SELLING OUT (III)

By Castor

 

 

 

*****

   "The conference on SD2 aboard Babylon 5 continues today, with the President of the Interstellar Alliance, John Sheridan, delivering another keynote speech in a few hours. So far there is no indication that the IA is any closer to tracking the source of SD2, although President Sheridan is said to be optimistic that headway will be made.

   "In related news, President Sheridan himself was reportedly unwell. A source close to the President assured ISN he would not be altering his itinerary and the illness is thought to be a mild stomach upset."

   Adam Farlow flicked off the news channel and chuckled. "Stomach upset my ass! We've got you, Mr President. You can't hide." He tapped his manicured nails on the desk for a few moments and then put a call through to his contact.

   "I told you not to call me here!"

   "I assume you saw the news?" he said without preamble.

   "I did. I don't like this."

   "What are you worried about? A 'mild stomach upset' they called it. I told you we wouldn't ask you to do anything too serious."

   "I've fulfilled my part of the bargain. Now it's your turn. Let them go!"

   He shook his head. "Not yet. One more dose and you're off the hook. And it has to be before the conference, do you understand?" There was a pause and he leaned closer to the monitor. "I said, do you understand? I'm not playing here. If you do what we tell you, your family will be fine. We need him out of that conference. He's meddling where he doesn't belong. Now I know you've got about five milligrams left of the stuff we gave you. Put it in his food and it'll make him sick enough he can't think of anything but the toilet. When I see the meeting's been cancelled, I'll let your family go."

   "It won't be easy. Security is tighter than the inner sanctum of the Sisters of Valeria."

   He shook his head. "Whatever. That's why we picked you. You can get around it. He trusts you."

   "I know! And if you don't keep your side of this deal, I swear to Valen your worst nightmares won't compare with what I'll do to you!"

   "You're not in a position to make threats. But I can promise you that once this is done there'll be no reason for me to keep your family any longer. Now, I suggest you find a way to bypass security." He snapped off the connection and leaned back in his chair. No, there'd be no reason to keep the family, because after that dose Sheridan would be dead. The post-mortem would reveal the drug that led to his demise, the news of his addiction would break on ISN, and the Interstellar Alliance would have all the potency of wet gunpowder.

   Farlow smiled to himself. Sheridan was so predictable. The man's resilience was impressive, he had to admit, but he knew the President wouldn't admit to his problem publicly, and that played perfectly into his hands. The contact had no idea what they were doing, which made them the perfect vehicle, and by the time the truth came out it would be too late.

   Yep, you could read Sheridan like a book, and Farlow was looking forward to the final chapter.

   *****

   When he awoke, Sheridan was relieved that the voices were still quiet, although there was a faint background hiss he suspected heralded their return in the near future. He contemplated his bed for a few moments. It was odd sleeping alone after so many years with Delenn at his side. He looked forward to his return to Minbar. Grinning, he swung his legs out of bed and ran his hands through his tousled hair. Starkiller missed Minbar! Who'd have thought it? He made his way to the shower.

   He was in the middle of cleaning his teeth when he heard the door chime. He stuck his head into the living room and managed to get out a garbled "Come!" around the toothbrush. The door opened to reveal Ranger Sante with a large number of folders.

   "Sir? I thought you might be interested. These are some of the questions the other conference attendees wanted to ask."

   Sheridan stared. "Wha din..." He held up his hand and went back to the sink to empty his mouth. When he returned he said, "Why didn't they send them through the Babcom?"

   "Apparently, your Babcom hasn't been receiving, sir."

   "Damn! I'd forgotten about that. All right. Leave them on the table, I'll read them when I've finished in here." He returned to the bathroom and considered his reflection. The goatee and moustache looked neat, but sometimes it was a pain in the butt keeping it that way. Sooner or later he was either going to take the whole lot off or let it all grow. Right now, he couldn't decide which. He glanced down and noticed the rash had almost vanished. Whether that was his system growing used to the drugs (not a pleasant thought) or a side-effect of the Sleeper or something else he couldn't tell, but it was nice not to be itching all the time.

   When he finished he got dressed and then went into the living room. The folders were neatly arranged on his table, apparently ordered according to both planet and question. Shaking his head at the anal retentiveness of the Ranger, but secretly grateful she was trying so hard to make his life easier, he put the coffee on and grabbed the first folder. He poured the coffee, his mind still absorbed with reading the questions of the Pak'ma'ra ambassador, whose insightfulness was proving to be quite astonishing. Sitting down he raised the mug to his lips and then paused.

   "Damn! Supposed to check everything," he muttered. For a moment he considered not bothering. After all, the only person who'd been in there apart from himself was Ranger Sante, and then only to drop off the files, but he'd made a promise and he knew there'd be hell to pay if he didn't stick to it.

   He put down the mug and retrieved the scanner Dr Hobbs had left him. Still somewhat distracted he turned it on and waved it over the coffee mug, fully intending to make the check as cursory as possible.

   The red light flashing on the scanner instantly put paid to that thought. He stared at it, slowing lowering the folder to the table. The blood drained from his face as the scanner registered a dose that would have been fatal. He swallowed against the implications and silently made his way to the kitchenette. The dose in the percolator was even higher and a check of the coffee itself nearly went off the scale.

   "Oh my god." He knew who the leak was now, and everything slotted into place. Everything except why. With knees that felt like they would buckle under him at any second he made his way back to the couch and sat down heavily. That close. He'd been that close to drinking something that would have killed him, and the traitor was a Ranger.

   As he mulled the thought around his fear slowly turned to anger. What the hell did she think she was playing at?! Why would someone sworn to protect the weak put innocent lives in danger? Never mind him, he was far from innocent of so many things, but what about those who'd died because of this crap? What about their families?

   His jaw worked as he ground his teeth. His face set firm, his legs now solid beneath him, he got up and accessed the Babcom.

   "Mr President. What can I do for you?" Hobbs asked pleasantly.

   "Get down here, now!" He held up the scanner to show the red line reading.

   She paled. "Do you know...?"

   "Yes." If his words had been any more clipped a machine gun could have fired them.

   "I'll be right there."

   He paced the room angrily, torn between waiting for Hobbs and tracking down Sante himself and tearing her apart with his bare hands. The Rangers taught terror. Whatever she'd gone through would be a picnic compared to what he was going to do to her for betraying the sacred trust put into her hands. Not that he viewed his own life in that manner - far from it - but a Ranger had a duty to fulfil whatever task was demanded of them to the utmost of their ability. Their lives were sworn on the guarantee that they would succeed in the task assigned or die trying. It didn't matter what the nature of the task was - be it defending an outpost, policing an unruly neighbourhood, getting a message through or standing guard over a rare plant - the duty remained the same. To willingly betray the trust was to insult everything a Ranger stood for. For a senior member to do it was beyond contemptible. To hell with what she'd done to her own reputation - she obviously didn't give a damn about that - it was what she'd done to the reputation of those Rangers who had no say in her behaviour. She'd tainted honourable men and women. No price was too high to exact in revenge.

   Hobbs arrived before he had the chance to make good on the images he had in his head.

   "Who was it?" she asked as soon as the door closed.

   "Ranger Sante."

   "You're sure?"

   "You checked the coffee before you left last night. The only person who's been in here since is her. She dropped off the questions from the delegates." He indicated the files on his table.

