CONSPIRACY THEORY VI
The door had barely opened to Garibaldi's office when...
Garibaldi raised his hands. "I know. I saw it all. I'm pissed too, but the AI can't predict the unexpected and..."
Sheridan waved the attempted explanations aside. "I don't want excuses, Michael. I want you to tell me where that bastard's gonna turn up next!"
"You're shitting me?"
Sheridan paused in his perusal of the holographic map and turned to raise an eyebrow. For a moment the two stared at each other. Garibaldi blinked first.
"You're not. Captain, he nearly wiped us out!"
Sheridan's eyes narrowed and his voice took on the delivery of a machine gun: sharply clipped, precise enunciation revealing the pain, anger and frustration tearing at the Captain. "Yes, he did. I've got very detailed records both of our narrow escape and the Mistral's sacrifice, and you can be certain I want those records sent securely to every single ship within two days' journey of the next site he's predicted to surface. Once you've done that, I want you to arrange an equally secure conference call with the Captains of those vessels, and this time we're going send Neroon and that...that..." He paused and drew breath. How could he put into words his opinion of the whole twisted, disgusting.... Yes. "That perverted *bastard* of an unholy union he calls a ship straight to hell. I will *not* have the Mistral crew dying in vain. Am I perfectly, crystal clear, Mr Garibaldi?"
"I'm going to medical to check on our wounded and then I'm going to my quarters to get the stink out of my clothes. By the time I get there I expect you to have sent through the computer's estimates." He turned on his heel and left, the door shutting off the end of Garibaldi's stunned response.
"Yes sir, Cap'n Ahab, sir."
"Delenn? Open the door, Delenn. It's Susan."
There was a long pause and then the doorway cycled open. Ivanova stepped through into a twilight realm, candles providing the only illumination. Delenn was kneeling on a mat in front of the tallest of those candles.
"As you can see, I am trying to meditate Commander. I trust you will understand if I ask that you do not stay too long."
"No, that's fair enough. I don't want to stay too long. Just long enough." She held her hands in front of her, waiting in silence until Delenn let out a sigh and raised her head, her eyes still fixed firmly on the candle's guttering gold.
"What did you wish to say to me?"
"I wanted to ask you a question." When Delenn remained silent Ivanova plunged on. "What do you actually want?"
"I would have thought my actions over the past year are sufficient to answer that question."
"Until today, I'd've thought so too. Now I'm not so sure. D'you mind if I sit down?"
"You will anyway."
"Thanks." Ignoring the emotional iceberg that was her unwilling host, Ivanova settled in the nearest chair. "You see, up until an hour ago I'd've bet every life aboard this ship that your aim was focussed on helping humans regain their freedom and then uniting humans and like-minded Minbari in a battle against the Shadows."
"That is correct."
"Uh huh." She paused, then tilted her head to one side. "So how come you were ready to throw all that away in a futile effort to pick up the remnants of the Mistral?"
"The Mistral is important to our battle."
"It was, but it's not indispensable. What's more important, as you well know, is information. You don't win battles with guns and ships alone. You win them with tactics, discipline and the hearts and minds of people willing to follow you no matter where it leads." She leaned forward. "You heard exactly the same reports I did. You knew the Shadows had sent for reinforcements. You knew our aft shields had been reduced to less than half and that the auto-repair systems were already overloaded. You knew that if we went back we'd be shattered by the first glancing blow the Schneck'Dum threw at us, and yet you practically exploded at the Captain for trying to save not only our lives, but the intelligence we'd gathered." She waited to see if she'd get any reaction, but Delenn continued to stare resolutely into the flame. She sat back. "So I'm sitting here trying to figure it out, and the only explanation I can come up with is that you feel guilty somehow and thought the only way you could make amends was by getting us all killed."
"You have outstayed your welcome, Commander."
"Didn't get the impression I was welcome in the first place," Ivanova snorted. "Look, Delenn, I know we've got some issues here." And that had to be the understatement of the millennium. Part of Susan simply wanted to get to the truth, but another, older, more fundamental voice nagged at her that the issues that needed addressing weren't solely concerned with the battles they faced. Her mind drifted. "You were ticked at Lennier for treating you badly and I can understand that. You've been hanging around the Captain and I've been keeping back because I figured you needed... well, you needed someone to talk to and John's the only person besides Lennier you can trust. I can understand that, too. John's that kind of guy." She was dimly aware that she was wandering off topic, but in her mind everything was connected. She let her mouth run on. "I can't say I'm happy with the situation, but we all need a friend and so long as it doesn't go any further than that..."
Delenn's head snapped around, her eyes burning with the candle's reflected light. "I said you have outstayed your welcome, Commander. I suggest that you leave... now!"
Ivanova stood up, threw her head back and, hands on hips, delivered her final blow. "If Captain Sheridan thought he could save Lennier, Mackie or *anyone* aboard that ship without risking the entire fleet he would have gone back in a rowboat. You can call him many things, but you cannot call him a coward or accuse him of acting out of petty jealousy. I saw the look you gave him and I saw the way he acted after you left the bridge. He's determined to make Neroon pay for what he's done and he's so fired up he's liable to risk everything. We can't afford that. Whether he likes it or not, John's the heart and soul of this resistance. Without him the whole will stumble and if Neroon's got more ships like the Schneck'Dum, that stumble may be enough to get us all killed." She headed for the door but stopped just before the sensor opened it for her. "John'll probably be by later to apologise. You know he's got nothing to apologise for. He's carrying enough guilt on his shoulders without adding this one to the pile. I suggest you think very carefully before you answer him."
"Commander." Delenn's tone of command made Ivanova pause. "I do not know what you were accusing me of before, but I can assure you there is nothing going on between me and Captain Sheridan."
"I know that, Delenn. If I thought there was I'd throw you out an airlock myself." And with that she left.
For a long time Delenn merely sat, staring motionless into another world, until at last the lowering candle picked out a new mirror for its playfulness, as lonely tears flowed unhindered down pale cheeks.
Sheridan had just finished showering and was towelling himself down when Ivanova reached his quarters. She walked in to find him with a towel around his waist and another across his shoulders, leaning on the wall, fingers tapping an impatient tattoo as he waited for the cleaning unit to finish with his uniform. He glanced up.
