Garibaldiís network and programming skills had produced a long list of potential locations and targets. Working with Ivanova and the other captains, a plan of attack was mapped out that allowed time for other ships to be collected en route. Once assignments had been allocated there was a pause while the commanders of each attack group liased with their wingmen, finalising details. At last all was ready.
The security chief considered the command chair briefly before lowering himself into it. The Alyt of this particular White Star had instantly offered his seat when he heard Garibaldi would be taking over the fleet, but at first Garibaldi demurred, insisting he was perfectly happy to stand and leave shipís operations to those who knew her best. The Alyt was insistent. Garibaldi fidgeted slightly, then smiled. "Comfortable," he commented to no one in particular. "OK people, letís get this show on the road." He tapped the comm. panel. "Garibaldi to Ivanova."
"The fleetís ready. Just waiting for you to give the go order."
"Consider it given. Iíll be monitoring from my ship so just use the secure channels if you need to talk. Iíll probably have to shut it down when we get closer, but if I see anything you could use Iíll let you know."
"Good. Do us all a favour would you? Try not to take any unnecessary risks."
"Now youíre just trying to take the fun out of it. Besides, I could say the same to you. Thinking about it, I have." Garibaldi smiled. "Look after the fleet, Michael. I donít want to come back and find nothing but floating bits. If I do, youíre gonna be the one out there with a broom."
He nodded, but his concern remained. He opened his mouth to admonish her further, then thought better of it. There was nothing more any of them could do to play it safe. Sometimes the risk was worth the reward. "Iíll keep that in mind. Weíre outta here. See you on the flip side." With that he shut down the link and leaned back. "Engage jump engines." A tremor could be felt running through the ship: a big cat coiled and waiting to spring. "Jump."
The White Stars had already spread out, arranged in groups far enough apart that their jump points wouldnít interfere with each other. The leader of each group led the way as blue jump points sprang into existence and then vanished, swallowing the ships. A few seconds later the area was silent; motes of swirling space dust the only evidence of their passing.
"Got you, you son of a bitch!" Trying to remove the self-destruct charges built into the White Star had proved a complicated task. After all, they were never intended to be removed in the first place. Sheridan had used every trick he knew and invented a few before resorting to brute force to overcome the final barrier. That did, however, leave a slight problem.
He contemplated the explosive from every angle. There was no question about it; if it could be detonated it would do considerable damage, especially in an enclosed area. Two or three of them combined would be devastating. The problem was he had not been able to get the detonator out intact because it operated in conjunction with the bio-technology that formed the shipís outer hull; a detail somehow overlooked in the blueprints. The end result was that he had a potentially very potent Ė but currently inert Ė explosive that could be used safely as a crash barrier.
He sat back on his haunches, the 3 meter long by 1 meter wide warhead lying on the floor, the top reaching halfway up his calf. It was surprisingly light, for which he was grateful. Getting it into the shuttle would be easy. Setting it off, on the other handÖ
"Bio-tech," John grumbled under his breath. "What is it with the older races and bio-tech? Whatís wrong with a good old-fashioned transistor all of a sudden? Where the hell am I gonna find a bio-tech detonator to set this lot off?" He closed his eyes to perform a mental inventory of the supplies aboard, frowning as nothing sprang to mind as appropriate. A slight shudder ran through the ship. It was nothing substantial or unusual, merely an eddy in hyperspace that couldnít be detected until you were on it, akin to a low-pressure drop on an aircraft. Nevertheless, it was enough to upset his balance. He tilted forward, reached out to steady himself and caught his hand on a sharpened edge of cut metal. Muttering an epithet he examined his hand. A slight cut, barely more than a red line on the heel of it, but starting to well up. Absently he sucked the spot and then re-examined it to make sure it was nothing more.
His eyes widened, a grin spread over his face and he stood up as fast as the cramped space would allow. Quickly negotiating the service access corridor to the end, he jumped down into the engine room, closed the service hatch and made his way to Medlab. Once there he went straight to Franklinís office. The chances were incredibly slim given the way theyíd been forced to evacuate the previous ship, but there had been some clean up and the item had revealed very advanced bioengineering. If there was anything Franklin enjoyed it was studying the advances of other races in his chosen field. Anything that allowed him to save lives or help others to live a better quality of life, despite injury, was exciting to him. Heíd have been loath to give anything like that up until he understood every aspect of it. It would certainly solve a lot of problems now.
One of the lab-techs walked in as Sheridan rummaged. "Captain? Can I help you?"
"Not sure," Sheridan replied, still opening drawers and cupboards. "We used to have an officer on board the Agamemnon who had biotech implants. We left in a hurry, but I wonderedÖ"
The technician bent down, tapped in a code and opened a cupboard, reaching inside. "Is this what youíre looking for?"
Sheridan turned to see the labtech holding a clear container, the item in question suspended inside.
"Thatís it. I know Franklin reset the code. Do you have it?"
The tech tapped a small panel on the side of the container that promptly lit up, demanding a password. "You use your own password to get access. After that, you can change it."
"Just yours and those of Dr Franklin and Commander Ivanova."
"Glad to hear it. Anything I should know about the container?" he added, taking it from the tech and eyeing the gruesome contents.
"A signal blocker thatís reinforced against external tampering, nothing more. It wonít actually stop a major explosion from inside it blowing us all to hell."
"And the code to reset theÖ bomb?" Calling it a hand, even though manifestly it was such a one, sounded bizarre to his ears.
"Same as the one for the container."
Sheridan eyed the tech. "Doesnít sound very safe."
"Has been so far."
He grunted. "Point. Anyone in here know the doctorís code?" He knew how anal Ivanova was about security, and his own attitude was a match, but what if the doctor wasnít so careful?
The tech shook his head. "Dr Franklin keeps that information to himself and heís extremely careful who is even in the room when he accesses certain thingsÖ that, for example. No, sir, that information is very secure. Iím probably the only member of staff apart from Dr Franklin who knew it was here, so you were lucky I was on duty."
"Good. It was Commander Ivanova who suggested we hang on to this. Seemed a little strange then, but as I recall Iíd just split my head open and wasnít in the mood to argue. NowÖ" He gave a satisfied grunt and smiled at the tech. "Youíll be glad to know there is some justice in the universe after all." He turned smartly on his heel and headed out.
"If you say so. Ah, Captain?" Sheridan paused in the doorway as the tech grabbed a data pad and held it out to him. "Youíre gonna have to sign for that. Dr Frankliníll have my hide if he finds it missing and thereís no record of who took it."
Sheridan returned to his quarters, accessed Franklinís reports, checked he understood how to recode the signal and settled down to do some research on the built-in detonator. It took him longer than he liked and was harder than he first thought it would be, but eventually he was satisfied he knew what he was doing. He returned to the service access corridor and collected the first of three explosives. He was in the process of moving the third when Marcus encountered him.
"Need some help?"
Sheridan found himself feeling guilty, which was ridiculous given he was the Captain of the ship. StillÖ He rested the sheet against the wall and wiped his hands on his trouser legs. "Say whatever you were going to say and get it over with."