   Hobbs went over to check the pot herself. "Any idea why?" she asked as she calibrated the scanner and then waved it over the pot. "My god!"

   "Exactly," he snarled, registering her shock at the dosage. "No, I don't know yet, but I'm gonna find out."

   Still reeling slightly from the knowledge of what the pot contained, Hobbs picked up the mug and carefully placed it alongside the offending percolator and packet of coffee. "Time to move to stage two, then?"

   He grunted and turned on the Babcom. "Computer, put me through to Captain Lochley." There was a short pause and then Lochley appeared on screen, still in her quarters.

   "Mr President," she nodded warily. "You're calling early today, is everything all right?"

   "No. Captain, I need to see you immediately. And don't talk to anyone until you get here."

   Another nod, this time accompanied by a frown. "I'm on my way."

   As the screen went blank, Sheridan turned back to Hobbs. "Did Michael get in contact with you?"

   "There was a message waiting for me when I got in, but your call came through before I had a chance to access it."

   "He's sending you the chemical breakdown so you can make the antidote to SD2 they've been working on at Edgars' Industries," he informed her as his fists clenched and unclenched and his jaw worked on his anger.

   "I'll get on it as soon as we're done here. But if I don't consider it safe I reserve the right to refuse to use it." Her stance was stern and unyielding.

   He turned, stiffly. "Doctor, I appreciate your concern, but I don't have a lot of options here. If it's a choice between something that *may* kill me and something that *will* kill me, I'll take the possibility of hope every time."

   She sighed but nodded. Sheridan was about to add something when the door chime announced the arrival of Lochley.

   "Captain. Come in." When the door had closed Sheridan gestured to the couch. "Sit down. This is going to take a while." He began to explain the events of the past few weeks.

   When he'd finished Lochley nodded tightly. "All right. I can't say I'm happy I was kept out of the loop..." Sheridan opened his mouth to respond but she over-rode him, "but I can see why it was necessary. So, who else is going to be in on this?"

   "Zack, obviously, since he's running security and I need someone on Babylon 5 who knows her inside and out. And Garibaldi is already doing some hunting for me. But I have one Ranger I'd like to help them."

   Lochley raised an eyebrow.

   He nodded his understanding of her opinion. "I know, but I refuse to believe one rotten apple has soured the entire barrel," he insisted. "We've had problems in station security before now and I didn't court-martial the entire security force. We have to begin to trust somewhere."

   Lochley gave a reluctant grunt. "Who did you have in mind?"

   "Jan Petrov. I spoke to him aboard the White Star before we arrived. If I'm any judge of character, that man will be as angry about this as I am."

   "All right, if you say so. Anyone else?"

   Sheridan exchanged a glance with Hobbs and then shook his head.

   "What about Captain Ivanova?"

   He sighed. "If we're going to pull this off, we need the press to see honest reactions. We've got one reporter on our side and she's helping out with this." Lochley looked surprised but said nothing. He grinned. "I know. Miracles do happen, apparently. And she has more reason than most to bail us out. She's already provided information that may well prove decisive in ending this. Anyway, she's not the only one aboard. The others are going to want interviews and reactions. The cameras are going to be pointed at faces and then blasted all over the networks. The people we want to nail will be watching those networks and reading the newspapers. If they don't see the reactions they expect, they'll know something's up. I don't like using Susan, and she's going to tear me a new one when she finds out, but she's not in the chain of command here so she doesn't have to know. She *is* a friend - for now at least - so if anyone is going to have a camera in their face, it'll be her. Once she's given the reactions we need we can let her off the hook, but until then..."

   "I'm glad I won't be in your shoes when she finds out," Lochley muttered.

   He stuck his hands in his pockets and rocked on his heels. "I can't say they're feeling too comfortable from this side, I assure you. The fact is, if this doesn't work her reaction is going to be right. I think, and hope, she'd rather be wrong."

   "What about Delenn?" Lochley was painfully aware of her previous conversation with the President's wife and was wondering whether to break her promise not to tell him.

   He stared at the ground and shook his head, missing Lochley's expression as she schooled it back to simple concern. "No. She'll only worry and I don't need that right now. She's got enough to deal with." He drew a deep breath and looked up. "The second we've got Sante's contact nailed you can let Delenn know what's been going on. Until then, it's best we keep her out of it."

   Well, if that was how he wanted to play it... "You know what she's going to say?"

   "I can hear it from here, believe me," he replied, a mock fearful look on his face. "There's nothing she can do about it anyway. In four hours from now it should all be over and done with. Even if we tell her, all she can do is sit on her hands and wait. I don't know about you, but under those circumstances I think I'd rather not know. Besides, by the time this breaks it'll be the middle of the Minbari night. There's no reason why she should be glued to ISN or anything else, and by the morning she'll know the truth." He took a deep breath and nodded in agreement with himself. "We'll keep Delenn out of it."

   The Captain shrugged. The reasoning was sound. She had no idea where Delenn was, except that she was busy with something and en route to wherever the trouble was. Sheridan didn't need to be distracted by the knowledge his wife wasn't where he thought he was, and Delenn didn't need worries on top of whatever else it was she was dealing with. Satisfied, Lochley stood up. "When's the meeting?"

   He checked the chronometer. "Just over two hours."

   "How are the Sleepers holding up?"

   "Well enough. I'm starting to get some background noise, but right now it's tolerable. By the time we get to the meeting it should be strong enough for me to know exactly what's going on, but not enough to send me nuts. What I need you to do is put a wideband check on all transmissions after the event. Sante is no fool and she'll be using every trick the Rangers taught her to avoid detection. Obviously, it compromises our security to tell you what those tricks are, but we can make new ones." He went to the console, selected a new data crystal and accessed the White Star. A few seconds later he turned around, the data crystal in his hand. "Here's everything I have. Zack needs to coordinate with Mr Garibaldi on Mars in case there are any other little tricks Michael's discovered. He has quite a number." He tossed the crystal to Lochley who caught it deftly.

   "We haven't much time. I'd better brief Mr Allan." She drew a deep breath. "Good luck, Mr President. If this works, we'll have finally put an end to SD2."

   He shook his head, stuffing his hands deep in his pockets once more. "We'll have put the biggest distributor out of business. If we're lucky, they're greedy enough not to have shared their technique with anyone. If we're not, the whole thing'll start up again somewhere else, but so long as it's not in the Sol System it'll let Earth off the hook. And the show I'm about to put on might encourage the other planets to be a bit more willing to help clean up their own back yards."

   "Understood. Do you want me to talk to Petrov?"

   "Initially. If I summon him here it'll send up a flag. The only information that can leave here for the time being has to be via me or Dr Hobbs if we're to maintain the illusion. Tell him enough to get him down here ASAP. I'll do the rest. And make sure he doesn't talk to anyone, least of all Sante." Lochley headed for the door but Sheridan stopped her. "Oh, and check to see what Sante's up to right now. If you can, send her on some errand as far away from this part of the station as possible until the meeting. It'll leave me some room."

   "Will do."

   After Lochley left Sheridan ran a hand through his hair and then released a breath. "Well, the ball's rolling. You're next. Are you ready?"

   "When the trouble starts, we'll turn in award winning performances, I promise you. How are your acting skills?"

