SELLING OUT (I)

By Castor

 

 

 

*****

   "I tell you it's too risky. They're getting too close. I say we get out while we've got the chance." Charles Griffith was hunched over the circular table, his hands held tightly before him on the smooth wood surface to hide his nervousness. But the wet palms were beginning to irritate him and the heels of his hands were leaving condensation marks on the cool varnished tabletop, betraying him. His suit was smartly pressed, as always, and his once dark hair was flecked with grey. Dealing with these people probably explained most of that.

   "Not on your life! Have you any idea how much money we've made since the embargo on Earth was lifted?" Adam Farlow was pacing the room and now turned and stared at Charles. These corporate types got on his nerves. Happy to play the game while the going was good, but quick to run and hide as soon as things got a little interesting. The other two people around the table -- Larson Schmidt, a lanky, fair-haired man in his mid thirties, and some guy with an unpronounceable Japanese name everyone called 'Professor' because of his scientific background -- were watching the exchange with mild interest. The bodyguard stood, hands clasped in front of him at the door: a silent, black shadow in the background. Larson and the Professor had already made their points. They were happy to carry on with the business, but Charles was proving intractable, and not a little annoying. They'd dump him in a hot second were it not for the fact that his banking system was laundering the money for them. Changing their cleaning service this late in the game would slow things up and they had orders to fill.

   "A few hundred million maybe?" Charles said, raising his eyes from the table.

   "Hundred million?! Do you check the figures that go through that bank of yours? We're talking billions here, Chuck, and that's just the beginning! Maybe small within the solar system corporations, but makes a good chunk of change in my pocket to spend how I like."

   Griffith cringed. He hated 'Chuck', but this American seemed incapable of using his proper name. He shook his head. "Whatever. It's still not worth it."

   "You value your life too highly," Larson commented.

   "Yes, I do. Mine, my wife's, my kids'. I'm not doing this. You can find yourself another laundrette."

   "Now you know we can't do that, Chuck," Adam said in a deceptively calm voice. "The orders coming in from the IA worlds are just too big and too easy to track without you. Listen." He leaned down and put his arm on Griffith's shoulder, a false gesture that made Griffith shudder. "Hey, you cold, Chuck? Never mind, let me warm you up a little here." His grip grew tighter. "We can handle the Rangers. We can handle all of it, ok? The Professor and me, we was talkin' about this before you got here from that little conference or whatever it was." Griffith gritted his teeth. The meeting of the Saturn Consortium was hardly a little conference. The members represented every major banking group that dealt with interplanetary finances across the sector. "And we've got ourselves a plan. You wanna hear it?" He stared at Griffith with a look that made it absolutely plain the latter DID want to hear it, regardless of his personal opinions on the matter.

   Griffith sighed and shrugged, pulling himself from Adam's grasp and straightening his jacket. "I assume you're going to have your goons kill the Rangers one by one."

   "That will not work," said the Professor in his clipped tones. "They are like Samurai. You kill one, another takes its place. We could never defeat them all. So, if you cannot defeat the army, you must apply other methods. Diplomacy will not work, so we must undermine the politics behind the system. Once that is corrupted, the army will fall."

   "Corrupt the Interstellar Alliance? Half their worlds are dealing with us anyway, and half of *them* have senior politicians taking back-handers. How corrupt does it need to be?"

   "Not the members, Chuck," Adam said with a long-suffering sigh. "The heart. Well, the head, anyway."

   Griffith sat forward. "You can't be serious?" He looked around the table and saw the impassive faces of the members. "You ARE serious! How the hell are you going to corrupt the President? Catch him outside a meeting and offer him a hit?"

   "Ahh, you see? You're getting the hang of this."

   "You're crazy."

   "We would be if we did it that way. No, you see, the great thing about this stuff is how addictive it is. All we have to do is give him one dose. He doesn't even have to know he's getting it. In his food, in his water, hell, in that Minbari tea he drinks all the time. Doesn't matter. One dose, and he's ours."

   "You'll never get him off Minbar. How are you going to smuggle that stuff into the IA headquarters in Tuzanor and give it to him?" Griffith found he was interested in spite of himself. The idea was so outrageous he just had to hear how they planned to pull it off.

   "Ahh, but you see we've already arranged that. He's going to be on Babylon 5 next week. The wheels are already turning."

   "You'll get caught."

   "You worry too much. Makin' you look old. It can't be traced back to us, it's undetectable by their security scanners, and we've got a perfect dealer. No one'll question them."

   "How do you know that?"

   "Anyone can be bought," the Professor said. "If the price is right."

*****

   "I don't believe it!" Sheridan yelled, slamming the flimsies down on his desk. Delenn looked up from the reports she was reading. "Have you seen this?" She shook her head. Sheridan cleared his throat and read. " 'According to our sources, the Interstellar Alliance has a vested interest in maintaining the status quo where SD2 is concerned. Some member worlds are making vast profits from the sale of the drug; money that is being channelled into rebuilding after the so-called Shadow War. Corrupt politicians are helping spread the cancer of this deadly substance, and although President Sheridan is making a great show of sending his Rangers to break the network, our sources suggest his real intent is to prevent an independent investigation by Earth Gov. officials. Given the unstable nature of the fledgling Alliance it is in the IA's interests to ensure member worlds have deniability before their compliance in this slaughter is revealed.' " He threw down the report in disgust.

   "Where is that from?"

   "Some small scale tabloid, but I've got reporters trying to reach me from Universe Today and ISN demanding a comment."

   "So tell them it's not true."

   "They know that, Delenn. But someone's stirred the pot and it makes news. Now, in addition to the meetings about this drug I've got to attend on Babylon 5, I've got to do a blasted news conference proving I'm genuine about the meetings!" He sat down heavily. "Like I didn't have enough on my plate next week. God damn it! If I ever get my hands on the low life who wrote this shit I swear..." He clenched his fist and hit the arm of the couch in frustration.

   "I do not think that would look good; a dead reporter on your hands," Delenn smiled and Sheridan snorted.

   "It'd make me feel better," he muttered, rubbing his temples. "Where the hell do they get off writing this shit anyway? I should sue them for libel." He paused. "Or is it slander? Oh hell, I can never remember which one is which anyway."

   "It's *your* language!"

   "Right now, Minbari is easier."

   Delenn raised a brow ridge at the comment but he was staring into the middle distance and didn't acknowledge her. She shook her head and changed the subject. "Have you got everything you need?"

   "Yeah. Everything except the gun, the whisky and two bullets, but I can get all those on the station."

   She stood up, setting her reports aside and walked over to him, resting her hands on his shoulders. "Do you want me to come with you?"

   He shook his head. "No, you've got enough to do here, and David's going to be upset enough I missed his birthday. One of us has to be here." He sighed. "Lousy timing, though."

   "As I recall I did not have much choice in that!" She was behind him and he couldn't see her grin, but he could hear the chuckle in her voice. He was about to answer her when there was a knock at the door.

   "Come."

   A Ranger entered. He was a human. Young, brown-haired, brown-eyed and slim, but what there was of him was solid muscle. He bowed in the Minbari fashion. "Mr President, the White Star is ready if you are."

   Sheridan nodded and stood up. "I'll be right there." The Ranger bowed again and left. Delenn stepped around the couch and into Sheridan's arms as he gave his wife a goodbye kiss. When they pulled apart she reached up and pushed an errant strand of hair back into place.

   "You will take care of yourself?" she asked solicitously.

   "I always do."

   "And call me?"

