CONSPIRACY THEORY IV

(chapters 20 + 21)

By Castor

 

 

 

*****

Part 20

  As security led Marcus away to his quarters, Sheridan motioned for Garibaldi to follow him back to his office. Having declined to say a word en route, once there Sheridan turned swiftly.

  'You know who that is I assume?'

  'Part of Kosh's other world? Yes.'

  'Did you know he was down there?'

  'To be honest I'd forgotten. He's been working the control tower for a few years now but you know how it is. Just another background face you don't pay any attention to.' Garibaldi sat down.

  'Apparently you noticed him enough to cause trouble to his family, or did I miss something?' Sheridan followed Garibaldi's lead and sat behind his desk, rocking on his chair.

  'His girlfriend -- well, sounds more like fiancee the way he's talking -- anyway she and his brother were working for the resistance. They got caught. They were both OK last time I heard.'

  'I'm sure he'll be glad to hear it.'

  'I think he could have done without my telling him she's married but...' he shrugged. 'That's not the only thing that's bothering you, is it?' Sheridan shook his head. 'Kosh's preview again?' Sheridan nodded, his eyes riveted to the floor. 'You know, seems to me we can do three things with that. Follow it slavishly...'

  Sheridan looked up, interrupting. 'I'll pass, thanks. Didn't come off too well as I recall.'

  'No. I see what you mean. OK, well that leaves either ignore it completely...'

  '...Which, given some of the information about the Shadows and the Vorlons we do at our peril.'

  Garibaldi nodded. 'Exactly. Or we see it for what it is. The way things *might* have happened, but didn't.'

  "Hmm." Sheridan rubbed his chin for a moment and then smoothed his hair back. "Did the fact that you finally recognised him lead you to trust him?"

  "Maybe. I dunno. I guess we'll find if I misjudged him."

  "I guess we will at that."

  *****

  Morden wasn't happy. He sat in his room worrying at what Garibaldi had said while his associates had tried to 'educate' him. "He knows too much," he said at last. A buzzing noise heralded the appearance of one of his associates. The other had been forced to leave and tend to its wounds. "No, I don't think he's guessing. Somehow he's found out." The buzzing filled the room and he sat forward, his face tensed in concentration. "I don't know, but I think, perhaps, we should accelerate our plans." Another pause. "Yes, that would be a good idea. They'll file a flight plan, but I doubt it'll be real. Not that it will make any difference....Wait until they're a good distance from here. We don't want to draw attention to ourselves. He may be an isolated case...Yes, yes that would work." He nodded at the buzzing.

  ******

  "How do you like your quarters, Mr Cole?" Sheridan asked pleasantly as he entered.

  "Rather flashier than I'm used to. How much rent do you want on this place?"

  "If you choose to join us, I assure you your actions will repay anything I could charge with interest. If you decide not to, you won't be here long enough to upset the furnishings."

  Cole nodded. "You don't give me much choice."

  "There's always a choice, but we're living in hard times. I wish I could tell you I would drop you off on some quiet planet, but you know I can't do that."

  "So, what do you need me for?"

  "Well now. That all depends on whether you have the talents I think you have. Mr Garibaldi told me you handled yourself well in that fight. How would you like to learn more?"

  "Before I agree to anything I want the proof Garibaldi promised me," Cole returned, his voice cold.

  Sheridan nodded and reached into his pocket, withdrawing a data-crystal. He tossed it over to Cole, who caught it deftly. "It's all on there," he said. "Use the console to contact me when you've made up your mind."

  *****

  "So what happened down there?" Susan was badgering him, but he couldn't blame her. When he'd announced he was going to go down to the planet to check up on Garibaldi's whereabouts, she'd blown a fuse, warning him in a variety of colourful ways of the consequences if he was caught. Now he was back and safe, she was unwilling to merely sit back and pretend it hadn't happened. He was taking too many risks in her opinion. Sooner or later he'd be called to pay for them.

  He shrugged. "Garibaldi met someone with a grudge."

  "Hardly news. I doubt there's a human in the galaxy who hasn't got at least one reason why they'd like to see him dead. So what happened?"

  "He ran into something a little more unexpected."

  "You're determined to make me fight for every last detail, aren't you? Come on, spill it!"

  Sheridan looked up. "Shadows."

  *****

  "You ran into WHAT?!" During the meeting earlier, Sheridan had had as much trouble getting information out of Garibaldi as Ivanova had later with him. When Michael finally dropped the bombshell the air seemed to thicken around them.

  "Shadows. Two of them. Morden is working with them."

  "You're sure it was them?" Michael looked up, raising an eyebrow. "Yeah, of course you are. It's not like they're difficult to spot, is it? So what happened?"

  "Marcus bailed me out. I'll say this, the Shadows need a new PR guy. Until he saw them, Marcus only wanted to kill me. One look and he changed his mind. There's something about them that gets you right here." He thumped his stomach. "Sort of primitive loathing, you know? It's like you know they're the bad guys. Of course, being set upon by a six foot preying mantis in black tends to do that to you."

  Sheridan shuddered. So that was the face of the enemy? He saw the colour drain from Garibaldi's face as he remembered the encounter. "But you could kill them, right?"

  "I could hurt them. Kill them, I don't know. They bleed." He considered the blisters on the back of his hand. "If acid can count as blood," he added.

  "And their ships are worse," Sheridan muttered thoughtfully.

  "Yeah," Garibaldi nodded to himself and then looked up. "A lot worse."

  *****

  "Oh great!" Ivanova muttered, collapsing into a chair in Sheridan's office as he finished relaying his earlier discussion. "We can't go up against them yet. We're not ready."

  "No, but I don't think we're going to have much choice. They know we know something. It's only a matter of time before they come knocking on our door."

  "So what are we going to do about it?"

  Sheridan shook his head. "We know the telepaths are the key to disabling their ships. Seems to me we have to link up with as many ships as possible, train the telepaths to fight the shadows..." he released a heavy sigh, "...and pray very, very hard."

  "This situation is impossible!" she muttered. If only we could fight them one at a time. Sort out the Minbari, THEN face the Shadows and the Vorlons, but right now it looks like we're going to be handling both simultaneously. There just aren't enough of us."

  Sheridan was staring at the floor. She took in his expression, what she could see of it from this angle. He looked exhausted, overwhelmed, desperate. In a sudden, jerky movement he stood up.

  "Excuse me, Susan. I just need to get some air." He walked out without a backward glance.

  "Air? We're surrounded by the stuff. Where the hell are you going to find fresh...? John? John, are you all right?" She went to the door and saw his back as he turned a corner. Moving swiftly, she tried to catch up with him but was prevented by a tall man who suddenly appeared at an intersection.

  "Hey, get out of the..." she stopped and stared. There, standing before her, was Marcus. "You?!"

  "My apologies. I didn't know there was a right of way for whirlwinds around here. I was looking for Captain Sheridan."

  "Yeah, well you just missed him and I don't think he's looking for general company right now." She was still staring at him and Marcus realised he was being scrutinised.

  "Do I have something on my face?" he asked, cocking his head at her.

  "No, I was just surprised to see...never mind." She stifled her shock and drew herself up. "I'm Commander Ivanova. I can pass on any message to Captain Sheridan when I next see him."

  "In that case, tell him I've thought about it, and I'm in. I know he wanted me to use the console, but I really wanted to tell him face to face. It appears I'm to be denied that honour." He looked at her long and hard. "Do I remind you of someone?" he asked at last.

   "Sort of. It's...a bit involved. Trust me, when I know what the hell is going on around here, I'll send you a note." She brushed past him, following the route Sheridan had taken. Marcus followed her retreating form until she was out of sight.

  "I look forward to it," he murmured. *****

  Ivanova tried to track down Sheridan using the ship's computer, but he'd switched off his link. It took her over an hour to trace him. When finally she found him he was sitting on the floor in the temple, staring at the carving of the Triluminary up on the wall.

  "John?" She hesitated in the doorway.

  "I need some time to think, Susan. Please, just leave me alone for a bit, huh?" He kept his back to her and she cocked her head, realising something wasn't right.

  "If you need someone to bounce ideas off, you know I'm here for you."

  "I know." His voice was quiet, subdued. More a thick rumble in his throat than the usual firm tone to which she'd grown accustomed.

  "John..."

  "Not now, Susan. Just...just give me an hour or so. I have to think things through alone." Still he refused to look at her. She took a step forward, saw his back stiffen at the sound and decided now was not the time. Quietly she turned and left the temple.

  Sheridan remained where he was, both relieved and saddened that she'd taken him at his word. He continued to stare at the Triluminary, his mind seething with images he did not wish to see. Suddenly he caught a movement out of the corner of his eye.

  "Susan, please."

  "You are troubled."

  It wasn't Susan. Sheridan turned to see Kosh glide towards him. A part of him groaned at the thought of another cryptic or, worse, terrifyingly clear session with the Vorlon. But another part felt some relief. Here, at least, was someone who knew exactly what he was going through.

  "Yes, but then you knew this would happen." He turned and took a deep breath. "How am I supposed to win this? I'm fighting on two sides at once." He turned back to stare at the floor. "I wish she'd never released us," he sighed.

  "Truth is never easy."

  Sheridan grunted, but said nothing.

  "You will find a way."

  "How?"

  "Because you must."

  "I can't do this alone."

  "You are not alone."

  Before Sheridan could answer, Kosh turned and floated to the door. When he reached it, he moved aside slightly and Sheridan realised there was someone else coming in. He shook his head. /Please God, no. Not Susan. Not now. I'm barely holding it together as it is./

  But it wasn't Susan. As Kosh left, Delenn stepped inside, turning to watch the Vorlon depart before taking in the sight before her. The temple was dark apart from one pool of light, but Sheridan was not sitting in the light. He was an isolated patch in the darkness to one side and, to Delenn's admittedly limited experience of human emotions, he appeared dejected and defeated.

  "Captain?"

  "Hello Delenn." He didn't move, didn't even turn enough to acknowledge her.

  "Is there anything I can do to help?"

  "Yeah, conjure up a few hundred ships that have a hope in hell." He turned and, for the first time, she realised his eyes were bright with unshed tears. "And while you're at it," he added, his voice growing in strength, "you can turn the clock back and release us sooner so we can do this one stage at a time. Better still, don't release us at all. Leave me in blissful ignorance. Make it so I never heard of the Shadows or the Vorlons or another world in which I lose everyone I care about one by one and then die before my time." He was standing now, punctuating his words with heavy steps as he neared her. On the last word he grabbed her arms and shook her. "Can you do that? Hmm? Can you take time back or conjure up miracles, 'cos as far as I can tell that's what we need here. I'm not a hero, Delenn. I'm just one man. I didn't ask to lead this thing and I don't know how to do it. How about some divine inspiration, huh? Show me that I'm not leading these people to their deaths. Convince me that this whole situation isn't completely hopeless so I can do what you've asked me to do without feeling like the executioner about to throw the switch." He stared at her, his eyes blazing with fear and hopelessness and madness, and she shuddered in his grip. "But you can't, can you? All you do is set the wheels in motion and then sit back and watch." He pushed her away. "Well go and watch someone else. I don't need an audience to see me fail." He turned and walked away, his fists clenching by his sides.

  "Captain, if there was anything I could do...."

  "Get out." His voice was low but it echoed loudly in the still room.

  "I..."

  "I said GET OUT!" He slammed his fist against the wall. Delenn turned and left. As the door shut behind her, Sheridan thumped his fist once more but with less force, and then, slowly, like a building whose foundations have been undermined, his legs buckled and he slipped to the floor. Turning, he buried his face in his hands, fury, terror and despair vying for control of his features.

  *****

  Ivanova had not moved too far from the temple. Sheridan's mood disturbed her and she wanted to stay nearby in case he needed her. Besides that, the sight of Marcus had left her confused and she needed a little peace and quiet of her own in which to gather her thoughts. She saw Delenn arrive and was going to warn her not to enter when the door opened to reveal Kosh. She'd had no idea the Vorlon was in there and wondered if it had managed to lighten Sheridan's mood. A few minutes later she had her answer. Even through the thick walls she heard Sheridan's desperate cry and saw Delenn, her face ashen, emerge hurriedly and disappear down the corridor. Steeling herself, she went to the door and stepped inside.

  Sheridan was huddled against the wall on the floor, his whole body wracked by sobs that showed no signs of abating. Never had she seen him so out of control. She hurried over and knelt beside him. Tentatively she reached out, offering what comfort she could. He looked up, his face streaked with tears, and accepted her offer, burying his face in her chest. She held him tightly, not saying a word, but trying to still his shaking by the strength of her embrace alone. After a while the sobs slowed and he pulled back, shaking his head.

  "I'm sorry. I didn't want you to see this."

  "I know, but it's right."

  "I can't do this. It's just too much for one man."

  "Yes it is. And if you were just one man I'd agree with you, but you're not. Right now you're two ships and a Vorlon. Very soon you'll be even more."

  "That's not what you said earlier."

  "I know, and I shouldn't have said that. I guess, like you, I'm frightened, but while I was waiting for you I got to thinking and I decided that even if we can't win, the fight's worth it."

  "If we lose I'll kill them all."

  "No, you won't. And they know the stakes. No one'll hold you responsible, even if we lose, unless you give up." She sighed and took a deep breath. "Whether we like it or not, we're in it now. We can either fight and win, or die trying. Either's better than giving up. What was it our old Minbari trainer used to say? 'The greater the risk, the greater the honour when you succeed.' And we will succeed, John. We will because there is no alternative."

