CONSPIRACY THEORY V

(chapter 22)

By Castor

 

 

 

*****

Part 22

  After Garibaldi's remarkable efforts, things escalated. The Agamemnon, the Mistral, The Telos and the Emfili separated and, over the next few months, proved their mettle again and again, the Minbari utterly bewildered as to how the renegades managed to predict their every move. Within six months the renegade numbers had swelled from those initial four to over five hundred ships, their ranks expanding exponentially.

  Marcus, having mastered some basics of Minbari culture and society, found he had more affinity with his assumed enemies than he had thought. He sought meetings with Delenn and found her gracious and tolerant of his incessant questions, guiding and instructing him until he finally requested a transfer to the Emfili so that he could continue his studies when Delenn left the Agamemnon to be with Lennier.

  That day found Sheridan with extremely mixed emotions. Stiffly, he bid Delenn farewell, and while he was aware of Ivanova standing by his side, he still expressed his heart-felt hope that he and Delenn would meet again once the war was finally over. Delenn, too, seemed moved by the parting. In an action that caused Lennier, at her back, to jerk slightly as though holding himself in check, she reached out and placed her hand over Sheridan's heart, bowing formally. With a glance towards Lennier who, frowning, still nodded his consent, Sheridan returned the gesture in full, astonished at the depth of feeling expressed. Ivanova remained silent but, as Lennier and Delenn turned to leave, she brushed her hand over Sheridan's -- a gentle reminder of her presence. He glanced down and smiled, but still he watched until Delenn was out of sight and was noticeably quiet for the rest of the day.

  Much to his initial disgust, he then had to endure four more sessions with Kosh and the strange Abbut. He gave up trying to remonstrate with Kosh and instead found himself somewhere comfortable and merely waited for the sessions to end, thinking through anything and everything that came to mind. One advantage of the meetings was that he found the bizarre conversation allowed his thoughts to wander and, occasionally, find solutions to problems he hadn't even considered. On other occasions he simply sat and remembered happier times, longing for a return to peace, or considered what he would do when the war was over. The meetings became oddly refreshing and by the last one he even thanked Kosh and Abbut before leaving. He might not have been so grateful had he seen what happened next. The two aliens exchanged a look at his departure, then Abbut removed his hat and pulled out a crystal from his exposed and electronically enhanced brain that he gave to Kosh, the latter secreting it within the folds of his encounter suit.

  The next day Kosh left and Abbut requested to be put off on the nearest planet. Stunned at the unexpected loss, Sheridan merely nodded mutely and arranged a shuttle to take Abbut to a nearby spaceport. While Abbut had been more an annoyance than a help, the presence of Kosh aboard his ship had made Sheridan feel vaguely protected, even though Kosh refused to take part in any battles. Still, while he was aboard Sheridan felt satisfied that no harm would come to the Agamemnon, if only because the strange Vorlon ship would not allow any harm to come to its pilot. Without that added protection the captain wondered if Kosh knew something was about to happen and he spent a lonely night in his darkened quarters, Ivanova incapable of providing relief, sexual or otherwise.

  After that, no one had time to think about partings or reunions. Surviving from day to day became the sole occupation of the Resistance forces. Even with their numbers swelling at a rate Sheridan could not have dreamed of, the battles did not get any easier. Quite the reverse. As the Minbari fought the insurrection and experienced unanticipated losses, they brought their ranks tighter and fought with even greater desperation. Sheridan used Garibaldi's intelligence to pinpoint Minbari ships that had become separated from immediate support. Where that didn't work, he laid traps to lure a small number of ships that were then pounced upon before they had the chance to realise what was happening. The sheer size of the Agamemnon meant that it often had to hold back while the more manoeuvrable cruisers took the lead, a situation that grated on Sheridan's nerves but allowed him to see the whole battleground and respond quickly to changes.

  In each attack the tactics relied on Garibaldi's successful blocking of communications, followed by a confusing assault by Starfuries to distract the Minbari-Earth ships from the robots released and aimed at their hulls. The larger ships trained fire on the enemies' guns and engines, trying to disable rather than destroy and, again, distract them from the real danger posed by the robots. Once the gas and nanites were released the battle quickly stalled and Sheridan was always swift to order a ceasefire once the main guns had been silenced. Using his Starfuries to shield them, shuttles and boarding pods were immediately sent to the crippled ships to administer antidote or round up those who would not change sides, but that still left any Starfuries the Minbari-Earth ships had managed to release before they were compromised. These were always Sheridan's greatest nightmare. None could be allowed to escape the trap and warn the Minbari High Command about his tactics, and that meant groups of Resistance Starfuries had to be maintained around the battle ground, scanning for enemy ships that were making a run for it. The response, on every occasion, was the same. At first the Resistance pilots would order the enemy fighter to stop and return to its own ship. When they received the inevitable refusal there was no second chance. The fighter would be pursued and destroyed, Sheridan recording every one of them both in a roll of honour for future reference and on his increasingly guilt-ridden mind. The fact that the released forces automatically deferred to him as commander-in-chief and expressed gratitude for his actions didn't ease his conscience one iota.

  Ivanova did everything in her power to ease the pressure that was building as any good first officer would, but in the evenings she found her task even more difficult as Sheridan, trying hard to cover during the day, allowed his guard to drop a little in private. Sex became a natural release, but some nights there was an edge that was almost brutal as both tried to free their minds from the horrors they had witnessed. Still, that was better than the nights he sat brooding in the dark while she tried to find rest in the coldness of the bedroom.

  Nine interminable months later Sheridan's forces had closed on the hard core defenders and everyone's nerves were reaching breaking point. Even the gargantuan Agamemnon was forced to take an active part in the battles as the bitterly determined Minbari ships, now with almost exclusive Minbari crews, were encountered in greater numbers.

  "Furies, watch your back! You've got Minbari raiders on your tail. Prometheus, close up and protect the Furies!" Sheridan braced himself as a blow rocked his ship. Blood trickled down his face from a cut received earlier and he wiped it away irritably, smearing his cheek. "Alpha Squadron, punch a hole through so the robots have a clear path!" The Starfuries swooped and spun, defending their robotic charges in the face of fierce attacks.

  "Susan, how long before the robots reach their targets?"

  Ivanova, hanging onto the console in front of her as the ship rocked again, tapped commands into the computer. "ETA, two minutes!" she yelled, flinching as a console blew out behind her. A crewmember grabbed an extinguisher and dealt with the flames.

  "Come on, come on!" Sheridan muttered. "Can we reach the Orion's gun from here? They're tearing apart the Furies' squadrons."

  "I'll try, but this thing doesn't exactly turn on a Centauri dukhat, you know!"

  The great lumbering monster that was the Agamemnon slowly turned to bring her guns to bear on the Orion. It smashed two Starfuries as it did so, the close-flying pilots more absorbed with bringing down the Resistance renegades they were chasing than watching the movements of the unwieldy ship.

  Sheridan suddenly felt light-headed.

  "Gravity at fifty percent!" Ivanova yelled. "One more hit and we go zero G!"

  "Great, just what we need right now -- a ship full of space-sick crew. Can we fire yet?"

  "Nearly in position... Nearly... Got it!" She looked up. "Ready on your order, Captain."

  "Gun crews, prepare to fire. Target the weapons and engines of the Orion only. I don't want a repeat of what happened to the Paris."

  "Understood. Target acquired. Ready when you are, Captain," came the disembodied voice of one of the gun crews.

  "All squadrons, fire in the hole. I repeat, fire in the hole!" Sheridan waited for the Starfuries to get out of the way and then gave the order. "Fire!"

  The Agamemnon lashed out with devastating force at the guns of the Orion. An explosion followed by a significant reduction in fire power marked the artillery success.

  "Yes! Furies, come about and..."

  "Captain! Enemy ship! Bearing 179 mark 112!"

  "Oh shit, not again!" He got up from his chair and staggered in the reduced gravity over to the consoles. "Show me!"

  Ivanova quickly brought up the new threat, a shimmering spider in space, followed by another and then another. This was becoming a distressingly common pattern as the Resistance forces garnered greater success. Time and again the Shadow ships would appear at the apex of the battle and wreak havoc on whichever side was proving successful. Typically, this was always Sheridan's own forces.

  "Sheridan to all telepaths, target those Shadow ships. Keep them off our tails until we can deal with them!"

  The Shadow ships arrowing into the fight suddenly stalled, gripped by the telepathic force that now directed all its attention to their arrival, but one of them managed to get off a shot. Sheridan was thrown to the deck as the Agamemnon was hit by a slicing beam that separated the main command section from the forward compartments.

  "Everything forward of pylon 14 is gone, Captain," Ivanova reported. "The living areas are presently intact and they missed the rotational thrusters but... Damn!" She thumped the console with her fist.

  The Orion, with only one of her four main guns still operating, had seen her chance and fired on the crippled section. A blast of white light marked the end of the crew quarters at that end of the Agamemnon.

  Furious, Sheridan stabbed at the communications console. "Sheridan to firing control. Take out that last gun and I don't care how you do it!"

  "Aye sir!"

  The Agamemnon's guns blazed white hot as she sent a tightly controlled burst of angry power at the Orion, silencing her guns and crippling the ship.

  Now it was Ivanova's turn. "Firing control. Target the Shadow ship that hit us. Furies, Prometheus, pick your targets and take out the other two. Fire with everything you've got. Alpha Squadron, you know what to do. Time on target and then get the hell out of there!"

  Sheridan nodded, happy to let her shout herself hoarse as he struggled back to his command chair. A few seconds later a jarring explosion rocked the ship and Sheridan quickly strapped himself in. The first of the Shadow ships had been destroyed.

  "Zero G. We have gone zero G," Susan announced, as if the fact she had to hook her feet under the bar beneath her console was not proof enough of their new status.

  Sheridan tightened his already clenched fist. "Dammit! Crew to the life pods. Abandon ship. I repeat, abandon ship!" With the gravitational thrusters and the front half of the ship gone there was nothing left to do. Even so, he had hoped to be able to hold on until the fight was finished. A second explosion had Ivanova grabbing for a handhold halfway up the wall. Sheridan released his own straps and pulled himself over to her, grabbing her ankle to pull her back down to floor level. He turned to the rest of the command crew. "You know the drill. I know it's a while since we did this one, but it's time we all had a refresher course. Get out of here!" He slipped a data crystal from his pocket and dropped it into the console, downloading as much as he could of the most vital information stored in the ship's computers, then he tapped the communications console again. "Sheridan to Garibaldi."

  "Garibaldi here. Don't worry, Captain, I've got it all backed up. I'm heading for the life pod now."

  "Ivanova and I will meet you there. Wait for us!"

  "Will do. Garibaldi out."

  "Are the crew off?" Sheridan asked.

  "Last few departing now. Internal sensors show no one else aboard except us and Garibaldi. While I appreciate the Captain is supposed to go down with his ship..."

  "Screw that! Come on, Susan. Time to get the hell out of here." Holding onto the hand rails the officers pulled themselves along the walls as fast as they could until they reached the life pod. Garibaldi was already there, bracing himself against the ceiling. Another explosion rocked the ship and Sheridan had to pull himself back to the pod, having been sent end over end down the corridor. As he neared them Garibaldi and Ivanova reached out and pulled him the rest of the way.

  "That'll be the last of the Shadow ships," he observed. "We got rid of them, anyway. Thanks you two. Michael, have you got everything?" he added, pressing the access panel. A door slid open and Ivanova, her long hair surrounding her like a halo, pulled herself inside.