   "Like I could stay away," he grinned. "Anyway, I'll need someone I can talk to. I have a feeling these meetings are going to be long, so if you get a call from a wide-eyed maniac who looks like he's just trashed half the representatives of the Alliance worlds you'll know things aren't going too well."

   "Be positive! They will listen. You have the reports?"

   He reached into his pocket and pulled out a data crystal. "Uh huh. It's all right here. We're closing in on them. Just a few more days and we'll have them."

   "Then that should be enough."

   "I hope so." He pulled her back into his arms and savoured her scent and touch once more, fixing it in his mind to bolster him against the trials ahead. Finally, with a last, quick kiss, he turned and, pocketing the crystal once more, went for the door.

   "John," Delenn called. He stopped and turned. "I love you."

   "Love you, too. Give David a hug from me and I'll call him on his birthday."

   "I won't let you forget!"

   "Don't, please. I can live without an angry kid on top of everything else! See you in about two weeks." He turned the corner and headed for the White Star.

*****

   Captain Lochley was reading through the security reports when Zack Allan walked in. "Mr. Allan. Please." She indicated a chair and he sat down. "Coffee?" A little surprised at the courtesy, Zack hesitated. "Don't worry. It's from Captain Ivanova's supplies. Rank does have its privileges."

   "Oh, well in that case..." Zack grinned and accepted the coffee as Lochley sat opposite him. They both savoured the aroma briefly before Lochley took a sip, put her mug down on the table and sat back.

   "You know President Sheridan is due here tomorrow?"

   "Yes sir."

   "And you've made sure security is ready?"

   "One hundred percent."

   "I want you to make it two hundred." Zack paused in mid gulp and put his mug down. "This drug dealing is getting out of hand and things are going to be even hotter than they usually are when he's around. We both know there's going to be trouble whatever we do. I want to make sure we can nip it in the bud the second it rears its ugly head."

   "I'm usin' everyone I've got as it is. If I pull any more for the conferences, station security's gonna be compromised."

   "Then use the Rangers. They're swarming all over the station anyway. Might as well put 'em to good use. I checked with Delenn a few hours ago and she's in agreement. Until this thing is over, all the Rangers on Babylon 5 are under our command."

   "All right then. I'll set up extra patrols and make sure the President has a guard wherever he goes, but you know he's gonna complain."

   "Let him. If he makes any fuss, tell him to take it up with me. I want security so tight a cockroach couldn't get through."

   "Yeah, well there's a few of them around here." He gulped down the rest of his coffee. "I'll get right on it. Anything else?"

   Lochley sighed. "Yes, there is one more thing. We have another guest who will be paying us a visit." Zack raised an eyebrow at the tone in Lochley's voice. "And I would appreciate it if you'd give her nearly as much attention as you give the President. They'll probably be in the same place most of the time anyway."

   "Who is it?"

   "Captain Ivanova."

   "You're kidding me? Ivanova is comin' to pay us a visit? Man, I didn't think she'd EVER come back here, what with Marcus and all."

   "I think that may be part of the reason for her visit. Her ship needs supplies as well and there are some upgrades being done on it. More benefits of Earth membership of the IA," she added by way of explanation.

   "Well, it'll be good to have her around." Zack was nodding to himself, his lips curled in a satisfied grin. He looked up and saw Lochley's expression. "What?"

   "You know I said there was a Sheridan-Garibaldi effect?" Zack nodded. "What's the betting if you add Captain Ivanova to the mix things'll get explosive?"

   "Ah, she's OK. She'll keep an eye on the President anyway. Best bodyguard you could ask for. Ain't no one gonna get anywhere near him if Ivanova's there."

   Lochley grunted but remained unconvinced. "All right, Mr. Allan. Dismissed."

   "Sir." Zack stood up smartly and left the room. Lochley contemplated her coffee for a few minutes before rising herself and going to her desk. "Computer, record personal log."

   "Begin when ready."

   "Well, Ivanova will be here later today, and I'm not sure I'm happy about it. She's a professional, so I know we'll get along fine on that score, but there's something weird about having the person who did this job for so long on the same patch... not to mention the Voice of the Resistance broadcasts. Sheridan was bad enough, but something's making me uneasy. Maybe it's because we were on different sides, and I know Ivanova isn't as ready to accept the differences as Sheridan is. Maybe it's because of Marcus, lying down there frozen in cryo. I don't know. But we're the same rank and I'm in charge on Babylon 5 now. She'll respect that." She shut down the recorder. "I hope," she added.

*****

   When Ivanova's ship, called Warlock since it was the first in the Warlock class, came through the jumpgate, Corwin found himself with mixed emotions. On the one hand, he had a lot of respect for Ivanova and a part of him missed having her around. On the other hand, Lochley was a lot easier to work for. Suddenly his commander's rank disappeared from his mind and he was a lieutenant again, answering to Ivanova and watching his back for fear she stuck a verbal knife through it. He acknowledged the signal and cleared the shuttle then, turning to the command crew, he had the lieutenant who now occupied his old post behind the console take over so he could welcome Captain Ivanova himself.

   When Ivanova stepped off the shuttle the first thing Corwin noticed were the hints of grey now permeating her long hair. Her stance was upright and stiff, even stiffer than when she was aboard Babylon 5 if that were possible. She hesitated, briefly, before coming towards him. He wondered what was going through her mind.

   "Captain. Good to see you again," he smiled.

   "I'll bet," Ivanova responded dourly. "Just couldn't wait to have me back here making your life a misery, right?"

   "I wouldn't say that..."

   "Because you're far too polite." Suddenly her expression changed and she smiled, warmly. "It's good to see you too, David!" To Corwin's surprise she enveloped him in a warm hug, making him gasp. When she pulled back she laughed at his shocked expression. "Hey, old friends can say hi properly, can't they? Mind you, you tell anyone I did that and I'll tear out your liver via your throat."

   Yes, it was the same Ivanova: older, crustier maybe, but not with her old comrades in arms, and just as capable of putting the fear of God into him as ever.

   "I'll show you to your quarters," he managed, trying to salvage the situation somewhat.

   "What, you don't think I know my way around any more? I'm getting older, commander, not senile."

   He was pleased she remembered his rank. Not that she couldn't read it from his uniform jacket, but it felt strangely pleasant to have his old commander address him in that way.

   "Of course, but I thought you might like to hear what's been going on en route."

   "Making sure I keep ahead of the gossip, huh? Must admit this place hasn't been making the news quite as much since we all left. Next thing you know they'll be decommissioning the old girl because she's too boring to keep around."

   "Oh, we have enough to keep us busy, but I think Captain Lochley prefers it a bit quieter to when you and President Sheridan were around." He motioned for Ivanova to precede him through the corridors. "We've put you in Green 4," he said as he handed her a door card.

   "I'm getting the star treatment, huh?"

   "Right next door to President Sheridan's rooms when he arrives. We thought you two might want to do some catching up, but if that's not acceptable..."

   "It'll be good to see John again. I rarely get to Minbar and it's just not the same chatting on StellarCom. I don't think I've seen him face to face in two years. Not since he tried to talk me into accepting that promotion Earth Force offered me."

   "I was wondering about that, but I didn't want to ask."

   "It's OK. I'll fly a desk eventually. They've offered it to me again, actually, so this might be the last time you see me as a Captain. But I wanted to spend a little more time out there..." She motioned back towards the docking bays and the vast tracts of space beyond. "...before I let someone nail my feet to the floor. And the Warlock is a fine ship. Not as sleek as a White Star of course, but she's got what it takes and she could stand toe to toe with anyone else in the IA." Ivanova was showing a usual Captain's pride in her own ship and Corwin nodded.

   "I've never been aboard a Warlock class ship before. I'd like to see what they're like."

