SELLING OUT (II)

By Castor

 

 

 

*****

   "You've checked the sources?"

   "Thoroughly."

   "And you're sure this is for real?" The ISN executive was shaking. If this was true they had the biggest coup in the history of news casting. If it was a fraud and they announced it, they'd be on the streets so fast their butts would leave skid marks on the asphalt. After all, you didn't accuse the President of the known galaxy of being a drug addict without being pretty certain of your sources.

   "As far as I can tell." The reporter shook her head. "I must admit, it does make sense given what he's been through, but even so..."

   "Do you feel sure enough to present him with it at tomorrow's meeting?" The reporter hesitated and the executive could see her doubt even over the StellarCom. "If you're going to do this, it HAS to be in front of everyone. Anything else can be covered up."

   "I know, I know. I want to dig a bit more, and then I'm going to try something. We've got more than one meeting this week, and I'm pretty sure I can get permission to sit in on some of the other shindigs they've got organised."

   "Tracy, I know you feel you owe something to Sheridan, but if he's playing double standards it's up to us to bring him down. We can't have someone who's high as a kite running the galaxy!"

   "Very noble, I'm sure," she muttered. The fact it would send ISN's ratings through into the upper stratosphere certainly wouldn't be a factor, would it? Oh no! She snorted.

   "Tracy..." the executive said, a warning tone in his voice.

   "Don't worry, Bill. If this is for real, I promise I'll make sure the truth comes out. I'm going to conduct some interviews tonight and tomorrow morning, and I want to do some more checking."

   "I can send someone else out there if you're not sure you can handle it."

   "And by the time they get here it'll be too late. You gave me the job of covering this thing because you know I can do it. That hasn't changed. You know my opinion of drugs and those who deal in them. I promise you, if Sheridan's involved I'll bring him down so hard his head won't stop spinning for the rest of his life. If you get anything else, let me know. I'm going to go and do some digging of my own. I'll speak to you later." Before he could remonstrate with her any more she shut down the connection.

   She sat, staring at the reports she'd been sent for some time. Bill was right. She did feel she owed Sheridan. Until he freed Earth she'd been staying at one of President Clark's interrogation centres, and she had the scars to prove it. If the senate had been allowed to continue stalling she sincerely doubted she'd be alive, but Sheridan had forced their hand and then saved Earth at the risk of his own life. Since her family lived on the Eastern Seaboard that was twice over she owed the man. She wasn't inclined to believe he'd be so deceitful. Still, here were the reports, the financial records, everything.

   She sighed. The evidence was all there and yet her gut told her it didn't add up, and she'd found her gut reactions right more often than they were wrong. They'd got her this far and she wasn't inclined to abandon them now. She stared at the reports. The biggest worry was the fact that they'd turned up so conveniently from an anonymous source. Why now? Why didn't the person want to say who they were? What did they have to gain from ruining the President's reputation?

   "Computer. Analyse data. I want to know when this information appeared. Check through all reports on John J. Sheridan and look for any anomalies. Use the main ISN computer to bypass blocked files." ISN had long since found ways into most data archives, even those supposedly locked away. Most of the time they didn't have to use them and when they did it was only to confirm something that had reached them by other methods. There was no point in revealing you had an ace up your sleeve, and it stopped them making total fools of themselves. "How long until you're done?"

   "Estimated time to completion, four point three hours."

   "Right. Access results on my voice authorisation only." She stood up. "Meantime, let's see if there's anything else I can find," she muttered, heading for the door.

*****

   When Sheridan arrived at his quarters he thanked the Rangers and formally dismissed them, scowling slightly as he entered his quarters and overheard a muttered comment to the effect that they would remain until their replacements arrived to take up their duties outside his room. He was going to pass comment and then shook himself. They'd been given their orders and he, of all people, understood the need for an unconfused chain of command.

   Dropping his file folder on the low table and noting Sante's report already sitting there awaiting his attention, he shrugged out of his jacket before making his way into the bathroom, undoing his cuffs and rolling up his sleeves as he went. The water from the sink ran cold over his wrists and hands and he scooped up as much as he could to douse his face. He scrubbed at his beard, doused himself again and then looked at his reflection, noting the way the water glistened on the strands of hair and ran down his cheeks. He found it oddly fascinating, noting the prismatic effect of the light as it was refracted through the watery lenses. He turned and considered the shower. It would do him good to have a nice, long, relaxing bout under the spray, he decided. His clothes still seemed to be itching. In fact, he noted absently as he cast his mind back, he'd been developing an increasingly annoying irritation since he got aboard the station. He chuckled.

   "Hope I'm not developing an allergy to you, old girl," he muttered to the station walls.

   He actually felt pretty good, but was dismayed when he saw angry, red splotches on his stomach and chest as he stripped off his clothes. He considered his shirt for a moment. It was a new one that Delenn had bought only a few weeks before, and this was the first time he'd had a chance to wear it. He considered the possibility that there was something in the Minbari weave that his system didn't like and decided to abandon the shirt in favour of some old favourites in his luggage.

   As he climbed out of the shower and towelled himself down he noticed the splotches on his back as well. The shower had relieved the itching somewhat, but the nettle-rash effect clearly bespoke an allergic reaction to something. He couldn't afford to spend the next few days sitting in meetings scratching constantly. He could almost see even the Pak'ma'ra edging away from him for fear he'd got something that could spread. Definitely not the impression he wanted to give to the delegates. Shrugging into a robe he made his way to the Babcom and called up Medlab.

   "Mr President, may I help you?" Hobbs had answered the call as soon as she saw its origin.

   Sheridan paused, mentally reorientating himself to the fact he'd automatically been expecting Dr. Franklin. It was stupid, he knew, since Franklin had been working on Earth for many years now, but being aboard the station once more had awakened old memories and expectations. He smiled to cover his lapse.

   "Dr Hobbs. Sorry to bother you, but I seem to have some kind of allergy. I wondered if I could see you and pick up something to get this damned itching under control before I cause a diplomatic incident." He reinforced his concern as his stomach once more demanded relief and he responded. It was getting worse. He gave her a rueful grin.

   "I'll be right over," the doctor assured him.

   "Thanks." He switched off the link and then stared at the screen. "Computer, what's the time on Minbar?"

   "Time on Minbar is oh eight hundred hours, local time."

   A little early, but Delenn would be up. He decided to make a call. There was a short pause as the StellarCom connection went through, and then he saw Delenn smiling back at him and he grinned automatically. "Hi," he said.

   "Hi yourself," she returned. "How are you? How are the meetings going?"

   "The meetings are going fine. Better than I'd hoped, actually. At least the delegates are being pretty forthcoming about their opinions, so the worst of the bullshit is out of the way. They're not happy, of course, but that was to be expected. As for me, apart from some kind of allergy I'm fine."

   She frowned. "Allergy?"

   "Ah, it's nothing. I think it's that new shirt you bought me, or maybe something I ate. I'm getting something from Dr Hobbs. Just itching. Wish you were here to scratch it," he added with a grin.

   She chuckled. "So do I."

   "Oh, by the way, you'll never guess who's turned up on the station!"

   His enthusiasm for whoever this person was crossed the interstellar distance and Delenn was intrigued. "Clearly someone you've missed. Who?"

   "Susan!" he gleefully responded. "The Warlock needs some upgrades so she stopped off. We haven't had much time to talk yet, but we're going out to dinner later. I'll give her your love."

   "Please. It has been far too long. Ask her when she intends to pay us a visit on Minbar."

   "Well, unless she manages to fit something in over the next six months, probably not for some time. They've offered her another promotion."

   "Do you think she'll take it this time?"

   He nodded. "I don't think she's got much choice. I get the impression that's the other reason she decided to stop off here; paying him a visit just in case she doesn't get another chance, you know."

   She nodded. "I just wish there was something we could do."

   "Hmm." He looked over his shoulder. "That'll be Dr Hobbs. I'd better go. Give David a hug from me. I'll call you again tomorrow."

   "Don't forget his birthday!" she reminded him, giggling at his expression. This was becoming a standing joke between them and had been since a day, several years before, when pressure of work had led to his genuinely forgetting.

   "As if you'd let me?"

   She reached out and touched the screen. "I love you."

   He returned the gesture. "Love you, too. Bye."

   Immediately the console went dead he turned. "Come." When the door remained closed he frowned. It should have opened as soon as he'd acknowledged the message that there was someone waiting outside. Another thing that needed fixing. "Computer, open the door!" he demanded.

   It opened to reveal a slightly surprised looking Dr Hobbs still remonstrating with the new Ranger guards who were steadfastly refusing her entrance.

   "Ah, come in won't you?" He turned to the Rangers. "Dr Hobbs is head of medical on this station. She's always to be granted entrance no matter what time it is or what orders have been left regarding visitors. Is that clear?"

   The Rangers nodded and allowed her to step between them, exchanging a look as the door closed. How the hell had he known she was waiting outside anyway?

   "Sorry. They're a little over-zealous. And not my idea, I hasten to add." He looked around, suddenly at something of a loss. He was rarely ill. Wounded, yes, on numerous occasions when he was on the station and from a few incidents since he'd left, but not actually ill, per se. He wasn't sure what to do. "Umm."

   Hobbs put her bag down. "Where is the irritation?" She was all business and Sheridan was relieved.

   "Stomach, chest and back," he supplied, rubbing his wrist. He looked down. "And arms, apparently. I think it's spreading."