  "Yep." Garibaldi patted a pouch that was strapped to his waist. "Every password, every detail right up until the first time we got hit. I'm getting paranoid in my old age."

  "Well thank God for your paranoia. In you get. I've just got some finishing up to do." He bent to stick his head in the gap. "Susan!"

  Ivanova pulled herself back to the entrance. "John, she's gonna blow anyway. Let's just get out of here."

  "If we're leaving her, I want to make sure there's nothing left to give the Minbari a clue how we're doing this." He raised his head, one hand hooked under the pod door. "Computer, initiate self-destruct sequence." He drew a steadying breath. "Voice authorisation Sheridan. X zero seven Y three nine alpha. Password Obsidian."

  "Authorisation confirmed. Secondary authorisation required," the computer's mild voice replied.

  Ivanova shook her head with a sigh and cleared her throat. "Computer, confirm self-destruct sequence. Voice authorisation Ivanova. Z four eight M two seven epsilon. Password, griffin."

  "Authorisation verified. Ship will self-destruct in ten minutes."

  "Can we go now, please?" Ivanova asked, pulling on Sheridan's leg.

  With one last look at his ship, Sheridan pulled himself into the life pod and closed the airlock, automatically activating the pod's release. His head bumped against the ceiling as the pod shot away, re-opening the gash that had just started to seal. In the weightlessness of the pod it began to bleed profusely but he ignored it, peering through the small porthole in the airlock to watch the Agamemnon drift in space. Flares of fire showed up where hull breaches fed oxygen to the flames as the ship tilted and lurched in response to the explosions. After a minute he turned away, shutting down his mind to the loss of his command.

  Ivanova watched him. "She wasn't designed for this, John. That she survived as long as she did is a tribute to you and her. She did us proud."

  "I know," he muttered. "I know." He wiped again at his forehead, his fingers coming away bloody. He used the distraction to cover his feelings and concentrated on applying his handkerchief to stem the trickle that now floated to the ceiling as well as spreading across his forehead. Susan and Garibaldi left him alone, concentrating on navigating the small craft to the rendezvous point on the far side of the Prometheus. The sturdy cruiser was shielding the escape pods until all could be collected and brought aboard.

  "You know, ten minutes isn't really long enough to get away from a ship like the Aggie when she goes up. I'm glad we've got the Prometheus here. You should keep that in mind next time you decide to blow up a ship, John," Susan observed.

  "I don't plan on there being a next time like this," Sheridan growled, folding his handkerchief to find a spot that wasn't already soaked. "The next time I destroy a ship..."

  "Uh oh," Ivanova interrupted, her hands flying over the console.

  "'Uh oh'?" Garibaldi responded, looking up. "I really hate the sound of 'uh oh'. What exactly does 'uh oh' mean in this instance?"

  "It means," Ivanova replied, bringing up a schematic on the pod's limited computer, "that we've been damaged. The port thruster is only on sixty percent power and dropping fast."

  Sheridan turned in the cramped space. "Can we make it to the Prometheus before our own ship blows us to bits?"

  "Good question. Right now I'd say... Oh shit."

  "My sentiments exactly but that wasn't quite the answer I was looking for," Sheridan replied, temporarily blinded by blood that spattered into his eyes as he leaned forward.

  "Not that. That!" Ivanova pointed.

  Sheridan cleared his eyes and followed her finger to see a jumpgate forming almost on top of them. There were no more allies due and that meant it could only be...

  "Well, that's us screwed," Garibaldi stated, too tired to express much emotion at his impending demise. "It's been good working with you guys. Uh, anyone got something bright I can strap these crystals to so one of our crews can pick them up? I don't really stand out much against dark backgrounds. Especially not in pieces."

  Ivanova was tapping into the computer, furiously trying to identify the Minbari War Cruiser that had just appeared before them. Suddenly she let loose a shout of triumph.

  "Way to go, Lennier!!!"

  Sheridan blinked, one eye almost sealed shut by the congealing blood. "What?!"

  "It's the Mistral!"

  "Mistral to life pod. Prepare for tractor beam," came the voice through the communications console.

  Sheridan almost laughed in relief. "Mistral, you are a sight for sore eyes. Your timing is immaculate."

  "We aim to please, Captain," replied Lennier, a certain smugness in his tone. "Engaging tractor beam."

  The pod lurched as the Mistral's tractor beams pulled her towards the gaping mouth of the cruiser's docking bay. Once the pod was inside, the Mistral pulled away and turned to present a minimal aspect to the Agamemnon. A few seconds later the latter exploded, her main engines starting a cascade effect that ran through the remainder of the hull, shattering it and sending pieces in every direction. Sheridan, who was at that moment emerging from the life pod, paused and bowed his head in mute respect before resuming his path down the steps and across the docking bay floor. Lennier and Delenn awaited him. It was Delenn who spoke first.

  "Captain, you are injured!"

  He shook his head, instantly regretting the motion. The artificial gravity of the Mistral had asserted itself and the sudden contrast between that and the previous weightlessness was inducing a splitting headache. "No, I'm fine," he insisted. "Looks a lot worse than it is. Head wounds always bleed too much." He considered his scarlet handkerchief. "Could use a medic, though, before I make a mess of Lennier's docking bay." He drew himself to attention, belatedly remembering protocol. "Permission to come aboard, Alyt?"

  "I believe we can dispense with that, Captain," Lennier replied, waving the courtesy aside. "You will be pleased to know I have had a report from the Prometheus. Between us we have collected all the life pods and Doctor Franklin says that none of the wounded are in a serious condition. We have also compiled a full casualty list, but that can wait." He turned to an aide. "Be'denn, escort the Captain to the medical facilities. We will talk when you are rested, Captain," he added, turning back to Sheridan. He almost didn't move fast enough, but Delenn and Ivanova had spotted the pale sheen coming over Sheridan before even he realised he was about to embarrass himself.

  "Catch him, someone!" Garibaldi yelled, as Sheridan staggered to be caught by Delenn on one side, Ivanova on the other and several crew members who rushed to his aid. He tried to brush them off but it was a half-hearted attempt at best.

  "My apologies, Alyt," he slurred. "I don't think..." The stress and blood loss finally overcame him and Delenn and Ivanova lowered him to the floor as orders were despatched for a gurney to ferry him to Medlab.

*****

  "How are you feeling, Captain?" Lennier asked as Sheridan slowly refocused. He found he was lying in the medical facility, human and Minbari crew members standing aside to give room for Lennier and Delenn who had come to check on him.

  "Better," Sheridan assured him, tenderly touching the regen pack that was strapped to his head. "I suspect I look worse."

  "I am just glad to see you alive," Delenn said, stepping into his line of sight. "When we got the message the Agamemnon had been hit we feared the worst."

  "We lost a lot. The Orion destroyed the forward living quarters after it had been separated from the main ship and could no longer defend itself," he growled, his anger plain at that direct attack on an obviously unmilitary target. He cleared his throat, changing tack. "What's happening with those ships?"

  Lennier nodded, pleased to see that, in his Warrior Caste opinion, Sheridan had his priorities straight. "All being dealt with. The Orion, The Castor, The Kronos and The Philippi have all been taken and their crews are being sorted even as we speak. You can relax, Captain. For now this is no longer your concern. Commander Ivanova and I will watch over the fleet until you are ready to return to duty."

  Sheridan closed his eyes, too tired to argue the point. "Thanks. It's good to know it's in safe hands."

  "There is no hurry. When you are fully rested and the healer gives you permission to leave we will talk. We have much to discuss."

  Sheridan nodded but didn't respond. Lennier, satisfied he had done all he could, turned to Delenn. "I am returning to the command deck."

  "I will join you shortly. I would like to stay with the Captain for a while."

  "I do not think he is in a fit state for conversation, Delenn," Lennier warned.

  Sheridan opened his eyes. "I can't guarantee to be scintillating, but I would appreciate the company. That is, if you don't mind, Alyt?"

  "Delenn is free to do as she pleases, Captain," Lennier replied stiffly. "If you will excuse me." And with that he gave a slight bow and left Medlab.

  One of the medics walked over to check the medication that was being fed into Sheridan's left arm. Delenn frowned and the medic smiled reassuringly.

  "The Captain has not been looking after himself, Delenn. These are merely to restore his system and help him heal faster. Nothing serious." With a final check and a satisfied nod the medic left. Delenn pulled up a chair, suddenly at a loss as to what she should do next. Sheridan grunted.

  "You don't have to stay, Delenn, but I do appreciate the thought. I... ahh. Well, I missed you."

  "And I, you, Captain. I have been following your battles... as we all have," she added quickly.

  He decided to ignore the hint of personal concern. "I'm surprised you've had time. The Mistral's hardly been sitting on her laurels. Lennier's been working miracles." He opened one eye to observe her. In his slightly drugged state, his mind fogged by painkillers, she seemed to have a halo around her. He blinked and the image cleared.

  "Lennier has been working hard," she admitted, "but always we look to the Agamemnon to lead the way."

  He coughed and she rose to help him, but he waved her away. "Well, don't follow her now, for God's sake! I'm afraid her Captain is going to be grounded for the foreseeable." He couldn't quite hide his feelings of loss.

  Delenn smiled. "Do not worry, Captain. Your new command awaits you."

  It took a while for her words to sink in and by the time they did Delenn had left Medlab. Sheridan went to call her back and then thought better of it. He was in no fit state to take over a card game at the moment, let alone a ship. He'd find out what she was talking about when his system had recovered. With a sigh he surrendered to the exhaustion that had been lurking at the edges of his consciousness.

*****

  The following evening Ivanova stopped by to check on him. He opened his eyes to a light kiss being placed on his lips.

  "Hmm. Now that's a wake-up call I can stand," he murmured. "How're you doing?"

  "Better than you," she replied, pulling the chair up to his bed. "You need to pull yourself together and come join the rest of us. Lennier's strutting his stuff like someone died and made him God." She glanced upwards. "No offence," she muttered.

  He grinned at her belated apology. "He's allowed to. Right now he's the best commander we have... barring you, of course."

  "Yeah, well would you mind telling him that? I seem to be decidedly superfluous to requirements." She didn't try to hide her irritation.

  "What's the matter, Commander? Can't stand the pressure?" he chuckled.

  "Pressure I can stand. Right now I feel like yesterday's news download -- of passing interest only to those who got up late and missed it the first time around." She snorted her dissatisfaction.

  "You could catch up on your sleep. I know I haven't been a particularly good sleeping partner over the past few months," he suggested gently, all too aware of his own shortcomings when it came to their relationship.

  "Hey, right now I'd welcome your snoring," she replied jauntily, determined not to let him wallow in self-recrimination. She grinned and then added in a more tender tone, "It's getting pretty lonely without you."

  He smiled and reached up to stroke her face. "And I remember you saying you'd have a hard time sharing a bedroom with anyone after all these years."

  "What can I say?" she replied, catching his hand to kiss the palm. "You're addictive."

  "Ha!" he snorted. "So I'm reduced to a drug hit. Thanks!"

  She smacked him playfully on the shoulder. "Just get better, would you? I need a little action."

  "I'm not sure I'll be able to accommodate you that fast," he replied, giving her a wink.

  She rolled her eyes. "I can wait. Just get your ass back into gear."

  "I'm trying!" he replied, his voice rough with frustration. "I must have been more run down than I thought."