   He scratched his head and frowned. "Given how fast the drugs are wearing off, I don't think I'll need much. When the shit hits the fan, get me away from the crowds as soon as possible. You've got your excuse for being nearby. Make sure people know about it."

   "We won't let you down, Mr President."

   After Hobbs had gone Sheridan was left pacing the room, uncomfortably aware that he was about to face one of the most trying moments of his life without so much as a liquid breakfast. Ten minutes later, the background noise in his mind had risen to the point where he was becoming dimly aware of the station denizens beyond the confines of his quarters. He hoped it was now strong enough to detect any mendacity in those closer. The door chime interrupted his rueful thoughts.

   "Come."

   Ranger Petrov stepped in. "Sir. Captain Lochley said you needed to speak to me."

   "I do. I've not been feeling too well, as you may have heard," he added, fully aware of the still open door. "Come in." As soon as the door was closed Sheridan nodded. "Now if anyone asks, they'll get the same story. Jan, I need your help. I suggest you sit down and listen carefully. If you're half the man I think you are, you won't be too pleased about what I'm going to tell you."

   Petrov sat, his face betraying nothing.

   Sheridan relayed his tale, his senses on full alert. To his private satisfaction he noted that while Petrov remained the consummate, calm professional on the outside, inside his emotions were seething. The sense of betrayal and anger bellowed like a foghorn in the otherwise silent room. Sheridan still couldn't pick up on explicit thoughts, but emotions were coming through loud and clear.

   At last Petrov nodded tightly. "If there are any others involved, they've not said anything to me, but I think this is a one-off. As to why, I have no idea. But I fully intend to find out."

   "Wait until you get the signal... probably from Captain Lochley or Zack as I'll be indisposed," he added with a shake of his head. "Once contact's been made, arrest Sante. She's good, but you know that, so be prepared for her. I want her alive. I don't care what it takes but I want to find out why a Ranger would do this."

   "Don't worry, sir. She'll be alive," Petrov responded tightly.

   Sheridan understood what that meant, but decided to let it go for now. There was a limit to what he could ask, and he trusted the Rangers not to be over-zealous in their revenge. At least not until they'd been given permission. "Once she's under arrest I want you to take over as head of the Rangers aboard Babylon 5."

   Petrov swallowed hard and then nodded, his back stiffening slightly. "I'm honoured, sir. I just wish it could have been under better circumstances."

   "So do I, Jan. So do I."

   *****

   Delenn was tapping the armrest of the command chair. "How much longer?" she snapped.

   "Another seven hours, Entil'zha," the navigator returned, very aware of her intent gaze.

   "We need to go faster!"

   "We are already pushing the engines to their limits, Entil'zha!" His voice squeaked slightly, betraying his nervousness. In point of fact, the engines were already hovering around the red-line, not to mention the somewhat unorthodox navigational tricks they'd employed to shave extra hours from their journey; tricks that left them in very real danger of getting lost in hyperspace. He still couldn't quite believe they'd done that and survived.

   He risked a peek at Delenn's face and instantly regretted it, lowering his head to stare intently at the readouts that were already indelibly etched into his brain. If looks could kill, he would have been so much atomised vapour.

   "I do not detect fear in your voice, do I, Anla'shok?" she asked dangerously.

   Should he tell the truth? She was scaring the hell out of him! If this was what Delenn was like when she thought her husband was in danger, Valen help whoever was responsible! Saying flat-out 'Yes, I'm terrified!' didn't sound appropriate to a Ranger, however. "I am... disturbed by the methods we have employed, Entil'zha. They are..." He could feel her eyes boring into him. He tried to swallow and found he had no saliva left. "...unorthodox and unfamiliar," he finished, offering a fervent prayer that his end would be painless.

   Delenn considered him for a moment. "How old are you, Anla'shok?"

   "Nineteen, Entil'zha. But I graduated at the top of my class in navigation," he added swiftly, before she decided he was too inexperienced to remain at his post. He'd rather die than accept that particular dishonour.

   She nodded thoughtfully. "And you have proven in the last few hours to have more than earned your accolades."

   He felt the tension in the room lessen a notch.

   Delenn drew a breath and relaxed the steel grip she'd fastened on the armrest. Then she did an amazing thing. She laughed. At the unusual sound the other Rangers looked up and then exchanged glances. Had she finally taken complete leave of her senses?

   "You have every right to be afraid, Anla'shok," she assured the navigator as she stood up and turned fully to face him. "If John were here I think he would be wondering if I had gone mad. I have wondered the same thing myself, many times." The timbre of her voice changed again, and the metallic edge made the Rangers bow with even more intensity to their allotted tasks. "But he is not here. If he was, I would not be in such a hurry." She turned to the rest of the crew. "Someone has been thwarting our attempts to capture the leaders of the drug ring. That person knows too much to be an outsider. Whoever it is, they are one of us. Possibly even a member of the Anla'shok." She paused to let the unthinkable sink in. "A person prepared to betray one of their own is unlikely to stop short of murder. The President is in danger. I do not deny that the fact he is also my husband has added an extra element of urgency to our task." She heard the barely stifled grunt that indicated at least one of the crew felt she was massively understating the issue. She drew herself up. "I would not ask this of you if I did not think you were capable. As you have already proved, faith manages. I am relying on you. The President is relying on you." She quietly overlooked the fact that he didn't even know she was on her way. "You will find a way because you know what is at stake if we fail."

   With one final sweep of her glance at the crew, she turned and left the command deck, making her way steadily to her quarters. Only when she was inside and the door firmly locked did she allow the shaking in her knees to gain the upper hand, at which point she slid almost bonelessly down the door and onto the floor. They were scared? She couldn't ever remember taking so many risks! And for what? A gut feeling based on one disturbing report that had neither been confirmed nor denied; a vague but nevertheless insistent sense of alarm.

   Why would he not acknowledge her attempts to contact him? Why didn't Lochley know more? Why was Susan being left in the dark? What had she actually witnessed? A seizure, yes, but John didn't *have* seizures. In all the years she had known him he had never reacted so violently to anything, and neither had his family mentioned such a tendency to her.

   Sitting on the floor, the cold of the door seeping through her tunic, she felt an incongruous grin curl the corner of her lips. The navigator was nervous? She was terrified, but she couldn't show it. Terrified that something she knew lay ahead might have been hastened; terrified that, if they didn't get there fast enough, it might be too late and she would lose the other half of her soul without even the pathetic blessing of saying goodbye. And if it wasn't that... if someone was trying to kill John even before his already shortened lifespan had the chance to play out...

   Tears threatened and she sternly drew them back. She would not be weak. Not now. Later, when this was all over, she would release the tension that sat like a tightly coiled spring in her gut, and probably be a very sorry sight for several hours. Until then she would remain calm and strong because that was what she had to do.

   She drew a deep breath, which shuddered as she exhaled. Shaking her head she pulled herself to her feet and remained leaning on the door for several moments until she felt sufficiently steady to walk across the small room to the meditation mat. There she lowered herself rather more gracefully to the floor, lit the candle, drew another, calming breath, and then concentrated on the flickering blue and gold light.

   *****

   The news had been released. President Sheridan was ill but would nevertheless be attending the next meeting of the conference as scheduled. However, in deference to his condition, Dr Hobbs would be standing by. That in itself was enough to warn the delegates that the President wasn't suffering from a mere head cold, yet all attempts to determine the exact nature of his illness were politely, and firmly, rebuffed.