   "Well, let's take a look at it. Take off your robe." She started to get out some equipment. Sheridan paused. "Is there a problem?"

   "Uh, I'm not actually wearing anything under this. Let me at least go put some shorts on. I'll be right back." He disappeared into the bedroom and Hobbs chuckled, shaking her head as she got out some more bits and pieces. Like she hadn't seen it all before? Admittedly, not on the President, but she doubted he looked any different to any other human male.

   He returned clad in nothing but a clean pair of shorts that he used for sleeping. The irritation from which he was suffering was all too plain. She frowned.

   "Turn around." He duly turned slowly and she whistled. "Well, something's got your system all messed up. I can give you an antihistamine to counteract the reaction, and some salve that should stop the surface itching, but let's see if we can home in on what's caused it. When did this start?"

   "Soon after I arrived on the station."

   She motioned to a chair near the breakfast table and he sat down. "Have you changed your diet since you got here?"

   "I've been enjoying a few things I haven't had in years, but nothing I've not eaten or drunk before."

   "Lean forward," she commanded and examined the nettle-rash that spread from his right lower back around his side. "What sort of things?" she added, collecting a scanner and running it over him.

   "Uh, well... I had one of the hot Mexican dishes in Fresh Air earlier, and some wine, but I'd started to get this before that. It just got worse afterwards. Coffee is the only other thing and I drink that all the time on Minbar." She looked at him curiously. "I have it imported," he assured her. "Anyway, that's it. I've hardly been here long enough for anything else."

   Hobbs was frowning at the readouts. "This doesn't make any sense," she muttered.

   "What's wrong?"

   She shook her head. Maybe the scanner was playing up? "I don't understand this. Are you on any medication?"

   "Nope. Not a thing."

   She pulled out a syringe and a strip of rubber that she tied around his bicep. "Make a fist." He did as requested and she tapped his inner elbow a few times until the veins stood up, then she swiftly pushed in the needle and withdrew some blood. He winced. "Only a little prick, Mr President. I'm sure you've had worse."

   "Deal with them all the time," he muttered, eliciting a chuckle from Hobbs as she released the tie and placed a swab over the vein.

   "Hold that in place for a few minutes." She decanted the blood into a test tube. "I'm going to run a few tests. In the meantime, I don't want you to leave this room."

   "What? Why not?"

   "Because something here is very wrong. Either my scanner is playing up or..." She shook her head, refusing to even think about what the scanner had reported. It simply wasn't possible.

   "You know my biology isn't exactly normal?"

   She nodded and tapped the scanner. "I know. I accommodated for that. This is something else."

   "I was supposed to be going out to dinner with Ivanova tonight."

   "Where were you planning on going?"

   "Fresh Air, probably."

   "And you say you had that wine and the Mexican food there, right?" He nodded. "Order from somewhere else."

   "Dr Hobbs, I told you, I've been getting this reaction since I came aboard the station. It just got worse after that."

   "You won't be in a fit state to go out anyway. I can't give you the antihistamine until I've checked these results. I can give you some salve which should help the worst of the itching, but that's all." She put her equipment back in her bag, pausing over the vial of blood before locking it away safely in a protective plastic box. She pulled out a tube of salve and handed it to him and then put her hands on her hips. "Now, I'm going to ask you again. Are you absolutely certain you have not taken any drugs of any description whatsoever in the past two weeks? I mean anything."

   He gave a vehement shake of his head. "None. Haven't even taken an aspirin."

   "Any Minbari food you've never had before? Maybe at some religious ceremony or something like that?"

   "No. Dr Hobbs, what the hell is going on?"

   She snapped her bag shut and picked it up. "I'll be back with the results in two hours. If you can do without until then, skip supper. Otherwise, order in but not from Fresh Air. If I get the results I'm getting now that place will be shut down before they have time to cook it."

   "Is this some kind of food poisoning?"

   "I'm not saying anything until I'm one hundred percent certain." She shook her head. "If it is that, it wasn't on purpose, so someone's either very careless or is playing a particularly deadly game."

   Sheridan was now thoroughly alarmed. He followed Hobbs to the door. "Doctor, I demand you tell me what the scanner showed up. What drug is this?"

   Hobbs shook her head as the door opened. "Not until I'm sure," she repeated, stepping through. "You can't be taking SD2!"

   "WHAT?!" Sheridan lunged after her and then stopped, looking down to take in his state of undress. Apart from the guards there was no one else around, but that was embarrassing enough. Hobbs turned and stared at him for a moment before turning on her heel.

   "I'll be back in two hours. Stay where you are," she threw back.

   He shook his head and then looked at the Rangers who were steadfastly trying to maintain their composure in the face of the President clad in nothing but a pair of shorts. He pasted on an embarrassed grin as one muttered 'Nice look!' then cleared his throat, mustered his composure and stepped back into his quarters.

   He checked the time and realised it would be another half hour at least before Ivanova turned up. He'd grab a coffee to keep himself going until he was allowed to eat. At least his private supplies had to be safe. As he took down the packet from the cupboard he noticed he barely had enough left for a mug full. Odd, since he could have sworn he'd only brought fresh packets with him. Then he remembered he'd been helping himself on the White Star. He didn't think he'd drunk that much, but given the way he'd been running on anger and frustration, together with very little sleep, it wasn't impossible. He shrugged, rummaged around and found a second packet to top up the measure, tossing the empty one into the waste disposal, which promptly dealt with the offending item when he pressed the OK button. On a place like Babylon 5 there wasn't room for rubbish, so you made damned sure whatever you put in the disposal really was something you didn't want, because once the door shut it and you cleared the machine for action, anything inside was instantly reduced to its component parts.

   As he waited for the coffee to percolate he considered Hobbs' comment. There was no way he'd take *any* drug, much less SD2. Everyone knew he hated taking anything stronger than an aspirin, and even then he tended to go for a walk first. He simply didn't care for drugs of any description, and ever since Z'ha'dum there'd been the vague but unconfirmed suspicion that Lorien's gift might react badly to anything that tried to interfere with his system. There had been times when, due to circumstances beyond his control, he'd been forced to take stuff, but the Minbari doctors, aware of his unusual situation, always sought a herbal alternative wherever possible.

   He shook his head and poured the coffee, taking a sip to steady himself. Nursing the mug in his hands he leaned back against the counter. It just didn't make sense. Her scanner *had* to be wrong.

   His stomach growled and he patted it and then scratched as it began to itch again. Shaking his head he picked up the salve and, with that in one hand and the mug in the other, went back into the bedroom. Taking another gulp he set the mug down on his side table, put on some trousers, socks and shoes, laid out a clean shirt and then headed for the bathroom once more.

   He could barely reach all the spots and what had started as an annoying itch was rapidly developing into something rather more uncomfortable. It was making him irritable, and that was something he could live without while dealing with diplomats who raised his ire on a daily basis anyway.

   Finished with his task he washed his hands and then frowned. At the edge of hearing he could detect susurrus, as though the screen had been left on in the other room and tuned to a film that contained a party scene. He was certain he'd turned it off. Shaking his head he made his way into the living room only to find the unit silent. Still he could hear that dim, background noise, and as his brain processed the implications he paled.

   "Oh my God!" he breathed. He covered his ears, but the sound continued, its volume unabated. Suddenly, one voice rose above the others, the level increasing until he could make out every word.

   "Susan!" Her distinctive intonation, as well as the topic of her thoughts -- dinner with him, going over the latest reports of the Warlock upgrades she'd recently received -- gave her away. He quickly returned to the bedroom to grab his shirt, all the while considering what he should do.

   There seemed little doubt now that Hobbs was correct, although how this had happened was beyond him. The two new elements since all this began was his arrival on Babylon 5 and Ivanova herself. He shook his head. Even the suggestion that she might be the source was laughable, but should he tell her what was happening? He cast his mind back to the incident with Talia when they had discovered she had been programmed with an alternative personality of which she had no knowledge. Moreover, a personality that was malicious. Her actions had been beyond her control and her conscious mind completely unaware of her position. Could something have been done to Ivanova? After all, she had some telepathic ability.

   "I'm getting paranoid," he muttered as the door chime announced her presence. Still, it might be better to keep her out of it until they could nail down the source of the problem. The fewer who knew, the less chance someone might accidentally reveal to the perpetrator that the deadly game had been discovered. But that meant he had to cover himself; make sure he didn't respond to anything but her spoken words. Ivanova was no fool, and her experiences and background would make her more alert to any accidental telepathy he engaged in.

   This wasn't going to be easy.

   He stepped back into the living room and waited for the door chime to go off again before answering it.

   "Come."

   If he'd thought the din of her thoughts was bad while she was outside, in the room with him she was practically shouting at the top of her mind. Automatically, he covered his ears and turned away, but the volume remained almost unchanged.

   "John?"

   He turned back and gave her a weak smile. "Hi, Susan."

   "Are you all right? You look like hell."

   He watched her lips to be sure he'd heard her with his ears, but in his mind he could hear her worry echoed a hundred times. While touched by her concern for him, the bellow of her thoughts was staggering. It also made hearing her verbalisations very difficult -- a problem he hadn't considered before. He made a point of not raising his voice, although he was inclined to shout to make himself heard.