  "The doctors are calling it stress-fatigue complicated by mild concussion, if that's any help."

  He considered. "Well, it explains this general apathy. If a Shadow creature walked in right now I'm not sure I'd have the energy to blink. Pretty useless commander, wouldn't you say?"

  "I wouldn't worry about it. You held on until it was safe to let go, and the doc thinks you'll be up and around again tomorrow. Fit for full duty within another week, provided you do what they tell you and rest." She gave him a look that made clear what would happen if he did not obey those instructions.

  "Glad to hear it... I think!" He eased himself up and Susan quickly stepped forward to raise the bed head and make him comfortable. "Thanks. So... what's going on with Lennier and Delenn?"

  "What do you mean?" she asked, settling herself back on the chair.

  "I dunno, there seemed to be a lot of tension there." He shrugged. "I'm probably seeing things."

  "No," she said after a pause for thought, "I think you've got twenty-twenty vision. They're going through the ceremonies but, frankly, I think she's acting more out of duty than love. I get the impression her eyes aren't entirely on him. "

  He juggled one of the monitor leads that was still attached to his arm. "Oh? So who's the poor devil about to find himself on the wrong end of Lennier's main guns?"

  "You," she answered, coolly.

  He paused in his re-arranging and looked up. "Me? What on earth gives you that idea?"

  "Something to do with the way she's been hanging around here for the past day and a half."

  "She has?" She gave him a look and he shrugged. "I've not been paying a lot of attention, Susan!"

  "Well Lennier has, and he's not happy with you. I think the sooner you're off his ship, the better he'll like it."

  "I've not been encouraging her, you know," he said seriously, determined Ivanova not get the wrong idea.

  "I know."

  "We haven't even been in the same sector of space."

  "Stop protesting your innocence. I'll start thinking you're pushing it." She grinned to take the sting out of her words.

  "Fine, subject closed. What's this about a new command?"

  She blinked. "Jeez, you can change direction faster than a Starfury!"

  "Comes with the territory," he shrugged. "Well?"

  "To be honest I have no idea. Delenn seems incredibly pleased with herself so whatever it is she thinks you'll like it -- another reason Lennier's pissed at you. I think he resents the fact you're getting this new ship."

  "I thought we were changing the subject?" he grinned. "Besides, the Mistral's magnificent. If I were him I wouldn't be all fired up to move on."

  "Which makes me even more curious as to what it is Delenn's got up her sleeve. Whatever it is, it's got him drooling."

  "Thanks for loading me up with that image!" He shook his head to shake off the thought. "What ships have been added to the fleet lately that could get Lennier so eager?"

  "None that I can see. Just the usual mix of Minbari-Earth ships. Unless he's suddenly developed a taste for Omega class destroyers."

  Sheridan gave her a look that expressed his opinion of that possibility and she shrugged. "Ah well," he said. "I guess I'll find out soon enough."

  "The second you get out of here is my guess."

  "Okay, okay. I get the hint. If they don't give me the all-clear tomorrow I'll sign myself out, all right?"

  "Deal." She got up and leaned over the bed, planting a kiss on his forehead.

  "Well, if that's all I'm going to get I'll stay..." his words were swallowed as Ivanova fastened onto his mouth. The kiss was long and deep and when Ivanova pulled back Sheridan was left breathless. "Wow! I might just sign myself out right now if that's the welcome waiting for me." He grinned and then his glance shifted and he froze. There, standing in the doorway, was Delenn. She turned to go. "Delenn, wait!" She paused and Ivanova looked between them for a moment.

  "I'll, um, see if Lennier can find me something to do," she said diplomatically. She didn't consider Delenn a threat, but she did recognise the Minbari had strong feelings for her partner that needed to be addressed. Besides, as the person who'd set the rebellion in motion at considerable personal risk, Delenn had earned both respect and a certain latitude that Ivanova was willing to grant... for now, at least.

  "No, hang on, Susan..." But it was too late and only Delenn remained, her back still to him, frozen in flight.

  "Delenn, please." He waited for her to turn around, trusting that she would not allow her personal feelings to get in the way. "I think, maybe, we need to talk."

  "I am not sure that is a good idea, Captain," she replied, not moving.

  "Why not? Is there something going on I don't know about? Delenn..." He sighed. "Look, I'm not in a position to come over to you. Would you please at least face me?"

  After a short pause Delenn drew a deep breath and turned. Sheridan frowned. If he didn't know better he'd think there was a hint of tears in her demeanour. He indicated the chair by his bed, but she remained by the door.

  "I really don't want to have to shout across the room. Come on, Delenn. Please?" Slowly she crossed the room and sat down, carefully arranging herself into a position so stiff it almost hurt to look at. "Well, it's a start. Now..." How was he going to do this? He decided to start on a safer note. "What's this about a new command for me?"

  Delenn visibly relaxed and Sheridan breathed a little easier. At least he could put her at her ease.

  "I think you will appreciate it, Captain. I do not want to... spoil the surprise?" He nodded and she continued, "but I can tell you it is something I have been privately working on for some time. The Warrior Caste were not pleased when they learned what I had been doing, but by then it was too late. Your ships had managed to surround the shipyards and freed Earthers as well as Minbari who understand our cause are already working together. Kosh has given us much needed guidance..."

  "Kosh? Is that where he went to?" he interrupted, surprised by the news.

  "He has been advising for some time," she replied carefully, somewhat put out by Sheridan's sudden interjection.

  "Really? I'm sorry, I'm trying to visualise Kosh giving advice that's actually practical. I'm just not getting anywhere." Delenn smothered a small laugh and Sheridan smiled. "Now that's better," he said softly. "You're very pretty when you laugh. You should do it more often."

  She looked up sharply and he realised he'd crossed an invisible line, "Unfortunately, laughter is hardly appropriate at the present time. We are now facing the Warrior Caste elite and they would rather die than surrender. I wonder if you realise how dangerous our position is?"

  "I'm a Captain who just lost his command. I've got a pretty good idea," he replied, staring down at the bedclothes. Then he shook himself to clear the maudlin thoughts that were flooding his mind. "But I didn't mean to offend. I apologise."

  She, too, bowed her head and then composed herself. "I responded rashly. Your apology is accepted... if you will accept mine?"

  He gave a slight bow of willing acceptance, and then cast around for a safer topic. "So... Ahh, when do I get to see this new ship?"

  "When the healer decides you are fit enough to leave. They are not pleased with you. You have not been taking care of yourself."

  "I've been distracted." After all he had done of late, this criticism seemed unwarranted and despite his efforts he found himself automatically switching to the defensive. Why was she affecting him this way?

  "Still, it is important that the Commander of the Fleet look after himself," she continued, almost as though he were still under Minbari control and so should follow the dictates of that system. "You have a duty to those who follow you."

  Her holier than thou attitude was starting to grate. "You know what, Delenn? I'm getting a bit tired of my duty. I didn't actually volunteer for this one. I've no special qualifications for the job and I'm only where I am because you chose to release the crew of the Agamemnon first."

  She drew herself up in her seat. "Do you believe my choice was random? Be assured, Captain, I looked over the records of several commanders before I decided on you. You were not my first choice, but you were my last and I believe the right one. Are you saying I was mistaken?"

  "I'm saying it would have been nice to have been given a say in the matter." He could sense the conversation was going downhill rapidly, but he didn't seem to be able to stop it, and he wasn't sure he cared.

  "To be given a choice you had to be free, and once you were free you had no choice." She drew a breath, reconsidering. "Even so, you have performed admirably and far beyond expectations. No one could have asked for more." She looked into his eyes and her haughty facade seemed to crumble in the face of that piercing look. "I... I apologise if I am making you feel uncomfortable, Captain. I will leave." She stood up.

  "Oh for God's sake, Delenn! First of all, the name's John. Second of all, I'm getting really fed up with this soft shoe shuffle I have to do around the Minbari and right now my nerves aren't up to it. Can you just accept that I'm downright cranky, decidedly lacking in political correctness and whatever this gravitas is that heroes are supposed to radiate, and I simply want a sensible conversation with someone I haven't seen in a long time and who, frankly, I do care about and I have missed." Where did that come from? It was true, but he hadn't actually intended to say it. Nevertheless, the words were out and he braced himself for the nuclear winter that was about to descend on his head.

  Instead, Delenn paused and stared at him for a moment and then sat down again, her stance more uncertain, yet with an eagerness that surprised him.

  "I ap..."

  He frowned and shook his head.

  She corrected herself. "Thank you... John. It has been some time since... thank you," she finished lamely, looking down at her hands resting in her lap.

  Unthinkingly he reached out, raising her chin so he could look at her. "Hey! No tears allowed, understood? Screws up the medication or something. Anyway, I know it's not good. I won't have you crying around me. That's an order. And this isn't just anyone giving it, you know. I'm the Commander of the Fleet. Okay, I may not look much like a commander right now, except perhaps of the bedclothes... What's wrong now?"

  Her shoulders were shaking and he stared at her, his face a mixture of worry and growing amusement as he realised she was smothering a laugh.

  He decided to encourage that emotion. "I've got command of my feet, though. See? Sheridan to feet! Cross!" He quickly crossed his ankles and was rewarding by a burst of laughter from Delenn. Her laughter was contagious and for a little while the room was filled by the very different and oddly complimentary sounds of their amusement. Still smiling she reined herself in.

  "Even for a human you can be very strange," she declared at last.

  He bowed his head. "Why thank you."

  "It feels good to laugh," she admitted. "I have not done so in a long time."

  "Come on, it can't be that bad. I mean, you're getting married soon, right? You must be nearly through the ceremonies by now." She dropped her head and he realised he'd hit a nerve. "I'm sorry. It's none of my business."

  "Alyt Lennier is a good and honourable man," she asserted. "He is following all the rituals to the letter, doing great honour to me, my house and my clan."

  "Hey, no need to defend Lennier to me. I admire him. I know me and him didn't exactly hit it off when we first met, but he's earned my respect several times over. You couldn't pick a better man... uh, Minbari as a mate."

  The new voice came from the doorway. "I am glad you approve, Captain. Not that it's any of your business."

  Sheridan looked up to see Lennier. "Oh, this just keeps getting better and better," he muttered. Aloud he said, "Alyt. I'm honoured. What brings you down here?"

  "I came to see what was keeping Delenn so long." He stepped forward and Delenn straightened. Sheridan frowned, looking from Lennier's dominating stance to Delenn's stiff posture. The warrior was not the most powerfully built Minbari he'd ever met, and Sheridan knew that in another world where he had remained Religious Caste Lennier came across as somewhat timid, albeit extremely capable. Here, his black and silver uniform, the scar across his cheek and the arrogance that many victories had given him put a far uglier cast to his face. Suddenly, Sheridan felt extremely protective.

  "She was trying to cheer me up, Alyt, for which I'm very grateful. She was also singing your praises. You're very lucky to have someone such as Delenn as your partner. In my experience she does not bestow her trust and affections easily."

  "More easily than you realise, it seems." He turned, exposing his back to Sheridan in blatant insult. "Delenn, if you are finished here I think it is time for you to leave. The crew is starting to talk and I do not care for the conversation. You have been with Captain Sheridan too long."

  Sheridan saw Delenn's knuckles turn white in her lap and he bristled. "Alyt Lennier, I don't know what the crew is saying and, to be honest, I don't care because if it's as bad as you make it sound then they've got it totally wrong. Delenn has been behaving honourably."