"This would probably have been easier if youíd simply called me when you started," Marcus replied, lifting the sheet from the wall. With the explosive over his head he headed towards the docking bay where the shuttle was waiting.
Stunned, Sheridan followed.
"I know what youíre planning on doing, Captain. Iíve known since you gave me the coordinates."
"Pretty clever, considering even I didnít know at that point."
"It was only a matter of time before you worked it out. If youíd asked I could have helped."
"That keen to get rid of me, huh?"
Marcus hesitated and then carried on. "This isnít the place for that kind of conversation."
It wasnít until they were safely inside the docking bay, the explosive loaded into the shuttle, that Marcus spoke again. Nodding towards the detonator Sheridan was connecting he said, "I wondered how youíd overcome that problem. Ingenious." The Captain remained silent, intent on what he was doing. "Need any help?"
"Just a guard on the door so I donít get interrupted."
"Sure. Oh, you might want to redo those connections."
Sheridan looked at his work and frowned. "Whatís wrong with them?"
"Well, I may not be an expert, but it doesnít take a genius to work out youíre thinking in binary."
Marcus cocked his head. "Only humans and Centauri work in binary, you know that."
Sheridan leaned back on his haunches. "In case it escaped you, I am human, and on this occasion I think we can both agree either the bombs explode or they donít."
"Not when it comes to Minbari programming; they always require a third option." Sheridan gave the young man a look, dismissing him to return to his work. Determined to make his point, Marcus grabbed the link Sheridan had just finished programming and tapped in an instruction.
"What the hell are you doing?!"
Before Sheridan could stop him, Marcus had tapped in the detonate sequence. The result was a deafening silence followed by a polite Minbari voice asking if any assistance was required.
Marcus tossed the link back at him and headed towards the door. "Now that could have been a bit embarrassing."
Sheridan stared at the link then at Marcus, who was leaning against the doorframe watching the corridor. He took a few deep breaths, waiting for his heart to slow down and his hands to stop shaking. A few exhaled puffs and he could retrieve the link and start work to repair the programming. "You had to do that, didnít you?"
"All these years I was working for the Minbari, and it takes a rookie to remind me how they think," he grumbled.
"Your ship wasnít Minbari and as I recall you were front line, not a sapper."
"No excuse," Sheridan replied, his voice muffled by the screwdriver he was trying to hold in his teeth while he worked. He took it out and stretched. "Itís amazing how fast weíve all reverted to our pre-Minbari ways. If it wasnít forÖ" He hesitated, rolled his shoulders, put the screwdriver back in his mouth and returned to correcting the wiring. "Itís almost as if the past 10 years never happened."
Marcus cocked his head, wondering if Sheridan was talking about his relationship with Delenn or his time in the hands of Neroonís torturers. Deciding at last that when it came to the fine line between love and hate there probably wasnít much difference Ė a wit he declined to share, considering the present, tragic circumstances Ė he excused himself to stand guard.
Some time later Sheridan completed a final check on all his connections, ran a virtual simulation to make sure everything worked, and with a satisfied grunt rose to his feet and stepped through the shuttle door. "All right, itís done. All clear?" Marcus checked the corridor to ensure they were alone and then nodded. "Good. Now what were you going to say before in the corridor?"
"What about? Oh! You mean when you said I wanted to get rid of you. No, I donít... but since you seem determined to kill yourself itís not my job to stop you, even if I could."
"This may come as a shock, but Iím not actually that keen to die."
"But you canít see any other way?"
"Can you? Iím open to suggestions." He pulled over a box and sat down. Marcus mirrored his actions.
"Letís seeÖ You canít use the fleet because itíd be too big a target to miss: weíd walk right into a trap and everyone would be killed. The only reason the crewís still aboard is because you think the White Star canít be flown without one. On that point youíre wrong, by the way. As long as we donít get into a fight, the White Star will respond perfectly well with only one person aboard."
"I know that, but if Iíd got rid of the entire crew, Garibaldi and Ivanova would have figured out what I was up to and tried to stop me."
"You think they havenít worked it out? They know you too well. Trust me, Ivanovaís probably on her way here right now."
"I hope not," Sheridan muttered.
Marcus watched the Captain, noting the way his head dropped. He carried on. "Since weíve received no communications from Garibaldi or anyone else I assume youíve shut down everything, right?" Sheridan nodded. "So weíre not even monitoring what Neroonís up to."
"Nope. I couldnít risk the crew trying to stop me."
"You mean you didnít trust me."
"No, thatís not what I mean. I trust Garibaldi, Ivanova and Franklin, but theyíre not here either. This has to be done."
"I agree with you. One ship makes sense. Using the self-destruct explosives built into the White Star makes sense. My point is that if I can see it makes sense, Iím sure they could."
Sheridan dismissed the comment with a wave. "Theyíre too protective. But if this works, the havoc weíll wreak on Neroonís fleetíll be devastating. Heíll never recover, and then we can just sweep up the remnants and get on with kicking the Shadows out of the galaxy." He bent his head, idly examining the cut on his hand. "Itís worth one manís life."
"Especially when that one man doesnít think heís got anything left to live for, right?"
Sheridan looked up sharply. "Iím not on a suicide mission," he reiterated.
"Never said you were, but it certainly made the decision easier." He leaned forward, elbows on knees. "Iím the same. Thatís why Iím not going to stop you. I *am* going to do everything I can to help you Ė not because I want to see you dead, but because I want to see this succeed. As you say, if we can pull this off itíll pretty much be the end of the war with Neroonís supporters and probably give a severe arse kicking to the Shadows as a whole. Thatís worth any price. Besides, Iíd like to see that bastard on a spit, too."
Sheridan smiled grimly and shook his head. "I need you to stay with the ship." He raised his hand to forestall Marcusís protestations. "I know you want to help, but to be honest I donít think thereís anything you can do down there."
"If you get killed thereíll be one other person there to finish the job."
"Or one other experienced officer who wonít be helping us in the fight ahead."
"So Iím an officer now? Someone passed me a swagger stick when I wasnít looking? When did that happen?"
"Just now. We donít have time for a ceremony, but I can put it in writing if you like."
"And destroy my cavalier reputation? No thanks! Itís nice not being one of those little boxes on the organizational chart. Leaves me room for creativity."
"You mean trouble-making."
"That too. Anyway, if this doesnít work, one more person out there wonít make much difference. Down there, it could make all the difference in the world."
"Marcus, I appreciate the offer, but itís more important to me that the news gets back to the others. I need someone I can trust to get this ship and its crew to safety."
"Even a whole ship wouldnítÖ"
Sheridan overrode him. "They have to be warned. I need you to do this for me, no arguments, no hesitation. If I succeed thereís going to be one helluva bang on the planet that you could monitor even in hyperspace. The Shadows wonít take that lying down so youíll have to get out of there fast. You know what this ship can do: use it. And whatever you do, donít try and rescue me. If Iím alive Iíll find my own way off the planet. If Iím dead, thereís no point in getting yourself killed to bring back a corpse."