   "Sorry. I've got a terrible headache and some kind of allergic reaction to something," he covered quickly as he heard a list of possible reasons running through her head. "I don't think I'd be very good company tonight." He prayed that she would leave. At least if she was on another floor... Damn! Her room was next door. Even if she went out to dinner without him she'd be back later, and then her inner voice would drive him insane.

   "Do you need me to get Dr. Hobbs?"

   Did she say that aloud? "Hmm?" He made a point of watching her face and made a great show of trying to clear his ears. "I seem to be going deaf. Did you say something?"

   She stepped closer and reached out a comforting hand. "I said, do you need me to get Dr. Hobbs?"

   If he thought she'd been loud when in line of sight, the second she touched him he reared back at the roar. He shook her off and backed away.

   "She's running some tests now. Sorry, but I'm a little sensitive." He rolled back his sleeve to reveal the red patches on his arm. If this was a sample of what would happen when he was surrounded by diplomats tomorrow he'd be throwing himself through the nearest airlock before lunchtime. There had to be a solution. "Susan... can I ask you something?"

   "Sure."

   How was he going to put this without giving the game away? "I was wondering about the victims of this damned drug. I mean, couldn't they be trained to throw up a wall or something like a telepath does?" He cursed the reports he'd been reading. Obsessed with the chemical, economic and illegal components, they'd barely touched on the psychological aspect, and then only to mention how devastating it was and the requirements for a cure. The notion of a short-term solution hadn't entered anyone's head. But then, no one had survived long enough for such a concept to be tested once the roar of thoughts began. Even if they were alive they weren't sane enough to apply any theories. He wondered how long he had.

   "It takes practice to learn how to block others' thoughts. From what I can tell, I think that by the time it reaches that stage they're too far gone to be able to concentrate long enough to learn how to do it."

   But he *had* to learn, and fast. "How do you put up a wall? I mean, it can't be that hard, surely?"

   "It's not so much the wall itself as maintaining it even when you aren't thinking about it. When my mother..." He felt the pain the thought of her mother still caused in his friend. No wonder she was so antagonistic towards Psi Corps, even if the organisation itself had been overhauled until it was barely recognisable. He brought himself back to the conversation. "...I had to really concentrate to keep her out sometimes. Training a person to keep up those walls twenty four hours a day, seven days a week until you can literally do it in your sleep and it's no more effort than remembering how to walk or put on your clothes in the morning takes up a lot of early Psi Corps training."

   "How did you do it? I mean, you weren't trained by Psi Corps." He could hear her mind going over the lessons she'd learned from her mother as she prepared to answer him. Quickly digesting what she hadn't said he concentrated on following the instructions, furiously building the barriers in his mind. As he did so, the volume of her mind dropped and he sighed in relief, only to have the wall crumble as he lost concentration. Angrily, he started again... and again. 'How the hell do they keep this up?!' he thought, his opinion of telepaths going up several notches as he personally experienced the level of discipline they had to maintain merely to remain sane. The rigours of military training were a stroll in the park by comparison.

   Careful not to let his attention drop he nodded to himself, Ivanova's spoken words now all he could hear.

   "It takes years, but since the really high Psi rating telepaths are usually in Psi Corps from early on, they learn quite young and I guess it becomes second nature.

   "And I suppose they can always use sleepers if they can't handle it," he mused.

   She baulked and he was relieved he couldn't hear her thoughts. "Yes, but no telepath would want to use those until they were desperate. They sap the life out of you, piece by piece."

   He nodded. "I know. Sorry." But inside he was thinking that a little exhaustion would be easy in comparison to what he was facing. Maintaining concentration on the wall at the same time as holding a conversation was like trying to rub your stomach, pat your head and juggle firebrands all at the same time. She was still talking and he slowly brought his attention back.

   "...But from the reports it looks like this SD2 addiction reaches a stage where even sleepers wouldn't help the victims."

   He prayed he hadn't reached that stage yet. "Susan, I need to make a call. Can you give me an hour? If this damned headache hasn't gone by then I think we'll have to skip dinner for tonight. I'll let you know, okay?"

   Clearly disappointed, but friend enough not to push it, Susan nodded. "I'll be next door, all right? If you need me, just call."

   "I will. Thanks, Susan. Sorry to ruin your evening."

   "Hey, it's only dinner. I'll live. You take care of yourself. This SD2 thing is running you ragged."

   'You have NO idea,' he thought, but outwardly he just grimaced. "I'll be glad when it's over. One way or another, we'll catch them. See you later."

   Susan nodded and left, looking over her shoulder to bestow a last, concerned smile before the door closed. She stood outside for a moment, contemplating his behaviour, then she turned to the guards.

   "I'll be back in about an hour. Has he...?" She shook her head. She'd been about to ask them if Sheridan had been acting odd of late, but decided it was none of their business. "Never mind. I'll be next door if he asks for me."

   The guards nodded. "Understood Captain. We change shifts shortly, but I'll let the next team know you're expected."

   "Thank you." Still lost in thought she headed for her own quarters.

*****

   Sagging against the chair back, Sheridan wiped the sweat from his forehead. This was intolerable! Taking a deep breath he headed for the Babcom and contacted Dr. Hobbs.

   "Mr President! I haven't finished the analysis yet..." she began.

   He shook his head. "Doesn't matter. We both know what this is. You, because you've got the reports, and me because I'm suffering the consequences. I can only assume someone's been spiking my food and drink and I think we can guess why." He paused, his train of thought derailed for a moment as he concentrated on the block. At last he wiped his hand over his eyes and looked up again. "Doctor, I need this shut down now, before I go out of my mind."

   "I'm not sure..."

   "Sleepers. Bring some." He spoke a little too loudly, and his abrupt tone only served to reinforce his obvious struggle. A couple of the techs looked up to see what was going on and Hobbs, all too well aware that the conversation wasn't as secure as it could be, nodded quickly.

   "I'm on my way."

   As the screen blanked out, Sheridan risked lowering the walls he'd erected just a little. The roar that assailed him had him re-erecting them in record-breaking time. "It's getting louder," he muttered to the empty room. He wondered how long he'd be able to keep them out.

*****

   Hobbs quickly packed her bag with sleeper drugs and then looked around. She needed to finish running the tests to see what level Sheridan had reached, but the doctors were all busy. Two techs were working at their stations. One, a woman, she'd never seen before and she frowned. She'd have to check up on that one when she got back. The other was an old hand in Medlab and thoroughly dependable.

   "Colin, come over here for a minute, will you?"

   Colin looked up, nodded, secured the containers he'd been working with and walked over.

   Pulling him into her office, Hobbs nodded back towards the door. "Who's the new girl?"

   He shrugged. "I think she was sent up from Earth on some kind of graduate training course."

   "When did she arrive?"

   "Yesterday, I think."

   "Any good?"

   "Competent, but I wouldn't risk her on anything too important just yet. She's been acting as gofer. Why?"

   Hobbs sighed and lowered her voice, even though the closed door should have ensured security, unless someone had their ear pressed to the keyhole. "We've got a problem. Someone's been spiking President Sheridan's food and drink with SD2."

   "WHAT?!" Colin reared back in shock.

   "Shh! I know, I know. But we both know he wouldn't do this on purpose, so unless that's his double out there..."

   Colin gave her a look. "I take it those are his blood-samples you're testing?"

   "Uh huh."

   "Same energy recordings as usual?"

   "Yep."

   "Then I think we can take it for granted no one's managed to switch him on us. What do you want me to do?"

   She sighed. Colin's pragmatic attitude was just what she needed right now. "I need to know what level he's reached. The results should be up in another ten minutes or so. Guard them with your life, will you? If this gets out the bastards who did this to him will have a field day and any hope we have of catching them goes straight out the airlock."

   "No problem. Um... any side-effects yet?"

   She nodded. "A violent allergic reaction so far, and from what he was saying just now I'd say the voices are already at levels he can't handle. But you and I both know Lorien's gift, whatever it is, doesn't like to be messed with. He wants me to give him sleepers but I'm worried what the effect of those things will be on him. Especially when he's already screwed up."

   He nodded. "Whoever did this had no idea of the effect it would have on him."

   "Or didn't care." Her voice was bordering on a snarl. "You'd best get back out there, and keep that new girl away from the results. Until I know exactly who she is and where she came from, I don't want her anywhere near this."

   "No problem. If you need anything else, just let me know."

   She nodded and Colin headed for the door. As he opened it Hobbs noticed the new girl had moved to another desk, but still she was nowhere near the machine analysing Sheridan's blood. For that she was grateful. With a final nod to Colin, Hobbs grabbed her bag and headed out.

   A few minutes later, Colin called the new girl over. "Tracy, I think Dr Verhaden in Medlab 2 needs some help. Pak'ma'ra with a stomach upset I believe." He grinned at her look of disgust. "Yeah, well, that's what happens when you're the new kid on the block; you get all the choice jobs. Off you go."

   She nodded and left, Colin breathing a sigh of relief as the machine he was attending started to spit out its results. As he looked them over he groaned. This was definitely not good.

*****

   As soon as she was out of sight, Tracy dumped her scrubs in a maintenance locker and rushed back to her quarters. At her request, the computer displayed what it had so far. As she scrolled through the records she paused over one and then nodded and grunted to herself. Her hunch had been right. Not that she hadn't already confirmed it while she was eavesdropping on Dr. Hobbs and Colin. Well, if someone wanted to do a number on the President, two could play at that game. A plan formed in her mind and she grinned. For once she had the feeling the President might be rather pleased to see a member of the press, and the scoop for ISN once this thing was all over would send their ratings as super-luminary as her editor could wish.