  "When my mate needs a champion," Lennier replied, still keeping his back to the Captain, "I will provide that service. This is not your concern."

  "When a friend of mine is unjustly accused it becomes my concern, and I consider Delenn a friend." The situation was spiralling out of control and Sheridan made a conscious effort to restrain his mounting anger. "Alyt Lennier," he began, moderating his tone, "we are both Warriors, even if we come from different backgrounds. We are honourable men. Let's not allow gossip to upset the balance."

  There was to be no reconciliation. "Then I suggest that in future Delenn stays away from you, Captain!" Lennier spat, making the title an insult. He grabbed Delenn's arm.

  "Now hang on just a minute!" Sheridan shouted, his control snapping at the sight of Lennier's manhandling. He yanked back the covers and tore the sensors from his arm and chest, stepping forward.

  Lennier turned slowly, looked Sheridan up and down and laughed. "Look at yourself, human! You would threaten me, an Alyt of the Warrior Caste? You are barely clothed!"

  Sheridan glanced at himself. Bare feet and legs paled from too long in space stuck out from the bottom of the hospital gown he'd been put in. He raised his eyes to the harshly uniformed Alyt. "If you think a uniform makes a man then you're a poor judge of character, Lennier. You've been spoiling for a fight ever since we met and I'm happy to give you one. In the interests of decorum I can put on some clothes if it makes you feel better, or you can strip off. Doesn't bother me either way. Just give me a Denn'bok and tell me when and where and I'll be there."

  Lennier simply roared with laughter and pulled Delenn to her feet. That was the last straw. Sheridan grabbed Lennier's arm, spun him around and landed a punch on the Minbari's jaw that would have left any human sprawled on the other end of the room. As it was, the heavier-boned Lennier was left stunned for a few seconds. Then he slowly raised his head, his eyes blazing. At that moment Ivanova arrived with MacDougan.

  "All right, that's enough testosterone for one day. Cool off, the pair of you!" Ivanova yelled.

  "I will not be insulted aboard my own ship!" Lennier roared and reached for his Denn'Bok. Mackie quickly stepped forward, his huge bulk blocking the Alyt's access to Sheridan.

  "Given Captain Sheridan's reputation, I don't think he insulted you, Alyt," Mackie sternly announced. "And even if he did, he didn't. You get what I'm sayin'?"

  Lennier glared daggers at MacDougan. "You are not the Captain of this ship."

  "No, and I don't care to be after all the trouble we went through last time. Now I don't know what this was about, but what I do know is the crew admires both Captain Sheridan and you, Alyt Lennier, but if it came to a choice the fact remains your crew is almost entirely human and right now the Minbari Warrior Caste ain't getting the popular vote. Whatever started this, I suggest we all just pretend it never happened and go back to whatever we were doing before. In your case, Alyt, I know you have a department heads meeting to attend." He turned to Sheridan, "And you've got to get yourself back into bed because frankly, John, those white legs of yours are starting to blind me."

  Sheridan, still breathing hard, looked up into the face of his friend. Mackie gave him a friendly wink and nodded towards the bed, then he gently but firmly guided Lennier towards the door.

  Lennier stalled and turned back. "Delenn! I order you to leave!"

  Delenn rose to her feet and Ivanova gently stepped in her way. "Before you do, I think someone ought to take a look at that, don't you?" She nodded towards a livid bruise on Delenn's arm. Lennier, in his fury at Sheridan, had yanked her aside, unaware of the pressure he was exerting.

  "It is nothing, Commander, I assure you," Delenn insisted, her tones dangerously clipped. "I will be quite all right."

  "Delenn..." Ivanova began.

  The tight control Delenn had been exercising vanished. "That is enough! I am not a pawn to be fought over, talked about as though I was not here, ordered, patronised or otherwise mistreated." Even though she was not of great stature, she filled the room. "I am a Satai of the High Council. I have been a Political Officer and a Planetary Governor, but above all I am Delenn of Mir and I will not be treated as property. Captain Sheridan, I appreciate your efforts on my behalf but they are not required. I am perfectly capable of defending myself. Alyt Lennier, the ceremonies are now at an end. I am terminating our arrangement."

  "Delenn, you can't!" Lennier protested. "We have gone too far!"

  "I can and I have. I will not ally myself with someone who embarrasses me, refuses to respect the accomplishments of others or..." she added, her voice rising to overcome Lennier's spluttered protests, "...or who thinks he can order me to do anything. I was to be your mate, Lennier, not your servant. I do not come and go at your command. My friendship with Captain Sheridan or any of the humans with whom we presently work is no reason for resentment or jealousy. I am Satai Delenn. You would do well to remember my station in future, Alyt Lennier, for I assure you, the next time you forget you will pay for that error." And with that she swept out.

  Lennier, humiliated, angry and with no possible avenue on which to vent that anger, pulled himself away from MacDougan, held Sheridan's gaze for a moment, straightened his uniform and marched out.

  MacDougan shook his head. "I'd better get to that department heads meeting before he actually decapitates someone. Excuse me."

  Sheridan and Susan were left behind, gazing in the direction Delenn had gone.

  "Way to go Delenn," Susan muttered.

  "Uh huh," Sheridan agreed, nodding slowly.

  Ivanova turned. "You, on the other hand. What the hell did you think you were doing?"

  "He was yanking her around!" he protested.

  "So the knight rushed to the aid of the Lady in Distress, huh?"

  "If you want to put it that way," he replied, slightly put out by her sarcasm. "I just don't like bullies." He gave a small shrug. "Maybe I'd better stay out of his face for the remainder of my stay aboard?"

  "Ya think?!"

  He sat back on the bed and pulled the Medlab blanket over himself. Then he looked around, frowning. "Hey. I yanked out all those bits of wire and no one came running." His tone was petulant.

  "Probably because I told them to stay put until I gave them the all clear. Hang on." She stepped into the corridor, beckoned, and in the next second four nurses appeared to re-attach everything Sheridan had pulled out, as well as clear up the blood that had spilled from his IV.

  "How did you know what was going on, anyway?" he asked as the nurses finished, one of them giving him a look that expressed her annoyance at the trouble he'd caused. He responded with his most charming smile and the nurse, slightly mollified, departed.

  Ivanova watched. "And another Sheridan conquest bites the dust," she observed and then answered his question. "I was walking along the corridor and saw Lennier on his way here spitting nails. I thought maybe you might need some help, so I grabbed MacDougan. Not that I couldn't handle Lennier myself, you understand..."

  "But it helps if the guy standing next to you is built like a tank, right?"

  "Right. So what the hell had gotten into him, anyway?"

  "Apparently, he thinks me and Delenn are having an affair."

  "While you're unconscious in Medlab? That's a neat trick. We've barely managed it and you've been conscious!"

  He gave her a look, which she returned, defying him to disagree. Instead he decided to ignore the comment. "He mistook friendship for something else. Don't Minbari have friends? I mean, I know we lived like them for years but maybe there's something Minbari to Minbari we missed."

  "I think it's the Minbari to Human bit he's having trouble with. And she has been hanging around a lot. I take it he overheard some of the crew gossip?"

  "Apparently," he sighed, examining the pattern on his blanket.

  "And he can't tell the difference between stressed out crew-members relieving some pressure and a serious claim."

  He looked up. "Is there any point in my being in this conversation? You seem to be managing fine all on your own."

  "I like a sounding board," she replied easily, sitting down. "So, what did you and Delenn talk about while I was gone?"

  The change of subject lifted some of the depression from his shoulders. "The new ship, mostly."

  "And?"

  "I didn't get much. She said she didn't want to spoil the surprise, but from what I can tell it's been built by humans and Minbari, and Kosh's involved somehow, 'though I can't quite imagine him handing over blueprints so..." He passed his hand over his head.

  "Picking up speed as it passes, huh?"

  "Pretty much." He closed his eyes and took a loud breath. "I'll say one thing for that encounter, it's certainly got the adrenaline rushing around again. I was beginning to think my stores had leaked out in the life pod."

  "Well, I might be able to persuade them to let you out a little earlier but, to be honest, you're probably safer here than wandering the ship with Lennier in that mood. At least here we can keep you two apart. The last thing we need right now is our Commanders beating the crap out of each other in front of the crew. Doesn't do a whole lot for morale, you know?"

  He grunted agreement but added, "Sooner or later we're going to have to settle this. You do realise that?"

  She shrugged. "Assuming we live that long I'll worry about it later. Listen, while Lennier's in that department meeting I'm going to talk to Delenn and see if we can get you off the Mistral first thing tomorrow morning. I'll be back as soon as I can. In the meantime, can you try not to rattle any other cages?"

  "He started it!" Sheridan protested. She gave him a hard, long look and he raised his hand. "Scout's honour," he promised.

  "You were never a scout but I guess it'll do. I'll be right back."

  Sheridan settled back against the pillows going over the entire debacle. Two things stuck in his mind: the fact that Delenn had sought his company knowing her relationship with Lennier was on the rocks, and the fact that she had thanked him even while tearing her erstwhile fiancé a new one. He smiled as he remembered her tirade. Strong women who still managed to remain intensely feminine appealed to him immensely. It was why he liked... no, loved, he corrected himself, Susan.

  He frowned at his error and then gave a mental shrug. He'd been years living alone and he was still learning the habit of sharing a life with someone. Besides, even if he wanted to (and he mentally reinforced his rejection of that notion), there was no way he could get together with Delenn. For one thing, humans and Minbari weren't really sexually compatible, although he'd heard it could be done if the partners were determined enough. For another, bald with a bone just didn't turn him on. Susan was everything he needed: stunningly attractive, reliable, a good sense of humour, fantastic in bed, feisty, totally unfazed by his mood swings and almost telepathic in her ability to anticipate his needs as his XO on the command deck. A more ideal partner simply didn't exist.

  Still, in that strange period as his mind wound down in preparation for sleep, two images dominated his thoughts. One was a supposed space-ship that morphed and re-arranged itself at the most inconvenient moments; whose computer system sang in a language utterly incomprehensible to him while the crew struggled to prevent themselves from being ejected into space as a by-product of the ship's wriggling. The other was Delenn, stern and determined, taking command of that amorphous blob and reshaping it into a diamond arrow that was flung at the Minbari and Shadow forces with devastating force.

*****

  The next morning the Medlab staff gave Sheridan permission to leave, albeit somewhat reluctantly. He was much restored, but in an ideal world the chief MO would have been happier keeping an eye on him for another week. As it was, Lennier's obvious antagonism made the situation difficult, to say the least. Good enough would have to do.

  Ivanova arrived with his uniform as well as the welcome information that a shuttle was waiting in the docking bay to take him to his new command. He changed quickly and made his way to the docking bay, half expecting Lennier to be there, ready to finish what they had started. In fact it was Mackie who waited to bid him goodbye.

  "Take care of yourself, John," the big man said, holding out his hand. Sheridan shook it firmly.

  "You too. Um, should I ask where...?"

  "He's busy with reports. Most of 'em dumped on his desk by me," Mackie winked. "I thought it'd be better if you two didn't start a brawl. Not that you would, John, I know, but Lennier... Well, Delenn's announcement has shaken him and he holds you responsible. It's a matter of honour now and you know what the Minbari are like when it comes to honour."

  "Yeah. Hopefully he'll calm down when he realises it was nothing to do with me. Speaking of Delenn, where is she?" Mackie raised an eyebrow. "She's a friend and I'd like to say goodbye, that's all," Sheridan insisted.