"You still should have someone watching your back," Marcus insisted.
"I need you here, and Iím not asking anyone to make this trip with me."
"You donít have to." The voice was Lytaís. Stepping through the door to the shuttle bay she continued, "Iím going with you."
Sheridan stood. "How many others are out there listening in?" His voice rumbled with anger.
"No one," she simply responded, stepping further into the room. "I would sense if anyone else was within twenty meters and thatís why you need me. Youíve been sitting here discussing this for the past ten minutes and you had no idea someone was listening in on your plans. This time it was a friend. Next time..." She gave him a significant look.
"I donít usually talk to myself that muchÖ"
"Youíd be surprised. Even so, I can warn you whatís round the corner before you get your head ripped off. Youíre right about Marcus; he needs to stay here and get the news back to the rest of the fleet. Iím expendable."
"You are not!" Sheridan insisted. "We need every telepath we can get."
"There are three other telepaths aboard. How many does one ship need? Iíd be of far more use to you on the planet."
"Your talent could attract the enemy instead of repelling it. We donít know how powerful the Shadows are when it comes to telepathy. For all I know youíll be a beacon drawing every single one of them down on us."
"I can sense anything like that and block it, which is more than you can do. Youíre screaming at the top of your mind right now. Even with my shields up I can sense you. It was that emotional beacon I homed in on when I came down here. You need me, if only to stop you screwing yourself." She glanced around for somewhere to sit, then leaned up against a piece of docking equipment. "Your coffeeís cold, by the way."
At least that explained why she was looking for him. "Lyta, you donít know what youíre saying. I donít expect to come back."
"Then so be it. Itís my choice." She cocked her head. "Or are you suggesting women donít have as much right as men to make that decision?"
"No one can claim to be a civilian while this is going on. Iím aboard, Iím fighting the same as everyone else. Marcus isnít wearing your uniform but youíre letting him command the ship. You just promoted him."
Marcus raised a finger. "Over my strongly voiced protests."
The Captain ignored him. "Thatís different!"
"No one recognises the sacrifices I makeÖ even when theyíre not sacrifices." Sheridan gave him a look of exasperation and Marcus became serious. "With respect, Captain, sheís right. And I, for one, would feel a lot happier knowing there was someone with you to watch your back."
"I canít ask aÖ" He paused to marshal his words, "a non-combatant womanÖ" he continued. The steely glare Lyta fixed on him was enough to wilt nettles. "OK, OK. Since itís obvious youíre going to do this whether I agree or notÖ"
"Ivanovaíll go nuts when she finds out, you know that, donít you?"
"Then Iíll say Lyta snuck aboard the shuttle on my orders when you werenít looking." Marcus offered, a smug grin on his face.
"Iíd do it anyway, so it wouldnít really be a lie." Lytaís expression mirrored Marcusís.
Sheridan looked from one to the other. "You understand weíve got about one chance in a thousand of coming back alive?"
"Better odds than I thought. I was thinking more like one in five hundred thousand."
"You know that if the Shadows catch us weíd be better off dead?"
Lyta folded her arms. "You intending to list everything or can we just accept this is one huge mistake all round and get on with it?"
Seeing no crack in her determination, Sheridan finally conceded. "I think youíre crazy, but thanks." He tapped his link. "Sheridan to bridge."
"Anlaíshok Lewis here, Captain. All quiet at the moment."
"Good. Whatís our ETA?"
"Two hours fifty-five minutes."
"OK. Iíll be up there shortly."
Terminating the link, he turned to Marcus. "When we get there youíre going to have to open a jump point for me then get away fast. We need to find something I can hide behind so they donít get me before I can hit the ground."
"I was checking the area earlier," Marcus replied in a matter of fact tone. "Thereís some orbiting remnants of what I think might once have been a moon. Some of the pieces are pretty big. Itíll take some navigation, but I can bring you in behind an asteroid without smearing you all over the surface. The White Starís good at that kind of thing."
"Thatís nice to know."
The deadpan delivery brought a smirk to Marcusís face. He stood up. "Is there anything else you need to do here before we arrive?"
"No, thatís it for now. I do need a telepath who isnít coming with me. Iíve got a message I need carried in person."
Lyta straightened. "Iíll send Paul up to you. Heís the most powerful." She headed for the door.
"Iíll meet him on the bridge. Marcus, have you eaten yet?"
"Then I suggest you get something before you come on duty. I donít want you fainting at the controls when youíre trying to bring us in behind that asteroid."
"I never faint. I collapse with style." He laughed and then turned on his heel to head out of the docking bay, pausing at the door. "Message received anyway. Will you be joining me?"
Sheridan shook his head. "Honestly? I donít think I could keep anything down right now, but Iíll be ok. The doc pumped me full of enough vitamins and minerals to keep me going for a week." He eyed Marcus, "Amongst other things," he added. Marcus didnít rise to the bait any more than he had on the bridge when Sheridan first turned up to relieve him. As he turned away Sheridan narrowed his eyes, then shook his head and chuckled, following him out.
"I want every scanner set to maximum and monitored every minute. I want every telepath straining to reach even further. I have no intention of being caught before weíve done what we came here to do, is that clear?" A chorus of ĎYes, sirí and curt nods followed Ivanovaís comment. She waited a few seconds and then, hands on hips, added, "Well? What are you doing standing around here? Move!" The Rangers smartly removed themselves, each intent on fulfilling his or her allotted task as efficiently as possible. The Alyt watched them depart and then turned her attention to Ivanova.
"It will be another 18 hours before we arrive. Is there anything else you would like us to prepare in advance?"
"Believe me, if I think of anything youíll be the first to know about it. I just wish we could get there faster."
"I have assigned several technicians to the task of finding a more direct route."
"I know. Thanks." Ivanova paced the deck for a few minutes, observing her surroundings. Rangers toiled with a calmness that belied the amount of work completed. If she had considered the crew of White Star 1 were especially good, here was evidence that Anlaíshok training demanded an equally high standard regardless of the ultimate assignment the Ranger would take. She turned to the Alyt. "Iím going toÖ" She swung her fist into her open palm a couple of times and shrugged. "Öhit myself over the head for a couple of hours." The Alyt nodded her understanding then turned to receive another report as Ivanova left the command deck.
"The waitingís always the worst part, isnít it?"
Sheridan stopped tapping the armrest and gave a rueful smile. "Every time. Another good reason for holding back some information. Gives people less time to worry about it."
"Have you seen Paul?"
"Uh huh." His gaze remained fixed on the swirling red of hyperspace.
"If I may askÖ?"
He tore his gaze away. "Why a telepath?" he finished. Marcus nodded. "I wanted to be sure everybody understood, I guess. If this goes wrong, or even if it goes right and I donít come back, there are gonna be certain people falling over themselves to take the blame. I could write a novel explaining how itís entirely my choice and they still wouldnít listen. Thatís no good to anyone, so I got Paul to do a deep scan." He rubbed his temple. "Hurts like hell, by the way. Anyway, he can verify my mental state. That should stop the martyrs and let everyone get on with their jobs."
