"Remind me again whose fraggin' idea this was?" Garibaldi muttered as he and Franklin studied the readouts from the computer listing the contents of the debris field that marked the site of battle. "Against this, needles in haystacks are a piece of cake." He winced as another promising biological blip turned out to be Minbari in origin.
"Blame Ivanova," Franklin replied, wiping his eyes tiredly before returning to the readouts. "But the models say it should work, so if we can just find a piece to test it on..." He groaned and glanced away.
Garibaldi winced and closed his eyes, trying to banish the images that leapt into his mind. "OK, How's this for an idea: when we tell the Captain we've found the Shadow skin we need, let's not to go into too much detail about everything else we've come across. Agreed?"
The two bowed over the sensors once more.
Sheridan was standing on the command deck and very well aware of everything what was going on in the sensors. The information piped up to the sensor console illuminated his face in a flickering glow that almost covered the clenching of his jaw as another biological highlighted on screen proved to be human.
"You don't have to torture yourself with this, you know," Ivanova murmured from his shoulder.
Sheridan shook his head and continued to stare at the readouts. Ivanova swept her eyes across the command deck and observed that all the crew were intent upon their screens. Gently she placed her hand on his shoulder.
He shook her off, turned and Ivanova found herself staring into eyes made dark by anger and grief. His voice was low and intense. "They fought to save us, Susan. Us. And all that's left of them are pieces. Hell, we can't even find enough to make one person and bury them properly. The only grave they'll ever have is the coldness of space and the only way they'll be remembered will be if we survive what's coming. If we don't..." He shook his head and swallowed before pulling himself back together. "We're gonna find that piece and we're gonna win."
"No, Susan. We have to. Anything else is unacceptable."
As Ivanova tried to come up with a response that would help Sheridan carry the burden of grief and guilt Marcus, who'd been watching one of the other scanners, suddenly looked up. "Captain!"
"What is it?"
"I've found it!"
Instantly Sheridan shifted into professional gear and resumed his command chair. "Show me!"
The holographic display shimmered and then focussed on a slowly tumbling blackness, almost invisible until its movements obscured a pinpoint of starlight. Sheridan gave a satisfied nod. "Move us in closer."
Garibaldi strode in, Franklin in his wake. "Captain!"
Garibaldi frowned until Ivanova indicated the panel. As she moved away Garibaldi took in the readouts. A glance at the Captain's expression told him everything he needed to know and he exchanged looks with Franklin who shook his head. It was too late and now was not the time to discuss their CO's masochistic tendencies.
"How big is it?" Sheridan asked, oblivious to the analysis of his mental state occurring between his command crew.
"Actually, it's pretty big," Marcus replied. "About a metre and a half. The reason we missed it before is because it's not in the main debris field. The blast blew it quite a way."
"How come you found it?" Ivanova asked, still staring at the screen.
"Since everyone else was scanning the primary search grid I reasoned if there was anything to find in there you'd find it, so I thought I'd look further just in case."
"Lucky," Ivanova muttered.
"Don't believe in luck," he replied, the words coming out pat as though well rehearsed.
She threw him a look before turning to Franklin. "Doctor, can you handle something that big?"
"Well, it's not what I was expecting so I'll have to make some adjustments. I've sectioned off one of the bays. If something goes wrong we can evacuate and flush it back into space."
Franklin shuddered at the tone. Here was a piece of the enemy that might still present a serious threat both to the ship and her personnel, yet to Sheridan it was a challenge, and a human-sized one at that; an opportunity, perhaps, to vent his anger personally without the intermediaries of ship and weapons. As he watched the emotions that churned unceasingly in Sheridan's eyes the doctor couldn't help feeling that if the piece proved easy to contain the Captain would be disappointed. He phrased his reply with care. "Let's just say I have a healthy respect for it."
Sheridan grunted. "Can we manoeuvre over it or does someone have to go out there and reel it in?"
Fearful lest he don spacesuit and fetch the piece himself, Ivanova quickly interrupted. "Helm's already taking us to it. Once we're there I can use the ship's gravimetric system to pull it in. After that, Doctor, you're on your own."
"Thanks. I'll report back as soon as it's secure."
Sheridan nodded, his attention still fixed on the holographic display. With a last concerned look at his commander, Franklin left.
Sheridan barely saw him leave, merely remained where he was, staring as the piece of the enemy grew larger in the display, the ship's sensors automatically compensating to maintain the view while it manoeuvred into position. This thing had been alive, might still be alive, and they were about to bring it aboard to find out if they could kill it. He hoped Franklin's security was good enough. He didn't care to have that thing writhing in the corridors.
He closed his eyes and looked down. Delenn.
Ivanova picked up on his thoughts, looking up from the communications array where she had stationed herself. "The Fi Lann has hailed us. It should be here within the hour, Delenn." The Fi Lann, while a Minbari ship, was crewed by Religious and Worker Caste and had joined the rebellion of her own will as a result of Lennier's contact. She'd stayed out of the main fighting and had been on the sidelines, providing information where she could and otherwise laying low. While having a pure Minbari ship involved in the fighting had a certain appeal from a PR standpoint, everyone knew she'd be a primary target if her position was discovered, so it had been decided she was best used as a courier. She'd ferried some dissenting crews to the planet Ivanova had discovered earlier, been a hospital ship and otherwise walked a very dangerous tightrope, maintaining a position of apparent neutrality while secretly helping the rebel forces. Minbari High Command had, on more than one occasion, tried to place Warrior Caste members aboard her but the demands of the battlefield had prevented that -- a situation Sheridan had worked hard to maintain. All in all she was their best chance.
"Do they know...?" Delenn began.
"No. I thought that was a conversation best kept off the interstellar communication system, just in case someone was listening in. They can be brought up to speed once you get on board."
Throughout this conversation, Sheridan had kept his eyes off Delenn, alternately watching the holo-screen and monitoring the ship's relative position. Anything to stop him from thinking about what was about to happen. He didn't like this, but whether it was the risk they were taking in sending their best ambassador into the lion's den or the thought of possibly losing someone he now realised he cared about, he wasn't sure. He wasn't even sure how he felt about the strength of feeling between them. It was wrong. Hell, it was physically impossible, come to that. So why, as he turned and his eyes locked with Delenn's, did he feel his heart beat faster and a yawning ache build in his gut?
"You're determined to go through with this, then?" he said.
"And suppose Franklin succeeds even better than we hope?"
"When we get to the shipyards, our task will be even simpler."
So matter of fact and practical. Women were supposed to be the emotional ones and yet suddenly he knew that in his traditional male prerogative he was massively outgunned. He could feel Ivanova's eyes boring into him and he forced a shrug. "In that case you'd better pack."
"I have little. I can stay and monitor Dr Franklin's progress until the Fi Lann arrives. The information may prove useful."
He nodded. "If you want." Wasn't there somewhere he was meant to be? Somewhere he could go to be away from here; away from her? Now the decision was made he just wanted to get it over with. "Michael?"
"Have you finished analysing the download from the Mistral yet?"
Garibaldi snorted. "The computer's working its way through and filtering what it finds into headings right now, but there was a lot and I don't want to miss anything important so I'm going to trawl through it by hand. The computer's smart but it can't catch hidden references or read between the lines. That still takes a human, unfortunately."
"Need any help? I seem to be at a loose end right now and if I don't get something to do I'm liable to go and annoy Stephen. I think he could do without that right now."
"Sure. All help welcome. Delenn?" he added, turning to bring her into the conversation. "Do you want to...?" he stumbled, suddenly aware what he was suggesting. Tactful, Michael. Real tactful, he thought.
Delenn took a deep breath. She was aware of the conflict in Sheridan's stance but she was nothing if not practical. "It would be a better use of my time than standing here, and I may see something in Lennier's files others would miss. It is the least I can do." She turned to Ivanova. "Unless you need me to stay here?"
Ivanova shrugged. "We don't need that many commanders on deck. Marcus can help me if I need anything. I'll let you know when the Fi Lann is ready." Delenn's argument made sense and Michael would be there, which nullified any lingering doubts she had about Delenn's intentions.
Sheridan was aware of the tensions in the room but he wasn't about to draw attention to them. "Fine. Let's get on with it." He headed off the command deck, the suddenness of his movement and his long strides forcing even Garibaldi to jog to catch up, giving Delenn an excuse to do the same.
"You all right?" Michael asked. Sheridan stared stonily ahead. "Yeah, that's what I figured." Wisely, Garibaldi decided to keep his own counsel, but that didn't stop him from glancing between Sheridan and Delenn. If he didn't know better he'd think they were an old, married couple who'd just had a fight. Probably best not to ask, he decided.
