Conspiracy Theory VIII

By Castor

******

Sheridan tensed, ignoring Ivanova's remark in order to maintain his attention on the Vorlon. Kosh tilted his headpiece to one side. "The Guardian understands."

Through gritted teeth Sheridan retorted with the obvious. "And where do I find this Guardian?" "Below. He will light your path."

Sheridan looked over his shoulder at the holographic image of the now quiescent planet, its brown and white surface apparently benign. He turned back, his hand still pointing at the image. "The planet that just destroyed one of our ships? You want me to go down to a hostile planet and ask it why?" Kosh's silence was the closest Sheridan got to the affirmative. "And how do I know it won't kill me, too?!"

"All are well. He is the closed circle."

"What the hell does that mean?" Ivanova muttered.

"Commander," Sheridan growled.

"Sorry."

Sheridan squinted at the Vorlon as if trying to see through his encounter suit to verify his veracity. Other than the slight contraction of Kosh's eyepiece, his scrutiny revealed nothing - at least, nothing any more helpful than he'd already been told. Defeated, he looked back at the image on the holoscreen. There was something; a niggling feeling of deja-vu that suggested he'd encountered this situation before, yet he knew he couldn't have. He tried to place the sensation but the adrenaline rush of battle still burned too brightly to allow access to more than the most recent events. Abandoning the effort, he shook his head.

"Down there?" he resignedly muttered at last.

The Vorlon slightly inclined his headpiece.

"Can you guarantee the Guardian or whoever it is won't blow me out of the sky?"

This time, Kosh remained still.

"Captain." The warning in Ivanova's tone was unmistakable.

"But I'll get answers?"

"The Guardian understands."

That was about as close to a straight answer as Sheridan could ever hope for, considering his interlocutor. "Assuming I survive," he muttered. Another long look at the screen and then, "Haven't got a lot of choice, have I?"

"There are always choices. Choose wisely." With that, the Vorlon turned and left the command deck.

"Guess I have my answer."

Hands on hips, Ivanova stood before him. "You're not seriously considering going down there, are you?"

"If you've got a better suggestion I'm listening." Susan's mouth worked silently as she struggled for a response and Sheridan over-rode her. "Has Kosh let us down yet?"

"They fired at us!"

Sheridan persisted. "Has Kosh ever failed to deliver on his promises?"

"That's not the point!"

Sheridan continued to glare at her and, eventually, Ivanova conceded defeat. "No."

"He said I'd get answers and right now that's what we need. Now, if you want to come along ."

"I'll meet you in the shuttle bay in 15 minutes."

Sheridan followed her off the command deck, leaving her to prepare herself while he called on Garibaldi.

"You saw?"

"Yep, and you've got to go down there."

"Kosh already told me that. You found something, didn't you?"

"More like remembered. It's a bit hazy."

"Yeah, I know. Like trying to nail jello to the ceiling." He tapped his temple. "There's been something biting at me ever since the Telos vanished."

"Sinclair's too important to everything for Kosh to let him be killed. I can't remember exactly what it was, but I remember he vanished in the other world as well, it was just a bit more organized. I think that it happened now may have surprised Kosh as much as it did us, but it had to happen."

"You noticed how after a few minutes dealing with the Vorlon we all start sounding like him?"

"Yeah, well as long as I don't have to get into his dress sense. Padded shoulders don't suit me." Sheridan tossed Garibaldi a look and headed for the door. "Susan's coming with me, which means if anything goes wrong, you're next in line. You've got the virus in case any more of Neroon's fleet turn up, you know the tactics for the capital ships, and you need to follow up that lead Delenn gave us."

"Gotcha. Any idea?"

"Not the faintest, but she thought it was worth sending and right now she's in enough danger that nothing but the most vital information would be worth risking her neck over, so if I'm not back in six hours, go check it out."

"What about you?"

"If you haven't heard from me, there's nothing worth collecting, so get out of here. We need to win this one and we can't do it if we let the loss of any one person hold us back. That includes me. Do what you have to do."

Garibaldi grimaced but nodded. "Will do." As Sheridan headed towards the door another thought occurred to him. "Hey, Captain."

Sheridan paused and turned back. "Yeah?"

"You think we actually got Neroon?"

He sagged. "I'd like to think so. I'd like to think it was that easy." Garibaldi raised his eyebrows at the term but Sheridan shrugged it off. "Relatively speaking. Hell, maybe it was and I'm just being a pessimist." He leaned on the back of a nearby chair, shoulders hunched as he gazed at the floor, gathering his thoughts. When at last he raised his head he was frowning. "Every trick he pulled, everything he did, and we finally nailed him with a case of the flu?"

"Vorlon enhanced."

"Whatever. I just don't feel like we've seen the end of this one. Him, one of his cohorts. It just can't be that easy." He shook his head. "I'd better get down to the docking bay or Ivanova'll have my hide. See you on the flip side."

"Will do. And while you're gone I'll keep monitoring traffic, see if I can pick up anything that tells us whether Neroon was in that ship or not."

"Do that, and liaise with the others. If anyone needs any help." his voice dropped, ".if there's anyone left from the Churchill."

"Don't worry, I'll deal with it. Go find out what happened to Captain Sinclair."

*****

Ivanova was already strapped into the co-pilot's seat of the shuttle when Sheridan arrived. With a final 'good luck' from Marcus, he maneuvered the shuttle out of the hanger and arrowed towards the planet.

"I've been analyzing the records from when Sinclair vanished. The beam came out of that big fissure," Ivanova said, pointing at the images on the console.

Sheridan glanced at the image and grunted. Indicating the soft glow emanating from the opening, he observed, "I guess that's what Kosh meant about lighting the way. Not leaving much doubt about our destination, are they?"

"Nope. The scans show no sign of life anywhere else on the planet's surface, so I guess we're going spelunking."

Sheridan adjusted his angle of decent appropriately. "Any idea how deep it is?"

"It's hard to fathom. At least 5 miles, but there's a lot of interference and we don't know the source is right at the bottom, so I suggest after the first three and a half you might want to slow down a bit. Wouldn't want to end up as paint on the walls."

"Thanks for the advice. You do know this is the first time I've flown this shuttle, right?"

"That's a helluva thing to tell me now."

Sheridan shrugged. "Just thought I'd get my excuses up front."

Ivanova merely snorted and continued to review the files that Marcus had uploaded before Sheridan arrived. The Captain grinned and concentrated on his task. Even if their relationship was slowly imploding, Ivanova was an excellent XO who knew her commander well enough to know when he was joking. While it was true he'd never flown the shuttle, the Minbari technology that governed the controls was intuitive and followed the same principles whether you were in a one-man fighter or a capital ship, and he had experience with both of those. As they entered the fissure he turned on the external lights while she dutifully recorded their advance.

"One mile, nothing so far."

He nodded and continued the descent.

"Two miles, nothing. wait a minute. There's something registering on the scanner."

"Incoming or stationary?"

"Stationary. Slow down a bit."

He throttled back, glancing every now and then at the scanner read out before peering into the dim recesses beyond the reach of the shuttle's landing lights, hoping to spot whatever it was Ivanova had detected. "Well, well," he said at last, "I think we've found the welcome mat."

Ivanova looked up to see blinking red and yellow lights that led into a alcove in the wall of the fissure. Sheridan skillfully piloted the shuttle into the cave, setting it down on the landing pad he found within. "Is there a breathable atmosphere?"

"Not as such, no. I'm detecting a lot of methane, nitrogen and carbon dioxide. I'll get the breathers."

"Do we need suits?"

She shook her head. "Temperature's a little warm but nothing exceptional. It 'll feel like being on a Mediterranean beach in July." She handed over the breather, glancing at the console as she settled the facemask and activated the communications system. "No sign of weaponry of any kind or life, for that matter. If I didn't know better I'd say this planet was dead."

He nodded and took the breather, tightening the straps until it sealed. "Could have been an automated system, but Kosh said the Guardian is here somewhere, so unless there's another parking space further down I guess this is it." He indicated that Ivanova was to open the hatch and stepped outside. After a few seconds he motioned for her to follow him and led the way into the cave system.

******

"Do you have any idea where you're going?" Susan asked as Sheridan paused at another intersection, considered his options and selected his path.

"Not really, but the dust on the floor seems a bit thicker the other way, so I guess this route is more used." They came to another divide offering three alternatives. Again he hesitated, checked out the options and then picked one.

"Dust looked the same to me," she muttered.

"Lighting was better."

She stopped. "Hey, Sherlock Holmes, we've got limited amounts of oxygen, you know. Want to try something a bit more scientific?"

"I think it's a little late to stop and ask for directions. We passed the last gas station a light year ago." Sheridan had moved on around the corner but the communicator units built into the masks allowed her to hear his next comment even though it was more breathed than said. "I'll be damned."

She hurried to catch up. "What? What did you. Holy shit!"

The cave had opened out to reveal a bridge over a well-lit chasm. Above and below the bridge the yawning shaft disappeared to a point well beyond the reach of human eyes. A giant, lozenge-shaped machine almost the size of the Whitestar itself trundled up the wall of the shaft, occasional bursts of lightning streaking from its points to contact with receptors that lay along the track. Hot wind rushed upwards from the plunging depths causing Sheridan to brace himself as he peered over the edge of the barrierless bridge.

"What are you, nuts?" Susan hissed. "Come away from there!"

John barely noticed his exec's warning. "This is amazing. I've never seen anything like it. Whoever built this was centuries… hell, millennia ahead of us in technology. How does a race like that vanish?"

"Maybe they didn't. Maybe they're waiting on the other side of the bridge. On the other hand, maybe they all decided to enjoy the view and fell off."

Still in awe, Sheridan edged along the bridge, trying to get a better view of the tracks guiding the lightning conductor. "What IS that thing?" he muttered. "You know, we have to come back here with proper mapping devices. The engineering feat alone is worth the visit of a hundred archaeologists and the technology...!"

"Yeah, I got it. Listen, can we get off this thing? I'm finding a real need to use a bathroom."

"Tell me about it." Trying to suppress his explorer's enthusiasm, but with little success, he was about to indulge in one more comment on the spectacular engineering and technological feat represented by their surroundings when something at the other end of the bridge caught his eye. Peering more closely, he saw it was human shaped and beckoning to them. He tilted his head in that direction. "Looks like we've found one of the locals."