   ISN was all over that snippet of information, but in response to an assurance from Satchell that the matter was well in hand and that if he would hold off for another four hours, ISN would have the scoop of the century, Bill Drummond ordered his news anchors to report only what they knew for sure and to keep all theorizing down to a minimum for now. This, of course, made ISN the most understated of the news media reports on the President's illness, a fact that left Drummond pacing his office, muttering dark and imaginative threats on the matter of Satchell's continued work status, not to mention her physical well-being if she didn't come through with the goods.

   Despite her professional demeanour, Satchell couldn't quite hide from her boss the fact that she was sitting on a gold-mine.

   "Just four more hours, Bill, I promise you. I have the word of the President."

   "Who, apparently, is ill," he reminded her.

   "Yes he is, but trust me, OK? When this one breaks it'll be dynamite."

   "Tracy, the other networks are starting to make fun of the fact we're in the dark. We've got a reputation to uphold."

   "And we will, I promise you. The other networks will be begging on their knees to see a glimpse of the awards that are gonna be gracing your desk. Now let me get on with the job you sent me here to do."

   "This has something to do with that info I sent you earlier, right?"

   Tracy was well aware the chances were the communication was being monitored or the details would somehow escape ISN headquarters. There was certainly no point in taking a risk they weren't and telling her boss the truth. "Yes, absolutely," she assured him. Well, it wasn't a lie, was it?

   Bill released a long suffering sigh. "All right, you've got four hours, but if any of the other networks break this before we do, I'll come out to Babylon 5 and space you myself."

   "Understood." She broke the connection before he could add any more detail, then she nodded to herself. If the call was monitored, the drug lords knew something was coming and, given they'd provided the information she was supposed to be using, it was a fair bet they'd assume it was the news they were waiting for. If they weren't, at least she'd won the leeway she needed to help Sheridan nail them anyway.

   She looked at the chronometer. The meeting was due to start in fifteen minutes. It was time to get on the stage.

   *****

   With Dr Hobbs keeping pace just behind his honour guard, Sheridan walked the corridors towards the conference room. His head was starting to pound with the increasing din of mental confusion around him. Sante was supposed to have been one of his guards for this trip, but a bomb alert, carefully orchestrated by Zack, had pulled her away, leaving him in the capable hands of a station security officer and another Ranger. Nevertheless, while those two carefully schooled their features, their minds seethed with questions: who was threatening the President? Why had they been pulled off their usual schedules? The station officer was even more confused since he was an acknowledged bomb expert, but orders were orders and theirs, as the poem had it, was not to reason why.

   " 'Theirs is but to do or die'," Sheridan murmured to himself, completing the poem line. He swayed as they rounded a corner and encountered a blinding sea of news cameras, all trying to get a shot of the President and find out what was wrong.

   Other station security rushed forward to block the surge of eager reporters while Sheridan braced himself against a bulkhead. He wasn't entirely acting, although he allowed himself to make more of the brief dizzy spell he'd experienced than was strictly necessary. Hobbs stepped forward.

   "Mr President?" Was he acting or was it already too much to bear?

   He waved her away, wanting to let her know it wasn't as bad as it looked, but unable to risk the chance some random camera shot would catch his expression. "I'm all right," he insisted. He straightened and smiled, nodding to her in a way that the onlookers would interpret as a brave attempt at reassurance from a man who ought to be in bed, but he hoped she'd interpret as an honest response to her underlying question. She frowned and he patted her shoulder, took a deep breath and moved into the conference room.

   Lochley stepped up beside Hobbs as the reporters and their cameramen took up the positions allotted to them. A few held back, their cameras still trained on the doctor and station captain.

   "Is he going to be all right?" Lochley asked, her own question as loaded as Hobbs' had been before.

   "Honestly? I don't know. He shouldn't be here, but you know what he's like."

   That was rehearsed and Lochley took some solace from the fact that Hobbs was sticking to the script. Any deviation would indicate things were not going according to plan.

   "All right. I want you to stay here just in case." More script.

   "I wasn't planning on going anywhere." The code completed, Hobbs quietly took up her position by the doorway and Lochley stepped into the room itself. The two remaining reporters hesitated, clearly eager to ask Hobbs if she could speak 'off the record' on the President's condition, but one look at the station's Chief Medical Officer was enough to tell them they weren't going to get anything more for now. They, too, entered the conference room.

   *****

   "Come in."

   The young navigation officer entered Delenn's quarters and bowed, forming the Triluminary.

   "Entil'zha."

   "What is it?"

   "I thought you should be informed, our ETA is now three hours."

   Delenn stared at the young man in frank astonishment. "How is that possible? I do not recall falling asleep."

   "I ask your forgiveness, Entil'zha. I have acted without orders and possibly placed this ship in danger."

   Now he had her undivided attention. "We will arrive at Babylon 5 in three hours, you say?"

   "Yes, Entil'zha."

   "And that is not wishful thinking but established fact?"

   "Barring attack or unforeseen engine failure, yes Entil'zha."

   "And what is the status of the engines, Anla'shok?"

   "Running at peak efficiency, Entil'zha."

   "I see." She stood and paced slowly towards him. "Did I or did I not order that any and every method be used to get us to Babylon 5 as soon as possible?"

   "Yes Entil'zha."

   "Then you have not violated orders. As for placing this ship in danger, whatever method you used cannot have been more dangerous than those I have already endorsed..."

   The navigator suddenly glanced at the floor, the blank, polished black of it apparently fascinating.

   "I see. Apparently, I did not spot every opportunity to use that method."

   "It was... an unusual variation, based on something I experimented with during my training. Since I was successful then..."

   "And why didn't you see fit to inform me of your intention to use this manoeuvre in advance?"

   "The window of opportunity was... brief, Entil'zha. Had I taken the time to inform you, it would have been too late. I acted on my own initiative."

   "Since the First Officer is not here sharing your burden of guilt, I assume you didn't inform him, either?" She was standing right in front of the navigator, now. Her diminutive size obscured by the power of her personality. In the confines of her quarters she seemed a giant.

   "The First Officer had left me in charge of the bridge while he investigated methods to increase engine output, Entil'zha."

   "Approximately how long were we in danger?" Now she was intrigued.

   "Seven point three minutes, Entil'zha."

   "And that shaved over three hours off our arrival time?"

   "Two and a half. The other half hour was gained by redirecting ship's gravity from decks eight and nine and shutting down life support on those levels."

   "And how do those on decks eight and nine feel about that?"

   "A little cramped on decks six and seven, Entil'zha."

   Delenn turned to cover the smile that was threatening to diminish her aura of dangerous authority. "I see. Well, I do not believe that you violated my orders, and I'm sure you recorded your activities so that others might benefit from the new route you have discovered?"

   The navigator coughed. "The uncertain nature of hyperspace would make it difficult to repeat the procedure unless the circumstances were exactly the same. I detected a faint echo of the main beacon because of an eddy in the currents."

   Delenn nodded thoughtfully. "Just as, when the wind is in the right direction, one might hear the bells of the temple at Ratennshur from Tuzenor?" Given the temple was across the mountain range, it was a rare event for the bells to be heard in Tuzenor. But on a foggy night, when the wind blew through the high pass in the mountains, they were quite distinctive.