"Verify your mental state? Did you check yourself, just to make sure?"
"I did ask, as a matter of fact."
"Very focussed and determined." Marcus remained silent, noting the way Sheridan shifted in his chair. Finally, the Captain leaned over and added, "And extremely nervous."
"Understandable. Nothing else?"
Sheridan resumed his observation of hyperspace, his jaw set. "Nothing that will get in the way."
Marcus raised an eyebrow but refrained from commenting. The computer delivered an ETA, informing them that there was less than half an hour left. "Youíd best get down to the shuttle bay and do any final checks. Weíre nearly there."
Sheridan grunted and stood up, offering his hand to the young man. Marcus took it firmly. "Thanks. Just get us in there in one piece and leave us to do the rest. Remember what I said: donít come after me."
Marcusí face was grim. "Understood. Good luck, Captain. Whatever happens, thanks for letting me be a part of it. Itís been quite a ride." The two men clasped each otherís shoulders, gripping hard, more said through that touch and the silence accompanying it than could be communicated in words. As Sheridan left Marcus settled in the command chair. "OK, letís see if we can worm our way through the mail slot in the Shadowsí front door."
When he arrived at the shuttle bay, Sheridan found Lyta already waiting for him. Sheíd changed into clothes more suitable to the task ahead Ė dark, hardwearing and practical Ė and had brought two water canteens and a small rucksack. He nodded towards the latter as she handed him his canteen.
"Just a few things I thought might come in handy: flashlights, first aid kit, that sort of thing. Yours is even more practical." She retrieved a second rucksack that he had not noticed and tossed it at him. He caught it awkwardly as it was heavier than he had imagined. Opening it he found it full of energy caps for both the pistol and rifle versions of the standard issue Earth-Minbari sidearm. Lyta showed the pistol she was carrying, which matched Sheridanís own. "I put a couple of rifles in the shuttle. I figured these are probably the biggest things weíll be able to cart around with us down there, but a backup never hurts."
"Given weíre trying to sneak in, and someone carrying a rifle kinda stands out, the PPG will be better anyway. You take whichever you feel more comfortable with." He loaded his own weapons and popped a spare cap in his pocket. "Youíre certain you want to go through with this? Because itís not too late to back out if youíve changed your mind."
He searched her eyes for some hint that this was all bluster, but she returned his gaze calmly. He opened the shuttle door. "In that case, ladies first."
Lyta raised an eyebrow but he simply grinned. With a shake of her head she stepped into the shuttle.
Garibaldi was tapping the armrest. As with all other ships in the fleet they were waiting in hyperspace for the enemy to attack Ė their lure, a remotely-operated Earth-Minbari destroyer in normal space. Whether the enemy would deign to show up was another matter. "Anything?"
The communications officer shook his head. "Nothing so far. Iíll continue scanning."
"Nuts. If Iíd had to lay money on any of the sites panning out Iíd have put my life savings on this one." He tapped the communications console. "Garibaldi to telepaths. You got anything down there?"
"Not a thing. Still checking."
He turned back to comms. "Anything from the rest of the fleet?" Another shake of the head. "For crying out loud, did everyone leave the galaxy and expect us to turn out the lights? No part of space is this quiet this side of the rim. What the hellís going on?"
"Could Captain Sheridanís plan have worked even better than we hoped?" asked the second officer who was standing at Ops.
"Nah. We donít get that lucky." He sat back. "Keep monitoring. We canít do anything until they turn up. Check the other ships, make sure everyoneís clear what to do the second anybody gets any action."
"Already done sirÖthree times so far."
"Then make it four! I donít want anyone left with his ass hanging in the breeze when this starts up."
Marcus smiled. "Thereís our mail slot." He zeroed his targeting array on the asteroid and tapped the controls. "Helm, Iím sending coordinates. On my signal I want you to bring us out so close to that thing we make it jump." The helmsman acknowledged the order. "Marcus to Sheridan, start your engines, Iím opening the bay doors."
"SteadyÖ steadyÖ Jump!" As the vortex opened Marcus gasped. The asteroid filled the entire screen. "Bloody hell! Helm, hard a port. Captain, go!"
"See you on the flip side. Good luck!"
"The shuttle is clear of the docking bay, sir."
"Good. Helm, bring her about ninety degrees and open a jump point."
The swirling gate opened before them, vaporising two smaller asteroids as it did so. A second later found the White Star back in hyperspace. Marcus wiped his beard.
"I said make the asteroid jump, not me!"
"We were within tolerance."
"Youíre sure about that, are you?"
The helmsman shrugged. "Weíre still here."
"Speak for yourself." He took a deep breath and waited a few seconds for his heart to stop pounding. "Nicely done, though," he conceded at last. "I just hope you didnít scare the Captain as much as you did me."
"Oh my God!" Lyta hissed as the massive asteroid filled the forward viewport.
"Iím on it." Almost simultaneously Sheridan fired thrusters to reorient the ship and hit the throttle to get away from the on-rushing mountain of rock. Once the immediate danger was over he slowed to match velocity while maintaining a safe distance.
"Nice piloting." Her voice was tight and slightly higher than usual.
"I know how you feel. Any sign the enemy noticed?"
Lyta checked the scanners and then closed her eyes for a few seconds. At last she said, "Iím not picking up anything. Itís possible if the Shadows noticed anything at all it was masked by the exploding asteroids Marcus wiped out."
"Hmm. Weíll stay here for a few minutes, just to make sure." He looked out of the side porthole and added, "On second thoughts, weíll go over there and hitch a ride." He pointed at his target, a hunk of rock that was tumbling more slowly and whose path placed it on a near collision course with Zíhaídum. "If I can just line us upÖ"
Lyta took in Sheridanís look of intense concentration and the pock-marked surface of the asteroid. "You have *got* to be kidding! Youíre gonna park us on that thing?"
"In it, if I can manage. Hold on."
"Holy shit. Youíre insane! Weíll be smashed to pieces!"
"I didnít come this farÖ" He overshot slightly and then slammed the shuttle into reverse by firing the forward thrusters. "Öto becomeÖ" He executed a manoeuvre not totally dissimilar to a handbrake turn on ice and dropped the shuttle into a cave, the craft landing with a slight bump. He turned off the engines and looked at his companion. "Öso much meat paste," he finished, flashing a smile.
"And here I was thinking the biggest risk weíd have to face was the Shadows."
"You have no idea. I think weíll be fine here for a few minutes and thisíll certainly make our route in a bit safer. Weíll have to peel off in aboutÖ" He tapped the controls and considered the readout for a moment. "Twenty minutes, just to be on the safe side."
"Why not ride it all the way in?"
"Too risky. If theyíve got halfway decent planetary defences theyíll blow this thing to bits. Itíd make one hell of a hole if it actually hit the surface."
Lyta checked the ground scanner. "Looks like itís been hit by quite a few already."
"Maybe, but I donít want to take the risk. No, what I need is something a little smaller. Something big enough for us to hide behind to get past the defence system without being seen, but small enough not to get blown to bits."