Ivanova followed his lead and spotted the humanoid. Seeing that he'd been noticed, the hunched figure bowed and then scurried away. "Was that a man or a giant mouse?"

"Guess we're about to find out. Come on."

With Ivanova determinedly sticking to the exact centre of the bridge they walked side by side until they got to yet another divide, but this time there was no question which route they had to take. Their new companion, if you could call the being they were following 'company', was ensuring they did.

"This way, this way. You must hurry. Zathras has not much time." The strange creature paused, cocked its hairy head to one side, clicked its tongue a few times and then added. "Zathras has lots of time, but Zathras has no time at all. Hurry!"

As he loped ahead of them Sheridan and Ivanova exchanged glances. Susan thumbed towards the bowed human who in looks and character resembled nothing so much as an oversized shrew. Sheridan raised his open hands in defeat to her unasked question and then shrugged and followed the little man.

"Who's Zathras?" Ivanova asked in a low tone designed for Sheridan's ears only.

"Zathras here. Zathras, Zathras, Zathras, Zathras, Zathras, Zathras, Zathras and Zathras, all here, but busy, very busy. Zathras." a shaking of the head and the clicking noise marked the change in tone. "Zathras gone, now. Never see Zathras again. Nine now eight, but enough. Zathras just have to work even harder. No rest for poor Zathras, but Zathras used to being used. He almost grown to like it. Hurry. Hurry!"

"Excuse me," Ivanova called, "But are you Zathras?"

"Yes, yes. I tell you. I tell you before."

"But you said Zathras had gone." Susan's head was spinning.

The creature chuckled, shaking his head. "Zathras gone. Yes, but Zathras, Zathras, Zathras, Zathras, Zathras, Zathras, Zathras and Zathras, all here. He paused and took in the expressions of his guests. A little more clicking and he seemed to come to a decision. "Nine brothers, all Zathras but differences in name. You listen." Sheridan and Ivanova nodded attentively as Zathras recited his brothers' names without any discernible difference in pronunciation. If he hadn't seemed so earnest they would have sworn this was some kind of joke. Zathras peered up at them. "You no hear? Zathras try again."

"ZATHRAS!"

The voice boomed in the corridor but the source could not be identified. Sheridan and Ivanova quickly shot glances around the area, seeking the PA system that they assumed had channelled the voice to their location, but there was no evidence of one. Zathras, on the other hand, instantly changed his demeanour. "Come, come, we must hurry. Must not keep him waiting." He trotted away, his swaying gait causing the animal tails attached to his costume to swing back and forth. Long sweeps of his arm urged the humans forward. "Hurry, hurry!"

With a shrug the humans followed.

At the end of the next corridor they entered a vast room. Opposite the entrance a pulsating wheel radiated spokes of light from a humanoid positioned at the centre. Sheridan's first thought was that the person was trapped in some way, but as he stepped forward Zathras flung out an arm to stop him.

"Watch," the alien urged.

A glow appeared in the air before the party, quickly resolving itself into humanoid shape to reveal a moving simulacrum of the figure in the machine.

"So, you were in the ships that attacked this planet."

Sheridan stiffened. "With all due respect, we didn't attack you. One of our ships lost control in the fire-fight and you fired on us."

"Details, details. I did not fire on you, the machine did. I am but the Guardian. And take off those masks. I like to see who I am talking to."

"We need these masks to breathe," Ivanova offered.

"Do you think I am dead? I breathe here well enough. Remove the masks, the air is clear."

Sheridan slipped his mask up and took a short breath, ready to drop the mask instantly if the air proved foul. When he found it was acceptable he nodded to Ivanova. "It's a bit musty, but it's fit to breathe."

"Musty, hmm?" The alien waved his hands and a shimmering line appeared in the middle of the room, splitting to edge towards the walls on either side of the humans. Instantly, the air was refreshed.

Without the mask impeding his sight Sheridan was able to take a better look at the alien. "You're Minbari?"

"Of course, did you think Zathras was the Guardian?" The Minbari seemed offended.

"We didn't know what to think, but after all these years I'd have thought there'd be news if a Minbari was put in charge of this machine."

"And I'm sure there would be, if the High Command knew." The Minbari bowed. "I am Draal. I was summoned to this place when the previous Guardian was dying. He taught me how to live within the machine, experience some of its many wonders, and then he passed beyond. I have been here ever since."

"How did the Guardian come to choose you?"

"Why should he not? Surely you have enough experience with us to realize that not all Minbari are akin to Neroon? Oh yes," he said, seeing the shock on their faces, "Through the eyes of the Great Machine, I have watched you. Your rebellion is expanding, Captain Sheridan. It has expanded farther than you realize. Soon, you will be free to walk the stars as giants, free of the dishonorable yoke my people foolishly imposed on yours. And my people will be free of it as well." Turning to address Susan, Drall continued, "And you, Commander Ivanova, you too have proved an able warrior, worthy of the finest in the caste."

"How do you know our names?" Ivanova asked warily.

"The machine knows all, tells some and reveals nothing to those who do not come in peace. Have you come in peace, Captain?"

"I've come because Kosh told me I would get answers here."

"And so you shall, if you are worthy. You have but to step into the heart of the machine and ask your questions. It will tell you all you need to know if your intentions are pure. Of course, should you enter the machine with the intent to use the information it reveals in ways of which the machine does not approve, I assure you, you will not survive the experience."

"How are we supposed to know what the machine approves of?" Ivanova asked.

"You don't. Exciting, isn't it?"

"That kind of excitement I can live without. I've had a bellyful recently."

Sheridan, who had been eyeing Draal while Ivanova took over the conversation, decided to butt in. "You didn't answer the question."

Draal considered for a moment. "Why did the machine choose me?"

"Exactly."

"When I was on Minbar I was a Sech. I even trained Delenn." He watched Sheridan's expression. "Oh yes, Captain, I know Delenn of Mir very well, but that is neither here nor there. I was tired of the war and the wanton destruction of a weaker people. You need not bristle so, Captain, Commander. Even the most arrogant human would acknowledge that technologically the Minbari are a thousand years ahead of your species. You had as much chance as someone with a spear has against cannon. There was no shame in your defeat for you. For us, there was a great deal of shame, except the unenlightened fools conducting the war didn't seem to realise that. I taught ethics to a people once steeped in honour and duty. How could I carry on in my chosen task when all around me those I taught were ordered to flout the most basic tenets of any so-called civilized society in the name of an empty victory? And so I decided to go to the sea. I bid my farewells, booked passage with one of the explorer ships and when I felt I had gone far enough with them I entered my personal flyer and left. I had no aim in mind, no particular direction. I was going to travel on and on until my reserves were exhausted and then I was intending to fly into the nearest sun. What a glorious way to go to the sea. To rejoin with a star!" Rather than frightened, Draal sounded exhilarated by the concept. "But then, just as I began the next stage of my journey, I was called. I had been dropped not far from this planet and I knew I had to find the alien who had called me to him. I followed the path he showed me and here I am."

Sheridan nodded and then cocked his head on one side. "Lucky, but you still haven't answered the question. I asked why, not what."

"I can see why you have been so successful, Captain. Your reputation for tenacity is well deserved. Very well then, because I believe in the first principle of sentient life."

"Which is?" Ivanova asked.

Before Draal could accuse his XO of sleeping through her classes, Sheridan provided the answer. "To be willing to die for the sake of another."

"Exactly. The capacity for self-sacrifice, which has recently been forgotten by my people. This I have always believed in. This, I believe, is why the alien called to me." He turned and indicated the array. "You do not own or control the machine, the machine allows you to enter its realm, but you must show it respect or you will lose yourself completely. You must be prepared and even willing to die for what you believe in or to preserve the life of another. If you are not prepared to pay the ultimate price for your choices, you are not worthy to enter the machine." He paused, and Sheridan noticed he was suddenly the centre of attention. "Are you worthy?"

There was a long pause as everyone waited for Sheridan's reply.

"Captain, if you want me to go in instead." Ivanova offered.

He shook his head. "No. This is my responsibility. If anyone's going to do this, it has to be me." He undid his jacket and handed it to Susan. "Look, you know what to do if anything goes wrong, and you've got Garibaldi as your XO. He knows what he's doing. Trust him." He paused, eyeing the machine, and then he turned back. "Look.about us. You know I never meant to hurt you. I wish I could figure out a way to make everyone happy, but I can't. I wish I could be who you want me to be but I can't." He put his hands on her waist. "You mean more to me than you'll ever know, and I won't lie to you. I don't want to lose you as a friend, and you're the best damned XO any Captain has ever had. I don't know what's going to happen." a derisive snort, ".assuming I get off this planet. If you want a transfer I'll understand, though I'd be sorry to lose you. Perhaps we should never have started this, but I don't regret one minute of it. My only regret is that I've hurt you. Can you forgive me?"

Ivanova swallowed past the lump in her throat and swatted his shoulder. "We can talk about this later. You're coming out of there," she insisted.

"Susan."

She shook her head, her eyes sparkling with unshed tears. "I know, I know. Yes, all right, I forgive you, 'though I can't say I understand it. But I'll tell you one thing, if you don't come out of there I'm gonna kick your ass."

He chuckled and pulled her to him. "Now there's a reason to hang around," he said, planting a kiss in her hair. He released her, holding her eyes for a few more seconds before turning back to Draal. "OK, let's do this thing."

"Excellent. Just step into the machine and I'll hook you up."

Sheridan raised an eyebrow. "It's gonna be a little tight, don't you think?"

Draal turned to see his physical body still in situ. "Oops. Your pardon, Captain." The image vanished and the real Draal opened his eyes. "It will not take me but a minute to untangle myself." He caught sight of his shoulder as he shrugged away from the cables. "Must remember to dust myself occasionally." Brushing the dust off his shoulders, the old Minbari then adjusted his coat before stepping away from the machine and indicating Sheridan to take his place.

Taking a deep breath, the Captain stepped forward. "What do I do?"

