheridan out.' Closing the connection he turned to Lennier. 'By your leave, Alyt Lennier.'

  'Captain.'

  Sheridan and Lennier bowed and Lennier made his way to the docking bay. Sheridan turned to the crew. A sea of expectant faces, none of which he recognised. He suddenly felt very alone.

  /We're still here, Captain/ came the voice in his head. /Everything is ready. Nothing unexpected so far. Waiting for your command./

  Sheridan drew a deep breath and turned to Black. 'Commander,' he nodded. 'Give the command.'

  'Yes, sir.' Black issued the order and Sheridan strolled the command deck while he waited for the all-clear. He tried to look completely relaxed, but inside he was shaking. Black noticed his stance. 'Is everything all right, sir?'

  Sheridan looked up sharply. 'Everything is fine, Commander. Why do you ask?'

  'You seem nervous, sir.'

  Sheridan drew himself up to his full height and glared at Black. 'You will keep your observations on my personal condition to yourself, Commander. Do I make myself clear?'

  Black buckled under Sheridan's stern demeanour. 'Yes sir. I apologise.'

  'Is everyone in their quarters?'

  Black checked the ship's internal sensors. 'Nearly, sir.' There was another pause and then, 'All clear sir.'

  'Very well.' Sheridan flicked on the internal communications. 'Sheridan to Franklin. Are you ready?'

  'Ready, sir.'

  Sheridan nodded. 'Stand by.' He turned to Black. 'Clear the command deck.'

  Black gave the order and Sheridan waited until everyone had left before taking up position at the sensor display. When he was sure the crew were safely in their quarters he sent a second message. 'Sheridan to Nabib. Are you ready?'

  'Ready, sir.'

  'Lennier to Sheridan.'

  'Sheridan here.'

  'I am clear of the Mistral and making my way to the Telemarchus. I will monitor the situation from there.'

  'Understood.'

  Sheridan looked around and suddenly realised he'd made a terrible mistake. In all the excitement and nerves that had assailed him when he came aboard one thing had been forgotten.

  'Damn! No breather!'

  He'd remembered to remind Nabib and Franklin, but now he realised that Ivanova had brought theirs from a maintenance store quite some distance from command and control and it was too late to run to the nearest such store aboard the Mistral. He wondered what a double dose of the antidote would do to him. He turned to the communications console and then realised the channel might not be safe. He couldn't afford to give the game away at this stage. He shook his head. 'Idiot!' he muttered then began to take several deep breaths, hyperventilating his system. He could hold his breath quite a long time. Not long enough, of course, but as long as he could maintain a clear head to release the oxygen once the drug had done its job he hoped all he'd be left with was a severe hangover. Another deep breath and he contacted Franklin. 'I'm releasing now.'

  'Acknowledged,' came the reply.

  Sheridan monitored the readouts as the gas slowly spread through the ship. C&C was neither the first nor, unfortunately, the last to fill. He waited as long as he thought was safe and then took one last breath and held it. He watched C&C fill and waited for the antidote to oxygen readouts to reach the required level. Never had a few short minutes seemed so long. The readouts crawled.

  /Come on. Come on!/ he mentally shouted.

  /Captain? What's wrong?/

  /No breather!/ he yelled back, hoping whoever it was would understand his non-telepathic thought. Jason or Peter (for it had to be one of them) were in contact enough to be aware of his distress. He only hoped they were connected enough to work out the reason.

  There was a long pause during which Sheridan's chest swelled to bursting point and still the readouts climbed. /Franklin's on his way!/ came the cry.

  /Too late!/ Sheridan returned. He held on a few seconds more and then the pounding in his chest and the swimming in his head became too much. He released the pent up carbon dioxide and took a breath, trying to keep the intake as small as possible. His head began to spin and he staggered. Another breath and the spinning grew. Surely it wasn't this bad for the crew? Did everyone feel like this, or was he feeling it more because he'd already been cleared of the drugs? Another breath and the readouts became blurred. He fought to see through the fog which was clouding his mind. Just a little more. He couldn't afford to pass out. He had no idea what would happen if he inadvertently gave the crew an overdose.

  There! The readouts flashed up the ratio he'd been waiting for and he slammed off the antidote releasing the oxygen at the same time. His knees gave way as he was forced to take another breath. He maintained his grip on the console and heard a faint banging on the door to C&C. The console swam in front of his eyes and he couldn't make out which combination he had to press to release the door. He couldn't risk hitting the wrong combination at this stage. On his hands and knees he crawled to the door to see Franklin on the other side urging him to open up. He reached up and his fingers grazed the access panel for the manual release. C&C was, of course, well protected. If an alien invasion force entered the ship a lock out would be useless if they could manually open the doors from outside. There were coded over-rides but Franklin didn't know what they were. Only senior officers had that information, different for each ship. Sheridan hadn't thought to ask Lennier for the codes. Why should he?

  He tried to pull himself up to smash the panel but his legs refused to respond. He pulled off his boot and used the heel to smash the panel and then hit the button. As the door opened Sheridan finally succumbed. Franklin took a breath and then tore off his mask, quickly putting it over Sheridan's face. Sheridan breathed deeply of the clean air. When Franklin indicated he needed to take it back for a moment Sheridan sucked in a deep breath and held it while Franklin took his turn. Another pause and the mask was back over Sheridan's face. He could see more clearly and felt his strength returning. He reached up and held the mask in place while Franklin went over to check the readouts. When he returned he nodded.

  'It's all clear now, Captain. Rest easy.'

  Sheridan nodded and held onto the mask, grabbing a few more breaths before slowly lowering it and smiling weakly. 'Someone had to screw up. Just had to be me, didn't it?'

  'How are you feeling?'

  'Like hell. Does everyone feel like this?'

  Franklin shook his head. 'You haven't got the drugs in your system to counteract the antidote. Effectively you got an overdose.'

  Sheridan coughed. 'Will I be OK?' he managed at last, putting his boot back on.

  'I'll check you over when this is finished. Can you stand?'

  'Not sure. Hang on.' He struggled to his feet and swayed. Franklin reached out to steady him and Sheridan shook his head a few times to clear it. After a while he nodded and straightened. 'I'm OK. Just a little dizzy.'

  Franklin helped him over to a chair. 'You stay there for a minute,' he said. 'I'll see what's happening.'

  Sheridan nodded and sat down again heavily, putting his head between his knees to try and clear it some more. Franklin moved to the communications console and activated it. An angry voice bellowed from the other end.

  'This is Captain MacDougan of the Vesta. What the hell is going on?'

  Sheridan smiled. 'Hiya Mackie,' he said weakly. 'John Sheridan here. Welcome back to the human race.'

  'John? You sound like hell.'

  'I've felt better. I'm going to release the door locks on your section. We've just released the ship from Minbari drugs designed to keep us in line. Can you pull people together there and let them know what's going on?'

  'Sure thing.'

  Sheridan nodded to Franklin who released the locks. As more calls came in Franklin co-ordinated the officer allocations. As with the Telemarchus a few were slow to respond, but unlike his own ship, there were none who caused any trouble. Sheridan sighed in gratitude. The comm system beeped again.

  'Nabib to Sheridan.'

  Sheridan coughed again and stood up, waving Franklin aside. 'Sheridan here.'

  'All clear, Captain. Private Ellison is just in a bad mood. From what I can tell that's his usual state of mind. Sergeant Allan is feeling fine. He'd like to talk to you at some point. '

  'I'm sure. Let me give the ship-wide announcement and I'll try and come down.'

  'Understood.'

  Sheridan took a deep breath and then activated the PA. The message he gave was more or less the same as aboard the Telemarchus until he reached the matter of Lennier. 'Finally, your Captain is Alyt Lennier. He endorsed this release and will be returning to this ship as soon as everything has settled down. If we're to release the rest of the fleet Lennier will be one of our greatest assets. The more Minbari who support our cause, the less suspicion we'll raise. We have to move carefully. We now have two ships. If all goes well our numbers will have grown to an overpowering force before the Minbari High Command realise what's going on. If things go wrong we're going to have a fight on our hands. You know the stakes are high. We can't afford to change command structures at this stage. Therefore, Alyt Lennier will remain in command of the Mistral until further notice. Anyone who has a problem with that can take it up with their section head. I'll convene a meeting in two hours. All telepaths and medical personnel not presently assigned report to C&C. Sheridan out.' As he signed off the feeling of nausea and pressure that had been growing in his head overwhelmed him and he collapsed. Frankin immediately contacted the Telemarchus.

  'Franklin to Ivanova.'

  'Ivanova here. What's happening?'

  'We need you over here, Commander. Captain Sheridan's taken an overdose of the antidote by mistake. I'm returning him to the Telemarchus.'

  'What?! Is he OK?'

  'I'll know when I get him over there. The telepaths and medical personnel are on their way to the bridge. I need you over here to explain things to them.'

  'On my way.' Ivanova signed off as Peter appeared at the doorway.

  'Is he OK?'

  'Not sure. How did you do that earlier? I thought you telepaths had to be in a line of sight to work.'

  'Depends on the Psi rating. Looks like mine's a bit higher than the tests registered.'

  'Yep. I'd say you're a P12 at least.' Peter nodded. 'Come on, I need some help getting him down to the shuttle bay.'

  'Is it safe to move him?'

  'All my equipment is on the Telemarchus. I don't know what they've got here, and I'm not going to waste time finding out. He's just passed out and I reckon he'll be OK for the journey. Ivanova's on her way over here.'

  Peter nodded and helped Franklin lift Sheridan. Half way to the docking bay Sheridan came to enough to help them get him the rest of the way. Ivanova's shuttle was just docking when they reached the bay and as they manhandled him towards Lennier's shuttle Ivanova ran from her own.

  'John?'

  'He'll be fine, Commander,' Franklin assured her. 'Too much of a good thing.'

  Sheridan grunted and raised his head. 'Go deal with C&C. I'll see you on the flip-side.'

  She reached out and squeezed his arm, receiving a grateful smile before running off in the direction of C&C. Once she was out of sight Sheridan groaned. 'Oh man, I'm gonna have one hell of a hangover!'

  Franklin chuckled. 'C'mon Captain. Let's get you home.'

  *****

  With the help of Jason and Talia, Ivanova had an easier time with the Mistral's telepaths than Sheridan had aboard their own ship. Another 5 were added to the list of P5 and above, with a P2 bringing up the rear. The medical personnel worked out the best way of allocating tasks aboard the Mistral and Ivanova recorded their decision for Lennier's information when he returned. MacDougan came up to C&C when Sheridan failed to appear in his section, bringing Sergeant Allan with him.

  'I'm sorry, Captain,' Ivanova informed him, 'But Captain Sheridan is unwell. He's had to return to the Telemarchus.'

  'Will he be OK?'

  'I think so. Doctor Franklin didn't seem too worried. A bit of an overdose of the antidote he said.' She eyed MacDougan. He was a tall, heavily built man with strong features and an honest, open face. It was clear he was concerned for Sheridan. 'Do you know John well?'

  'I taught him ethics at the Academy. He was a good student. A little idealistic sometimes...' MacDougan grinned and Ivanova nodded. 'Right now, his idealism may be just what we need. I'd like to see him before we have to go our separate ways again. It's been a long time.'

  'Once Franklin gives the all clear I'll let you know. In the meantime, I think Alyt Lennier will need some help dealing with the crew.' MacDougan's face clouded and Ivanova nodded. 'I know. It took us a while to realise the enemy isn't necessarily the person we think it is. But we couldn't have freed this ship if Lennier hadn't been willing. He believes, as does our ex-political officer Delenn, that there's a greater danger threatening us. The only way we'll defeat it will be as free peoples fighting side by side.'

  A raised eyebrow. 'After all that's happened?'

  'The way Delenn put it was that if we don't fight together we'll die apart. She also said that if the subsequent death of the entire Minbari race at the hands of the humans was the price to stop this other race from destroying us all, then that was acceptable. Whatever this other species is, it certainly scares the shit out of her, and if the Minbari are frightened, with the advanced technology they've got, I reckon we should be siding with them, 'cos we sure aren't gonna win this on our own.' Ivanova eyed MacDougan. 'John believes her and so do I. We've got other help. That ship that seized Garibaldi earlier?' MacDougan nodded. 'That was a Vorlon ship. The Vorlons and this other race have been fighting each other for millennia. He's offered us his help as well.' She sighed. 'Until we free the rest of the fleet we need people like Lennier, and he's gonna need people like you, whether he knows it or not.'

  MacDougan grunted. 'Lennier has been a good captain of this ship. He's treated the crew well. He's never imposed any unreasonable demands on us, and he's proved his own courage on a number of occasions. I can bring the crew around.... I hope.'