An hour later a jump point announced the arrival of the Fi Lann. Delenn had sorted some of Lennier's messages, there was no news from Franklin but no alarms through the ship either and Garibaldi's ears were starting to ache from the silence. Apart from basic communications required to identify the files each was addressing, the hour had passed in silence. That no great discoveries had been made came as no surprise as the computer had already identified the major points, but the lack of camaraderie to which he had become accustomed disturbed him. This wasn't even companionable silence. He'd tried to start up some banter to relieve the tension but had received grunts from Sheridan and purely factual responses from Delenn that did not encourage conversation, so he had taken the hint and concentrated all his energy into his search. The call confirming the arrival of the Fi Lann was almost a relief. Then he saw the sudden tension in Sheridan's demeanour. Something was going on here, and he wouldn't be a good security officer if he didn't find out what.
"Captain..." he began.
"I'm going to check on Franklin's progress," Sheridan muttered, turning from the console he'd been studying. "I've marked the pages I've checked." He turned to Delenn. "Keep me informed, and make sure the Captain keeps me up to date once you're on Minbar, as far as she can."
"I will." She seemed to be about to say something else but Sheridan carried on.
"Good luck. Michael, let me know if you find anything." He turned and walked out without giving either of them the chance to say anything more. He turned left down the corridor towards the bay.
Garibaldi turned to Delenn and opened his mouth to speak but she cut him off. "There was nothing of any significance in what I read of Lennier's records and I, too, have marked the pages already dealt with. I need to go to my quarters to collect my belongings. Thank you Mr Garibaldi." She, too, left the room, turning right towards the crew quarters.
Garibaldi was left staring after them. "What was that all about?" he said to the empty room. Receiving no answer he shook his head and bent over the records once more.
Sheridan tapped on the glass panel that showed the docking bay containing the piece of Shadow ship. A technician glanced up and nudged Franklin who turned and nodded. He pointed to the readouts on the screen he'd been looking at and said something to the technician and then moved to the door, stripping off his mask as he did so. The door cycled open.
Sheridan indicated the mask. "I thought we were trying to infect the thing, not keep it clean."
"Very funny," Franklin replied, reaching for scrubs and a mask. "Put these on."
"What have you found out?" Sheridan asked as he pulled on the protective garb.
"Well, for one thing I'm definitely not leaving that thing in here once we've finished with it."
Sheridan fastened the front. "What's the problem?"
"Damn thing's regenerating even while it's sitting here. You'd've thought being left out in space and separated from the mother ship would have dampened its enthusiasm, but not a bit of it."
Sheridan nodded. That didn't actually surprise him. He indicated the crewmembers with rifles pointed at the black mass. "Hence the guards?"
"Yeah. You'll notice they're not getting too close. One moved in to poke it a bit and it tried to grab him."
"Nice. So how'd you get a piece of it?"
"With great difficulty. We managed to slice off a small section with a high powered laser and then sliced it fine while it was recovering. Even so, take a look." He indicated the image on the display attached to his microscope. Sheridan moved closer. Was it his imagination or... No, it really was growing.
"How long do we have to keep that thing in here? If it's growing as fast as it looks, by tomorrow it will have filled the room and be knocking on the doors."
"It's not quite that bad," Franklin assured him. "That's a high magnification. Even so I agree. I think I've narrowed it down and your timing is perfect. I was about to hit it with the first virus. Care to watch?"
"Absolutely. Go ahead."
Franklin nodded and turned around. "OK people, listen up, we're going to give it a shot. Sergeant, you and your men keep an eye on that piece. I don't think there's any connection between the pieces once they're severed but I can't be sure. If it moves, you know what to do."
"Yes, sir!" replied the sergeant. He nodded to his men, raised his weapon, adjusted the power settings to full and levelled the sight on the Shadow piece. The others followed suit, shifting their stances so they could maintain steady fire if the need arose.
"Anyone not monitoring results, move to the other side of the room. I don't want anyone within firing range." Several techs moved away, others hunkered down at their work stations. He settled at his own station and then turned to Sheridan. "Ready?"
"Whenever you are."
"OK, here we go." He pressed a button and a drop of virus was released.
Sheridan kept his eyes glued to the monitor. After a while he said, "Nothing's happening."
"Give it time," Franklin muttered, adjusting his equipment. "The virus has to adjust to the new host. I've modified it quite a bit already and depending on how it reacts now I'll be able to... whoa, something's kicking in."
Everyone who wasn't already staring at the readouts looked up. Franklin was furiously tapping in instructions.
"What's going on?" Sheridan asked, incapable of understanding the readouts but very aware of the increased tension in the room.
"Not good," Franklin replied, adjusting some switches. "Damn!" He pressed a button and a blazing light sparked for a second on the monitors, then died. Franklin stood with his hands on his hips, shaking his head.
"I take it that one didn't work." Sheridan's comment was more statement than question and his laconic delivery was enough to take the tension levels in the room down a notch as the techs scanned their readouts.
Franklin sighed. "Nope. We'll take a look at the feedback before I had to destroy it, then we'll adjust the virus and try again." He looked to the security officers. "Anything at your end?"
"No, sir." But the sergeant still gripped his weapon tightly.
Sheridan frowned and jerked his chin towards the rest of the Shadow ship piece questioningly. "What did you think might happen?"
"I was afraid there might be some kind of symbiotic relationship between pieces even when they're separated. With stuff like this you can never tell. The last thing we need is for the rest of it to build up a resistance through experience."
"Hence the cremation," Sheridan supplied.
A nod. "I'm gonna look through the results, see what went wrong. I'll call you once we have something."
Sheridan nodded and turned away, the dip of his shoulders as he left evidence of his own depression at the result. If it had been positive he could have stopped Delenn from going to Minbar or at least, he recognised ruefully, get into another 'discussion' on the matter better armed. He wasn't deluded enough to think he could win, but if he could have got her to think, to pause just a little longer, that might have been enough. He shook his head. She could be as stubborn as him, perhaps more so when she'd put her mind to something. They were so alike in many ways. Perhaps that was why...
He looked up. "Hullo, Delenn."
She looked over his shoulder, as if expecting to see someone else. "Did it...?"
He shook his head. "No. Franklin's working on it and he's going to call when he has something."
She nodded. "The Fi Lann is waiting for me." The silence that followed that statement was stifling. It was Delenn who broke first. "I should go."
Defeated, Sheridan merely nodded. As she walked away he said, "Delenn?"
She turned. "Yes?"
"Be careful, okay? And don't leave us in the dark. We need to know what's happening." *He* needed to know.
Sheridan watched her leave, aware of a terrible sense of foreboding that seemed to hover in the air. He shook himself. He was being melodramatic. Every one of them faced dangers, and while this one struck a very personal note, disaster wasn't guaranteed. "And I won't do anyone any good worrying about it," he muttered. Straightening his shoulders he headed towards the command deck.
"Delenn is safely aboard, Sir. Lieutenant Commander Maynard wants to know if there's anything else?"
Sheridan gave a faint smile. "I didn't know Jack was aboard," he muttered, straightening in his seat. "Put him on." The holographic display shimmered into place, showing a bearded man with twinkling eyes. "Jack," Sheridan nodded. "How're you doing?"
"Hey there, swamp rat!" Maynard returned cheerfully. "Long time, no see."
Sheridan shifted, uncomfortably aware of the glances afforded him by the crew. "Long enough I'd forgotten that nickname. Thanks for the reminder, Stinky."
Maynard grinned. "No problem. So you need us to run a delivery errand?"
Sheridan mentally noted Maynard's care. Even now he didn't mention the destination for fear someone might be listening in. "Well, as close as you can get without getting into trouble. I take it you heard?"
His face now serious, Maynard nodded. "Yeah. Don't worry, we won't let you down."
"Where's your Alyt?"
"She's here. She thought I'd like to talk to you for a change. Can't think why."
Sheridan chuckled. "When did you join her?"
"A couple of months ago. I was on the Paris when she went down. Managed to dive into a pod before she blew and got picked up by the Proteus. I was there for a month or so, then moved to the Telos. Captain Sinclair sends his regards, by the way."
"How's he doing?"
"Fine. Trying to notch up two ships for every one you take out but so far you're still beating him. Anyway, the Fi Lann had a little trouble with some of our drop outs and needed a new XO. Since I was available and surplus to requirements on the Telos..."
"I heard about that," Sheridan nodded. It was an abortive attempt by some Minbari sympathisers who'd assumed, mistakenly, that Religious and Worker Caste were not as capable as Warrior Caste and had tried to take over the ship. While they'd lost it had cost some lives -- a fact Sheridan regretted.
"Can't be helped." He looked over his shoulder and nodded. "We're ready to go. Got any last minute instructions?"
"Just ensure safe delivery and collection. You can be filled in on the rest en route."
"Right. We'll keep in touch. Anything else?"
Sheridan smiled inwardly. "Just one thing: 'May God stand between you and harm, in all the empty places where you must walk'."
Maynard smiled. "When I get back we've got a lot of catching up to do."