She folded her arms. "Out of curiosity, if this asteroid field hadnít been here, what were you going to do?"
"Get up some speed, point us in the general direction of the planet, switch off all power so we looked like a floating piece of space junk and pray very, very hard."
"And you figured that would work?"
Distracted, he continued to check the instruments as he answered. "It had to. Damn, I donít like using active scanning this close to the planet, they could pick us up. Come on, come onÖ" He checked his countdown. "Mind you, if I donít find something soon weíre reverting to plan A anyway."
Lyta suddenly sat upright, her eyes widening. "Captain, I think weíre about to get some company."
He looked at her sharply. "Shadow ship?"
She concentrated, her eyes narrowing as she pushed her talents to the limit. "I donít think so. Shadow tech, yes. I think itís a converted ship."
"Another Sharlin Cruiser with spikes," he grunted, his tone disgusted.
"Not SharlinÖ Look!"
From their vantage point on the asteroid, under the lee of the cave they could see a jump point opening to reveal a Hyperion Class ship sporting the mottled, spiky, black coating that marked Shadow tech enhancement.
"Great. More of them." Suddenly the Captain grinned. "And just what we wanted right now. Hold on tight!"
The shuttle jerked, shooting out of the cave just as the Hyperion passed nearby. Quickly Sheridan brought the shuttle in to sit behind the main engines, following in the shipís wake.
"Wonít they see us?"
He shook his head, then paused and shrugged. "Possibly, but I donít think so. The engine wash always gave the Hyperion class a blind spot right behind. The Shadow tech may have rectified that, but Iím guessing theyíve plugged the technology into the systems already installed. Because of the dead zone problem the shipís sensors were never set to scan the immediate rear: itíd be a waste of effort. If Iím right, even if the Shadow tech picks us up it canít report what itís found to the shipís main computer because the computer will refuse to recognise it as valid data."
"Itís all weíve got right now and about as safe as walking up to the front door in full view."
"Great." She folded her arms and then looked at him long and hard. "So throughout this war, when everyone thought youíd planned every moveÖ"
"I did plan a lot of it," he insisted, then grinned. "But the rest was flying by the seat of my pants, yes."
She raised an eyebrow. "You cover well."
"Part of the training. When you know what youíre doing itís easy, but if the enemy is any good, a commander can end up not so much acting as reacting." He adjusted their path as the Hyperion swung slightly to port. "Not a position any of us care for, mind you. Weíre all control freaks. The guy who wins is the one who picks the best course of action to achieve the mission in the shortest time, preferably saving as many lives as possible."
"What was that saying? Something about no battle plan ever surviving contact with the enemy?"
"Hmm. Well, under those circumstances you have to adapt." He sat back, the Hyperionís course showing no signs of changing in the immediate future. "Of course you also learn as much as you can about your crew and about the enemy, so you can try and anticipate their moves, how your people will react and prepare for them. Know it well enough and you can force the enemy to do what you want while they think they still have control."
She could hear a caveat lurking in his voice. "But?"
"You canít predict or know everything. You try, but the universe sometimes throws you a curve ball, so you can still end up flying by the seat of your pants."
"Do I take it I just got the crash course in Command 101?"
"Thereís rather more to it than that, but fundamentally, yes."
"Telepathy is easier."
"I imagine so. I do envy the telepaths their gift."
"I wouldnít. The price can be pretty high." He glanced at her, indicating heíd like to hear more before looking back at his instruments. "When it starts it can be very painful. Imagine living in silence your whole life, then one day youíre dropped into a football stadium where everyone is yelling at the top of their lungs. You canít switch it off, you canít sleep, thereís nowhere you can go to get even five minutes of peace to organise your thoughtsÖ Thatís where Psi Corps was good. Everyone protected us from their thoughts and taught us how to protect ourselves when we went outside. You canít even imagine the bizarre conversations that go through the heads of your average munÖ non-telepath," she amended.
He knew telepaths tended to refer to non-telepaths as mundanes, but decided not to admit heíd noticed Lytaís slip. Instead he tried to inject a little humour into the conversation. "Well, if theyíre anything like mine when Iím boredÖ"
"Now multiply that a thousand times." He nodded. "Now imagine trying not to react to some of those because if you do the person thinking it gets angry and beats you up. If you took a beautiful woman out to a restaurant and some total stranger at the next table started to talk loudly about how much theyíd like to screw your date, describing in lurid detail how theyíd go about it, youíd react automatically. Telepaths have to learn to screen all that out, distinguish verbal communication from telepathic -- which can sometimes be even louder -- remember what they are allowed to know and forget what theyíre not supposed to knowÖ You see non-telepaths get upset over silly misunderstandings but you canít help them because then they get even madder. Youíre forever walking a tightrope and youíd better have a good memory."
She paused in her diatribe and Sheridan glanced at her again. "What is it?"
Her shoulders dropped. "And everything would be so much easier if I didnít care. Back at the training facility there was a Psi Cop by the name of Alfred Bester. He always seemed so in controlÖ we all looked up to him. He was the ideal of a telepath. Cool, collected, knowledgeable and wise. But then I found out how heíd done that." She shuddered and shook her head.
"When he was a trainee he used to do a lot of deathbed scans."
"Worse. I canít even begin to describe it. You can feel the pain, but thatís nothing. Itís the fear, the loneliness, the desperation. Even if theyíre surrounded by everyone they love theyíre still alone. Itís not so bad when itís someone whoís lived a good life and is ready to go, but a lot of deathbed scans are because someone is dying before their time. Theyíre fighting, mentally and physically, for every last second."
Sheridan shifted uncomfortably, all too well aware that he might be getting first hand experience of Lytaís nightmare scenario very shortly.
"Bester stayed after every other telepath had pulled out. You canít sit in a mind thatís going through that much torment and not be affected by it, but he did, day after day. He even asked for extra work. Heíd stay in their minds as they walked up to the door, waiting to get a glimpse of what was on the other side."
Interested in spite of himself, Sheridan urged her to continue. "And? What did he see?"
"He never told us, but whatever it was it allowed him to step away from humanity. He was married, had children, had affairs." Sheridan frowned. "Psi Corps marriages arenít based on love, theyíre based on compatibility. You breed powerful telepaths to get even more powerful telepaths. Bester was a P10 and that made him prime breeding stock, but itís accepted in the Corps that provided you fulfil your duties to produce top notch little telepaths, you can go on to sire a load more less skilled but still useable telepaths too."
A wince. "Sounds like some kind of human farm."
"There was some of that, but good things too. Watching it all, I just got the impression Bester was going through the motions. He enjoyed his liaisons, felt no compunction as to who he used, when and how. As long as the Corps was protected and grew, all was right with the world. But there was something about him that was cold, dead. Something heíd lost doing all those scans. Something that had gone to the other side and left him behind. It was like the man didnít have a soul anymore." She chanced a half smile, "If you believe in that sort of thing."
"I was fairly open-minded before we started this conversation. Now Iím just grateful I donít get to see it from your side. How do you stay sane?"
"Not everyone does, but donít knock the Corps. I wonder what new telepaths are going to do without it because it certainly saved a lot of pain."