   "Then while I'm here I'll give you a tour."

   They'd reached the Zocalo and Ivanova paused to look around. "Hasn't changed," she muttered, more to herself than her companion.

   "The station is pretty much the same as it ever was. Captain Lochley was happy to leave everything that worked, even if it wasn't strictly regulation."

   "Sensible." Ivanova looked around her more carefully. "Where is she, anyway? I expected her to meet me."

   "She thought you might like to see a familiar face before she introduced herself. Give you a chance to settle in."

   "So when do I get to meet her? I've heard a lot of things about the Captain. Garibaldi was filling me in when I was last on Mars."

   "She suggested Earhart's at twenty hundred hours, if that's convenient?"

   "Fine. Any special occasion or can I change?" She took in his expression. "Despite appearances to the contrary I'm not stapled to this uniform, Commander."

   Corwin thought back on those occasions he'd seen Ivanova literally with her hair down. He'd always admired the way she could 'switch hats' with such apparent ease. "It's informal," he assured her. "Just a drink and a chat once she's off duty."

   They continued to walk down a corridor and Ivanova paused at an intersection, looking down a particular path. Corwin hesitated and then cleared his throat.

   "I, uh, took the liberty of making sure you had full access. Any time you want to go..."

   She cut him off, turning back smartly and continuing to walk towards her quarters. "Thanks. So, how are you finding my old chair? Comfortable enough for you?"

   "It's nice to be able to sit in it without wondering if I'll still have my hands in the morning," he returned, noting the swift manner in which she changed the subject. Ivanova laughed at the reminder of her old threat. " 'Though I've been tempted on occasion to adapt the Babylon 5 mantra."

   "Ha! Don't even think about it!" she jokingly warned. "I use that on the Warlock."

   They'd reached her quarters and Corwin waited until she'd inserted her keycard and the door cycled open before bidding his goodbye.

   "Are you joining us this evening?"

   "I think Captain Lochley was intending it to be just the two of you, but I'll be in the bar when my shift ends anyway. There's a get together with some of the crew of the Warlock."

   "Just be careful what you say. It's taken years to get them terrified of me... wouldn't want to lose that edge."

   "I think anything I might say would only add to your reputation, Captain," he replied gallantly.

   She considered this as she stepped through the door. "You know," she said, hesitating and then turning back to him, "I think you're right!" The door closed between them.

*****

   Sheridan flung down the report in frustration. After all their hard work trying to nail the drug dealers, they'd slipped through the net! There were other hopeful looking leads but the one he'd been counting on had fallen through, which meant he wouldn't be able to deliver the good news he'd hoped for before the end of the conference. He considered what he'd read. The Ranger's report had been thorough (as usual) and it looked like there'd been a security compromise somewhere down the line and the cartel had been tipped off before the Rangers could close the net. He fell to thinking about who had known of the raid and came up with precious few answers. The Rangers, of course, but they had to know since they were his ears, eyes and hands in this matter. Delenn, naturally. The Earth President since it was on his patch, but that had been on a strictly one-to-one basis using a triple encoded security channel and he was as keen to see this matter ended as Sheridan. Of course, he might talk in his sleep but that was stretching it. Franklin because, as head of Earth Force medical, he had a vested interest in the drug. Was his security as tight as it needed to be?

   He shook his head. He was getting paranoid. Franklin had spoken to him on a secure line and knew what was at stake. The leak wasn't there.

   Sheridan rubbed his temples and then tapped his forehead trying to spot the breach. The only other person he'd told was Garibaldi, and that was because he'd needed some of Edgars' Industries' resources, but Garibaldi was reliable now. Ever since Bester's Asimov had been removed by Lyta, Garibaldi had been one hundred percent on the up and up. He'd trust the man with his life, and had done so on several occasions.

   No, there had to be someone else. Someone he was missing, but try as he might be could not find a chink in the armour. He sighed. Maybe when he spoke to the Ranger herself he'd be able to learn something that wasn't in the report but, considering its depth and detail, he doubted that. Still, it was worth a shot. Right now, *anything* was worth a shot.

   He went to the console and arranged a meeting with the Ranger for eight the next morning. That would give him an hour or more to talk and still leave a few hour's grace if he needed time to organise and act on what he learned before the first scheduled meeting of the conference at one.

   He wanted to talk to Delenn but realised it was late on Minbar and she'd be asleep. It was where he should have been for the past four hours, but he'd been so busy he'd ignored the passage of time. As it was they'd be arriving at Babylon 5 in less than two. He could either try to grab some sleep now or wander the ship. Reviewing the reports a fourth time would only increase his frustration and his head was thumping as it was. He snapped off the console and stood up, stretching his cramped back and squeezing out a yawn before shaking himself and heading for the door.

   He strolled the corridors for a while, nodding to the crew as they passed, and then headed for an observation window to stand, motionless, admiring the swirling mists of hyperspace. While he understood on a cerebral level how the various beacons worked, it always seemed a miracle to him that ships could navigate the void without the comfort of stars and planets to guide them. In a world in which computers controlled everything vital he shuddered involuntarily at the thought of what would happen if there was a glitch. Of course, all computers had triple redundancy built in, especially those concerned with navigation and life-support, but it was still slightly unnerving.

   "Are you cold, sir?" a voice asked by his shoulder.

   He turned to see a Ranger standing behind him. The man was in his forties, at a guess. His neat beard was trimmed with grey and there was a scar running from the edge of his thin lips through the mass of hair towards his left ear. Sheridan wondered if the beard was an effort to cover that disfiguring mark and then dismissed the notion. For a Ranger it would be a badge of honour: something to be sported proudly, not hidden away. The man had probably had a beard all his life and preferred it.

   Sheridan reached up to stroke his own beard, remembering how he had begun to wear it. There was probably a story to the Ranger as well, but Sheridan wasn't about to be so rude as to ask.

   "Sir?"

   He'd been wondering for too long and now he smiled.

   "No, not cold. I was just thinking how fine the line is between life and death out here."

   The Ranger followed Sheridan's earlier gaze and nodded. "I know what you mean. When I was training and they left us alone in those fighters..." He looked left and right before lowering his voice. "Between you and me sir?" Sheridan nodded. "I nearly pissed myself."

   Sheridan laughed. "I'd probably have a similar reaction."

   "Took me a few minutes to calm down enough to remember my training and realise I could survive it provided I kept calm. You learn a lot about yourself when you're alone in space, low on oxygen, and you think you're going to die."

   "You do indeed. There's nothing more terrifying than being all alone in the night." Sheridan contemplated the swirling red for a few moments more before turning. He eyed the Ranger and decided he needed company. "Walk with me for a while." The Ranger nodded and fell into step beside Sheridan. "What made you decide to become a Ranger?"

   "I was in Geneva the day you resigned from Earth Force. I heard a roar and looked up and saw the White Stars. I thought they were the most beautiful ships I'd ever seen and I decided then and there I wanted to fly in one."

   "What were you doing before that?"

   "Nothing much. I was a bit of a drifter, moving from place to place and job to job. Did a few things I'm not proud of but I survived. I've always been pretty good at turning my hand to things and I liked to travel. I hired out my services to anyone who'd take me somewhere new."

   Sheridan nodded. "Sounds like Dr. Franklin."

   "Does it? Anyway, after seeing those ships I made up my mind. As soon as I could, I made my way to Minbar and asked to become a Ranger. It wasn't easy convincing them with my background. They thought I wouldn't be able to handle the discipline, but I took to it like a duck to water. Like it was where I'd always belonged and never knew it."

   "No regrets, then?"