"Just climb inside, that's it. You need not worry about my absence, I've prepared the machine and it will run quite efficiently without me for several hours. Comfortable? Now I'll make the final connections." A little more fiddling and Sheridan felt a slight tightness across his shoulders. He shrugged to loosen them but the tightness remained. "It is all right, Captain. The machine is adjusting itself to you. Just relax and let it work."

Sheridan nodded and concentrated on relaxing his muscles and banishing his fears. His Minbari training came in handy as he felt the pressure rise and then snap, washing through him.

"That's it, Captain, very good. The machine has accepted you."

"Glad to hear it. What now?"

"Concentrate on your questions, Captain. Whatever you wish to know you may ask and the machine will show you. You have only to follow the path."

In his mind's eye Sheridan saw a star field opening up all around him. He took a sharp breath, convinced for an instant that he was in the vacuum of space. Calming, he found that there was still air in his lungs. Berating himself for his moment of near panic, he sternly reined in his misgivings and concentrated on his questions. First and foremost, he wanted to know what happened to Sinclair. He looked around, searching for the path. Just as he was about to complain there was nothing to see he spotted a blue ribbon of light. He headed towards it, concentrating on his question. The ribbon turned into an azure tunnel along which he was drawn. Faster and faster, John looped, turned and dove until he began to feel ill, yet the path still drew him on. Just as he thought the pace could increase no more, he burst back into the open and there, before him, was the Telos. Battle scarred but intact, the warship seemed to drift aimlessly in the middle of nowhere.

Sounding faint and far away, John heard his own voice. "I've found the Telos, but I don't know where I am. How do I find out?"

"Go inside the ship. You are only energy and thought; you can pass through the bulkheads. Go in, Captain, and find your answers."

With a mental shrug Sheridan headed towards the ship and braced himself. He was through the bulkhead as though it didn't exist and quickly found himself in command and control.

"Then try stellar cartography." Sinclair was clearly frustrated and the crew jumped to follow his commands.

"This is going to take forever," Sheridan muttered. "Isn't there an abbreviated version of the story?"

"Ask, Captain. The machine is learning as you use it and it will tell you what you want if you ask the right questions."

Specifics. His questions had been too general and the machine needed something more specific. Mentally rephrasing his question he saw the image shimmer and then reassert itself. He was looking at a readout from Stellar Cartography. His location, he realized, was a day's journey from Minbari space. His temporal position.

He blinked and looked again.

"That's impossible," he muttered, but even as he did so he realized he'd known this all along. Kosh's preview reasserted itself in his mind and without realizing he gave the machine another instruction. Instantly he was swept away from the Telos and taken to Minbar. He wasn't sure how much time had passed except it had to be at least several months. A crystal table showed plans for a space station whose heart was the Telos. Several Minbari were poring over the plans, pointing out refinements and discussing the status of the construction. As he listened Sheridan realized one of the voices was familiar. He stared, wondering if this was a trick or coincidence. No, there was no question. Jeffrey Sinclair was there and, moreover, a thousand years ago he was.he was a Minbari. He was Valen.

Sheridan staggered within the confines of the machine, nearly disconnecting himself as the full import struck him. His lessons while under Minbari control had dinned into him the near deification of Valen. Astounded, his mind nearly froze up as he realized he had spent time working, drinking and joking with the greatest prophet of the Minbari people.

"Captain?" Susan stepped forward when she saw him begin to sway, his face paling. As he stumbled she reached out. "John? John, are you all right? John!"

Draal stopped her. "He will be all right, Commander. Give him time. He has learned something that has come as a shock, but he is in no danger."

Ivanova looked mutinous and was about to force her way past the Guardian when Sheridan spoke.

"It's all right, Susan. I'm.I'm okay. Captain Sinclair and his crew survived. I've found them but.it's just a bit. unexpected." He was not looking at her so much as through her and Susan realised he was still looking at whatever it was the machine was putting into his mind. "Kosh was right, they're not anywhere we'd ever find them. They're in the past. A thousand years.and Jeffrey." He still couldn't get his mind around it. He shook his head. "You're not gonna believe this."

"Quit with the stalling. What's happened to him?"

"He's Valen!"

"You what?!"

"He's changed, I don't know how. He's a Minbari and he's Valen."

"He can't be!"

"Kosh's preview, Susan. Think back to Kosh's preview."

While Ivanova wracked her brains to remember what Kosh had shown them so long ago, Sheridan allowed himself to explore and learn all he could about the first Shadow War. Not that there was anything he wasn't either already applying or had dismissed in favour of more technologically advanced solutions, but to see it happening; to see Valen rallying the Minbari, resolving their differences to create one world, one people with a common goal. He found himself thinking how much Delenn would appreciate being able to see all this and, in answer to the brief image of her that flashed through his thoughts, the machine responded. While his location in space relative to the planet seemed to remain the same, time moved forward; a fast-paced kaleidoscope of shifting patterns against the static backdrop of the ancient building.and there she was.

"What the...?"

***

Turhan bowed to Delenn, who returned the gesture in kind. "Our preparations are almost complete. The others are pleased at the progress we have made."

Delenn smiled. "As am I. All of our people have worked very hard to make this possible.to make so many things possible. John.Captain Sheridan will have that fighting chance he has sought now."

"Indeed. And I would not worry about the opinions of the Warrior Caste. If we do not do this, the cost will be higher than any of us can imagine. They will come around. in time." Delenn nodded half-heartedly. He bent his head slightly. "And the other.?" He left the rest of the thought unverbalized.

Delenn sighed, her expression both wistful and a little afraid. "I do not think now is the time. If we are to do this, it has to be for the right reasons."

"Are you saying it is not?"

"There are the reasons we have, which are necessary. There are the reasons others who do not understand will assume. I cannot put our cause or Captain Sheridan into that position."

"I have known you since you were a child, Delenn, and you have never been very skilled at covering your feelings. We both know the truth." His smile was avuncular.

Turning her head she whispered, "I cannot."

The old Sech refused to let her hide. Stepping around her he gently tilted her head up. She was crying.

"The heart does not recognize borders, Delenn. I have been studying him and what I have found leads me to believe he is a good man."

"Yet still it cannot be!"

"Now as to that, you have the power within your hands. You have but to use it."

She looked up, her eyes still shining. "I know. But we have too much to lose."

He chuckled. "Always Delenn. And so much to win. You truly think the universe is so capricious?"

"I no longer know what I think."

"Then I suggest you take some time to consider. Our lives in this realm are but a spark, yet even that brief span can become an eternity of sorrow if we do not make the right choices. You have always been one of my best pupils, forever sacrificing yourself for the good of others. Is there no room in your heart for Delenn?"

"Perhaps. Perhaps one day."

"We live in dangerous times," he reminded her. "Do not throw away your chance of happiness."

"I must do what is best for all, not just myself. If I choose the right path, the universe will surely follow." She stood up straighter, the conversation topic clearly at an end. "Is the Fi Lann ready to depart?"

"They await only you."

"Then they should wait no longer. The journey is perilous."

***

The scene shifted so that Sheridan was in space once more. He watched the Fi Lann powering its way out of planetary orbit, guided by the steady hand of her Captain who sat in the command chair. Within the confines of the machine, he nodded to himself, pleased to see the mission had apparently been a success, that Delenn was safely on her way home. He had a wealth of questions he wanted to ask her, and her words had given him courage. He couldn't be certain he'd been the subject of conversation, but the way she stumbled over his name was, by Minbari standards, significant. Perhaps they could make things work after all. Just as he was about to relinquish his position in the machine he noticed the atmosphere changing on the command deck. The Captain, a female Minbari of the Religious Caste by the name of Josenn, was calmly giving orders that the crew jumped to obey. Sheridan could see the tension mounting and Jack Maynard yelling.

***

"Where did they come from?!"

"Clearly they were monitoring us from hyperspace and waited until we were clear of the planetary scanners before making their appearance," Josenn calmly replied, turning to the distraught human as her crew scurried about. "I think it best if you report to your life pod. You have no function here."

"Like hell I don't," Jack growled in reply. "Friend, you've got me for the duration!"

Even as alarm klaxons began sounding, Josenn canted her head and managed a smile at her companion.

"Friend. I like the sound of that. Pity we could not have spoken such words at the beginning rather than the end."

***

"What's happening? I need to know what's happening!" Sheridan wasn't sure if he said that aloud or merely shouted it in his mind, but the image of the command deck was replaced by that of the outside of the Fi Lann. Its massive shape was turning about and Sheridan sought the reason.

"NO!"

A Shadow enhanced Battle Cruiser bore down on the Religious Caste ship, front guns pounding mercilessly into the cruiser.

"They haven't got the virus! Send out your fighters! Put a screen between you and get away! Open a jump point before it's too late!"

A beam tore at the Fi Lann, destroying her jump engines. Sheridan groaned as he saw the stricken vessel return fire to no avail. "Delenn...oh my God...Delenn, get to a pod."

***

Her outer robes removed, she knelt in a soft glow, her surroundings indistinct. "I am Grey," she softly breathed. "I stand between the Darkness and the Light; between the Candle and the Star. We are Grey. We." swallowing, her words wavered to a halt. Her body shuddered and she seemed to collapse in on herself, her weight supported on her hands as she tilted forward. When she raised her eyes, the anguish on her face was palpable. "Oh John! There is so much I want to say, but our enemies exact a terrible vengeance. I can never tell you what is in my heart. Forgive me, my love. Perhaps one day we can be together, if not in this world, then in the place where no shadows fall. Until then I pray you forgive me for the path I choose."

***

"If you want to do something for me, stop soul searching and get into an escape pod!" John shouted, nearly tearing free of the machine in his agitation. She couldn't hear, and he lost her once more as his perspective shifted away from Delenn and back to the battle now raging outside her ship. The Shadow enhanced cruiser changed its attack vector, crossing the Fi Lann' s 'T'. Once in position it opened up on the main engines, slicing the cruiser across the side and then powering through the aft engines. Explosions rocked the ship tilting it crazily. Escape pods began to emerge only to be destroyed as the Fi Lann entered her death throes, the explosion of the main engines engulfing all.

Hatred and anger, searing white-hot fury and the desire for revenge seethed through Sheridan. He forced his way into the Shadow cruiser, flying through bulkheads until he reached the command centre. There, in the middle of the room, stood a warrior caste Minbari. He was nodding, clearly satisfied with his work. As he turned Sheridan strained to reach him. It was Neroon.