  "Now you sound like Kosh."

  "Then I'm in good company." He looked up and she laughed. "Well, OK then, interesting company. You've got to admit that much!"

  He snorted and grinned in spite of himself. Ivanova was going to add something when her link beeped. With a grimace she released Sheridan and tapped it.

  "Ivanova, go."

  "Commander," said the voice. "I can't find the Captain but I thought you should know. We've picked up a disturbance."

  Sheridan cleared his throat and wiped his eyes before tapping his link back on. "I'm here, Lieutenant. What kind of disturbance?"

  "Sir, it's a couple of Minbari-Earth destroyers. I think they're after us."

  *****

  Sheridan paused long enough in his quarters to wash away the signs of his earlier despair. Now, with something tangible to deal with as opposed to the nightmarish horrors that had earlier filled his mind, he was all business. This was a tactical situation that had to be resolved; a battle that would be played out within certain pre-defined perimeters. When he entered the control centre he appeared as a sea of calm in the tension filled room. Officers who had thought an ignoble end was in sight were now filled with confidence and faced their consoles with renewed strength. Ivanova gave him a grim smile and he nodded.

  "Lieutenant, what are the ship designations?"

  "The Telos and the Emfili."

  "Put the fighters on alert and patch me through to the Mistral." A few seconds later Lennier's face appeared, Mackie standing behind him. "You heard?"

  Lennier nodded. "It seems we may have a fight on our hands."

  "Tell your men to keep the gun ports closed until we've determined their intentions. If they're hostile, concentrate your fire on weapons systems and engines, but don't target the ships themselves. I want live allies, not dead enemies."

  "They may not give us any choice."

  "Then we have to convince them otherwise."

  Lennier shook his head and Mackie stepped forward. "John, that's a noble aim, but we have to put our own ships first."

  "Noble's got nothing to do with it. If we want to win this thing, we need *every* ship. If we can't take them without destroying them, then we might as well blow ourselves up because we sure as hell aren't gonna win without them. As soon as the news gets out that the Telos and the Emfili have been destroyed, we'll have the entire fleet on our tails. Lennier, I'll let you take the running here. See if they know the Mistral's swapped sides. Our friends on Vallus Twelve may have been a little too talkative. If they don't, tell them you're bringing in a renegade. If they swallow that, maybe you can get the antidote aboard their ships en route back to base."

  "And if they know?"

  "Pray we manage to disable them before they blow us both straight to hell. Sheridan out." He tapped his console once more and Garibaldi's face appeared. "Michael, can you block the transmissions of those two ships? I don't want them to get a message back to Minbari High Command."

  Garibaldi grinned. "Already done. I've been monitoring subspace traffic in our area. As soon as I knew which ships they were I blocked their communications. I don't think they realise they're locked out yet."

  "Do they know about the Mistral?"

  Garibaldi sobered. "Something's made them suspicious. They want to confirm their information before they do anything. Sorry John, I thought I'd got that covered. The good news is they don't recognise us."

  "Then we've got an edge. Be ready if they ask to speak to you. Are you still linked in to the Mistral's communications system?"

  "As ever. Don't worry. They won't know which ship I'm on unless I want them to."

  "Good. Let me know if you..."

  "Captain!" The lieutenant's voice was a high pitched squawk of alarm and Sheridan looked up. "We've got another ship coming in. Unknown configuration."

  "Show me." The tactical display on Sheridan's console switched from a view of the two Minbari ships to the distinctive image of a black, coruscating spider in space.

  "Oh hell," Ivanova whispered.

*****

Part 21

  For a moment Sheridan was stunned into silence, as he saw all his nightmares coming true before his eyes. Ivanova saw his hesitation and knew the reason for it. She quickly took over.

  "Michael, you know how to stop those things. Tell the telepaths with you what to do and get them to broadcast to the rest of the ship. We need them at the viewports so they can see what they're fighting when it gets within visual range."

  "Understood." Garibaldi's image winked out.

  Sheridan regained his composure and contacted the Mistral. "Lennier, has Delenn told you how to fight those things?"

  "I understand, Captain. I will instruct my telepaths accordingly." He paused while Mackie received a message from someone on the command deck. "It appears the Telos is trying to contact us. I will let you know what happens. Lennier out."

  There was a tense silence aboard the Agamemnon as they awaited their fate. Sheridan turned to the lieutenant. "What's that other ship doing?" he asked, avoiding naming their enemy.

  "It's just sitting there, Captain, right at the edge of sensor range."

  "Probably waiting to see if the Telos is going to do the job for it," Ivanova muttered.

  "Be grateful for small mercies. At least it's giving our telepaths a chance to take up position."

  "Be still my heart."

  The lieutenant looked up. "Message coming in from the Mistral."

  "On screen."

  "Captain..." Lennier began but Garibaldi linked in and stole his thunder.

  "Captain, something got through my communications lock out. They know who we are!"

  "Oh hell." Sheridan decided now was not the time to enquire precisely how that had been achieved. Investigations could come later -- assuming they were still around to wonder -- right now, there were far more pressing concerns. "All right, launch fighters. Don't shoot unless fired upon. After that, target weapons systems and engines only."

  Down in the launch bays pilots were cleared and braced themselves against the force of launch. As they shot out into space they took up positions around their flight leaders who contacted their respective ships to confirm they were on line and ready.

  While both sides in the battle had equal training, the pilots of the Mistral and the Agamemnon had two advantages: freedom of thought to innovate and adapt in ways not covered in the official Minbari-Earth tactical manuals, and desperation born of the knowledge that if they lost, all hope for the freedom of the human race went with them. They swerved and dodged, using their insider knowledge of Minbari-Earth tactics against their aggressors. Meanwhile, back on the Agamemnon, Garibaldi helped to skew things in their favour by using his knowledge of the standard code systems to block transmissions between the attackers' fighters. His efforts were hampered by a high energy subspace transmission that sought to confuse and over-ride his signal. Re-routing as much power as he could without detracting from anything the Agamemnon presently needed, he struggled against the interference, trying to keep his transmissions focused on the enemy ships. He could do a broad beam white noise but that would affect their own fighters' communications too.

  "Dammit!" he muttered. "When the hell did this technology turn up?" His hands flew over the consoles and he did everything in his power to sow mayhem among the attackers.

  The Emfili fell first, its main guns disabled by the Agamemnon's Alpha Squadron in a display of aerobatics that had Sheridan nodding proudly. The Mistral managed to disable the Emfili's engines with her main guns and the great ship was left a floating hulk, incapable of even the simplest of manoeuvres.

  The Telos, on the other hand, proved a far more original foe. Even lacking full communications thanks to Garibaldi's Herculean efforts, her well-trained squadrons managed to co-ordinate attacks with a precision that made Sheridan wonder if her pilots were telepaths. Five of the Mistral's Beta Squadron fell to the Telos' Alpha Squadron's fire and Sheridan called in his own Alpha Squadron to bolster them. Slowly, the force of communications and originality began to tell and the Telos' squadrons were forced back. At that moment the Shadow ship made its move, closing the distance between itself and the fire-fight but, instead of targeting the Agamemnon, it quickly became clear it's attention was centred on the Emfili.

  In his office, Michael watched the energy spike and finally realised the source of the interference and the earlier message that had tipped off the Minbari ships.

  Up on the command deck Sheridan stared as the Shadow ship homed in on the Emfili. "What the hell is it doing?" he yelled.

  "I think it wants to make it look like we destroyed them," Ivanova offered. "Anyway, the Emfili can't defend herself."

  "Lennier, get your telepaths to concentrate on disabling and holding the Shadow ship. "

  Ivanova contacted the telepaths aboard the Agamemnon, repeating the order. As they watched, the Shadow ship suddenly paused in its flight, shaking and writhing as though in the grip of a giant hand.

  "Sheridan to squadrons, break and attack that thing while you can. We'll take care of ourselves. Concentrate your fire on the centre. Time on target."

  Like ants swarming over a carcass, the tiny fighters took up their positions and fired. Sheridan added the main guns of the Agamemnon while the Mistral maintained her defence against the Telos. Then, to Sheridan's surprise, the Telos also turned her guns on the Shadow ship. Slowly the sheer force of numbers told and the beam broke through. As it did so the Shadow ship crumpled, its legs drawing into the body.

  "Sheridan to squadrons, pull back! Get away from that thing before it blows!"

  The little ships obeyed, arrowing towards the defensive hulk of the larger ships. Some didn't move fast enough and Sheridan winced as three fighters were swallowed in the blinding brightness of the Shadow ship's death throes. For a moment the command centre was flooded with light and then all went silent. Sheridan was the first to recover.

  "Garibaldi, what's happening over there?"

  "Hold on," Garibaldi returned, checking through the flood of messages that were being sent by both the Telos and the fighters, each side desperate to regain contact. With the death of the Shadow ship his communications' block out had been re-established in full. Now, as he realised the content of the subspace traffic, he released them and then turned back to Sheridan. "The Telos has ordered her fighters to return to base."

  "Is she planning on leaving?"

  "No. I think she wants to talk."

  "Who to?"

  "The Captain of the ship that just saved their butts. I think that means you."

  Sheridan shook his head. As soon as Sinclair saw who was captaining this apparently unknown vessel the game would be up. He thought quickly. "Michael, you just got a promotion. As of right now you're captain of the Agamemnon. Don't let them know who we are!"

  "Understood. I'm gonna link you in on the sly. They won't know you're there but you can listen in to what's going on."

  "Thanks for that."

  Garibaldi grinned. "Hey, what are friends for? Here we go!"

  The image flickered for a moment before being replaced with a split screen showing the faces of both Garibaldi and the Captain of the Telos.

  "Mr Garibaldi? Would you mind telling me what is going on here? What are you doing aboard that ship? We thought you were on the Mistral," Sinclair asked, obviously confused.

  "I have commandeered this ship in the name of the Minbari-Earth Empire," Garibaldi replied smoothly, ignoring the rest of Sinclair's statement.

  "Then why did you fire on us?"

  "You will notice we targeted your guns and engines only. If we were the enemy we would have sought to destroy you. We were merely responding to your attack."

  Sinclair frowned. "Do you know what that other... ship was?"

  "I do. I would be happy to discuss it with you and help repair your systems, but it will take time. Tell me what you require and I will dispatch a shuttle. While maintenance is effecting repairs you can come aboard the Agamemnon and we can talk."

  Sinclair's frown deepened. "Why should I trust you?"

  "That other ship was attacking the Emfili. If we were the enemy we would have let it finish the job and then turn on you. By defending her we opened ourselves to attack. We have a common and very powerful enemy, Captain. It is in both our interests to work together." When Sinclair continued to hesitate Garibaldi sighed. "Captain, I do not intend to argue with you. The Emfili and the Telos need help and we will provide it, if her Captains will allow us to. It seems to me there has been some misinformation regarding the status of the Mistral. I would be happy to explain everything to you should you wish to hear it, but I am not going to do so on an open channel. My own ship needs me and I do not intend to abandon her when all the information you need is here."

  "And I am not about to board an unknown ship. The Agamemnon is such a one, Captain. Who are you?"

  "Before her name change..." Garibaldi replied, gritting his teeth in preparation for disaster, "...she was the Telemarchus."

  There, that was it. Now they either had to get the Telos and the Emfili on their side or destroy them. To Sinclair's credit he didn't look in the least surprised.

  "I suspected as much. You can explain to me the reason for the name change and the whereabouts of her original captain when I arrive. Sinclair out."

  Garibaldi sank back in his chair, slightly astonished that his methods had worked. He turned to the secondary console and saw Sheridan bore a similar expression.

  "Nice work, Michael!" Sheridan grinned.

  "Not bad, if I do say so myself. What are we going to do when he gets here?"

  "I think subtlety is rather out of the question. He'll probably bring an armed guard so we'll have to disable the lot of them. I'll contact Franklin. Once the outer doors have closed and they're outside their ship we can flood the docking bay with knockout gas. After that we can free them, beginning with Sinclair."

  "What about the Emfili?"

  "She's out of action for the time being. We can make sure the maintenance crews take their time with repairs and supplies until we're ready to move. After that..."

  "Will this ever get any easier?"

  "Not until we find a quicker way to release the crews. Perhaps, once we've released them, our new allies can come up with some suggestions."

  "Captain, we've got the list of supplies from the Telos and the Emfili, and the Telos has dispatched a shuttle. ETA in five minutes."

  Sheridan nodded off-screen to the lieutenant and turned back to Garibaldi. "Well done, Michael, and thanks."

  "Any time." As the console winked off Garibaldi drew a deep breath and wiped the sweat from his top lip. Considering his damp fingers he shook his head. Too close. That was way too close, and it wasn't over yet. "Beats me how he holds it together," Garibaldi mused, shaking his head. "I'd be a wreck by now."

  *********

  As predicted, Sinclair brought a security squad with him and, after a brief struggle against the gas, all the would-be protagonists were moved to Medlab where Franklin swiftly administered the antidote. When Sinclair came to, his head was swimming. The combination of the gas, the antidote, and the face of Sheridan rather than Garibaldi staring down at him as he lay on the bed was too much for his system and he nearly passed out again. Franklin, realising what was about to happen, bolstered him with a stim. injection and then watched the drama unfold.

  "Captain," Sheridan nodded as Sinclair slowly regained some measure of his equilibrium. "How are you feeling now?"

  "Confused as hell would be a good place to start," Sinclair returned, sitting up slowly and rubbing his temples. "Anyone got an aspirin?"