  'Hmm. Do you need anything else from us for the time being, only I'd like to get back to the Telemarchus.'

  'If you can leave your telepaths and Lieutenant Commander Nabib here for a while? They know what to expect and can help our crew to adjust a little quicker.'

  'They're all yours. I would warn you that Jason and Talia have been working very hard of late with our own crew. They need to take a break soon.'

  'That's all right, Commander,' Jason said, nodding to MacDougan as he entered the conversation. 'A couple of the telepaths here are strong. Once we've shown them what to look for they can take over most of it. We'll just monitor things. We can keep going for quite a while. Don't worry about us.'

  Ivanova looked at Talia who, though looking rather more tired than Jason, also nodded her assent. Ivanova frowned. 'You sure? You look beat.'

  'I'll be fine, Commander. Jason has the worst load. If he can manage, I can.'

  'OK, but as soon as you've had enough, come back to the Telemarchus. You've earned a break.'

  Talia smiled and nodded. Jason nodded and then turned to finish briefing the other telepaths. The briefing, being itself telepathic, was so quick Ivanova wondered if they could possibly have covered everything, but the telepaths seemed happy and Ivanova decided it was probably best to leave them to it. They knew their jobs. She turned back to MacDougan.

  'Well, if you're happy here I think there's a shuttle down there with my name on it. Shall I send Lennier back to you?'

  He shook his head. 'Hang on a bit. Let me check the atmosphere. Once it's clear, I'll give you the OK. John said he was going to hold a meeting with those who weren't happy. I'll handle that now and let you know what happens.'

  'Just make sure the crew realises this won't work without him. He knows other Minbari who would be sympathetic, and he's held in high esteem by Minbari High Command. We need him.'

  'So John told us. Don't worry. He'll be back. I just need time to get people settled down again.'

  Ivanova nodded and looked at Allan. 'What about you?'

  Allan shrugged. 'My record wasn't good in Earthforce. I had a few problems. I didn't want to join in the first place but I'd got into some trouble and it was that or jail.'

  Ivanova raised her eyebrows. Such people were often more trouble than they were worth. 'And now?'

  'I've got something worth doing, and I've learned a lot. I'd like the chance to prove myself.'

  'I think everyone's entitled to a fresh start, if they're willing to take it,' Ivanova nodded. 'What happens from now on'll depend on you. But we can't afford to take risks. If you blow it there'll be no second chance. Understood?'

  'Understood.'

  Ivanova nodded and turned back to MacDougan, saluting in Earthforce fashion. He smiled and returned the salute. 'Feels good, doesn't it?' she asked.

  'Uh huh.'

  'Well, with your permission, sir.'

  'Thank you, Commander. Tell John I'll be over when he's up to it.'

  'I will.' Ivanova turned smartly and left, walking quickly down to the shuttle bay. En route she was greeted by several crew members who expressed their gratitude and asked her to pass on their thanks to Sheridan. She acknowledged them all but didn't stop to chat. As soon as she got to the bay she was cleared for take off and quickly piloted herself over to the Telemarchus. As she awaited docking clearance a jump gate opened near by and the Vorlon ship reappeared. It took up a position alongside the Telemarchus but did nothing more. She winced internally. How they were going to deal with Garibaldi was going to be interesting. She hoped he'd not make any trouble. So far things had gone remarkably well, but her Russian pessimism told her they couldn't go on like that much longer. She just hoped Garibaldi wouldn't be their first total disaster.

  Docking proceeded smoothly and, after checking with C&C, she walked as quickly as she could to medlab. Sheridan was sitting on the side of a bed and looking a lot better. When he saw her he smiled and stood to accept her hug.

  'You OK?' she asked.

  'Yeah, I'm fine. Stephen flushed out the rest of it. He says I've got to rest for a day but I think he's being over-protective.'

  'I'm trying,' came Franklin's voice from around the corner 'to ensure the health of my patient!' He emerged from the next room. 'His system took a pounding. He needs to give himself time to recover.'

  'I'm fine, Stephen. I can rest later. Right now we've got a Vorlon ship outside with a cargo that's either unconscious or pissed as hell. We've got to deal with that.' Sheridan stood up carefully and then grinned when it became clear there were no residual effects. 'Good work, doc. Appreciated.'

  'Yeah. I can tell. Just try and stay out of here for the next few days will you? I'm getting fed up of seeing your face around medlab.'

  'I'll do my best.'

  Sheridan and Ivanova walked back to his office and found Kosh and Delenn waiting for them.

  'Where's Lennier?' Sheridan asked.

  'He felt that, considering his position, it might be best if he were not present when Mr Garibaldi is brought aboard. I will join him in my quarters shortly. I only came here to find out if all is well aboard the Mistral.

  'Fine. Apart from a minor hiccup...' Ivanova frowned but Sheridan ignored her '...everything went even more smoothly than it did here. They've got a good officer over there. Captain MacDougan. I think Lennier'll find him a useful ally. Some of my people are still over there helping to settle things down. We should get the all clear shortly and Lennier can return to his ship.'

  'This 'hiccup' as you term it. Was it anything I should know about?'

  'No, just something I'll have to remember next time. I think we're going to be using a different method of dispersal soon anyway. Not everyone is going to let us just walk aboard and release gas into their air-recycling systems. I'm going to talk to Franklin later.'

  'In that case, I will be in my quarters. When and if Mr Garibaldi is prepared to speak to Lennier and myself you will find us there.'

  'I'll try not to pick an awkward moment.'

  Delenn eyed him sharply. 'You will not, Captain. As you have been quick to point out on numerous occasions, Minbari are not the same as humans. Commander.' Delenn bowed stiffly and left.

*****

Part 16

  Sheridan turned to Kosh. 'Are you ready to bring him over?'

  'Yes.'

  'Do you need me to send a shuttle?'

  'No.'

  Sheridan blinked. This was going to be interesting. 'How are you going to get him over here?'

  'You will understand.' Kosh turned to the door and left, heading for the docking bay. Sheridan turned to Ivanova, shrugged and then they both followed Kosh. As they walked down the corridor Ivanova tenderly reached out and took Sheridan's hand.

  'You sure you're OK?' she asked quietly.

  'I'm fine. Or at least I will be once this is over.'

  'Captain McDougan would like to talk to you when you feel up to it.'

  'Yeah. It's been a long time. It'll be good to chat with Mackie again. He'll probably grill me on the ethics of what we're doing.'

  'It'll be the first philosophical argument in history in which all parties agree,' Ivanova chuckled.

  'Well, so long as we don't invite Neroon and his cronies.'

  'Ugh. I can live without that thought for now.'

  They reached the docking bay and waited outside. Ivanova sent for security personnel and Franklin arrived with them. Suddenly a call came through from C&C and Sheridan activated the nearest comm-terminal.

  'Sheridan here. What's going on?'

  'Captain, you're not going to believe this. Switching to external viewers.' The image of C&C was replaced with one of the Vorlon ship. A part of the surface was stretching and mutating. As they watched it formed a sphere which was then detached from the main body of the ship. The sphere floated towards the docking bay and entered. As one, Sheridan and Ivanova turned to the door and peered through the small glass porthole to see the globule land and then morph once more. It seemed to turn itself inside out and deposit a body on the floor of the docking bay. The body was encased in something that looked like a cocoon. The globule then slowly rose and drifted back out of the docking bay. The bay repressurised and the sheen of the cocoon's skin slowly peeled back and turned to dust leaving Garibaldi unconscious on the floor. Returning to the monitor Sheridan and Ivanova saw the globule reach the Vorlon ship, closing until it was touching. When it did so the mother ship extruded a part of itself and pulled the globule back in. The skin rippled and smoothed until there was no evidence that anything had ever happened.

  'It is done,' said Kosh, then calmly turned and walked away.

  Ivanova and Sheridan stared as he turned the corner and then looked at each other. Sheridan whistled. 'That is one, neat trick.' He turned to Ivanova. 'If the Vorlons can do all that, and they're still fighting the Shadows, what the hell are these Shadow ships like? The Vorlons could wipe us out if they pulled out all the stops, but they can't beat the Shadows? If we're next on the agenda for the Shadows Delenn's right. We need all the help we can get.'

  'Assuming she's been telling us the truth.'

  'If not, then why release us?' He shook his head. 'I'm not sure we can win this one.' He drew a deep breath and then turned to Ivanova, gripping her arms and smiling to disperse her worried frown. 'But I sure am gonna give it one hell of a shot. Come on. Let's see what we've got in there. An ally or an enemy.'

  He pressed the door switch and together they entered, the security contingent bringing up the rear and fanning out around them in a circle with Garibaldi's inert body at the centre. Franklin stepped forward and knelt beside Garibaldi, checking his pulse. As he did so Garibaldi groaned and rolled over. His eyes snapped open and he stared at the ceiling for a moment. Then he slowly looked around him, taking in the human faces that watched him carefully. His eyes flicked to the PPG's, some in the hands of the guards, others still in their holsters with fingers hovering above them, twitching.

  'You know,' he said at last. 'I don't think I ought to move too quickly. If I do I think I may throw up, and I really wouldn't want that to be the last way anyone ever sees me.'

  Sheridan stepped forward. 'Mr Garibaldi. I'm John Sheridan. Captain of the Telemarchus.' Garibaldi nodded but said nothing. 'How are you feeling?'

  'Lousy. How should I feel?'

  'Disorientated and confused is the common reaction,' Franklin offered.

  'Well, that goes without saying.' He started to stand up and saw several PPG's swiftly pulled from their holsters. He raised his hands and waited until Sheridan nodded to the security guards before moving again. Suddenly a hand appeared in front of him, offering him help. He looked up into Sheridan's face and accepted the offer. Once he was standing he ran his hands over his head and then smoothed his jacket. 'May I ask exactly what happened?'

  'You can ask anything you want, but before I answer any of your questions I need to know whose side you're on.'

  'Well, I ain't with the Minbari, if that's what you want to hear.'

  'Actually, no. Not exactly. Depends on the Minbari.'

  Garibaldi sighed. 'Could we leave the docking bay at least. It's getting cold in here, and I ain't dressed for this.'

  Sheridan nodded and indicated the doorway. Garibaldi stuck his hands in his pockets and strolled out of the docking bay. Two more guards stood at the doorway on the other side and advanced to make sure he was always sandwiched between themselves and the rest of the security force. Garibaldi shrugged. Sheridan steered him towards his own quarters. Ivanova put a hand on Sheridan's arm and gave him a questioning look. Sheridan smiled and nodded, mouthing 'It'll be ok'. When they reached Sheridan's quarters he opened the door and motioned Garibaldi through, ordering the guards to remain outside. He and Ivanova alone entered the room and shut the door.

  Garibaldi looked around. 'Nice quarters. A little small...'

  'Delenn took mine after we found they were bugged.'

  'Hmm. On that note, whoever is running the Mistral right now really needs to go to my security room. Alyt Lennier may have done some regular checks, but he wasn't as good as he thought he was. There are some bugs still running. They upload to Minbari High Command once every twenty four hours.' Garibaldi looked at the chronometer. 'You've got ten hours before the next send. I think you'd better find and manipulate some older records, 'cos they're gonna know things are going on when they see what's happening over there right now.'

  Sheridan frowned. 'You're very calm about all this. Too calm. What's going on?'

  'You'd better ask that weird ship you dumped me in. While I was in there it told me what was happening, after it took those drugs out of my system. If you wanted to see me freak out you should've been there. Might'a mussed your hair a bit.' Garibaldi indicated a chair. 'Can I sit down?'

  'Sure.'

  Garibaldi settled himself in the chair and sat back. Sheridan and Ivanova looked at each other.

  'Well *that* stole your thunder,' Ivanova chuckled.

  'Uh huh,' Sheridan muttered. He sat down opposite Garibaldi, 'So what do you still need to know? You seem to think the Minbari are the enemies.'

  'Some of them are, believe me. I know them better than you do. You won't find many more as amenable as Lennier and this Delenn of yours. And they played their cards pretty damn close to their chests. I should've caught them years ago.'

  'With all due respect Mr Garibaldi, I'm glad you flunked out,' Ivanova replied, settling herself in another chair.

  'I guess the next question is, are you going to help us?' Given Garibaldi's knowledge there was no point in Sheridan beating around the bush.

  'Good question. Not sure. Depends.'

  'On what?'