"Can you believe this? Hardly had the thing on for two minutes and already it's got smoke, blood and dust in it." He shook his head.
"Blood? I didn't see you hurt." She frowned and cast an appraising eye over his body as he bent down to retrieve his now cleaned uniform.
"Not me," he assured her. "My trip to Medlab coincided with a gusher: a Ranger from Engineering." While speaking Sheridan had pulled on a clean pair of boxers and was now in the process of trying to navigate his trousers.
"Is the crewman all right?"
"Hmm?" He hitched the pants up, buttoning and zipping while looking for clean socks. "Oh, yes he's fine. He's down there with orders not to move, laugh or blink until Stephen says otherwise. No, the only one we lost was on the bridge, and that shouldn't have happened either." He sat down and tugged on his socks and then stood up again, pulling on his shirt while simultaneously trying to get his shoes on.
"Is there any particular reason you're in such a hurry?" Susan asked, reaching out to hold his shirt up as he struggled to find the arm.
"I've got Garibaldi trying to track down Neroon's next move," he said, putting his feet up on a nearby table to do up the laces. "As soon as he's done *that*..." he yanked hard on the laces to pull them tight, emphasizing his point before swapping to the other shoe, "...I want to talk to the captains of the nearest ships so we can coordinate an attack." Finished with the laces he moved on to the buttons of his shirt. "On top of that I need to go and talk to Delenn..."
"I've already done that."
Sheridan stopped, his fingers frozen holding the sides of his shirt. "Done what?"
"Talked to Delenn."
He frowned and continued with the buttons. "You should have left that to me."
"She needed to be put straight. She thinks you left the Mistral to get revenge on Lennier for God's sake!"
"Which is why I should've dealt with it." He snapped the cuffs closed and stuffed the shirt-tails into his pants.
"It's all right," she said, her hands raised in placation. "I explained to her you would have gone back if you could have without risking everything. She's upset about Lennier which, I suppose, is understandable, even if he did treat her like something he'd scraped off his shoe."
"How're you doing?"
"Fine. Cleaner, anyway." His grinned as though he felt it was required, but the muscles gave up halfway to his eyes.
"You know what I mean. Mackie had been a friend of yours for what...?"
He lowered his gaze, one corner of his mouth twitching. "Ten years I suppose, maybe more. Not including the time I didn't know my own name."
"Goes without saying," she shrugged. "I'm here if..."
"I know, and thanks, but I don't want to talk about it right now." He finished with the collar of the jacket and ran his thumbs inside the belt line to smooth the material. That done he leaned over to check himself in the mirror, ran a smoothing hand over his hair and then turned. "Time to see what Michael's got for us." He strode towards the door.
"John, wait a minute."
"Not now, Susan."
"Yes now, God dammit!"
He paused and gave a dramatic sigh before turning and cocking his head at her. "What?"
"Like it or not I've gotten to know you pretty well this past year. This isn't you. You might shut down in front of the crew but you don't shut down in front of me." Sheridan went to make some excuse but she blocked him before he had the chance. "Even if Garibaldi has found the site of Neroon's next appearance we can't take him on there and you know it. We need to plan strategies, get ships together, and finish repairs on the White Star. We've lost the element of surprise, so now we have to plan. Yet here you are, driving ahead as if you're gonna pick another fight in the next two hours. It's not happening, John. So either you're deluded or you're covering up. Since I've never known you to actually crack, I'm betting on the latter."
The silence that greeted her analysis was enough to confirm her suspicions. Sheridan's gaze flickered for a moment and Susan waited for him to refocus before continuing in a milder tone. "I checked on engineering. They say it'll be another ten hours at least before full repairs have been completed. Any other ship and we wouldn't be having this conversation. They did suggest we could expedite things if we dropped out of hyperspace and redirected engine power to repairs but I figured you'd prefer to stay here where we're less likely to be surprised." He nodded. "You can call Garibaldi from here and see what he's found, but frankly I'd take anything the AI suggests right now with a pinch of salt. We need to warn the entire fleet what to expect and what to aim for, then wait until Neroon establishes a new pattern we can predict. We'll get some breathing room while he's making his own repairs."
Another pause. Ivanova noted that Sheridan's shoulders had dropped slightly as he recognized the sense in her words and let some of the tension go. Satisfied she'd made her point she continued. "So why don't I tell Garibaldi to send out the information on the Schneck'Dum to the fleet while you take a break?"
He shook his head. "I can't just sit here doing nothing."
"Then go for a walk or something. Maybe there's a gym on board where you can get in some Denn'bok practice. I'm sure you can talk one of the crew into beating the living crap out of you. I'd do it myself but I know how good you are."
This time the smile was full if somewhat wry. "All right, all right. I get the message." Still talking, he headed for the partition that marked the demarcation point between the living and sleeping quarters. "Keep me up to date. Get Michael to do some more snooping and see where that ship was made and if there are any more like it. Since it hasn't got a telepath core it's not vulnerable the way the Shadow ships are, so we need to find a weakness: a better one than simply blasting away at the fins until they crack." He reappeared with a bag slung over his shoulder and wearing a belt that sported the distinctive pouch for a Denn'Bok. "I want people working on cutting through that skin. It can't be very thick but it's certainly effective. I want to find out what it is, how it works and what we can do to destroy it. With that gone it's just another Sharlinn War Cruiser and those I can deal with."
He headed for the door. "See you later."
When the door closed Susan let out a sigh of relief and went to the comm-panel. "Put me through to Garibaldi." A few seconds later the security chief acknowledged.
"Commander. What can I do for you?"
"I've persuaded the Captain to cool his heels for a bit. Meantime, you and I have work to do."
"I've been working on Neroon's movements and I've got some suggestions, but I don't like the way he seemed to be waiting for us. Feels like we were set up."
"I agree, which means there might be someone on the inside. We need to do some investigating and I want to know how come the Mistral knew where to find us. Not that I'm not grateful, but..."
"You think Lennier...?!" he replied, shocked.
She shook her head firmly. "No. No, he wouldn't do that, but someone did or Neroon was very lucky."
"I don't believe in luck."
"Neither do I."