  Sheridan laughed and steadied Sinclair as the latter gingerly eased himself from the bed and swayed. "Doctor, I'll leave you to deal with the others. I'll send down Commander Ivanova to explain things to them. Any trouble, let me know. Captain, if you'd care to follow me I think I can ease that headache of yours."

  **********

  Two hours later Sinclair's head was still spinning, but now it was with information rather than confusion.

  "I doubt our political officer will be quite so accommodating as Delenn," he said. "Which means we're probably going to be one crew member short before this is over."

  Sheridan nodded with a low grunt and then looked up as his door-announce warbled. "Come." Ivanova stepped in and nodded to Sinclair. "Ah, Susan. How are things in Medlab?"

  "Calmer now. Took a little while to spell things out to them but they're eager to get back and free the rest of their ship. I get the impression your political officer is not flavour of the month there?"

  "Hardly. I'll deal with him. Just give me enough of the antidote to clear my ship."

  "Already arranged," Ivanova returned, stripping off her uniform jacket and flopping down into one of the armchairs. Sinclair raised an eyebrow at her relaxed state and she gave him a look that made it clear if he felt the need to ask he probably wouldn't appreciate the mode of delivery employed in the answer. "Franklin's got maintenance putting the canisters on your shuttle as we speak. I've taken the liberty of providing you with a couple of telepaths to help smooth things, as well as keep a watch on your crew until you've freed them. Once your own telepaths are free you can send them back to us."

  "I wasn't aware we had any aboard the Telos."

  "You'd be surprised. The drug blocks that talent as well, so once it's removed you may find you have quite a few. If not, then the Mistral and the Agamemnon will provide some. We're rather overloaded I'm glad to say."

  "What about the Emfili?"

  "I leave her to you. You know her Captain better than I do. I've decided to make it a rule not to try and free more than one ship in a day." He thought for a moment and then added, "Actually, who *is* her captain?"

  "Dexter Smith."

  Sheridan paused, trying to place the name and then shook his head. "Don't know him. Will he be amenable, do you think?"

  "I don't know. He was promoted pretty fast by the Minbari and he's quite young. I don't know what he was doing during the war."

  "Hmm. Delenn might be able to tell us." Sheridan rose and went to his console, quickly making the connection.

  "Captain," she responded stiffly, still wary from their earlier encounter. "Is everything all right?"

  "So far, 'though we had a surprise waiting for us." Delenn turned her head, curious, but he waved it aside. "I'll tell you about it later. Do you know anything about the background of Captain Dexter Smith of the Emfili?"

  "I will search through my records and see what I can find. When I have something I will send it to you."

  "Bring it over in person. You can meet our newest convert."

  Delenn hesitated and he sighed. "I think we need to talk anyway. Please?"

  Sinclair raised an eyebrow at Sheridan's apology and looked to Ivanova for an explanation. She met his look, refusing to allow anything to show on her face. Sinclair shrugged.

  "Very well, Captain. I will be there as soon as I can."

  The comm. screen blanked and Sheridan turned to Ivanova for a moment, receiving a reassuring nod before he turned to Sinclair. "Well, while we're waiting, is there anything more you want to know?" he asked.

  ************

  Delenn arrived an hour later. She stood hesitantly in the doorway when Sheridan answered, fully prepared to hand over her data crystal and leave. He wouldn't have it.

  "I think you'll be interested in meeting our new Captain," he said, stepping aside. "Captain Sinclair, this is Delenn."

  There was no overt gasp of recognition from Delenn, for which Sheridan was grateful. He had decided not to tell Sinclair of Kosh's preview of the other world, deeming it wiser to let the man find his own destiny without feeling encumbered by things that might force his hand. As Delenn bowed to Sinclair (much to the latter's amazement) Sheridan turned to Ivanova and winked, receiving a non-committal nod in return.

  "Captain," Delenn said, rising again. "I am pleased to meet you."

  "I... uh. Thank you." Sinclair was struggling for words. He cleared his throat. "I'm sorry, I'm being rude. I'm just not used to this. Forgive me?"

  "Of course. We are all... acclimatising ourselves I believe is how you put it?"

  "It'll do," Sheridan interrupted, his tone rather gruffer than he'd intended. "What did you find out about Smith?"

  She fixed him with a long look before handing over the data crystal. "It is all on there. If Mr. Garibaldi could access the crew manifest of the Emfili I will find out all that I can." She paused and then cleared her throat. "Captain, I believe, perhaps, we need to talk?"

  Sheridan had already popped the data crystal into his reader and begun to scan the result. His earlier suggestion was forgotten as he read. "Uh... yeah. Can that wait until later? I think we've got a new problem."

  Ivanova stood up and walked over to the console, Sinclair rising to stand beside her. "What's wrong?" she asked.

  "Smith." He tapped the console. "Seems we have a collaborator on our hands."

  ********

  "You're kidding me?" Garibaldi was staring at the comm. screen as Sheridan downloaded Delenn's data to his boards.

  "Nope. It's all on there. What we need to do now is find a way to check up on the crew manifest. Is the whole ship nothing but Minbari sympathisers top to bottom, or just her captain. That's your area, Michael. Think you can do it?"

  Garibaldi let loose a low whistle as he glanced over Dexter Smith's record. "Not gonna be easy, but I'll do what I can. I've been working on some new tricks that I can try. How long have we got?"

  Sheridan shrugged. "They're out of commission for the time being. They'll have to rely on us for supplies and help with repairs. No reason they should come over here..." He rubbed his chin, thinking it over. "I'd say a day at least. Longer if we can find a way to delay their repairs. Have they sent out any signals?"

  "Apart from to us, no, 'though their ship's beacon has recorded their position and status, so it won't be long before we have company."

  "Damn! Why'd the Minbari have to be so efficient? But why haven't they sent out a signal stating their situation? If they can communicate with us they can communicate with the beacons. Doesn't make any sense." Sheridan shook his head.

  "Maybe they think they're in safe hands?" Garibaldi offered.

  Another firm shake of the head. "Nope. Even if they did, which I doubt, they're obligated to send in a report as soon as they can. If they don't it's assumed they've been lost and..." Sheridan's eyes widened. "Oh hell."

  Garibaldi nodded fiercely. "No official message, yet their automatic system reporting communications are working fine and Minbari High Command sends out a fleet to deal with whoever got to them. Even if they find them still here they'll know something's up. A gap in the reports of any kind raises flags a mile high."

  "Have we any idea how things are going on the Telos?"

  Garibaldi shook his head. "Until Sinclair links in and let's us know we're completely in the dark."

  "What about the telepaths we sent over? Can we link in to them? Get the inside scoop?"

  "They have to have line of sight. Unless they're standing looking at each other through the portholes I don't think we can get through."

  "One of them did it before... while I was trying to free the Mistral," Sheridan offered.

  "Yeah, but at least you were on the same ship. Across space..." he left the sentence unfinished.

  "Yeah. Need something a bit stronger than a P12 there," Sheridan sighed. "Great! So all we can do is sit here, twiddling our thumbs until the whole damn fleet breathes down our necks, waiting to see if we've an extra ship on our side or theirs." He drew a deep breath and released it slowly. "Find out what you can, Michael. I'll see if I can pull our irons out of the fire from this end."

  "Understood." The image winked out and Sheridan was left alone in his quarters. Ivanova had escorted Sinclair to his shuttle as soon as maintenance reported the canisters were aboard. Delenn had not hung around after Sinclair and Ivanova left, claiming she had business to attend to. Sheridan suspected she was simply uncomfortable being in the room with him alone, given the exchange they'd had earlier. That was one more thing he'd have to deal with, but not now. He wasn't particularly good at mending fences, especially emotional ones, and he had the feeling this one would take some time.

  He paced the room, swinging his half closed fist into the palm of his other hand. His mind was filled with concerns. Would they be able to convince the Emfili to join them, or would they have to destroy it? If the latter, how would they keep the Minbari loyal ships off their tails? Did that Shadow ship get out a signal before they destroyed it? Did they have a Shadow fleet to face as well? How was Sinclair managing aboard his own ship? It seemed as though he had been gone for hours -- surely long enough to have begun the process? Or had the political officer aboard the Telos ensured failure? Were they even now preparing to attack?

  The comm. panel beeped and he spun around to acknowledge the signal. "Sheridan, go."

  It was Ivanova. "Captain, I think you might be interested in this. We recorded it a few minutes ago." She turned her attention to her own console. "Switching to external view."

  Sheridan watched as the camera showed the Telos hanging lifeless in space. Suddenly, on one side, there was a distortion and something could be seen outside the ship. The camera zoomed in to show what was clearly a living creature. It flailed for a few seconds and then hung limply, turning slowly. The camera zoomed in more and focussed, then the image held. Ivanova came back on line.

  "We've done an ID check. It's the political officer."

  Sheridan resisted the urge to pump his fist in the air. "I guess that tells us Sinclair was successful," he allowed, hiding a grin of triumph.

  "Unless he managed it on his own against a ship full of Minbari sympathisers, I'd say that's a yes," she returned, not nearly so reluctant to hide her feelings. "But that still leaves the Emfili."

  He nodded, his shoulders dropping as his brief victory was overshadowed. "Michael's looking into that now." He frowned and Susan cocked her head in curiosity.

  "What?"

  "I don't want to have to destroy them. If there's just one pro-Earther on there I don't want to lose them, and if they're all Minbari sympathisers we could still sure use the ship. We've got enough officers and crew to man her." He shook his head. "Besides, it's not their fault they don't understand. I don't have the right to kill them because they're ignorant."

  "John! Do you know what you're saying?!" Susan returned in a tense, low voice, clearly alarmed. "Look, I don't want to talk about this here. I'm coming down." She snapped off the connection.

  Sheridan nodded slowly to himself, knowing what was coming. A few minutes later his door opened and Susan stormed in.

  "What the hell do you think you're playing at?!" she demanded, hands on hips.

  "Exactly what I said," he returned, exhaustion creeping into his tone. He sat down heavily. "Those are our people, Susan. I'm not going to be responsible for the deaths of several hundred crew members just because I didn't have time to convince them they were wrong!"

  "They'd sell you out in a hot second given half the chance and you know it! We can't afford to let them escape if they're not on our side. I agree it stinks, but we don't have any choice!"

  He shook his head. "And then we're as bad as the Minbari. Worse. At least they re-programmed wherever possible. They didn't just destroy people because they hadn't time to deal with them."

  "But we don't have that luxury," she reminded him. She squatted down in front of him, laying one hand on his knee. "John, look, I understand how you're feeling. The fact that you care about life is one of the things I love about you, but you have to look at it from the larger perspective. If they're collaborators and you let them live then we ALL die, and with us dies any hope Earth has of surviving. Hell, if what Delenn tells us is right, then we're the hope for the whole damn galaxy! We can't sacrifice them all for the sake of one ship."

  He looked up, his expression still reluctant. Susan stood sharply.

  "I don't know why I'm even saying this. You KNOW I'm right. You've killed before and didn't go through all this. Of all the times to pick to get a conscience, John, this has to be the worst."

  "Perhaps, but I didn't have any choice before."

  "Like you think you've got a choice now? This is no different from when you were fighting the Minbari before."

  "Except this time I know what's going on." He stood up and ran his hand through his hair. "Before it was kill or be killed and there simply wasn't an option. Besides, they weren't our own people. We're not talking Minbari here, Susan. We're talking Earthers. People like you and me. They've got wives and husbands, kids and pets. We know them -- if not personally then at least we know the sort of people they are. This is civil war, Susan. Undeclared so far, I'll admit, but still brother against brother. Before too much longer it'll be all out and declared and if we have to fire on her the Emfili will go down in the record books at the first casualty."

  "It might not come to that. We haven't heard from Michael yet and it may turn out Smith is a rogue. And if it does, then so be it because otherwise there might not *be* any history books." She sighed and stepped up to him. "I don't like this any more than you do, but I'm practical. This is no time for dreamers, John. When this is all over then we can afford to take the time to try and create that perfect world you seem to be thinking of, but until then, let's just try and make sure we have a world, huh?"

  He nodded and pasted a half-hearted smile on his face. She was right, he knew, but that didn't mean he had to like it.

  She frowned at him, fully aware that his agreement was on the surface only. "John, look, when this is all over, or at least when we've got more on our side than against us, maybe then we can afford to be more lenient. Until then..."

  The beep of the comm. panel interrupted her. Sheridan turned. "Accept call." Garibaldi's face appeared. "Michael," he acknowledged. "Tell me you're not going to depress me."

  "Depends on what qualifies as depressing," Garibaldi returned. "You want the good news or the bad news?"

  Sheridan sighed and waved his hand, turning away from the panel to pace the room.

  "OK, the good news is over half the Emfili's complement were members of the resistance back on Earth. We're talking the top dogs. Looks like the Minbari decided to put their most rotten eggs in the same basket."

  "And the bad news?"

  "The rest of the crew were collaborators to a man... oh, and woman. I guess they wanted to keep an eye on them." He shrugged and leaned back. "So, what's our next move?"

  "Any news from Sinclair?"

  "Nothing... hang on." Garibaldi raised a hand and then smiled. "Message coming through now. It's Sinclair."

  "Put him through, but stay on the line, Michael. We may need you."

  Garibaldi nodded and cleared the connection.

  "Captain," Sheridan nodded. "What's the news?"

  "Good, I think. We had a few trouble makers, and our political officer, but I guess you know what happened to him by now?"