  'Well now.' Garibaldi stretched out his long legs and leaned back further in the chair. 'Let's see. Right now I reckon I'm probably THE most unpopular man in the Minbari-Earth fleet. I've sold my own people down the line and been damned good at it. I've even managed to piss off a few Minbari. If I'm not protected by High Command I am right at the top of everyone's most wanted list. And they would kill me as soon as look at me. Now, forgive me for being a little selfish here, but I kinda like living. What could you possibly offer in the way of protection?'

  'About the same guarantee I have that I'm still going to be breathing tomorrow.'

  'That good, huh?'

  'That good.'

  Ivanova drew a breath but Sheridan raised his hand, shaking it briefly. Garibaldi leaned forward. 'The way I see it, I have two choices. I try and escape, go back to the Minbari, let them twist my brain again, and keep selling out my own people until these, what are they called, Shadows? They come along and frag the lot of us. Or I come with you, help sell out the Minbari and humans who won't back us, maybe get killed by our own people, or the Minbari, or the Shadows when they come along.' He paused and looked up. 'Great. Never could resist a challenge. When do I start?'

  Sheridan blinked. 'Just like that?

  Garibaldi sighed. 'If you can convince everyone here I'm not the enemy -- and I think that's gonna be a real hard sell -- then I reckon I owe you. And, uh, between you and me,' he leaned forward. 'I'd REALLY like to make those Minbari bastards pay for what they did to me.'

  'Really?'

  'You have no idea.'

  'Oh, I think we might,' Ivanova muttered.

  Sheridan stood up and went to the comm panel. 'Sheridan to Delenn.'

  Delenn's face appeared and Garibaldi frowned and then looked down. 'Yes Captain?'

  'Would you come to my quarters? And bring Alyt Lennier with you. Mr Garibaldi would like a word.'

  As the comm panel blanked Garibaldi looked up. 'What makes you think I want to talk to them?'

  'Because you're going to be working with them from now on, and I think we should clear the air a bit first.'

  'You just had to do that, didn't you?'

  'What are partners for?' Sheridan held out his hand and Garibaldi shook his head and stood up, shaking Sheridan's hand firmly.

  'Did anyone ever tell you that you are completely nuts?'

  'Frequently,' Ivanova sighed, and then smiled when Sheridan gave her a mock frown. 'Did I say it was me?'

  'You know, if I live more than five minutes after I leave that door, I think I'm gonna like working with you two.'

  'Why thank you, Mr Garibaldi. It's nice to be appreciated,' Sheridan smiled.

  At that moment the door announce sounded. Garibaldi turned his back while Delenn and Lennier entered the room.

  'Captain. You asked to see us?'

  'We have a new addition to our little conspiracy.'

  Garibaldi turned around and stared long and hard at Lennier. To his credit, Lennier stood his ground, although Sheridan wondered if he could have remained so implacable in the face of that glare. Finally Garibaldi shrugged and stepped forward.

  'Michael Garibaldi, pleased to meet you.'

  Lennier was a little confused by Garibaldi's irony but, after a brief stare at the offered hand, he shook it. Delenn bowed.

  'Forgive me, Delenn. Not being rude or anything, but I'll pass on the Minbari bows. Done too much of that for too long.'

  'As you wish.'

  Lennier cleared his throat. 'Mr Garibaldi, you will forgive my reticence, but I am not completely convinced by your sudden change of heart. Throughout the fleet you are known for your ability to play whatever game will work to get what you want. Captain Sheridan is satisfied you have joined us. I remain suspicious. What can you offer to allay my fears?'

  'I'll happily knock your head through that bulkhead if it'll help,' Garibaldi offered, not entirely joking.

  'You could try, but it would not prove your loyalty. Merely that you are reckless.'

  'What do you suggest?'

  'A telepathic scan.'

  Garibaldi growled. 'Your people have been through my brain once already. You turned me inside out and hung me out to dry. You used me to do your stinkin' dirty work and sat back knowing that if anything went wrong I'd carry the can. You made sure I was the most hated and feared man in the fleet. If I leave this ship with the Mistral now joined with the rebels I'll be hunted down no matter where I go. There is nowhere I can hide. I'd give a Pak'ma'ra indigestion. But keep this in mind. By doing that your people made me their worst nightmare. I've got nothing to lose. You took away my self-respect, my home, my family, everything I ever cared about. I'll work with you because right now you and that ship out there are the biggest assets we have. But when this is all over, and assuming I live that long, I am gonna take this out of Minbari hides, one strip at a time.' During the diatribe Garibaldi had moved closer to Lennier until he was mere inches from the Minbari's face.

  'Very impressive, Mr Garibaldi. But I still want a telepath to scan you.'

  Sheridan raised his eyebrows. Lennier certainly had guts. And if he didn't stop this soon they were going to be all over his quarters. 'Enough. Mr Garibaldi, Alyt Lennier has a point. You have quite a reputation, whether you like it or not. We have human telepaths aboard, and we can be here to monitor everything that happens, but until we are absolutely certain none of us will be able to relax.'

  Garibaldi turned smartly, snarling, and then threw up his hands. 'OK. Fine! If that's the only thing that'll convince you. But after this, if anyone EVER gets inside my head again I will reach down their throat, pull their guts out and wrap 'em around their ears.'

  'Seems fair to me,' Ivanova said.

  Sheridan went to the comm panel and a few minutes later Vaska Turgenev turned up. Sheridan explained what was required and Garibaldi sat down as the telepath made himself comfortable opposite him.

  'Mr Garibaldi. What has been asked of me demands a deep level scan. These can be painful. The less you fight it, the less it will hurt. I will be as quick as possible but if I am to give the Captain what he needs I cannot miss anything. Unless it pertains to Captain Sheridan's request nothing I see will be revealed to anyone else. Do you understand?'

  'Yeah. Just get on with it.'

  Vaska leaned forward and held his hand close to Garibaldi's face. As he worked Ivanova turned to Sheridan.

  'Vaska's only a P6 isn't he?' she whispered.

  'Uh huh.'

  'Is that strong enough?'

  'It is provided Garibaldi isn't a teep himself,' Sheridan replied, keeping his own tones low so as not to disturb Vaska. 'And if he is, it'll show.'

  Vaska looked up and frowned at Ivanova and Sheridan who promptly went silent. As they watched Garibaldi's fists clenched in his lap and the tendons in his neck stood out.

  'Just relax, Mr Garibaldi. I know it's painful but it will pass provided you don't fight it.'

   The scan continued for a few more minutes until finally Vaska lowered his hand and sat back. Garibaldi shook himself and wiped the perspiration from his face.

  'Well?' Lennier asked.

  'He's clear.' Vaska turned to Lennier. 'But he is seriously pissed with you.'

  'I thought you said no one would be told,' Garibaldi muttered.

  'That much I could tell without a telepath's help.' He turned to Vaska. 'Thank you.'

  'Will there be anything else, Captain?'

  'No. That's all, thanks Vaska. How's the crew feeling?'

  'In general? Pleased we took the Mistral with so little trouble, but Mr Garibaldi's presence is worrying them.'

  'I'm sure. I'll make a ship-wide announcement shortly. Thanks.'

  'Captain.' Vaska nodded and left.

  'Well, I guess we'd better get this over with. Garibaldi, I do have one question.'

  Garibaldi took a final steadying breath and then looked up. 'Shoot.'

  'Which ship do you want to serve on? The reason I ask is because we need a head of security on the Telemarchus. Your credentials, even if they are for the wrong side, are immaculate. Frankly, we could use the help.'

  'Isn't that going to be a bit of a dead give-away when they find out I'm not on the Mistral? Not to mention Crysar is dead.'

  'We can deal with that fence when we come to it. I'm not sure you'll be the most welcome person anywhere, but I'd feel more comfortable if I had you nearby.'

  'You need to keep an eye on me?'

  'Nope. I need you to keep an eye on us. You understand the Minbari. I know Delenn and Lennier do as well, but you've had access to information even they didn't have. I'm going to need every advantage I can get. For the time being the Telemarchus and the Mistral will be going along the same path, but soon we'll have to split up if we're to free the fleet as quickly as possible. When that happens I want you with me. Alyt Lennier, I apologise if this is going to cause you inconvenience, but provided Garibaldi agrees that's what I want.'

  Lennier bowed. 'I do not think Mr Garibaldi would be comfortable with a Minbari captain. If he wishes to join your ship, he is free to do so.'

  'Damn straight I am. Even if you didn't agree my decisions are mine now.' Garibaldi chuckled. 'Damn, but that feels good! Captain Sheridan, I'd be honoured to join the Telemarchus, but I need some of my stuff from the Mistral. I think it'd help if we set up some kind of communication link between the two ships as well. One that allows me to speak to High Command as though I was still on the Mistral. I can cover for Crysar -- he rarely spoke to anyone anyway -- but the longer we can keep 'em thinking I'm where I'm supposed to be the better.'

  'Makes sense to me. OK, let's get up to C&C and let the crew know what's going on. After that, we'll go back to the Mistral with Lennier and see he's settled in and get your stuff. Then you can set up your office here. And while you're getting your things I can have a talk with Mackie and see how he's doing.'

  As they walked along the corridor crew members either shrank back or glared at Garibaldi. He ignored them. He knew he had some fights ahead of him, but now, at least, he had a good reason to fight. For the first time since he'd been captured and programmed he had something real to believe in. He was determined not to let anyone down.

*****

Part 17

  Silence reigned in C&C as Sheridan, Ivanova and Garibaldi entered. Nervously the crew watched as Garibaldi stood back and waited for Sheridan to explain things. In truth, he didn't know why he was there. It would probably have been safer for him to stay in Sheridan's quarters until everything blew over a bit, but Sheridan had his reasons and Garibaldi had chosen his path, and Garibaldi had never played it safe in his life. He wasn't about to start now.

  'PA on,' Sheridan said and cleared his throat. 'Attention. This is the Captain. As you probably all know by now, the Mistral has joined us. This doesn't mean we can sit back and relax. This is only the first, and things'll get harder before they get better, but it's a start. As you may or may not know, Head of Security aboard the Mistral was Michael Garibaldi.' He could almost hear the sharply indrawn breaths across the ship. He looked into the faces of the command deck crew and smiled. 'I'm pleased to report that the Minbari have lost their best security officer to us. Mr Garibaldi is now free of the drugs and has asked to join with us. His knowledge will be invaluable. He'll be taking up his new posting here aboard the Telemarchus.' He saw frowns and looks of doubt as well as nervous smiles on the faces of the crew. He nodded. 'I know many of you have reason to hate Garibaldi, but he was programmed just as we were. He cannot be held responsible for what he did while under Minbari control. He's been telepathically scanned and I'm satisfied his decision to join us is genuine, just as I am satisfied his actions while working for the Minbari were no more his choice than ours were. With his help, and the help of those Minbari who agree with our cause, we will take back our home. That is all.' Sheridan turned to Ivanova. 'Let's hope that cools their heads a bit.'

  'You know some aren't gonna believe you?'

  'I know. But I've told them the truth. The rest is up to them.' He looked up. 'Lieutenant Mills.'

  'Sir?'

  'Mr Garibaldi is taking over as Head of Security. Find him some appropriate quarters and a room for his office. He's going to need something a little bigger than the cupboard we've got at the moment.' Mills looked from Sheridan to Garibaldi who didn't return his glance. 'Is there a problem, Lieutenant?'

  'No sir. No problem. I'll see to it immediately.'

  'Good. Patch me through to the Mistral.'

  There was a pause and then 'Communications established sir.'

  Sheridan nodded as MacDougan's face appeared on the comm screen. 'Hiya Mackie.'

  'John. You sound like you're OK now.'

  'Thanks to Dr. Franklin. How are things over there?'

  'Ah, we had a little flare up an hour ago. Nothin' major. Someone decided that with Garibaldi and Lennier gone it was time for some fun. Got a bit out of hand. I got a couple in the brig cooling their heels. There's a little damage in the temple, but nothing major.'

  'How do the crew feel about Lennier's return?'

  'Still not happy. A few have said they want me in charge. I'm working on it. Give me another day and everything'll be fine.'

  'We can't sit out here too long. High Command will send other ships to investigate. I'd rather we went to them than they came to us.'

  'I know. I'll make 'em understand. Just gonna take a while for them to get used to things.'

  'Mr Garibaldi tells me you've got some bugs aboard you don't know about. We're coming over to help rig a fake transmission to cover what's happened. We'll need some help.'

  'You'll have all the help you need. But Garibaldi ain't too popular over here. You'd better make sure he's armed and bring an escort. I'll hand pick some men to help. If it's gonna screw High Command I don't think I'll be short of volunteers, even if they do have to work with him.'