Despite the physical restrictions of the White Star, the needs of her crew meant a gym was a requirement and Sheridan soon found it. He quickly changed into the looser garb favoured by all Minbari crews for such activities, took up his position, bowed to an imaginary opponent and then ran through the standard movements, increasing speed as he felt his body stretch and adjust to his demands.
The ritualised fitness regime helped to clear his mind exactly as Ivanova had intended. At first his movements were as agitated and disconnected as his thoughts, but as he concentrated, the flow of the age old fighting technique soothed both his physical and mental demeanour.
By the third run through he felt ready to try something new. He accessed the computer and glanced through the training manual until he found some more advanced attacks. The first few were mere adaptations of the movements he'd already honed and he mimicked the actions briefly to make sure he could incorporate them, then he found a new approach he'd never encountered before. Stepping back he tried to copy the graphics in slow motion, occasionally stepping forward to take a closer look and then backing away again. On the fourth attempt the Denn'Bok slipped from his hand and clattered to the floor. Swearing under his breath he stooped to pick it up and heard someone behind him. He spun around sharply, only to find Delenn standing in the doorway.
"There are better ways to practise, Captain."
"Everyone's busy and it seems my eyes aren't quite as good as they used to be," he replied, relaxing slightly.
She looked up and gave a command in Adronato. A holographic figure shimmered into existence. Sheridan backed away as the virtual warrior ran through the manoeuvre on a repeating cycle, resetting itself at the end of each performance. Sheridan stepped forward, the hologram passing through him as it repeated. He shook his head.
"Too fast. I can't quite see how he's doing that." Following Delenn's example, Sheridan ordered the computer to slow the performance and then freeze it to allow him time to analyse and copy the position.
Delenn stepped forward. "You need to raise the Denn'Bok slightly and move your hands farther apart." She lifted the weapon as he slid his hands along the shaft and then stepped back as he tried again. "Better, but you're still a little stiff on the fourth movement. The energy should flow through your right leg as you step, come straight up your spine and come out through the end of the blade."
"I'm left handed. I always have trouble adapting to the Minbari tendency to excessive right handedness," he grumbled.
"In that case..." Another command and the figure changed. While the movement was basically the same, it had been adapted so the final, killing blow emphasized the left side of the body. He grunted and stood beside the hologram, emulating its movements. At the end of the second attempt he nodded in satisfaction.
"Much easier. Let's see if I've got this right." He paused the programme, took up the opening position and went through the manoeuvre flawlessly. He stepped back and repeated the performance, this time moving faster. At the end he paused, ran his hand through his hair to get the sweat-dampened strands away from his eyes and then ran through a series of attacks and defences, knitting them together seamlessly and finishing with his newest discovery. As the blade of the Denn'bok slammed down as a coda to the performance he heard clapping. Panting heavily he turned and grinned. "Not bad for an old man, huh?"
She stepped forward. "Hardly old. A little unfit, perhaps."
He grunted, coughing slightly as he brought his breathing back under control. "It's been a while since I had time to practice. I'd forgotten how demanding this stuff can be."
"The Denn'Bok is a highly skilled weapon and you wield it well, but the blend of mental and physical discipline and agility required to do as you have just done would try all but the most senior Sech of any caste."
He gave a slight bow, closing the weapon with a snap. "Thank you."
She returned it. "You're welcome."
There was an awkward pause as both searched for a way to introduce the painful subject of their previous encounter. They spoke together.
"Listen, Delenn, I..."
"Captain, I believe I should..."
He gave a small laugh. "After you."
She drew herself together. "I believe I owe you an apology."
"It's not necessary..."
"I was wrong to imply that your decision was anything less than honourable. You were right. It would have been suicide to try and return to the Mistral. I was..."
He raised his hand. "You were upset, and understandably so. At times like that all of us say things we don't really mean. Don't worry about it."
"Commander Ivanova came to see me."
He nodded. "She told me. I had actually meant to talk to you myself. I wasn't delegating."
"I understand, and I'm glad she did..." She gave him a small smile, "although my welcome was not all it should have been."
He chuckled and made his way to a bench against the far wall, grabbing his towel as he passed and putting it across his shoulders. He sat down heavily, wiping his forehead on a corner of the towel and then looked up. Delenn was still standing somewhat awkwardly near the exercise mat. He patted the seat beside him and smiled. She looked at the offered seat and then glanced back towards the doorway.
"I... Perhaps I ought to leave."
He frowned. "Why?" He cocked his head to one side, his eyes narrowing. "Delenn, what else did Ivanova say?"
"Nothing... of any importance."
"Hmm. I know what that means," he said, shaking his head. "Susan can be a little... blunt at times?"
She looked at the floor for a moment and then raised her head, resolution in her face. "She was within her rights to say what she did. I am only sorry my behaviour has led her to believe..." She suddenly stopped and Sheridan noticed a slight flush at the base of her bonecrest that he associated with anger or... He blinked. Delenn was embarrassed!
"OK, let's rewind this scene. First off, please sit down. I'm getting a crick in my neck looking up at you and after that work out I need a rest." As Delenn sat down carefully, ramrod straight and with a proper distance between them, he carried on. "Second... what exactly did Ivanova suggest?"
There was a pause while Delenn marshalled her thoughts. Suddenly very aware of his exposed and sweating chest, Sheridan plucked at the edges of his jacket, pulling them back together. Delenn turned away and stared across the exercise area.
"Apparently I have been spending too much time in your company, Captain." He looked up, her obvious nervousness commanding his complete attention. "While she understands there is no... personal relationship, I believe she finds the situation... uncomfortable."
"Hmm. Well, as you say there's no personal relationship. Let's face it," he added with a slightly forced laugh, "there can't be between humans and Minbari, so even if we were interested in each other it couldn't go anywhere. I'll talk to Susan and make sure there's no misunderstanding there." He turned, unconsciously shifting closer to Delenn as he did so. "I wouldn't worry about it. Everyone's feeling the pressure right now and I guess it's coming out in some odd ways."
Delenn mimicked his adjustment, bringing the two slightly closer again. "Which is why you are here?" She indicated the gym.
"Yeah." He turned back, resting his elbows on his knees, his attention riveted on the highly polished black floor. "I was feeling a little frustrated. Better to get it out on a virtual enemy than tear the crew to bits." He glanced at her, a rueful grin lifting one corner of his mouth, "It's safer... at least until I can get to the source." He raised his head, his eyes focussed across the mat on some distant time and place. "But I'll get him," he nodded to himself, "and when I do he's gonna wish he'd never been born." His tone was quiet, controlled, but the air seemed to go chill and Delenn shivered.