   She printed up the one record that she had so far confirming her theory, and then headed over to Green Sector.

*****

   "Dr Hobbs, thank god!" Sheridan had answered the door so fast, Hobbs was convinced he'd been standing just the other side of it. That or he'd telepathically sensed her coming. "Come in, come in! Did you bring the Sleepers?"

   The door swung shut behind her and she took in his appearance. He looked considerably worse than he had just ten minutes ago on the Babcom. She nodded.

   "I brought them, but I'm not sure this is such a good idea. We don't know how Lorien's energy will react to this."

   "It can't be as bad as what I'm going through at the moment, trust me!" He rolled up his sleeve but she shook her head, eyeing the welts on the inside of his arm.

   "I want to check you again before I do this. You're getting worse and that doesn't make sense."

   "I think that's what the drug does, Doctor," he replied, a sarcastic bite to his tone.

   She refused to rise to him. "Humour me."

   Seeing she wasn't going to take no for an answer, Sheridan nodded and waited while she ran the scanner over him again. At last she nodded.

   "Thought so," she muttered, tapping some keys and then waving it over him again.

   "And what does that magic wand say now?" he muttered. He was running out of time. Despite the walls he was maintaining, the susurrus of voices were now detectable at the edge of his perception. He struggled to thicken the blocks he'd put in place. Much more of this and there'd be no room left behind the things for him.

   "You've taken some more."

   "What?! How?"

   "Have you eaten or drunk anything since my last test?"

   He nodded. "A cup of coffee." He pointed to the empty cup. He hadn't got around to washing it up yet and Hobbs sampled the dregs in the bottom and then whistled. "Woah! Someone really wants you out of it. This is about ten times the standard dose." She eyed him. "I'm amazed you're still walking around. By rights you should be crawling up the walls or dead by now."

   He frowned. "If it wasn't for a few quick lessons from Ivanova on building telepathic blocks, I probably would be."

   Hobbs cocked her head to one side, eyebrow raised. "Does she know?"

   "No," he returned quickly. "The fewer know about this the better. Apart from you I've told no one." He ran his hand through his hair and then stopped, staring at it. It was shaking.

   "Where did you get the coffee from?" she asked, noting his expression. She'd never seen the man so scared in her life.

   "Hmm? Oh, personal supplies. I brought them with me from Minbar. The packet's in the top cupboard." He pointed and she found the packet. A few seconds later she shook her head. "That isn't it. It's clean."

   He paused for a moment and then his eyes widened. "I had a packet before. I used it all up and put it in the waste disposal."

   "I don't suppose..."

   He shook his head. "Gone. How was I to know I was destroying evidence?" His voice was rising and the sweat beaded on his forehead.

   "You weren't. All right, from now on everything you eat or drink has to be tested first. Here." She pulled out a small scanner from her bag and began programming it. Finally she handed it over. "This has been set to detect SD2 in anything. I'd have your meals delivered from now on, that way your use of the scanner won't be known. And if you leave your meal or a drink alone for so much as two seconds when there's someone else in the room, check it again. I don't care how trustworthy you think they are, someone close to you is trying to kill you."

   He shook his head. "It's not Susan."

   "How do you know?"

   He raised his eyebrows in shock. "Apart from the fact we've stood side by side for more years than I care to count?" She nodded. "I could hear every thought she had earlier. If she was behind this, I'd've picked it up."

   "Unless she doesn't know she's behind this. We've had this problem before if you recall."

   "I know, I know." He waved her comment aside and paced the room. Finally he stopped, hands on hips and nodded. "All right. No one is told, not even Susan. Now can you shut up these voices?" His tone was getting desperate.

   Hobbs contemplated the hypo. in her hand, loaded with the Sleeper drug. "We don't know what this is going to do to you. It could kill you."

   "And if I don't take it I'm just as dead. The only difference is I'll go mad first." Once again he bared his arm.

   "I can't take responsibility. Without more tests..."

   "Duly noted. Doctor, I'm running out of time, here. I've got blocks up fifteen feet thick and I can still hear your concerns loud and clear. Believe me, I understand your worries and your position, but we have to do this. Now come on!"

   With a resigned sigh Hobbs stepped forward. "You do realise this might not work? For all we know you're already too far gone."

   "It's a chance, and it's not like there are a lot of alternatives."

   She shook her head. "All right, here goes." She quickly injected him with the prescribed dose for a P12, which was as high as the records could provide. When she'd finished he rubbed his arm as he paced the room, his demeanour tense and agitated. After a few minutes he turned on her.

   "Still there," he snarled.

   "Give it time," she responded calmly. "According to our records this stuff takes a while to take effect." She went back to her bag and produced another hypo. "If that doesn't work, this will knock you out cold. It's not much of an alternative, but it's better than nothing."

   He nodded. "What about the treatment drugs?"

   "Well, that all depends on how far gone you are. After a certain point they don't work. Frankly, given the dose I detected in that mug you should be way beyond that point already, but, like I said, if you were you'd be dead or insane."

   He rolled his eyes. "Nice to know."

   "Lorien's gift is the one thing they couldn't prepare for because no one knows how it works or what it does. I'd say it's working overtime right now. All we can do is pray it can handle the abuse it's getting."

   He nodded and then twitched. Frowning he looked to Hobbs for an explanation as another spasm shook his arm.

   "Lie down," she ordered. "Now!" She nodded curtly to the bedroom and he did as ordered, another spasm rising from his arm to his shoulder as he lay down. "This is what I was afraid of. You've taken too much abuse already and your system's kicking back. Steady."

   She ran back to her bag as his body was racked by muscular contractions whose intensity built every second. As she returned he was nearly lifted off the bed as his back arched.

   Quickly recalibrating her scanner she began to run it over him, pulling back as another spasm sent his arm flying out to miss her by mere millimetres. Thus occupied, she didn't hear the door chime. It rang again and then the door opened to reveal Ivanova. She paused, confused, taking in the doctor's bag on the table and the noises coming from the bedroom. She nodded her thanks to the guards who, in response to their earlier instructions had let her in, and stepped inside.

   "Hang in there, Mr President."

   She heard Hobbs' clearly concerned words and hurried to the partition that led to the bedroom. The sight she beheld appalled her.

   Sheridan was clearly in the grip of some kind of seizure. His entire body shaking, his fists clenched and, as she stood there in shock, unnoticed by the occupants, he arched upwards with a grunt of pain.

   Hobbs ran the scanner over him, unaware she was being observed. "Your heart rate has jumped to a hundred and thirty and it's still rising. Brain activity is off the scale," she muttered. "Mr President? President Sheridan! Can you hear me?"

   He grunted through clenched teeth as another spasm shook him and then gave a sharp nod. "Hear you," he managed. "Can't control..."

   Ivanova didn't know what to do. She knew Sheridan; knew that this wasn't something he'd had before. He'd been uncomfortable earlier but hadn't seen fit to tell her what was wrong, so whatever this was, he was trying to keep it quiet. She listened as Hobbs answered him.

   "I know. I warned you. We're just going to have to ride it out. Anything I give you now is only going to make it worse." Her tone was tight, clipped, her eyes flicking across the readings on her scanner as they fluctuated wildly. "Dear God!" she murmured. If things didn't settle down soon she was going to lose him, and that was not a prospect she was prepared to entertain.

   Susan looked from one to the other. She was about to step forward and make her presence known when she detected a lessening of the tension in both the doctor and her patient.

   Hobbs watched as the readings peaked and then entered a plateau before starting to drop again. Sheridan's body slowly began to relax, the sweat dripping from him, soaking his hair and beard. The whole thing had taken less than ten minutes.

   To Sheridan it felt like half a lifetime.

   Ivanova felt the same. Still they hadn't noticed her and, since it was clear Sheridan wanted to keep this hidden, she decided discretion was the better part of valour. Quietly, she left Sheridan's quarters. Once outside she turned to the guards.

   "No one else is to go in there unless either Doctor Hobbs or President Sheridan himself says so, is that clear?"

   They nodded, glancing at each other. What had got the Captain so agitated?

   "I'm going back to my room. If he asks for me, you know where I am." Another nod and she turned and headed for her quarters. Once inside she paced for some time before making up her mind. She put a call through on StellarCom, invoking her personal security codes from the Warlock, which the computer duly accessed on her command.

   "Susan! How good to see you. It has been too long." Delenn's easy smile lifted some of the weight from Ivanova's shoulders, but only a little.

   "Delenn. Uh... look. I know this is none of my business, and if you don't want to talk about it you can just tell me to butt out, OK?"

   Delenn frowned. "What are you talking about?"

   "John."

   "What about him? I thought he was there with you on Babylon 5."

   "He is. But he's... Delenn, has John been ill lately?"

   She shook her head. "No, not that I... Oh! He did say he had some kind of allergic reaction to something the last time he called. Why? Has it got worse?"

   "I think that might be something of an understatement," Susan muttered. Looking Delenn in the eye across the light years of interstellar distance she drew herself up. "He's gonna kill me for this, but I think you ought to know."

   "Know what?" A hint of worry was seeping into Delenn's voice.

   "Look, John and I were supposed to be going out to dinner tonight. Catch up with old times, you know. Anyway, he said he had a headache and I was to call back in an hour. I just came from there and..."