"We've done what we came for."

"Yes, Alyt. What course should I set?"

"Z'ha'dum. And monitor traffic. I want to know how Captain Sheridan reacts when he learns that his traitorous whore is dead."

"Yes, Alyt."

***

Revenge. Left numb to everything else, it was all he could focus on. It burned his mind, his heart, his gut. Of their own volition, his hands moved to tear the renegade Warrior limb from limb. The machine pulsed around him and he reached out to hurl its power across the gulf of space and blast the Shadow ship.

"No! You mustn't!" Draal yelled, rushing forward to stop him, but it was too late. The distraught Captain tapped into the machine and began the process, in direct violation of the machine's programmed directives. If this had been a matter of defending the planet or preserving innocent life perhaps the machine would not have reacted so violently, but wanton killing in the name of revenge was unacceptable. It rebelled at the horror it now found within, the human whose heart had turned dark. The more he sought to destroy, the more it struggled to evict him from its system. There was no subtlety here, no gentle separation of power and mind. The machine ripped itself away from the menace within, sparks generating a blinding firestorm around the connection between man and machine. Explosions deep in the planet rocked the earth sending Ivanova tumbling while Draal fought to reach the Captain.

"Captain, stop! It will destroy you before it will let you abuse its power!"

But Sheridan no longer heard. All he could see was the contemptuous sneer on Neroon's face, framed by floating debris and the lifeless bodies of the Fi Lann's crew. He didn't need the Great Machine anymore. The image was etched in his mind, agonisingly sharp and clear. All he could feel was the pain of the machine's sudden separation, fueling his own pain and anger. Delenn's death sent an ache through his bones, but to see Neroon take pleasure in it.

With a chilling, angry scream he redoubled his efforts, trying to bend the machine to his will and re-connect through brute force, but the device's ancient technology rejected him, flinging him violently across the room. With a hollow thud, Sheridan careened into the chamber wall and slid to the floor, unconscious, his shirt melted onto his arms, shoulders and back, and blood oozing from his nostril. Smoke drifted lazily from the burns, the slowly calming light show from the machine illuminating it. Ivanova crawled towards him only to be stopped by a flash of lightning that struck the floor in front of her.

"It won't let me get to him!" she yelled over the roar.

"It perceives him as a threat!" Draal responded. "He is no longer safe here. I will try to calm the machine and distract it. You must get him back to your shuttle and away from this planet, far away."

"What did he see?!"

Draal, who had never been completely divorced from the machine since the day he first joined it, lowered his head. "I fear he saw the destruction of the Fi Lann."

"But that's Delenn's ship."

He turned to her, the agony in his eyes apparent. "So it is." Setting his grief aside with effort he turned back to the machine, drew a deep breath and concentrated on calming the defensive systems. Susan felt, rather than saw, the machine settling. Distant booms of giant circuits exploding stilled, the ground shake slowed and stopped and Draal gingerly moved forward to retake his position. Once he was inside he closed his eyes. For a few seconds nothing happened, then a glow marked the appearance of the holographic manifestation of his body.

"Get him," he urged, "quickly! The machine will not attack for now."

Susan edged forward towards the stricken man. "Captain? John, can you hear me?"

"He's unconscious, you will have to deal with that once you get him back on the ship," Draal said impatiently.

"And how the hell am I supposed to get him there? Carry him? You may be strong enough to lift him, but I know I'm not, and certainly not all the way back to the landing pad."

Chagrined, Draal nodded. "Zathras! Zathras get in here and bring an anti-gravity unit with you." His voice echoed through the labyrinthine corridors of the complex and shortly Zathras appeared with the unit.

"Over here!" Ivanova called, beckoning to the corner of the room.

Zathras took in the Captain's state and shook his head, his tongue clicking. "Not good, definitely not good. Draal warn but no one listen to Draal. No one listen to poor Zathras, but Zathras used to it. Has even come to like it."

"Never mind that," Draal ordered, impatiently urging Zathras forward. "Help the commander get him back to his ship."

With an ease belied by his small, curved statue, Zathras lifted Sheridan onto the anti-gravity unit and took up a position alongside. As he walked forward the machine floated beside him like an obedient dog. Ivanova turned to Draal. "I'm sorry about this. If I'd been in there."

"You would have had to tell him what you had seen. Be glad you were spared that duty."

"Will the machine be all right?"

"It will. It can repair itself fully provided I am here. Now go."

Susan still had dozens of questions she wanted to ask, but her concern for Sheridan over-rode them. She hurried after Zathras and caught up with him halfway down the corridor.

Barring the occasional click of disapproval that emanated from the alien they proceeded in silence. Ivanova took reassurance from the fact that she could see Sheridan's chest rising and falling. While he was still breathing there wasn't much else she could do for him here on the planet. There wasn't much she could do in the shuttle or back on the ship, but at least then she'd have Franklin's expertise to help her.

Once Sheridan was strapped into a bunk in the back of the shuttle Zathras exited, taking the anti-gravity unit with him. Without a backward glance he exited the landing area and Susan quickly fired up the engines and piloted out of the cave and up towards the planet's surface. As soon as she'd got close enough that the rock formations no longer prevented communications with the ship she contacted them.

"How'd it go?" Garibaldi replied.

"We found out what happened to Sinclair, but we found something else as well. The Captain went nuts and he's now unconscious in the back of the shuttle. Get Franklin ready to meet me in the shuttle bay with a med team."

"Is he gonna be ok?"

"I've no idea. I'll give you the details once we get up there. Ivanova out."

She glanced over her shoulder but all she could see was Sheridan's tousled head. Since she needed to concentrate on getting them both back to the ship she turned back to the controls.

The Captain, in fact, was conscious and had been since just after the shuttle took off. He was aware of the straps that held him down but, for the time being at least, he didn't care. Nothing seemed to matter anymore. All he could see was the Fi Lann exploding over and over, followed by Neroon's satisfied face. His head pounded, a nauseating black hole seemed to have opened in his gut and he strongly suspected his unexpected flying lesson had left him with at least one broken bone. But right now all of that was mere background to the ache that permeated his body; an ache that had nothing to do with his injuries. Being alive no longer felt like a miracle, considering what he'd been through: it was more like a curse.

******

Franklin rushed in the second the atmosphere was restored to the shuttle bay. He and his team whisked Sheridan away to medlab. Garibaldi and Ivanova followed along behind, the former silent as the commander updated him.

"We'll have to wait until he wakes up to find out exactly what happened," Ivanova said as they trailed the physician into medlab.

"He's awake now," Franklin informed them, "has been for some time."

Ivanova rushed to Sheridan's bedside, Garibaldi taking a more sedate approach, hands in his pockets.

"How's he doin' doc?"

The doctor hummed under his breath a moment and prodded his patient gently. "Concussion, a dislocated shoulder and some third degree burns across his shoulders that will need some attention," he finally responded, "But that's all by the by. It's his state of mind that concerns me right now."

Garibaldi looked down at the recumbent Sheridan and saw the man was staring into space, apparently oblivious. "Hey, Captain. You ok?"

Sheridan did not acknowledge the question, his glazed expression devoid of interest.

Ivanova chimed in. "John? Come on, John, it's Susan."

Franklin frowned at the lack of responsiveness. "He may still be suffering from shock. I'm going to have to put him under while I fix that shoulder anyway. Give him a few hours to get his bearings. I'll let you know when he's awake again."

Not entirely convinced, Ivanova and Garibaldi smothered the impulse to overrule the doctor, aware that in Medlab Franklin's orders had to be obeyed. They reluctantly withdrew as Franklin prepared the anaesthetic. He was just about to begin when Sheridan looked at him.

"Just pop it back in."

"That's going to hurt," Franklin protested.

"Do it."

The doctor opened his mouth to remonstrate, but the look in Sheridan's eyes stopped him. The dislocation was easily, if painfully, repaired. As he got into position he heard his patient mutter, "Can't feel anything anymore."

"You'll definitely feel this."

Surprisingly, a mild grunt was the fullest extent of Sheridan's response to having his shoulder put back into place and he remained still, without so much as a wince, as Franklin removed his burned shirt and put regen packs in to heal the damage to his skin and tissue.

"Finished?"

"With your physical injuries?" Sheridan gave him a look and Franklin wilted. "More or less. I'd like you to stay in overnight, just to check that concussion."

"Not this time. I've got work to do." He stood up.

"Now hold on a minute. You took a nasty crack to the head and that shoulder's gonna ache for a while at least. There's nothing you can do right now that can't wait a few hours."

Sheridan turned on him and Franklin found himself stepping back under the glare. "Yes there is." With that, the Captain left Medlab at a march.

Franklin shook his head. As soon as his reluctant patient was out of earshot the doctor activated his comm. screen. "Franklin to Garibaldi."

"What's up doc? Damn, I've been dying to say that ever since I got on board!" Garibaldi grinned and then sobered when he saw Franklin's face. "This isn't a social call, I take it."

"The Captain's gone, against my orders but there was no stopping him. At a guess I'd say he was heading for his quarters since I had to cut his shirt off him."

"I thought you were going to knock him out to reset his shoulder."

"He wouldn't let me."

Garibaldi winced. "Ouch. Not that I haven't done it myself, but usually in the field when I had no choice. OK, I'll find him. Thanks for the heads up."

Garibaldi left his computer running some programmes he'd been working on and headed off in search of Sheridan. He found him, as predicted, in his quarters.

"Doc let you out early, huh?"

"There's a war on," Sheridan simply stated. "I've got better things to do than sit around in there."

Stuffing his hands in his pockets, Garibaldi blew out a sigh and rocked on his feet. "Uh huh. Such as?"

"Hunt down Neroon, for starters."

"Neroon? I thought he'd be well into his new incarnation as a cockroach by now."

"He wasn't on that ship."

"And you know this how?"

"I was in the machine. I saw Sinclair and the Telos, I saw Neroon and I saw." He snapped off, busying himself with his jacket.

"OK, one thing at a time. Where's Sinclair and the Telos?"

"A thousand years in the past. Kosh was right, he's not in the here and now anymore but he's ok. Well, he was when he arrived. He's changed, though."

"In what way?"