He sensed her movement. "Hey, are you cold?" His whole demeanour changed as his concern returned to his companion. "I guess it is a little chilly in here. Maybe we'd better be getting back."
She nodded and they stood together. The towel slipped from his shoulder and simultaneously they bent to picked it up. His hand accidentally covered hers and every nerve tried to outdo the others to tell him about it. They stood up together, their eyes meeting, her small hand still held in his larger one. For a moment there was silence between them and then he loudly cleared his throat and took the towel from her.
"Ah, thanks." He cast around quickly for a means to escape the awkwardness of the moment. "And thanks for showing me the hologram. I'll remember to use that in future."
"You're welcome, Captain. I am glad I was able to help." Still they stood, neither quite knowing what to do next. "I should go. If you will excuse me."
Before he could say anything Delenn had left the gym and he stood abandoned, the towel still hanging limply from his hand. He gazed after her for a moment, then frowned and stooped to scoop up his bag. His uniform was inside and he went to the vibe showers to freshen up before dressing. Thoughtfully he made his way back to his quarters, only to find Susan waiting for him.
"Ahh, you're back. Good workout?"
He up-ended the bag into the cleaning unit. "Uh huh. Learned a couple of new tricks. I'll show them to you next time."
"Gee, thanks. I really enjoy getting bruises the size of baseballs from you!" She watched him as he went into the bedroom and dumped his bag and Denn'Bok. "Everything all right?"
"Fine. Why?" He called back.
"I dunno. You seem..."
He emerged from the bedroom, his head cocked to one side. "What?"
"Never mind. Garibaldi's got a list of possible target areas and some info on the Schneck'Dum. Minbari High Command is being pretty cagey about the whole affair. He had to crack quite a few codes to get what he has and he's still trying to trace the earlier references, but what he's got already isn't sounding too good."
"Given it's a Minbari ship that's been enhanced by Shadow tech I wasn't expecting it to be," he replied in a tired voice. He squatted down in front of the cooler, searching the inside. "Damn! I could've used a beer right about now."
"I'm sure we can sneak some aboard the next time we get supplies."
He stood up and rummaged the contents of the cupboards and then turned with a bag of coffee in his hand, his eyebrows raised.
"I didn't put it there," she assured him. "At a guess I'd say that was Delenn anticipating your requirements, since coffee isn't a Minbari drink. Yes please," she added as he nodded in her direction.
"So," he said, filling a coffee pot that had also been supplied, "what's the news?"
"The Schneck'Dum isn't the only one."
He paused in the process of collecting some mugs and then placed them on the counter and turned. "How many?"
"At least two, no more than three... so far."
"Has Garibaldi found out where the shipyards are?"
She shook her head. "Not yet. There's only one so far as we can tell and it's not in Minbari space. Beyond that..." She shrugged.
He narrowed his eyes and then leaned back on the counter, arms folded. "And what's the detail you're too scared to tell me?"
Head bowed she looked up at him, a semblance of a smile passing briefly across her lips. "You know me too well."
"Apparently, it's mutual. So?"
"All the ships we know about are in the hands of one clan: The Wind Swords."
Sheridan frowned. "But Neroon's a Star Rider."
"The one exception. Looks like he couldn't get his own clan to agree to this, but the Wind Swords welcomed him with open arms."
He grunted and turned to pour the coffee. "The Star Riders are too honourable to pull a stunt like this. They'd rather die fighting than ask someone else to give them an unfair advantage." He turned, mugs in hand, and walked over to the couch. "All of which makes me nervous about Neroon."
She nodded, taking her mug from him. "He's desperate."
"Which at least indicates we must be nearing the end of this mess." He sat down, carefully nursing his coffee. The comlink beeped. He closed his eyes, shook his head, put the mug on the table and then tapped the back of his hand. "Sheridan, go."
"Captain!" Garibaldi's voice sounded desperate. "I've got to see you. I'll be down in two minutes!"
The connection closed before Sheridan had a chance to ask for an explanation. He looked over at Ivanova. "This doesn't sound good," he observed.
"Given what we already know, was anything about this situation likely to be?"
He grunted and rescued his drink, but his throat seemed to close and the coffee was suddenly unpalatable. Ivanova, on the other hand, seemed to be having no such trouble. She sipped quietly and the two sat in tense silence, waiting for Garibaldi's bombshell. When the door chime shattered the silence the two exchanged glances before Sheridan stood.
Garibaldi burst in, his face flushed from the run. "You're gonna hate this." He went over to the com unit and slipped a crystal into the reader. "I was digging around, trying to find out anything about the new ships. Tried everything I could think of but they'd covered their paths real well. I'd just about given up and I was doing some tweaking of the system to keep me busy until I'd figured out another approach, when I got this." He activated the crystal. While the screen remained blank, the air filled with a crackling sound. "I had to clean it up quite a bit. Seems to have come through a lot of relays and signal boosters, so we're talking long distance. The one thing in our favour was that we happened to cross the signal in hyperspace."
"Michael, I'm not hearing anything..." Sheridan began.
Garibaldi raised his hand and pointed to the crystal. At that moment the crackling changed slightly and a voice slowly emerged through the static.
"... you it would, Alyt. And there are more where that came from."
"Morden," Garibaldi whispered. Sheridan and Ivanova leaned forward, listening intently.
Sheridan stiffened. "That's Neroon's voice. I'd know it anywhere," he began. Garibaldi raised a finger to his lips and Sheridan went silent.
"All in good time, Alyt. All in good time. My associates are as keen for revenge as you are. They want him gone."
"He has a new ship."
Sheridan and Ivanova exchanged glances. "He's talking about us," she mouthed. He nodded.
"It doesn't matter. With your new fleet even the Vorlons don't stand a chance."
"As many as you want. You don't even have to supply the crews. The tide is turning, Alyt. No one will be able to withstand you when you're allied with my associates."
"When can I expect delivery?"
"In two days."
"The usual meeting place."
"At what price?"