   Delenn's eyes widened in shock as Ivanova related what she'd seen.

*****

   "Oh my God," he murmured. "I don't want EVER to have to go through that again!" Sheridan drew a deep breath and released it loudly, wiping his face. As he did so his hands suddenly stilled. Hobbs, afraid something else was going to happen, once again checked her readings. Everything seemed to have settled down. "Gone," he whispered.

   "What?"

   "Gone!" he repeated, his hands smacking down on the bed as he lifted himself into a sitting position. "The voices, they've all gone!" He was grinning like a maniac.

   "Well, that's something anyway," Hobbs nodded. "At least you didn't go through all that for nothing."

   "What *was* that anyway? I feel like I've been run over by a cruiser." The euphoria he'd felt at the knowledge the voices had stopped was already being replaced with exhaustion.

   "I'm not sure. Your EEG was off the scale, but it seems to have settled down now. And the exhaustion will be partly the fits you had and partly the Sleepers. Quite a few have complained they leave you feeling lethargic."

   He nodded, thinking back on his conversation with Susan. "I remember."

   "If I were you, I'd get some sleep. You're going to need it."

   He shook his head. "There's no time. We have to figure out who's doing this." He paused, swung his legs over the edge of the bed and sat, staring into space. "Not to mention how."

   Hobbs looked on disapprovingly. "I can't give you stims, and this is going to catch up with you soon. You have to rest." He ignored her, mentally running through scenarios. He had to work out how security had been so thoroughly compromised. "Mr President, I can make that an order…"

   He chuckled. "I'm not in Earthforce, doctor. I don't have to obey the MO any more."

   "I could call Delenn…"

   He looked up sharply. "You wouldn't."

   "Watch me."

   Sheridan narrowed his eyes. "Doctor, you don't fight fair. The last thing I need right now is Delenn hurrying over here and worried sick. She's got enough on her plate."

   "Then you'll take your doctor's advice and get some rest."

   He grunted, still reluctant, but she could see the exhaustion starting to seep through his system. If she could only distract him long enough, nature would do the rest for her. The trick would be to find a way to help him let go of his worries. That meant finding someone else who could be trusted to start the investigation without him. Given the problem was aboard the station, and given the tightest station security had been compromised, any attempt to use station resources was likely to alert the would-be murderers that the game was up. There had to be someone else; someone who was not on the station, who could be trusted, and who had a nose for ferreting out trouble.

   She smiled as the answer presented itself.

   "Mr Garibaldi."

   Sheridan blinked. "I'm sorry?"

   "Why don't you call him? If anyone can do some digging without those on Babylon 5 finding out, I'd say it was him. And you know what he's like. Once he gets wind of this he won't rest until he's found out who's responsible."

   "He's on Mars. The problem is here," he responded dismissively.

   Hobbs wouldn't be put off. "The problem, as far as I can tell Mr President, stems from the Sol system. He's in the perfect position to investigate locally. No one will suspect him. Edgars-Garibaldi Industries has sources we can't even imagine. It's out of the loop, has contacts inside all the big banking corporations…"

   Sheridan's eyes widened. "Doctor, you're a genius! Why the hell didn't I think of that before? If anyone's got clout within the Saturn Consortium it'd Michael. He's probably a major shareholder." He stood up, heading towards the Babcom console.

   "Computer, access Gold Channel and use personal security codes for John J. Sheridan." He turned to Hobbs. "Assuming they're still in the system, of course."

   "Voice authorisation required."

   He grinned. Either Zack had made sure he had his old codes, or the system hadn't been purged of them since he left. Then he frowned. Could the system already be compromised? Could he be sure any message he sent would be secure? If his enemies could get into his rooms, surely they would have already thought of cracking his personal codes, if only to intercept any message he might send or receive related to them.

   "Hmm. On second thoughts, Doctor, I think, perhaps, it might be better if we used your codes. Would you mind?"

   "Not at all."

   Sheridan cancelled his call and stepped aside, letting Hobbs step up. When the StellarCom cleared to reveal Garibaldi's frowning face she allowed Sheridan to take over.

   "Michael. Good to see you."

   Michael nodded. "Mr President. What can I do for you?" If Sheridan was calling out of the blue there had to be a reason.

   "I have a problem and I think you might be able to help. I realise you're not in charge of security anymore, but security here has been compromised, and until we figure out the source of the leak…"

   "I'm all ears. I take it this is something to do with SD2, right?"

   Sheridan worked his jaw for a moment and then shut it, smiling. "I see you keep up with things."

   "It's affecting business. We've got researchers trying to come up with ways to counteract it. Big contract for the Earth-Alliance. So, like I said, what can I do for you?"

   Sheridan pursed his lips, wondering how much he should say. Finally he let out a sigh. If Garibaldi was going to do a thorough investigation he'd need to know all the facts. "Someone's been slipping the drug into my food and drink."

   Garibaldi leaned forward quickly. "What?! Are you OK?"

   "For the moment. Doctor Hobbs here has given me some Sleepers to kill the voices, but I don't know how long that'll last. In the meantime, we need to try and track the source. Whoever it is, someone in the Saturn Consortium is handling their money laundering. That was as much as we could get before they gave us the slip. I was wondering...?"

   "I'll poke around. I've got a few contacts in there who owe me some favours. Do you know who's responsible for drugging your food?"

   Sheridan shook his head. "Not a clue, but it has to be someone close; someone I trust. No one else has been able to get anywhere near me thanks to Captain Lochley's instructions."

   "At least she's good for something. All right, send me your personnel files. Anyone and everyone you've had contact with since this started. Ambassadors, station security..."

   "Elizabeth seconded the Anla'shok to help out there."

   "Then send me everyone on that list as well."

   He sighed. "This could take a while, Michael. Delenn made sure I had enough Rangers to start a small war... or stop one."

   Garibaldi grinned. "She's got your best interests at heart. I'll forgive her. I assume everything's triple encoded already?"

   Sheridan nodded. "My old passwords, if you remember them?" Garibaldi grinned and Sheridan took that as a yes. "I'll have to ask Captain Lochley to give me access to the station security files."

   "No need. I have a way around these things." He winked and turned to a second computer console. "Synching up the system. Just give me a minute here..."

   "What are you doing?"

   "Just a few more seconds... Got it! Now then, let's see..."

   Sheridan watched in fascination as Michael scanned through something he couldn't see and then gave a satisfied grunt.

   "That's all the personnel assigned to you from the station itself, and the Ambassadors and other planetary representatives. I assume the Anla'shok files are all on Minbar?"

   Sheridan shook his head in bewilderment. "One of these days you're going to have to show me how you do that! Yes, the main database is on Minbar, but there's a copy on the White Star of all the files for those personnel assigned to me."

   "Can you access the White Star from your console there?"

   Sheridan nodded and opened the connection. Before he had time to even begin downloading, the tell-tale sign of a carrier signal moving through the system popped up.

   "Michael! How the hell...?"

   "Hey, you know I've always had a knack for these things. How'd you think I managed to stay one step ahead of the bad guys when I was there? Of course, it helps I've spent some time on the White Stars. Their security's better than most." He raised his hands. "It's OK, John. I had to go via your link and your system access passwords aren't available to me. If you hadn't opened it up while I was connected and already had the snoop program running I couldn't have got in. OK, I've got all the files for the Anla'shok. Is there anyone else I should be looking into?"

   "Apart from Zack, Captain Lochley and Susan? Nope."

   "Hey, Ivanova's there?" Sheridan nodded. "Well, we know she's safe, and I'd trust Zack with my life. Have done many a time. Now Lochley on the other hand..." Sheridan raised an eyebrow and Michael laughed. "Yeah, yeah, I know. I'll try the others first." He paused, scanning the lists in front of him. "This is gonna take a while. In the meantime, what're you gonna do?"

   "Dr Hobbs has given me a scanner to check my food and drink, and I won't be eating outside my quarters until this is over, so unless they stick a needle in me while I'm walking the corridors I should be safe from any further doses."

   Garibaldi frowned. "How much have you had already?"

   He shook his head. "Too much. The only reason I'm not crawling up the walls seems to be Lorien's little gift, and we don't know how long that's going to be able to fight this." He sighed. "It's not good, Michael."

   "Well, we might be able to help. Let me see what the guys down in R&D have come up with. They've been working on something that was looking pretty promising the last time I checked. No guarantees, but worth a shot, huh?" His half smile belied his concern for his friend.

   Hobbs stepped forward. "The President has an odd biology as you know. He's reacting badly to anything put into his system right now."

   "How badly?"

   Sheridan sighed and walked away, waving Hobbs his permission to fill in the details.

   "I gave him the Sleepers and they sent him into a seizure. SD2 itself has brought him out in a severe allergic reaction. Just classic nettle rash right now, but it could easily develop into something much worse. Before I use anything else I'd want to know the full chemical structure."

   "Hmm. Earth mightn't be too pleased about that. They're paying for this and want to slap a patent on it the second we come up with anything so they can recoup their costs."

   "If I think it's safe we can call it field testing if that makes you feel any better. And I promise not to tell." Hands on hips, Hobbs made her opinion of this discussion topic abundantly clear.

   "That should satisfy the lawyers. Wouldn't hurt sales either, having it endorsed by the President of the known galaxy."