"Letís hope we get to find out." Another check of the instruments. "It looks like our big buddy out there is aiming to park in orbit above an area of major energy output. At a guess Iíd say itís the Shadow equivalent of a city." He double-checked. "And it looks like the only inhabited place on the entire planet."
"Makes it easier."
"I would have gone for that anyway. If thatís where the main spaceport is, the chances are Nerooníll be nearby, but yes, itís good to know our choices are limited. I donít reckon our chances improve any if we have to stay down there for months looking for him."
"I take it weíre not landing in the Shadow equivalent of Times Square, right?"
"Iíve found a fairly flat area just off to the south east. Looks like there may be some conduits that lead back to the city. We can park out there and walk back." He nodded towards the back of the shuttle. "If you check the panel at the back youíll find there are some survival kits including oxygen masks. Thereís a lot of methane on the surface. We know humans and Minbari spend at least some time down there and survive, so thereíll be atmosphere where we want to go."
Lyta released her safety straps and walked to the back of the shuttle. "You hope," she muttered as she opened the panel. Sheridan grinned but maintained his focus on the navigation panel. By the time Lyta returned he had peeled away from the Hyperion and was heading towards the planet. After a few seconds of power to build up some momentum he cut the engines, minimised as much electrical equipment as he could, and sat back.
"Now we wait."
"Do you think they saw us?"
"What, on the ship? I doubt it. When youíre settling into orbit there are a lot of things on your mind and a lot of controls blinking at you. I didnít leave the engines burning long enough for them to get a fix even if someone noticed, and now weíre just one more piece of space junk. As long as we keep energy output to a minimum."
"What about the planetís defence systems?"
"I was hoping you wouldnít remember those."
"Weíre small. Weíre inside the range of the main batteriesÖ" He looked at Lyta whoíd raised one eyebrow. "I was re-evaluating the power of prayer, myself."
"You really go for the scientific approach, donít you?"
"Itís been remarked on."
For a few interminable minutes the two sat in silence, watching the planet intently. At last Sheridan re-activated the main sensors. "So far, so good. Nothing seems to have picked us up. I guess out here they donít care what hits them so long as itís not too big."
"Speaking of too big, how were you planning on getting the explosives into the city?"
"I synched the shipís controls to home in on my communicator and activate the explosives on impact. I donít have to be wearing the link at the time," he assured her, "just when initiating the call, but it does mean Iíll be out of communications."
"So how were you planning on getting off this rock?"
"Well, I was kinda hoping there might be a shuttle down there I could steal. Maybe get to the other side of the planet before the wave hits."
"So when you said you didnít expect to come back you really meant it, didnít you?"
"Lyta, Iím going to do everything I can to make sure you make it. If there are ships in orbit thereíll be shuttles on the ground. I can send you ahead once weíre ready." She opened her mouth to respond but he shook his head. "No arguments. If you can get me to the point of being able to call in the shuttle on Neroon youíll have done your bit and be able to report back. Iíll be right behind you, I promise." He checked the console and then re-activated the engines. "If they havenít picked up on us by now they never will. Iím taking her down."
Lyta sat in silence, occasionally glancing at Sheridan while he piloted them down to the surface. Once theyíd landed she followed him through the hatch, the breather unit restricting her view and making her feel slightly claustrophobic.
Observing her discomfort Sheridan said, "Yeah, I feel the same. According to the sensors the conduits are this way." He set off.
"Do the sensors show any oxygen that way?"
"How long have we got with these things?"
"Six hours as long as weíre not running a marathon. The fact the gravity is lighter here should help to extend that."
"Thatís not the only thing thatís different here." Sheridan paused and looked at his companion who had her eyes closed and her hands out, as though feeling her way in a darkened room. "Canít you sense it?"
"Thereís somethingÖ Oh God, thatís weird." She staggered and Sheridan reached out, grasping her hand as he did so. Instantly he was awash with Lytaís disorientation.
"What theÖ?" He tried to let go but she held him.
"Can you feel it now? Concentrate."
Reluctantly he allowed her to share what she was sensing. At last he nodded. "I get it, Iím just not sure what I get."
"How long since we left the shuttle?"
"Five minutes at most. Why?"
"What does the computer say?"
He looked down at the readout. "That canít be right." She leaned over and watched the digits, which passed at almost double the normal rate.
"Yeah, it can be. Thatís what we were sensing. Time isnít right here."
"Yet itís happening. Iíll lay odds itíll get worse the closer to the city we get."
He continued to stare at the readouts, then took a deep breath and looked up. "I guess all we can hope is that by the time we get there itís still this century outside, otherwise itís going to be a bit pointless. Come on."
Together they walked towards the open conduit that loomed up darkly from the planetís sombre, pitted surface.
"How much longer?" Ivanova huffed.
"Long enough for you to get some rest before we arrive, Commander." While the Alyt still managed to project total calm in the face of her frustration, a careful observer with years of experience around Minbari might have detected the miniscule hint that the Alyt was two minutes from meltdown. Ivanova, unfortunately, was not paying any attention.
"Then may I suggest the exercise programmes so you can work out some of your frustration?" One minute.
"Thatís where I was for two hours."
Meltdown. "Then may I suggest anywhere but on my bridge?"
At last the tone and slightly more clipped delivery got through. "What?"
The Alyt took a deep breath, centred and then tried again. "Commander, I have an even better suggestion. You take over here and Iíll get some rest." When Ivanova shook her head the Alyt stood and then whispered close to her ear. "Do it or I may not be responsible for my actions."
When a Minbari snaps, especially a member of the religious caste, there is a cold, clinical detachment that settles across their demeanour. The screaming and yelling typical of a human temper is only the first stage demonstrated by a young and undisciplined acolyte faced with an apparently impossible task after 72 hours without sleep. Religious Caste Minbari pride themselves on the fact that even when they do lose their temper itís not demonstrative, merely lethal. As the Alyt pulled away Ivanova found herself caught by eyes that sought to slice her atom by atom. Wisely she took her seat.
"In that case, happy to help." She took the seat offered quickly and somehow managed to refrain from watching the Alytís departing back. It wouldnít do for anyone to learn Commander Ivanova had finally met someone who was even more terrifying than she was.
"Have you the slightest idea of where youíre going?"
"Actually, Iím using your idea." Lyta cocked her head. "You thought the time distortion would get worse as we got closer to the city, so Iím using the sensor to detect aberrations and then heading towards the most severe." He checked the readout as they neared another intersection. "One way or the other," he added, squinting at the readout and then shaking his head. Time on this planet seemed to be as changeable as the weather with considerably less explanation. ĎTheirs not to reason whyí he thought and then stopped, recalling the next line with a grimace. He pointed ahead, hoping Lyta hadnít picked up on his mood. "All of which means this time we go...ah, to the right."
"I could have been wrong, you know."
"You could, but as I donít have anything better I might as well run with it."
Lyta didnít have an answer for that, so instead she concentrated on stretching her telepathic senses as far as she could. At least then theyíd be warned before they walked into a Shadow nest.