  Sheridan nodded. "The external cameras picked him up a few minutes ago. What about your trouble makers?"

  "In the brig... and, ah, looking slightly the worse for wear. To be honest I don't know what to do with them. We can't let them go, obviously, but I'd rather not kill our own."

  Susan rolled her eyes. Two of them! Just what she needed! Sheridan raised an eyebrow at her with a 'See? It's not just me!' look and then turned back to Sinclair.

  "I know what you mean. Can you hold them for the time being?" he asked.

  "No problem." Sheridan grunted, nodding vaguely. "I take it the news from the Emfili wasn't good?" Sinclair pushed.

  "Half and half. Half senior resistance, half collaborators. And they've not sent out a signal but their location beacon is still broadcasting, so you know what that means?"

  Sinclair nodded. "Trouble, and fairly soon depending on where the nearest Minbari ship is."

  "Exactly. If we go in guns blazing there'll be trouble. If we free the ship as a whole and let them sort it out for themselves, there'll be slaughter." Sheridan rubbed his eyes and then squinted into the middle distance as though trying to see the solution floating in mid air. Finally he took a deep breath and nodded to himself, a solution apparently coming to mind. "Okay, how does this sound... Smith still thinks you're on his side, right?"

  Sinclair nodded. "Assuming Mr. Garibaldi is keeping this link secure, yes."

  Garibaldi butted in. "Safe as houses, Captain, I promise you."

  Sinclair rolled his eyes and Sheridan smiled. "Good. All right. We'll send over the crew lists. You invite some of the ones we want over to your ship and free them."

  "Uh, any suggestions how I do that? I can hardly tell them we're having a cocktail party for a few close friends."

  "I'm sure you'll think of something," Sheridan smiled.

  Sinclair didn't sound convinced. "Uh huh. Right. Gotcha," he nodded slowly, his voice dripping with sarcasm. "Then what?"

  "I'll have a word with Stephen. See if we can come up with a more selective release method. I dunno, hypos or something. Whatever. Then we'll ship those over to you, you give them to the Emfili crew and let them deal with the problem. They know their own crew better than we do. They should be able to spot who's dangerous and who isn't without asking for names and checking faces against records."

  Another slow nod. "How about two hypos? One to release and the other to knock out those we have to deal with later?"

  "John," Susan interrupted, "this is going to take forever! We don't know how long we've got until another ship turns up... or more!"

  Sheridan rounded on her, his temper starting to rise. "I know that! I also know that fully half that ship is filled with people we can't afford to lose! We have to try." He turned back to Sinclair. "Michael can send you the crew manifest. Work on getting some of those people over to your ship. We'll sort out our end."

  "Will do." He looked down. "Crew manifest downloading now. Efficient as always, Mr. Garibaldi." He gave a grunt. "Got it. I'll get on it now. Sinclair out." The communication shut down and Garibaldi came back on screen.

  "Damn! I meant to ask Sinclair if he had any teeps!" Sheridan growled. Michael grinned.

  "Sending you his crew manifest now, Captain. He has a few, so no sweat."

  Sheridan snorted. "As the man said, efficient as always. Thanks, Michael. Susan, can you go and talk to Stephen?"

  "I'm on my way," she returned, heading for the door. "'Though I still think we're setting ourselves up like targets in the shooting gallery," she grumbled as she exited.

  Sheridan growled and Michael frowned. "She's got a point, Captain."

  "I know, I know! Let's just hope it doesn't come to that. Keep monitoring all subspace traffic. At least we can get an early warning."

  "No problem. If the Minbari so much as burp in our direction I'll pick it up."

  "Graphic," Sheridan allowed and then sighed. "I'll speak to you later, Michael. Any problems, you know how to find me. Sheridan out."

  He turned off the connection, staring at the screen for a few moments before taking a deep breath. "And now for Delenn," he muttered, heading out.

  **********

  A few minutes later he found himself standing outside Delenn's quarters, not entirely sure why he was there. Given all she had done it didn't make sense for them to be antagonistic towards each other. She knew too much and was too important to be left out in the cold. Then again, she'd left it so late and stacked the odds so spectacularly against him his anger was at least justified. And then there was his talk with Susan. It had left him uncomfortable. He'd never reckoned his first officer and lover to be quite so cold. There was no denying the situation demanded a certain clinical detachment, but he found himself wondering if it was only the situation or if Susan had always had that side to her and he'd never noticed.

  He grunted. "A fine time for me to get morals!" he muttered, echoing Susan's own comments. "Like I have that luxury?" So why was he here? To smooth ruffled feathers or find a like-minded soul to talk to? This was Delenn. Political officer Delenn. He'd be more likely to find a like-minded soul in a Grylor, and those things were notorious for unremitting savagery.

  He sighed. "Ruffled feathers," he murmured in self-justification and pressed the door chime.

  "Yes?"

  "Delenn, it's me, Captain Sheridan. Can I speak with you?"

  The door cycled open and he walked in to find Delenn sitting in the glow of a solitary candle in an otherwise dark room. As the door swung shut and the light from the corridor was shut off he stumbled against a low table and swore.

  "God damn it! Delenn, I can't see a thing in here."

  "I see the candle. It is all I wish to see. If you choose to visit while I am meditating you must face the consequences. And I do not choose to be the subject of your anger again, Captain. If that is your only purpose here I suggest you leave." Her voice seemed firm but somehow, underneath the slightly haughty facade, Sheridan detected something else. If he'd known her better he would have recognised it for what it was. Instead, all he heard was a twinge of uncertainty, but it was enough. He let out a long sigh and raised his hands in surrender.

  "I'm sorry. This whole thing with the Emfili has put me in a bad mood. You've not been the only target I can assure you." His eyes were growing accustomed to the darkness and he sidestepped the table and moved towards where he saw Delenn sitting, cross legged, in front of the candle. "Can I talk to you or should I come back later?"

  She barely glanced at him, her attention riveted on the light. "What is there to talk about that you have not already said?"

  "You're not going to give me an inch, are you?" he sighed. "Look, I'm sorry. I'm tired, I'm out of ideas and still everyone expects me to know the answers, I'm worried if we don't pull this off I'm going to have to destroy my own people and if we don't do it fast enough the Minbari will do it for me." He paused and gazed at the candle. "And," he added, his voice dropping to a low whisper, "I have to admit I'm scared out of my mind."

  Finally she looked up, her eyes dark pools in a golden-hued face forever changing in the candle's flickering light. For the first time he found himself mesmerised. He saw pain and understanding in her eyes -- far more than he'd found in Susan's earlier.

  He gave her a rueful grin. "I don't know what it's like with Minbari, but when humans are scared -- real humans I mean -- we tend to lash out at anyone who comes close." He stepped nearer. "I really am sorry," he finished.

  There was a long pause and then he shook himself, clearing his throat to throw off the effect of her expression. "And besides, it makes no sense for us to be on opposite sides, right?" he added with more force. "We have to work together so we'd better make the most of it." He gave a laugh, but it sounded false even in his own ears. Delenn flinched slightly at the sound and he found himself regretting it. Then he felt angry for allowing this Minbari to affect him at all. "Anyway, that's what I came to do. To apologise. I... uh... well, that was it. I'd better be going."

  "Captain," Delenn stopped him as he made to go. He turned back. "Please. Sit with me a while?" He hesitated, not sure what to do. "Unless you have something urgent you have to attend to?"

  He sighed. "No. Not right now. Nothing urgent, I mean. Susan's talking to Stephen about a method of delivering the antidote by hypo so we can free the Emfili crew members we want and knock out the rest, Sinclair's trying to figure out how to get some of those we want onto his ship, Michael's monitoring..." He trailed off. "I'm rambling, aren't I?" She nodded. "No, nothing urgent. If I leave I'll just end up pacing my room or C&C and driving everyone crazy while we wait for the reports to come in. I can stay a little while."

  She motioned for him to sit and he considered the prayer mat for a moment before settling on the couch. For a while there was silence between them. Delenn continued to stare into the flame and he found himself following her example, leaning forward with his elbows on his knees and gazing into the blue and gold.

  "You know," he said at last, breaking the silence, "when we were under Minbari control I learned a few of the rituals, but I'm not sure I know this one. What's it for?"

  "I'm praying for those we have lost and those we are going to lose before the day is out," she replied quietly. "Human or Minbari, we are all living beings; all reflections of the universe. Any life lost diminishes the whole."

  Sheridan nodded, lost in thought. " 'Any man's death diminishes me, for I am a part of Mankind. Therefore, never send to know for whom the bell tolls'," he quoted, "'It tolls for thee.'"

  She looked up. "Exactly. Where is that from?"

  "Hmm? Oh, it's an ancient writer. John Donne, I think. As I recall he was reminding us of our own mortality and how important it is to value every life, no matter how apparently insignificant, as we're all connected to each other."

  "And our rituals teach the same lesson," she replied thoughtfully, then smiled. "It seems our two races have more in common than you believed."

  "Yeah," he agreed. "Who'd've thought it?"

  To his surprise John Sheridan realised he had found a like-minded soul against all odds in the one place he had believed devoid of such things. 'Maybe there's hope for us yet?' he thought.

  They sat in companionable silence, watching the candle burn down.

  *********

  An hour later Sinclair contacted the Agamemnon to inform them he had managed to persuade a small number of crew members from the Emfili to come aboard his ship. Ostensibly it was a request for aid. The Emfili had registered the abrupt spacing of the Telos' political officer and had been prepared to send over armed crew anyway. Sinclair merely asked for a larger squad to be sent, stunning them in the docking bay with gas and then sorting out who to free and who to leave in the brig. Once that problem had been resolved one of the recently freed crewmembers of the Emfili contacted his own ship to request a fresh squad be sent over to help settle the Telos while some of his own injured men returned. The injuries were uniformly mild, resulting from panic as the gas took hold when they'd exited their own shuttle, or a brief struggle when the Telos security teams entered too soon and found themselves still facing some conscious aggressors. As it turned out, the results were convenient. Armed with hypos loaded either with knockout drugs or the means to free the crew, the returning crew members began their task. A few members of the Telos' crew went with them to help things along.

  Working as fast as they could, the freed crew members swiftly secured the shuttle bay, knocking out sensors and communications as soon as they could reach them. Once that was done several more shuttles ferried over, armed with the means to free the Emfili. The invaders had one aim: to make it to the ship's air recycling system so they could knock out the entire ship's complement in one fell swoop. After that they could work on who to free. Collaborators were worse than those under Minbari control; at least the latter were predictable to a certain degree. Hence they didn't want to free the ship en masse.

  Before long it became clear the situation on the Emfili was a mess. Sheridan, having returned to C&C feeling oddly refreshed from his conversation with Delenn, listened as exchanges between the freed crewmembers via their own communications links detailed the disaster. While the Emfili's armaments remained mercifully off line (for which Sheridan was truly grateful), her men fought bravely against what they perceived to be a renegade crew determined to destroy them. As more and more shuttles ferried over to try and deal with things, Sheridan cursed the rising toll of the dead, not a small number of whom where the very people they needed to keep alive. As they had before their 'conversion' by Minbari drugs, the old resistance fighters proved their mettle against their would-be saviours, forever in the front line and taking the brunt of the battle upon themselves.

  Finally, after nearly two hours of holding action interrupted by sporadic fire fights, a few of the invaders managed to sneak via maintenance shafts into the main air recycling unit stronghold. They quickly hooked up canisters of knock out gas ferried aboard during one of the runs from the Telos and released them. True, it would take out their own people as well, but at least it would put an end to the fighting. They sent a signal to the Telos informing them of their actions once peace had descended on the Emfili. A few of the Emfili crew members had realised what was happening and grabbed breathers, so the next wave boarding from the Telos, augmented by crews from the Agamemnon and the Mistral, did not find their path as clear as they might have liked, but what was left was subdued with relative ease, some even surrendering in a most un-Minbari manner when they realised they were overwhelmed.

  Once the Emfili's crew was contained, the invaders, armed with the correct crew manifest, moved through the silent corridors administering antidote to those that needed it and ferrying away to a docking bay (that being the largest containment area) the old collaborators, stripped of weapons and any means of communication.

  Two hours later Sinclair, who had shuttled across, reported from the Emfili that crew members were waking up. As the crews of the freed ships worked to inform their new allies of the situation, Sheridan began to relax. There was still no sign of the feared Minbari arrival and things finally seemed to be settling down.

  His relief was short lived.

  "What the...?" He stared at the image being relayed via the external cameras. "Oh my God," he whispered. Ivanova stepped beside him to see the cause of his distress.

  "Who the hell...?" She turned and activated the link to Sinclair aboard the Emfili. "Captain, what's happening over there?" she demanded.

  "I couldn't stop them," Sinclair returned in a dejected voice. "I tried to tell them, but they wouldn't listen."

  Sheridan continued to stare as the bodies of the collaborators that had been ejected from the docking bay writhed and jerked in vacuum before finally stilling.

  "How many?" he whispered, unable to drag his eyes from the carnage.

  "Three hundred and twenty-two," Sinclair provided, his voice equally muted. "Nearly half the ship's complement. The rest were killed in the fighting."

  Sheridan drew himself up. "Who's responsible?" he demanded, fury now replacing horror in his voice.

  "Security has them now. I'll contact you as soon as I know."

  Sheridan nodded, then turned to Ivanova. "Send out clean up crews. We can't afford to leave those bodies floating in space. When the Minbari arrive they'll know what happened immediately and we won't be able to talk our way out of it."