  "You're too late. She left a few hours ago in her private shuttle."

  Sheridan felt a hole open in his gut, but he covered it quickly. "A shuttle? I hope someone went with her to act as escort. If she's found by one of the Minbari ships they're not going to waste time with pleasantries. She'll be dead before the day's over."

  Mackie nodded. "I know. Yes, she's got an escort, so don't worry."

  "Where's she gone to?"

  "She had some business to attend to, that's all I know. You don't have to worry about her. She's earned the respect of a lot of the fleet and they won't let anything happen to her. Besides, she's an important symbol for both sides. Having a High Council Satai on our side has really got High Command pissed. Not that they're calling her Satai any more. I think she got the boot once her involvement with our cause was confirmed, but that still leaves the question of why she changed sides in the first place. Makes High Command uncomfortable and that's all to our benefit."

  Sheridan grunted and changed the subject. He was still concerned, but it was obvious he wasn't going to learn any more "You any idea what ship I'm getting?"

  "Not a clue. Delenn's been pretty tight-lipped about this. I guess you'll know her when you see her."

  At that moment Garibaldi arrived in the docking bay.

  "Michael," Sheridan acknowledged. "I was wondering when you'd turn up."

  "Sorry. I was using the computers to check what High Command's saying about us. They know we've taken four more of their ships and they've scrambled everything they have to try and catch us. I reckon we've got about two hours before they get here."

  "In that case we'd better leave. Mackie, take care of yourself, and if you can try and get through Lennier's thick skull that I wasn't trying to steal his fiancée it'd be appreciated."

  "I'll try, but I wouldn't hold my breath if I were you."

  Sheridan grunted and then indicated that Ivanova should precede him into the shuttle, Garibaldi bringing up the rear. One of their own crewmembers from the Agamemnon was acting as pilot and the officers sat in the cabin lost in their own thoughts as the ship smoothly departed the Mistral's docking bay.

  "I'm not sure I'd put it past Lennier to blow us out of the sky as soon as there's no risk the debris would scratch his paintwork," Ivanova muttered.

  "The thought's probably crossed his mind," Sheridan concurred, "but it's not in his interest. When this is all over, on the other hand..."

  "I'll still feel a lot safer when we're out of range," she returned.

  "Ship coming up on the port side," the pilot called back.

  Sheridan pulled himself up to the front to see the Furies hovering alongside. The communications console bleeped.

  "Furies to shuttle."

  Sheridan reached forward and tapped the console. "Shuttle here, Furies, go ahead."

  "Captain, I'm going to open a jump-point for you once we're a safe distance from the fleet. Seems we're going in the same direction for a little while so we'll be your escort for a couple of hours."

  "Thanks, Furies, it's appreciated."

  "A pleasure, Captain. We'll be clear of the fleet in another ten minutes and I'll advise your pilot then. Furies out."

  Sheridan returned to his seat, strapping himself back in. Ten minutes later, as predicted, the Furies warned them to prepare for the jump-point and a minute after that they were speeding through hyperspace.

  "Anyone got any idea where we're going?" Garibaldi asked.

  "The new ship is holding station about five hours from here," Ivanova provided. "She's near the jumpgate at sector forty-five, but the only planet nearby is the Markab homeworld and I don't think they're particularly bothered what anyone does right now. Apparently, they've had an outbreak of the plague and shut down all communications. Last anyone heard, it was wiping out entire continents."

  "Dear God!" Sheridan exhaled, wondering at the virulence of such a disease. "Is there any risk to us?"

  "None recorded so far, but I don't plan to pay them a visit."

  He turned to Garibaldi. "What's our status right now?"

  Garibaldi leaned back. "Sinclair's taken the Emfili and a few others to get a couple of Minbari long range explorers out near the rim. They've been out of communication range for a while and I don't think they know what they're headed into. He's re-routing communications for them at the moment, so the messages they think they're getting from High Command are pretty innocuous."

  "Have they encountered any more Shadow Ships?"

  "Everyone's encountering Shadow ships," he replied, shaking his head. "I get more worried these days when we have a fight and they don't turn up. We lost the Tigris to them over in sector eighteen. The officer put in charge of monitoring for them wasn't paying attention and they attacked before the telepaths could get into the game."

  "Damn! We can't afford mistakes like that!" Sheridan snarled.

  "No, but on the upside it was a badly needed wake-up call. We'd been doing so well against them, thanks to Kosh's help, that people were getting careless. Now every ship has tightened up and there are always at least two monitoring the channels during a fight. We haven't lost another one since." He pulled out a pad and tapped a few commands into the screen. "We've added twelve ships while you've been sitting in Medlab and when I came away there were another four being engaged. The Emfili's leading that attack, so I think the result's a foregone conclusion."

  Sheridan and Ivanova exchanged grins. The Emfili was turning out to be a brutally efficient ship, her record beaten only by the Agamemnon and the Mistral.

  "One bit of bad news..."

  Sheridan looked up. "Oh?"

  "Neroon's joined the fight. He's commanding a new cruiser, fresh off the line and the specs are very hush-hush. He's christened her Schneck'Dum."

  "'Friend of Death'," Ivanova automatically translated. "Cheerful name, isn't it?"

  "We're never gonna turn him around," Sheridan said, ignoring Susan's sarcasm. "If he's so friendly with Death I suggest we arrange a reunion as soon as possible. I won't be sorry to see him gone."

  "Nor I," Susan agreed. "Mind you, if we catch him we've got a list of war crimes long enough to reach the ceiling of the Great Temple."

  "So either way, he's not walking away from this one," Garibaldi finished.

  "Assuming we beat him," Sheridan replied thoughtfully.

  Susan snorted. "Like he's gonna do any better than the rest of them?"

  "I don't know. I'll give him his due, Neroon's a brilliant tactician even if he is a sadistic bastard. Whoever goes up against him first needs to be very careful. Any idea who it might be?"

  Garibaldi shrugged. "He's not filing flight plans, he hasn't contacted High Command since he was assigned and his beacon's been switched off, so for all I know he could suddenly appear right in front of us."

  "Which means he's already figured out the entire computer system's been compromised. If we don't find him and bring him down fast he'll tell every other Alyt to follow his example and run silent. Once they do that our advantage is lost."

  A pall descended on the friends as they considered how much harder their task would become without accurate intelligence on the enemy positions.

  "Michael, use every contact you have or can make on any ship, space port and deep space station. If they catch so much as a glimpse of the Schneck'Dum I want to hear about it. As soon as we pinpoint where he is we'll take him down ourselves. We can't afford to have him running around."

  "You got it." Garibaldi offered Sheridan his pad. "We've got four hours, so if you want to catch up..."

  Sheridan nodded and took the pad, spending the rest of the journey reading, making notes and arranging the placement of forces with Ivanova and Garibaldi.

*****

  "Nearing sector forty-five, Captain," the pilot announced.

  Sheridan carefully made his way up to the co-pilot's seat and strapped himself in. "Head for the jumpgate, Lieutenant," he ordered. "Let's see what we've got."

  "Yes sir."

  A few minutes later the jumpgate opened in front of them. Despite his efforts not to show his eagerness, Sheridan leaned forward in his chair, the straps pressing into his shoulders, but despite his twisting in his seat to take in every inch of space, the area remained stubbornly empty. At last he sat back.

  "All right, what kind of a wild goose chase is this?" he growled.

  Ivanova, who'd pulled herself up to the passenger seat directly behind Sheridan, tapped the pilot on the shoulder. "Scan the area," she suggested. "It might just be a bit further out."

  The pilot did as ordered, but after a minute or so he raised his hands from the console in a gesture of defeat. "Sorry, Commander. Not a thing."

  "Can we reach any of the fleet from here?" Sheridan asked. "We'll need to be picked up in the next few hours or we're going to run out of air."

  "Nice thought," Garibaldi muttered, settling into the other seat. "Bit of an ignominious end after all we've gone through, wouldn't you say?"

  "There's no chance..." Ivanova began.

  "Lennier's too honourable," Sheridan assured her, tapping over the console in search of any ships in communications range. "If he's going to kill me, it'll be face to face. No, this is a cock-up, not a murder attempt." He turned to the pilot. "You found anything in your sweeps?"

  "Not a thing, Captain. For the time being at least, we're on our own."

  "And we can't broadcast a broadband distress signal without risking being found by the Minbari," Sheridan sighed, falling back into his seat. He took a deep breath and then leaned back over the console. "Keep scanning. Let's hope we find..."

  "Jump-point opening!" the pilot cried, his hands flying over the console as he engaged in a futile attempt to move the shuttle before whatever was arriving had a chance to see them.

  Sheridan looked up and stared. "What the hell is that?!"

  The ship that arrowed towards them had a mottled blue colour and, from the front, looked utterly lethal. It shot forward, swung around with an agility that seemed to defy physics and made Sheridan wonder at the resilience of anyone aboard. Then it hovered, its massive guns pointing straight at the little shuttle.

  Sheridan slowly looked up the ship's sleek lines. Above the arrowhead gun housing it swept back and out into two wings surmounted by a strange hood. Behind that the ship flowed into spade-like back fins. Sheridan reasoned that, combined with the wings, these would make it capable of atmospheric flight as well as normal space-flight.

  "It's beautiful," he muttered, his eyes roving lovingly across the elegant lines.

  "I really hope it's on our side," Ivanova added, "'Cos if it isn't, we are so dead."

  The communications console flickered into life. "Shuttle pilot, our docking bay doors are open. You're welcome to come aboard."

  The shuttle crew exchanged glances and then Sheridan tapped the console. "Shuttle to ship... who are you? More to the point, what are you? What kind of a ship is that?"

  There was a short pause. "Her name is the White Star. And she's yours, Captain."

*****

  "He's like a kid in a candy store," Garibaldi grinned as Sheridan spun around in the corridor, trying to take in every detail at once.

  "He's not the only one," Ivanova replied, and then went to lean over a railing to take a closer look at the engines that pulsed on the other side of a protective screen.

  "The White Star is powered by three fusion and one quantum gravitic reactor. She also, as you see, has artificial gravity," their guide proudly explained. "Her operating systems and skin incorporate Vorlon technology."

  Sheridan and Ivanova both turned to pay more attention. The young man smiled and carried on, happy his audience recognised the significance of his words.

  "She learns from any weapons that strike her and develops a better defensive shield. While there is usually some kinetic residue, the bulk of any beamed weapon firepower is simply absorbed or reflected. She also has built in auto-repair systems. She's not invulnerable, but she will stay in a fire fight a lot longer than most."

  Ivanova whistled while Sheridan decided to satiate his curiosity while his guide was in an expansive mood.

  "What about her weapons? How powerful is she?"

  "She actually packs a greater wallop than an Omega Class Destroyer," the guide continued. He walked to a wall. "Computer, show ship schematics." The wall fell away to reveal a screen on which was detailed the ship's specifications. Sheridan frowned, looking around him, and the guide laughed. "Have no fear, Captain. The ship is programmed to respond only to recognised voices and it monitors stress levels and life signs. Only a living and willing member of the crew has access to her details. She is quite secure." He started to point to the layout. "As you can see, she has one quantum-gravitic discharge beam canon, two pulsed neutron and four pulsed fusion canons. She may be small, but she's faster, more manoeuvrable and packs a bigger punch than any single ship out there."

  Sheridan was nodding, taking in every detail and running through new tactical approaches that could be applied. "How many do we have?"