"Uh huh. Take care of yourselves. Sheridan out."
The hologram shimmered to show the Fi Lann pulling away and opening a jump point. Sheridan watched until the vortex closed once more and let out a sigh. "Well, all we can do now is wait."
"Or help Garibaldi with Lennier's files?" Ivanova suggested. She'd watched the exchange between Sheridan and Maynard with interest and had a lot of questions. "Franklin'll link in when he's got something for us."
"Good idea. Marcus?"
The Ranger stepped up. "No problem. I'll let you know if we need you. Shift change is in one hour. Shall I take her into hyperspace until we know where we're going?"
Sheridan considered. Physically, ordinary space was inherently safer, but you were a sitting duck. The ship could maintain a safe position in hyperspace for weeks if necessary, close enough to maintain contact with a beacon but off the main thoroughfare. A fleet of Shadow ships might pass by and never know they were there. It also meant they were ready to go if there was another attack. Not that they stood much chance until Franklin found a solution, but it made Sheridan feel less helpless. "Good idea," he agreed. "Set the communications system to monitor all traffic. We might get lucky again."
Sheridan rose and indicated Ivanova should precede him through the doors. "After you, Commander."
He chuckled. "It's a long story. I'll tell you on the way."
"If I look at one more of these things I'm gonna go crazy," Garibaldi muttered, rubbing his eyes.
"Agreed. I think it's time we turned in." Ivanova stretched and, yawning, turned to Sheridan who was still deeply engrossed. "John?"
"You go along. I just want to finish this one." He frowned and blinked, trying to refocus his eyes. The writing had been blurring on and off for some time, but he was damned if he was going to admit to being as tired as the rest of them.
Ivanova shook her head and leaned over him, touching the controls. The screen blinked and went blank.
"Hey, I was reading that!"
"No, you were looking at it, and probably not seeing it any more clearly than the rest of us. Come on, John. We've been at this for four hours. If we carry on like this we'll miss something because we can't concentrate any more. Give it a rest. We can come back later. It's not like we've got anything else to do right now."
"I'd better check on Stephen," Sheridan replied, rising from his chair.
"Stephen went to bed an hour ago," Ivanova informed him. "He's got more sense than you have."
Sheridan looked up sharply. "So who's watching the Shadow piece?"
"The guards and the third shift med. techs, who know what they're doing, by the way," Garibaldi replied, aware of Sheridan's concerns. "Don't worry about it. I'll check in with them for you. It's on my way anyway. Get some rest."
"Why do I get the impression I'm being hustled?" Sheridan asked grumpily as Ivanova steered him into the corridor.
"It's common sense. None of us can think clearly when we're tired and we can't afford to make mistakes. While it's quiet we might as well make the most of it. It's probably the last break we'll get for a while."
"Okay, okay," Sheridan said, raising his hands in surrender. "I'm going, okay? I don't need a babysitter."
"When have I accused you of being a baby?" She looked at Garibaldi for support.
"Never when I've been around," he replied. "Of course, what you do off duty..." His broad grin caused both Sheridan and Ivanova to turn on him.
"Michael..." Sheridan drawled, warning in his tone.
"Just an observation." They'd reached a branch in the corridors and he hurried off, denying the Captain his revenge. "See ya later."
Sheridan watched him go, shaking his head. "One of these days..."
"I'll join you," Ivanova agreed, and then yawned. "After I've slept," she finished.
Sheridan nodded and together they headed to the sleeping quarters. When they reached them he said, "I'm setting the alarm for 5 hours. Do you want me to call you?"
She glanced at his door and then her own. "I'll do the same, otherwise I'm liable to sleep straight through the war." Another yawn stretched her face. "Sorry." As much as she liked the idea of curling up by his side, she was tired enough to admit they would both sleep better alone. That didn't mean they couldn't make up for it later. "When this all calms down a bit, maybe we could catch some personal time?"
"Michael's comment got you thinking?" He was fighting his own yawn and finally surrendered, belatedly covering his mouth. It also gave him an excuse to stall. Her words had opened a pit of guilt in his stomach, and he didn't know what to make of it. Her next words quickly shook him out of his reverie.
"I miss waking up to your snores." She grinned to take the sting from her words.
"Oh yeah," he said, opening his door, "like beard burn and morning breath." He paused. "And I don't snore!"
She chuckled. It was an old game between them by now. "Keep telling yourself that. I'd record it to prove you wrong, but the recorders aren't calibrated to deal with those kind of levels."
He stepped into his room. "Everyone's a critic," he muttered as the door closed behind him.
It was the door chime and not the alarm that roused Sheridan from his slumber. "Go away!" he shouted, his voice muffled from sleep and the pillow he was trying to burrow into. The chime rang again. "I don't believe this!" Growling he flung the pillow aside, rolled off the bed and headed for the door. "What?!"
Ivanova was unfazed. "So much for 5 hours."
His temper vanished. "Huh? How long was I out?"
"Can't be! I only just fell asleep!" He scrubbed his tousled hair and turned back to his room. "Computer, what time is it?"
Ivanova followed him as the computer verified her claim. He sat down heavily, elbows on his knees, rubbing his face. If he hadn't believed the computer, the stubble on his face was proof enough. She turned on the water heater for coffee and then leaned on the counter.
"You needed it."
"Why the hell didn't you wake me?" he asked, still yawning.
"I tried. I came by earlier and when you didn't answer the door I came in to check. You were out for the count and since there was nothing happening I thought it best to leave you to it. If it's any consolation, I overslept too."
"What woke you up?"
"Marcus. It was our shift."
"Oh great! That looks really good," he snorted. "The two senior officers unconscious when they're supposed to be on duty."
She shrugged and continued fixing the coffee. "Nothing's happened. Jack Maynard called to say everything was fine and they were on schedule -- he seems to have taken it upon himself to keep us up to date -- Michael's buried in Lennier's personal mail and Franklin's still trying to find the right virus, but he thinks he's zeroing in on it." She handed him his mug and sat down. "That's why I thought I'd better call you; the last report from Stephen sounded promising and I figured you'd want to be there." She took a sip of her coffee and leaned back. "He said he'd call when he was ready. Should give you enough time to wake up."
He inhaled the caffeine-laden fumes and took a mouthful, nodding as she reeled off the list. "How long before the Fi Lann reaches Minbar?"
"Another 6 hours before they enter Minbari space, then 3 hours after that before they reach the home world. I figure she should be sipping tea with Turhan by the time we sit down to dinner."
"Or locked up. I still don't like this, Susan."
"I know, but if she can find out where the shipyards are then by this time tomorrow this could all be over." He raised an eyebrow. "Okay, maybe not over, but we'd be well on the way. For the first time I'm starting to think we might actually survive to see the end of it."
He grunted and took another gulp of his coffee. "Where's that Russian pessimism of yours?"
"Where it usually is. I didn't say I was certain. We could still all die horrible, lingering deaths."
"That thought cheers me up immensely."
"Glad to be of service. You gonna grab a shower?"
He nodded, gulped down the last dregs and stood up, stretching. "Yep. Could you make me another of those while I'm cleaning up? Half of me's still AWOL."
"Sure thing." She took the mug from him and headed to the kitchen. "Need someone to scrub your back?"
"I need someone to send out a search party!" he called back. He paused at the bathroom door, listening to her fill the water heater. It was a pleasantly mundane domestic sound, yet as he stepped into the shower it wasn't Ivanova he envisaged waiting for him outside. He shook his head, disturbed by the images that flooded his mind. "Delenn is NOT the domestic type!" he muttered as the shower kicked in.
"Did you say something?"
He looked up, startled, to see Ivanova putting his coffee on the shelf.
"Susan! I'm kinda in the middle of something here!" he cried, trying to find somewhere in the small space to hide.
"Hey, it's not like I've not seen it all before." She frowned. "You okay?"
"I was until you gave me a heart-attack," he replied, scrubbing himself vigorously to cover his embarrassment.
Ivanova raised her eyebrows. "Is there something going on that I should know about?"
"Not that I'm aware of," he replied, shampoo slipping down his face as he rinsed off.
He wiped his eyes and looked at her over the partition. "Susan, can we talk about this after I've finished showering?" he asked, frustration evident in his tone. "I'm at a major disadvantage here!"
"I'll be outside." She turned on her heel and walked out.
He winced as she closed the door a little harder than necessary. "I've really done it this time," he murmured. This was not a conversation he was looking forward to.
"So, I assume it's Delenn?"
He was barely through the door when she blindsided him. He finished doing up his collar and then stood, mute, trying to think of something to say.
"She's not even the same species for God's sake! How can you even think of it?"
"I don't know," he replied. "And I don't know there is anything. You're jumping to conclusions."
"Oh yeah, right." Her voice dripped sarcasm. "You're moping, you got angry at the thought of her leaving the ship..."