   "Exactly. I was scanning all signal ranges and picked it up. I waited to make sure the signal was steady before re-aligning our course."

   "Then you did not place us in danger. You took a calculated risk, following my orders. I'm pleased with you, Anla'shok." She stepped closer. "Now may I suggest we return to the bridge before anyone else with less expertise decides to follow your example?"

   The navigator nodded eagerly before bowing and leading the way back to the bridge. Delenn watched the young man silently as she followed him. He had the makings of a good captain, given time, although it would probably not be a good idea to inform John of their unorthodox methods until he was safely back on Minbar and the navigator was... elsewhere. Come to that, it might be as well for Delenn to be 'elsewhere' when he found out. Wherever she was, she had no doubt he'd be as loud as the Ratennshur bells, and he wouldn't need a redirecting fog and a following wind to be heard, either!

   Three hours. Less than that, now. It still seemed an eternity, but it was a definite improvement and more than she could have hoped for. She bowed to the First Officer who promptly relinquished the command chair to her.

   "You are to be commended," she told him, bowing her thanks. "But as soon as we reach Babylon 5, it might be an idea to restore gravity and life-support on those decks to relieve the cramped conditions."

   "Indeed, Entil'zha."

   "In the meantime, you may all be assured you have the thanks of myself and the President."

   "We live to serve, Entil'zha."

   Three hours.

   *****

   John was struggling. The voices in his head were reaching deafening proportions and he was having a hard time distinguishing between the shouted verbal complaints of the outraged delegates and the mental bellows that accompanied them. As had been predicted, they weren't impressed by the implications of his report and were eager to prove their innocence based on sheer volume. And if that were not enough, he was also trying to pick out the rather quieter worries of those who were guilty and were trying to cover their involvement by being even louder than those who were innocent. He managed to pin down one Drazi delegate as a conspirator and concentrated all his energies on listening to the alien do a private enumeration of his contacts to try and figure out the source of the leak. As his right hand sought to bring calm to the room, his left quickly scribbled down every name he could manage. When he was satisfied he had a toe-hold, Sheridan brought to bear his own impressive volume and singled out the Drazi, naming one of his lesser contacts aboard the station. Security promptly surrounded the alien, who suddenly found his innocent fellow delegate inching away from him in disgust.

   This trick served its purpose well. Others who were involved (and Sheridan was relieved to discover there were only two more in the conference room) performed their own mental checks, giving him the names he needed. Despite the pain, Sheridan found himself struggling not to laugh. It was like telling someone not to think about ballet dancing camels. As soon as you said it, that image filled the mind of the listener despite their best efforts.

   Still, if he didn't get the information he needed soon, his final performance for the day would owe nothing to his acting skills and everything to his genuine distress. A Brakiri and a Narn, together with all their contacts were added to his list, and he noted two names that linked to other delegates. People the delegates suspected but could not arrest because they lacked proof. Now, that proof could be provided. Of course the Rangers would have to move quickly to provide legitimate evidence since the method he was employing was less than legal, but they had a starting point. It would do.

   He listened patiently to see if any others would step forward as the Narn and Brakiri were cited among the guilty and, when no more were forthcoming, allowed himself to relax. His condition was vastly improved when the Narn, a female, put up a fight and then yelled threats, warning Sheridan that he would regret his actions and that he would be dealt with appropriately. He could not have asked for a clearer admission of guilt if he'd scripted it himself. The Brakiri, realising what was happening, merely bowed his head and accepted his fate. The fact one of his contacts was the Drazi probably led him to believe Sheridan's proof was on far more solid foundations than was the case, but Sheridan didn't care. The ruse had worked... so far. Now to get at the source.

   As they were led away by station security, Sheridan stepped in front of the podium. "I understand your outrage," he said as the sight of their fellows under arrest cast a stunned pall of silence over the assemblage. "Perhaps you can now understand our frustration. We used every power allowed to us to put an end to this, but when the corruption lies at such senior levels we are severely handicapped. You have worked with those who have just been arrested. You have trusted them and they have proved unworthy of that trust. If we are to end this once and for all it is up to you to free the Rangers so that they can act on the evidence we already have and that which we will learn over the next few hours and days. We want..." He staggered, grabbing at the podium to steady himself. Hobbs stepped forward but he waved her away, shaking his head both to prevent her advance and to clear his mind. He pulled out a handkerchief and wiped his forehead, his hand shaking. Genuine concern radiated from the delegates and, if he'd been in a position to do so, Sheridan would have taken great solace in the fact that the vast majority in the room actually did care about his well-being. Unfortunately, all their concern succeeded in doing was to add to the already overwhelming cacophony in his head.

   He cleared his throat, his knuckles white as he drew strength from the podium's meagre support. "What we want..." he repeated. "What we need..." He was finding it hard to think straight any more. His own thoughts were getting tossed about in the ocean of voices that washed over and through him.

   He looked up to see Ivanova had arrived and was standing, with barely contained restraint, beside Hobbs. The last piece. He was wondering when she'd turn up. "Thank God for that," he muttered, releasing his hold on the podium.

   As collapses went it wasn't elegant. Instead of the steady, two-point fall he'd planned -- knees first, then forward onto his hands and down -- his knees buckled and, despite his efforts, his torso tipped forward to hit the floor sideways with a resounding thud. At least his shoulder bore the brunt of it, but the sudden shooting pain in his neck told him he was going to be pretty sore there when he came to.

   The delegates leapt to their feet and Hobbs shot forward, the sedative already in her hand.

   "Mr President?!" she cried as she skidded to a halt and knelt down beside him.

   "Shut them up," he replied weakly. "Please!"

   Quickly and quietly she injected him while making a great show of trying to bring him round. Ivanova, who found herself fighting her way through the mob of delegates to get to Sheridan, finally lost her cool and turned to Lochley, indicating the pandemonium. Lochley was already on it and within seconds security cleared a space around the President, allowing Ivanova through. She knelt down on the other side of Sheridan, anxiously scanning Hobbs' face.

   "Is he gonna be all right?"

   "I don't know," Hobbs replied, beckoning over the med-techs with the gurney who'd arrived at the door.

   Ivanova frowned. "That was quick!"

   "I had them on standby and sent for them as soon as I saw him start to sway. I was afraid something like this might happen." Hobbs stepped aside as the med-techs lifted Sheridan onto the gurney and strapped him in.

   "Then why the hell didn't you stop him?" Ivanova demanded, stepping back as the med-techs swung the gurney around and made for the exit.

   Hobbs glared at her. "Captain, have you ever tried to stop President Sheridan from doing something?" She followed the gurney, leaving the stunned and worried Captain staring after her.

   *****

   Security kept the crowds of reporters back so that Sheridan could be whisked away to Medlab but, predictably, they could not prevent the rush of questions that assailed Ivanova and Lochley as they left the room.

   "I don't know!" Ivanova yelled for the umpteenth time, elbowing her way through the crowd. "Get the hell out of my way!" Still the reporters persisted until Ivanova's gasket finally blew. "Be quiet! I SAID BE QUIET!!!"

   Silence fell and Lochley raised an eyebrow.