   The Ranger shook his head. "No sir. I'm learning something new every day. And how many people can say they've chewed the fat with the President of the Interstellar Alliance?" He grinned and Sheridan snorted.

   "I'm sure there are others who'd be better company."

   Not having a sufficiently quick retort the Ranger held his peace. They walked in silence for a while before Sheridan turned to him once more.

   "What's your name?"

   "Petrov, sir. Jan Petrov." A bell rang out and Petrov nodded to himself. "That's my shift change. I have to go back on duty. If you'll forgive me, sir?"

   "Of course. Are you going to be on Babylon 5 or are you staying with the ship?"

   "We've had orders that once we get to Babylon 5 all Rangers not required to maintain the ship are to report to station security, so you'll see me around."

   "I'll see you there, then."

   The Ranger bowed, formally, and then turned on his heel and left. Sheridan remained staring after him for a moment, wondering why Babylon 5 security had drafted the Rangers in to help. Did they have trouble or were they expecting it? Probably the latter, but it wouldn't hurt to check to see if any new reports had appeared since he'd left his quarters.

   When he returned he found six messages, but none indicating any trouble ahead. Most were standard reports keeping him appraised of on-going investigations, and one was a straightforward update on the minutiae of IA administration. Flipping through it Sheridan suddenly realised he was tired enough to get an hour's sleep. He contacted the Captain and asked for their ETA. He was informed it would be three hours before the day shift began on Babylon 5. That meant he could stay aboard for a while longer before he had to disembark and face the sea of cameras and reporters that no doubt awaited him. That thought increased his weariness. He stripped off, left a message that he was to be called an hour before he was due to disembark, and crawled into his bed. He was asleep within minutes.

*****

   "Get yourself a coffee." Sheridan motioned to the pot and the Ranger nodded and walked over as he moved back behind his desk nursing his own percolated wake-up call. "So what happened?" he asked, seating himself. He was in an office that had been made available to him for the duration of the conference. It wasn't his old office and he felt mildly uncomfortable with the smaller surroundings, but he could hardly commandeer Captain Lochley's facilities for the duration. She still had the station to run and his meetings were, he knew, going to be interminable.

   The Ranger shifted slightly but maintained her composure. She finished pouring the coffee and turned to face him. "It looks like there was a leak, sir."

   "I can see that. Have you any idea of the source?"

   "No sir, but we are investigating."

   "Did you find anything on the premises that might help us?"

   The Ranger shook her head. She appeared as frustrated by their failure as Sheridan himself. "No sir. The place was stripped clean."

   "So they had more than a few minute's warning. A day at least," he mused.

   She nodded grimly. "I would say so."

   Sheridan sighed. The meeting was proving even more unproductive than he'd feared. "All right. From now on everything's to be kept on a need-to-know basis until the last minute. I want you to set up false stakeouts alongside the actual ones and keep a close eye on who knows about them. Everything's to come via you directly to me or Delenn; no one else unless you get a message from either of us face to face. All Rangers are to be instructed not to speak of their activities to anyone. I don't care who it is, if they're that interested they can come to one of us. Anyone who shows undue interest, let me know."

   "Understood."

   Sheridan eyed the Ranger. She'd delivered a second report, even more detailed than the first (if that was possible) the instant she'd come through the door and he suspected she'd been working on it all night. She looked exhausted but was hiding it as well as she could. He knew how she felt.

   "And once you've set that up, get yourself about six hour's rest. You're no use to anyone half asleep."

   "I'm fine, sir."

   "That's an order."

   "Understood." The look of relief was unmistakable. Sheridan smiled. "I know you're as upset about this as I am. You've done everything you can for now. Until we nail down the source of the leak we're wide open so don't be too hard on yourself. You're dismissed."

   "Yes sir. Thank-you sir." She turned to go and then hesitated. "Uh, sir. Captain Lochley says you're to have twenty-four hour protection while you're aboard Babylon 5. Two Rangers per shift. I have to set up a guard roster."

   "Never mind that. You need a break."

   "I know, sir, but she was quite adamant and, as of yesterday, she was my superior officer."

   "She doesn't outrank me," he responded stiffly.

   "Begging your pardon, sir, but while we're on Babylon 5 we've been told she does." The woman flinched as she delivered the news. Sheridan scowled.

   "Very well, I'll make it easy on you. For first shift give me Ranger Petrov and one other. I don't care who as long as they're awake. Once you've assigned someone get some sleep. You can worry about the rest of it later."

   "But sir, Captain Lochley..."

   "I don't care what Captain Lochley has told you," he snapped, heedless of the slight flinch in the Ranger's demeanour. "I'll deal with her. Now get some sleep!"

   "Yes sir." The Ranger bowed and left.

   Sheridan sat behind his desk working his jaw for a few moments before he activated the Babcom.

*****

   Lochley noted the source of the incoming message and sighed. "Here it comes," she muttered before accepting the call. "Mr. President. What can I do for you?"

   "You can stop this damned nonsense about twenty-four hour guards for a start," Sheridan snarled. "I don't need protecting, Captain."

   "With all due respect sir, you do. You know as well as I do that this drug business has to have supporters in high places; people who'll stop at nothing to prevent your investigations. As long as you're aboard my station I'm going to make sure they don't have a chance of getting to you."

   "You worry too much, Captain."

   "No sir. You don't worry enough. I've contacted Delenn and she's in agreement with me. So's Zack. As long as you're aboard Babylon 5 you'll have two guards glued to you twenty-four hours a day, whether you like it or not... sir!"

   Sheridan growled but held his temper. "Very well, Captain. In that case the least you can do is recognise when a soldier needs some rest. I've ordered Ranger Sante to take a minimum of six hour's sleep. I've got two guards who'll be accompanying me for the first shift. When she's rested she can set up the remainder of the roster if you're determined to see this through."

   "Understood. I'll get Zack to assign a couple of guards to take over and I'll expect her report at fifteen thirty hours."

   "I said a minimum of six hours, Captain."

   "Yes sir, I believe you did. Lochley out."

   Sheridan shook his head. He could make trouble but he knew, at this stage, it wasn't worth it. He took a sip of his coffee and scowled. It was cold. Rising he made his way back to the table and poured himself another cup, noting absently that the pot was now empty and he'd need a refill before he could even consider beginning the day's meetings. He put in a call for a fresh pot and settled down to read the report, taking sips from the steaming mug in between flipping through the flimsies.

   "Fancy a distraction?"

   He looked up and smiled to see Ivanova standing in the doorway. "Right now it'd be welcome." He stood up and walked around the table, accepting the bear hug Ivanova offered in the spirit it was meant. "Susan, how are you?"

   "I'll be better with a coffee, unless it's that foul muck they used to serve in here."

   He shook his head. "I called on Captain Lochley's supplies. The very least they could do was make sure I got the good stuff. They should be bringing a fresh pot in... ah!" A maintenance man appeared and set the requested replacement on the heater, taking away the empty one and disappearing as quietly as he'd arrived. Sheridan poured and handed Ivanova the mug. She took it gratefully and swallowed a large mouthful before nodding and settling herself on the couch.

   "So, how're things in the world of political intrigue?" she asked, a small smile playing around her lips.

   "Even dirtier than it was before I got involved. This drug thing is causing havoc."

   "Anything you want to talk about? You know I'm here if you need to bend someone's ear."

   He considered his earlier injunction regarding need to know and shook his head. "Better not. No need to share the misery." He rubbed his hand over his eyes trying to clear the haze of exhaustion that had descended. "I gather they've offered you another commission." Ivanova nodded. "You gonna take it this time?"