  Susan nodded and relayed the command, nodding with grim satisfaction as the starfury squadrons scrambled in record breaking speed to collect the bodies.

  "What are we going to do with them?" she asked, watching Sheridan's face as his jaw worked in barely controlled anger.

  "The bodies? We'll store them in a docking bay for now, then we'll just have to put the lot into some containers and fire it into a sun when we get time. The men who did this...?" He left the threat unspoken.

  "John. While I don't agree with their methods, or condone them, right now they've actually solved a problem. I mean, what were you going to do with them all? You couldn't keep them locked up forever. If you dumped them on a planet they'd inform Minbari High Command the second they could get to any communications equipment, and there aren't that many inhabitable planets around here that *don't* have comm. facilities. And you couldn't dump them in shuttles and wish them well. They'd be found and we'd be just as dead. It's stinks, it's wrong, it's morally repugnant, but..." she shrugged.

  He turned on her, staring into a face he no longer seemed to recognise. "I don't believe you just said that," he murmured, his voice dangerously low.

  "I'm not happy about it either, but we can't afford to tear our hair out over this." She returned his stare, her gaze never wavering. "Hello? Reality check for Captain John Sheridan," she said at last. "You're a soldier. They were the enemy. They got killed and we got out alive... on the whole," she added, considering the preliminary casualty list that had come in a few moments before. "I call that a successful mission."

  Sheridan drew himself up and nodded towards the door. "My office, Commander."

  She nodded. "Captain."

  Together they left C&C.

  When they reached his office Sheridan closed the door before turning. "Those were human beings. We didn't even get the chance to double check they all WERE collaborators. Someone just took it upon themselves to act as judge and jury and throw the switch. Those men and women were unarmed and didn't have a chance. Yes, I'm a soldier. I'm not a fucking murderer!" His voice rose on the last words as he stormed towards her. "I don't know you any more. The Susan Ivanova I know would never dream of condoning on ANY level that kind of behaviour!"

  "I'm not suggesting the perpetrators get away with it!" she returned, her voice rising to match his. "But be honest, John. What the hell were we going to do with all those people? We have to be practical!"

  "PRACTICAL? You call cold blooded murder PRACTICAL?!"

  The atmosphere between them was so thick you could almost see it. Ivanova was the first to back down, shaking her head and turning away.

  "No," she said, quietly. "No, I don't call cold blooded murder practical. I call it an appalling waste of life and I expect those responsible to be dealt with severely." She paused, considering him for a moment. "You do realise that in the absence of Psi Corps and in our present situation that means we have to space those responsible as well?" She raised an eyebrow, waiting for his response.

  "We don't *have* to," he said, his voice slightly quieter.

  "According to regulations..."

  "Fuck the regulations! We'll..." He waved his hand vaguely, turning away. "...We'll dump them on a planet somewhere. And we'll have a trial first. I want to know why they did it."

  She cocked her head at him. Unless someone overrode all the safety protocols in the right order by spectacular accident, the reasons behind their actions were fairly plain.

  Turning back he caught her expression and nodded. "I know, I know, but I want to maintain at least the semblance of decency. We're human beings, not animals, and I won't use our present situation as an excuse for us all to degenerate into barbarism. If we do..." he sighed and sat down heavily. "If we do, then we might as well give ourselves up right now. There's nothing left worth fighting for."

  He buried his head in his hands, the tensions, fears, horrors and frustrations of the past few hours leaving him in a rush. Watching him, Susan felt her anger dissipate and her affections returning, but now was not the time to express them.

  "I'm sorry, John," she said, in lieu of anything better. "I didn't mean to come over like a cold-hearted bitch. I think this situation is getting to all of us."

  He nodded but didn't say anything. At last he drew a deep breath, rubbed his face and stood up. "How are the clean up crews doing?"

  She went to the computer panel and called up the officer in charge, nodding as he gave their present status and estimated time to finish the job. Since the ships weren't moving and the Starfuries had been scrambled quickly, the bodies hadn't drifted too far, enabling the crews to work faster. In addition, the Telos and the Mistral had added their own 'Furies, speeding up the process. Another twenty minutes to finish at worst.

  "It would be quicker if we could dump them on the Emfili, Commander," the Squadron Leader suggested.

  "I don't think that's a good idea," Ivanova returned. The officer nodded. "Link in when you're done. Ivanova out." She turned to Sheridan. "Twenty minutes," she repeated.

  He nodded. "Think our luck is gonna hold for that long?"

  "With our record so far? Probably not."

  "Hmm." Sheridan walked to the console. "Sheridan to Garibaldi."

  "Garibaldi here, sir."

  "Any sign of the Minbari?"

  "Nothing I can pick up so far. Of course, they could be running silent. If they suspect the Mistral's had anything to do with this they're gonna be working overtime changing codes to stop me from logging in. I might have a way around that, but I'm still working on it. In the meantime...."

  Another grunt. "Michael. Contact Minbari High Command. Tell them we intercepted a distress signal from the Emfili and we're investigating. At least that way no one'll be surprised to find us here." He thought for a moment. "Neither the Emfili nor the Telos managed to get out a signal telling High Command of our presence, did they?"

  "To be honest, I couldn't be sure. The Shadow ship was making a mess of my attempts to scramble communications, but I don't think anything specific got out. I'm checking, but even if it did, it's probably so garbled we can reinterpret it."

  Sheridan nodded. "All right. I'll tell Sinclair to send his own message about the unidentified ship. At least then we can explain the firefight."

  "Sure thing. I'll link in if I pick up anything."

  "Thanks. Sheridan out." He considered the console for a moment and then tapped in again. "Sheridan to C&C. Patch me through to the Emfili."

  "I'm sorry, sir. The Emfili's communications are still down."

  "Damn. What about Sinclair? Can you link in to him directly?"

  "Working on it... Got him, sir. The line's a little scratchy, sir, and it's audio only but..."

  "That's fine. Do what you can to clean it up."

  "Sinclair, here. Go ahead, Captain." The voice crackled with static, fading in and out while the technician worked to clean up the signal.

  "Captain, I need you to send a signal to Minbari High Command, telling them about our little run in with the unidentified ship."

  "Will do. I'll have to shuttle back to the Telos, though. They'll suspect something if I call from here. Besides, communications were blown during the fight. It's going to take a while to fix them."

  Sheridan shook his head. "All right. But tell them you're helping the Emfili deal with dead and injured while her Captain's out of commission... I assume he was amongst those spaced?"

  "He was." Sinclair's tone was flat.

  A grunt was the extent of Sheridan's comment on the matter. "The Emfili sustained quite a bit of damage. We'll just say he was near one of the explosions and died of injuries. How are things going over there?"

  "Quieter. But she needs officers. Most of those were in the docking bay. Right now we're holding our own, but she needs strong leaders to keep the mob under control."

  "Well, the Mistral and the Agamemnon have more than their fair share. We'll see what we can do for you. How many do you need?"

  "A Captain, senior crew, everything down to lieutenants and a few ensigns. None of the resistance people were promoted."

  "Great! Any there you think can be trusted?"

  "Honestly? Not really. Certainly no one I'd trust with the job of Captain."

  "Understood. Hang on until we can get the new officers over and send that message as soon as you can."

  "Will do. Sinclair out."

  Sheridan turned away from the console and groaned, rubbing his eyes.

  "Now what?" Susan asked.

  "We need to coordinate with Lennier to get volunteers to go over to the Emfili and take up the slack. Go over the crew manifest, would you? See who's available. Then contact the Mistral and get Lennier and Mackie to do the same. They need strong officers who can quickly win the crew's respect. We can't afford to have a renegade on our hands at this stage. And get a few names as possible Captain. Lennier and I can go through the shortlist and work something out between us."

  "Understood. What are you going to do?"

  At that moment the door chime sounded. Sheridan turned to see Kosh standing in the doorway. He frowned at Susan and then stepped forward. "Kosh? Is something wrong?"

  "The ship that is in trouble," Kosh's musical translator responded.

  "The Emfili? What about her?"

  "There is someone aboard."

  "Someone important?"

  "Perhaps. He must come here."

  Sheridan and Ivanova exchanged glances. "Who?" Ivanova said at last.

  Kosh glided towards the computer console and called up a picture. Sheridan seriously doubted that image had been in his own database and he wondered if Kosh had called it from the Emfili or the Vorlon's own ship. And, if the former, how?

  "Him," Kosh provided, turning back to the door. "Bring him here."

  Sheridan and Ivanova watched him depart and then turned to stare at the image still on the console. Finally it was Ivanova who spoke.

  "A ViCaR? What the hell does he want with one of them?"

  Sheridan shrugged. "Your guess is as good as mine, but it seems we have to get this Abbut over here. I wonder what the Emfili was doing with him in the first place?"

  "Well don't try asking Abbut. You ever talked to one of those guys? They make Vorlons look like poster boys for clear communications!"

  "And a Vorlon wants to talk to him. Should make for an interesting discussion, don't you think?"

  "Only if you enjoy the sensation of having your brain dribbling out of your ears. I'll call Sinclair and ask him to send the guy over."

  "Hmm." Sheridan was still considering the man on the screen and Ivanova shook her head and left, the door swinging softly closed behind her. "Why a ViCaR?" Sheridan muttered to himself.

  ********

  Abbut was duly brought aboard. His outlandish clothes and broad brimmed hat attracted a fair amount of attention in its own right, but it was his general manner that raised the most eyebrows.

  "Nice ship. A little small, of course, but hey, you can't have it all! You ever thought of decorating in here? Military grey sure gets boring after a while."

  Sheridan grunted but kept his opinions to himself. The Agamemnon, being an Explorer class vessel, was huge, coming in at over two and a half miles in length and just under a thousand feet across the beam. Small wasn't a word you associated with such behemoths. Nevertheless, arguing with Abbut would be like trying to nail clouds to the sky, so Sheridan held his peace.

  "Quiet type, huh? Bet you talk up a storm on your days off!" At that moment Kosh rounded the corner. "Kosh, you old dog! Haven't seen you this millennium. How're ya doin'? Got somethin' for me, have you?"

  Sheridan blinked. As greetings went that one was interesting, to say the least!

  "Follow."

  At least the Vorlon was keeping true to type. Sheridan gave a half bow. "I'll leave you to it." He made to leave.

  "Sheridan."

  Kosh's voice stopped him cold. It wasn't common for Vorlons to even bother with names. Sheridan had wondered if they understood the purpose of such things. He turned.

  "Follow."

  Great! Just what he needed right now. "Kosh, any minute now a Minbari Warcruiser or three are going to turn up. Forgive me, but I don't have time for this right now."

  "Follow!" That wasn't a request, it was a command. Sheridan bristled.

  "And if the Minbari show up, what do I tell them? With all due respect I don't think..."

   "Don't. Follow."

  "Better do as the big guy says," Abbut winked. "He's usually right. Of course, he's usually wrong as well, but hey, no one's perfect! Well, except my aunt Mary, but her apple pies stank."

  Sheridan's head was spinning. He went to respond, thought better of it, then felt Abbut take his arm.

  "Come on, Johnny boy! When the big feller asks you to tea you don't say no. So let's stroll on back to his place, throw another platypus on the fire and have ourselves an old fashioned chin-wag!"

   Abbut slipped his arm inside Sheridan's and led the baffled Captain along for a while until Sheridan realised what he was doing and shook him off. There were some images his crew did NOT need to see!

  *********

  They stood together in a conference room, Sheridan still wondering what he was doing there. He was no more enlightened twenty minutes later when the 'conversation', such as it was, concluded. Susan was right. His brain felt like it had been through a mangle.

  Kosh turned and headed for the exit. Abbut gave Sheridan a jaunty wink followed in a most bizarre manner by an exquisitely executed Minbari bow, before heading for the door himself.

  "Now wait one minute here!" Sheridan bellowed, his temper finally getting the better of him.

  Kosh paused and turned, cocking his head piece. Abbut shrugged and sat down cross-legged on the floor, adjusting his hat so it shielded his eyes and giving every impression he was going to catch a quick nap while the Captain ranted.

  "What the hell just happened?" Sheridan continued, marching up to Kosh. "You ordered me here, you make me stand here while you and that… that… HIM," he motioned towards Abbut who snuggled down against the wall, "swap scenes from Alice Through the Looking Glass, and then you leave without so much as a 'by the way'. I've got bodies floating in space, Minbari warships en route who could appear any second, a ship that hasn't got one decent officer aboard her, Shadows breathing down our necks and you choose NOW to give a lecture on Vorlon Conversation Stoppers 101? You didn't need me here for this! If you're going to make me sit through this the least you can do is explain what it was all about!"

  The Vorlon's eyepiece flared slightly and then settled once more. "Why?" it asked.

  Sheridan was dumbfounded. "Why? You think it's perfectly acceptable to yank someone away from their duty to sit through something like this?"

  "Yes." Kosh turned back to the door and exited while Sheridan was still trying to think of a response.

  Abbut yawned. "Just when I'd found a nice comfortable corner, too. Ah well." He stretched. "Looks like I'm gonna be here for a few days, Johnny boy. Got somewhere I can doss down?"

  "It's Captain Sheridan to you!" Sheridan snarled, venting his frustration with Kosh on the newcomer.

  He might as well have tried to set fire to the ocean with a match.

  "Like the big boy said," Abbut returned calmly, " 'Why?' " It wasn't said to be insubordinate -- Abbut was a civilian anyway, so he wasn't required to follow the chain of command. It was an honest question. Why should he call him by that name and title? What had he done to earn the epithet in the man's eyes?