   "Right now I know as much as you do. President Sheridan was ill before he arrived at the meeting today. Dr Hobbs was monitoring him and sent for the gurney as soon as she saw his condition begin to deteriorate. I am certain Captain Lochley will keep you updated of any and all changes when the information becomes available. In the meantime, she's in command of this station, not me. I'm merely a guest."

   "But you're a friend of the President," one reporter insisted.

   "Yes, but I'm not a friend of yours, buddy, so back off."

   Lochley quietly activated her link, summoning extra security.

   "Has the President been hiding a life-threatening illness from the public?" someone else shouted.

   "Has this something to do with his experience at Z'ha'dum?" another voice yelled.

   "I don't know," Ivanova replied, more quietly this time. She couldn't deny the thought had entered her head.

   "That's enough, people!" Lochley yelled, stepping in front of Ivanova and giving her room to escape. With a nod of thanks, Susan headed down the corridor.

   "Captain Lochley, Captain Lochley!" Every reporter was trying to get her attention now Ivanova was denied to them.

   Lochley raised her hands. "As soon as there is information I will make sure you have it. In the meantime you'll get nothing more here. Station security will be guarding Medlab, so don't even *think* of going down there and bugging Dr Hobbs. The area is off-limits to reporters and anyone caught there will be arrested." She looked up with relief as the steady pounding of feet announced the arrival of security reinforcements. "And anyone still here in one minute will also be arrested."

   "But Captain..."

   "I'm counting..."

   "Captain!"

   "Fifty-five seconds, fifty-four, fifty-three..."

   The reporters looked at each other and then slowly left the area, fully aware that Lochley didn't make idle threats. As the crowd dispersed, Zack quietly slipped in beside her.

   "How's it going?" she whispered.

   "Monitors are in place," he replied in an equally muted voice.

   "So now we wait."

   "Uh huh. I hate this bit."

   "So do I."

   "Any idea...?" He nodded in the direction the gurney had gone. The area was now clear and the two stood alone.

   "Nope."

   "I hear it was quite a performance."

   "I'm not sure he was acting." And with that Lochley turned and followed Ivanova's path.

   "I sure hope he was, or this is gonna get real ugly, real fast," Zack muttered before picking the direction from which the loudest noise was emanating and setting off to add his weight to those trying to disperse the crowds.

   *****

   "Entil'zha, I think you should see this." The communications officer's face had paled.

   "What is it?" Delenn turned in her chair and took in his expression. "I said what is it?" Her voice took on an edge of fear.

   "It's the President."

   "He's calling us?"

   "No, Entil'zha. I'm getting the ISN relay."

   "Put it on screen."

   The Ranger did as commanded and Delenn stared in increasing horror as the story unfolded in front of her on the holographic display.

   "...the scene a few minutes ago as President Sheridan addressed delegates in a highly charged meeting on Babylon 5." The image shifted from the newscaster, a woman Delenn recognised as one of those who'd survived President Clark's purges, to the conference chamber on Babylon 5. John was speaking. "If we are to end this once and for all it is up to you to free the Rangers so that they can act on the evidence we already have and that which we will learn over the next few hours and days. We want..." Delenn gasped as he staggered and reached out to grab the podium for support. His face was pale and a sheen of sweat could clearly be seen, even if his wiping it away with a handkerchief hadn't emphasized his distress.

   "John?" Delenn whispered, staring at the image. She saw him struggle for words, his face reflecting inner confusion. Then he looked up and saw something that brought a slight smile. The camera angle shifted to reveal Ivanova standing in the doorway, her expression one of concern. The camera panned back quickly, just in time to catch Sheridan's collapse onto the floor of the chamber, the image slightly shaky as the cameraman struggled to refocus as the crowd around him surged forward, obliterating the sight of Sheridan's prone body. Delenn shifted in her seat as though trying to see around the heads of the delegates. As security forced them back she saw Ivanova and Hobbs either side of her husband and then med-techs raced in to bundle his unresponsive form onto a gurney.

   Delenn's hand covered her mouth as she fought to control the emotions the images evoked.

   Jane, the ISN anchor, was back. "Our reporter on the scene is Tracey Satchell. Tracey, can you tell us what's happening there?"

   Tracey was standing with a microphone in what was apparently the middle of the Zocalo, although quite why she'd want to stand there to deliver her report Delenn could not fathom.

   "Well, Jane, right now security has locked down Medlab and the Ambassadorial sections of the station. Reporters are banned from entering any of those areas until further notice and Captain Lochley has made it quite clear we'll be arrested if we try, so it's hard to find out any information. What we do know is that President Sheridan was ill before he arrived at the meeting." There followed shots of Sheridan's arrival, including his unsteady pause at the doorway before he entered. Tracey's voice continued. "As you can see, President Sheridan was clearly in some distress. That distress was echoed later by his previous First Officer aboard Babylon 5 and close friend, Captain Susan Ivanova." Susan's diatribe against the reporters followed and if Delenn was in any doubt as to the reality of the situation, one look at Ivanova's face resolved the matter once and for all. If anyone would know this was a set-up, it would be Susan, and for all the fact that Susan had done The Voice of the Resistance, Delenn had always been able to tell when Susan was being less than honest. Her worry was echoed in every look, every response, and when the reporters asked if this had anything to do with Z'ha'dum, Ivanova looked positively ashen.

   Delenn realised she was biting her knuckle hard enough to make it bleed. The iron tang of blood filled her mouth but still she stared at the screen.

   Shots of Lochley telling reporters they'd be kept informed but were to stay out of Medlab followed and then the camera returned to Tracey, the screen split between her and Jane at the ISN news desk.

   "Has any more news emerged in the last few minutes?" Jane asked.

   "All I can say right now is that President Sheridan's condition is serious."

   "Do we know if Delenn has been informed?"

   "No one knows where Delenn is right now. Sources at Tuzenor say she left a few days ago on a mission and hasn't been heard from since. It's the middle of the night in Tuzenor right now so it's possible she doesn't know."

   "She does now," Delenn muttered dangerously. She pulled her hand away from her mouth, her eyes narrowing. "What's our ETA at Babylon 5?"

   "Two hours fifteen minutes, Entil'zha."

   "If there are any more miracles you can perform, now would be a good time," she hinted.

   "Understood." The crew once again racked their brains to find any other corners that could be cut, and if they needed any incentive, the staccato beat of Delenn's shoes as she paced back and forth across the command deck provided plenty.

   *****

   "Yes!" Adam pounded the desk in triumph as the ISN report flashed across the monitors. "I knew she could do it!" He turned to the ashen-faced Charles Griffith. "And you thought it wouldn't work. You see, Charlie-boy, you should have a little faith in your friends."

   "Friend? Friend?! I'm ashamed to say I've even heard of you! What the hell do you think you're doing?" Fear gave Griffith a courage he never even knew he had.

   "Getting rid of the enemy, Chuck, just like I said I would. Calm down. It's not like you fed the stuff to him."

   "I might as well have! You've murdered the President of the fucking galaxy!"

   "Strictly speaking, we do not know that." The Professor returned in his clipped tones. "For now he is merely in a serious condition."

   "You're arguing semantics? I don't believe you guys. You're out of your minds! If he dies do you have any idea what they'll do to us? We'll be lucky if they kill us quickly!"

   "'If'. If is a big word," Larson Schmidt offered, leaning back in his chair. "If he dies. If they find out we were behind it. Always 'if'."