   "Probably. There's a limit to how many times I can tell them to stick it where the sun don't shine. Once the upgrades are finished on the Warlock I'll have six months to check it all. After that..." She shrugged and took another mouthful.

   "Well, you never know. You might be able to effect some change in the higher echelons of Earth Force." She gave him a look that conveyed in crystal clear terms her opinion of that notion. He chuckled. "I know, but you can dream. Just don't let them ever make you President. The paperwork is suffocating."

   "So I see. Ever considered chucking it all and finding some nice trading ship out on the rim?"

   He chuckled. "Frequently. But I think Delenn and David like Tuzanor."

   "How are they, anyway?"

   "Delenn's fine. Beautiful and brilliant as ever. David's got a birthday coming up next week so I won't be in his good books when I get back."

   Ivanova laughed. "He'll forgive you... say in about fifty years!"

   "Don't remind me." He sobered and watched her for a moment. "Apart from the Warlock, why are you here?" He suspected he knew the answer but he had to ask.

   "Do I need another reason?"

   "Susan, this is me you're talking to, remember?"

   She sighed and nodded. "I wanted to visit. Not that anyone's found a cure but it seems wrong to just leave him there. He won't know I've been here but..."

   "...But you will, and I will." He finished and nodded. "I miss him too." Ivanova stared at her mug and said nothing. For a moment both were lost in memories.

   "We had some times here, didn't we?" she said at last.

   "Uh huh." He looked around him, taking in the familiar designs. "I miss the old place sometimes. I think while I'm here, assuming I get the time, and if Captain Lochley allows me to breathe without sending guards to chase down the molecules, I'll go for a walk. Care to join me?" He looked hopeful and she smiled.

   "Be happy to. Just say the word and I'll be there. I've got nothing to do until they finish upgrading the ship. That should take a week at least." She watched him as he rubbed his temples and squeezed his eyes shut again. "You look exhausted. How much sleep did you get last night?"

   "Not near enough, but this thing is running me ragged. I'll probably try and grab an hour or so after the first few meetings. That's if they'll let me."

   "I'll make sure of it. When's your first meeting?"

   He checked the chronometer. "In an hour. Captain Lochley's going to be there so I'd better make sure I look halfway awake." He nodded to the coffee and rose to refill his mug but she stopped him and filled it for him. "Have you met her yet?" he asked, settling back gratefully.

   She nodded. "Uh huh. Last night. Had an interesting chat, 'though I get the impression she could wish me further."

   "We've had our problems in the past," he acknowledged, "but she's a good Captain."

   "Of that I have no doubt. You wouldn't have chosen her otherwise, and she's doing a pretty good job of keeping this place out of the news."

   "Hmm. As long as I'm not here. Apparently there's a Sheridan-Garibaldi effect. Every time we turn up there's trouble."

   "You two always did know how to show a girl a good time!"

   He laughed. "Don't let Delenn hear you say that!"

   "So I gather. Has she forgiven you yet?"

   "More or less. Tact never was my forte."

   "True, but your timing was usually better." She finished her coffee and rose. "Speaking of timing, I'd better leave you so you can prepare for that meeting." He sighed and nodded. "See you later?"

   "If I'm up to it, maybe dinner? I'd like to hear what the Warlock is like since we sorted out that little problem." He raised an eyebrow and she nodded. The Shadow tech they'd found within her during his first year as President was something only shared between them. All records of the incident had been purged and the whole affair might as well never have happened. "I've been hearing good things about her, but then, given her Captain, that's hardly a surprise."

   "You know, I never really thanked you for that." He looked up. "The promotion, I mean. Although the other matter..."

   He waved his hand, dismissively. "Consider it belated payback for all the times you stood by me. It was the least I could do."

   "It's appreciated, John. I'll give you the grand tour when this is all over."

   "I look forward to it. See you later, Susan."

   Ivanova turned and left as Sheridan sat back in his chair, smiling at the easy camaraderie he shared with Ivanova. After a few moments he sat forward and began to pour over the flims once more, but the words swam in front of his eyes. After a few attempts to clear his vision he gave up. He'd read them several times already and he doubted there was anything he didn't have memorised. A walk would probably do him more good.

   Stepping outside he found Ranger Petrov and another, by the name of Ballantine, waiting for him. As he appeared they both snapped to attention. Sheridan nodded and continued on his way, the Rangers falling into step behind him. He made his way to the core and the gardens whose clean air and fresh scents might revive his flagging system. As he entered he heard voices at the limits of his perception and changed direction to avoid what was clearly a rather intimate moment on the other side of the hedge. As he stepped through some trees his foot caught on a protruding root and he fell, landing heavily. The Rangers were at his side in a moment.

   "Sir, are you all right?" Petrov asked, concerned.

   Sheridan waved him aside. "Clumsy, nothing more," Sheridan assured him, but when he went to stand up again he realised he was feeling quite light-headed. "Damn!" he muttered.

   "Sir?"

   "Just tired, Jan, that's all. And that coffee's given me a thirst. Is there a water fountain around here?"

   Petrov nodded and promptly went in search of the fountain while Ballantine remained with Sheridan. When Petrov returned it was with a plastic cup full of water. "Managed to scrounge this, sir. Here you go."

   Sheridan accepted the cup gratefully and downed the contents in two gulps. He remained where he was for a moment as his head cleared and then he smiled and nodded. "Better. I think I'm getting a little old for these late night sessions." The Rangers helped him to his feet and Sheridan dusted down his pant legs to remove the grass and dirt that had accumulated. Straightening his jacket he nodded once more. "Time to get back I think, gentlemen." He turned and was about to take a short cut when, once again, he overheard voices. He hesitated and then grinned. Lowering his voice he indicated the direction from whence the voices appeared to be emanating. "But not that way. Don't want to interrupt the happy couple." He turned and missed the exchange of bemused looks between the two Rangers. Curious, Ballantine peered behind the hedge to see a woman reading a book. From the looks of the cover, and her slightly flushed expression Jan suspected the content was quite rich. He moved away quietly shaking his head. There was such a thing as being too polite!

   Sheridan stopped to pick up his reports and then walked into the conference chamber. The members stood as he did so, their voices muting, but Sheridan still heard a few muttered comments that were less than flattering. Annoyed, he looked up, trying to spot the source, but his glance was returned by a sea of blank faces and closed mouths. Shrugging he went to the lectern and arranged his notes, popping a data crystal into the slot and cueing it.

   "Ambassadors, ladies and gentlemen," he began, still arranging his papers. A few muted whispers reached his ears and he hesitated, looking up to see who was still settling. Spotting no one in particular he dismissed it. There was probably an odd echo in the room that was filtering noise from outside. He'd have to remember to ask maintenance to look into it after the meeting.

   He cleared his throat. "I know you are all concerned, as I am, with the recent increase in drug related problems throughout the Interstellar Alliance. One drug in particular..." he pressed the button and turned to see a file appear on the screen behind him "...is a cause for concern." He heard someone mutter 'as if we didn't know! Why's he wasting our time like this?' and frowned. "For those of you as yet unfamiliar with this drug, I will take a few moments to explain its nature. For the rest, I ask your patient indulgence." The pointed remark seemed to calm the detractors and he continued. "SD2 is one of a group of drugs that have been developed from Dust. Like Dust they enhance the user's telepathic awareness, but SD2 has some extra features chemically encoded." He pressed the button and another file appeared, displaying graphically the chemical structure of the drug. "It's highly addictive, not just for its ability to give the user a high based on someone else's thoughts, but because it simultaneously stimulates the pleasure centres of the brain. It also replaces chemicals needed by the body for neuro-transmitter production, shutting down the body's ability to create these chemicals on its own. Basically," he sighed, looking up from the papers, "once you start on this stuff you have to carry on using it or your brain functions begin to degrade. Once that begins only intensive and expensive treatment can reactivate the body's natural chemical production. Relative to the cost of that treatment the drug is cheap, thereby further encouraging its continued use. Initial tests show that, beyond this, the drug is not harmful in small doses. However, because of its nature users quickly escalate the amounts they take. Once they reach a critical point the body becomes irreparably damaged. Users will continue to take it in larger quantities, but while the telepathic abilities will increase, the direct pleasure stimulation lessens and the internal damage increases more or less exponentially. Death is certain within a week of reaching this critical point."