  Garibaldi stepped forward so that MacDougan could see him. 'Could you put Private, sorry, Commander Egan on the team? He knows the equipment better than most. Assuming he'll talk to me.'

  'I'll ask. I'm not going to force anyone, Garibaldi. There's a lot here'd like to kill you. I know you had no choice, but it's easier to pick those who don't want your head on a platter than force those who do.'

  'Yeah. I know. Just...try to make 'em understand it wasn't me.'

  'I'll do my best. John, what about food? The telepaths explained about the drugs and I've tried Franklin's stuff but Jeez, John. That stuff stinks!'

  'I know. That our next priority. As soon as we can get underway, we're going over to Vallus Twelve. They've got a supply station there for the League of Non-Aligned worlds. There's no love lost between them and the Minbari. We should get our supplies easily enough provided we can pay for them.'

  'The Mistral has capital. We can foot the bill. We got some raiders a while back and the coffers were full. Wouldn't like to investigate in too much detail where they got it from, though. It was due to be sent back to High Command.'

  'We need it a lot more than they do. I'll come over, we'll sort out the transmission problem and then set course. Sheridan out.' He turned to Mills. 'By the time we get back I expect Mr Garibaldi's quarters to be ready. We're bringing back a lot of stuff and we're going to need to set it up as fast as we can.'

  'Understood.'

  'Ivanova. I'm sorry. I'm going to have to leave you in charge again while we sort this out. I'll be back in a few hours. And once we've got the supplies we can all have a decent meal.'

  'That's worth waiting for. We'll be fine. See you guys when you get back.' As they turned to walk away Ivanova added 'Garibaldi.'

  'Huh?'

  'Glad to have you with us.'

  'Thanks.'

  *****

  Work proceeded steadily aboard the Mistral. Some careful editing plus some faked reports from Garibaldi ensured the next update to High Command would be completely innocuous. The bugs were traced and removed and Garibaldi added a report that the Mistral was going on to track a strange ship they'd encountered which had seized a shuttle carrying Crysar. He assured the Minbari receiving the signal that every effort would be expended in trying to recover the telepath and learn the nature of this potential enemy. As a result they would be out of communications range for an indeterminate period. Garibaldi then set about fixing the beacon signal to misreport their position and added a small program to the ship's controls that allowed whoever was on duty to give any location they chose.

  Sheridan and MacDougan caught up with old times and discussed the uncertain future. It was decided that while Lennier would remain, Captain MacDougan would act as his liaison to the crew and so ensure a workable environment on board. Sergeant Allan dropped by asking to speak to Sheridan.

  'Yes, Sergeant. What can I do for you?'

  'Well sir, first of all I wanted to thank you. I don't know how you did it entirely, and I don't really understand why these Minbari are helping us, but, well, whatever. I'm grateful.'

  'You should thank Delenn and Lennier. If it wasn't for them we wouldn't be here. And Franklin worked out the antidote.'

  'Yeah, well, thanks anyway.'

  'You're welcome. Anything else?'

  'Yeah. I, uh, well I talked to Commander Ivanova earlier. I told her I wasn't doin' too good in Earthforce before the Minbari came along. I was kinda playin' it down. If it weren't for the Minbari I'd be dead right now.'

  'How so?'

  'I assaulted an officer. He was comin' down too hard on some recruits and I was sergeant. Things got a bit heated and fists flew. I knocked him cold and he flew into a chair, snapped his neck. It was an accident but...Look, what I'm trying to say is I want another chance. I don't wanna go through all this and then end up at the end of a noose back on Earth.'

  'Sergeant, I can't give guarantees. I don't know if I'm still going to be alive by next week, let alone get back to Earth. With Psi Corps gone the noose is more likely than death of personality as you say, but all I can tell you is that if we get through this alive, and you play by the rules from here on out, I'll do my best to mitigate your sentence if they still insist of carrying out the court martial.'

  'I'll second that,' MacDougan added. 'Do your job and I'll do what I can to help, assuming we live that long.'

  'Thanks. Both of you. I won't let you down.' He stood there for a moment looking awkward and then said 'Need anythin' right now?'

  Sheridan laughed. 'I think Mr Garibaldi needs some help boxing up his stuff in security. Think you can handle that?'

  'Yes sir.' Allan saluted smartly. Sheridan and MacDougan stood to return the salute and Allan about-faced and left.

  Sheridan shook his head. 'He's got more faith in our chances than I have.'

  'We'll get through this, John. One way or another. You've never failed in anything yet that you've put your mind to.'

  'What about that exam back in the Academy?'

  'Like I said, when you put your mind to it you don't fail. As I recall your thoughts were elsewhere at the time. Some young cadet wasn't it?'

  Sheridan cleared his throat. 'OK, OK. You don't miss a thing, do you?' MacDougan chuckled. 'Well, I guess we'd better be heading down and see how much more Garibaldi's got to do.' Together they walked down to security.

  Later, as the last of the boxed-up supplies were carried to the waiting shuttle Garibaldi looked around his old office, shaking his head.

  'I guess I should be sorry to leave this place. I spent so much time here. But after all the things I did in here, I can't wait to get away from it.'

  Sheridan studied him for a moment. 'You know,' he said at last, 'After I was freed from the drugs I had a lot of nightmares. You might want to have a word with Franklin. Get something to help you sleep.'

  'Yeah. I don't think I'm gonna be too comfortable inside my own head for a while. I'll keep that in mind.'

  'I'll go make sure everything's loaded OK,' said MacDougan. 'Then I'll get back to C&C. Anything else you need?'

  'Thanks, Mackie. That's fine. It's been good to talk again.'

  'Sure has. Before we go our separate ways I'll come over to the Telemarchus and see your ship. She's a bit different to the Mistral. You can show me around.'

  'I'd be happy to.'

  MacDougan left and Sheridan looked around. 'That it?' he asked Garibaldi.

  'That's everything.'

  'What about your personal stuff?'

  'Not much of it, and what there is I don't want. None of it's mine. They can burn it for all I care.'

  'In that case, let's get back. I need to clean up and the faster we get to Vallus Twelve, the faster my stomach'll stop growling. Mackie's right. That stuff of Franklin's really does stink.'

  Garibaldi chuckled and together they left the security section.

  They walked down the corridor side by side. As they neared an intersection Garibaldi stiffened. Sheridan paused.

  'What...?'

  'Shh.' Garibaldi motioned Sheridan to keep back and then he carefully moved forward, pulling out the PPG he'd been given back on the Telemarchus. Sheridan drew his own weapon but waited before pushing the cap in so the tell-tale whine didn't give the game away to whoever Garibaldi sensed was waiting for them.

  As the tension mounted Sheridan heard a sound behind him. At that moment Garibaldi shot forward and grabbed someone who was standing around the corner. The two fought as Sheridan turned to see someone bearing down on him.

  'What the...?' Sheridan didn't get to finish the sentence before the man was on him, trying to tear his throat out. The PPG was knocked from his hand as Sheridan fought to get the man under control.

  'What the hell is the matter with you?' he managed to get out through gasps of exertion.

  'You're with him. That murdering bastard. Minbari lovers!' The man wrenched his hand free and brought it around to smack Sheridan across the jaw. He tasted blood but before his assailant could get in another blow he was knocked aside by a kick to the gut. Garibaldi appeared and stood over Sheridan, protecting him.

  'Back off and cool down,' Garibaldi yelled.

  Sheridan slowly got back on his feet and felt his jaw. A split lip, nothing more. Garibaldi continued to hold his PPG levelled at the man. 'You OK?' he asked Sheridan over his shoulder.

  'Fine,' Sheridan replied. 'What happened to the other guy?'

  'He's back there. He'll be OK. Just a splitting headache when he wakes up.'

  'How did you know?'

  'Just call it intuition.' He turned his attention back to the man on the floor. 'OK, Baker. You've got two minutes to explain why you attacked us.'

  'After all you did? You've got to be kidding me!' Baker spat.

  'We all did things we're not proud of while the Minbari had our brains in their hands.'

  'Don't gimme that. You enjoyed it!'

  'Did you ever see me laughing? I was programmed. I did what they programmed me to do. I just did it too damn well. You think I'm proud of it? When I first came to I wanted to gouge out my eyes 'cos they'd seen too much, rip out my tongue for the orders I'd given, and tear out my heart if I could find it. But I couldn't. That ship that's floating alongside the Telemarchus wouldn't let me. I'll be reliving everything I ever did for the rest of my life. They turned me into a murderer and a traitor. You want to shoot me, fine. Do me a favour. At least I'll get some rest. But you leave the Captain out of this. He's working to save all our butts. If anyone's gonna pull this off I reckon he will. Now I'm gonna help him, if I can. I know a lot about High Command -- more than they realise -- and I've got a lot of scores to settle. They made my life hell, and through me everyone else's. Yes, I gave the order that got your brother arrested. It may interest you to know he ain't dead.' Baker stared. 'They reprogrammed him, same as me and same as you. He's alive and working for them. If we get to his ship he'll be released same as we were. I downloaded the file on him and I can show you if you want to see it. Now, let the Captain walk away and do what he has to do. After that, if you still want to kill me, go ahead. I won't stop you.' He lowered the PPG and motioned for Sheridan to leave. Baker slowly stood up.

  'You've got the PPG.'

  'Once Sheridan's gone I'll give it to you.'

  'Garibaldi, no!'

  'Captain, get out of here. They need you.' He reached into his pocket and pulled out a data crystal. 'All the codes you need to access my files are on here.' He tossed the crystal at Sheridan who caught it one handed and stared at it. 'You've also got the codes for High Command. Use them carefully. Once they realise what's happening they'll shut you out and the next time you try to get in they'll trace the signal. Now get out of here.'

  'I won't let you do this.'

  'I'm not giving you a choice. Go!' He positioned himself between Baker and Sheridan. 'You leave the Captain out of this, agreed?' Baker nodded mutely. Garibaldi handed him the PPG. 'Then get it over with.'

  'NO!' Sheridan moved back as Baker raised the PPG. Garibaldi pushed him back down the corridor and turned back to Baker.

  'You've got the gun. Use it!'

  Baker stared at the PPG as his hand began to shake.

  'USE IT!' Garibaldi shouted.

  Baker's finger moved and he stared at Garibaldi who returned the gaze unflinchingly. Then, to Sheridan's amazement, Baker lowered the weapon and shook his head. 'You say my brother's alive?'

  'As alive as you are.'

  'Where?'

  'Last I heard he's on the Damocles. She's in sector five right now, routine patrol work. If you ask Alyt Lennier he may be able to find a way to get you confirmation he's aboard, but he doesn't remember you exist. They took all that away from him. His name's now David Sage, but his face is the same.'

  'How do I know you're not lying to save your ass?'

  'You've got the gun. I've told you what you need to know. You can kill me if you want to. Either way the facts are the same.'

  Sheridan stared transfixed as Baker raised the PPG again. At last he lowered it and shook his head, starting to sob.

  'David Sage?'

  'Yep.'

  'And he's alive.'

  'Unless the food killed him. Sector five is a clear area.'

  Baker handed back the PPG and collapsed to the floor. Garibaldi holstered it just as MacDougan rounded the corner with security guards.

  'What's going on here? We got a report of a fight.'

  'Nothing,' Garibaldi muttered. 'Baker here has just found out his brother's still alive. It's shaken him up a bit. He'll be fine.'

  MacDougan looked at Sheridan. 'What happened to your mouth?'

  Sheridan wiped the blood off his chin and shrugged. 'Would you believe I fell?'

  'No.'

  'I fell.'

  MacDougan shook his head and motioned to the security guards. 'Pick him up and get him to medical. And take that other one with you.' As the guards led the men away he looked at Sheridan. 'I can't leave you alone for a minute can I?'

  Sheridan indicated Garibaldi. 'Popular man.'

  'So I see. Come on, let's get you two back to the Telemarchus before someone else decides to take a swing at you.'

  *****

  Once they were clear of the Mistral Sheridan looked at Garibaldi. 'That was a damn stupid move, giving him the PPG.'

  Garibaldi drew the weapon and aimed it at the back of the shuttle, pulling the trigger. Nothing happened. 'Empty cap,' he said by way of explanation. 'Always carry one just in case. You never know when your gun might end up in the wrong hands.'

  'You're going to be the death of me!'

  'Not if I can help it.'

  Sheridan shook his head and snorted. 'Welcome aboard Mr Garibaldi.'

  'Michael.'

  'OK, Michael. I'm John.'

  'Pleased to meet you.'

  'Likewise.'