   Sheridan, who'd been standing in the middle of the room, one hand on his hip and the other rubbing the back of his neck as he tried to figure out who could have been poisoning him, turned sharply. "Michael..." He stepped back to the monitor.

   "Ah well, so much for that marketing ploy." He grinned. "It's OK, Mr President. I don't think either of us wants too many in the know on this one. I'll get on with this lot and get back to you as soon as I have anything. If you find anything, keep me informed. I'm sending you my personal access codes on another channel. Use my old password to get in. I know you remember it. Any time of the day or night, use this code and you'll get straight through to me, doesn't matter where I am. And don't worry about security. No one's cracking this sucker."

   Sheridan nodded, directing the incoming file to a data crystal he slotted into the console. "Thanks, Michael. I owe you."

   "Ah, call it payback. Just one thing..."

   "Name it."

   "When we find the bastard who's doing this to you, can I throw the switch to space 'em?"

   Sheridan snorted. "Let's see who it is first. Take care, Michael, and thanks."

   "No problem."

   The StellarCom shut down and Sheridan was left staring at his own reflection on the screen. He ran a hand through his hair, shaking his head. The only good thing in this whole mess was that Delenn wasn't there, worrying alongside him. Not that it wouldn't be nice to share the burden right now, but she didn't need this kind of stress.

   "And now Mr Garibaldi's investigating, will you please get some rest?" Hobbs' concerned tones drew him out of his reverie.

   "Not much more I can do now, huh?" He looked down, nodding in answer to his own question. "I know, I know. I just..." His fist punched the air; the first sign of energy since his seizure. "Have you any idea what it's like to know that someone you trust... someone you thought was standing by your side as an ally, is actually holding a knife and preparing to stab you in the back? I mean..." He turned away, pacing the room once more, "...this job could make a dead man paranoid..." He paused and snorted as the irony of his words struck him. "I guess it just did."

   He flopped down into an armchair and then leaned forward, his elbows resting on his knees. Hobbs took the seat opposite, realising he needed to talk.

   "You try to help... try to make a difference so that when it's time to go you can look back and know the world you left is a little safer. I didn't ask for this job, but now I'm stuck with it I'm trying to do the very best I can. And where does it get me, hmm? A drug that we *know* kills; that we know can do nothing but harm in the medium term, let alone the long term... this thing turns up and we do our damnedest to put a stop to it and at every turn we get stopped. And when we finally get to a point where we might actually have a chance at nailing the bastards who are making and selling this crap... as soon as we get close they decide it's better to kill me than risk their retirement funds."

   "Human nature, I'm afraid."

   He looked up and she gave a rueful smile.

   "OK, I know we haven't cornered the market in sleaze. Sentient nature, perhaps?"

   Sheridan stared at his hands. "You know what's really stupid?" Hobbs shook her head. "What's stupid is that the only way these guys can carry on is if the bulk of the system works. They need people strong enough to try and stop them, but not strong enough to always succeed. If the entire galaxy took the same attitude they did, the system would fall apart and they'd fall with it."

   She nodded. There was nothing else to say. In the silence that followed she went to rise, thinking it was time to once again press Sheridan to get some sleep, but then he started speaking again and she relaxed once more.

   "For a little while I was stupid enough to think that once we got rid of the Shadows and the Vorlons people would get a clue. They'd see what was needed and everything would be all right. I knew we had to deal with Clark, but he was part of the Shadows' legacy." He took a deep breath and let it out steadily. "And so are these drug dealers. Which, I guess, makes me part of the Vorlon legacy." He looked up, pasting a feeble smile on his face. "They trained us too well, didn't they?"

   "I don't agree. You saw both sides and moved beyond them. You're not against change of any kind, like the Vorlons. You're adaptable; they were not."

   He leaned back in the chair, stretching his long legs out in front of him, crossed at the ankles. Her comment elicited a grunt, but nothing more. As he leaned his head against the back of the chair and closed his eyes she realised he was going to fall asleep where he sat.

   "You need to get some proper rest. A couple of hours in a chair isn't good enough," she admonished.

   He nodded, his eyes still closed. "I know. I'll move. Just give me a minute to..."

   The door chime interrupted him.

   His eyes shot open. "Who the hell is that?" He gave Hobbs a look and then turned to the door. "Come!"

   It opened to reveal a Ranger looking slightly the worse for wear. Sheridan stared. Had Shadow minions suddenly started a fight aboard the station and he wasn't aware of it?

   A diminutive woman, her hair a mess, her clothes askew and her face red suddenly stepped into view. He looked down to take in her appearance, and then up again at the Ranger.

   "Who?" he mouthed.

   "Tracy Satchell, Mr President. I know you don't want to see me, but believe me when I tell you it's in your interests to do so." She straightened her jacket and swept back her hair, responding to his annoyed glance with one of his own.

   Hearing the woman's voice Hobbs came to the door. "You?!" she snapped. "Who the hell are you, anyway? I knew you didn't belong in Medlab!"

   Satchell ignored Hobbs and stared at Sheridan. "Mr President, I know what's going on. Do you *really* want to discuss this in the hallway?" She handed him a flimsy. He took it and glanced over the contents. Suddenly, his attention was riveted.

   "How did you...? Never mind. Come in."

   "Thank you. Excuse me!" The last was said to the Rangers who were still blocking her path. Reluctantly, they stepped aside. With a satisfied nod she stepped between them and entered Sheridan's quarters. The Rangers exchanged looks. That woman was a maniac!

   "Good luck, sir," one of them muttered as the door closed.

   The second the door was sealed Sheridan turned. "All right, where did you get this information from and why were you looking for it? And come to that, who the hell are you, anyway?"

   "Tracy Satchell, ISN reporter."

   "ISN?!"

   She raised her hands. "It's all right. I'm here to help..." she noted his expression of frank disbelief, "as astonishing as that may sound."

   "You're right. It is astonishing." He sat down heavily and motioned for her to do the same. As Satchell calmly took the seat offered Hobbs watched her with narrowed eyes. She had a mouth full of comments on Satchell's behaviour that she was afraid might pour out if she stood near the woman one second longer than was strictly necessary, and that probably wouldn't look good on the evening news.

   "Mr President, do you need me here?"

   "I'm not sure." He turned to Satchell. "Do I, Miss Satchell?"

   "That depends."

   "On what?"

   "On how many people know you've been pumped full of SD2." She raised an eyebrow, her weight posted on one elbow.

   Sheridan and Hobbs exchanged glances.

   "Looks like I'm staying," Hobbs muttered and sat down.

   For a while there was silence as each sized the other up. Finally Sheridan leaned back in his chair and gazed pointedly at the reporter. "All right, Miss Satchell, you seem to have our undivided attention. Now, would you care to give us some answers? Or is this twenty questions?"

   Satchell looked at him. So this was President Sheridan, in the flesh. Starkiller. The man who, according to the stories, defeated the Shadows AND the Vorlons; the man who freed Earth and risked his own life to save others, including her own family...

   Somehow she'd expected him to have a cloak and a halo. Instead she was faced with a man who looked exhausted, sitting in a rather cheap chair, his legs crossed, his hair in need of a comb, his shirt rumpled and sweat stained... Not quite the hero.

   At least he was tall.

   "Well?"

   Oh yes, and he had a nice voice.

   "Miss Satchell?"

   She shook herself out of her reverie. "I'm sorry. I've never been in the presence of a hero before. You're not quite what I was expecting."

   "I left my cloak and spandex flying suit back on Minbar. Now could you tell me how you know about all this?"

   She frowned. "Are you reading my mind right now?"

   He blinked. "Not that I'm aware of, no. Why, was I close?"

   She shook her head. "Never mind. OK, background." She shifted to a more businesslike tone. "I was sent here to cover the conference. I, um..." she fidgeted uncomfortably. "Well, my editor thought I'd be the best person to do it because I have a personal interest in getting SD2 off the market."

   "Someone close to you?" Sheridan asked. She sighed and nodded, but didn't offer any more information. "I sympathise. Believe me, I want this filthy stuff gone and the people who're pushing it behind bars. That's in my more reasonable moments. The rest of the time... well, let's just say I'd rather it wasn't reported what I'd LIKE to see done to them."

   Satchell smiled. He was talking her language all right. "That's OK. I agree with you, but I won't put it in my article. Anyway, my editor called to tell me they'd had an anonymous tip-off that you were actively trying to ruin the investigations because you had a vested interest in seeing the traffic continue. Namely, that you were a user."

   "I take it you realise this is bull from top to bottom?"

   "I suspected, but then we were directed to a whole list of files. Bank records, reports, secret dispatches... All of them seemed to back up this story. My editor wanted to run with it but he had the sense to ask me to check it first and then present you with it. In fact, I was due to present the evidence at tomorrow's meeting."

   "I take it you've changed your mind?"

   "I set the computer to do a little investigating of its own. What you have there," she nodded to the flimsy resting on his lap, "is the first fruit of that research. As you can see, up until three years ago there was nothing. Then, all of a sudden, bang! A whole load of evidence appears making you out to be a perennial drug addict. The first-person reports all seem to be from people who are now dead, which is rather neat."

   Sheridan nodded. "Very convenient. And I don't recognise most of these names, although they were in the same divisions as me according to these files."

   "Naturally," muttered Hobbs. She turned to Satchell. "So what were you doing in Medlab posing as a tech?" Her tone was rather harsher than she'd meant, given the woman was prepared to help them, but she resented being used.