  As he met the gaze of the ViCaR Sheridan felt himself go cold. It was as if the man could see every failure, every twinge of doubt, every question he'd been asking himself ever since he 'woke up', and in answer to all of them the only response was 'why?'

  And Sheridan honestly didn't have an answer.

  Abbut shrugged, turned and walked out of the room. For a minute Sheridan wondered where the man planned to sleep, then he thought better of it. With Kosh as his best friend he had no doubt Abutt would make do, and even if he didn't, he seemed quite happy on the floor. He wasn't sure he'd be entirely surprised to find the odd little man floating near the ceiling.

  He stepped out of the room and looked down the corridor in both directions. There was no sign of either of the erstwhile interlocutors. His link bleeped.

  "Sheridan, go."

  "Captain, we've got trouble." It was Ivanova.

  "The Minbari have shown up?" He was surprised it had taken them so long, to be honest.

  "Not exactly. I think you'd better come up here and see for yourself."

  He frowned. What was THAT all about? "On my way," he muttered, and began a smart march towards C&C.

  *******

  "All right, I'm here," he said as he stepped through the door. "Now what's going on?"

  Ivanova motioned towards the monitors showing the external view cameras. Sheridan peered at what appeared to be a great deal of wreckage.

  "What was it?" he asked.

  Ivanova leaned across and activated playback. "This is what we saw before you got here."

  On the screen a jump-point opened and the debris he now saw slowly spreading around them was spewed out as though hyperspace had experienced an incredible bout of indigestion.

  "We managed to get some readings," she added, watching his face. "What you see there, small as it is, is all that's left of two Minbari battlecruisers."

  He stared and then shook his head. "Not enough. Where's the rest of it?"

  "That's all of it. All of them, I should say. The rest of the bits are so small…" she pressed another button and zoomed in on what appeared to be a slight distortion. It was a cloud of particles, "they're spreading out all over the place. The cloud's already surrounded us. And that's 'the rest of it.'"

  "Nothing we know of is that powerful!" Sheridan insisted, still staring at the cloud.

  "In hyperspace?" She shrugged. "Maybe. From what we can tell this fight took place there."

  He shook his head, backing away from the implications. "No one picks a fight in hyperspace. It's too unstable. It'd be suicide."

  "I don't think the enemy gave these two much choice in the matter."

  "Shadows," he whispered.

  She nodded. "That's our guess, unless there's something else out there we really don't want to know about."

  "But why?"

  *******

  The Shadow ship navigated hyperspace as though born to it, but inside there was greater turmoil than even the roiling red and black of that dimension produced.

  "I am the machine," the voice repeated, over and over. "I am the machine."

  Something was wrong, but the ship didn't know what. It only knew it was. It was in the wrong place. It didn't belong here, wherever here was, whatever 'it' was. There was somewhere it should have been, something it should have been doing. Something to do with those ships it had just destroyed. The ships had hurt it, and now it wanted revenge.

  Those ships, or something like those ships. The thought echoed briefly before it was quashed by the over-riding statement of self. The one thing that could not be forgotten amidst so much that had been forgotten.

  "I am the machine." The mantra pounded in the flesh and blood heart of the ship's coruscating blackness, drowning out every other thought. Yet still something niggled in the background; something that said there had been a time, long ago, where there had been more than the machine.

  "I am the machine." The words screamed through the ship and the ship echoed the scream into hyperspace.

  It had one supreme object; one purpose alone that had to be fulfilled. It's duty was to obey and its orders were to sew chaos. To destroy and to confuse. It had destroyed and now it sent a message. It knew how and it knew what codes to use. The message was sent to every ship like it to be sent to every ship that hailed from the same source as its victims. Across hyperspace and normal space the message echoed, picked up and amplified by others of its kind. The message was the last thing recorded from the ships whose fragments had now been added to the dust of space.

  "We are under attack!" the message screamed and, for a moment, the ship felt sympathy. It recognised the voice; recognised the code and language. But then, it recognised all codes and all languages. It was ancient... No. Its masters were ancient. It merely was.

  The message gave coordinates and details of the last mission. Two ships. Renegades. The fact the renegades had not been the cause of the ships' demise was omitted. The blame was laid squarely at the feet of the Mistral and the Telemarchus, now renamed the Agamemnon.

  And the fleet heard.

  *******

  Sheridan and Ivanova covered their ears as the message screamed from their speakers.

  "We are under attack!"

  "What the hell?" Sheridan turned to the communications officer. "Turn that down and trace it. The colour drained from his face as the message gave their coordinates and identities. "Oh my God." It was a whisper of near despair and, as Sheridan turned to Ivanova, he saw his feelings reflected in her face.

  "We just got reported to the headmaster by a galactic snitch," she muttered. "We are so screwed."

  "Put me through to Sinclair!" he ordered. The message continued to be relayed through the speakers, muted though it was. "And turn that off! I've heard enough."

  The communications officer complied, his hands shaking as he put the call through. Sinclair was now back on Telos and the message was considerably clearer than it had been before.

  "You heard?"

  "Hard not to. My ears are still ringing," Sinclair deadpanned. "We're trying to trace the source..."

  "Did you send the message to Minbari High Command?" Sheridan interrupted.

  "I did. Whether they believe me now is another matter."

  "Let's hope they do. Send another one, telling them... telling them..." Sheridan paused, now at a loss for another lie to cover their path. Sinclair filled in.

  "I'll tell them the message we received does not appear to have originated from the Minbari ships. That we suspect the unidentified ship may have been the origin. I can even send video footage of the Shadow ship."

  "Are we in there?" Sheridan asked, concerned what else the video might reveal.

  "You won't be once I've finished editing it. Don't worry, I'll do everything in my power to pull our pans out of the fire, Captain. Have you got a crew for the Emfili yet?"

  "I'm working on it. Do what you can and contact me when you've done it. I've got to talk to Lennier. Sheridan out." He nodded to the communications officer who promptly reconnected him to the Mistral. "Alyt Lennier," he said, bowing slightly. The Minbari nodded.

  "Captain. I have some options for the Emfili. I'm sending the list over now, together with the status of these officers before our occupation of your planet. I've highlighted three I think are options for Captain, but I await your suggestions."

  Sheridan was about to admit he'd not had time to even think about it, thanks to Kosh's bizarre need for a 'conversation', when Ivanova produced a data-crystal and winked at him. Relieved, he nodded and she slotted it into the data-port, the crystal glowing as it was accessed.

  "Sending over our suggestions now," he said and then turned to Susan. "Thank you," he whispered.

  "You're welcome," she smiled.

  "Alyt, give me an hour to compare our suggestions, and then we can talk about it with Captain Sinclair. He knows the situation aboard the Emfili better than any of us."

  Lennier nodded. "He has a copy of my list. We will talk in an hour. Lennier out."

  "Send our list to the Telos as well, and tell Captain Sinclair what we're doing. I'll be in my office if anyone wants me," Sheridan ordered, and then turned to Ivanova. "Commander, I think I could use your input here."

  "Of course."

  Together they left C & C.

  *****

  "I've had my fill of surprises for today, so tell me there's no one on here I'm gonna need myself?" Sheridan asked as he almost fell into his chair and tugged it under the desk.

  Susan shook her head. "I've picked good officers, but I don't think there'll be any problems. We've got a lot of redundancy at the moment. Too many Chiefs and not enough Indians."

  "Tell me about it!" he sighed and scanned through the list. Ivanova busied herself making some coffee from the supplies they'd managed to buy on Vallus Three. As the aroma wafted through the office Sheridan looked up. "Coffee? Real, honest-to-god fresh ground coffee?!"

  She grinned. "And a machine to make it. I know we were after essentials, but rank does have its privileges, and I thought we both could use some. Here." She handed him a mug and he savoured the aroma for a moment before taking a deep draft. Her smile broadened as he closed his eyes and exhaled, a near beatific expression on his face. "Yeah, you needed it."

  He opened his eyes and nodded. "Damn straight! Thanks, Susan. I owe you." He returned to the files, the mug hovering under his mouth as he flipped through the pages. Finally he gave a nod. "These are all fine," he said, before turning to Lennier's list. A few minutes and an empty mug later he nodded again. "You and Lennier obviously think alike. A little shuffling and I think we've got a strong crew." He looked up. "No offence, of course."

  "None taken. Who were you thinking of for Captain?" She reached out, nodding to his empty mug. With a grin he nodded and she refilled it.

  "It's a toss up. Much as I'd like Mackie to take over, the Mistral's still too unsettled to risk moving him. Baker looks a good bet from Lennier's list, and Townsend from yours."

  Returning with the coffee Ivanova looked over his shoulder at the two options. "Baker has more experience, and he was career military before the occupation. He put up a good fight before the Minbari finally nailed him. I'd go with him. Put Townsend as his XO. He's got some good ideas and he's professional enough not to resent missing out on Captain. Besides, he knows who really runs a ship." She winked at him and then turned serious. "John, about earlier... Maybe we should talk..."

  "Let's not," he interrupted, staring into his mug. "It's a touchy subject and we both have reasons for our opinions." He looked up. "I think it would be better if we agreed to disagree and left it at that."

  "I just don't want you to think..."

  "Don't worry about it." But he turned away and Ivanova felt a lead weight in her stomach.

  "Look, John..." She sighed and pulled up a chair, sinking into it. Sheridan continued to stare at the flims on his desk, neither encouraging nor discouraging her need to vent. "I admire your approach. Really," she added when he looked up. "It's just that..."

  "You think there's a time and a place for everything and this isn't it," he finished for her.

  "Exactly."

  "Like I said, we both have our reasons."

  "I get the feeling..."

  He stood up. "Susan, I really don't have time for this right now." That was both truth and lie and they both knew it. What happened next depended on the Minbari reaction to the broadcast and Sinclair's response, and until they knew what that was there wasn't a lot they could do. On the other hand, they could go through any number of scenarios to try and pre-empt any response in the hope that one of them might prove useful when the crunch came. Still, he knew where she was going and he didn't understand his own feelings on the matter right now. They were colleagues, partners and lovers, but he was no longer certain that was enough. He also wasn't certain he could expect or hope for any more. They all had demons. Who better to share those demons with than someone who carried their twins on her shoulders?

  He smiled. "Look, why don't we meet up later in my quarters? We can talk or... well, we'll see. In any case, we're both on duty and I don't know about you, but I'm not wild about our odds right now. Tends to kill polite conversation... or even impolite."

  He was staring at the floor, past her left ear... anywhere but into her eyes. She sighed and nodded. It was the best she could hope for, for the time being at least. She nodded and stood up. "Whatever happens... I want you to know I'll never shirk my duty, or let my private life interfere with my job as your XO. I may not agree with you, but I'll stand by you."

  He looked into her eyes for the first time and she felt as though she was being pinned by a laser. She tried to return the look, uncomfortably aware of the intensity of his gaze. "I just... well, I thought that ought to be said. Just in case, you know."

  He nodded, but his look never wavered. "I know," he said softly. "And it's appreciated, Susan."

  She couldn't keep it up. With deliberate care she put the coffee mug back on the table. "I ought to be going. I do suggest we get out of here. That means getting the crew and captain settled on the Emfili ASAP."

  He snapped back to the present and looked down at the papers once more. "Yeah. Give us another hour or so. No one can get here before then. See if you can plot a course the Minbari aren't likely to think of. As long as it isn't the Shadow homeworld I'll go with any suggestions you come up with."

  She nodded. There was an uncomfortable silence as both tried to find something to say or do before Susan nodded again, turned and left.

  With a sigh, Sheridan rubbed the back of his neck and arched his back, trying to get the stress-induced kinks out of it. He stood, hands on hips for a few seconds to consider his options, then linked in with Sinclair.

  "Captain, have you had a chance to glance at our suggested crew manifest?" he asked.

  "Barely, but I'm happy with what I see. I've got an amalgamation of the two that I think would work well. As for the Captain, Baker looks like the best bet."

  "I agree, and Townsend would make a good XO. But you know the Emfili better than I do."

  Sinclair grunted. "Strong officers is what she needs, and those two fit the bill. What do we do about the ones responsible for the spacing?"

  Sheridan shook his head. "Between you and me?" Sinclair nodded. "God, I don't know. We can't let them get away with it, but we need a good fighting crew. I don't think there's any doubt they'd fight to the death. My main concern is that they're not going to know the difference between allies and enemies. But Baker, Townsend and the crew we're sending over should be strong enough to keep them in line. If the ship gets out of hand... well, it's in their hands now. Can't say I envy them. They've got an uphill struggle on their hands. I'll get Baker and Townsend over here and explain to them the set-up -- how to reset their beacons and the rest. Send your final decision on the crew to me and give Lennier a copy as well. Once I've briefed the officers we'll send the lot over at once. They haven't got much time to settle down. I've got Susan working on a course to take us off the playing field for a while. I asked Michael to give me some updates on the Minbari Fleet and he was pretty prompt, if a little distracted. He's buried in those computers of his again. No idea what he's up to." He shrugged. Whatever it was he had no doubt he'd learn of it in due course if it affected him. "Anyway, if we can just get a few days to give the Emfili a chance to pull herself together and our own ships a breather, we can face whatever comes next."

  Sinclair nodded. "We're going to have to split up, you know that, don't you?"

  "I know. Much as I'd prefer not to split our resources, at this stage our task is best accomplished quietly. The larger our fleet becomes, the more obvious, and Minbari High Command will send everything they've got at us."