   "You're nuts. All of you. Totally fucking crazy. I'm out of here." Charles grabbed his jacket and tugged it on, buttoning it fiercely as he glared at the other men in the room before heading for the door. For a second the burly security guard barred his way. Charles turned and stared at Farlow who, with a flick of his wrist, ordered the man to step aside. Griffith stormed out, slamming the door behind him.

   "He may go to the authorities," The Professor observed quietly.

   "Nah, he won't. For one thing, he's in this thing up to his ears and he knows it. For another, he knows WE know where he lives, where his family live and now," he indicated the monitors which, though muted, continued to broadcast the news from Babylon 5, "he knows we would stop him. After all, if we're prepared to kill the President of the galaxy, there's not much we wouldn't do, now is there?" Farlow sat down in Griffith's abandoned chair and leaned back, his feet up on the polished boardroom table.

   "Assuming he is dead."

   "I never make assumptions, Larson. You should know me by now. I never back a horse unless I know it's gonna win. If he's not dead now, he will be. I've not finished playing my hand yet."

   "You think she will still obey you?"

   "It doesn't matter. If she does, she does. If she doesn't, there's always a backup plan." He smiled and nodded to himself. "*Always* a backup plan."

   *****

   Sante was desperate. As the news filtered through from the conference chamber she quickly assigned a Ranger to take over and then hurried towards Medlab. Security there denied her entry and she was left frantically pacing outside until Jan Petrov turned up. He'd been expecting this and so was ready to deal with Sante, although every muscle in him quivered as he fought the urge to hurl her up against the bulkhead and demand an explanation.

   "You've heard, then?" he offered quietly.

   "I just got the news but they won't let me in. Do you have any idea...?"

   "I was with him when they brought him down here. He's critical. Dr Hobbs doesn't think he'll pull through."

   Sante's heartbeat was racing. She couldn't have done this. Farlow had assured her the doses would only cause Sheridan a temporary illness, not kill him. He'd given her his word on the lives of her parents. It simply wasn't possible...

   "Does she know what happened?"

   "He was poisoned. Someone's been doping his food and drink. If it were anyone else he'd probably be dead already. Problem is, his biology's different. Altered after Z'ha'dum. I don't understand it myself, but from what I can gather he's reacted pretty violently and there's nothing they can give him. Anything they try, his system rejects it. Dr Hobbs is doing all she can, and she's even been trying some experimental drug, but it's untested and, well..." He took a deep breath, steadying himself. "Nothing works on him. His whole system is shutting down and all she can do is stand there and watch."

   Sante was shaking her head, her breath coming in short gasps as the enormity of what she had done hit her in wave after wave of gut-wrenching terror. When she looked up, her eyes, too, were red with tears. "He can't die. He can't. He's... he's the President!"

   "He's still just a man. He can die." He glanced over his shoulder at the doorway leading to Medlab. "And short of a miracle, that's what's going to happen."

   "No. No he can't. They promised."

   "Excuse me?"

   Sante realised what she'd said and tried to cover. "I... never mind, it would take too long to explain. I have to see him but they won't let me in."

   "They're not letting anyone in now. I'm only permitted because I came with him."

   "But I'm his personal guard. They have to let me in!"

   Jan looked at her, took a deep breath and then turned to the guards. They stepped aside for him and then closed again, blocking Sante's entrance. "I'll ask," he said. "I make no promises." He vanished into the depths of Medlab.

   *****

   "So she's outside?"

   Jan nodded and then turned to the window in the isolation chamber through which Sheridan's prone form, now stripped of his clothing, covered in a green Medlab sheet and hooked up to a seemingly endless row of monitors, lay still.

   "How's he doing?"

   Hobbs sighed. "Not well, to be honest with you. He shouldn't have kept going so long. I know he was trying to get as much information as he could, but he pushed it too far."

   "Is he...?"

   "We'll just have to wait and see. Bring her in."

   Jan nodded and, his mood sombre, stepped through the doors to fetch Sante.

   When Sante entered the sterile rooms her normally tanned face turned sallow. She stared through the window of the Isolab, swallowing convulsively against the fear that gnawed the edges of a black hole that filled her stomach. Tears welled in her eyes as she pressed her face against the glass, willing the man on the other side to live. But Sheridan remained still. The heart monitor gave an erratic jump followed by a rush, as if the President was running a marathon, and Hobbs bolted inside while Sante held her breath.

   "Don't die. In Valen's name please don't die. Anything but this. Anything." Suddenly, even the lives of her parents paled. They were two people. Two people she loved very much but still only two people. The galaxy wouldn't be plunged into chaos if Farlow carried out his threat. If the President died... she didn't even want to begin to imagine the consequences. Add to that the shame she had brought on the Rangers who would never be trusted again once news of her treachery got out...

   She turned away, fighting to maintain her control. A Med-tech bustled past intent on some purpose, knocking into her in his haste. He apologised and moved on, Sante vaguely registering his voice as familiar before she turned back. The heart monitor settled once more into a reassuringly steady beat. Hobbs, her face slightly flushed, stepped out of the Isolab.

   "What happened?" Sante asked.

   "We got him stable again. His system's fighting but..." She gave a sad shake of her head and walked away, closing the door to her office quietly.

   Sante made up her mind. "I have to check on the bomb team. Keep me informed using the links." She was all business again and, as far as she knew, Jan was still under her command.

   Petrov nodded. "I will."

   She turned again to look at Sheridan, shaking her head, then drew herself up. "Look after him, Jan. We need him." She left.

   "So why didn't you think of that before?" he muttered, finally giving vent to his emotions.

   The door to Hobbs' office opened once more and she looked after Sante's retreating back before joining Jan at the window.

   "How are you holding up?"

   "Better than he is right now, but I'd be lying if I said I didn't have some pretty murderous thoughts."

   "Well, tone them down a bit, would you? I don't know how much he might be picking up in there."

   Jan suddenly looked worried. "You think I might have set off...?"

   "I don't know, but let's not take that risk, huh? He should be out for the count, but his EEG is dancing a tango over there, so he's aware of something. I just don't know what."

   As she spoke, Sheridan moved and the heart monitor fluctuated once more, the readings becoming ever more agitated. Hobbs and Petrov exchanged glances before both of them rushed into the room.

   "Sir? Mr President, can you hear me?" Petrov asked as Hobbs tried to determine what was causing the irregularities.

   "Yaaaaa..." Sheridan was struggling, clearly determined to say something despite the drugs in his system. His voice was barely above a whisper and Jan strained to hear him.

   "Shh. Mr President, you have to rest," Hobbs urged.

   He shook his head, frowning even with his eyes still closed. "Naa, Yaaaa..."

   "What the hell?"

   Sheridan's hand groped in the direction of Jan's voice and gripped his cloak.

   "I think he's asking for you," Hobbs offered.

   "All right, sir. I'm right here."

   Sheridan, for his part, was becoming increasingly frustrated. He was fighting his way through a fog while his body was buried in molasses. He had thoughts, but trying to organise them and then communicate them to his mouth so that he could share them with others was proving a feat of gargantuan proportions. The fact that his tongue seemed to be glued to his palate wasn't helping matters.