"Iím getting something on the sensors."
"Itís about fragging time," Garibaldi muttered under his breath, moving forward slightly in his seat. "Show me."
"Aye sir." The holographic projection shimmered into view and Garibaldi scanned vainly.
"I donít see anything."
"Coming through now, sir."
A jump point opened and for a minute Garibaldi stared. Finally he sat back. "Well Iíll be damned."
"Looks like itís this way." Sheridan turned off but Lyta lunged and dragged him back, smothering his mouth with her hand before he could cry out. One look at her face was enough to alert him and he clamped down not only on his voice but, as far as possible, his thoughts as well. She removed her hand and nodded, acknowledging his efforts, then pointed in the other direction. Sheridan dutifully followed.
"Weíre being hailed."
"I bet we are." After a short pause he turned to the Ranger. "Well? Put her on!" Garibaldi stood up to acknowledge the caller as the holographic image shimmered and changed. "Good to see you."
"And you, Mr Garibaldi. It has been some time and I have much to tell you all. Where is Captain Sheridan?"
"That, Delenn, is a long storyÖ"
"What was that?" Sheridan asked, jerking his thumb in the direction they had come.
"Iím not entirely sure. It wasnít human, I can tell you that much."
"Perhaps. It could have been another species Iíve not encountered before, I donít know. Whatever it was Iím not in a hurry to meet it again."
"That good, huh?" She shuddered and he took the hint. "In that case, youíre navigator now. Which way do we go?"
Lyta reached out telepathically as far as she could, sensing the surrounding atmosphere. At last a smile that had nothing whatsoever to do with humour crossed her face. "Now that I recognise."
"I canít refine it that much, but Minbari, certainly. He may not be here, you know."
"Heíd better be or Iím going to have to hunt him down through the universe and that could take a while." Sheridanís jaw was working, the skin rippling over the muscles as they tightened and flexed. "If we can take out his support heíll be a lot easier to catch even if heís not here. Either way, we go on."
A few minutes later their walk was interrupted by a beeping sound. As tense as they were, both jumped slightly in surprise. Sheridan checked his sensor and pulled off his breather unit, cautiously sniffing the air.
"A bit musty. We must be catching some kind of waste from the main areas. A leaking pipe maybe."
Lyta, too, removed her breather. It made sense to conserve oxygen wherever possible, and even though the air was slightly stale the faint breeze cooled her. "Could the planet have had air on the surface at one time and still have some underground?"
"I guess anythingís possible. Even so, I think sooner or later weíre going to have to go through aÖ" He stopped as the corridor turned sharply before ending in a huge, black door. There were no controls in sight. "Yeah, one of these."
"Exit only, you think?"
"If it can let things out, it can let us in." He examined the door for a few seconds, then stood back. "The trickíll be to open it without anyone noticing... although looking at this thing the trick will be opening it at all." He turned to see Lyta, head cocked slightly as if she was listening. "Something on the other side?"
"No." She moved forward, reached out and placed her hand on the door. There was a pause and then she leapt back as the door rose quickly. The air around them grew thin as it was sucked into a vacuum and both grabbed their breathers. They stepped inside and the door dropped into place again. A few seconds later a second door opened, this time in the normal fashion of old doors on Earth, swinging inwards. Sheridan frowned and inched forward, checking both ways before stepping into the empty corridor and cautiously taking a deep breath. He nodded in satisfaction and Lyta followed. The door shut behind them. As they walked away Sheridan glanced at his companion. "It responded to telepathic commands," she replied to his unvoiced question.
"Ah." He grinned. "Good thing you came along, then." A raised eyebrow was the full extent of her response. "Now where?"
After a pause she said, "I sense Minbari this wayÖ human this way." She motioned in opposite directions as she spoke.
"Any idea who the Minbari is?"
Another pause and thenÖ"Neroon."
Sheridanís eyes narrowed. "Right. How close?"
"Not very far, actually, but above us."
"So theyíre close but the stairs are on the other side of the planet, huh?"
She chuckled. "I hope not. I feel like we just came from there."
He looked up and down the deserted corridor. "Is there anyone on this level?"
"I canít refine it that much, but I donít think so. Why?"
"Letís split up. First one to find the way up, use the headset mikes." When she frowned he added, "Thereís not much point both of us going one way only to find itís only a hundred yards in the other direction."
Reluctantly she set off, watching him jog away from her until he turned a corner and vanished from sight.
"Weíre nearing the planet, Commander."
After completing her stint in the command chair, Ivanova paced the corridors and explored every nook and cranny of the ship, trying to kill time while awaiting their ETA without incurring the Alytís wrath. Now and for the past twenty minutes she was lurking at the back of the bridge. The Alyt was aware of her presence, but since Susan was quiet decided not to comment until this moment. Now she looked over her shoulder and beckoned the slightly startled woman to resume her position in the command chair.
Susan sat down, nodded her thanks and then proceeded to give her orders. "All right. I donít want them to know weíre here. Can we monitor without coming out of hyperspace?"
"Yes, Commander. All quiet at the moment. Thereís one ship in orbit."
"Do we know whose?"
"Negative. If I increase the scanner strength to find out they may pick us up."
"Then donít. Use visual only. See if you can find Captain Sheridanís shuttle. Itís a needle in a haystack job, but worth a shot."
The wait seemed interminable and Ivanova was just starting to hope that by some miracle they had beaten him and could prevent his carrying out his plans when the Ranger spoke again.
"Found it, Commander. Itís about 12 clicks from the main energy output area. Iíd guess thatís the main city but thereís nothing much showing on the surface so itís hard to be certain without increasing scanner strength." He shrugged to indicate the problems already mentioned on that score.
"On screenÖ Magnify." She stared at the unmistakeable outline of the shuttle. "Damn." Ivanova gazed at the readouts as if trying to find proof she was seeing a mirage, then shook her head. "Anyone got any suggestions Iím willing to listen." She looked around at the sea of blank faces, everyone aware that the chances of success on the enemyís home world was as close to zero as made no odds.
"Is Captain Sheridan wearing a communicator?" The young communications officer looked slightly flustered at the attention he had suddenly attracted, but he held his ground, albeit his voice quavered under Ivanovaís gaze. "I just thought if we could track him we might be able to collect him or send some supportÖ" His voice trailed off.
"Youíre picking up that level of detail through the planetary defences, are you?" Ivanova kept her voice from sinking to withering sarcasm, but only barely.
The Alyt frowned and before Ivanova could express her opinion of crew-members who made suggestions without checking the logistics first, she spoke. "Minbari communications would let the enemy know more about Captain Sheridanís present location than would be prudent. The planet is well shielded to most scans, but it is just possible a telepathic scan might bypass electronic surveillance." She contrived to look as rueful as a Minbari was capable of achieving. "Of course, among the Shadows there are many ways of surveillance and it would be reasonable to suggest some of them would be capable of identifying telepathic scans as well. Nevertheless, we have a strong telepath aboard and they might be able to detect Captain Sheridan. It may be worth the effort."