"I told you before, money means nothing to my associates. They like allies; people they can work with. They're very happy with you. All they ask is that when they've given you the victory you asked for, you return the favour should they need you in the future."
"And what about..."
Crackling filled the room and Garibaldi popped out the crystal. "That's all I could get. We moved out of the signal area and I couldn't get it back. We were lucky to get that much. Must've been a current in hyperspace that threw the signal off at just the right moment. A minute earlier or later I'd've missed it."
Sheridan sat back heavily. "He's got more of them."
"As many as he wants," Ivanova agreed.
"A delivery in two days."
"And we don't know where."
Garibaldi looked from one to the other. "There's one more bit of bad news."
"Can it get any worse?" Ivanova groaned. Sheridan held his peace and waited.
"I couldn't get a lock on Neroon. He must be in hyperspace himself right now and the signal's flying all over the place. The other source was steady and I managed to trace it back."
Sheridan leaned forward, his eyes narrowed. "Where?"
"It's over in sector 957, right on the rim of known space. It's an area the Minbari never go. A few other races have taken a look over there but no one who's visited has ever come back. There's only one system worth anything out there and only one planet given a name on the maps we do have. The Minbari call it 'Death of the Future.'"
It took a few seconds for Sheridan and Ivanova to connect the Minbari translation to where they'd heard it before. Both went cold.
"Kosh's preview," Ivanova said.
Sheridan's voice was leaden. "Z'ha'dum."
The atmosphere in Sheridan's quarters, presently functioning as a meeting room, was oppressive. Garibaldi had done some more digging and come back with nothing but bad news with everything he could find only reinforcing what they already knew. Delenn had been asked to join them and having heard the recording her face was ashen. In silence she listened to the discussion.
"Until we have some idea of numbers, location and tactics we're lost," Ivanova muttered.
"And until he makes his move I can't give you that information," Garibaldi replied. "Neroon's running his own war, independent of Minbari High Command. There's no communication between his ships and the central hub."
"I do not believe Minbari High Command is fully aware of the situation," Delenn said. "The Shadows are the ancient enemy of the Minbari. We would not ally ourselves with them. It is against everything we believe in."
Sheridan shook his head. "He's desperate. He thinks he's been betrayed by his own people. Every time any Minbari crew members join our cause it's one more nail in the coffin as far as he's concerned."
Ivanova groaned. "Even so, talk about making a deal with the Devil."
Sheridan turned to Delenn. "If we made this recording available to Minbari High Command, how do you think they'd react?"
"I do not know. Before they would have made him outcast, ordered his ships to be hunted down and destroyed, stripped him of rank, ostracized his family... his entire clan would have been held to account."
"But his clan's already disowned him," Garibaldi said, tapping a folder in front of him. "This was just released by High Command." He read out loud, translating automatically from the Warrior Caste dialect. " 'As of this date the Star Rider Clan calls Alyt Neroon outcast. He is denied the honour and protection of clan...' and so on and so on." He flipped through the official message, which ran for several pages. "Jeez, how many different ways can you tell a guy he's out?"
"To be outcast by the clan is the most serious punishment that can be inflicted by Minbari," Delenn explained. "You become a non-person. You are no longer protected against reprisals because you are no longer a Minbari. And since Minbari do not kill Minbari..."
Sheridan raised an eyebrow. "Then how come our Minbari crews aren't stopping us getting attacked?"
"High Command have got good PR going," Garibaldi interrupted, nodding to Delenn as she indicated she'd like to read his file. He slid it across the table to her and carried on talking. "They're saying the Minbari aren't fighting with us, they're prisoners waiting to be freed. By capture or death, it's all the same. Anything that suggests Minbari are working with us is propaganda because, according to them, no Minbari would do it. We can't win."
"I am afraid it may be worse than that." Delenn had flicked through Garibaldi's file, her already pale face losing any semblance of colour as she did so. Sheridan noticed her hands were shaking. "The Wind Swords have not acknowledged the declaration of outcast. They are prepared to put their entire clan outside the law. The Moon Shields and Fire Wings have allied themselves with the Star Riders, while the Night Walkers are standing with the Wind Swords and Neroon. The Warrior Caste representatives have left the Grey Council. I cannot tell from the reports Mr Garibaldi has provided how the other clans are reacting to this, but it would be impossible to stay neutral. Sooner or later, Minbari will be forced to choose a side and defend that choice."
"You mean they're heading for civil war." Sheridan's tone was flat.
Delenn nodded and then stood up, turning her back to the room. "In a thousand years Minbari have never fought Minbari. We do not kill each other. It is our greatest law handed down by Valen himself. If we are descending into madness there is nothing certain anymore."
"Whoa!" said Ivanova, raised her hands. "This is all a bit sudden. I mean, if the Minbari were about to start a civil war wouldn't we have heard something before now?"
Delenn, still with her back to them, spoke quietly. "Ever since we enslaved your people there has been dissension in the Grey Council. I barely escaped being declared outcast. It is why I was demoted to Political Officer. There are some of my people who have never approved of what we did, but the Warrior Caste were proud of their victory." She spoke the last word as though its mere utterance left a foul taste in her mouth. "But for the sake of unity the other castes have kept quiet." She sighed. "We were afraid."
"Before we had a falling out Lennier warned me we had a lot to talk about. Some of it may have been related to this," Sheridan mused.
"Lennier knew what was happening," Delenn agreed. "Somehow he managed to maintain contacts within Minbari High Command."
"You mean he had spies," Garibaldi translated. All Delenn offered was a barely detectable nod. "Wish he'd told me about them. Could've saved me a lot of work."
"Lennier never entirely trusted humans. He wanted to make sure he knew what was happening without having to rely on human intelligence."
"Nice to be appreciated," Garibaldi groused.
"But it probably explains how he knew to be there when we encountered the Schneck'Dum," Ivanova said, thinking out loud. "Someone he was connected with warned him."
"Which means someone Neroon trusts is letting the cat out of the bag," Sheridan added, picking up Ivanova's train of thought. "And if we could figure out who it is he was talking to we might be able to figure out where he's gonna hit us and prepare for it."
"Whoever it was, Lennier wasn't using the usual channels," Garibaldi said. "My snoop software would've picked up on it and reported it back to me."