"I got angry at the thought that someone we need, someone who's an important symbol of what we're trying to do, might get themselves killed on a fool's errand!" He struggled to keep his tone even.
"And if it had been me instead of her?"
"I'd have been just as angry."
"Oh, so it's not the symbol you're worried about, it's the person!"
"You're twisting what I'm trying to say!" He raised his arms in despair and sat down, leaning forward so that he could rest his hand on her knee. She pulled away. "Look, I admit it, okay? I care about Delenn. I care about you, too. The reasons are different, that's all."
"So she's important because she's a symbol. I'm important because I'm me, right?"
He nodded, satisfied his situation had improved. "Yes."
"I'm not a symbol, I'm not a leader, I'm not anything but the person you sleep with. Sorry, used to sleep with."
"Oh, come on! This is ridiculous!"
"Is it? How long since we actually had some time together, John?"
"We've been too busy! You've been just as tired as me. There's no way you can keep up a personal life and all this," he waved his hand, encompassing the entire ship and their present situation in his words, "at the same time. And caring about someone isn't just about sex!"
"You're right, it's not. It's about sharing problems, thoughts, time with each other. But lately there's not been much of that, either. If we're not talking business we're at opposite ends of the ship!"
"That's not true and you know it."
"You know what I mean. You're closer to Delenn when she's not even in the same room with you than you are to me. I've seen the way she looks at you, John, and I saw the way you looked when she left. You're head over heels with an alien who's not even biologically compatible."
He stood up and ran his hand through his hair. "It's not about sex!"
"So you admit it's about something?!" She too stood up, closing in on him until they were toe to toe with each other.
"I didn't say that!"
"Yes you did! Listen to yourself. You said you care about her."
He turned, putting some distance between himself and her anger. "I care about Garibaldi, I'm not about to leap into bed with him!"
She paused, her mouth opening and then shutting again while she considered her response. Finally she said, "Now there's an image I could have lived without."
He nodded. "Me too." Noting than she'd calmed down slightly he decided to risk another tack. "Look, you're right. We haven't spent any quality time together lately and I apologise. I'll make it up to you, okay? As for how I feel about..." He stopped as Ivanova's eyes flashed dangerously. "What do you want me to do, use sign language? I admit I enjoy her company and even you have to admit that without her we wouldn't be here."
"That's the truth!"
Her words were not meant to be reassuring but Sheridan decided to let it pass. "She's done a lot for everyone and risked a lot. She's been working all this time knowing she could be found out any second and killed, and that's long before she released us. I can't even imagine what she's been going through. She's lost friends and colleagues..."
"So did we when her people tried to kill us all!"
"And she's trying to do something about it! Susan," he said, his tone exasperated, "we can't keep dragging up the past. We have to move on, live for the here and now and do our best to make the future better because otherwise..." His arms rose and then fell to his sides. "...what's the point?"
Before Ivanova could formulate an answer the comm. chirped. Sighing, Sheridan answered, still watching Susan's face. "Sheridan, go."
"Captain, we've got someone wanting to come aboard."
He frowned. "We're still in hyperspace, right?" he asked, looking to Susan for confirmation.
"I never gave any instructions to the contrary."
"Then who the hell found us here?"
"Given the duty officer isn't freaking out, it's got to be an ally," Ivanova reasoned, all business now.
Sheridan scowled for a moment and then his face cleared. Turning back to the console he said, "Can I assume that's a Vorlon ship outside?"
"Then tell Kosh he's very welcome."
"Not that I'm complaining, but what do you think he wants?" Ivanova asked.
"Where is Delenn?"
Kosh's stark query left Sheridan warily glancing at Ivanova, but the latter showed no emotion. He breathed a sigh of relief. "Delenn is on a mission right now. She's trying to make contact with Turhan in Tuzenor." A part of him was surprised the Vorlon didn't know that, given how omniscient he seemed to be. On the other hand, if even the Vorlon hadn't realised what they were doing, the chances were their security was sound. "Did you need to see her?"
"It is time."
Trust a Vorlon to be so obtuse. "Time for what?"
Instead of answering, Kosh tilted his headpiece and his iris flared. "The enemy is here."
Sheridan thought for a moment, wondering if Kosh had detected a Shadow ship outside. Then he realised what he was referring to. "A piece of one. It's in the other part of the bay under guard. We're trying to find a way to break through the skin. Since Neroon started using Shadow enhanced ships we've been outgunned."
A crackling filled the air and Sheridan and Ivanova stiffened, each wondering what the energy release augured. Then Kosh turned and headed for the partition that marked the secured section where Stephen was working.
The two humans exchanged glances. "Apparently, Stephen has a guest," Ivanova shrugged.
"So what's he doin' here?" Garibaldi asked as he opened another file.
"Your guess is as good as mine," Sheridan replied, buried once more in Lennier's private communications. He'd tried getting more information out of the Vorlon, but had been met with silence. Eventually he'd given up and returned to Garibaldi's office. It was marginally less frustrating. "But for now it means we've got the Vorlon ship with us again. I'll take everything I can get."
"How's Stephen getting on?"
Sheridan leaned back in the chair and stretched. "Ahh, still working on it. Having a Vorlon watching your every move hasn't done anything for his sense of humour."
"I'll bet. How many attempts is that so far?"
"Three. The last one looked like it might work for a minute. Then the damn thing came back stronger than before."
Garibaldi shook his head and let out a long breath. "Tell me he vaporised that one."
"Uh huh. He's not leaving anything to chance. If only we could destroy the whole ship as easily as Stephen can the sections, we wouldn't need all this."
"He'll get there," Garibaldi said, nodding to enforce his belief. "He won't give up 'til he solves this one." He considered for a moment. "What did Kosh do?"
"Watched," Sheridan replied succinctly.
"Now you're sounding like a Vorlon."
Sheridan merely grunted and returned to his reading. Garibaldi observed his Captain for a few moments before fielding his next question. "Heard anything from the Fi Lann?"
Sheridan didn't look up, but his back stiffened. "She entered Minbari space 3 hours ago. They should..." He shook his head, stalling, and then cleared his throat. "They'll report if there's anything we need to know."
"Mind if I make an observation?"
"If I said yes would it stop you?"
"Minbari society is regimented to the point it makes our Special Forces look like a bunch of boy scouts. If you want to get involved you need to be absolutely sure you know what you're getting into, because they don't respond well to people who back out after they've made a commitment."
"You're walking on very thin ice, Mr Garibaldi," Sheridan growled.
"I know, but I didn't say I approved or disapproved. What you do is your business. All I'm saying is you need to do your research. One wrong move and you're gonna end up in more trouble than you can handle."
"I wasn't planning on making any wrong moves," Sheridan muttered, determinedly burying himself in his work.
"That's what I mean. You don't even realise it *is* a wrong step until you make it, and by then it's too late. All I'm sayin' is, whatever you decide to do, be careful. When this is all over I don't want to see you facing an entire caste on the rampage because their honour's been..." Sheridan looked up and gave Garibaldi a hard stare. "Well... you know what I mean."
"Thank you for the advice, Mr Garibaldi. I think I'll go see if Stephen's found a solution to our more immediate problems," and with that he stood up and left the room without a backward glance.
"Your funeral," Garibaldi muttered at his back, shaking his head.
But Sheridan didn't end up watching over Stephen's shoulder, a fact that would have made the good doctor extremely grateful had he known the risk existed. Instead he retreated to his room and it was there, over an hour later, that Ivanova found him.
As she entered she called for the lights to come up. Sheridan instantly covered his eyes and groaned. "Did you have to do that?"
"It was that or trip over the furniture," she reasoned. "Why are you sitting in the dark?"
"I had a headache." He rubbed his eyes and cleared his throat. "Has something happened?"
"No," she replied, sitting down next to him, "but no one knew where you were, so I thought I'd better track you down." She reached up to sweep back an errant lock of hair that had fallen into his eyes and, in the process, felt his forehead. "Do you need me to fetch Stephen?"
He shook his head, brushing her hand away. "It'll pass. Reading too many of Lennier's letters."
"So I hear. Did you find anything?"
"Nothing we hadn't already figured out on our own. Garibaldi's finishing off the last lot now and I doubt he'll find anything more at this stage. Lennier covered his tracks well. Everything rests on Stephen finding a virus that works and Delenn making contact with Turhan and getting back to tell us about it."
"Speaking of Stephen, Kosh is still in the docking bay."
That made Sheridan sit up. "Has he said anything?"
"No, and he's not actually done anything either. If it wasn't for the occasional movements of that iris thing of his you'd think we'd got a statue."
"How's Stephen holding up?"
"Well, he's not happy about it, but since you can't force a Vorlon to leave if they don't feel like going and Kosh isn't actually in the way, he's learned to live with it."
"You know, I'd've thought Kosh would have wanted us to find a solution ASAP."