  *****

  When they arrived aboard the Telemarchus, Ivanova was waiting for them in C&C. Garibaldi's personal quarters were ready and crew members removed the boxes from the shuttle and ferried them to the new security headquarters. Sheridan ordered Garibaldi to get some rest and sent Vaska with him to see him safely to his quarters. Until they could be certain the crew were satisfied Garibaldi was everything he claimed to be, Sheridan was taking no chances. A message came through from the Mistral saying the Talia and Jason were requesting permission to return to the Telemarchus as the telepaths aboard Lennier's ship now had the situation well in hand. Permission was given and their shuttle docked soon after. The Telemarchus' beacon signal was set to match that to be given by the Mistral, making it appear they were working together to trace Crysar, and in the meantime a course was set for Vallus Twelve.

  Franklin linked in to see if he could give his staff some down time after the hectic activity of the past few days. One look at Sheridan's bruised jaw and Franklin shook his head.

  'Not again! Do you need me to take a look at that?'

  'No, thanks Stephen. I'm fine. Knocked some sense in. Give your staff a break. As long as there's someone on call should they be needed I think you and your staff would be more use to all of us if you got some sleep.'

  Franklin nodded and signed off. The course laid in, the two ships began their journey.

  'Where's Lennier?'

  'I've assigned him separate quarters at his request, but whether he's there or with Delenn I don't know,' Ivanova replied.

  'Knowing Lennier? In his quarters,' Sheridan chuckled. 'Things'll settle down on the Mistral with Mackie in command. They'll get used to it, just like we did.' Sheridan yawned and Ivanova touched his arm.

  'And Stephen's people aren't the only ones who need a break,' she said pointedly. 'Bed, now!'

  Sheridan rubbed his jaw which was stiffening up from the bruising it had taken earlier. 'Hmm. You're probably right. It's going to be awkward shaving tomorrow.'

  'Worry about that tomorrow. It's a day and half journey to Vallus Twelve. We can give the crews a chance to settle and get used to the situation.'

  'What about the food?' The last word was another muffled yawn. 'Sorry.'

  'Franklin's people have managed to get something a little more edible worked out. Things'll be better once we stock up on clean supplies, but for the time being this'll work.' She turned him around and pushed him towards the door, leaving C&C in the hands of the night duty staff. 'Let's get you home.'

  'Yes sir!' he grinned. Ivanova batted him but kept up a gentle pressure, propelling him along the corridor. He paused at an intersection. 'What about Kosh? I ought to speak with him.'

  'No, you shouldn't. He went back to his own ship a short while ago.'

  'The other telepaths. How are they...?'

  'No more questions. Everything's fine.' They'd reached his quarters.

  Sheridan inserted his pass key and stepped inside. Ivanova followed and locked the door behind them. Sheridan went straight to the bathroom, discarding his clothes as he went, and climbed in the shower. A few minutes later he emerged, looking cleaner but tired, a towel around his waist. Ivanova snagged another towel and followed his example. When she returned Sheridan was sprawled across the bed, snoring quietly. She nudged him gently and he snorted.

  'Wha...?'

  'Move over. You're hogging the bed.'

  He smiled and moved, taking off the towel and pulling the covers on top of him. Ivanova sat on the edge of the bed for a while drying her hair, then got up and ran a brush through it before returning to the bed. For a moment she simply stood there, watching Sheridan sleep. The purple bruise on his jaw was becoming more pronounced. It was certainly going to take a while to go down, but the swelling on his lip had muted somewhat. Gently, she leaned down and touched her lips to his. He didn't react, but she hadn't expected him to. She pulled off the towel and slipped into the bed beside him, giving a sharp tug to retrieve more of the covers from his grip. He grunted in his sleep and rolled over. She pressed herself up against his back, kissed his shoulder and settled down to sleep.

*****

Part 18

  The next day, when the alarm went off, Ivanova woke quickly and silenced it. Peering at Sheridan in the dim light provided by the computers she saw he was still out cold. She got up, showered, put on her uniform and slipped out without disturbing him. Reaching C&C she checked everything was running smoothly. MacDougan linked in to tell her he'd called a meeting of senior officers aboard the Mistral to try and explain things so that they could get their various sections in line. After such a good start the Mistral was proving less willing to accept a Minbari aboard than the Telemarchus. MacDougan assured Ivanova the problem would be settled that day or he'd have the heads of those still holding out. The first meeting would be held at nine and he'd have a second at one to see how things were going. In between he'd be making personal calls on some areas. He'd contact her after the one o'clock meeting to let her know the situation.

  The ship was still on course for Vallus Twelve and no problems were anticipated. Lennier came up to the command deck to hear the latest. He shook his head at the trouble the Mistral crew were causing.

  'I am sorry, Commander. I wish I could suggest a solution.'

  'It's not your problem, Alyt Lennier. It's theirs, and they're just gonna have to learn to live with it. Humans are a pragmatic bunch on the whole. Once they realise they've got no choice they'll sort themselves out.'

  'Perhaps I should speak to them?'

  'Ah, no. Not right now. Once Captain MacDougan has them a little more amenable, then I think that'll be a good idea, but not yet. Delenn can tell you what she went through, and perhaps she can give you some tips on what's best to say. I think the main fear is that once we get this other race sorted out the Minbari will either try and take us over again, or skip out without paying for what they did. People have a genuine beef, and it needs to be addressed.'

  Lennier cocked his head. 'Beef? What has animal meat got to do with it?'

  'Sorry. They're angry and they have genuine reasons for wanting the Minbari to make reparations for their attack and subsequent activities.'

  'It was war, Commander,' returned Lennier, a little stiffly. 'All peoples enforce laws on the defeated.'

  'Yes, but they don't usually reprogram them, torture them, kill en masse or otherwise turn the defeated into slaves, not for a few thousand years anyway.' Ivanova eyed him as she listed the Minbari crimes. Lennier sighed and nodded.

  'You are right. Our methods have been...excessive. I am not proud of what some of my people have done, Commander. I just hope some common ground can be found. I do not want our two peoples to win a war against the Shadows only to kill each other afterwards.'

  'Neither do we. The faster we learn to live together the better. And I'm glad to hear you think we can win this war that's coming. Captain Sheridan isn't so convinced.'

  'We will win,' Lennier replied, turning to leave. 'The alternative is too terrible to contemplate.'

  Ivanova watched him leave and sighed. 'Nice thought.' She looked up at the command crew who were clearly dwelling on Lennier's passing shot. 'Like he said, we're gonna win this one, so don't worry about it.' A large number still looked unconvinced. 'Well, *I'm* gonna win, and you know what happens to people who cross me, right?' Slow smiles spread across the faces in front of her. She nodded. 'Now, is there anything else I need to know about?' Other reports were promptly delivered and Ivanova scanned them. Everything was running normally and there was nothing to be done until they reached the supply station. She looked up. 'In that case, since I'm not needed, I'll leave you to it. Contact me if you need anything.'

  'Yes, Commander. Where will we find you?'

  Ivanova paused for a moment and then sighed. There was absolutely no point in trying to hide what was common knowledge anyway. 'I'll be in Captain Sheridan's quarters.'

  'Understood.' The Lieutenant Commander smiled and nodded. It wasn't a sly or unpleasant smile: merely an acknowledgement of the situation and acceptance of same.

  'You have the command deck, Lieutenant Commander.'

  'Yes sir.'

  They exchanged salutes and Ivanova left. She made a few rounds, checking Medlab and looking in on Garibaldi. He was up to his ears in wiring and as she walked in she heard a muttered 'Damn!' followed by 'There you are you little...'

  'Mr Garibaldi,' she interrupted before he said something he'd regret. His bald head rose up from behind a bank of computer equipment.

  'Commander. Anything I can do for you?'

  'No, just checking to see how you're settling in.'

  'Fine, once I get this thing connected.' He squatted down, swore some more and then let out a satisfied grunt. 'Got it.'

  Banks of computers sprang into life and Garibaldi kicked aside a box and reached into another one to pull out a chair which he dumped in front of one of the consoles and began running checks.

  'Need any help?'

  'Yeah, I could use someone to take all this junk out of here. And I need a new vid screen. That one,' he pointed to one console whose screen remained stubbornly blank 'Got damaged in transit. Nothing major, but it'd be quicker to replace it than fix it, if you've got a replacement aboard that is.'

  'I'm sure we've got a spare. How are you managing with the crew?'

  'I came down here early. You're the first visitor I've had. I'm trying to keep a low profile for now.'

  'Wise move.'

  He nodded and continued to tap into his computer, moving his hands over the various consoles as though he were a musician mixing a complicated symphony.

  'When I've got all this sorted out I'll show you and Captain Sheridan how to operate it. That way, if anything happens to me you can still use it.'

  'You don't reckon your chances much, do you?'

  'Do you?'

  'They'll come around. Bailing out the Captain yesterday certainly didn't do any harm.'

  'He told you what happened?'

  'Not exactly. I can put two and two together.'

  'You should be in security.'

  'Thanks, I'll pass.' She watched him for a minute more and then 'Well, if you're OK I'll send someone down to help you out with the packing stuff. If you need me, I'll be in Sheridan's quarters.'

  Garibaldi looked up. 'Oh?' He wondered if she meant what he thought she meant.

  'You have a problem with that?'

  Yep. That *was* what she meant. Garibaldi thought for a moment. 'Not really. None of my business.'

  'But?' Might as well deal with it head on.

  'Well, it's not really Minbari or standard Earthforce policy, is it? I mean, what are you going to do if half the crew decide they want to sleep with each other? Not exactly setting a good example are you?'

  'My sex life is not their concern, and I hardly think that's going to happen. As for our other loyalties, we're neither one thing nor the other right now, so frankly I don't care.' She glared at him, inviting him to contradict her. Garibaldi merely shrugged.

  'If it suits you it suits me. Might turn out to be more trouble than it's worth if the Minbari capture either of you and find out.'

  'Now you sound like Delenn.'

  'I hate to say this, but she's right.'

  'If it happens, we'll deal with it then. Until then...'

  'I'll do my best to see it doesn't happen.'

  Ivanova considered him for a moment. 'You know, for someone who was so good working for the other side, you sure have switched smoothly.'

  He nodded in the direction of the starboard side of the ship. 'Blame that Vorlon out there. He has a way of explaining things. Well, his ship has.'

  'John said more or less the same thing when he went over there.'

  'It's a...unique experience, I can tell you that.'

  'They seem to be a unique race.'

  'Hmm.' Garibaldi didn't reply but Ivanova saw that there was something bothering him.

  'Something you'd like to share with me, Mr Garibaldi?'

  'No. Not right now. Later, maybe. Ask the Captain.' He turned back to the computer and wouldn't be drawn any further on the subject. Ivanova watched him for a while and then left.

  When she arrived back at Sheridan's quarters she let herself in as quietly as she could. The lounge was deserted and she entered the bedroom to find Sheridan still asleep.

  'Man, you *were* tired,' she muttered. A part of her found the idea of getting back into bed very appealing, but she was up and dressed and there were reports that had to be checked and signed. If she didn't do it, Sheridan would have to when he woke up, and by then there would be another pile. She closed the doors to the bedroom, took off her jacket and settled down to the reports which she called up on the computer.

  Three hours later she'd done everything there was to do, and even cleared a backlog. Rubbing her eyes she leaned back in the chair, dumping the last signed paper on the table. Sleep was even more inviting. As she lay there she saw the light dim slightly behind her closed eyelids, then she felt the touch of lips on her forehead. Opening her eyes she looked up into Sheridan's smiling face.

  'You look better,' she grinned and leaned up to accept the second kiss on the lips.

  'Better than you right now. What have you been doing?'

  'Clearing out all those old forms and today's load. You needed a break.'

  He padded across to the kitchen, wearing the towel he'd had on the night before. Ivanova hadn't heard the shower but he'd clearly had one. /Too lost in the reports to notice/ she thought.

  'You need one too. Is everything running smoothly?'

  'Yep. MacDougan's still having some trouble, but he said he'd call later and let us know. Nothing he can't handle, he says.'

  'Mackie'll sort it out,' Sheridan nodded and re-heated some coffee. He poured a mug and took a swig. 'Mph. Still too bitter, but better than before.' He raised the mug to Ivanova. 'Want some?'

  'Please.'

  He poured a second mug and carried it over. He handed it to her and then collapsed on the settee with his own. He took a deep drink and then sighed. 'God, I needed that! You shouldn't have let me sleep in, but thanks. I didn't know how tired I was.'

  'Your jaw's looking better.'

  He rubbed it carefully. 'Yeah. That guy packed quite a punch. He ought to be in a boxing team.'

  'What happened?'