"Or it's not someone actually in High Command. Would your software pick up private communications to family or friends not connected to High Command?" Ivanova asked.
Garibaldi frowned, his fingers tapping on the table top. "I've got to go check on something," he announced. "Give me a couple of hours. I'll see what I can find out." Barely waiting for Sheridan's nod of assent he left the room.
"I've had an idea about that skin Neroon's fleet is using. It's a long shot, but I'll check it out." Ivanova also rose.
"Who's on the bridge?" Sheridan asked.
She glanced at the chronometer. "Third shift, so it's Marcus. He'll let us know if he needs us." She paused, lost in thought. "In fact, he might be exactly the man I'm looking for. I'll let you know what I find out." Before Sheridan had a chance to say anything more she was out the door.
In the suddenly silent room Sheridan caught a soft sound. Surprised, he turned to Delenn. She still had her back to him but he could see her shoulders shaking. The sound and the movement connected in his brain and he quietly went over to her.
"It is time I left as well. I am sorry." She turned away from him and headed for the door.
"That's not what I meant," he said, following her. He reached out and gripped her shoulder, stopping her flight.
"You're upset and I don't like to see friends upset." He turned her around gently. When she refused to look up he cocked his head to one side. "Hey. Am I that ugly?" Confused, she raised her head to stare at him and he grinned. "That's better. Come on, you've had a lot on your shoulders lately. There's nothing either of us can do while Garibaldi and Ivanova follow up their leads, so why don't you take the chance to talk, hmm? Sometimes it helps." He paused and shrugged. "Well, it does with most human women."
"We are a very private people. Minbari do not share their problems with others."
"It is... we do not do that."
"Well then, sit with me while we wait for the others. Maybe between us we can figure out who Lennier was talking to..." He stopped as he saw her eyes fill once more with tears. "OK, that's it. You may be Minbari, Delenn, but you still feel grief the same as any woman. Hell, in your place I'd probably be crying too. It's allowed, you know." Gently, unsure how she would react, he eased her into his arms. As she found herself wrapped in the warm strength of his body the floodwaters broke in earnest and she began to sob. Ruefully he shook his head. One day he'd learn the rules when it came to emotions. If he'd stood back and refused to offer physical comfort he felt certain Delenn would have maintained her composure until there was no one to see her lose it. Now the simple act of giving her a hug, reassuring her she was safe and protected, had opened the floodgates.
Perhaps it was just as well.
He rocked her gently, murmuring words of understanding. As the storm subsided he guided her to the couch and eased her down, then went to make some tea. Years of living under Minbari rule had given him a taste for some of their teas and he knew Delenn liked the same ones he did. He poured two mugs full and then carried them over to her. She sat, head bowed and sniffing, on the edge of the couch. He put down her mug, reached into his pocket and pulled out a handkerchief.
"Here. I think you need this."
She nodded and took the handkerchief. "Thank you."
"You're welcome." He pulled up a chair and sat, watching her through the steam emerging from his mug. "Feeling better?"
"No," she said honestly, "but thank you. I was not expecting anyone to be so kind. Minbari do not act like that with friends."
"Humans do," he responded cheerfully. "Since it looks like you're going to be with us for the duration I guess you'd better get used to it."
She stared at the floor and Sheridan cast around in his mind for something to break the silence. Then he looked at her and decided there was no need. Nothing he could say or do would improve matters. All he could do was be there for her and wait until she wanted to talk. He sipped his drink quietly until he heard a rustle of fabric announce her change of stance and mood.
"I think I may know who Lennier was talking to," she announced, her expression showing that she was still working things out in her mind.
"I believe you call it a process of elimination." He grunted and she continued. "It cannot be someone aboard a ship. Their knowledge would be limited to their own sphere of operations, yet Lennier always seemed to have some advanced knowledge no matter where he fought."
"So we're talking about someone at Headquarters?"
She nodded. "But it cannot be someone too high as their allegiance would be tested too often. It must be someone with access to the higher offices but whose position keeps them free of suspicion. Above it, even."
"But it also has to be someone who has an understanding of military approaches. A normal civilian would find some of the stuff we do confusing to say the least."
"If it is who I think it is, his understanding of the military probably surpasses even your own, Captain."
"Oh?" He was leaning forward in his chair. "OK, enough of the twenty questions, who is it?"
"Sech Turhan," she replied.
Sheridan fell back in his seat as the pieces fell into place. "Access to all High Command officers as friend because he either trained or trained with all of them..."
"Out of the mainstream yet knowledgeable enough and trusted enough to be consulted on even the highest levels..."
Without noticing the two fell into an easy rhythm, each picking up where the other paused as though they had performed this piece a thousand times. Both lost in their own thoughts they didn't even have to look at each other to take their cues.
Sheridan continued, "Totally above suspicion..."
"Honoured inheritor of the mantle of Durhan himself..."
"Old school Warrior Caste who believes in honour above all..."
"Whose position as Sech ensured he never had to compromise his beliefs by attacking a world incapable of defending itself..."
Sheridan frowned. "But he's never revealed his position with regard to the enslavement of earth."
"He did to Lennier and, through him, to me."
"Even so, it's a bit of a leap." Now he looked at his companion. "And why should Neroon trust him and not anyone else?"
"Neroon was trained by Durhan himself. Turhan and Neroon were sparring partners. They are from the same small village up in the mountains and as young warriors they worshipped Durhan, always trying to outdo each other to win his approval. But Durhan was a complicated man. He was a highly skilled and unrelenting warrior, but he was also a man who forever sought peace. Neroon tried to please him by being the greatest, most courageous, most clinical warrior he could. Turhan, on the other hand, appealed to Durhan's search for control, peace and self-discipline. I met Durhan towards the end of his life. He told me Neroon was the completion of his efforts to be a warrior, but Turhan had mastered the life he had truly sought."
"I take it those two are still trying to outdo each other, then?"
"Turhan is at peace. The words of Neroon no longer goad him, but still Neroon tries."
Sheridan sighed. "Great! Now I don't have to understand just their fighting techniques, I have to master two generations of history."
"Does not your own warrior Sun Tsu say you must know your enemy?" she smiled.
"Know him, yes. I don't think he was advocating an advanced course in psychoanalysis." He shook his head and stood up to pace the room. "OK, so we need to verify Turhan's the source, see if he'll work with us and do it all without selling ourselves down the river."