  At this, the guide's face fell. "Right now, this is the only one available, but we're working overtime to remedy that situation."

  Sheridan turned. "And who's we?" He waved his hand, indicating the young man's clothing. "I think I recognise that uniform but..."

  He drew himself to attention. "I am a member of the Anla'Shok, Captain. A Ranger. We are a force of humans and Minbari who are working together and sharing our knowledge and skills. We are all trained in Minbari fighting techniques, but we combine that with human innovations and adaptability. The results in battle drills have been... impressive." He indicated the trio should move down the corridor. "If you would allow me to take you to the command deck, we can show you."

  Sheridan, Garibaldi and Ivanova exchanged looks and then Garibaldi stuck his hands in his pockets and rocked on his heels. "Lead on, MacDuff," he suggested.

  The young man frowned, and Sheridan realised that his advanced training didn't include classic quotations. "He means show us the way," he translated.

  The Ranger nodded and moved on, his cloak billowing behind him.

  "How many crew are there aboard?" Sheridan asked as they walked.

  "Full crew complement is thirty-eight. We were waiting for you so we have been running on thirty-six, including a non-combatant, but the ship can be fully automated and flown single-handedly, provided you don't have to fight at the same time."

  "Always a plus," Ivanova muttered.

  "Who's the non-combatant?" Sheridan asked as the doors opened to the command deck.

  "Welcome to your new command, John."

  Sheridan shook his head and grinned as Delenn gave him a formal bow that ended with a rather un-Minbari smile.

  Ivanova and Garibaldi exchanged glances. "Um, Delenn," Ivanova began, "I hate to ask you this, but does Lennier know you're here?"

  "Not that my activities are any longer his concern," Delenn replied stiffly, "but no. I thought perhaps it would be better if I did not announce my intentions... to anyone."

  "Good," Sheridan nodded, already settling himself into the Captain's chair and determined not to show his relief. "All right, let's see what she's got. There's an asteroid belt in this system as I recall."

  The Ranger grinned and Sheridan saw him exchange eager looks with two of the crew members. "Indeed there is, Captain. The course is already plotted and awaiting your command."

  "Who's our weapons officer?" He looked around, trying to fathom which of the unfamiliar panels would qualify as weapons' control.

  Another Anla'Shok, who had been sitting at the back and so unseen by Sheridan as he walked in, now announced himself. "That would be me."

  Sheridan turned at the familiar English tones. "Marcus!"

  "At your service, Captain," the young man grinned.

  Now sporting the new uniform, Sheridan found himself looking not at the angry and uncertain young man with a grudge who he'd helped rescue from the planet, but the image from Kosh's preview. Everything began to fall into place. It had been over a year since those images, dreamlike even when fresh, has been inserted into his mind. Now he took in his surroundings in more detail and realised he had seen this ship before and knew what she could do.

  A new light entered his eyes. "Plot in the course. ETA?"

  "Two hours in normal space," their guide replied.

  "Good. It gives us a little time. Marcus, can you explain the firing controls to Commander Ivanova?"

  Marcus nodded.

  "Delenn? Can you show Garibaldi where the computers are so that he can set up his box of tricks?"

  "It would be my pleasure, Captain," Delenn replied and led Garibaldi from the command deck.

  Sheridan pointed at the guide. "And you... what's your name?"

  "Matthews, Sir."

  "Very well, Ranger Matthews, you can teach me everything else, beginning with navigation."

*****

  By the time they reached the asteroid field Ivanova had already mastered the firing controls and Sheridan was feeling fairly confident in everything he'd absorbed.

  "Have to admit it's a pretty intuitive system," Sheridan said approvingly.

  "It was designed around Minbari and human approaches," Matthews replied. "I don't know if a Drazi would find it so easy, but for us..."

  "It's all I need," Sheridan nodded. "Susan, are you ready to give it a go?"

  "Ready when you are."

  "Right. Computer, show me a scan of the area."

  A point near the ceiling shimmered and then an elegant, three dimensional holographic representation of the asteroid field appeared in front of the command chair. Sheridan nodded approvingly. He'd seen similar things on the Mistral some time ago so it wasn't quite the surprise it might otherwise have been, but he was pleased to see the small ship could provide such a quality image.

  "All right. How about we take out that one over there?" He pointed to a large asteroid and called up the exact coordinates using the grid layout of the holo-projector.

  Ivanova saw the details come up on her console and laid in the firing pattern. In less than five seconds from Sheridan's initial choice she looked up. "On your command."

  "Impressive. OK, fire all guns."

  The guns lashed out, obliterating the asteroid. Sheridan paused. "OK, maybe not quite so much next time. How about..." He tapped in the coordinates for another target and seconds later it, too, had been reduced to dust using only a fraction of the ship's armaments.

  "I think that clears up any questions about the ship's firepower," Ivanova commented drily.

  Sheridan turned in his chair and nodded, then turned back again. "And I can operate firing control from here if I need to, right?" he asked Matthews.

  "Everything can be run from the Captain's chair, but obviously having one person trying to concentrate on the feedback from all systems can slow things down. Usually the weapons officer is left to monitor incoming targets. Navigation and communications also run independently and the Captain is left to oversee control, being alerted to any hazards that require his attention. The difference between this ship and any normal Minbari or Earth ship is that it also senses what is happening and can react independently if it detects a threat."

  Sheridan frowned. "So it could shoot a friend without warning?"

  "You misunderstand. Its default response is never hostile and it can react faster than a living pilot. So all you have to do is plot a course and tell it to go ahead. You can make adjustments as and when you wish to, but between those the ship will automatically act to avoid incoming fire or obstacles. For example, Captain, may I suggest you plot a course into the asteroid belt?"

  Sheridan, who had been staring at the holo-projection and considering that very act now nodded. "All right. Let's stretch her a bit. How about..." He tapped a course projection into his console and then sent it to the holo-projection so that the crew could see it. A small snigger from one of the crew members, 'though quickly smothered, made him frown.

  Matthews quickly interjected. "Captain, no offence is intended. It's just that we know this ship rather better and we've done this before. Would you allow us to show you what we can do?"

  Still smarting from the perceived insult but willing to learn, Sheridan stood up and indicated the Captain's chair. "By all means," he said gruffly.

  Matthews bowed and sat down. "I would suggest you find a seat, Captain. It's about to get a little rough."

  Sheridan settled behind the navigation console where Matthews had been and nodded. "Go ahead."

  What followed was a staggering example of high velocity precision flying that left Sheridan breathless. Matthews had plotted a course through the thickest part of the field that made Sheridan's initial choice look like empty space. He could see why one of the crew had found it so amusing. On several occasions he found himself bracing for impact, only to veer away at the last moment, diving under, over or slipping sideways through gaps he had thought impassable. On two occasions weapons control (which Ivanova had handed back to Marcus for the duration of the exercise) lashed out to clear a path when things became particularly thick, but otherwise the guns were silent and the power used even when they were activated seemed to be minimal. Minor asteroids struck glancing blows but each time the immediate response was that there was either no damage at all, or minimal damage was already being seen to by automatic repair systems. These were indicated by panels forward of the command chair. Small patches lit up and pulsated, but within two minutes of entering a clearer area the patches vanished, indicating full repairs had been completed.

  Finally, Matthews brought the ship to a halt. "Captain?" he asked, rising from his chair.

  Sheridan shook his head. "No, that's fine for a minute," he demurred, one elbow resting on the arm of his chair while he slowly rubbed his chin. The fact was, if he stood up now he had the feeling his knees would give way. His heart was racing, his uniform shirt was soaked with sweat and he was still coming to terms with what he had just experienced. It made the most terrifying roller-coaster ride look like a swing for a four-year old. Finally he leaned back then rocked forward, standing up. He stood, nodding at the projected course that still hung in the air.

  "Computer, shut down holo-projection." The image vanished. Sheridan remained where he was for a moment, all eyes trained on him. "All right, you made your point. I can honestly say that was the most impressive piece of flying I've ever seen in my life." The crew sat a little straighter, determined not to show their emotions this time, but clearly immensely proud of their achievement. "Is this what I can expect of all crews of White Star ships?"

  "The competition to serve aboard this ship was fierce and only the very best were chosen, but the margins were extremely tight. Yes, Captain, the standard will be the same."

  "Then let's hope I can get up to your standards quickly." He drew a deep breath and then turned to Ivanova. "How are you holding up?"

  "About the same," she replied, her expression carefully controlled.

  That was all Sheridan needed to tell him she was as badly shaken as he had been. No one could experience that for the first time and hold such a bland expression except by sheer force of will.

  "Hmm. Captain, hold position here for a while. I'm going to talk to Garibaldi and see if he's got us some targets. Commander, would you care to accompany me?"

  Ivanova nodded and together they left the command deck.

*****

  "Well, that was... an experience," Ivanova muttered as they walked the corridor.

  "That's one way of putting it," Sheridan agreed. "I think I might need a change of trousers."

  "You and me both."

  They turned a corner, following the directions the computer had provided when they exited the command deck, and reached a door. Sheridan tapped the panel.

  "Michael?"

  The door opened to reveal a neat room with one console. Behind it sat a very smug-looking Garibaldi, Delenn standing by his side.

  "Captain," Garibaldi nodded. "I gather we just had a training run."

  "Only for us," he replied. "How's things in here?"

  "Oh, you're gonna love this. Computer, bring up the full tactical display."

  The same holo-projection Sheridan had witnessed on the bridge now shimmered into view. Sheridan stared, walking around it to take in every detail. "Is this the entire fleet?"

  Garibaldi grinned and nodded. Even Delenn looked slightly pleased with herself.

  Ivanova stepped forward and pointed to one marker that was different from all the others. "What's that?"

  "That's the last confirmed sighting of the Schneck'Dum. And these..." he tapped into his console and a string of other markers appeared, "are course projections based on her activities to date."

  "How recent is this layout?" Sheridan asked, considering the options the computer presented.

  "Current as of fifteen minutes ago."

  "The computer takes all information provided and not only plots present locations, but calculates future positions based on commands known and past history," Delenn added. "The more information you have about a commander, the more accurate it will be. It updates itself automatically as new information is received, logs any changes that were not anticipated and the AI incorporates that into any new projections."

  "Delenn, is there anything this ship can't do?" Sheridan said at last, his head throbbing at the magnitude of his new command's capabilities.

  "All in good time, Captain," she returned, coyly. "Would you like to see your quarters?"

  Sheridan and Ivanova exchanged glances. "Delenn..." Sheridan began.

  "It is all right, Captain. The quarters are big enough for both of you, although I have made sure you have separate quarters available should you require them." She paused before delivering her next comment, and then looked Sheridan calmly in the eye. "While I still do not approve of your arrangements, there seems little I can do to persuade you of the danger of your situation and you certainly work well together." Before Sheridan had a chance to respond she had opened the door. "If you would follow me."

  The three humans exchanged glances, Garibaldi having sense enough to bury himself in his console before either of his two commanding officers cited him for insubordination.

  "I'll just work on some new targets for you. Give me a shout when you're ready," he said, tapping away at his console.

  Ivanova and Sheridan, the latter feeling like a child who had been caught with his hand in the cookie jar, left the room, grateful no one else had been witness to the conversation.

  When they reached their quarters Delenn opened the door and then stepped back. "I will leave you to, as you humans say, settle in. Commander, your quarters are next door." She bowed and began to move away as Ivanova ducked inside the open doorway, determined to explore the shared rooms first.

  "Delenn?"