"I dunno. I get the impression he's there more to make sure we don't go too far."
Sheridan frowned and then his eyes slipped from her face as he became lost in thought. "Both the Shadows and the Vorlons have organic ships. Maybe he's worried we'll find something that'll kill 'em both."
She shook her head. "No, I think it's more subtle than that. I think he's worried we'll break the rules."
"You remember Kosh's other world. This thing's been going on for millennia and there are rules the two sides always follow. We can be used as canon fodder but they don't engage directly. When Kosh was here before he stayed out of the fighting. As an extra gun he's next to useless and I don't think that's changed."
"He's useful for information, though, even if it cryptic as hell most of the time." He paused for a moment, thinking through Susan's analysis. "But you might be right. Winning is fine; total destruction isn't on the agenda." He stood up. "I think it's time I dropped in on Stephen again."
"Perfect timing," Stephen smiled as Sheridan and Ivanova walked in. "I was just going to try our latest idea. Care to watch?"
"Sure." Sheridan eyed Kosh, who merely tilted his headpiece slightly. He returned his attention to Stephen. "How are you managing with the auditor over there?"
"I'd be happier if he either helped or left, but given neither of those seems to be an option..." He shrugged and finished fine-tuning his console before looking up. "Everybody ready?"
The crew had, by now, got this stage down to a fine art. Everyone took their appropriate positions without a word of command, the security guards once again hoisting their rifles to their shoulders. Despite the lack of action on all previous occasions they weren't taking any chances. Sheridan nodded to himself and planted his own feet more securely, noting through the corner of his eye that Ivanova took up a similar position.
"Here we go!"
This time there was absolutely no question as to the efficacy of the virus. As Sheridan watched the bigger image of the Shadow skin on the screen above Franklin's workstation he saw the piece writhe and then curl in on itself.
Whoops and cheers from the medical team filled the air and Franklin turned around, a huge smile on his face.
"It worked?" Sheridan asked, hardly daring to believe it after so many false starts.
"Oh yeah," Franklin nodded, adjusting his readouts and then pointing to the screen. "Look."
Sheridan stepped closer and watched the readouts plummet. "You're sure it's dead?" he asked at last when nothing seemed to be happening.
"Completely," Franklin assured him.
"How fast can we manufacture some more of this?" Sheridan asked.
"I'm going to run a few more tests just to make sure this wasn't a fluke. After that, and assuming all the results are as positive as this one, I can set the computers to start creating more based on our data. Give me two days and we can outfit every 'bot on the ship and several more besides."
Sheridan nodded. "Good. When you're ready get a message out to the other ships in the fleet and make sure it's multi-encoded. I don't want the enemy to get wind of this and prepare for it." He slapped Franklin on the back. "Well done, Stephen! We might win this one yet."
"We've certainly got a better chance. I might even see if we can make it a bit stronger. If we can wipe out more of the skin it'll give you a bigger target area."
Everyone turned to stare at Kosh whose iris had flared, casting an eerie green glow on Franklin's console.
"What the...?" Franklin stared at his computer as it flickered. "Quick, everyone! Save what you have!" The crew worked frantically, but it was too late. Sheridan looked from the Vorlon to the crew and back again before finally fixing on Franklin, who was staring at the molecular code the computer displayed.
"What happened?" Sheridan asked tightly.
"He's changed the virus," the doctor replied, tapping instructions into his console. "I've been locked out. Anything I do to try and change it back is blocked." He stood up and rounded on the Vorlon. "What the hell do you think you're doing?! I thought you were on our side!"
Sheridan eyed the two for a moment and then said, "Stephen, try the new version on the Shadow skin."
"But it's not the same!"
"No, but try it anyway. I have a feeling it'll work."
Confused, Franklin selected a new petri-dish and placed it into the test area. Sheridan watched as the piece was infected, nodding to himself as it curled up and died in almost the same way as the previous version. Franklin shook his head.
"It works. In fact, it's even more efficient than our version." He rubbed thoughtfully at his chin and then tapped a few instructions. "The only difference for our purposes is that the new virus is a dead end. I can't add anything to this one without countering its effectiveness. It'll work, but I can't make it any stronger."
Sheridan nodded. "I had an idea that might be the case." He looked at the Vorlon and then back at Franklin. "Out of curiosity, the old version... how much of a threat was it to us?"
"Well, everything we've been using in here is a biohazard. I couldn't tell you exactly what effect it would have, but it wouldn't be good."
"And the new one?"
The doctor tapped his console and then sat back, clearly confused. "It's extremely specific. The worst this might give us is a mild cold. We don't have the metabolism to activate the lethal parts of this one and by the time we got to that level we'd have long since burned up."
"So he was trying to stop us from killing ourselves."
Franklin considered that interpretation. "Well, I was going to add some chemical bonds that would have protected us, but yes, this one's a lot more efficient." He turned to the Vorlon. "So why'd you wait so long to help us out? If you knew the answer, why'd you force us to find it ourselves?"
Kosh did not reply. He bowed slightly, turned, and left the docking bay.
Sheridan watched his departure, mentally exploring all the ramifications of Kosh's intervention. "I think that was the idea, Stephen. You proved yourself capable but Kosh knew we are in too much of hurry to try re-inventing the solution to make it totally safe. He needs us if we're gonna finish this thing."
Franklin grunted. "Well, the new version's not only safer, it's easier to make. I can have enough for this ship by the end of the day."
"Good. Make up a batch now and then let loose the rest of that thing." He jerked his head to indicate the remaining Shadow section still lying on the floor. "We'll use it as a test. If it works out in space as well as it does in the lab, we'll know for sure."
"You think it's *not* gonna work out there?" Franklin asked, clearly convinced of the power of the new virus.
"No. I think Kosh has given us exactly what we need."
It wasn't until they got outside again that Susan turned to Sheridan and said, "What we need, not what we might want, right?"
He nodded. "Right. I think Franklin was onto something Kosh considered far too powerful. Like you said, there are rules of engagement here. The fact it was dangerous to us didn't help matters, but I don't think that was his primary concern. This will give us exactly what we needed and we can handle it safely, but it won't destroy the Shadow race. I get the impression Kosh is pretty annoyed the Shadows have already broken the rules and he was bending things a bit himself to redress the balance. He just won't go as far as they do."
"Great!" Ivanova muttered. "Why'd we have to get the referee on our side?"
"Don't like being on the side of the angels, huh?"
"Depends on the angel. Archangel Michael with his flaming sword would be of more use right now."
"But Gabriel doesn't leave disaster in his wake."
"I can see why it'd appeal to you, though," she said. "And if the Archangel Gabriel looks like that, we're all screwed." She noticed Sheridan was lost in thought and tapped him on the elbow. "What are you thinking about?"
"Nothing," he assured her, "just something I heard once." In his mind he'd heard the echo of Corwin in hydroponics telling him the Vorlons looked like angels.
"Care to share?"
Before he could answer his communicator went off. "Sheridan, go."
"Captain, we've had a message from the Fi Lann. Her package is on its way and she'll contact us as soon as she receives confirmation of its arrival."
"Understood." He tapped the communicator off and then stood, staring into space, as if trying to see across the light years to Minbar to watch Delenn's descent into Tuzenor.
Ivanova watched him. While anger still flared, the worry on his face stirred a more compassionate side. "It'll be all right," she assured him.
Sheridan nodded but couldn't shake the sense of foreboding that still hung over him.
An hour later Sheridan was on the command deck watching a 'bot take up position outside. They'd dropped out of hyperspace to a relatively empty sector of space to carry out the experiment. He tapped the switch in the arm of his chair. "Security, is the docking bay cleared?"
"All clear, Captain," replied the head of the security detail on the comlink. "We're monitoring outside the airlock in case anything's left behind."
Sheridan nodded to himself. "Understood." He twisted in his chair to look at Franklin, who was standing near one of the consoles. "Do you want to have the pleasure, given you've been practically living with that thing for the past two days?"
"Oh yeah," the doctor replied, his finger hovering over the button that would open the bay doors. Sheridan bowed his head, indicating Franklin was to go ahead. With a firm touch the doctor pressed the button and then followed everyone else who looked up at the holographic display to see the Shadow piece tumble out into space.
"On your command, Captain."
Sheridan fixed his eyes on the Shadow piece. "Kill that thing!"
Ivanova swept her hand across the console and the 'bot swooped on its prey, getting within a hundred metres before firing into the small target area. Franklin monitored readouts on his console and then announced, "You can split it in two now, Captain."
Sheridan gave a sharp jerk of his head. "Firing control, finish the job."
The small side-canon lashed out and there was a deathly hush. Even separated from its main body, the Shadow piece had proved extremely resilient to normal firepower. Only several bursts of distracting fire, followed by a concentrated laser scalpel had proved enough to slice through even the smallest section. Now, as the beams narrowed on their target, everyone held their breath, letting it out with a whoosh as the canon shattered the piece. Just to make sure, Marcus followed up the initial shot with a broad-beam that cremated what was left.