"He's Minbari. He's Valen."

Garibaldi, to his credit, smothered his slack-jawed expression after only a second or two. "This is a joke, right?"

"Unless someone has a really sick sense of humor, no. He changed, 'though I don't quite know how, but it was his voice, his face.well his face, bald with a bone. He was Valen." He shrugged. "Guess he got a promotion."

"What about his crew? If I recall my history there's no record of humans living among the Minbari all those years ago."

"No idea, but knowing Sinclair I suspect he found somewhere safe for them. Maybe if we do a search through the old texts we might find a clue."

"OK, I can follow up on that. What's this about Neroon?"

"I saw him. He." Sheridan swallowed, looked down for a second, collecting himself, then raised his head once more and continued. "He said he was heading for Z'Ha'Dum."

"You're kidding!?" And it wasn't only Neroon who was planning a visit. Garibaldi could see the intent in his friend's eyes. "You're not seriously thinking what I think you are, are you?"

"I was planning on cutting him off before he got there."

Garibaldi had noted that twice in their somewhat stilted conversation, Sheridan had hesitated. "What is it you're not telling me?" When he received no immediate response he pushed harder. "Look...play this straight with me. Ivanova was holding something back, too. I'm head of security, I need to know if something's happened that's going to affect us." Sheridan looked up and the sheer pain in his face stopped Garibaldi dead. "Oh hell. Captain, who. It's Delenn, isn't it?"

"I saw Neroon's ship destroy the Fi Lann as it left Minbari space."

"You're sure it was the Fi Lann? Yeah, of course you are, sorry." He shuffled his feet, failing miserably at trying to find something to say that might help. "What about that message she sent us? Do we know what that was about?"

"No."

"Well then let's check it. She knew the risks, Captain. If she's gone the least we can do is make sure she didn't sacrifice herself for nothing."

Sheridan sat down heavily, the full impact of Delenn's loss suddenly hitting him once Garibaldi put it into words. The Security Officer thought he knew the reason for his Captain's dejection, but refrained from addressing it. If Sheridan wanted to talk, he would.

"Do I have your permission to follow up her instructions?" In answer Sheridan merely put his elbows on his knees and rested his head on his hands. "OK, I'll link in when we find something." With that Garibaldi headed for the door.

"I don't understand it."

Garibaldi paused and turned. "What's not to understand? We're all taking chances every day. We took a shot at Neroon and we missed. Sometimes we lose."

"It's not that." Sheridan's voice was muted and it was clear he was struggling to get the words out. "Delenn. We hadn't. it's not like we'd even acknowledged there was anything there. I shouldn't feel like this. But there was a connection, you know?" He looked up, his eyes dark and red lined as he struggled to hold his emotions in check.

"You loved her, that's all there is to it. You don't have to be sleeping with someone to love them. You don't even have to have done anything about it for it to hurt when you lose someone." Again, Sheridan lowered his head and this time Garibaldi took it as a dismissal. "I'll make sure you're not disturbed." He left.

Sheridan wanted to cry -- to let the emotions out -- but there seemed to be too much bottled up. It started as an odd choking sound interspersed with a gasp as he drew in ragged breaths. He thumped his knee with a clenched fist, fighting to hold onto some vestige of control, his other hand white-knuckled. He managed to choke out the order to engage the door lock before surrendering to his grief.

******

He'd regained control, washed and sat down to complete paperwork - a welcome distraction -- when the call came through.

"Captain! Captain you need to get up here, now!"

"Mr Garibaldi," Sheridan acknowledged. "What is it?"

"You're not gonna believe this!"

Intrigued by the excitement in Garibaldi's voice he put down his work, grabbed his jacket and went to put it on. A wince and he was reminded of his recent injuries. For the time being he'd do without the restraining material of a jacket. He stepped out into the corridor and marched up to the command deck. Once he got there he saw a crowd of crewmembers gathered around, staring out of the forward windows.

"What is all this?" he demanded.

The crowd parted and he stepped forward, taking note of the huge grins sported by all. A second later and he saw the reason.

"Oh my god." It was hushed, almost a whisper, but it was enough. Garibaldi went to thump him on the back, then thought better of it. Ivanova wrapped a careful arm around his waist, giving him a quick hug.

"She did it, John! We can win this, now!"

"We could win it before, but with this we're invincible!" That was Marcus, cocky as usual.

Sheridan moved forward taking in the entire view ahead. As far as the eye could see there were White Stars. Each ship lined up, waiting to go, row upon row of fully armoured battle machines.

"This is Alyt Duvall. Is Captain Sheridan there?" The disembodied voice came over the comm. channel.

"Yes, he's here. Give him a minute, though," Garibaldi replied, still grinning. "He needs a few seconds to adjust his perspective."

"Never mind that," Sheridan replied and activated the holographic display, allowing a miniature Alyt in Ranger clothing to appear on the table before him. "How is this possible?"

"We have been busy for some time, Captain. Mutual friends in the Religious Caste have been working behind the scenes since the rebellion began. It was merely a matter of time. We didn't want to inform you until we knew there were enough."

"But under the noses of the Warrior Caste? How?!"

"We of the Religious Caste have long since grown tired of the power of the Warrior Caste. This was never what Valen intended when he formed the Grey Council. For far too long our caste and the Workers have stood by while the Warriors acted against our peoples' best interests. When you began to fight back, their attention was drawn away from us and we were able to work in secret. Religious retreats the Warrior Caste did not know about were converted to shipyards. We recruited from the Worker Caste to help us build and they were very willing. Now we are ready. Every ship is crewed with Rangers. Oh yes, Captain, they, too, have been recalled to duty. The prophecies of Valen have come true at last."

The Captain swallowed. "How many?"

"There are one hundred and twenty two ships in the present fleet, Captain, and all under your command."

"Holy shit!" That was Garibaldi.

"You said it," Ivanova agreed.

Sheridan nodded, but under his breath he muttered "Thank you." No one who heard him could have doubted to whom that gratitude was expressed. He drew a deep breath, squared his shoulders and marched back to the command chair. "Mr Garibaldi, I want to know the location of Neroon's ship. Given what I've seen we may be looking for a fleet of the damned things now." He tapped the arm rest communicator. "Dr Franklin, I want you to send an encoded message to the address I'm sending you. Let them know how to make the virus." He looked over to the holographic Alyt still patiently awaiting orders. "Alyt Duvall, our doctor is sending you the details of a little something he cooked up. I'm sending Commander Ivanova over in a shuttle. She'll explain to you how to use it. Who's your wingman?"

"White Star 3 commanded by Captain Rodriguez." Sheridan raised an eyebrow. "As you freed human crew members we recruited from them as well. While we are all prepared to fight and die, there is no substitute for combat experience. Your people have that."

"How come I never knew about this?"

"Double that for me," Garibaldi muttered, wondering what else had been going on of which he was unaware.

"We wished to keep it a secret until we knew we had sufficient strength to support you. Not even their officers knew what had happened to them. In many cases it was assumed they had been captured, killed or even deserted to the other side."

"So we might not have lost as many as we thought," mused Ivanova. It was a heartening thought.

"Even so, I'm surprised you managed to keep this information from Mr Garibaldi."

"Be assured, Captain, our secrecy is our strength and is used solely in your support."

Sheridan shifted uncomfortably. He didn't like the idea that things had been going on behind his back, no matter how good the end results. "All right, if you get as many of your science officers or XO's to come to your ship as can be reasonably fitted into the conference room, Commander Ivanova can brief them on tactics. Mr Garibaldi will go to White Star 3 and do the same there. I don't want this stuff on the communications channels. You may be the most secure fleet of ships I've ever met, but I still don't trust it. Each of those who've been briefed can brief the other crews in person until the whole fleet is up to speed." He turned to Garibaldi. "Did you start a search for Neroon?"

Garibaldi nodded. "The programme's running even as we speak. It's got a few proposed locations but nothing above a 25% certainty last time I checked."

"Did you factor in the Fi Lann's encounter?"

"I did. That's what's throwing it off. If he was anywhere near us at the last fight he can't have been even close to Minbari space to attack the Fi Lann, so obviously he sent someone else to attack us." Sheridan was thinking, his finger tapping his chin. "There is one other possibility."

"What's that?"

"He's using Shadow tech. Shadow ships make jump points wherever and whenever they need them and they seem to ride different beacons from ours. It's a guess, but I think they know shortcuts through hyperspace we can only dream of."

"Now that would change the programme parameters in ways I can't even imagine. There's no way I can tell you where he might turn up next. It would explain the problems we've had, though." He pursed his lips, mulling over the problem. Finally he shook his head. "We're talking options to the power of N. Where d'you start?"

"Download everything you have about him right back to birth. If we're gonna beat him we have to think like him, and to do that we have to know him better than we know ourselves."

Ivanova shuddered. "Rather you than me. Just seeing the effects of his thought processes are enough as far as I'm concerned. I'd hate to get inside his head."

"Well, we've got no choice. Mr Garibaldi, before you leave for White Star 3 get the computer going on it. Alyt Duvall, have you received the information yet?"

"Yes, Captain. My science officer is working on it. We look forward to welcoming the commander aboard."

"She's on her way. Sheridan out." He turned to Garibaldi and Ivanova. "You know what to do?" Nods greeted his query. "Then get going. I'll take a look at Neroon's biography while you're gone. With any luck it'll give us what we need."

"Understood. See you on the flip side." Ivanova turned and strode out.

"Shouldn't take long to get you what you want."

"Every detail, Mr Garibaldi. I expect to see what side of the bed he sleeps on and what his worst enemy called him when he was 10, you understand me?"

Garibaldi was already heading out the door. "Loud and clear."

Sheridan sat back in the command chair, called up the holographic display to show the entire fleet and grunted his satisfaction. As her parting gift, Delenn had given him the freedom to act for himself without having to worry. If they couldn't win it with all these well-crewed ships and the virus, they deserved to be slaves.

He tapped the communication button. "Dr Franklin?"

"Franklin here."

"We've got rather a large fleet that needs to be trained on the virus and tactics. Did you understand what Commander Ivanova was doing in the last fight?"

"I couldn't do it myself, if that's what you want, but I could easily explain it to a competent weapons officer."