  Sinclair gave a humourless laugh. "Fleet?! Is that what you call us?"

  "We will be, Captain. Be assured, we will be."

  Sinclair heard the certainty in Sheridan's voice. "You really think we can pull this off, don't you?"

  "I don't have any choice. We can't afford to fail."

  "Nothing like having your backs to the sea to force you to fight," Sinclair nodded.

  Sheridan changed tack. "How are the repairs coming on the Emfili?"

  "Slowly, but she's manoeuvrable. I've concentrated our resources on getting her engines back up. So long as she's with us we can use our guns, and until she had a responsible crew I didn't want to risk giving her a means to blow the rest of us to hell."

  "Understood. Can you be there when Baker and Townsend arrive? Help smooth over the transition."

  "I think I need a planet-sized sander, but yes, I'll be there. When do we move?"

  "The second we can. Sheridan out."

  ********

  It was another two hours before Baker, Townsend and the new crew of the Emfili were ready to move. Sheridan was giving himself jaw-ache from the constant grinding as he waited for the go-ahead, and a headache when he saw Ivanova's suggestion for a course.

  "Why there?" he asked.

  "It's not on the shipping routes. I checked out the area and found a planet that's... habitable nearby. I was thinking we could drop off those crew members we'd be better off without."

  He caught her hesitation. "How habitable?"

  "Well, it's not where I'd like to go for a vacation, but if they're spending their energy trying to build shelters and keep warm they won't have time for anything else. The most advanced creature isn't much higher on the evolutionary scale than one of the great apes, so they won't find anyone to help them get a message out. When this is over and done with we can go back and pick them up. Who knows, by that time they may even want to stay there." Sheridan gave her a look. "You never know," she offered. "A new frontier, the chance of discovery, of making a new life..." Her voice trailed off under his relentless gaze. "Yeah, well, like I said, we can pick them up when this is over."

  "Assuming we're still around to remember where we left them." She opened her mouth to respond but he waved her off. "It's good enough and we're running out of space. Let the others know. We can shuttle them down as soon as we get there and then do some drill practice. I think we're going to need it."

  "And some R&R."

  "I'm not sure we have time for that."

  "And I'm not sure we have time not to. The crews have been under constant stress for far too long, especially ours. We need to give them a break." She looked at him and took in the dark rings that were forming under his eyes. "You need one too."

  "Hmm. All right, if the crews perform well enough in the drills I'll give them two days R&R. Whether the Minbari and the Shadows will be so kind as to allow us that time is another matter. Tell the other captains to work out a crew rotation so that we've got someone on duty at all times. I don't want us caught with our pants down."

  "Will do."

  "Now we just have to hear from..." His link went off and he grunted. "Sheridan, go."

  The disembodied voice of the duty communications officer responded. "The Emfili reports she's ready when you are, Captain."

  "Excellent. I'm on my way." He stood up, tugged on his trouser belt to settle it more comfortably, and took a breath. "Let's get out of here."

  The command was given and the three ships followed the Agamemnon through the jumpgate into hyperspace.

  *******

  It took two days to reach Ivanova's planet. During that time, Sheridan tried to organise some impromptu courts to try those who'd spaced the collaborators, but was talked out of it by the combined weight of Ivanova, Garibaldi, Baker and Sinclair's noticeable lack of support. Finally conceding defeat he dismissed the meeting that marked his last attempt, asking Sinclair to wait behind.

  "I can understand Baker's feelings on the subject," he said when they were alone, "and I knew Ivanova and Garibaldi were against it from the start, but I figured you'd be on my side in this." His voice was accusatory.

  "Believe me, I agree with the sentiment, but not the method or the time. If we're going to do this, we have to do it properly," Sinclair returned, refusing to take umbrage at Sheridan's tone. He leaned forward. "Do it now, with tempers running high, and it's a drumhead. No one would accept the findings of the court, even if you followed every rule to the letter. It'd come over as revenge."

  "And dumping them on a planet miles from nowhere isn't?"

  "Without a trial they're prisoners taken out of the danger zone pending investigation for war crimes. With one, they're convicted criminals but the court is suspect. We can't win if we try them, Captain. I have to agree with the majority on this one." He stood up. "Mind you, when this is all over, if you don't come back and finish this with a properly convened court I'll cite you myself!"

  Sheridan gave a resigned snort and nodded. "All right, but I don't like what this is doing to us. So much for human civilisation!"

  Sinclair paused at the door. "You'll note Lennier and Delenn were conspicuous by their absence in these meetings. If you want civilisation, I suspect that's where to look for the time being."

  Sheridan gave a humourless laugh. "Now I know we're doomed!"

  Sinclair gave him a curious look. "Really?"

  Before Sheridan had a chance to respond, Sinclair had turned on his heel and left. Sheridan sat for some time, pondering the Captain's words.

  ******

  Having arrived at their destination, the crews spent another day getting the unwanted malcontents down to the surface with enough supplies to keep them going until they could build more permanent shelters and hunt for their own food. In the interests of preserving the peace, two sites on opposite sides of the planet were chosen: one for the pro-Minbari sympathisers and the other for their would-be attackers. The chances of the two groups meeting up for at least a year were, Sheridan considered, remote in the extreme. By the time they did he hoped the needs of survival would outweigh any residual hatred, but he didn't care to bet the ship on it. He also insisted, against Ivanova's better judgement, that he go down in person to oversee the settlement. Having been defeated on the matter of the court he refused to be swayed, and Ivanova finally surrendered the point. When he came back he was still trying to stamp some life back into his feet.

  "Habitable, you called it," he muttered to Ivanova as he stripped off his thermal jacket.

  "Well, we survived the ice age," she retorted, taking the jacket from him, "and with far less than you left them. They're trained, they've got enough supplies, and there's plenty of food down there. All they have to do is shoot it."

  "Does that planet ever thaw?" He was rubbing his now gloveless hands together.

  "For about six months out of fourteen, yes. The orbit's slightly erratic, so when it heats up they should find it quite balmy."

  "And when is that due?" he asked, blowing on his cupped hands.

  "In about seven months. Should give them plenty of time to cool off."

  He gave her a look that expressed his opinion of her sense of humour. "Hmm. Anyway, we left them near some caves, and there's a forest nearby for firewood. So long as they don't start their own civil war their ammunition should last until they can make some more primitive weapons. They weren't exactly thrilled with their position, but I think they realised it was better than the alternative."

  "Certainly a lot warmer," she muttered.

  "When did you get so sarcastic?"

  "About the same time you got so cranky. Come on, let's get these drills out of the way. The crew aren't the only ones who could use a break. I'm looking forward to putting my feet up for a couple of days."

  ******

  The drills went well, after a somewhat shaky start. Captain Baker was as frustrated with his crew as Sheridan by the end of the first day, but whatever he told them worked because the next day the Emfili wasn't just pulling her weight, but was actually beating all but the well-practiced crew of the Agamemnon.

  Further good news came from the medical departments. Franklin had been working closely with the engineering crews. Adapted repair robots had been fitted with knockout gas and programmed to fasten onto the hulls of attacking ships, drill through and release the gas on a signal. Other, specialised robots carried nano-technology. When released, the nanites made straight for the central computer core and disabled weapons, communications and internal doors. This gave the gas time to penetrate the ships, even if the air-recycling system was shut down. After that, in theory, it was just a question of boarding the ships and using the crew manifests to determine who to release and who to hold. Sheridan insisted on a third day of practice, using an inert but traceable gas on a small part of his own ship. Sinclair, who'd drawn the short straw as the attacker, had a barely concealed grin on his face as he frogmarched Sheridan to the brig.

  "I hope you realise this is just a drill, Captain!" Sheridan muttered as he was pushed into the cell. His name had been randomly chosen as one of the collaborators. He couldn't say he was happy with the computer's choice.

  "Of course," Sinclair grinned and then slapped his link. "All stations report." Despite putting up a good fight, the Agamemnon had been subdued in a little over two hours. As the drill was declared over and the crew released, Sheridan ruefully considered the report.

  "Well, at least we know it works," he said as they walked down the corridor to the briefing rooms. "However, I want our crews working on countermeasures. If we can do it to ourselves, the Minbari can do it to us."

  "Assuming they learn our tactics."

  "Sooner or later one of them will get a message out. I'd like to be ready for it." They entered the room and the other captains stood to attention. Sheridan nodded. "At ease, gentlemen." He took his seat at the head of the table. "Well, you've all seen the report. Apart from manually closing the internal doors and air vents to stop the spread of the gas, and issuing gas masks to the crew, does anyone have any other ideas how this tactic could be over-ridden?"

  Garibaldi, who was standing at the back of the room, coughed. "Captain?"

  "Yes, Michael?"

  "It occurs to me that the Minbari could use an electro-magnetic burst to disable the robots before they got within striking range. That is, if they detect them. Even if they don't know exactly what's going on, a few dozen robots heading in their direction are gonna make 'em nervous."

  "Agreed. So what do you propose?"

  "With your permission, I'm going to work on increasing their stealth capabilities; program them to show up as nothing but space debris on the monitors."

  "But we'll still be able to track them, right?" asked Ivanova, who was standing behind Sheridan.

  "I can give them a subspace frequency the Minbari don't use. That way they can send and receive without anyone but us being the wiser."

  "Good. Keep me informed. Anything else?"

  "Are we going to keep ferrying prisoners back here when we're done?" asked Baker.

  Sheridan thought for a minute. "If we have a regular run, sooner or later someone'll notice. No, we need to hold them until we're in the clear. Then we can either find another equally 'friendly' planet," he glanced at Ivanova who returned his look with feigned innocence, "or send one ship back here. Not that I care for having one ship carrying so many bad apples, but I don't think we can afford more. We'll deal with that when we come to it." He took a breath. "Captain Baker, I commend you and your crew on your performance. For a while there you had me worried."

  "You and me both, Captain. But they're a good crew. Now they understand what we're up against they're willing to play by the rules. We've given them a lot to think about over the past few days and I've run them ragged. With your permission I'll continue running drills while the other crews take a break. It would leave us with one ship on alert and we need the practice. The two crews have integrated well, but there's still room for improvement."

  "Given the whipping you dished out to us yesterday, I'd say they've performed miracles," Sinclair returned.

  Baker smiled with a quiet pride. "We wanted to prove a point."

  "Came across loud and clear over here," Sheridan responded and the others nodded their approval.

  "Captain?" It was Lennier.

  "Alyt Lennier."

  "The crew of the Mistral is now performing as a cohesive whole. While I would like to retain the services of Captain MacDougan, we are in agreement that it is time for me to take back my command in all its aspects."

  Sheridan glanced at Mackie who nodded from his position at Lennier's shoulder. "Very well, Alyt. If both you and Mackie are satisfied the crew will accept you once again, I see no problem. Welcome back."

  Lennier nodded, his Minbari restraint preventing him from expressing his satisfaction at the turn of events.

  Sheridan looked around the room. "Well, if there's nothing else?" A Mexican wave of shaking heads was his only response. "Captain Baker, feel free to carry on with your drills. I expect to get regular reports and obviously I'd rather those drills didn't extend to attacking any of us!" A ripple of laughter went around the room and Sheridan smiled. "Captains, maintain steady alert using rotating crews. I don't think anyone'll find us out here, but there's no point in courting trouble. Otherwise, give your crews and yourselves a well earned break. Dismissed." With a nod, the visiting Captains and their XO's left the room. "Mr Garibaldi, could you wait a moment, please?"

  When the room was empty Garibaldi took a seat at the table. "Captain, what can I do for you?"

  "Have you still got access to Minbari High Command?"

  "Yeah, but the Minbari are onto me."

  Sheridan shook his head. "Knew it couldn't last. When did that happen?"

  "About six hours ago. I didn't want to tell you because you were in the middle of trying to defend the ship at the time."

  "How long before you're locked out completely?"

  Garibaldi grinned and Sheridan raised a curious eyebrow. "Well now, that all depends on how sneaky they are." He leaned back in his chair. "Or how desperate. I knew it would happen eventually, so I've been working on planting a few back-up programs in their central and secondary computer systems." Sheridan nodded. He'd noticed Garibaldi's obsession with his computers of late. "Rather a neat piece of work if I do say so myself. The design is simple: as soon as one is activated it automatically spawns another that kicks in as soon as it detects the parent program has been disabled. They're programmed to hide themselves as legitimate programs. The normal functions of the program carry on as usual, but in the background they let me keep track of every message and change of code. By the way," he added, as if passing comment on mildly inclement weather, "they've changed codes four times already."

  "In six hours?! Do they know what you're doing?"

  "They suspect it, but they can't track the changes. The programs morph to adapt to their circumstances. It's like a computer virus, except it doesn't actually affect the running of the system in any way. All it does is circumvent any lockouts and allow me to access all their files while registered as a legitimate user. I've got a search program running that flags any mention of our crews and ships and sends an alert out immediately. It also adapts to any coded names they give us and continues to send out bulletins." He made an unsuccessful attempt to smother the sparkle of triumph in his eyes. "As of four days ago, every single computer connected with Minbari High Command was infected with my programs. The only way they can stop it now is to shut down and wipe both their primary and secondary systems. If they shut them all down, the fleet is on its own for at least twenty four hours. No central hub, no communications with Minbari High Command, no updates, nothing. They'd be flying totally blind, and you know how much they like that!"

  "So the only way they could get around it is if they gave a handwritten note to each other and never entered any reference to it into any computer?" Sheridan was staring at Garibaldi with appropriate awe and respect.