  'What do you think? Someone who didn't like Garibaldi or the Minbari and assumed I was on the other side or something. I dunno. How's Garibaldi doing?'

  'He's got his HQ set up. I've ordered a new vid screen for him from stores. One of his got damaged coming over. He reckons the other can be fixed, it'll just take a while.' Sheridan grunted and continued sipping his coffee. 'John?'

  'Hmm?'

  'Garibaldi said something earlier, and it reminded me about that conversation we were going to have. Remember?'

  Sheridan stared at his coffee. 'I remember.'

  'I think Kosh's ship told him the same stuff Kosh told us.' Sheridan nodded but said nothing. 'Do you want to talk about it?'

  'Do you?'

  'Not sure. It's another world. Not this one. Weird though. I was wondering about you and Delenn...'

  'Like you say, it's another world. Not this one. I'm happy with what I've got here. And I didn't go much on what happened to me in that other world.'

  'I can't say I was exactly thrilled by it. Will we have to go through the same thing here as well, do you think? In order to beat the Shadows I mean?'

  'God, I hope not!' Sheridan got up and refilled his cup. 'You want more?' Ivanova shook her head. He put the jug back on the warmer and walked back to the chair. 'I'm hoping there's another way. Despite appearances I don't actually have a death wish.'

  'Tell Franklin. He'll be relieved to hear it.' Sheridan snorted. Ivanova looked at him in silence for a moment. 'You're sure you're happy?'

  Sheridan put his mug down and looked at her. 'Yes. I'm sure.' He smiled and patted the seat beside him. Ivanova stood up and stepped around the table to settle down next to him. 'I did wonder for a while. Not because of you,' he added quickly. 'I just saw how much that other me loved her. I don't think I've ever loved anyone that much. Not even Anna. I don't think I'm capable of it. Maybe, once, but too much has happened.' He turned and looked down at Ivanova who was staring at the wall. 'Sorry. That was the wrong thing to say. I guess I should say I love you as much as I can, and as much as I'll ever love anyone in this universe.' He ran his fingers through her hair and then turned her chin to look at him. 'And I don't want you to leave me. Delenn's right. It is dangerous, but we've got a lot ahead of us, and I'm not sure I can do it alone. I've been alone far too long. I think that's the problem. It'll take me time to get used to having someone else around. But I want to get used to it, if you'll let me.' Ivanova smiled. 'Good enough?' he asked.

  'Good enough.'

  He continued to stroke her hair as she snuggled against him. 'So, who's running the ship?'

  'First shift, just about to swap over. There'll be another report, but nothing's happened so we can relax for a while.'

  The comm beeped and Sheridan sighed. 'Never fails.' He got up and then considered his attire. 'Computer, audio only. Yes, who is it?'

  'Sir, I have a message coming through from Captain MacDougan,' came the disembodied voice.

  'All right, put it through.'

  'John? Where are you?'

  'Computer, full receive.'

  'Ah. Oh! Sorry!'

  'That's OK. I just got out of the shower. What can I do for you?'

  'Thought you'd be pleased to hear I've managed to get the crew over here sorted and Alyt Lennier can return.' MacDougan was grinning.

  'I'm impressed. What did you do, sell your soul?'

  'Almost. I'll act as liaison, at least at the start, but I made them actually take a look at Lennier's record. Reminded them of a few things he did while in charge. He's done a good job, even if they didn't like to admit it. And they can't deny his knowledge of the Minbari or the fact that if the Mistral turns up with anyone else in charge the Minbari'll shoot first and ask questions later.'

  'True.'

  'I had to knock a few of the thicker skulls together, but they got there in the end. Anyway, if he's ready I've got an honour guard waiting to receive him.'

  'OK. I'll contact Delenn and explain the situation. I'll let you know when he's on his way. Thanks Mackie. Sheridan out.' He sighed and turned to the bedroom. 'Guess I'd better make myself vaguely respectable.'

  When he reappeared a few minutes later he was wearing his uniform, but Ivanova noticed his feet were bare.

  'I take it you've got nothing on under that jacket and trousers?'

  'The minute this is over with, I'm off duty. Unless she needs to discuss this in person I see no reason to put on anything more than an appearance of respectability.' He turned to the comm channel as Ivanova stifled a laugh. 'Computer. Patch me through to Delenn's quarters.'

  A few seconds later Delenn appeared on the screen. 'Yes, Captain?'

  'Just to let you know the Mistral is ready for Lennier's return. Captain MacDougan will be acting as crew liaison until they get used to things, but MacDougan's a good man. I don't think Lennier will have any cause for complaint.'

  Lennier appeared beside Delenn and then took over the comm channel. 'Captain. Am I to take it I am no longer Alyt of the Mistral?' There was an edge in his voice. Sheridan shook his head.

  'It took a while to make the crew see sense, but you seem to have done a pretty good job at selling yourself. They understand how much they need you. MacDougan is just going to help smooth some ruffled feathers.'

  Lennier frowned and turned to Delenn. A few muttered words later and Lennier nodded. 'Your idioms are sometimes confusing to me, but Delenn has explained your meaning. I cannot say I am entirely happy with the situation. The Mistral is, after all, my ship. But I do not think I have much choice in this, do I?'

  'No, you don't. I'm sorry, Lennier, but imagine how you'd feel if the situation was reversed.'

  'Suppose I refuse to return to my ship under these conditions?'

  'Then the Mistral will just have to try and get along without you and be prepared to fight when the Minbari find out what's happened. I don't know how you feel about your crew, but I know I couldn't bear the thought of mine going into battle without me.' Sheridan held Lennier's gaze. He was a good officer, there was no denying that. Sheridan was gambling that he was as dedicated a Captain as himself. Lennier's eventual slow nod reassured him.

  'I will return. And I can assure you, Captain, the Warrior Caste knows how to earn the respect of their men. We do not need drugs, despite what some seem to believe. I will win the right to captain my ship again.'

  Sheridan eyed Lennier and then nodded. 'Of that I have no doubt. Good luck, Alyt Lennier. May you win all your battles and return safe or, if that is not to be, die honourably, surrounded by the bodies of your slain enemies.' It was a paraphrase of a Warrior Caste blessing, and Sheridan had shortened it considerably, but the effect was more or less the same. Lennier saluted in the manner of his caste, and Sheridan returned it after Earthforce fashion, suddenly feeling very under-dressed. Lennier cut the link and Sheridan slowly lowered his arm and stood, staring at the screen for a moment. Ivanova stood up and rested a hand on his shoulder. 'He's a brave man,' Sheridan said thoughtfully.

  Ivanova nodded but said nothing. Both were lost in the implications of the blessing. After a while Ivanova drew a breath. 'Do you think we ought to go down and see him off?'

  'No, Delenn will see to that. In any case, we're going to be seeing him again many times before this is over.' As Sheridan walked away from the screen and slowly unbuttoned his jacket Ivanova heard him quietly mutter 'I hope.'

  Maudlin. He was far too maudlin today. Worrying about too many things he could do nothing about for now. She decided it was time to lighten the mood. As he finished unbuttoning his jacket she helped him ease it off his shoulders. He smiled and turned to face her while she draped the jacket over the back of the chair. 'So, what would you like to do with out day of freedom?' His smile didn't quite reach his eyes, but he tried, and Ivanova was happy to accept that until she could help to quiet the demons that were tormenting him.

  'Whatever you want.' she said, moving around him and slowly stroking her hand over his chest 'Whatever will take you mind off what we're doing for a while.'

  He shook his head. 'It's not that easy,' he sighed.

  She reached up and stroked his cheek. 'I know.'

  He leaned into her hand and then turned to kiss the palm, smiling sadly. 'How about if we just relax around here and see what happens, hmm? I might even be able to find some old vid somewhere.'

  'Minbari approved? No thanks, I'll pass.' She hesitated and then decided to ask the other question nagging in her brain. 'John, Garibaldi had me wondering about this enemy we're going to be fighting. Have you any idea what they're like? I mean, I didn't get too clear an impression from Kosh. It was jumbled.'

  Sheridan looked at her strangely. 'You couldn't see them?'

  'Not sure. Something, but it was hazy. Maybe he wasn't so clear with me.'

  'Well, I'll tell you this much, I'm not looking forward to meeting them. As ancient as the Vorlons and as dedicated to their cause. Two sides of the same coin. We've got telepaths, which'll help, and Kosh has warned us what's to come. Somehow we've got to find the middle ground. Defend ourselves against the Shadows, not get in too deep with the Vorlons, and then get away from both of them with our hides intact. And this is all after we've freed our fleet from the Minbari and somehow staved off their retribution. We've got to beat them, but not destroy them; win our freedom and then keep them as allies. I'll be honest, I've no idea how we're going to do it. I can tell the crews but they're not going to believe it until one of those Shadow ships comes knocking on Earth's door, by which time it'll be too late. We've been lucky so far. Lennier and Delenn are unusual for Minbari. Sooner or later we're gonna meet the Minbari equivalent of Simon Le Gree, and when that happens all hell's gonna be let loose.' He sighed, shaking his head and lowered himself onto the settee. 'Scares the shit out of me,' he muttered.

  Ivanova settled down beside him as he buried his head in his hands, squeezing his eyes tight shut for a while and then staring, as if he was trying to see the future. 'John. You're not responsible. We'll do everything that we can. We'll free them, explain things to them, leave crew on their ships to help settle them. We can remove Minbari who are more trouble than they're worth if we have to and put our own officers in charge. God knows we've got enough spares. You're responsible for this ship, nothing more. All you can do is your best. Don't keep piling more guilt on your own shoulders. You're carrying too much as it is.'

  He looked up. 'Guilty? I don't feel guilty.'

  'Tell that to your face. Your not responsible for Corwin; you're not responsible for Crysar; you're not responsible for those crew members who can't adapt, and it's not your fault we lost the Battle of the Line.' She took a deep breath. 'You're responsible for this ship doing its job, and so far it's managed brilliantly. You can be proud of yourself.'

  He grinned. 'You're determined aren't you?'

  'All part of being second in command. I think 'reminding the Captain he's human' is in the small print somewhere.' Sheridan snorted and Ivanova chuckled. 'That's better.' A yawn escaped her lips and she swiftly smothered it. 'Sorry.'

  'Did I snore again last night?'

  She shook her head. 'Not that I know of. Last night was a short course in death as far as I was concerned. You could have had a bomb go off and I'd've slept through it.'

  'Looks to me like you ought to crawl back under the covers for a while.'

  'What about you?'

  'Well, I was wondering if you'd mind some company. And maybe, when you're feeling a bit more awake, we could, uh...' he smiled and reached up to undo the top buttons of her shirt.

  'I've always found I sleep better after exercise. How about you?'

  'Definitely.'

  She watched his face as he slowly undid more buttons and then pushed the fabric aside to kiss the exposed skin. She leaned back and sighed. This was more like it. Not that she didn't have enough of her own worries, but Ivanova had learned a long time ago that you couldn't keep looking at the past, or worry about the future. You had to live for the here and now. Learn from the past and hope for the future, yes, but not try and live there.

  The caresses continued and soon, despite her earlier tiredness, she found herself responding. By mutual, but unspoken, consent, they moved into the bedroom and soon both forgot their worries as they lost themselves in each other.

*****

Part 19

  They were two hours from Vallus Twelve when Sheridan and Ivanova returned to duty. Pacing his office Sheridan expressed his fears to his second in command. 'If we warn them in advance the supplies'll be waiting for us, but a Minbari ship might turn up before we finish loading. If we wait until we get there, the delivery'll take longer and someone still might get out a message to High Command.'

  'Can we block off-world communications until we're finished?' Ivanova asked.

  'Possibly, but the minute we're gone a message'd be sent. There's no love lost between the League and the Minbari-Earth Empire.' He snorted as he considered the title. 'Yeah, like THAT means anything!' Ivanova nodded but said nothing. 'Still, there could be spies. Frankly, I'd be surprised if there weren't.' He considered for a moment and then tapped the comm panel. 'Mr Garibaldi, could I see you in my office, please?'

  'On my way, Captain.'

  A few minutes later Garibaldi walked through the door, his telepath shadows a step behind him. Sheridan sighed at the necessity of the guards and privately hoped they would not be needed for much longer.

  'We have a problem,' he said, motioning for all to find somewhere to sit. The telepaths found chairs at the back of the room and tried to make themselves as inconspicuous as possible, a courtesy for which Sheridan was grateful.

  'Shoot.'

  'Vallus Twelve. Do you know of any Minbari spies there who could tell High Command about our supply drop?'