"You cannot simply contact him through the normal communications. We do not know if they are secure. Lennier did not tell me how he communicated with Turhan."
"And I can't just go knocking on his door and hope," he mused.
"I could," she replied quietly.
Sheridan spun on his heel. "Excuse me?"
"I know Tuzenor well. It is poorly populated and hard to reach. Few visit. I believe I could take a shuttle down to the complex and talk to Turhan in person."
"You will not!" Sheridan almost shouted. When Delenn went to over-ride him he shook his head adamantly. "I forbid it, Delenn! I don't care what arguments you want to present, it's not happening. If Turhan's an enemy and we've misjudged the whole situation they'll kill you before you have time to draw breath."
"I do not believe he is an enemy, and we must talk to him," she argued, her own voice rising.
"Then we'll let Garibaldi try and find a way to get a message to him. Send a Ranger, anything. You're too vital to risk. Like it or not, you're a symbol and we need that right now."
"We need Turhan more!"
"Not that much!"
At that point the door cycled open and Ivanova stepped in. She sized up the situation in a moment and stepped between the protagonists. "OK, time out. Last thing we need is a nuclear explosion aboard the ship. What's going on?"
Sheridan snorted. "Delenn's just had the breathtakingly brilliant idea of walking right into the enemy camp," he said, his voice dripping with sarcasm.
"He is not an enemy, and we need to talk to him," she repeated stubbornly.
Ivanova looked from one to the other. "Talk to who?"
"Turhan." The two spoke at the same time.
"OK, at least we're all on the same page now. I just finished checking things with Garibaldi. He reckons Turhan was Lennier's link as well."
Sheridan frowned. "How the hell did you figure it out?"
"Garibaldi might not have been able to get access to whatever method Lennier was using to contact him, but there were enough clues in his other messages to act like a trail of breadcrumbs. It was just a matter of sorting through them. He's had the software sifting the last download from the Mistral for most of the day. You know what he's like."
"You see?" Delenn said, rising from her seat. "Your own security officer agrees with me. Let me do this."
"OK, I think we just skipped a chapter. Run that by me again?"
"Delenn wants to go to Tuzenor and talk to Turhan in person. She doesn't think Stellarcom or any of the other options are safe," Sheridan explained.
"She may have a point."
"If Lennier managed it, we can!" he replied angrily. "I will not have her risking her life. It's pointless." He looked from one to the other. "Think about it! Suppose she walks in and suppose, for the sake of argument, he is on our side. All well and good, but she has to get in there and out again without being seen by any of Neroon's spies or being picked up by the orbital defence system. Given the way things are going they're not going to let a bird fart get past them right now, much less a shuttle."
"No! It's suicide! End of discussion." He stalked to the door. "I'm going up to the Bridge to relieve Marcus. You two can work with Garibaldi and find another option." And with that he marched from the room leaving Delenn and Ivanova alone.
"He's got a point, Delenn. How would you get past the planet defences?"
"There are advantages to being a Political Officer. I learned many things before I instigated this rebellion. One of them was how to access the Grey Council passwords. I could fool them into believing it was a member of the council visiting."
"Which would be fine provided you're not impersonating a member who's persona non grata with whoever's managing the shift that day." When Delenn looked confused Ivanova elaborated. "Unless I missed something here we just recognised that Minbar's descending into civil war. What are the chances the guys manning the local defence structure happen to support one of the nine Grey Council leaders you choose?"
"If I go as Worker Caste there's no reason to question. They are the only ones who stay neutral in any conflict," she said calmly.
"Point one to you. OK, what's to say Garibaldi can't figure out Lennier's comm system?"
"Because *I* could not 'figure it out' as you say, and I was with Lennier for several months."
"Did you try?"
Ivanova leaned against the counter. "How about this as a compromise position... You let Garibaldi try and crack the code. If he can't do it within the next thirty-six hours I'll talk to John and see if I can persuade him to change his mind. That'll give us time to get you back to Minbar before Neroon's new fleet turns up."
"That may be too late. We do not know how far away he is. His fleet could be delivered right into the heart of our battle lines and after that there will be slaughter."
"It's the best we can do, and at least once his back is up against the wall John might listen to you."
"He won't. His protection is kind but misdirected. I am as expendable as anyone else, and in this case I am the logical choice. I know Turhan well. I have worked with him, studied with him, and he knows where my allegiances lie. If we send anyone else he will not believe it and rather than risk his own system he may kill our messenger."
"I don't think I'd use that argument. The Captain's brain is liable to latch onto the word 'kill' and after that there'll be no reasoning with him."
"Is there ever any reasoning with him?" Delenn shook her head. "I had no idea humans could be so stubborn!"
"Three years fighting us openly and nearly ten years keeping us down with drugs and only *now* you get that we're stubborn?" Ivanova chuckled. "Boy, do *you* need to get with the programme!" When Delenn cocked her head at the idiom Ivanova waved it aside. "Never mind. Look, give us a chance, OK? If we figure out, all well and good. If we don't you'll be able to add some more powder to your argument and we might be able to talk John 'round. Meantime, I'd let it drop. If he so much as suspects you're thinking about doing this he's gonna lock you in a room and throw away the key."
"Because I am a 'symbol'," Delenn finished, shaking her head. "What an utterly absurd..."
"He's right! You ARE a symbol and you might as well get used to it, 'cos once this is all over you're gonna find yourself the most powerful symbol in the galaxy." Ivanova followed Sheridan's example and marched out of the room leaving Delenn alone.
"I do not wish to be a symbol. I do not wish power," she muttered. "I want to see an end to this before it is too late!"
Twenty four hours later, Garibaldi was no nearer to discovering Lennier's direct line to Turhan and Delenn's arguments were growing more determined.
"It *has* to be me!" she insisted as Sheridan ground his teeth.
"I'm not discussing this!"
"John, she has a point," Ivanova said, trying to appeal to reason. "She has access we don't have. She can fool the defence systems..."
"Then she can send Marcus, or anyone else! I am not going to risk the best asset we have on a mission that could be disastrous!"
Delenn shook her head in frustration. "*Could be*. Listen to yourself, Captain! Even you know there is a chance, and we cannot sit back and pray for a miracle."