"In that case I'm going to contact White Star 60 and get them to send over a shuttle to pick you up."

"Understood."

He tapped off the link. That only left Marcus, and he needed a competent leader. Not that Sheridan wanted to die, but the job had to be done and if it cost his life to do it, so be it. Delenn's death had taken all his reserves. He had only one aim now: to get his revenge on those who had killed her. Once that was done he didn't care if they centre-punched him to a landing strip. The pain, the tears, all of it had been transmuted into one of two things: the desire for revenge and a vast, cold emptiness. There was nothing else. He gazed at the fleet, his eyes unfocussed until he got the message he was waiting for.

"The doctor has just left, Captain."

Sheridan acknowledged the report and stood up. "I'm going to see what the computer has for us. Marcus, you have the bridge."

Marcus calmly replaced the Captain in the command chair and called out an order in Minbari. Sheridan smiled. He was doing a routine weapons and defences check, just in case something came up. It was good to know the ship was prepared.

When he reached Garibaldi's office he found the computer screen flickering as information was updated. He already knew where he was going. The trick would be to find something in the data that could explain the sudden need for urgency. He began by scrolling through the data, but that process was too slow. A search for Z'ha'dum would get him what he wanted, but he knew Garibaldi would find it later and realise he'd been set up. He pulled up all references to allies and then searched for intercepted communications.

"Not enough," he muttered. Everyone knew about the interception that cited Z'ha'dum, but that in itself wasn't enough to explain a sudden decision to go there. "I wonder...?" Turning to the communications scanning equipment, he set it to scan under the frequencies Neroon had used in the past and left it running while he continued to search for the key he needed in the datafiles. Checking the chronometer he cursed. "Come on, come on god damn you!" An hour, two at most and his senior crew would be returning and he was determined the ship would be out of the area before they could come aboard.

He tapped the internal communications console. "Marcus, let me know when Ivanova, Garibaldi and Franklin are on their way back."

"Will do, Captain. It'll be a while yet, though."

"Understood." He snapped off the link and continued his search.

Half an hour later he was ready to outright lie. He checked the files that had been updating in the background and found a communication had recently been added. Frowning he rotated his chair to double check the scanner, cursing when he realised it had been running before he altered the settings and he had mistakenly toggled off active feedback. He quickly turned it back on and then played the new file.

"Yes!" Neroon was confirming his ETA at Z'ha'dum and giving a report to whoever was receiving the signal. Though the planet was not specifically named, the signal's destination co-ordinates were clearly recorded and matched those for Z'ha'dum. It still didn't justify his urgency but it would have to do. A tap on the link. "Marcus, I've tracked down Neroon. Sending co-ordinates now. Lay in a course, best speed."

"Captain, none of the senior staff has returned yet."

"They can follow on. I've just picked him up on the scans and he's en route. I don't want to risk him getting away from us."

"Given how those ships manoeuvre he's going to beat us there no matter what we do."

"And if we wait he may have left again by the time we get there. Lay in the course. I'll send the message to the others to follow us."

"Yes, Captain." It was clear from his tone of voice that Marcus did not care for the order, but he followed it nonetheless. Sheridan shut off all external communications except receipt of those on Neroon's frequency, recorded a message to be sent in an hour's time to the other White Stars and made his way to the bridge.

Marcus promptly stood up when Sheridan walked in. "New course laid in. ETA in approximately 22 hours." Sheridan nodded and sat down. "How did Mr Garibaldi and the commander react when they got the news?"

"I don't think they're very happy, but it'll be a while before they finish and the White Stars can follow us quite easily."

Marcus nodded, satisfied with the explanation, and returned to his position by weapons control. Sheridan gazed ahead, jaw tight. He didn't like lying to people who trusted him, but strictly speaking he hadn't lied. As soon as they saw his ship depart without any explanation he knew the absent crew members would become frustrated and annoyed. By the time they finished their training sessions his message would get through and they'd follow in their own ships. Not that he'd given them entirely accurate co-ordinates, of course. He couldn't afford for the entire White Star fleet to be caught in a trap near the Shadow home world, so he'd given co-ordinates for the nearest star system to Neroon's last known location. By the time they got there another message would be ready telling them to meet the White Star at another location and once they got there they'd get their explanation. Whether that would be given by himself or Marcus he wasn't sure, and it wasn't something he cared to dwell on. If he was going to win this one he had to maintain focus. Any doubt would guarantee failure and failure wasn't an option.

******

"Whadderyermean he's gone?!" Garibaldi's outburst turned every head in the room from the training simulation he'd created, but a quick glare sent all but the most senior scurrying back to their readouts.

"Gone where?"

"We don't know. The ship opened a jump point about 5 minutes ago. We've tried to hail them but they are not receiving."

The Alyt stood up. "May I help?" His XO also stepped over.

Garibaldi looked around the room and then stepped outside, waiting for the door to slide shut before continuing. "Is there a way of forcing a message through?"

"If Captain Sheridan has shut down all communications, no. Would he have cut himself off so completely?"

"Depends on what hare-brained scheme he's got in mind. He'd have to leave something on to monitor what's happening in case he's needed. He wouldn't just abandon the fleet without an explanation. You're sure there was no message?"

The communications officer shook his head. "I scanned everything, there was no message, overt or covert."

Garibaldi took a deep breath, ran his hand over his head and then stalked the corridor, head down. At last he turned. "There's one band he wouldn't have shut down. Have you got a secure room?"

"Of course." The Alyt bowed and motioned for Garibaldi to follow him. As he did he threw back, "Keep the firing teams at it. When we get into the next fight I want to know everyone can hit the target first time, every time, no matter what's happening around them."

"Understood." The Shai Alyt returned to the training room.

"Do you know what Captain Sheridan has in mind?"

"I've got a nasty idea, but I want to check before I say it." He paused, checking the corridor was empty before speaking again. "Did you hear about Delenn?"

"She sent the message for us to meet you here. Since then, nothing."

"Neroon caught her ship and blew it to pieces."

The Alyt paled slightly but, to his credit, only nodded.

"Yeah. Not good."

"So you believe Captain Sheridan is seeking revenge?"

"That's what I'm afraid of. I'm hoping he ain't that stupid but he cared about Delenn a lot. She was the one who started this, after all. Without her."

"Captain Sheridan more than cares about Delenn." The Alyt noted. Garibaldi looked up sharply. "Forgive me, Mr Garibaldi. Although Rangers are not supposed to listen to gossip, it is difficult to gather information about the enemy without collecting some regarding your allies. I assume from your look that it is not a rumour."

"Are you offended?"

"It is not for me to pass comment on such things. Delenn is very attractive and I believe Captain Sheridan is, by human standards, considered handsome. They have been working together closely for some time in dangerous circumstances. Under such conditions affections can develop that might otherwise be considered... inappropriate. If they were happy and it did not affect their work it was of no concern to me."

"Given Captain Sheridan's quick exit, I'd say we've reached that point."

"Yes, but I do not blame him. I am not emotionally attached to Delenn, but hearing what has happened and knowing what she has sacrificed to bring us to this moment I would very much like to..." He hesitated, mulling over his words. "...I believe you humans would say 'beat the living shit' out of Neroon myself."

The deadpan delivery caught Garibaldi unawares and for a moment he just stared at the Alyt who met his gaze calmly. "Yeah, me too," he said at last.

"An odd turn of phrase but one I can sympathise with right now. Here we are."

The secure room wasn't as filled with computing equipment as his own, but the facilities he needed were in place. Garibaldi sat down in front of one of the consoles and stared into the middle distance, his finger tapping and eyes half closed, then he nodded to himself and tapped in the details. "I hope this is right," he muttered. "Knowing my luck I'm tapping into Minbari High Command."

"What exactly are you doing?"

"I'm using the band we usually use to track Neroon's signals. If he was going to leave anything on it'd be that one."

"Is there any danger Neroon might overhear the conversation?"

Garibaldi shook his head. "I'm encrypting the message. Even if Neroon did pick it up he wouldn't be able to crack it. One of my own inventions. Sheridan'll be able to crack it from his ship, but no one else will."

"The encryption key must be very large if our technology cannot break it."

He grinned. "Not large, just mine."

******

"I have a call coming in. It's from Mr Garibaldi."

Sheridan fought the impulse to curse. Trust Garibaldi to figure it out. "I'll take it in the other room. Put it through, would you?"

"It's in code."

Sheridan was already half way through the door. "Doesn't matter."

"Whatever you say," Marcus shrugged, re-routing the call.

The command deck offered a private room to the rear that allowed officers to send and receive messages they didn't need or want the crew to overhear. Sheridan ensured the door was closed before accessing the message. Since he was using Garibaldi's own security pass the computer automatically decoded the message without difficulty and the image quickly resolved itself.

"Hey there, Captain. I see you decided to take a little trip without us."

"The only reason I'm taking this call is because if I didn't, Marcus would become suspicious. This is none of your business, Michael."

"Well if you're gonna run off with my room I'd like to know where I need to go to pick up a clean pair of socks." Despite the light tone it was clear Garibaldi was worried.

"The White Star will be fine. Once I've finished what I need to do you'll get a message telling you where to meet us."

"But you're not gonna tell me what you're doing, right?"

"Right."

"Captain, you can't do this alone. He's gonna frag you just for kicks."

"We'll see."

"At least let us back you up. We want him just as much as you do."

"I'm shutting down this communications channel, Mr Garibaldi, so I suggest you monitor from your end."

"Captain, you can't."

"Sheridan out."

It would be frustrating not knowing what Neroon was doing and potentially lethal, but he couldn't have Garibaldi alerting Marcus to what was happening. Sheridan paused briefly and then, with a firm hand, closed down his last link to the outside world.

"Computer, I want to record a time delayed message and I want it encrypted."

"Specify key to unlock message."

"Voice recognition. Unlock only to Marcus Cole, Susan Ivanova or Michael Garibaldi." That was for safety. If anything happened to Marcus at least there was a back-up.

"Record your message."

******

"Nuts!" Despite Garibaldi's repeated efforts it was clear Sheridan had made good on his promise and was now shut off. The Alyt watched impassively as Garibaldi accessed a few other channels, met with the same blocks and thumped the desktop in disgust.