"If the Shadows do intercept the attempt could they track us through it?"
"Of course. Whether they would be able to attack before we vanished into hyperspace is another matter. I should point out they may also find the Captain."
"And suddenly heís surrounded." Ivanova bit her lip. "Besides, telepaths need a line of sight."
"Human telepaths, yes. Minbari telepaths are not so restricted." When Susan remained silent the Alyt spoke again. "It may be better if we remain here and monitor the shuttle, but if you do wish to offer support I believe that is the only method available to us."
"So two chances: slim and none. Great. All right, bring the telepath up here and we can explain the situation and have them on standby. At least it gives us options."
Delenn, Garibaldi and the shipís Alyt sat in a room off to the rear of the bridge as Garibaldi related the events since Delenn left for Minbar. "...So you can understand why we were surprised to see you." Garibaldi concluded with a sigh.
Delennís face lost what little colour it held. Standing, she began to pace. Garibaldi had heard of people wringing their hands, but up until this moment heíd never actually seen it. "I could not send a message without compromising those helping me and risking capture," she explained, her voice cracking slightly as she recognised how her disappearance had affected events. "I had no ideaÖ I would never have allowed this to happen had I known."
"Itís not your fault, DelennÖ"
"I should have found a way." She stood up. "We must try to help him."
"Ivanovaís already there. Thereís nothing more we can do except be ready to take advantage of whatever happens. We certainly canít risk losing you now that weíve got you back. If the worst happensÖ" Delenn looked up sharply, her demeanour speaking volumes, but there was no denying the facts. "Öyouíll be the best person to lead. I know thatís the last thing you feel like doing, but if you donít itís going to be a lot harder and Johnís sacrifice would have been a waste."
She nodded, drew in a breath and when she looked up again Garibaldi could almost see the vaunted Minbari reserve falling into place. "And if that does happen, those responsible will pay for it dearly." Garibaldi glanced at the Alyt whose expression matched that of Delenn. Garibaldi had no doubt the last time anyone had looked like that it had preceded the near annihilation of the human race.
John rounded a corner and paused. There was a stairway ahead of him, leading up. It was hard to comprehend how such an advanced race could have such old fashioned methods of building: the door, the stairs Ė it all seemed so mundane. How could a race that seemed so alien be so down-to-earth? Creatures like this ought to have black and red walls, strange sigils, and something more sinister than a stairway. At the very least it should soar without a balustrade into the open air creating vertigo in any who used it. This one simply turned a corner and continued onto the next floor.
Sheridan edged his way up slowly, looking for signs of movement. A door opened to his right and he ducked back. A shadow creature appeared, its six legs working a complicated ripple that made it glide across the polished floor. It paused and Sheridan ducked out of sight and held his breath, trying to blank his mind. After a few seconds he heard a clicking sound moving away. When the sound faded out of hearing he stepped back up into the corridor, listening intently as he eased his way along. He didnít want to get too far away from the stairwell but his innate curiosity made him go to the door from which the Shadow creature emerged.
He pressed his ear to the door. There were muffled voices coming from within. He closed his eyes to concentrate and a slow smile spread across his features. There was no mistaking that tone of command. Neroon! He checked his PPG, listening all the while. He could hear two others but that was all. He pulled out a second PPG, took a deep breath and prepared to fling open the door. Then he paused.
This was not an ideal situation. He could hear two others but that didnít mean there wasnít a dozen more keeping quiet. Perhaps it would be better to wait until Neroon came out, kill him and then run. And then there was the shuttle explosive. That at least he could set into motion. He tapped the signal into his communicator.
"Sir, weíve got a signal!" The voice on the intercom galvanised all into action. Delennís half of the story could wait as the three rushed back to the bridge.
"How many?" Garibaldi asked, taking his place in the command chair.
"Just the one at the moment."
"Put it on screen."
The holographic display dropped to reveal a small Shadow ship entering the area. "That is a scout ship," Delenn explained. "Once it is satisfied with the situation it will send a signal to the rest of the fleet."
Garibaldi nodded. "Has anyone else called in, yet?"
"No sir. Every other sector is quiet."
"Looks like weíre the only show in town. All right, send out the alert but tell the reserves to hold their positions. No point in dragging them away unless weíve got some business for them."
The communications officer bent to his task, giving a nod a few seconds later.
"Order battle stations and monitor that ship. I want to know the second it phones home. The first White Star that arrives, I want it to take up position on the other side of the area and monitor incoming ships. Once we go in I want to know how many weíre dealing with.
"Yes, sir. The crews have all been briefed." Garibaldi eyed the young man. "Iíll remind them again sir."
"You do that. Weíve only got one chance at this. After that weíve lost the element of surprise and I wouldnít give an eighth of a credit for our chances then."
Estimating distance and time on Zíhaídum was far from simple but Sheridan didnít want to be in the area when the shuttle hit. He placed his communicator on the floor by the door jam, working on the theory that people do not usually look down as they walk out of a room. The explosion probably wouldnít reach this deep underground, except by dumb luck, but it would cause consternation amongst the occupants and then he would target them as they rushed from the room. If that didnít work, heíd have caused enough damage to make life difficult and heíd simply burst in and follow wherever Neroon led. Whatever happened, he was determined the Minbari murderer would not draw breath by the end of the day. He backed his way to the stairwell and waited.
The door opened a few seconds later and a human emerged. Sheridan ground his teeth but kept quiet. As much as the idea of humans working with Shadows galled him, the man was not his target today. Besides, the old boy looked too shabby to be anyone important. A comfortable pair of slacks, an open collar on his unexciting shirt and a cardigan whose elbows had lost their shape due to constant use. Add that to the grey hair and moustache and the man looked more like an old college professor than anything military.
The greying man paused, said something back through the open door and then went on his way. A slight shimmering of the air around the door made Sheridan blink a couple of times to try and clear his sight but he didnít have time to consider that detail before the world exploded.
"Theyíre signalling." The communications officer managed to keep his voice calm, but Garibaldiís finely tuned ear detected the tension.
"Stay calm. This time weíve got the ace up our sleeve. Are our ships in place?"
"Last one moving into positionÖ Now. All in place, sir."
"Then close the trap."
"The shuttleís moving, sir."
"Did they get aboard?"
"No signs of life. Itís on autopilot."
"What the hell is he doing?" Susan watched as the shuttled skimmed the surface, rose and then arrowed towards the area of greatest energy output.
"Commander! Itís on a collision course!"
She almost forgot to breathe. "He *is* trying to kill himself."
"He is trying to kill *them*," the Alyt corrected. "If the energy output is a guide he is about to hit either a major power source or a massive concentration of living beings. Either way the impact will be devastating."
The crew watched in silence as the shuttle closed on its target.
"Impact in 3, 2, 1Ö"
The flash was blinding and several of the crew threw up their arms to protect themselves before the ship had time to darken the viewports and dim the glare. Several more explosions followed exposing the city that, until then, had been hidden under the surface of the planet.
In the silence Ivanovaís voice expressed everyoneís thoughts. "Oh my God, John. What have you done?"
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