   Another voice reached his ear, complaining that there was no point in the speaker being there because his species was almost certainly immune. Sheridan shook his head. "Sadly, no species in the IA is immune from the drug, be it Pak'ma'ra..." he turned in the direction of that delegate, certain it had been the source of the muttered complaint, "or Minbari, or Human, or Narn or Centauri or Brakiri or any of you. Make no mistake, this drug is deadly. Now," he stepped out from behind the lectern and walked along the front of the raised seating for the delegates, "the drug first appeared on Earth during the embargo imposed as a result of the Drakh plague. At the time it was thought to be a side effect of the plague so its true, human-manufactured nature wasn't discovered until after the cure was found and the embargo was lifted. From that day the drug has spread throughout the IA worlds."

   'We know all this,' a voice muttered. 'Now tell us what you're going to do about it!'

   'Maybe what they say is true and the Rangers are helping to spread this stuff and covering up the source,' someone else replied.

   Sheridan turned swiftly. "I can assure you that the IA does not endorse this drug. The Rangers are doing everything in their power to track down the factories and dealers, but those dealers are receiving help and support from a number of highly placed officials. This is hampering our investigations. I therefore ask *all* of you to begin your own internal investigations to track the sources of support within your own governments. I also ask," he added, his voice rising to get above the hubbub of disgruntled voices, "that you allow the Rangers as much access as your own internal security allows, and release them from the red tape in which they are becoming tangled. We will end this, but we need your help to do it. For the next few days we will be hearing reports from those planets that have already begun this process. I strongly suggest that those who have not yet followed suit attend those meetings. The cartel behind this is powerful and unscrupulous. We have already lost several Rangers during our investigations, and I know some worlds have had their internal security attacked and some politicians, who have spoken out against the drug, disappear under mysterious circumstances, only to turn up dead."

   'So don't interfere,' another voice muttered. 'It's only the fools in the slums who'll get hooked anyway. Let 'em die; it'll solve the unemployment problems!'

   Sheridan turned angrily to the Centauri delegate. "I can assure you the biggest users by far of the drug are the intelligentsia. When first taken it enhances brain-processing capacity to an extraordinary degree. Your scientists and doctors always have enormous pressure placed on them to solve problems as fast as possible. This drug allows them to halve the time it can take to do that, and the more intelligent the user, the greater the enhancement. It's hardly surprising, given the lack of information about the drug's side effects, that many have taken to using it in the mistaken belief they can quit when their immediate worries are over. The line between useful and deadly is finely drawn and varies from species to species and from person to person. In addition the withdrawal symptoms are... painful to say the least."

   He returned to his lectern and allowed himself a moment to look at the delegates, making sure he made eye contact with those who seemed most recalcitrant. "You have been given programmes listing the talks available over the next few days. These include drug awareness seminars, lectures by medical personnel, lectures by IA investigators, video footage and diaries from past and, in most cases, dead users, and my own presentations detailing the latest situation regarding our investigations. Naturally, if I'm not to compromise those investigations there is a limit to what I can tell you, but I assure you I will inform you of any developments as and when they become available." He tapped a button on the lectern. "I've just uploaded my first report to your consoles. This was the state of play as of twenty three hundred hours yesterday, Earth Standard Time. I will be happy to discuss any of those points at the meeting being held here at sixteen hundred hours this afternoon."

   He waited to see if there would be any questions but the delegates seemed to be immersed in reading the data he had uploaded. Silently, he raised his eyes heavenwards, uttering muted thanks for that brief respite, and left the room.

   As he walked, the Rangers once more following him, he remembered his earlier concerns about the acoustics within the main lecture hall. Tapping his link he left a request for maintenance to look into the matter. Ranger Ballantine frowned at the request, turning to Petrov, but the latter stared ahead. Ballantine had been standing just inside the entrance to the hall throughout the keynote speech and, if anything, he'd been surprised at how silent the room had been. Sheridan had been animated to the point where he seemed to be responding to looks rather than words, turning on surprised delegates with a vehemence Ballantine considered completely undeserved. Obviously this drug business was getting to the President more than he realised.

   Sheridan entered the Zocalo feeling a lot happier about the situation. The opening address -- barring the dissenting voices that he had quickly stilled -- had gone better than he'd hoped. He had been prepared for a barrage of questions from the delegates, the answers to most of which were in the report he had uploaded, and he was pleased they'd decided to read it before attacking him. The feeling of achievement buoyed him and he allowed a satisfied smile to creep onto his face. Later today he would doubtless have to field questions from any number of disgruntled voices but, for now, he had some peace. In the next few hours there would be a variety of presentations, all of which he'd already read in advance of the proceedings. He had left a request that all speakers forward to him any points raised from the floor of which they felt he ought to be made aware, but until then his timetable was, miraculously, clear.

   His stomach rumbled and his attention was drawn to the fact that, as yet, his only sustenance had been of the liquid variety. He considered ordering food to be delivered to his quarters and dismissed the notion. With two Rangers in tow he was hardly in any danger if he chose to eat out, and it had been a long time since he sampled the various delicacies provided by the restaurants aboard the station. Minbari food was good, he had to admit, but suddenly he found he had a taste for something with rather more bite to it. It was almost one o/clock and people were filling the cafes that lined the Zocalo. Fresh Air would probably still have some space, if only because its prices were prohibitive to the many casual travellers. He turned to the Rangers.

   "I'm going to grab some lunch. Would either of you gentlemen care to join me?"

   Petrov and Ballantine both politely declined, pointing out that they had both eaten breakfast and eating while on duty was generally frowned upon.

   "Then I hope you don't mind watching me eat?" Both made it clear they were happy to watch from a distance, affording him some modicum of privacy and freeing him from the sensation of being a prisoner on day release from the local jail.

   As predicted, Fresh Air had a table and Sheridan settled down. He wondered whether he ought to remain teetotal and decided one glass of wine would not impede his thought processes for the rest of the day. In any case, he'd been teetotal ever since he arrived on Minbar. He was about due for a reminder of what he'd been missing. The wine was delivered and he perused the menu. He was about to make his decision when someone tapped him on the shoulder. He looked up to see Captain Lochley. He rose politely and indicated his table.

   "Captain. I was about to have some lunch. Would you care to join me? I'm not very used to eating alone these days."

   "Thanks," she responded simply. Sheridan pulled out a chair and seated her before resuming his own seat. When they had ordered Sheridan shook out his napkin, placing it across his lap before looking up.

   "I take it you have something you want to talk to me about?"

   "I wondered how the presentation went."

   "Better than I'd hoped, to be honest with you. I think I've made them realise we mean business, even if we're not actually getting anywhere at the moment."

   "I read your report. You know you're going to have a few angry delegates banging on your door when they realise you've practically accused them of helping the spread of this stuff?"

   "Strictly speaking that's not what I said..."

   "But it's what you meant."