"Susan says she's got some ideas..." he began.
"A long shot at best, but..." Susan shrugged. "I want to go back to where we got hit."
Sheridan spun on his heel and stared at her. "Why?"
"There's bound to be some bits of Shadow ships still floating around out there. Shadow tech is biological. I've been talking to Franklin and he thinks there's a chance it could be susceptible to a virus."
Sheridan raised his eyebrows. "Are you telling me we're going to attack one of those ships by sneezing on it?"
Garibaldi stepped in. "Metaphorically speaking. Once we get a piece Stephen's gonna try a few real nasty bugs on it. All we need is something that'll start killing cells in the right area. It'll shatter the network. Look." He walked to the computer screen and popped in a crystal. A graphic display appeared that looked like a Shadow ship. "Computer, magnify two thousand times." Instantly, the graphic looked more like a framework with hundreds of interconnecting nodes. "This is the idea. We shoot a virus into the ship at the juncture with the rear fin. It kills off the Shadow skin at that point, then we just shoot it like an ordinary cruiser."
"Right," Sheridan muttered, shaking his head. "I think I see a few flaws in this plan. One, not too many viruses work well in a vacuum. Like most living things they like oxygen; two, nothing is going to work fast enough to kill off enough skin to let us in before we get fragged; and three, we have to actually hit the thing in the right place with this virus without getting fragged in the first place."
"No problem," Garibaldi assured him. "I already raised these. One," he began, ticking off Sheridan's objections on his hand as he spoke, "according to Stephen, technically a virus isn't actually alive. It doesn't need oxygen to do its stuff. It does need a living host but the Shadow skin provides that." He gave Sheridan a smug grin. Sheridan grunted but responded with a look that said 'I'll get you back for that one later'. Garibaldi hurried on. "Two, we already know Shadow tech must have a very high metabolic rate to regenerate fast enough to resist our weapons fire. We'll just use that to piggyback the virus through the system; and three, I can programme 'bots to attack the right place the same way I did when we first started this shooting match. Besides, Ivanova's the best shot I know -- barring me, of course. She can hit a target an inch square in a hurricane."
Ivanova nodded. "Thanks for the vote of confidence. I think we'll have to have a little competition when this is over so we can settle who really is the best shot around here."
Sheridan waved her comment aside impatiently. "You're telling me that you really believe we can zap these guys with a dose of the flu?"
"Well, we haven't actually tested it yet, but based on what we know and some computer simulations Stephen created..." He stuck his hands in his pockets, rocked on his heels and grinned. "Yeah, that's pretty much it."
"Could we use the same trick on the Shadow ships themselves?"
"Ahh, now that's a bit different," Garibaldi conceded.
Sheridan rolled his eyes. "Of course, it would be, wouldn't it?"
Garibaldi raised his hands, trying to placate his commander. "Only because the Shadow ships have a person at their core. The skin alone can't think or recognise an attack in the same way. If there was some way we could mount an overwhelming attack on the Shadow ships the core couldn't cope with we could manage it, but frankly we've already got a way of dealing with them that works, so who cares?"
"Hmm," Sheridan grunted. "All right, we'll get you your Shadow skin, if I have to go out in a space suit with a knife and carve a slice off a leg."
"Sunday roast for *men*," Garibaldi grinned. Ivanova gave him a look. "And you too, of course."
"Well, at least that means Delenn's jaunt can be postponed for the time being," Sheridan said, releasing a sigh of relief.
"I do not believe so," Delenn replied, instantly recharging the room's atmosphere. When Sheridan opened his mouth to respond she over-rode him. "If this works it will certainly help us deal with the ships we encounter. The fact remains that even this approach would be more effective if we could find the ship-yards. If we have to wait until the ships are ready to attack we will lose more of our own." She drew a deep breath and stepped closer to the Captain. "I appreciate your concern for my life, but even allowing for whatever benefit my presence might generate, surely you are not suggesting I am worth hundreds or even thousands of lives, Human and Minbari?"
Sheridan opened his mouth to respond and then closed it again. The logic was overwhelming. When he caught Ivanova's glance he realised any more argument would indicate his protectiveness of Delenn had a personal level -- one he had consistently denied. He stared at the floor for a moment, marshalling his thoughts, then he nodded, his shoulders sagging.
"All right, you win. Susan, make contact with the nearest of our Minbari cruisers. Delenn will need a lift to the outskirts of Minbari space, then a shuttle to take her down to the surface. Lay in a course back to the wreckage, assuming there is some. They can meet us there."
Ivanova nodded and stepped out.
"I'll let Franklin know what we're going to do," Garibaldi said. "He'll need some time to prepare the lab to deal with that stuff." He followed Ivanova out.
As the door slid closed behind them Sheridan went over to the breakfast counter and leaned against it, his head down. Delenn regarded him in silence for a moment and then stepped closer.
He kept his back to her. "You got what you wanted, Delenn."
"But you still do not approve."
His voice was devoid of strength. "No."
"And not for the reasons you have given."
There was silence between them as the implications sank in. Slowly he turned and gazed at her.
"We have to do this, Captain. We must end this before it destroys us all. I know the dangers and the benefits if I succeed. I do not wish to die and I understand the risk, but I am prepared to take that risk if I must." He winced and Delenn acted on the very human compulsion that flooded through her Minbari soul. She reached out and touched her hand to his cheek.
Surprised, Sheridan looked down, unwilling to share with her the rush of sensations that passed through him. Delenn smiled and gently tilted his head back.
"Do not look away, Captain." He raised his eyes slowly and met her gaze. "All life is transitory, a dream. We all come together in the same place at the end of time. If I don't see you again here, I will see you in a little while, in the place where no shadows fall."
That 'if' was a barb that tore an agonising path straight to Sheridan's heart. He swallowed, unable to give voice to feelings that, until this point, he'd refused to believe were even possible.
Delenn watched him in silence for a moment and then turned away, heading for the door. As it swung open to permit her egress, Sheridan found his voice.
She paused and turned.
He swallowed again and surrendered. "When I do see you again... call me John?"
The tension in her face visibly faded then she smiled, still somewhat nervously, and nodded. She turned and left.
Sheridan gazed at the door long after she'd gone. Life had just become a lot more complicated.
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