   "Yes, I'm sorry about that. If it's any consolation I did train as a nurse before I became a reporter. Did five years before I decided it wasn't my thing, so you wouldn't have lost any patients to incompetence."

   "Glad to hear it. And?"

   "And... I was trying to find out if the stories were true. If the President was taking drugs the one person who'd be likely to know or find out about it would be the Chief MO."

   "So you were spying on us?" She wasn't about to relax her antagonism.

   "In short, yes. But it told me what I needed to know: that President Sheridan is being set up," she added in response to their unspoken question. "And since the only people who have a vested interest in setting him up are those who create and distribute SD2, personally I'd like to help you nail them."

   "Not to mention the final scoop on the story once we do get them, eh?" Sheridan drawled. That wasn't entirely for effect. He was exhausted and he wasn't sure how much longer he could keep this up.

   "Well, obviously I'd like to still have a job once this is all over, and if I don't provide my editor with the scoop I'm liable to end up on the streets." She leaned forward. "Don't get me wrong, I'm a damned good reporter and I'll find some way to save my own ass, never fear. Still, I'd rather do it *with* your help than without it, and I think we can help each other."

   "How so?"

   "I over-heard enough to know this drug doesn't affect you the same way it affects everyone else. You've had an allergic reaction, right?" She nodded to his arm, the sleeve of which was still partially rolled up. Self-consciously he straightened the cuff and buttoned it. He grunted in acknowledgement. "But so far you've not suffered the more typical effects?"

   Sheridan and Hobbs exchanged glances. Could they trust this woman? She was, after all, a reporter. That spoke volumes against her. On the other hand, she'd brought the information directly to them rather than make a devastating revelation during the conference. As they hesitated, Satchell turned to look at the computer console.

   "Can I borrow your computer for a bit?"

   "What for?" Sheridan asked warily.

   "I think by now I should have some more information for you. I assume I can link in to the one in my quarters from here, yes?"

   He nodded. "Go ahead."

   Satchell promptly accessed her computer and downloaded the new information it had accumulated. Her reporter's 'scan mode' set to full she quickly passed over a bewildering number of files, leaving Sheridan and Hobbs both shaking their heads at the speed the woman worked.

   'Is she a robot or something?' Sheridan mouthed, not entirely jokingly. Despite his increasing weariness he was intrigued. Hobbs merely shrugged.

   "Got you, you brain dead moron!"

   "Excuse me?"

   Satchell turned and gave a slightly sheepish grin that she quickly smothered. "Not you, Mr President. The ones who're after you." She quickly printed out the relevant files and handed a copy to Sheridan, then turned her attention back to the screen to read the reports in full.

   Sheridan stared at the papers in his hands and then shook his head, handing them to Hobbs. "I'm too tired to be able to even think straight," he admitted. "Can you see what she's getting at?"

   Hobbs perused the papers and then shrugged. "I can't say I'm feeling particularly energetic myself right now."

   Satchell, now crackling with the excitement of her discovery, whirled around. "Don't you see? All of these reports, despite appearances, date back to around the same year. Most of them can be traced back to the same country and even the same city." She grabbed the papers out of Hobbs' hands and pushed them back in Sheridan's face. "He's good, but he's dealing with official EF records. They have security tabs coded in and while he's made a stab at recreating them, he doesn't understand the system enough to know what code stands for what thing." Sheridan was frowning and she plunged on. "Every time you access an EF record the machines mark the change. There are two sets of codes. One, this one," she pointed to the foot of the page, "is up front and obvious. He's changed those correctly. The second is hidden. I ordered the computer to reveal the lot because that's what I was looking for. They're here." She pointed to a second set of letters and numbers that looked like a watermark running across the pages, bottom left to top right. They were faint, but there nevertheless. "Now, he's hacked the system enough to know these things exist, and he's assumed they follow the same pattern as the first ones -- a sort of double-blind verification system. But they don't!" She gave a triumphant yell and Sheridan, who could feel his last reserves of energy being sucked out of him by Satchell's enthusiasm, winced visibly. "For once, EF's anal-retentiveness has actually worked in our favour. He's changed this one, thinking it's the point of origin code, but that's the department stamp. And he's changed this one, thinking it's the date of creation, but that's the date of the article. The origin code is here, and the date of creation is here!" Her finger stabbed at the page and Sheridan took the papers back, rubbed his eyes and began to look more closely. As the codes, familiar to him from his days spent obsessed with black projects and other clandestine affairs, came into focus, he felt his energy levels returning.

   "You see now, don't you? Don't you?!" Satchell was almost punching the air with glee.

   Hobbs stared at the woman. She'd never seen a reporter so euphoric. "Um, for those of us 'secret code challenged' could someone explain to me what's going on?" She looked from Satchell to Sheridan and noticed he, too, was grinning from ear to ear.

   "He's practically given us his name and address," Sheridan murmured, shaking his head in astonishment. He handed Hobbs the top two sheets as he scanned the remainder, intermittently nodding and shaking his head. The first was in response to the consistent error and the real details the hidden codes revealed, while the second was a still slightly bemused comment on their good fortune.

   Hobbs, still at a loss, peered at the indicated codes and then shook her head. "So where is he?" she said at last.

   "Geneva!" Sheridan and Satchell revealed simultaneously. Sheridan continued. "Well, he was when he sent the bulk of these. There are a couple here from New York, no, four. Here's another two." He waved the papers in the air and then returned them to the stack, shuffling the collection to stop them spilling onto his lap. "So that means he's got offices, a business associate or a house in those cities. Two from London, which might give us another clue." He quickly flicked through the remainder before giving a satisfied grunt. "That's the lot."

   "So he's a businessman working in the three hubs of business on Earth. And this narrows it down?!" Hobbs folded her arms. "That still leaves you several thousand people at least to deal with. Besides, couldn't he have hacked the system and accessed these from elsewhere?"

   Sheridan shook his head. "That's the beauty of it. The second codes don't tell you the origin of the file. They tell you the origin of the person making the changes."

   "Well, couldn't he have gone through several other systems before he got to the site? How do you know he's not simply piggy-backing his hacking through some innocent businessman, or even a teenager who didn't even know his computer was being used by someone else while he was working?"

   "The system has a tracer program on it. It's designed to keep going until it reaches the actual computer that's being used. Ones merely ferrying the signal are ignored. Traced, mind you..." he pointed to another code, "but ignored. His entire path is shown here. You see that? He went through someone in Norway. And here he's managed to go via Delhi, which is impressive considering he was actually in the same city as the files that day."

   "Couldn't he just have re-written all the codes from scratch? I mean, if he's hacked them at all…?"

   "He doesn't understand the second set of codes enough to do that," he replied, chuckling, "so he has to make alterations on the originals. If he'd left them alone they'd make it clear this whole thing is a fraud. If they're absent, the files are simply redirected for official attention and flagged as suspect. He has to alter them but he doesn't know what he's doing."

   "But that still doesn't tell you who he is!" Hobbs insisted, her frustration rising.

   "Not quite, but I think we know someone who can do the rest. Now it's a matter of correlation and a little investigation. We're looking for someone who's in the top two percent of the financial slope and who probably only started to show up there around the same time these files were being changed. Certainly not too long before because the genuine time stamps on these files correlate to some of the earliest confirmed cases of SD2 appearing on Earth. Before that we thought it was another side effect of the Drakh Plague. His business takes him to Geneva, New York and possibly London, 'though that might be travelling through. He either has or had an office in Geneva -- too many of these show the same city stamp for it to be a hotel stop. He knows a member of the Saturn Consortium, which limits it further -- only the very top earners in the entire Sol system make it to that elite group, and several of those are on Mars. He might even *be* in the Saturn Consortium himself, 'though somehow I doubt that. He'd want to keep his hands clean of the money-laundering side. Still..." He tapped his chin thoughtfully and then looked up. "Thank you, Miss Satchell. You just saved us a lot of hard work!"

   "It's not over yet," she reminded him.

   Hobbs nodded. "Yes. Not to put a damper on the festivities, but this is only a part of the problem and not, right now, the most immediate one. We still don't know who's trying to kill you."

   "But we do know whoever it is has had contact with this man," Sheridan offered.

   "Of course, it could be a woman," Satchell muttered and then shook her head. "No. Somehow that doesn't fit the profile. Still, we shouldn't be too blasé in our assumptions."

   "Absolutely," Sheridan agreed. "But, as you say, it doesn't really fit."

   "Excuse me?" Hobbs stared at the two. "Someone is trying to kill you and you're sitting there discussing gender issues and psychological profiles?"

   Sheridan snorted. "Beats worrying about what's going to happen when the Sleepers wear off."

   Satchell looked at him thoughtfully. "You know, we could use the medical problems to our advantage."

   "How so?" Sheridan asked.

   "No one outside this room knows how the SD2 has affected you. No one outside here, barring the perpetrators, even knows you've been given it."

   "Except my assistant," Hobbs put in, "but he's been here since Dr Kyle's time, and I had to have someone I could trust watching the results."

   Sheridan frowned but accepted the necessity. "So what are you getting at?" he prompted.

   "Well, I was thinking..."

   As she outlined her plan, Hobbs and Sheridan exchanged glances. It was risky, but it might just work to flush out the traitor. At the end he nodded.