Sheridan grunted in satisfaction. "Good. At least there's no way they can find anything and develop any countermeasures. Commander, under normal battle conditions you probably won't be able to get that close. What's the range of the 'bots?"
"About a thousand metres," she replied. "At that distance I won't be able to get it down to the millimetre, but I'll be within half a metre of the ideal target area."
"Doctor, will that be enough given the spread of the virus?"
"Easily," Franklin reassured him. "The new virus will decimate an area over about 100 metres or so within minutes. After that, and provided the Shadow skin maintains any integrity, it'll feed off the skin's metabolism, expanding until it uses up its own regeneration cycles after roughly an hour. Even if the ship escapes it'll be severely damaged for days and weakened for months, unless they graft an entire new skin on it."
"An hour seems a short life for the virus," Marcus observed.
Franklin fell automatically into lecture mode. "It's the metabolic rate. If we lived that fast it'd be the equivalent of aging 3 years a minute."
"So how come the Shadows don't just die of old age?" Marcus, who'd remained on bridge duty and had missed all the experiments, was determined to make up for his ignorance.
This time it was Sheridan who stepped up to the plate. "We measure our lifetime in tens of years, they measure it in hundreds of thousands." When Franklin looked at him with renewed respect he shook it off. "I didn't do the math, doc. Kosh explained it to me a long time ago. The point is, we've got a weapon that seems to work. Now we have to load up the other 'bots and then get out there, find the biggest bully around and pick a fight."
"I doubt we'll have to go looking for them," Ivanova said. "Send out an unencrypted message asking for help with repairs from our last run-in and I bet we won't just attract our own forces."
"Hmm. Stephen, have you sent the code out to the other ships in the fleet as I requested?" Franklin replied in the affirmative. "And did you warn them not to use it on the Shadow capital ships?"
"I did, but I'm still not sure why."
"The capital ships are capable of memory and thought, due to the telepath at their core. If they can get home or tell others what's happening to them, you can bet they'll find an antidote and we'll be back to square one. This virus can only be used on the Shadow enhanced Minbari ships. They're mindless and won't be able to communicate what they've encountered."
"But if the other ships find bits floating around in space..."
"Which is why I want all our ships ready before we hit back. When we attack it has to be a concentrated and devastating. It's all or nothing, people. The next time we find Neroon it'll mark the beginning of the end."
Ivanova and Franklin exchanged glances. There was a personal bitterness in Sheridan's tone that was quite unlike his usual manner. It was more like his behaviour after the Mistral was destroyed. The man was dangerous, and in a way that was highly unpredictable. Privately, Ivanova hoped the fallout would only rain down on their enemies, because she wasn't sure any of them would survive if the Captain finally snapped.
"We should have heard something by now!"
Ivanova had decided to stay on the command deck awaiting confirmation from the ships in the fleet that they had outfitted their 'bots with the new virus, which left Garibaldi listening to Sheridan's frustration. Privately, Michael promised suitable retribution to Ivanova for lumbering him with this particular duty, but he had little else to do until the attack began. He'd finished going through Lennier's papers and apart from a couple of minor references he was having the computer follow up, he'd cleared his desk. He could stand in C&C, listening to Ivanova receiving reports, or sit in Sheridan's quarters and listen to the Captain's increasing agitation. Given the choice he always preferred to sit. The coffee Sheridan had on the boil hadn't hurt his decision.
"Given where the Fi Lann has to wait, I imagine they've gone on silent running until they're out of the danger area," he supplied, hoping his calm response would soothe the Captain’s agitation. "If they send us an update every quarter of an hour they'll have every Minbari ship within 10 light years zeroing in on them."
"I know, I know," Sheridan groaned, leaning on the counter. "I can't help it. If this goes wrong we may tip our hand. How long do you think she'll stand up under Warrior Caste assault?!"
"That's not why you're worried.” Sheridan turned sharply but Garibaldi held firm under the withering stare. "It's not. You’re not going to convince me any more than you convinced Ivanova."
"Are you gonna lay into me now?" He sounded resigned rather than angry.
"No. It's none of my business. I've got too much on my rap sheet to correct you for something you can't control. Just don't lie to me, okay? I can't help you if you won't be honest."
"I can't even be honest with myself," Sheridan admitted, settling into a chair. "What gives you the right to demand more of me than I can?"
Garibaldi shrugged. "I guess I can't, but if you don't talk to someone you're gonna explode. You like her, right?"
Sheridan had been about to downplay his feelings but then caught Garibaldi's expression. "Yes, I like her.”
"D'you love her?"
"Hell, I don't know! How can I? As Susan's pointed out repeatedly we're two different species. It'd be like falling in love with a..." He stumbled and then gave up. Every terrestrial creature he could name would be an insult to Delenn.
"Glad you didn't finish that sentence, but I get the idea. What about Susan?"
"You still in love with her?"
"I'm not sure I was in love with her before. Am I paying for this therapy session?"
"All part of the service. So what switched you off?"
"I don't know I have. I don't know how I feel about either of them!"
"Well you'd better make a decision soon, John, because you can't keep two strong women hanging around like this. Sooner or later one of 'em'll want a decision and they'll take it out of your hide."
"Delenn wouldn't do that. She'd just walk away."
Garibaldi considered his Captain's demeanour. “Which is what you're afraid of?" Sheridan stared into space. "And if Susan walked away instead?" He caught the flash of guilt that passed across his Captain’s features. "Well, you're screwed," he said. "If I were you I wouldn't string Susan along as back up just in case Delenn doesn't get back from this mission. She deserves better than that." A slight tightening of the muscles around his mouth showed Sheridan’s agreement. "I don't know everything that's gone on, but I do know this: I respect you and I respect Susan, but if you don't do the honourable thing by Ivanova I'll deck you myself."
"You Susan's new knight in shining armour?"
"Bullshit. All this touchy-feely stuff makes my skin crawl, but I can't stand bullshit. You piss around with these two and the fallout isn't just gonna hurt you. Your personal life is your own, but I've got a vested interest in making sure you don't screw things up because you're not communicating properly with your first officer. One or the other but make up your mind, and do it soon. The atmosphere around here stinks." He finished his coffee and stood up. "Now if you'll excuse me, I'm sure there's something I should be doing." Sheridan was lost in thought. "And you've got a decision to make."
A deep throated grunt was the sum of Sheridan’s response. Garibaldi shook his head and walked out.
Reports had been coming back all day from ships confirming their 'bots had been outfitted with the new virus. Sheridan arranged for six ships to meet them in the Epsilon Eridani sector, near an uninhabited planet called Epsilon 3. Three more were to hold in hyperspace as a reserve if things went wrong. Those ships and the White Star were arrowing their way towards the proposed battleground, but until they arrived there was little to do.
Ivanova and Sheridan were sitting in his quarters, the latter trying to get interested in what tasted like the driest food this side of the Martian dust bowls. For her part Susan was aware of the tension in the air but didn't know what to do about it. She had a pretty good idea what was coming and while she didn't care to be yanked around, she did care about Sheridan and had no desire to push the issue if there was a chance of rescuing their relationship.
Sheridan let out a sigh and Susan stiffened. "How's your meal?" he asked.
"Not as stale as you seem to be finding it."
"I don't think it's stale," he responded in kind, "I'm just not in the mood for it right now."
"There's probably something Minbari around here somewhere."
He winced and put down his fork. "Susan..."
"John, you know what? Can we hold off the rest of this conversation until the morning? I think we both need to think things through."
"You mean you think I do."
"You, me, what does it matter?" She stood up, her chair protesting the rough treatment. "Turns out I'm not so hungry after all." She walked towards the door.
Sheridan quickly followed and caught her arm. "We can't leave it like this."
She was about to remonstrate with him when the comm link beeped. Sheridan tossed his head angrily. "What?!" he said, barely glancing at the now active comm panel while maintaining his grip on her arm.
Marcus stared out from the screen and searched for a moment before spying Sheridan's back at the edge of his view. "Sir, we've a message from the Fi Lann."
Instantly Sheridan spun on his heel and marched to the screen. "Show me!"
Although the signal was scratchy and flickered, there was no question who was looking at him. The grey eyes that seemed to change colour depending on her mood showed a steadfastness of purpose and courage Sheridan found sadly lacking in his own demeanour. Her voice, too, was clear. "Captain, I am sorry for the poor signal but I am having to use a mobile communications unit to avoid detection." He was about to demand she get out of harm's way when she allayed his fears. "I am fine and our ally has proved to be exactly as we thought. I am relaying coordinates on a sub-channel for something you will need. I will not speak of them on an open channel, but I know you will be pleased. I am only sorry it is not more, but conditions are not ideal. We are working to get the other information you wanted and should have that shortly."