  She turned. "Yes, Captain?"

  "Uh... where are your quarters?" he asked carefully.

  "Far enough away not to be a problem," she assured him. "Unless you would rather I leave, I would like to stay aboard the White Star for a while. At least until more of the fleet is available. Would this be acceptable?"

  He frowned. "Of course. Stay as long as you want, I just..." Something needed to be said. Something was missing. She was too formal, too closed off. This wasn't the woman he'd talked to in the Medlab before Lennier's unfortunate arrival.

  "Yes?"

  "Never mind. I'll... ahh, I'll just freshen up and then we'll see what Garibaldi's found for us," he finished lamely.

  "Of course." She turned away and then stopped. "Oh, I hope you do not mind, but I took the liberty of getting some new uniforms for you. Yours appear somewhat worn. They are on your bed. The commander will find hers in her quarters." And with that she turned on her heel and walked away, her boot heels clicking on the highly polished floor.

  Sheridan watched her go and then entered his quarters. They weren't as big as those on the Agamemnon, but the design maximised the space available. When he entered the bedroom area, separated from the main room by a thin partition, he found Ivanova standing by his bed, a black and silver jacket held up to her chest.

  "What's this in aid of?" she asked, turning the jacket around to consider the design.

  "A gift from Delenn," he replied distractedly. "New uniforms. She said yours are in your quarters."

  Susan was still running her hand across the material when she paused and looked up. "John? Are you OK?"

  "Yeah," he said vaguely. "Yeah, I'm fine. Just a little... I dunno. Did Delenn seem strange to you?"

  Ivanova sat on the bed, his jacket still in her hands. "A little weird. Formal, certainly. And that's the most back-handed compliment I think I've ever received."

  "You know she's staying aboard, at least until there are more White Stars available?"

  "Should make for an interesting atmosphere." She stood up and held out the jacket. "So come on, let's see how it looks."

  "I'm gonna take a shower first, and I need to think for a bit. Why don't you go into your quarters and change and we'll meet back here in, say, half an hour?"

  She put her hands on her hips. "Tell me you're not going to sit in the dark and brood."

  "I'm not," he promised, pulling her into his arms. "A lot's happened these past few days and I think I need a few minutes to organise it all in my head." He bent his head to kiss her hair and felt her hand slide under his jacket at the back to caress his skin through his shirt. He revelled in the gentle touch -- a gentleness that had been missing from their relationship lately. He wrapped his arms tightly around her and buried his face in her hair, inhaling the scent.

  For a while they stood there, drawing strength from the contact. At last he pulled back, still holding her and smiled down. "I'll tell you one thing, though. All this..." He looked up, indicating the new ship. "For the first time I really think we're gonna win this thing. Before, no matter how well we were doing, I kept thinking that sooner or later we'd meet up with the ships we couldn't beat. That the Shadows and the Minbari would band together and there'd be nothing we could do to beat them. This ship, and the others like her, they're gonna make the difference." He reached up and swept a strand of hair from her face. "So no, I'm not going to sit here in the dark and brood. I'm going to take a shower, shave, put on the new uniform and go out and beat them, and I expect you to be right there beside me. Deal?"

  She nodded. "Deal. I'll be ready in twenty minutes, so you'd better be decent."

  "Well, if I'm not it won't be the first time with you," he grinned.

  "Hold that thought," she replied, kissing him lightly. Then she turned and swept from the room.

  Sheridan smiled after her and then undid his jacket. He considered the slightly fraying cuffs and the wear on the collar. Delenn had a point, their uniforms were well past their best. He sat on the bed and pulled off his shoes and socks, stood to divest himself of his shirt and pants and then padded into the shower.

  A few minutes later, his towel wrapped around his waist, he stood in front of the bathroom mirror. Someone had thoughtfully provided him with a razor and he cleared a circle in the condensation on the mirror and began to shave. As he did so the rest of the mirror slowly cleared. He was just finishing when his eyes caught the scars on his chest. He dropped his hand and stared at his reflection. The person inside and the person staring back from the glass didn't seem to be the same any more. It was an odd sensation. He ran a finger down a welt that crossed his chest -- a reminder of his particular experiences. The ship and the Anla'Shok uniforms had brought back memories of things that had never happened in this world. The man who'd borne the consequences both was and was not him.

  "Am I going to have to do that?" he asked his reflection.

  The door chime shook him from his reverie. "She's early," he muttered to himself, and then grinned. They wouldn't have time before they had to see Garibaldi, but he was looking forward to christening the new bed which, he noted, someone had kindly designed with a human in mind.

  "Yeah, come on in!" he yelled, pulling on his boxers and then the new uniform trousers. He heard footfalls outside -- female footfalls. "I'm in here." He turned to pick up the belt. "And I thought it was always women who were late. You beat me to it." He turned and stalled.

  It was Delenn.

  He quickly grabbed a shirt to hold in front of himself, more to spare her blushes than his. "Oh God, I'm sorry. I thought..." He stopped. Saying he was waiting, half naked, for Ivanova to turn up seemed a little too blunt but he wasn't quite sure how to finish. He was even more confused by the look on the Minbari's face. "Delenn? Are you all right?"

  "Those scars," she said, her face ashen. "Where did you get them?"

  "During my... ahhh. Look, it doesn't matter. Just give me a minute to finish getting dressed..."

  "Did we give them to you?"

  "Delenn..."

  "Did a Minbari give you those scars?!" she demanded.

  He nodded. "But I don't hold you responsible," he added. "You didn't know." God, that sounded pathetic. What was it about Delenn that seemed to break down the synapses between his brain and his mouth?

  "I should have known," she insisted. "I should have stopped it. I know those scars. I have seen them, in books from centuries ago. I know what they did to you. We would not do that to an animal and yet we did it to your people." Her face deathly pale, her shoulders shaking, Sheridan was worried she was going to pass out or have some kind of fit.

  He stepped forward, the shirt slipping from his fingers as he automatically reached out to reassure her. "It's all right. It was a long time ago. You weren't strong enough or secure enough to try and stop it. They'd have killed you the second you tried to interfere, you know that. You can't blame yourself for the things that happened. Think of what you've done to rectify it. Concentrate on that. That's all that matters. The rest..." He looked down at himself. "It's not important now." He turned back to pick up his shirt again and heard a sharp intake of breath. He quickly grabbed up the shirt and pulled it on, covering his back and stuffing it into his trousers.

  "The pain must have been..."

  "I honestly don't remember. One of the advantages of those drugs." That was a lie. He remembered every one of them. Remembered himself screaming until his throat was raw and his chest burned with the lack of oxygen, but she didn't need to know that. He finished doing up the shirt and then reached for the jacket.

  "Was it Neroon?" Her voice now had a cold quality, and Sheridan shivered as the room temperature seemed to drop several degrees.

  "I don't remember."

  "Tell me the truth," she insisted. "Was it Neroon?!"

  He fingered the material of the jacket in his hands for a moment and then pulled it on. "Yes, it was Neroon."

  The ice instantly turned to fire. "He shames me. He shames all Minbari! He does not deserve to live, and I will see to it that he does not do so for much longer."

  Before Sheridan had a chance to respond she turned and left, her face like thunder. At the door she encountered Ivanova who took one look and quickly stepped aside to allow Delenn to pass.

  Sheridan was standing in the doorway to his bedroom, his jacket undone, and Ivanova entered the room slowly, still looking in the direction Delenn had taken.

  "What the hell did you say to her?" she asked, jerking a thumb over her shoulder.

  "She found out Neroon was in charge of Torturers Inc.," he replied in a low voice.

  "Whoops. What brought that up?" She stepped forward, allowing the main door to close.

  "I was in the middle of getting dressed and heard the door. I thought it was you."

  She took in his state of undress. "I take it you didn't have your shirt on at the time."

  He stuffed the jacket angrily into his trousers, his jerky movements belying his apparent concentration on the task. "No."

  "Hmm. You need some help with that?"

  He was trying to do up the high collar of the new uniform and struggling. "How the hell do you fix this thing?" he swore, yanking on the material.

  "Here, there's a knack to it. Look." She pulled the material loose again and showed him how to do up the side fastenings from the base before fixing the collar.

  When it was settled he tucked the jacket back into his pants, smoothed the creases, did up his belt and then looked at Ivanova properly for the first time. "Wow. You look great!"

  "So do you. Here." She guided him to the mirror so they could stand by side and consider their reflections.

  "I'll say this for the Minbari, when they design a uniform they do it right," he declared.

  "Comfortable, too. I've no idea what this material is," she added, fingering the cuff and then running her hand over the triangular patch of material that sat on the right of her chest, "but I like it."

  "We're gonna turn a few heads as we walk down the corridor."

  "Uh huh. They'll wonder what hit them. So, where do you reckon Delenn's gone?"

  "I'd guess exactly where we're going: to see Garibaldi. If anyone knows where the Schneck'Dum could be right now, it'd be him, and she wants his neck in a noose even more than we do." He walked to the door, which opened before him. "Shall we?"

  Together they headed towards Garibaldi's office.

*****

  "Well, I can't make any guarantees, but assuming this software is as intelligent as Delenn says it is..." Garibaldi said, highlighting an area of the holographic projection and zooming in, "I'd say the Schneck'Dum will turn up in this area." He leaned back in his chair as Sheridan circled the image, noting the coordinates.

  Sheridan leaned back on the console, zoomed out the view and then traced the path from the Shneck'Dum to the White Star. "About two days' journey from here," he mused. "Worth knocking on his door and seeing if anyone's home, wouldn't you say?"

  Ivanova nodded. "And, just in case the cupboard's bare, there are a couple of Minbari Warcruisers within a day of there." She pointed to the ships. "According to this we've got the Heracles and the Argo within two days of them, so if we started them now and asked them to shadow the Minbari ships until we can meet them..."

  "You might not want to take on the Schneck'Dum alone," Garibaldi warned. "Neroon's a lot of things but he's no fool. Even with the White Star I wouldn't risk taking him on without backup."

  Sheridan's mind was whirling. "He won't know the capabilities of this ship. He won't even recognise it. If he finds himself surrounded he'll know he's trapped and even if we take him it's going to cost a lot of lives." He leaned back on the wall. "Surprise is the most powerful weapon in our arsenal right now but it's got a limited shelf life. We need to use it while it's still fresh." He stood up. "I'll be on the bridge."

  As Sheridan left, Garibaldi let out a low whistle. "Well, I'd say we're gonna make the history books one way or the other."

  "Uh huh," Ivanova agreed, "so we'd better make certain we get to write 'em." She turned to go.

  "By the way," Garibaldi added. She paused in the doorway. "Nice threads."

  "Thanks." The door closed behind her.

  "Wouldn't mind something like that myself," he muttered and then returned to his console.

*****

  "Are you sure this is a good idea?" Ivanova murmured to Sheridan as she stood by his side on the bridge.

  Still gazing ahead he responded in the same muted tone. "You got a better one?"

  "Right now? Waiting until we've got the entire fleet on our side and then overwhelming him sounds like an option."

  Sheridan turned. "Don't tell me Susan Ivanova actually feels fear?" he replied, one eyebrow raised.

  Her face was expressionless. "I like to think of it as a healthy respect for an adversary of proven abilities."

  "And you think I've forgotten my Sun Tsu?"

  "No Sir, not at all. Wouldn't dream of suggesting it."

  He nodded and turned back to gaze out of the view ports. "Good."

  "I just think you might have skip-read a few vital chapters."