   "It's worth a shot. I'm going to send your information on to someone who can follow up the leads. With any luck he'll be able to give us something before the meeting. In the meantime," he leaned forward, "I'll make you a deal. If you play your part, you can have the entire scoop once this is all over. Breathe one word before then, and ISN can kiss any hopes of an interview with me or Delenn, on *any* subject, goodbye. Ever." He gave her a long, hard stare. "Deal?"

   "Well, if you put it like that, how can I refuse?" Satchell stood up. "You've got yourself a deal, Mr President." They shook hands.

   In the background, Hobbs shook her head. "Have you any idea how dangerous this is?"

   "If it stops SD2, it's worth it," Sheridan asserted firmly.

   "You realise that if this goes wrong… I mean…"

   "I know."

   "It'll kill you," Hobbs stated flatly.

   Sheridan nodded. "I know." He looked from Hobbs to Satchell and back again. "It'll still be worth it," he assured her.

   Hobbs sighed. "Then we'd better start."

*****

   Delenn leaned forward in the command chair, as though urging the White Star on by sheer will. It would be three days until she could reach Babylon 5, even at maximum burn. She'd tried contacting John from Minbar, but had got a computer message saying he was unavailable. She'd tried again once they got into hyperspace with the same result. An attempt via the White Star that was docked outside the station had elicited nothing more than a slightly bewildered captain who'd been told there would be no communication with the President until further notice. Now she was trying another route.

   "Delenn. It's good to see you! What can I do for you?" Lochley said from the holographic display.

   "I'm trying to get in contact with John and all I'm getting is a recorded message," Delenn returned. "I need to speak with him urgently, Captain. I wondered if you could let him know..."

   "I'm sorry, Delenn. We've been getting the same thing. The only person allowed in there is Dr Hobbs and she won't tell me anything. I believe she's with him now."

   "Dr Hobbs?" Now Delenn was extremely worried. Hobbs had been there when Susan called several hours before. If she was still there and John wasn't taking any calls his condition must have worsened. "Is John all right?" She couldn't reveal what Ivanova had seen. It was clear no one else was aware that there was a problem, and in that case John had to have his reasons for keeping the details hidden.

   "So far as I know, yes. He hasn't cancelled his appointments, at least." Lochley frowned. "Is there something I should know?"

   Delenn shook her head. "No. I'm probably over-reacting. I'm sorry." She thought for a moment. He hadn't cancelled his appointments - a situation Lochley would have to know about if it occurred. So whatever the physical problem, it wasn't that serious. Delenn shuddered. All right, appearances to the contrary notwithstanding, it wasn't that serious. It couldn't be. He wouldn't risk a conference surrounded by reporters and ISN news feeds unless he felt up to it. But John didn't want her or anyone else to know what was going on. That almost certainly meant danger. John was up to something and he didn't want anyone to worry. She knew he'd been concerned about the leaks on SD2 and his reluctance to communicate suggested security was still a problem. So he hadn't found the source, there was danger and he was trying to resolve it on his own. Alarm bells went off in Delenn's mind. Every time he did this she seemed to age another ten years. Very well, two could play at that game. It might upset his plans if he knew Delenn were en route, or he might simply try to cover up whatever he was doing, and she was not going to let him protect her out of some misguided notion that she would be better off not knowing. "Captain, I realise this is going to sound strange, but please don't tell the President I called. He will only worry and I think he has enough concerns right now."

   "I thought you said it was urgent?"

   Delenn pasted a smile on her lips. "When John shuts down communications but doesn't cancel his appointments, it means he has enough to worry about. I wanted his input, but the situation will wait until he's ready to deal with it. In the meantime, I'd rather he wasn't further distracted. If the situation changes I will contact you again."

   Lochley nodded warily. "All right, if you insist. Is there anything I can do to help?"

   "Not for the time being, but thank you for the offer. Delenn out."

   She sat in the command chair of the White Star, chewing her top lip thoughtfully. A habit she seemed to have picked up from the humans. Finally she turned to the ship's First Officer. "Is there anything we can do to increase our speed?"

   "We could redirect some power from life-support and weapons," he returned, clearly uncomfortable with the notion.

   She nodded. "Do it."

   "If we should encounter hostiles…"

   "Then let us hope we don't. Redirect as much as you can. If we are one minute later arriving at Babylon 5 than we have to be, I will be most displeased." She eyed the First Officer and he nodded.

   "Yes, Entil'zha. Redirecting now."

   The whine of the engines rose a notch and Delenn nodded with grim satisfaction.

*****

   "Now remember what I said," Hobbs stated as she closed her bag, "I don't care where the food has come from, I don't care how much you trust the people who visit your rooms, check everything before you eat or drink. Understood?" She stood, awaiting his answer.

   Sheridan smiled and nodded. She was being a mother-hen, as if he didn't have enough with Delenn and Susan when they were of a mind. She frowned and went to add some threats but he raised his hands in surrender. "I understand, doctor, believe me. You don't have to nurse me through this."

   She grunted. "If I don't I'll end up nursing you through the consequences, and believe me," she picked up her bag, "you make a lousy patient."

   "Nice to be appreciated."

   She raised a sardonic eyebrow and he grinned.

   "Mr President..." she said, warningly.

   "Shoo! I can handle this. If the situation changes you'll be the first to know, I promise you."

   "I know. That's what's worrying me." She sighed and, with a last look, left Sheridan's quarters.

   Sheridan shook his head, chuckling. It was nice to have people care about him, but sometimes they could be a little oppressive in their efforts to protect him from himself.

   Using the access codes Garibaldi had supplied earlier, as well as his bizarre password, Peek-a-boo, Sheridan contacted his old friend. "Michael, I've got something for you. Sending now."

   Garibaldi grunted as the information downloaded and then quickly accessed it. After a few seconds he grinned. "Now *this* I can do something with. How'd you find this stuff, anyway?"

   "I have friends in the oddest places."

   "Not to mention the oddest friends, present company included," Garibaldi chuckled. "Ok, I'll get the hounds moving. How are you holding up?"

   "So far we're in the clear, but we're going to try a little something to bring out our leak."

   "Uh oh. I know that look," Garibaldi groaned. "John, you're getting too old for this kind of thing!"

   "Thanks for the vote of confidence," Sheridan snorted. "Anyway, it's risky, but you knew that. I can't tell you even on this channel, but don't be surprised about anything you see on ISN in the near future."

   "Appearances can be deceptive?"

   Sheridan nodded. "Very."

   "And how is Delenn going to react when she sees it?"

   He had the grace to look sheepish. "Ahh, I suspect she'll go ballistic and be on the first White Star to Babylon 5. I'm rather hoping we can wrap this up before she even knows there's a problem. I checked the timing and the conference is during Minbar's night cycle. She's unlikely to be watching."

   "But with your luck..."

   "Let's not even think about it, huh?" He sighed and rubbed his eyes.

   "John, you're tired out. Whatever this is, I'm sure you'll do it a lot better if you're not running on empty. You've given me plenty to work with and there's nothing you can do right now. Why not grab a few hour's sleep?"

   "I intend to, but before I do I wanted to ask... You mentioned earlier that you were going to ask your R and D department what they had. Are you ready for a human test subject?"

   "You mean you?"

   Sheridan nodded.

   "Honest answer? No. Practical answer? Do you have any choice?"

   "Nope."

   "Then we're ready. As ready as we can be, anyway. I'll have the lab folks rustle up enough and get it sent out."

   "I'm not sure that's going to be fast enough."

   Garibaldi frowned. "So you weren't exaggerating earlier?"

   "Not even a little bit."

   "OK, since it's you... I'll contact Hobbs and get the lab to give her the breakdown. Since I'm about to lose my contract with the Earth Alliance, can I assume the Interstellar Alliance will be happy to reimburse us for our trouble?" He raised his hands. "I'm not a hard-hearted pain in the ass, John, but we're talking a lot of cash here, not to mention the fact the EA is unlikely to trust Edgars' for the foreseeable once we do this. I've a duty to shareholders as well as my employees. If it works I want to get the stuff out there ASAP, but I have to be practical. If it were anyone but you I wouldn't even be doing this."

   "Michael, your heartfelt consideration for your fellow man has not gone unnoticed," Sheridan responded sarcastically.

   "Just called me Ebeneezer. Now, do I declare bankruptcy now, or are you guys gonna help out here?"

   Sheridan shook his head, a smile on his lips. "Don't worry. If this works, you'll have the full support of the IA. I'll even have words with the Earth President and make sure she understands I didn't give you any choice. You won't lose your business, you mercenary bastard."

   Garibaldi grinned. "Just so long as we're on the same wavelength. I'll contact her now." His face turned serious. "Joking aside, John, don't do anything stupid. It's not worth it." Sheridan shook his head but Michael over-rode him. "I mean it. The IA needs you for as long as you can be there, and we both know that won't be as long as anyone'd like. You're a pain in the ass, but you're the best pain in the ass we could have for President right now."

   "Gee. Love you too, Michael!"

   "You tell anyone else that, I'll shoot you myself!" Garibaldi laughed. "I'll contact you when I have something. Let me know if the sting works."

   "Will do. Sheridan out."

   The call completed, Sheridan contemplated the screen for a few seconds, lost in thought. "She is going to kill me," he muttered, shaking his head. He made his way to the bedroom. A few hours sleep would do him the power of good. He just hoped the Sleeper drug would last long enough.

 

*****

 

 

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