She paused and Sheridan stepped closer to the screen. "Are you all right?"
"I am fine. The situation here is deteriorating rapidly, but for now this complex is safe and I am well protected. As soon as I have that other information I will leave."
He nodded, a smile finally appearing on his lips. "I'm just glad to see you safe."
"How are things there? Did Franklin find a solution?"
"He did. We're almost ready. It won't be long now."
She looked over her shoulder, nodding to someone off screen. "I have to go. Please be careful, John. Do not worry about me. I will contact you again tomorrow."
The screen blanked and Sheridan reached out to stroke his fingers across the fading phosphor outline of Delenn's face. "Come back soon," he muttered.
Ivanova quietly left the room, eyes glistening and jaw tight.
"So what are the co-ordinates for?" Garibaldi asked after he’d read Delenn’s decrypted message.
"No idea. She wouldn't give me any information on an open channel." Sheridan was in the command chair, scanning reports as the White Star swept through the black and red swirl of hyperspace. "I was hoping there'd be some explanation once you decoded the message." He handed the reports to one of the crew before turning his full attention on Garibaldi.
Garibaldi shook his head and handed over the decrypted message. "That's everything. I double checked in case she'd hidden something deeper but there's not another byte beyond what you see."
Sheridan looked at the co-ordinates. "Where is this?"
"Actually, only a few hours from Epsilon 3. Did she know you were going to pick that place for the final showdown?"
"I don't know about 'final', but no. I only decided on it myself after Stephen had sent out the virus code."
Garibaldi cocked his head. "Mind if I ask why you picked there?"
"It's quiet, there's no one likely to be affected by the fallout from a major battle and I've never been there before. Seemed like a good idea at the time."
"Wasn't that part of Kosh's message?"
Sheridan cast his mind back. The images Kosh provided had taken on a surreal quality and he could no longer distinguish between the originals and the dreams they’d generated. "Probably. To be honest I don't remember."
"I was wondering if the reappearance of Kosh had put it in your mind."
"When a Vorlon knocks on your door in the middle of hyperspace, anything can happen," he joked, but in the back of his mind was the niggling thought that Garibaldi was right and there was some reason he should have remembered the planet. "It *is* unpopulated, right?"
"So far as we know. Not that anyone's ever tried to settle there. It's marginally less hospitable than Mars and at least 3 days journey from anywhere." The men turned to each other, the same thought entering their heads at the same time. "In fact..."
"It's three days from everywhere," Sheridan finished. "You're right, it was part of Kosh's preview. Do me a favour, Michael, do a bit of digging and see if there's anything else you can find out about that place. If you happen to remember anything you can add that, too."
"No problem." Garibaldi turned and left the command deck.
"Epsilon 3. What the hell was I supposed to remember about Epsilon 3?" he mused, but he kept his concerns to himself.
Sheridan considered trying to corner the Vorlon and interrogate him about the Epsilon 3 mystery but thought better of it. There would be time enough after the battle to find answers. For now, he needed to concentrate.
"The Telos has arrived, sir. Captain Sinclair is asking to speak to you."
Sheridan grunted and sat forward in his chair. "Open a channel."
The holo-image shimmered into position revealing Sinclair's strong features. "Captain. Good to see you again.”
"And you. Are you clear on the plan?"
"I've had time to look through it. It seems straightforward enough. Of course, no battle plan in history has survived contact with the enemy."
"If it can survive for the first 5 minutes, that'll be enough." He glanced at a tactical readout that occupied the bottom right hand corner of the image. "Everything's in place. I'm going to send out the signal."
"To all of us. See you on the flip side." The image of Sinclair faded and the tactical display expanded to dominate the vacated area. Sheridan watched as Sinclair took the Telos into the shadow of the planet forming the sixth ship of the waiting fleet. The three that remained in hyperspace had already confirmed their readiness and Sheridan had given them each slightly different co-ordinates so that they could come in on the blind side of any Shadow-enhanced Minbari ship that was either trying to escape or putting up an unexpected fight. In retrospect he now thought that three ships was not enough, but it was too late to rectify that error. The rest of the fleet was spread thinly, dealing with ordinary Minbari ships and occasional interceptions by the Shadow battle-crabs. The good news was that intelligence provided by Garibaldi proved Sheridan's plan was already working. A few well placed and apparently accidental messages sent from the White Star with faulty encryption seemed to have piqued Neroon's interest as there had not been a single sighting of the Shadow-enhanced War Cruiser since Sheridan had put the operation into effect. If he was right, this was because Neroon, in his arrogance, was determined to put an end to Sheridan's forces on his own terms, using the new ship to destroy him. If he was wrong it didn't matter. So long as they proved the virus worked, every ship in the fleet would soon be wreaking havoc on Neroon's pride and joy.
Sheridan tapped his armrest and leaned slightly towards it, even though the intelligent technology would pick up his voice just as well if he turned away completely. "Mr Garibaldi, it's time."
"Understood." A short pause and then, "Message away."
"And now, we wait." He rubbed between his eyes. He wasn't good at waiting, especially when he didn't know how long that wait might be. He looked around the command deck. Everyone was tense as if they expected Neroon to swoop out of hyperspace in the next few seconds. Realistically he realised that was unlikely. While they'd been laying a trail of breadcrumbs it was unlikely that Neroon had managed to plot the final destination until that last message was sent. The message itself was tempting, though. Sheridan had recorded it out of earshot of the crew in case it upset them and Garibaldi had added some effects to make it more convincing. It reported that the White Star was badly damaged with leaking engine fumes that had already overcome several of the crew. Sheridan had delivered the performance of his life, replete with an exhausted and cracking voice, a pale and drawn expression and all the symptoms associated with someone who had been exposed to the by-products of Minbari engine design. This appearance had been generated in part courtesy of Dr Franklin's skills and it had taken Sheridan two hours to shake it off. While he didn't care for the effect on his voice and appearance, it did at least give him an excuse to remain in Garibaldi's office until he felt better, and that saved him from having to face Ivanova.
After he'd finished the conversation with Delenn he'd turned and noticed Ivanova had left. It hadn't taken him long to realise how clearly he'd revealed his feelings and that even though they'd not properly discussed the matter, the message had been sent and received. It was not the way he'd intended to end their relationship and it left him feeling closure was still required. He glanced across at Ivanova who'd stationed herself at the weapons console. Professional as ever, she was checking and rechecking the system to make sure it didn't let them down. Her attention appeared to be total and she did not look up. A brief irritation at her ability to move on so easily was quickly replaced by relief. Susan's professionalism spurred on Sheridan's own and he cast his eyes across the rest of the crew.
Marcus was at the scanners, monitoring for enemy ships. As Sheridan's eyes fell on him, Marcus looked up and shook his head slightly. Sheridan nodded and moved on. Franklin was at an aft console that was presently dark, waiting for the attack to begin so he could monitor the path of the virus and report the optimum moment at which the ship could open fire. Everything was in place. The White Star was the smoothest running ship in the fleet. Part of that was a result of the crew but they, in turn, had been inspired by the ship. Its intuitive and highly responsive technology seemed to mould itself to the crew, adapting to their quirks and maximising efficiency. He grunted in satisfaction. He was in the best ship with the best crew, surrounded by the very best in the fleet, and if anyone stood a chance against Neroon and his allies it was them. The plan was good, the bait had been dangled in the water and it had been chosen to appeal to Neroon's particular predilections. The ship itself was running on minimal power and the appearance of a damaged fuel tank had been manufactured, leaking from a small reserve supply Garibaldi had rigged and connected to the Captain's armrest control panel. It could be increased or decreased at will until the tank was exhausted and there was enough to maintain the illusion for several hours so long as the leak was kept small.
If only the damned Minbari would fall for it.
Sheridan tapped the arm of his chair and then stopped when he noticed one of the crew watching him. He smiled and sat back, trying to project an aura of calm authority, all the while uncomfortably aware of the pounding of his heart and the tingling in his fingers. He was always like this before the battle began. The fact no one knew was his secret pride. Everyone saw Captain 'Starkiller' Sheridan as the coolest officer ever when under fire. Nothing ever seemed to shake his calm exterior and that inspired the crew to fight on, despite the odds, never realising how close they might be to defeat until it had been turned into victory. No one knew how hard he had to fight to maintain control in the moments before the shooting began; no one felt the adrenaline rush that set fire to his veins and made his mind sear brightly once the enemy was engaged. A part of him felt ashamed that he responded so positively to the carnage of battle, but he knew it was that fire that made him good at what he did. It was a rush that he would miss when they finally achieved peace, but it would be worth the sacrifice. In the meantime his visceral response was a weapon at least as useful as the cannon that pulsed beneath them. He smiled to himself and noticed the crew relax. That was another trick he'd never been taught, but which was invaluable: the ability to fill the crew with confidence no matter the odds. It wasn't a class at the Academy but every good commander had it.