   "True." He sipped his wine and smiled. "Either this is pretty good or I'm too far out of practice to care. Anyway, frankly I'm tired of being diplomatic about this situation. It's lethal and they're encouraging it, if only by their refusal to investigate their own administrations. It's about time they stopped expecting the IA to do all their work for them and held up their side of the bargain. We want them to work together, but so far the only time they've done that is when I'm in the shooting gallery. Not that I'm not grateful for that, but the only way we'll stop the spread of this stuff is if every world shuts its doors on the dealers. The cartel itself is doing a good job of limiting the drug's manufacture to a few key planets. If we can just find those factories we can put a serious dent in their activities 'though, to be honest, I'd rather find out who's doing their money laundering for them. If we can crack down on that we'll have them."

   "Whoever it is has to be part of one of the major banking groups. No one else could hide it."

   Sheridan nodded and then paused as the waiter brought their food. As they tucked in he released a satisfied sigh. "Just what I needed. I didn't realise how much I was missing this stuff," he mumbled, his mouth still full as he motioned to his plate with his fork. Lochley raised an eyebrow.

   "Since when did you like hot, spicy foods like that?"

   He cleared his mouth. "Since I spent ten years living on Minbar. Don't tell Delenn, but there are times I really crave this stuff!"

   She shook her head. "I tried that one once. Felt like someone was testing their thrusters in my stomach. I'll tell Medlab to have some antacids ready for you later."

   Sheridan chuckled and took another healthy mouthful. Washing it down with some water he continued the conversation. "As far as we can tell, whoever it is must be part of the Saturn Consortium."

   "Well *that* narrows it down!" she replied, her voice dripping with sarcasm.

   "More than you'd think, actually. Since the drug first appeared on Earth it's almost certainly one of the mainly Terran-based groups, unless they've decided to change services in midstream, but that seems unlikely. We *think* we've nailed down which one, but when we tried to catch them at it they vanished like smoke."

   "Someone tipped them off."

   "Exactly. Right now I'm working on getting access to all the account information from those five groups, but they're understandably reluctant to compromise their members' privacy."

   "Well, at least half of them are probably up to something illegal somewhere. They're hardly going to invite you to snoop around in their accounts."

   "Um hmm. So in the meantime we're having to employ other methods."

   "Such as?" Sheridan looked up and Lochley took in his expression. "Never mind, I probably don't want to know." He grunted and returned to his lunch. "Well, I hope you catch them, John. We had our first death from the stuff aboard the station last month." She shook her head.

   "Who was it?"

   "Oh, a young postgraduate on a fast track to the top research scholarships."

   "That's the worst thing about this stuff. It grabs the very people we need and can least afford to lose. It's a waste."

   "Any life lost to drugs is a waste," she pointed out bitterly.

   "You know what I mean," he returned and, after a pause, Lochley nodded. "Not a pretty sight, is it?"

   "No. Why do they go mad?"

   He raised an eyebrow. "I thought you said you'd read my report?" He put down his knife and fork, his plate cleared, and sat back giving his stomach a satisfied pat. "It's the voices. After a while you can't switch them off and, I gather, they grow louder. You can't sleep, can't go anywhere or do anything without hearing all the thoughts of people around you. Even if they're the other side of lead-lined walls it doesn't help. Twenty four hours a day, non-stop, confused chatter."

   "Sounds like C&C on a good day."

   "Which is when I always used to go for a walk in the Zen Garden. But on this stuff the only way you can shut off the voices towards the end is if you get into a one-man spaceship and get a good hundred miles from any civilised planet. Even then there's a background hum. There's been at least four or five cases I know of in which victims have driven sharp objects like screwdrivers into their ears in the hope of deafening themselves but, since the voices are all telepathic, you could be born deaf and still hear them. A few have blown their brains out, others have just beaten themselves to death against a wall. And, of course, if they manage to stay sane after weeks of unrelenting noise, there's the degradation of the brain that leaves them a vegetable before shutting them down completely."

   "Ironic, given the reasons people take this stuff in the first place."

   "Hmm." He indicated his empty wine glass. "Do you think I could get away with another one of those? I have to admit I enjoyed that."

   "I can't see why not. Given what you've just eaten I think any alcohol would give up in the face of overwhelming forces."

   Sheridan laughed and motioned to the waiter that he needed a fill up. A few minutes later it was Ranger Sante who delivered the glass, intercepting the waiter on her way to Sheridan's table.

   "I believe you ordered this, sir?"

   Sheridan looked up, surprised, and accepted the glass. "I did indeed. How are you feeling?"

   "A lot better sir. I wondered if I could have a few moments of Captain Lochley's time? I have the guard rosters worked out and I wanted to run them past you before handing them to Chief Allan."

   Lochley accepted the roster and looked it over, noting the way in which Rangers and station security personnel had been combined to achieve the best mix of diplomatic skills and defensive ability. She nodded to herself. "I get the impression Mr. Allan has probably been giving you a hand with this already."

   "No sir. But he gave me access to the personnel files."

   "You'll find Ranger Sante is a very efficient worker, Captain," Sheridan supplied, "when she's had enough sleep."

   Lochley raised an eyebrow at the gentle rebuke and turned to Sante, signing her name to the forms. "These look fine to me. Tell Zack to implement them as soon as the present shift is over. And in future, Ranger, I expect you to make sure you get enough rest at the appropriate times."

   Sante nodded, taking the reports. "Oh, Mr President. I have the updated files on our research. I could upload them to your computer or drop them off in your quarters."

   He grunted. "Given what we're dealing with, I'd rather it wasn't on the network any more than is strictly necessary. I'll ask security to let you drop them off in my quarters." He turned to Lochley. "Can you clear that for me?"

   Lochley nodded and tapped her link, leaving a message that Ranger Sante was to be permitted one time only access to the President's quarters to drop off the files. Sheridan shook his head but remained silent.

   Bowing to Sheridan and Lochley, Sante turned smartly and left the restaurant, pausing en route to let Petrov and Ballantine know when their next duty shift would be.

   Sheridan watched her departure and then turned to Lochley. "I think you can rest assured the Rangers aren't going to try and murder me in my bed, Captain," he said, referring to the limited security clearance.

   "Just being careful."

   "There's such a thing as being too paranoid, you know."

   "Not where you're concerned." She was adamant and he decided to change tack.

   "I might also point out that Rangers sometimes have to put in odd hours, especially when they're working for me," he said, referring to the other bone of contention.

   "And aboard *my* station they keep to regular hours unless there's an emergency."

   Sheridan sighed and took another mouthful of wine. He wasn't going to win these fights and he was feeling too happy with the present state of affairs to argue. Sante was perfectly capable of defending herself should the need arise. He savoured the wine, noting the manner in which the spicy food had affected his taste buds, subtly altering its flavour to something even smoother. He shifted slightly in his seat, his movements continuing long enough for Lochley to regard him with a slightly amused expression.

   "Ants?" she asked, arching her eyebrow.

   "Hmm?" He looked up. "No, just an itch I can't quite seem to... ahh! Got it!"

   She smiled at the look of relief on his face. "I hope you haven't brought something aboard with you. We've got enough unwanted pests."

   He gave her a look before finishing his wine, then he tossed his napkin on the table and pushed back his chair.

   "Well, I guess I'd better get ready for those afternoon meetings."

   As he rose, Lochley followed suit. "I have to be getting back as well. I'll walk with you."

   "I think the Rangers are protection enough, Captain," he returned, but she knew he was joking.

   They strolled the corridors, Sheridan nodding to those who acknowledged him and otherwise maintaining a steady chit-chat with Lochley.