  He stiffened but didn't turn back. She had a point. He was taking a big risk, but he was convinced this was the best chance he had to take Neroon off the board with minimum loss of life. The longer the Minbari remained free to roam, the more likely he would learn Sheridan's tactics and rally the rest of the fleet. While Sheridan doubted even Neroon could stop the inexorable tide of human resistance at this point, the Warrior would bathe the galaxy in human and Minbari blood before he conceded defeat.

  "Two days," he mused. "In two days we'll find out just how good this ship and crew really are."

  "And if they're not as good as you think they are?"

  "He'll still be gone. We can't afford to lose this one. Either we win and walk away, or we destroy him and us at the same time. Nothing else is acceptable."

  "Fine," she replied, strolling back to the firing control console. "No pressure."

*****

  "You're sure this is the right place?" Sheridan ground out, turning to Matthews.

  "Yes sir. Exactly as Mr Garibaldi ordered."

  Sheridan stabbed at the communications link. "Michael, it's pretty damned empty around here, so I'm hoping this was just a glitch."

  "The coordinates are only as good as the AI at guessing his next move, Captain. He can always throw us a curve ball and the AI wouldn't be able to predict that one."

  Sheridan let out an exasperated sigh. "Any ideas?" He looked around the command deck. "Anyone?" He was greeted with a sea of shrugs and downcast eyes.

  "I'll see if the computer can come up with a better suggestion," Garibaldi provided.

  "If you wouldn't mind," Sheridan responded, his voice dripping with sarcasm. Garibaldi wisely disconnected the comlink to concentrate before another Sheridan barb distracted him.

  "Well, in the absence of any action here, we might as well set course..."

  "Captain! Ship coming in, bearing 180," Matthews cried.

  "It's right on top of us!" Ivanova added, her hands flying over the console.

  At that moment the door slid open to reveal Delenn who promptly braced herself against the bulkhead as Sheridan delivered his next order.

  "Evasive manoeuvres!"

  The ship lurched and plunged as a slicing beam lit up the darkness just outside the viewports. Pulling back and turning at the same time the White Star brought her guns to bear on the new ship and those inside got their first view of the enemy.

  "In Valen's name!" Delenn cried, her eyes wide with horror.

  Ivanova stared at the image now provided by the holographic display that Matthews had quickly brought up. "What *is* that thing?!"

  The ship they faced was a nightmare. Familiar in shape but clearly enhanced by Shadow technology, the black skin rippled across the bulk of a Sharlinn class Minbari Warcruiser.

  "Bloody hell," Marcus muttered, encapsulating perfectly the feelings of the command deck.

  Sheridan braced himself against the armrests of the command chair, his voice clear despite the black hole that had opened in the pit of his stomach. "Continue evasive manoeuvres. Susan, can you get a shot at that thing? I don't care if it isn't a full on body blow, I just want to see how well protected she is."

  "Targeting ship," she announced, and then looked up. "Ready when you are."

  "Then fire for God's sake!"

  The main canon fired, hitting the enemy ship squarely, just below the dorsal fin. The skin rippled, flared and then settled again.

  "Minimal damage. She's turning to fire," Ivanova reported.

  "Brace yourselves!" Sheridan barely got out the warning before a fist seemed to crash into the White Star, sending sparks flying across the room from exploding panels.

  Delenn, who had crossed the room in a series of staggers, was shaken from her position near the command chair. Sheridan quickly reached down and helped her to her feet.

  "What the hell are you doing here?" he snarled.

  "We are under attack. Did you think I would hide in a storeroom like a child?" she responded with equal temper.

  "Damage to forward shields," Marcus cried out. "Auto-repair systems have kicked in but we're down by twenty percent."

  Sheridan grabbed Delenn's shoulders. "Is that Neroon's new ship?" he demanded.

  "I... I do not know. It could be."

  "If that is the Schneck'Dum then we are in some serious shit," Ivanova observed.

  Sheridan was staring into Delenn's eyes and all he saw was sheer terror. "You didn't think he'd go this far, did you?" he muttered, searching her eyes.

  "I'd say we're in it whether or not that's Neroon's new toy. If some Minbari have made a deal with the Shadows our chances of beating them just went through the floor," Marcus said, responding to Ivanova's comment. The ship lurched as the navigational system dodged another beam.

  "It is against everything we believe in," Delenn replied, her hands gripping Sheridan's biceps until the knuckles went white. "He has gone mad!"

  "Will anyone follow him? Tell me, Delenn!" Sheridan urged, "I need to know. Are we going to meet a whole fleet like this?"

  "I don't know!" she cried, tears welling in her eyes. "In Valen's name I do not know!"

  "Incoming!" That was Ivanova. Another blast sent the crew sprawling across the floor. Automatically Sheridan shielded Delenn from the sparks that flew from one of the front consoles, the explosion killing a nearby crew member.

  "Port shields at 60%," Marcus reported. "Auto-repair systems are being overloaded."

  Sheridan helped Delenn to her feet and into a chair before dragging himself back to his own seat. "Options, people. What's the weakest point on a Sharlinn cruiser? I know the Minbari were never too wild about admitting there might be a weak point, but every ship has one. Think!"

  Matthews looked up. "Jump-point opening!"

  "Oh great! Now what?" If that was a Shadow ship Sheridan was out of options.

  A beam of energy crashed into the Sharlinn-Shadow ship, rippling across her rear fin. The ship shuddered before continuing her relentless pursuit of the White Star.

  "It's the Mistral!" Ivanova announced.

  "I'll be damned," Sheridan murmured, and then watched as the Mistral let loose once again, targeting the hybrid's rear fin. "I've never captained a Sharlinn Cruiser. What's he aiming at?"

  "The gravimetric drive system," Delenn replied slowly, thinking it through. Satisfied she'd correctly identified the target she elaborated. "They provide shielding, propulsion and help to power the main guns. It has been some time since I saw the schematics of a warcruiser, but I think the projectors are located inside the fins. Lose those and she's helpless."

  "Then let's see if we can strip that fish. Susan!"

  "Already targeting."

  "Sheridan to Mistral."

  "We're here, John," Mackie replied. "You look like you could use some help."

  "I would ask how the hell you found us, but right now I don't care. I want to link our gunnery sections. If we can hit her at the same time..."

  "We're way ahead of you. Targeting rear fin. Time on target ready when you are."

  "Susan?"

  "Ready here."

  "Fire!"

  The two ships lashed out simultaneously and the combined force overwhelmed the Shadow casing, slicing the rear fin from the ship.

  Sheridan gave a satisfied grunt. "That's given her something to think about. Let's finish her off."

  Matthew's hands flew over the controls. "Captain! Jump-points opening."

  "What?! Who else is joining this party?"

  "Shadow ships. Three of them!"

  Ivanova shook her head. "Holy hell. Captain, I think it's time we left this one."

  "Agreed. Mackie, I'm a little shy on telepaths here, so you're gonna have to use yours to slow those things down. While you're doing that, I'm going to try something."

  "This might not be a good time to get innovative," Mackie advised.

  "Can you think of a better one? Just hold those things still for as long as you can. I'm going to get us an escape route."

  "Sure thing. But be quick about it, would you? We've stunned that monster but we ain't killed her yet. It'll take her captain a while to bypass the damaged systems and then she'll be turning us into pot-roast."

  "I hear you. Stand by." He flicked off the link to the Mistral and then turned to Matthews. "How much warning does this thing need to open a jump point?"

  Matthews frowned. "Normally about five seconds, but with her repair systems on maximum the power drain slows us down. I'd estimate ten to fifteen seconds."

  "Not good enough. Give me a more accurate number."

  "Captain, I've picked up a Shadow beacon. They're calling for reinforcements!" Marcus yelled.

  Sheridan nodded sharply. "If this works we'll be out of here before they arrive. Commander, I'm waiting."

  Matthews bowed over his console for a few seconds and then looked up. "I'm powering up the jump-engines. She'll be ready to go in ten seconds. We can hold without jumping for another ten seconds after that before we overload the engines."

  "That'll do. Bearing 90 mark 87. Full speed ahead."

  Delenn gasped. "Captain! You're heading straight for the Shadow ships!"

  "Too damn right. Prepare to form jump point... Steady... steady..."

  "Valen help us," Matthews muttered. "Ready on your mark, Captain."

  "Steady... nearly there..." He slammed his fist into the armrest. "Now!"

  The jump point formed directly ahead of the White Star, totally obliterating one incapacitated Shadow ship and clipping half the legs off another, which writhed, spiralling away from the danger. It crashed into the third Shadow ship and the two exploded, flooding the White Star's command deck with blinding white light.

  "Strike!" Sheridan roared, pumping the air. "Mistral, follow us in!"

  "We're right behind you, John!"

  "Captain, the Minbari Shadow ship... she's targeting the Mistral."

  "Shift yourself, Mackie. You just got tagged!"

  "Engines are at maximum. Save yourself!"

  As the red, swirling mass of hyperspace surrounded the White Star Sheridan became aware of a second blinding light from an explosion that pummelled the White Star from behind.

  "Lennier!" Delenn cried, leaping from her chair.

  Almost simultaneously Marcus reported, "Rear shields at forty percent!"

  "We must go back!" Delenn said, turning to Sheridan in alarm.

  "Not without reinforcements," Sheridan replied. "You heard Ivanova. There's a bunch of Shadow ships on their way right now. We go back and all we'll do is get ourselves killed." He covered her hand that now gripped his arm. "Believe me, I want to go back and get everyone I can, and if it was just me I'd do it, but I have a crew, vital information, a ship that's unique right now and you. Those things are far too important to waste on a suicide mission."

  "But you can't leave him!"

  "Until I can figure out where that ship came from and how it knew we'd be there, I've got no choice." He looked her straight in the eye. "Lennier knew the price. We all do. And if the situation was reversed I wouldn't expect him to come back for me. I'd expect him not to waste the chance I gave him. If we go back and get killed we lose all the information we just learned and we make his sacrifice and that of the crew of the Mistral pointless. They were good people. They deserve better than that."

  Delenn stared at Sheridan for a long time before pulling away slowly.

  "Delenn. I've got to think of the rest of the fleet."

  She shook her head, horror filling her eyes before she turned and fled from the command deck.

  Ivanova came up beside him. "You know what she's thinking."

  "Yeah," he nodded. "And it's not that."

  "*I* know that. So does everyone else here and so will everyone else in the fleet once they see what we've just seen. Even so..."

  "I'll talk to her later. Right now it's Garibaldi I need to have a word with." There was a dangerous growl in his voice. He stood up.

  "It's not his fault either, John," Susan reminded him. "If that is the Schneck'Dum, all we've learned is that Neroon's an even bigger bastard than we gave him credit for."

  "I don't think there's a word in any language to describe Neroon right now, but if I think of a few on my way to see Garibaldi I'll let you know." He turned to Matthews. "How're the auto-repair systems doing?"

  "Slowly. She'll mend, but we need several hours before I'd risk picking a fight with a five-year-old throwing rocks."

  "Understood. Keep me informed." He turned to go.

  Matthews turned in his seat. "Captain?"

  "Yes Commander?"

  "At the risk of sounding corny, I just wanted to say I've never seen anyone do anything like that before in my life. I'd say you just got even with the rest of us over the asteroid flight."

  "Do you need a change of trousers?"

  "And boots, sir."

  Sheridan nodded. "Then we're even." He strode from the command deck.

 

*****

 

 

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