  Garibaldi thought for a moment and then looked up. 'Yeah, there are a couple, but they know me. I think I can get them to keep their mouths shut, for a while at least.'

  'Are they working for the Minbari because they want to or because they're forced to?'

  Another pause for thought. 'Well, Ka'toc would work for damn near anyone if you paid him enough, and the Minbari pay him well. Morden I don't know about. He claims loyalty to the Minbari and he's supplied good information up until now, though sometimes he's a little late. But I've got other sources that say he's working for the League. Never been able to prove anything so I left him alone, but I can give you his records if it'd help?'

  'Sure. Anything you've got.'

  Garibaldi walked to the communications console and called up his own records, flipping through to the right one. Sheridan looked at the picture of the man. Dark hair, penetrating eyes, clean cut and a smile. The record itself was routine to the point of boredom for someone in Morden's profession. Nothing outstanding, nothing that drew attention in any way. Sheridan grunted and turned to Garibaldi.

  'So you think this Ka'toc is a worry?' he asked, dismissing Morden for the time being. 'I think he's a mercenary. He'll keep our secret so long as we can keep paying him. The minute we stop....' he left the phrase hanging in the air.

  'I take it from the name he's a Narn?'

  Garibaldi called up the record. 'Uh huh. Used to be Thenta Makur before the Minbari bombed Narn back to the Stone Age.'

  'I thought the Narn Assassins' Guild had a strict code of conduct? They can't renege on a contract once it's been agreed,' Ivanova said, turning from the picture to Garibaldi.

  'True, but now the Guild's gone I think he grabs whatever he can wherever he can get it. He knows the Narn civilisation, such as it is, hasn't long left to it. Might as well make the most of whatever's going.'

  'Sounds charming,' muttered Sheridan and flipped off the console. 'Can you find these guys before they get the chance to do anything?'

  'I can contact them. Make it sound official. So far the Minbari haven't realised the Mistral's on the other side, so we still have that edge. Better make the most of it.'

  'I intend to. You want the Telemarchus to hang back and let The Mistral get the supplies?'

  Garibaldi shook his head. 'With the amount you're asking for? You need two ships.'

  'Hmm.'' Sheridan turned away and thought for a moment, 'I wonder....' he murmured to himself.

  Ivanova watched Sheridan for a moment and then sighed. 'He's getting that look again,' she warned. 'Now we're in trouble.'

  Sheridan ignored her. 'Michael, how much do those spies down there know about Minbari ships?'

  'What do you mean?'

  'As in designations, location, that sort of thing?'

  'They know how to check records if they need to. Specifics? I'd say no.'

  'And if you told them this was highly classified, would they believe you?'

  'They'll believe anything I tell them to so long as they're paid enough. The Minbari often found it useful for certain 'facts' to fall into the 'wrong' hands, only to be disproved later when the killing started. Anyone ever tells you Minbari don't lie they're a Minbari. Everyone else knows they lie through their bonecrests.'

  'Right. In that case, why don't we try this....?' and Sheridan outlined his plan.

  *****

  Lennier was asked to give the orders for the supply deliveries while Garibaldi, carefully maintaining the formal tone he used when under Minbari control, contacted Ka'Toc and Morden. Ostensibly he was checking for information on the goings-on within the League for the benefit of his Minbari masters. Ka'Toc mentioned some incursions by what were claimed to be raiding parties along the borders, but he couldn't give specifics. All he knew was that no one had survived the encounters to give a full report. Morden, when contacted, said he had come across some information on Centauri activity that might of general interest. Garibaldi downloaded the information as he listened to Morden's report. He scanned it but found nothing particularly out of the ordinary, although that was a relative term where the outlandish Centauri were concerned. Old Londo Mollari was up to his usual tricks trying to pull the wool over Lord Refa's eyes but, as usual, Refa had outwitted him. Garibaldi sighed. When would that fool Mollari realise he was never going to be anything more than a pawn in Centauri affairs? Emperor Farno, chosen by Prime Minister Malachi after Turhan's death, was having his usual struggles trying to hold the squabbling royal houses together while keeping them far enough apart that their knives and poisons couldn't reach their intended targets. Morden was still talking and something in his words made Garibaldi suddenly sit up and take notice.

  'Mr Morden, I was distracted. What were you saying?'

  'I said everything's been pretty boring of late, apart from the usual.'

  'You have been down to the ports?'

  'Of course. I always check in there.'

  'Is anyone saying anything of interest? Anything at all?'

  'No,' Morden smiled. 'Nothing of any consequence. Why do you ask?'

  Garibaldi shook his head. 'I like to make sure you are keeping up your end of the bargain, that is all.' He paused for a moment and then added, 'I will be coming down to the planet shortly. I have some information that needs to be made available to certain parties. I do not trust this channel. Would you meet me at Quixo's Bar?'

  'Of course, Mr Garibaldi. Whatever you want.'

  Garibaldi dropped the link and sat, tapping the screen with his finger for a moment. Something wasn't right here. Morden could be a little slow sometimes but he would never miss a reference to raider activity, unless it was something more, something he was being paid to keep to himself. Recalling Ka'Toc's report Garibaldi scanned it again. Unknown attack patterns, no survivors, targets that seemed poor at best and irrelevant at worst. Nothing to do with their activities (for which he heaved a sigh of relief), but something that was definitely out of the ordinary. So why did Morden claim he'd heard nothing of this? He tapped the communications module, ensuring the line was scrambled.

  'Garibaldi to Sheridan,'

  'Sheridan here, go.'

  'I'm going down to the planet. There's something in Morden's report that's got my bullshit detectors itching.'

  'Anything to do with us?' asked Sheridan, concerned.

  'Nope, not us, but I think it might be important. I'll link in when I get something.'

  'Are you going to be all right down there on your own?'

  'I always went down alone before. Crysar was too big a target. If I start turning up with guards in tow they're gonna know something's up. Anyway, it'll give me a chance to check up on the shipments. How's it going?'

  'Fine, so far as I know. I've got Sterns running all the interference. He seems to like being Captain,' Sheridan chuckled.

  'I'll bet. Lennier tells me our deliveries are proceeding as normal but we've got another three hours before everything's aboard. That'll give me enough time to do what I want.'

  'Keep in contact, Michael. I don't want to lose you so soon after we got you!'

  Garibaldi nodded. 'Don't worry. I know how to watch my back. Been doing it long enough. Garibaldi out.'

  Shortly afterwards a lone shuttle departed the Mistral and arrowed down towards the planet, causing a red streak in the atmosphere as the re-entry pulled at the hull.

  *****

  'We've got a shuttle asking for landing clearance.'

  Marcus Cole lowered his paper and looked up. 'Who's aboard?'

  'Michael Garibaldi.'

  Cole shuddered. 'On one of his intelligence gathering runs I'll bet. Give him clearance and make sure he gets to his usual dock. You know the trouble he kicks up if we try and side-track him.'

  'Yes sir.'

  Cole leaned back in his chair, deep in thought. After a while he slowly folded his paper and stood up. 'Have we got any other ships due in?'

  'None for the next two hours. With those two ships taking on nearly everything we have, even if we did get another call I doubt we could oblige them for a day at least.'

  'Right. I'm going to take a walk. Get Miller in here to take the watch. He can catch up on his sleep.'

  'Yes sir. Where will you be if we need you?'

  'Around. I'll be back within the hour anyway.' He gave a vague wave and left the control tower.

  *****

  Reaching Garibaldi's docking area he quickly traced the path of the Minbari Security Officer and ascertained he was on his own as was his wont. 'Got you now you bastard!' he muttered. Marcus had worked long and hard to get to this position. Hitchhiking on freighters and any other ships that would give him passage without question to get away from Zagros Seven, lurking in bars, listening and learning. It had taken two years to find that Garibaldi used contacts here on Vallus Twelve and that he saw them alone. The information had been costly, but it had been worth it. Then another five years to rise to the rank of operations controller. Garibaldi had visited the planet a few times since Marcus had reached that position, but he bided his time. He wanted to be sure he knew the man's every move. Garibaldi's capacity for escape seemed limitless. He'd studied and he'd learned. Now, at last, he felt he was in a position to do what had to be done. Before the end of the day, Michael Garibaldi would be dead and Marcus Cole long gone.

  *****

  Garibaldi made his way to Quixo's Bar and sat in his usual corner. In deference to his position the barman served him something Minbari. Garibaldi nodded his thanks but left the drink on the table, as was his habit. It was for appearances only.

  A short time later Morden entered and sat down beside him. Another drink was brought and Garibaldi offered his chit to pay for it. As they bent to talk another figure entered and sat at an empty table, ordering a drink. He sipped quietly, watching the passing citizenry, while all the time keeping one eye on Garibaldi's table.

  'So,' said Morden. 'What did you want to see me about?'

  'This,' Garibaldi replied, handing over the raider reports from Ka'Toc.

  Morden looked at it for a while and shrugged. 'Can't be anything important or my contacts would have mentioned it.'

  'You know, Mr Morden, my bullshit detector is buzzing like a bluebottle on a windowpane right now.' Morden's eyebrows went up at the phrase. Since when did Mr Garibaldi use such colourful terminology? 'I think you are lying. I think you know something about this and are trying to keep it from me. Why is that Mr Morden?'

  'I'm sorry you don't believe me, but it's the truth. I've heard nothing about this. If you want I'll check with my contacts and see if Ka'Toc is making this up. He might just want a bonus, you know.'

  'He doesn't get bonuses. He risks death if he lies to me. Why does that same fear not worry you?'

  'Because I haven't lied.'

  'Then how do you explain this?'

  'I can't, right now. Give me a few hours and I'll find out what happened.' The smile appeared again and Garibaldi stared into Morden's eyes. He was so self-assured. So certain nothing could touch him. He had an ace up his sleeve but for the life of him Garibaldi couldn't figure out what it was. He swatted at a buzzing sound near his ear. Morden continued to smile but looked distracted, as though he was listening to something. 'Excuse me, Mr Garibaldi. I won't be a minute.' He indicated the door to the bathrooms and stood. Garibaldi sat back and watched him walk to the door and enter.

  /What's with that guy? Why is he so certain I can't touch him? Does he know about the Mistral?/ Garibaldi sat deep in thought for a moment and then shook his head. /No, if he did he wouldn't meet me, unless he planned to capture me.../ He looked around but the bar was largely empty. A young man, bearded, dark-haired and lanky sat nursing a drink on a nearby table. At another a pilot was arranging a price with a hooker. The barman was polishing glasses behind the bar. Otherwise, the place was silent. Through the open door to the street Garibaldi could see people passing to and fro, going about their business. No sign of guards or hired thugs or any of the characters he would usually associate with a set up. A bomb, perhaps? Garibaldi looked around his table but saw no suspicious packages. He knew there was no way out of the toilets except via the main door, so anything bigger would kill Morden along with him. As he looked at the toilet door it opened and Morden emerged, returning to the table.

  'Sorry about that. This beer goes right through you.' He finished the drink. 'Perhaps we could go back to my place? I can contact my people and we can clear all this up.'

  'Now why would I want to go to your place? I prefer public meetings as you well know.' Every sense Garibaldi had told him he was in trouble, but he couldn't figure out the source of the danger. Morden, certainly, but not like this. There had to be something else.

  'I can assure you I only suggest it as all my addresses and communications equipment are there, but we can use another console if you'll just give me time to fetch my data crystal.' He shrugged and smiled. Garibaldi was already heartily sick of that smile. 'Whatever you want, whatever makes you happy. After all, that's what I'm paid for.'

  Garibaldi hesitated and then nodded. 'I'll wait here. Go fetch your data crystal. We can use the communications room in the stellar port.'

  'Of course, I'll go and get it.' He stood up and then paused. 'Ahh, sorry, just had a thought. My crystal won't work there. The encryption key isn't accepted because of the security risks. They like to be able to monitor calls from important public places, as I'm sure you know. But there's a bar just over the way that'll work. Would that be acceptable?' Still dubious Garibaldi nodded. 'I'll be right back,' Morden smiled and left the bar. Again Garibaldi checked around. Still no device, still no thugs. The pilot left with the girl on his arm, the deal apparently having been concluded to her satisfaction. The lanky young man continued to sip his drink and gave Garibaldi a 'what are you looking at?' expression when his gaze paused for too long. Morden reappeared fifteen minutes later and indicated Garibaldi should follow him. A few minutes after they left the young man also stood up, taking the same route.

  The route to the other bar was along the main street for much of the time and Morden chatted amiably. Then he indicated a side street and Garibaldi was once again on his guard. He looked around but saw no one suspicious. After a brief pause he turned and followed Morden.