  "Yep. And given how anal they tend to be about formal record keeping, it'll be a cold day on Venus when that happens. Oh," he chuckled, looking even more smug, "as the fleet ships call in to get their orders, the programs are downloaded to them as well. By tomorrow I should have every ship barring those on deep space missions, and they won't be calling in for orders for at least another six months. I was waiting for that before I told you, but nothing'll stop it now and you did ask."

  "Um, what about our systems?"

  "The Agamemnon has a dummy version running. If the program detects infection it doesn't re-infect, so we're in the clear. If the Mistral, the Emfili or the Telos make a call to High Command they'll instantly be infected and I'll be tracking them as well. I thought it might be a useful added safety protocol. So far, the only people who know about this are you, me and the Commander here." He nodded to Ivanova who'd been leaning against the wall quietly. "It's up to you, of course, but I see no reason why anyone else should be told about it."

  Ivanova rocked away from the wall and pulled out a chair. "I agree," she said, sitting down and leaning on the table. "It'd give us a heads up if there's anyone who's somehow slipped through the net and is contacting High Command beyond the messages we already know about. And if the programs are then found by the crews and somehow deactivated we'd know they've found a way around them. It might give us a warning before the Minbari shut us out." She nodded her approval to Garibaldi and then turned to Sheridan. "And if the Captains complain, you can tell them if they knew about it, it would defeat the exercise, and point out it alerted them to a collaborator in their midst. That's worth any risk."

  "Well, I can't say I'm entirely happy about it, but I can certainly appreciate the merits. So, what are Minbari High Command saying about us?"

  "They know the Mistral and the Telemarchus... sorry, Agamemnon, are renegades. They're highly suspicious of the Telos. So far, the Emfili is on their active but missing roster. They just don't know what's going on with her. Captain Baker changed her beacon readouts as you instructed. She's not within a few million clicks of us right now, by the way. Mind you, neither are the others. We're the most spread out fleet in history considering I can see all three ships from the portholes." He leaned forward. "There's nothing High Command can do without me knowing about it first. I took the liberty of linking the computer in your quarters to mine just before I came here. Any updates can be accessed from there. As of an hour ago, you have more knowledge of the Minbari fleet readily available than the most senior commander on Earth or Minbar." The smug look on Garibaldi's face was matched only by the expressions shared by his compatriots.

  "Michael, you're a fucking miracle worker! Thank god you're on our side!" Sheridan's eyes blazed with the possibilities that had just been opened to him. "We can pinpoint ships that are distanced from the main fleet and take them out a few at a time. With your intelligence we can track High Command responses and be out of there before they even realise what's happening!" He let loose a bark of laughter and thumped the desk so hard Ivanova jumped. Garibaldi just grinned even more, sharing in the Captain's relief. "At last we've got an edge!" He jumped up and grabbed Susan, giving her a hug that left her breathless and laughing. He turned to Michael who raised both hands to indicate he thought that was going a bit far and, still beaming, settled for a hearty handshake. "We may win this one yet! I can't believe it!"

  Susan and Michael exchanged looks as Sheridan pumped the air. He looked like he was ready to explode with the energy the news had given him. The years that had been added to his face by the stress of the last months fell away and he was once again the young and fearless lieutenant he had been before the Earth-Minbari war.

  He strode the room, his smile threatening to split his face in half. Susan and Michael, caught up in his enthusiasm, patted each other on the back.

  Delenn chose that moment to walk into the room.

  "Captain?"

  Sheridan, still boiling over with enthusiasm, spun on his heel, grabbed her and swung her around, planting a kiss on her cheek for good measure.

  The room suddenly chilled and, with a jolt, he realised what he was doing. Carefully he released her and stepped back. Delenn, shocked into silence, stared at him.

  "Delenn, I'm so sorry about that. I don't know what came over me," he said in his most formal tone. "Please forgive me."

  Completely at a loss how to respond, Delenn looked to Susan and Michael for an explanation.

  "If it's any consolation, he nearly did that to me too a minute ago," Michael offered. "It's nothing personal. He's just in a good mood for a change."

  "Do humans usually grab people so... closely when they're in a good mood?"

  Sheridan cleared his throat, intensely embarrassed. "It's not unusual among free humans, but I do, once again, apologise. I shouldn't have done that. Um, what can I do for you?"

  "I heard the shouting down the corridor. I wondered if everything was all right."

  Unable to completely smother his enthusiasm, but desperate to find another explanation for it, Sheridan grinned. "Everything is fine, Delenn. The Emfili's Captain and crew performed not only well but superbly during the drill. Alyt Lennier is back in charge of the Mistral with the crew's acceptance and, for a little while at least, Minbari High Command don't know where we are. We've got a system for releasing new ships with minimal damage and loss of life... in fact, for once, everything's better than fine. Everything's fan-fraggin'-tastic!"

  Garibaldi smothered a laugh at Sheridan's toned down expletive. Delenn certainly didn't need to learn the cruder aspects of human terminology, but he had no doubt that one would get a workout at some point.

  She nodded, a slightly confused half-smile on her face as the room's atmosphere permeated her Minbari reserve. "In that case, I forgive you your outburst. That is all excellent news. I am pleased to see you in a good mood again."

  "You're not the only one," Susan muttered, and got a sympathetic grin from Garibaldi and a look of hurt innocence from Sheridan.

  "Hey, I've not been that bad!" he protested.

  Ivanova planted her hands on her hips and stared at him. "You can't be serious!"

  Sheridan looked from her to Garibaldi and Delenn and back again. Their expressions said it all. "All right, all right, I have been that bad. And with good reason. But right now I feel like I could run the length of the ship without getting winded."

  Delenn was still confused. "Is that what you do when you are happy?"

  He shook his head. "We do a lot of things, Delenn. In fact," and he turned to Ivanova, "I can think of one right now that'd be a lot better than running the length of the ship." Ivanova nodded and his look softened as he saw her answer. He turned back to Delenn. "So, we've got two days R&R. How are you going to spend them?" he asked, feeling it a little awkward to just grab Ivanova and run to his quarters.

  She smiled, putting her hands together in front of her. "Alyt Lennier asked if we could begin the formal ceremonies to mark our union. I came here to ask your permission for him to remain aboard."

  "Delenn, you don't have to ask. Alyt Lennier is welcome here whenever he wants."

  "Still, I believe it is military protocol..."

  "Well, if you want to be formal about it he should have asked before he left, but that doesn't matter. So, when's the big day?" It was odd. While he kept up the facade of happiness a part of him had gone cold at the news. He shook himself. He'd known Delenn and Lennier were close. This was to be expected. Besides, he had Ivanova. At that moment, Susan stepped up to him and quietly touched his shoulder before settling to a more proper stance.

  "There are a number of ceremonies to go through," Delenn replied. "It will be at least a year before we complete them all, and that is assuming we are not interrupted by the Minbari or the Shadows." She suddenly looked shy and Sheridan felt his heart give a startling thump. Even as a Minbari she was undeniably attractive. He found himself envying Lennier. "I was wondering... I realise this may be difficult, especially since we will soon have to divide our forces if we are to release the ships as efficiently as possible..." She paused and Sheridan wondered what was so difficult.

  "Delenn, whatever it is, just ask."

  She drew herself up and took a deep breath. "If the ceremonies go well, I would like to transfer permanently to the Mistral."

  The wind was instantly taken out of his sails and he sagged visibly. Ivanova, very aware of his reaction, felt a chill pass through her. Surely he didn't care that much about Delenn?

  Recovering himself Sheridan nodded, wrapping his arm around Susan's shoulders. "Of course. I'll miss your advice and support, but you should be with him when we split up. Let me know when you're ready to go and I'll get the crew to help you move your belongings."

  She nodded and smiled. "Thank you, Captain. I appreciate your understanding. I will contact you when we have made a decision." She bowed formally, turned and left with barely a sound.

  Sheridan stood silently gazing after her until he felt Ivanova wrap her arm around his waist. He smiled and looked at her, pulling her shoulders against him. "Come on, we've got some R&R to catch up on!"

  "Uh huh. And you even think of starting a load of ceremonies that take over a year to complete and I'll shoot you!"

  "Not a chance!" he laughed. "I prefer to jump straight to the fun bits. Sitting around and meditating for days on end doesn't exactly fill me with enthusiasm. Um, to be practical for a moment, who's running the ship while we're otherwise engaged?"

  "Lieutenant Lewis has the first shift, then Garibaldi offered to step in."

  Sheridan turned to the security officer. "You want to run this thing?"

  "Only when it's quiet," he grinned. "Besides, it wouldn't hurt to get a feel for the place. You never know, it might come in handy. I effectively ran the Mistral while I was under Minbari control. Not that Lennier would admit it, but he couldn't so much as change the air filters unless I said it was ok. I've never commanded something this big, but the theory's the same." "If anything happens, and I mean anything, you yell out. You got that?"

  "Yes sir!"

  Sheridan grunted before turning back to Ivanova. "Shall we?"

  "Thought you'd never ask. Come on. If we don't get out of here soon we'll be onto third shift, and I volunteered to take that one!"

  Arms around each other, Sheridan and Ivanova strolled down the corridor. They were just reaching his quarters, their quiet conversation turning rather more erotic, when someone came around the corner.

  "Captain!"

  Sheridan, who'd been about to plant a long-denied kiss on Ivanova's very eager lips groaned and looked up. "Marcus? What the hell are you doing here?"

  "I was about to ask the same question!" The young man was clearly angry.

  "I'm really not in the mood for this conversation," Sheridan returned.

  "Well perhaps you'd like to tell me when you will be in the mood? I've been stuck on this ship since you and Garibaldi brought me aboard. I've been given no job, no information and nothing to do. As much as I appreciate the free ride I'd like to know if you were planning on actually using me in this little rebellion of yours, 'cos if you're not, perhaps you could dump me on a planet somewhere and I'll find some other way to get back at the Minbari."

  "Don't tempt me," Sheridan muttered. Ivanova nudged him in the ribs and he sighed. "Marcus, we do need you, but right now I'm not sure in what capacity." He narrowed his eyes, taking in the young man and remembering the image of him Kosh had offered. At last he gave a nod as if reaching a decision. "Do you know one of the first rules of combat?"

  "Which one?"

  "Know thy enemy. You want to beat the Minbari it'd help if you understood how they think, how they fight... can you speak any of the Minbari dialects?"

  Marcus stared. "I want to fight them, not chat them up!"

  "To a Minbari, skills in fighting, meditation and language are all the same. You want to defeat them, you have to think like them, and to do that you have to speak their language. Everyone aboard this ship and any ship that was in the Minbari fleet speaks at least one dialect. As it happens, I speak all three, although I have to admit my Fik is a little rusty. So, there's your task. I want you to learn Adronato and Lenn'ah. That's the Religious and Warrior Caste dialects. I also want you to put in some research on Minbari history and fighting techniques. Since all the texts are in Minbari you'll find the language lessons useful. When you can hold a conversation in Minbari that explains the history and fighting approaches of the Anla'Shok, we'll talk again."

  Marcus' face was pure thunder. "I don't appreciate being played with, Captain!"

  "This is far from playing. I think you'll be impressed by the skills of the Anla'Shok. I have a feeling you may take to them like a duck to water, 'though I may be wrong. If I am, we'll have to reconsider your position. And now, if you'll excuse me, I'm off duty and I plan to make the most of it. I suggest you make yourself scarce before you get a first hand experience of one of those fighting techniques." Marcus still looked belligerent. "Trust me, you'll lose. Painfully." Suddenly, Sheridan's easy-going manner vanished and there before Marcus was a cold-hearted warrior who was quite prepared to prove his point. Marcus took the hint.

  "In that case... But I warn you, Captain, I'm a quick study. You'll be seeing me again soon, and when you do I'll be ready."

  "I look forward to it. It's been a long time since anyone could take me with the Denn'bok. Now go away!"

  As Marcus left Ivanova shook her head. "He's going to need training from someone skilled. He can't learn from the computer. Have you any idea what his accent is going to be like?"

  "Terrible, but a little humiliation would do him good. He needs to be taken down a peg or two, Susan. I admire enthusiasm, but he needs to temper it and right now he's a loose canon. That's no use to me, this ship or the cause. We know his alter ego was one of the best. Let's see if he can live up to that. If he can't..." He shrugged. "Anyway, I'm not going to worry about him now. He wanted a task and I've given him one. And now..." and he pushed her backwards towards the door, his hand feeling for the key-card slot as he brought his lips down to hers, "I'd like to give you one."

  She chuckled and then looked up and down the corridor to make sure they weren't being observed. He was still fighting with his key-card, his mind distracted by his determined assault on her neck. "Give me that!" she muttered, snatching it from his hand. "We'll be here all day!"

  "Hope not," he returned, his voice slightly indistinct as he concentrated on working his way around to the other side. "Could get a bit embarrassing in a minute!" He started to fumble at the snaps to her uniform top.

  Shaking her head but smiling all the while, Susan turned, denying Sheridan his prize as she deftly fitted the key-card into the slot and ducked quickly inside.

  "Hey!" he cried, still standing out in the corridor. "Was it something I said?"

  "These are your quarters! Now get in here before we're the talk of the ship."

  With feigned hurt he stepped inside. "You mean we're not already? Damn! Must be losing my touch."

  A lone crew-member, making his way to his own quarters, heard a low, male hum of pleasure followed by a most un-Ivanova-like giggle before the door cycled closed again. He grinned. For a change he'd have something to add to the mess-hall gossip.

 

*****

 

 

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