Marcus tapped into the sensor. "Captain, I've got something."
Sheridan spun his chair around. "What is it?"
"There's a jump point opening."
Sheridan tapped his own control panel, opening the vent in the tank. Fuel leaked into the vacuum of space, its telltale signature registering on the ship's sensors. "Mute that!" he ordered. One of the crew leapt to respond. "Show me." He swivelled back to look at the holo-image as it refocused to reveal the red swirl of a jump-point followed by a Shadow enhanced Minbari war cruiser. The crew stiffened.
"Orders, sir?" The helmsman's hands hovered over the controls.
"Wait for it. Neroon's not going to send one ship to get me. Even if he thinks its going to be easy he'll want to be sure of his victory. He's got backup. Maintain the illusion."
The helmsman nodded and relaxed slightly.
The Shadow-enhanced ship drew closer, slowly, like a wary predator unsure of the status of its prey. It swept back and forth and even without ship's sensors Sheridan's own senses told him it was checking for traps. Playing the wounded prey was straining his nerves but they had to keep it up until the last possible moment. If he didn't make them tip their hand it would be Sheridan's own forces and not Neroon's that would be caught in the trap.
"Wait for it..." he cautioned as he saw the helmsman's hand shaking slightly over the controls. "Just a little longer." The young Ranger gave Sheridan an apologetic smile and the Captain nodded. "It's all right. This part of playing chicken is always the worst. I guarantee you he's gonna blink first." The helmsman nodded and his hand steadied. Sheridan released a quiet breath. His only guarantee that Neroon would blink first was that he had no intention of blinking at all, at least not until after he'd won. Of course if he was wrong...
"Two more jump points opening," Marcus announced.
Sheridan felt the tension rush out of him. "That's it, he blinked. Power up and let's get the hell out of here! Helm, bring us about. Full power!" While he spoke he shut down the leak. The ship's systems came back on line as smoothly as though they were pulling out of a regular dock. The ship spun on its axis, quickly outdistancing its surprised would-be attackers. The cruisers suddenly found themselves looking at the rear end of the fast retreating ship but, to their credit, began their pursuit within seconds of the White Star's miraculous return to life. The chase tore around the planet where the six allies waited, their guns hot and ready. As the War Cruisers came into view, the rippling, spiky black skin of the lead ship in stark contrast to the sleek, mottled blue lines of its companions, Sinclair opened up. The Telos's guns tore into one support vessel while the Aegisthus and the Churchill attacked the other, leaving Sheridan facing the prize.
"Garibaldi, block their signals. Commander, release the 'bots!"
The 'bots zoomed from the back of the ship, making a smooth one hundred and eighty degree turn before heading for the lead cruiser. As they neared they positioned themselves so that their fire was concentrated on the rear fin with its engines and sensors.
To Sheridan's straining eyes they seemed to get impossibly close, almost colliding with the ship before Ivanova opened fire. He jerked his head towards Franklin, who was still staring at his console. "Stephen, it's up to you now."
"Virus has reached target," he reported as the cruiser closed the distance between them. "Waiting for confirmation of infection."
Sheridan's patience was wearing thin as the cruiser brought its guns to bear. "Now would be a good time, doctor," he suggested, his voice tight.
"Not yet...Not yet."
"Stephen, if you don't give me the all clear within the next ten seconds I'm going to have to start without you."
"Infection complete. It's spreading like wildfire." Stephen sat back, staring at the screen. "My God! That's incredible!"
Franklin reluctantly pulled his attention away from his scientific admiration. "Go for it!"
"Open fire, all weapons!"
Fire lanced from the main cannon and the two others positioned under the wings. All had been calibrated for time on target and when they hit the effect was devastating.
"They've got no shields at all!" Ivanova cried. "It's like a knife through butter!"
Sheridan didn't doubt it. The tail of the cruiser had been sliced off and now floated at a crazy angle to the main body of the ship. Without engines the guns had no power and the cruiser began to tip, the inertia carrying it forward while the explosions tilted it upwards, making it look like the ship's back had broken.
Whoops from the crew were quickly stifled as Sheridan reasserted control "It's not over yet," he said sharply. "How's Sinclair doing with the other cruiser?"
Marcus redirected his sensors. "Having a harder time than we did. The other ships still have their shields." He paused. "Uh oh."
"Care to expand on that, Mr Cole?" Sheridan asked.
"Shadow ships. Three of them."
"Knew this was too good to be true," muttered Susan, her reliable Russian pessimism causing Sheridan's mouth to twitch as he tried to smother a smile. For now, at least, she was fine.
"Contact the other ships. Tell them to get their telepaths on the ball."
The battle crabs stumbled and stalled, shaking as they fought to overcome the invisible telepathic bonds that fought to hold them.
"Pick 'em off, people." The White Star, now turned its attentions to the new ships. While the Telos maintained its fire, the two ships that had dealt with their cruiser moved to help, the Clytemnestra, Hector and Achilles also turning slowly to face the battle crabs.
Agile and fast, the White Star took a path between two of the enemy ships, tilting sideways to slip through a gap as the ships closed, then flipped over to focus its main gun. The beam sliced into the body until the steady fire caused the legs to curl up.
"Three more Shadow ships coming in!" There was an edge of fear in Marcus's voice.
"Steady," Sheridan said, noting the first signs of panic and working to stop it before it spread. "We've got backup, remember. We're all right." He checked the status of the other ships and noted the battle was effectively over. "Tell everyone to turn their attention to the newcomers."
"Messages coming in from the other ships," Ivanova reported. "Their telepaths are getting tired. They can't guarantee to hold these ones."
"What about ours?"
"We've only got two but they're OK."
"Tell them to shut those things down."
Two of the Shadow ships stalled but the other flew through and opened fire. The beam slashed a gaping hole in the Churchill and explosions broke out across the hull. The ship moved towards the planet, accelerating as it was caught in the planet's gravity well.
Sheridan activated his comm. channel. "Sheridan to Churchill. Sheridan to Captain Hidoshi. Abandon ship!"
The voice that came back was broken by static. "Negative. Can't... 'et out. ...corridors blocked. Power gone. Sorry, White Star. ...on ... own."
Sheridan flinched as detonations ripped the ship apart, sending half of it tumbling towards the planet. As it struck there was a spectacular explosion that temporarily blinded the White Star crew.
"What the hell was that?!" Sheridan asked, blinking to try and clear the purple afterimages. "That was far more than the Churchill's engines."
"Unknown. Shadow ships closing." Ivanova had maintained her concentration on her own board and so had been less affected than the rest of the crew when the Churchill exploded.
"Bring those bastards down now! Call in the reserves!" Every ship opened fire and jump points opened to reveal the Archon, Helen and Odysseus, guns blazing ahead of them and tearing into the rear of the battle crabs, closing the trap completely.
While everyone concentrated on the Shadow ships, no one noticed events down on the planet. A beam of energy poured from a fissure, hitting the Telos amidships. Sheridan switched his attention, perceiving this as another threat. The Telos shimmered for a moment and then vanished.
"What the...?!" He smacked his fist on the comm. panel. "Telos! Sinclair, come in!" His demand was greeted with static.
The steady fire finally had its effect and the three remaining Shadow ships exploded. The only sounds on the White Star's command deck were heavy breathing and Sheridan's repeated calls. "Telos! Telos! Come in!!" Still there was nothing. "Sheridan to fleet. Come about and focus your beams on the planet. I'm sending co-ordinates." As he tapped in the information he suddenly became aware of another crew member who'd suddenly appeared in the doorway. It was Kosh.
The Vorlon ship, that had secreted itself in hyperspace during the battle now reappeared. Sheridan looked up at the holo-image in time to see the ship give what seemed to be a pulse. A second later every system went dead. He leapt from his command chair and stormed towards the Vorlon. "What the hell are you doing? We were attacked!"
"Whadderyermean, no?! Something came out of that planet and destroyed the Telos!"
"The ship is safe. It is not here. It is not now."
Sheridan latched onto the last phrase. "I know it's not 'now'! It's gone! Give me my damned weapons back!"
"Sinclair is safe. The ship is safe."
"If you don't give me a straight answer soon I swear...!" Sheridan pulled back his arm, looking for all the world as though he was going to take a swing at the Vorlon. Kosh merely stood there, his headpiece slightly cocked, the iris pulsing slowly. Sheridan felt his anger dissipate as the adrenaline drained out of him, sucked away by the look of utter innocence Kosh projected. He dropped his arm. "All right, all right." He paused, breathing deeply as he pulled himself back under control. His next words were delivered as clearly and as calmly as he could. "What happened?"
"He is the closed circle. He is returning to the beginning."
Ivanova cocked an eyebrow, too exhausted by events to muster much more. "Here we go again," she muttered. "Vorlon 101."
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