   "How was your meeting with Captain Ivanova?" he asked at last. Damn! Now his stomach itched as well. He surreptitiously reached inside his jacket as they turned a corner. While he managed to attain some temporary relief it was clear this wasn't going to go away, whatever it was. Maybe he had managed to pick up some vermin after all. Given the company he'd had to keep while dealing with this drug problem it wasn't beyond the realms of possibility.

   Lochley hesitated and looked at him. He straightened his jacket and smiled, encouraging her. "I suspect she's already given you a report," she responded, declining to elaborate.

   He frowned. "She said you'd met, nothing more."

   "She's a very professional woman. Determined, intelligent, quick-witted. I can see why you admire her."

   They entered an elevator and called out their destinations, the Rangers taking up their positions in front of them so that all they could see was a sliver of the door between two brown and black clad backs.

   "You don't like her very much, do you?" Sheridan said when the doors had closed.

   "What makes you think that?" He eyed her and she shrugged. "I don't like or dislike her. I'm just uncomfortable having her around, but I'll get over it."

   "You two are a lot alike," he returned.

   "Like chalk and cheese," Lochley muttered. "And I don't think she likes me any more than I like her."

   "Now, now, Captain," Sheridan smiled, covering his surprise at the vehemence of Lochley's opinions. "It's only for a few days. You're both professionals and I'm sure, if you give it time, you'll find you have more in common than you think."

   Lochley eyed him strangely. "What the hell makes you say that? Are you reading my mind or something?"

   "Hardly," Sheridan returned.

   "Mr. President..." Lochley began but the doors opened.

   "Not now, Captain. I've got meetings and I'm going to be late. I'll catch up with you later."

   "But Mr. President..." It was no use, he was gone, his guards flanking him. She was left staring at the closing doors and wondering what had just happened. After his comment about Ivanova and she being alike she'd decided to keep her mouth shut, but her thoughts had been blunt. Sheridan's first comment could have been based on her expression, but his second seemed almost telepathic.

   She shook her head. She was imagining things. She must be losing her poker face if he could read her that easily. That or he'd become a teep, and the only way he could do that was if he was taking Dust, or even this new variant, and there was no way he'd do that.

   It *was* odd, though.

*****

   Sheridan managed to get through the afternoon meetings better than he'd thought he would. Somehow he managed to diffuse even the most antagonistic delegate, catching their muttered asides and responding to them specifically each time. He wondered when the Alliance worlds had suddenly decided to become so open with him, but he was grateful for small mercies. If they told him what was on their minds he could better do his own job.

   He was just walking out when he overheard something that stopped him dead in his tracks. He paused and turned. The voice he'd heard had been expressing the opinion that he was meddling in things that didn't concern him and if he got much more involved his life would be at risk. He gazed at the delegates who were all looking at their papers or chatting to each other. One or two looked at him curiously but, for the life of him, he couldn't work out which one had spoken. Whoever it was must have been close for him to have heard them over the din the others were making, but no one seemed to be that close.

   He shook his head and left, waiting until he was clear before motioning to the Rangers to come closer.

   "Did you hear what I did?" he muttered to them, checking the corridor for fear one of the delegates might interrupt their conversation.

   "What, sir?" Petrov asked.

   "I think someone was threatening me. It was loud enough. Are you sure you didn't hear it?"

   "No sir," the Rangers said together, looking at each other for confirmation.

   Sheridan shook his head. "Hmm. Maybe I imagined it. The Captain's paranoia must be contagious." He covered his eyes for a moment, squeezing them to clear them.

   "Sir, perhaps you should take a break?" Petrov suggested. "The meetings are over for the day and our shift change is due in a couple of hours. I'd like to make sure you're safely home before I go off duty."

   Sheridan raised an eyebrow. All the Rangers were equally capable of the task they'd been assigned, but Petrov seemed to be making it his personal business that Sheridan be protected at any cost.

   "You did promise Captain Ivanova you'd take a break, sir," Ballantine offered.

   Sheridan thought he also heard a muttered comment to the effect that it would please the speaker enormously if the President went to his quarters and stayed there because he'd been acting very oddly all day, but since neither of the Rangers was moving their lips Sheridan decided, once again, that he was imagining things.

   He took a deep breath and then nodded. "You're right. It's time to call it a day," he acquiesced, leading the way back to his quarters.

*****

   "Stage one is complete." Adam sat back in his chair, grinning like the proverbial cat. Charles frowned around the soles of the man's shoes, which were propped on his desk. "I've just sent an anonymous message to ISN suggesting they investigate Sheridan in a little more detail," he added.

   "Then they'll find out he's clean as a whistle." Charles really couldn't see how this was going to work.

   "No. They're going to find a lot of stuff that's been hidden just deep enough that they could have missed it before, but not so deep they won't find it now."

   "You've been planting information?"

   "For some time. I knew sooner or later we'd have to deal with the Alliance. Call it... insurance." He swung his long legs off the table and stood up. Strolling around the table he slapped Charles roughly on the back, causing the latter to cough. "Don't worry, my friend. As soon as they find that Sheridan has a history of carefully concealed drug abuse they'll know what to do."

   "No one is going to believe this!" Charles insisted, his voice rising with his concerns. "The man is a poster boy for the good guys!"

   "Ahh, but you're forgetting... Here is a man who was under stress during the Earth Minbari War, used as a propaganda tool for our forces after the Blackstar. Then he was up against Earth Gov. Lot of stress and strain there. Then he was captured and tortured. That's going to leave some scars, if only mental ones. You can't blame him for taking something every now and then, just to get through the day. And now he's the President of the entire galaxy, constantly battling aliens and his own people, but with words, not guns. That's gotta make life difficult for an ex-soldier. And, of course, he lives on Minbar where drugs that are on the unapproved list on Earth are commonly used."

   "In religious ceremonies," Charles returned, enunciating the words carefully to emphasise his point. "That's completely different. And we've no evidence he's ever been involved in such things. So far as I can tell they're reserved for special occasions."

   "*Had* no evidence, Chuck. Get your tenses right." Adam was feeling very pleased with himself. It had taken more than four years of careful planning, and most done merely as a precaution. He hadn't thought he'd ever actually need any of it. Still, he was glad, now, that he'd had the forethought. If things had carried on as they had in the past, none of this would have come to light. As it was, he'd had time to cover his own tracks most effectively. He doubted anyone would spot that the President had been thoroughly set up.

   Charles put his head in his hands. This was going from bad to worse. He didn't hero-worship Sheridan, but he had a lot of respect for the man. As Adam had just pointed out, he'd been through a lot. He certainly didn't need a demonstrably lethal drug addiction, or his position as the lynch-pin of the Alliance undermined at this stage. The galaxy hadn't known such peace in recorded history, from Earth or any other planet.

   "Look, just... tell me you're not giving him any more of that stuff." He looked up, pleading with Adam for some mercy.

   Adam scowled. "Not getting weak on me, are you Chuck?" He leaned over the desk. "We're talking billions, remember? What's one man against all that? Besides," he added, straightening, "I think we've helped the Alliance along in our own way. Think of the trade we've encouraged. Think of the way we've got races that normally would barely tolerate each other working together to get the shipments through."

   "It's not right!" Charles insisted.

   "It's commerce. You've got high ideals, and that's laudable, but in the real world people respond to hard credits. Money is the one universal language. Everyone wants to be rich. The Alliance is more than one person. If he falls it won't matter. That Minbari woman of his, Delenn; she'll take over if he dies. And if the Alliance can't survive without him then maybe it wasn't meant to. Survival of the fittest. Commerce and evolution, Chuck old boy. Commerce and evolution."

 

*****

 

 

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