"Since it is clear we will not be in contact with Captain Sheridan for some time, may I suggest we finish the training?"

The cool practicality of the man made Garibaldi's gorge rise. "He's gonna get himself killed. And for what? Just because he's too damned impatient to wait for the rest of us?!"

"My experience with humans has led me to conclude that once your people set on a path there is no dissuading you from it. It is, I think, one of your strengths."

"Yeah, well on this occasion it's just fraggin' stupid." Garibaldi continued to recheck his communications channels while the Alyt watched. Finally he couldn't take the scrutiny any longer. "Haven't you got something better to do than watch me?"

"Not while we are waiting for you to judge our progress, no. There is nothing you can do here. I suggest we return to the training room and concentrate on what we can do. When Captain Sheridan calls I am sure he will be relieved to find the fleet ready, and it may well save his life."

"I've gotta find a way," Garibaldi insisted.

"As I said, once you set upon a path."

"This isn't the same thing!"

The Alyt merely held Garibaldi's angry gaze until the security chief backed down. "All right, I get it! Come on. By the time I've finished you guys'll be able to take the eyebrows off a fly at 2 miles." He stood up and marched from the room, the Alyt following quietly in his wake. "Has anyone contacted Commander Ivanova or Doctor Franklin?"

"Not yet."

"Then you'd better. Those two'll be going crazy."

******

"I want Garibaldi on the line NOW!" The crew members not directly affected by Ivanova's demand bent to their tasks, determined not to attract her attention. "Have you managed to find any trace of Captain Sheridan's ship?"

"None, Commander."

"Keep looking. Have we received any messages?"

"From Captain Sheridan or...?"

"Anyone, god dammit!"

"Message coming in from White Star 3. They say Mr Garibaldi has spoken to Captain Sheridan and will come over once he's finished the training. He asks that Doctor Franklin meet him aboard this ship once he's finished on White Star 60."

"Did he say what Captain Sheridan's doing?"

"No. The message was relayed via the Shai Alyt."

Ivanova raised her arms in frustration and was about to pounce on the navigator to check his readings for the 5th time when the human Captain stepped up.

"Commander?"

"What is it?"

"May I speak with you?" Ivanova gave him a look and he motioned outside. "In private?" Annoyed but answering to her duty she led the way outside. Once the door was closed and the Captain had ensured they couldn't be overheard, he continued. "Mr Garibaldi is doing the right thing. He's talked with Captain Sheridan and he knows what the situation is. There's nothing more he can do at his end so he's concentrating on training the crew. With all due respect, you should be doing the same." Ivanova opened her mouth to retaliate but the Captain stood his ground. "If we don't train properly we' ll be no use to Sheridan when he calls on us, and you can be certain he will call. There's nothing you can do that isn't already being done by people who are extremely good at their jobs. The one thing you can do right now is finish the training. The sooner that's done, the sooner you can concentrate on finding Captain Sheridan." Ivanova pursed her lips, considering her reply and the Captain braced himself. At last she relaxed, fixed him with a glare and then stormed down the corridor towards the training room. With a sigh the Captain returned to the bridge.

"Everything all right, sir?" asked a crewmember who, at that moment, had no specific task to carry out.

"Everything's fine. I will say one thing, though." The crewmember turned, waiting for the rest of the sentence. "They should update the Ranger training to include a showdown with the commander as part of the Mora'dum. Shadow ships are a breeze by comparison."

A chorus of earnestly nodding heads greeted his observation as each returned to the tasks assigned.

******

"Sir, I've been checking the coordinates you set," Marcus began. Sheridan fixed him with a look but Marcus had already worked out what was happening. "It's not a problem, I just thought that as it's going to take us nearly a day to get there, you might want to get some rest."

"I'm fine, thank you."

"All due respect, sir, there's nothing you can do here and when we arrive you'll be much more effective if you're not half asleep. If we should encounter anything en route I'll call you."

"I don't think I can sleep."

"Then why not just rest? With two commanders on the bridge one of us is going to be twiddling his thumbs and I've a very low boredom threshold."

Sheridan was about to remonstrate when he took in Marcus's look. He was worried, which didn't bode well, and his stance indicated that while he didn't want to argue in front of the crew he would do if necessary. Dissuaded, Sheridan stood up.

"Very well, Mr Cole. But when I come back it's your turn, no arguments."

"No problem."

Stiffly, Sheridan made his way off the command deck and towards his quarters. He didn't want to admit it in front of the crew but the truth was he ached all over. Franklin had done a good job and he was healing fast, but he knew he wasn't completely fit. Ruefully, he redirected his steps towards the medical bay. One of the doctors checked him over, applied some fresh regen packs to his burned shoulders, gave him an injection to boost his immune system and ordered him to get some rest.

"You too? It's a conspiracy around here."

"Sir, no offence, but you look like hell. If Dr Franklin was here I'd lay odds he'd knock you out or tie you down. There's no sense in exhausting yourself. No one gets medals for missing sleep and everything's quiet for the moment. Why not take advantage of it?"

"All right, I'm going." Sheridan didn't care for the fuss, but he recognised the merits of the argument. Without another word he headed to his quarters. He had a lot of planning that needed to be done, but once he walked into his sleeping quarters the bed looked incredibly inviting. A day. In a day he could complete his plans and catch up on his missing sleep, so long as nothing untoward happened on the way. He could afford to relax just a little. He stripped down to a pair of shorts, lay down and was almost instantly asleep.

******

"So what's he doing?" Ivanova asked as soon as Franklin arrived in Garibaldi's quarters. She's asked the same question several times already, but Garibaldi had refused to answer until the doctor arrived.

"He's gone after Neroon."

"On his own? Has he gone crazy?"

"I wouldn't put it past him. What happened down on the planet?"

Ivanova outlined the sequence of events while Franklin sat on the couch and Garibaldi paced. When she finished there was silence for a few moments. Garibaldi came to a halt, rubbing his head.

"What do you think?" Franklin said at last.

"He knows where Neroon is and he's hoping surprise will give him the edge."

"Against one ship? Even when it's the White Star those are high odds."

"And he made a point of making sure you, me and Ivanova were off the ship," Franklin added. "He didn't want any of us with him."

Garibaldi grunted. "He knew we'd stop him if we knew what was going on."

"From going one-on-one with Neroon? You bet your ass I'd stop him." Ivanova folded her arms; one hip perched on the back of the couch.

Garibaldi shook his head. "That's not it. We could have taken the entire fleet with us if it was that easy. He had to do this alone, because where he's going a fleet of ships would be a disadvantage."

"So where could he be going? I mean, under what circumstances would one ship be better than a fleet?" Franklin was thinking out loud but it was Garibaldi who delivered the answer.

"He's gone to Z'ha'dum."

"He wouldn't," Franklin insisted.

"Even he's not that crazy."

Garibaldi shook his head. "Delenn is dead at Neroon's hand and Sheridan told me that Neroon was going to Z'ha'dum."

"So why didn't you say something earlier?" Ivanova spat.

"Because he said he intended to cut him off before he reached the damned planet," he barked back. "I didn't think the Captain was that far gone, but given what he's done and the way he's cut us off I'd say he's given up on interception and is going for the source."

Ivanova gave Garibaldi a disgusted look, stood up and headed for the door. "Come on, we've got to stop him."

"Hold on, Commander. We haven't finished."

"The hell we haven't! The longer we sit around here the bigger head start he's got on us. If we don't move now, by the time we get there John could be dead."

"And he knew that when he left. He doesn't want us there."

"Because he's being an idiot. It doesn't matter why he's done it. We all have reason to hate Neroon now."

"No offence, Commander, but I think what Michael's saying is that the reason John didn't tell us wasn't anything to do with his relationship with you or Delenn."

"Then what? Michael will you stop pacing? You're making me dizzy."

Garibaldi sat down on the arm of the couch. "If we'd all gone together, the whole fleet, we'd be noticed in hyperspace. There's too many of us to hide and the Shadow ships could warn home world without us even realising we'd been spotted. We'd be walking right into a trap. At least half the fleet would be destroyed in one fight, the Shadows could pick up the bits, analyse them and be ready for us next time. We'd be signing our own death warrant. If he goes alone, the chances are he won't be spotted and even if he is they won't consider him a threat."

"Because he isn't!" Susan insisted. "Alone there's nothing he can do."

"Obviously he thinks there is something. He's mad and he wants to get even, but my experience of John Sheridan is of a man who prepares. He's aware of the risk and he left us behind in case something happened to him. This way the fight goes on, but he's trying not to risk any more lives than he has to."

"So why take Marcus? Why didn't he get him off the ship with the rest of us?"

"It'd be suspicious for one thing. For another, he needs someone to command the White Star and get her home if it can be done. Marcus maybe a bit of a wild card but he's a competent commander and unpredictable. When you're dealing with the Shadows that can be a major advantage."

Franklin nodded. "And he wouldn't argue with Sheridan. We all know the Captain too well to let him get away without a fight, but Marcus, even if he doesn't agree with it, will do as Sheridan tells him. He's learned that lesson."

"Too damn well."

"So what are we going to do? We can't just sit around; we can't follow him..." Franklin trailed off, hoping one of the others would fill in the gaps.

Garibaldi shrugged. "We carry on with the fight. At the very least once he gets there he's going to distract them. We need to make the most of that because it may be our best chance. We've got the ships, we've got the tactics."

Ivanova stared. "You can't be serious?! John's flying into a trap and you're just going to carry on as if he'd taken a vacation?"

"If we follow we'll alert the Shadows and then he WILL be going into a trap. We carry on, there's no reason for them to suspect anything. And if we don't make the most of this chance and something does go wrong, he'll have thrown his life away for nothing." Garibaldi was nothing if not practical.

"You cold-hearted son of a bitch!"

"You're damned right! This isn't the time or the place to get sentimental. We've got a job to do and the Captain's trusted us to finish it. I'm sure as hell not gonna let him down. Are you?"

"That's a low blow!"

"Is it? Commander, I know you and John." Ivanova's eyes flared and she moved towards Garibaldi until she was toe to toe with him. Garibaldi held his ground. "You're fond of each other. That's fine, but don't let it get in the way of what we're trying to do here. No disrespect, but you're two people and we're talking about freeing billions. With numbers like that, you're not that important."