  A few seconds later the young man came back out of the shop he had ducked into when he saw his quarry pause at the intersection. He made his way to the alleyway and peered around the corner, seeing Garibaldi take another turn. 'Well, well,' he muttered to himself. 'Mr Garibaldi certainly likes the seedier parts of town doesn't he?' He followed.

  The lane got narrower, darker and Garibaldi lost his patience. 'All right, enough of this. Where exactly are you taking me?'

  The buzzing sound he'd heard in the bar grew stronger and out of the corner of his eye he thought he saw movement, as though the shadows themselves were coming alive.

  'Nowhere. My associates would like a word with you, Mr Garibaldi. You wanted to know where I got my information from, and they would like to show you.'

  The buzzing grew louder and the shadows became more distinct.

  'What the hell?' Garibaldi felt something grab his leg. He pulled away only to find something hard and edged ripping into his shoulder. The shadows were still a little indistinct but as he watched they seemed to grow more solid. In horror he saw the nightmares Kosh's ship had shown him. 'NO!' he yelled, trying to pull away. 'You bastard! You're in league with them!'

  'I'd relax if I were you. It's much less painful,' Morden smiled, backing away to give his associates room to manoeuvre.

  From his position around the corner Marcus stared dumbstruck as something dark and terrible began to tear at Garibaldi. For a moment he considered simply walking away, but something made him stop. Something just wasn't right here. Garibaldi was still yelling, still struggling.

  'Do you know what you're dealing with?' His hand flew out, the heel catching the Shadow creature under its faceplate and forcing it up onto its hind legs. It rocked briefly, stunned to actually encounter an opponent who fought back, and Garibaldi swung around to put a boot heel into the hard chest-plate of the other. He dropped down, swinging one leg to try and unbalance the creature, but with three legs on each side it merely lifted two and balanced on the hind one before stabbing down. Garibaldi rolled, finding a piece of metal bar, the remnants of a piece of furniture that had been dumped in the alleyway. Standing he swung the bar in front of him, threatening the creatures. As they inched forward he took a swing. The faceplate of one turned sideways with the blow and then came back, the eyes glowing with menace. 'These creatures'll kill us all. They don't care about anyone or anything. Human, Minbari...' he took another swing, backing away 'Narn, Centauri. It doesn't matter to them.' Another swing and another step backwards, but he was running out of room. 'For god's sake, you want to destroy everyone? What the hell did they offer you?'

  'Whatever I wanted. What do YOU want, Mr Garibaldi? Tell them. They'll be happy to oblige...for a price.'

  'No way. There ain't nothin' they could offer me that'd be worth it.' He was now backed completely against the wall and he looked desperately from side to side, trying to find a way out. Another swing and the creature reared up, catching the bar in its legs and twisting it out of Garibaldi's grasp. It flew down the alleyway and rolled to a halt too far away for Garibaldi's desperate reach. He feinted away and then tried to make a dash for it, but one of the Shadow creatures blocked his escape. It reared up again, its front limb poised to strike and then, amazingly, it twisted, a scream of agony filling the alleyway. Black gore dripped down its front legs and it turned giving Garibaldi a view of his saviour. It was Cole.

  'What the hell?'

  'Shut up and keep fighting!' Cole yelled, pulling out a weapon and firing at the other creature. The blast caught it full in the face, shutting down the light in eleven of its twenty-eight eyes. Another scream that tore through their souls made Garibaldi wince and try to cover his ears. 'Here!' Cole yelled, pulling out another weapon and tossing it over. One handed, Garibaldi caught the gun and turned, firing straight into the face of the other creature that had recovered enough from the impaling to mount another attack. Ichor spewed out, a few drops flying high and burning Garibaldi's face. He wiped at it furiously with his sleeve, turning away so the rest could splatter on his clothes. They smoked as the acid burned through. As some reached his hand he dropped the gun, fighting to remove the stuff before it did any permanent damage.

  Morden, seeing his allies on the verge of defeat, stepped back and then turned and walked away, disappearing into the darkness. Another few shots and the Shadow creatures shimmered and then disappeared, the only sign to mark their passage the drops of ichor and gore that dripped to the floor, smoking.

  Panting, terrified and exhausted Garibaldi turned to Cole who was leaning against the wall. 'Thanks. I owe you,' he gasped. Cole slowly pulled himself to his feet and raised the gun, pointing it at Garibaldi. 'Oh shit!'

  'Quite. I don't like other...things doing my dirty work for me. On the other hand, I would like an explanation.'

  Garibaldi shook his head, pressing his hands to his knees in a desperate effort to prevent them from buckling under him. 'Whatever. I've got nothing to lose.'

  'No. Which is surprising. I heard what you told our friend earlier and I'm curious. Since when did someone who worked for the Minbari-Earth Empire give a damn about Earthers as a separate entity?'

  'Since I became one?' Garibaldi offered. Cole frowned. 'Look, it's a long story, and I'd be happy to fill you in, but do you mind if we go somewhere else? I think I'm gonna pass out.' Another frown. 'Look, either let me explain or pull the trigger. Either way, can we get this over with? I've had it with being shot at!' Cole considered Garibaldi for a moment and then shrugged, picking up the gun on the floor carefully and wiping it before putting it in his pocket. Then he considered his own weapon briefly before putting it away. He motioned out of the alleyway.

  'After you.'

  'Thanks.' Garibaldi pulled himself upright and, swaying slightly, made his way out of the alleyway and towards the nearest bar. When they arrived they sat down at a table, Garibaldi considering for a moment before ordering something non-alcoholic. Cole frowned and ordered a beer, watching Garibaldi down his drink in one and order another. Cole followed suit and then sat back. When Garibaldi remained silent he leaned forward.

  'Whenever you're ready,' he prompted.

  'First, I want to ask you a question,' Garibaldi replied, trying to gauge Cole before he gave too much away.

  'I don't guarantee to answer, but sure. Go right ahead.'

  'Why did you want to kill me?'

  Cole snorted. 'You're not serious?'

  'Humour me.' Garibaldi leaned forward on the table, encouraging Cole to do the same. After a brief glance around the bar, followed by a shrug, he did.

  'The man who sent hundreds of Earthers to their deaths at Minbari hands asks why someone might want revenge? Well now, let's see. There was my brother, my girlfriend, my friends...do I have to go on?'

  'Nope.' Garibaldi sighed and then shook his head. 'And if I told you they're all still alive?'

  'I'd say you were lying,' Cole finished smoothly, wondering if anyone would object if he finished his business in the middle of the bar.

  'And if I said I could give you proof?' Garibaldi looked up to stare long and hard into the eyes of his accuser. Marcus Cole returned the look and saw no deceit, no trickery of any kind. Only a deep exhaustion and not all of that could be blamed on their recent brush with death.

  'I'd say I want to see it.' He held up his forefinger. 'But I reserve the right to shoot you immediately I detect you're lying to me. In fact, thinking about it, I reserve the right to shoot you if I only THINK you're lying to me.'

  'You don't give me much, do you?' Garibaldi muttered, raising an eyebrow.

  'About as much as you gave your victims.' There was a clinical coolness in the reply.

  Garibaldi shrugged. 'There's a slight problem.'

  'Thought there might be. Do you want to die here or outside?'

  'The information is aboard a ship presently in orbit.'

  'Here. Right. Got you.' Cole drew his weapon under the table.

  Garibaldi leaned forward. 'A ship that is no longer under Minbari-Earth control. A ship that is trying to free the rest of the fleet.' Garibaldi leaned back. 'Of course, if you're not interested in helping us...' he let his words hang in the air and took another gulp of his drink, his hands steady so long as he didn't conjure up an image of what had attacked them.

  'There are two ships in orbit right now. One is yours, The Mistral, and the last I heard that one was Minbari through and through.'

  'You heard wrong.'

  'Then how come it still has a Minbari Captain?'

  'Because, surprising as this may be to you, some of them are actually on our side. And the *reason* they're on our side is because of those two...things we encountered earlier.'

  'I was going to ask where you made such charming friends.'

  'They're called Shadows, or at least that's the only name I've got for them. I guess the best description is 'agents of chaos' though that doesn't help much. More than that I can't tell you.'

  'Because you don't know or won't tell?'

  'A bit of both. Right now my ass is hanging out to dry here. Forgive me, but I feel a little exposed. Any more waits until we're aboard ship.'

  'If you think I'm coming with you to The Mistal...'

  'Nope. I'm no longer on that ship. It's the other one I want to take you to.'

  'The one run by that Captain Sterns fellow?'

  'For now. While we're in orbit. Once we get out of orbit and safe, her old Captain takes over.'

  'And who's that?'

  Garibaldi shook his head. 'I've already said too much, and more than enough for you to decide. Now it's up to you. Either you shoot me and miss a golden opportunity, or you come with me and join us.'

  'How do I know this isn't a trap?'

  'You don't. And I wouldn't say that, up until a few days ago, I was the most reliable man you'd ever meet. It's up to you whether you decide to trust me. All I can tell you right now is that your brother and your girlfriend were safe last I heard, 'though your girlfriend is now married.'

  'Now I know you're lying. She'd never marry anyone else!'

  '*She* might not. The person she is now has never heard of you.' Garibaldi shook his head. 'Look, it's a long story and not one I can tell in the middle of a bar, in a dodgy part of town, on a planet where I'm known as a Minbari stooge. I reckon the supplies should be pretty well uploaded by now. If I don't get back they're gonna wonder what's happened to me, and they're gonna be pretty pissed if they find their pass into Minbari high security is dead. I don't fancy your chances if you kill me now.'

  'They'll never find me.'

  Garibaldi leaned back as Marcus felt something hard press into his shoulder. 'Too late,' a voice muttered. 'Now if you'd like to come with us, we might be able to explain a few things to you.'

  Cole spoke without turning around, his eyes fixed firmly on his target. 'I still have a gun trained on your friend. I don't mind dying if I take him with me. Now what are you going to do?'

  A hand, which might look friendly to anyone who could not overhear the menace in the voice that was attached to it, landed on his shoulder. 'Give you the chance not to make a complete idiot of yourself. Michael told you the truth. If you want to join us, fine. If you don't, you're dead before you pull the trigger. Your choice.'

  Marcus stared at Garibaldi for a few moments longer and then shrugged, placing his gun on the table. 'If you're lying to me...'

  'I'm not,' Garibaldi assured him.

  'I'll finish the job,' he continued, his eyes calm. 'Somewhere, somehow, I'll find you.'

  'I'll give you the pass to my quarters. Now come on, we're starting to attract attention.'

  Garibaldi stood and Marcus saw a hand, wearing the sleeve of the Minbari-Earth Empire uniform, snake around and grab his weapon from the table. The voice leaned closer. 'Play along or we're all dead.' Aloud the voice said 'Threatening a member of the Minbari-Earth Empire is a capital offence. You're under arrest.' Cole pushed his chair back and turned, still not seeing the face of his arresting officer, to leave the bar.

  The frog-march back to the launch pads was swift and silent. No one was prepared to say anything until they were safely aboard their shuttles. When they reached Garibaldi's ship the arresting officer muttered something and another in Minbari-Earth uniform walked away towards wherever the other shuttle had been left. Garibaldi led the way aboard, ordering Cole to sit in the co-pilot's seat. The officer remained behind him. When Cole tried to turn around the muzzle of a weapon was pressed against his cheek and he turned back to face the front. Garibaldi got clearance and took off smoothly. The blue-red light of the planet's atmosphere was replaced with the darkness of the starscape and the brilliant point of light that was the system's sun. Looming before them were two huge ships, one an Explorer class, the other a Destroyer of quite recent design. As Marcus stared Garibaldi finished clearance procedure with the planet and let out a sigh of relief, then he turned to his companion.

  'What the hell did you think you were doing coming down there? You could have been killed!' The shuttle neared the Explorer class ship and Garibaldi keyed in a sequence to take over docking procedure.

  'So could you, and I can't afford to lose you right now. Looks like we arrived just in time.' The gun was removed and Marcus risked turning his head. 'So who's he?' the man behind him asked, nodding by way of greeting to Marcus. 'I mean apart from someone you've honked off.'

  'Marcus Cole, meet...'

  'Captain Sheridan?!' Cole finished, staring. 'But your ship's The Telemarchus.'

  Sheridan grinned. 'Not anymore. Do you know, Michael, those stupid Minbari couldn't even spell the name right? I've been dying to change it ever since we were released. Decided now was as good a time as any.' The shuttle entered the vast docking bay and touched down with barely a bump. Sheridan grinned. ' Mr Cole, welcome aboard The Agamemnon.'

 

*****

 

 

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