"If it wasn't for John we wouldn't even be having this conversation."

"If it wasn't for Delenn we wouldn't, but we are and she's gone. We carry on."

"If they capture him or the White Star then every edge we've got against them is gone. THAT'S why I want to chase after him. And can I remind you who's the XO on this ship?"

"Then act like it!"

Tempers were fraying and Franklin decided to intervene, raising his voice enough to be heard. "Listen to me, the pair of you. I don't care who's running this show, but make up your minds because we've got to look united in front of the rest of the fleet. If we're divided and fighting amongst ourselves we haven't got a hope of winning." The protagonists calmed slightly in the face of reason and Ivanova backed away. "And if we don't keep going and John does come back, I wouldn't like to be in your shoes when he turns up and wants to know why everything's gone to hell."

"What if he gets caught?" Ivanova asked. "You know they'll find out everything about us."

Garibaldi nodded. "All the more reason to move quickly. Let's pinpoint as many of the enemy ships as we can now, spread out and hit them all as hard and as fast as we can. It'll be a while before he reaches Z'ha'dum. The more trouble we can cause; the more we can distract the Shadows from noticing what's happening on their own doorstep, the better chance he's got. By stepping up our activity we could give him the diversion he needs to succeed. And if he does manage it right in their back yard it's gonna really tick 'em off. I dunno about you, but I like my enemy angry -- they make mistakes."

"But if he gets caught."

"If he gets caught we're gonna have to come up with some new tactics and fast, but the more ships we have on our side before that happens, the more chance we've got. We can't stop him and we can't save him, so let's concentrate on what we can do."

Ivanova narrowed her eyes and then nodded. "OK, I tell you what, you get the computers working out where we need to hit next. Get as many targets as you can. When you're ready, disburse the fleet so the White Stars are in the right place to cause the most damage. Stephen, see if there are any ways the Shadows could counter that virus and get ready to plug 'em."

Garibaldi raised an eyebrow. "And what were you planning to do in all this?"

"You're right. A fleet is going to alert them. One more ship won't. I'm taking White Star 3 and I'm going to follow him."

"And what good is that going to do? If he gets into trouble you can't go down there and rescue him. You'll be in the same boat he is."

"But at least we'll know where we stand."

"We'll know that soon enough anyway. Either Marcus'll contact us, or Sheridan will, or the White Star'll be gone and the Shadows'll suddenly be a lot more effective against our ships."

As Ivanova drew breath to take the argument to the next stage the comm. unit activated. Garibaldi answered it.

"I've got Captain Sheridan on the line for you."

"Thank God. Put him through." The screen flickered and Sheridan's face appeared. "Captain, have you any idea."

"Michael, before you start I'd better tell you this is a recording. I don't want to argue with any of you and this way you'll just have to listen."

Dumbfounded, Garibaldi shook his head, put his hands in his pockets and rocked on his heels. "Great. Just what I needed."

"I'm sending co-ordinates on a separate channel and they're encoded. I want one of the White Stars to go there and wait. I'll join them as soon as I can. As you probably guessed, something came up and I don't want to risk the entire fleet on this. If this works, the enemy ships will be pretty vulnerable, so we need to hit them and hit them hard. Co-ordinate as many attacks as you can using the White Stars to back you up. We've got the firepower, now we need to use it."

Garibaldi looked over his shoulder with an expression that said 'I told you so'. Ivanova refused to rise to the bait and concentrated on the screen.

"I've been thinking, and it occurs to me that having all of us on the same ship is risky, so I want at least one of you - you, Susan or Stephen - to move to one of the other White Stars. We need to split up so if one of us goes down the others are still left to carry on."

Now it was Susan's turn to give the look. Garibaldi shrugged and nodded.

"I'm guessing Susan's gonna see this too. I just want to make sure she knows this is nothing to do with her or even Delenn. Yeah, I'm angry, but I'm not rushing into this blindly. When things go wrong you can either surrender and give up, or you can use it. My dad used to tell me that's what you do when things don't go right. You don't fight it, you don't surrender, you turn it into something positive. He used to say 'if you're falling off a cliff you may as well try to fly: you've got nothing to lose.' I saw Delenn's present and suddenly I thought maybe now we really can fly. We need to use this to maximum advantage, and to do that you need a distraction. I'm going to give you that distraction. Make the most of it. Sheridan out."

The three stood silently for a few moments, digesting the message. Finally Ivanova said, "Well, I think there's a shuttle with my name on it."

After she'd gone Garibaldi turned to Franklin. "He doesn't think he's coming back."

"No, he doesn't."

"Is she gonna be ok, you think?"

"I think she's following his advice and turning it into something positive." He shrugged, stuck his hands in his pockets and looked Garibaldi up and down. "So I guess this means you're in command of the White Star."

"Apparently. Think you can handle that?"

"You thinking of getting a uniform?"

Garibaldi looked down at his standard Earther civilian clothes and shrugged. "Never did like uniforms. No one seems to have had any problem in the past, so I guess I stay as I am."

Franklin chuckled. "I was just thinking, I'm glad I'm not on White Star 3. They're not gonna know what hit them."

"I sure as hell wouldn't like to be the first enemy ship that encounters her after this."

"Hell no." He smiled. "You know I like her. She scares the hell out of me sometimes, but I do like her. Just don't tell her that." He headed for the door.

"Not sayin' a word," Garibaldi assured him as the doctor left. Under his breath he added, "I like her too." Squaring his shoulders he headed out. He had a lot of work to do.

******

"Captain?"

Sheridan grunted and pulled the pillow over his head. "Go away!"

"Captain Sheridan, you told me to call you."

Suddenly, Sheridan was awake. How the hell had he managed to sleep so heavily with everything that was going through his mind? He went through a mental checklist and noticed his mouth was very dry - a common side effect of some sedatives. Suddenly he knew exactly what had happened. "Why that sneaky son of a..."

"Captain?"

"Yes, I know. How long was I out?"

"Nine hours."

He swallowed his anger at being manipulated, but he was determined the doctor in question would know never to do that again. "Give me a chance to clean up and make a call on Medlab, then I'll be up there."

"Understood."

By the time Sheridan reached the command deck he was ready to give Marcus a chewing out for warning the doctor of his impending arrival, but he decided against it. Given where they were going he didn't need crew members harbouring a grudge. He waited for Marcus to stand up and vacate the command chair, gave him a hard look that Marcus returned with an innocent smile, and sat down.

"Status?"

"All quiet. I've run periodic checks on the system so there are no surprises and I've got the scanners on maximum so we get plenty of warning if any Shadow ships are nearby. Other than that I've been knitting." Sheridan was scanning through reports and didn't look up. "What with?"

"Navel fluff."

He chuckled. "Go get some rest. I'll call you in 8 hours."

Marcus went without argument. He'd already put in a heavy shift before Sheridan went to bed and he knew he needed to recharge his batteries. Still, he was pleased his ploy had worked. Sheridan was well rested, the crew had been rotated so they were fresh and while it was clear Sheridan knew Marcus had prepared the doctor for the onslaught, he'd apparently accepted the excuse that the regen packs were the source of the mild sedative and Sheridan's own exhaustion had added the final ingredient.

Sheridan continued to work through the reports to satisfy his own mind that everything was on target, although he had no doubt as to the efficiency of his present XO. The routine checks allowed his mind to calm and when one of the crew suddenly appeared with a mug of coffee the Captain was both pleased and astonished.

"I figured you probably hadn't had chance to grab a mug."

"You're right, I didn't." Sheridan took a grateful gulp and then frowned.

"Something wrong?"

"Do I know you?"

"You might have run into me on occasion. I'm one of the telepaths. The name's Lyta Alexander."

He nodded absently, trying to remember her rating. At last he gave her an apologetic smile. "You're gonna have to fill me in on the rest, I'm afraid."

"I was raised by the Corps and was originally a P5. The drugs and the Minbari training have raised that to about a P7. In hyperspace I can reach further so here I'm as good as a P8 in normal space."

"Is that further than our scanners?"

She nodded. "Um hmm. I took it for granted you'd want the telepaths on board to scan as well, so we're all doing it. All clear so far."

"How many of you are there?"

"Four. Myself, a couple of P6's and a P10." "I know we always use the telepaths when we encounter Shadow ships, but how come I never see any of your people around?"

"We tend to keep to ourselves. Most people get nervous when a telepath's around because they think we always want to know what they're thinking. No one listens when we tell them we're really not interested, so it's easier just to stay out of the way."

"A bit lonely for you all."

"We're used to it. No one ever likes telepaths."

"Now there you're wrong," he assured her. "Right now you guys are keeping the rest of us safe, so that means we all like you. I may well have some other things for you to do later that'll require your special talents, so you're top of my particular list of favourite people." He drained his mug. "And if you keep supplying me with coffee like this I'll be forever in your debt."

He held out his mug and Lyta laughed. "If only everyone was so easy to please. I'll be back in a minute."

"You'll have to bring it to the private office. I've got some work to do." He stood up and walked between the pilot and navigator to gaze at the swirling red of hyperspace. Stare too long and it would make you feel sick, but if you could stop following the eddies and try to see through it, sometimes Sheridan fancied he could catch glimpses of every planet in the galaxy, including the one to which they were presently headed. Finally he turned back to the pilot. "So much as a suggestion of trouble, you know where to find me."

"Yes sir."

Sheridan closed the office door behind him and paced, going through his checklist once again to make sure he hadn't missed anything. What had he actually got by way of resources? Hand weapons, yes, but one man against the entire force wouldn't last long, and possibly not even long enough to find Neroon, let alone kill him. The virus, certainly, but he couldn't risk a Shadow developing immunity and passing it on to the others. The ship itself was out of the question because of the crew. He couldn't evacuate them before because it would have alerted the others to what he was planning: he couldn't do it now because there'd be no one to pick them up and he didn't want to alert Garibaldi, Ivanova or any of the others to the direction he was taking. A trail of life pods would be a giveaway to both his friends and the enemy, if they happened to come across them. That left him with only one real weapon. Satisfied there really was no other option Sheridan grunted, straightened his jacket and headed out. By the time Lyta returned with his coffee he was already buried in the ship's innards, contemplating the Minbari equivalent of wiring.

******

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