   He'd been sleeping peacefully when he'd been assailed by feelings of guilt, terror, gut-wrenching sadness and any number of other emotions, none of which could be deemed pleasant. A yawning chasm that seemed to have opened up under his ribcage left him wondering if someone had decided to embalm him while he was still alive, beginning with the standard removal of internal organs. As he'd fought his way back to consciousness he'd realised the feelings weren't his and he'd stretched out his mind to try and determine who it was who felt so badly about his condition. When he realised it was Sante he recoiled for a moment, which was why his heart-monitor had suddenly done a loop-the-loop. Hobbs' quiet voice beside him had reassured him he wasn't in any immediate danger and so he'd reached out again to try and learn the motive behind Sante's actions. Now he knew what it was he had to let Jan know before he did something they'd all regret. Unfortunately, knowing and communicating his knowledge were very different things.

   "Nargh!" He spat out his annoyance, trying to force his tongue to co-operate. Of all the times to be incapacitated!

   "Sir, it's going to be all right. You're in Medlab. You're safe now."

   Jan tried to pull away but Sheridan had a vice-like grip on his cloak which he reinforced by slowly shaking his head. It would have been a vigorous shake if Sheridan had been able to manage it. He tried to force his eyes open but the muscles wouldn't cooperate.

   "Sir, you think you're not safe? Are you still in danger?" Jan's voice was rising as he looked around, trying to fathom the source of Sheridan's agitation.

   Sheridan shook his head again and Jan looked beseechingly at Hobbs, seeking elucidation.

   "Don't look at me. I have no idea what he's trying to tell you."

   "Argh!" Sheridan dropped Jan's cloak and concentrated. If he could just get a few words out, enough to let Jan know the problem, he could rest again. He drew deep breaths, fighting the drugs that sought to keep him quiet and then moistened his lips, trying to find enough saliva in his mouth to speak.

   "I think he wants something to drink," Jan offered.

   "Well I can't give it to him. He's supposed to be under sedation. If it goes down the wrong way it'll choke him."

   Jan pointed to Sheridan who was nodding his head slowly. "I don't think he cares. How about enough just to wet his mouth?" Again, Sheridan nodded.

   Hobbs frowned and left, returning a few seconds later with a cup that contained slivers of ice. She picked one out and placed it on Sheridan's lips. "This is a bad idea right now," she said softly as the ice melted into her patient's mouth.

   Ahh, relief! Sheridan moved the blessedly cold liquid around until he could get his cheeks unstuck from his gums and nodded again. He still couldn't open his eyes, but that didn't matter.

   "Jaaan," he managed.

   "I'm right here sir."

   'I know that!' Sheridan thought. "Saaante..."

   "She's gone, sir."

   'Will you just shut up and listen?!' "P... parents."

   Jan glanced up at Hobbs. "Sante's parents? What have they got to do with anything?"

   "K...kid..." 'Oh for god's sake! Come on, John, spit it out!' "Kid...napped."

   Understanding began to dawn. "You're telling me Sante's parents were kidnapped?"

   Sheridan nodded. Damn, but this was exhausting. Who knew how much energy you needed just to get out a few words?

   "So she tried to kill you to save them?" Well, it was an explanation, but hardly an excuse!

   Sheridan shook his head. "Did... didn't know," he managed. He was fading fast, but he had to finish this before he could rest.

   "Tricked."

   "She didn't know it was SD2? Is that what you're saying?"

   Sheridan struggled. "Not... dosage."

   Hobbs frowned. "So either she didn't know it was SD2, or she thought the dosage was so small it wouldn't be a problem?"

   Sheridan nodded. He could catch glimpses of the thoughts whirling in the minds of the two people bending over him and they were enough to reassure him they'd got the message. They were also enough to remind him why he'd been knocked out in the first place. He had one last thing he had to say before surrendering to the overwhelming forces the drugs were massing on his brain.

   "Don't... angry. N... not fault. Fo....for...." He screwed up his face as he fought to get the last word out. "For...give." That was it. He'd done it. With a sigh he relaxed and let the shutters come down once more.

   Hobbs and Petrov leaned back as the monitors, including the EEG, indicated Sheridan was now fully unconscious. Petrov shook his head.

   "Well," Hobbs offered after a long pause, "you have to be impressed with a guy who fights his way through enough sedative to knock out a rhino to tell you who tried to kill him and asks you to forgive them at the same time."

   Jan, grinding his teeth in unconscious mimicry of his charge, nodded shortly. "Not that I wouldn't still like to beat her brains through a bulkhead, mind you, but yes." He stared at Hobbs for a moment then turned his attention back to Sheridan, his expression softening. "I heard you," he reassured the silent man. "I'll take care of it. You concentrate on getting well again. I don't want to be this side of the Rim if Delenn finds out you died on my watch." Gently and with a tenderness belied by his stern features, Petrov reached out and squeezed Sheridan's shoulder.

   "Is that a tear I see, Ranger?" Hobbs asked, not entirely unkindly.

   "If it was, you didn't," Jan replied shortly, wiping his face. "I've got work to do. Keep me informed."

   "Of course. Where are you going?"

   "To make sure Sante doesn't do something stupid." He swept out, his cloak billowing behind him.

   Hobbs smiled and then looked down at her patient. "You sure do inspire loyalty, you know that?" She looked around, making sure no one else could see her. The only nurse on duty outside was working at a desk away from the observation window and the med-techs were all busy elsewhere. Security was ensuring the usual bustle of Medlab was kept to a bare minimum. She leaned over him. "That goes for me, too. I'm going to do everything I can, so don't you dare let me down." She gently wiped the sweat from his forehead, then shook her head. "If Delenn saw me now she'd have a fit!" She walked away, satisfied the monitors and the Rangers guarding outside would keep her patient safe while she worked on the antidote.

   *****

   "How much longer?"

   The Ranger tried not to let his frustration show. After all, she was his commanding officer right now. The fact this had to be the tenth time she'd asked in less than thirty minutes should not have been an issue. "Forty five minutes, Entil'zha."

   "When you get to thirty minutes, inform Babylon 5 of our arrival and get a shuttle ready. I don't want any time wasted once we get there."

   "The shuttle is already prepared, Entil'zha." He knew she was scared and worried, they all were, but nothing was going to get them there any sooner now. Certainly not repeated requests for updates on their ETA. The first officer was tempted to instruct the ship's computer to display it on the holographic screen so Entil'zha could watch the seconds counting down for herself. She needed a distraction. "Entil'zha, if I may be so bold...?"

   "What?" She wasn't in the mood for pleasantries right now. She wasn't in the mood for anything except a faster ship. If she thought it would help she would have got out and pushed.

   "It has been a long journey and you have not rested."

   "There is no time for that now," she replied, astonished he would even make the suggestion.

   "Of course not, Entil'zha, but there are reporters and cameras waiting on Babylon 5. They will be watching your every move. You have been on the command deck for nearly the entire journey and it occurs to me..." He waved his arms vaguely and she looked down.

   He had a point. Her plain, brown dress was a mess and probably not the one to be seen in when she stepped aboard the station. She ran her hand through her hair and noted that it was tangled and showed evidence of her fears in the way it hung about her face. Taking a deep breath she blessed the first officer with a smile.

   "Thank you. I will take your advice." With a bow she left the bridge.

   As soon as she was out of earshot, an audible sigh of relief echoed from various stations and the first officer cleared his throat. Instantly everyone was all business again but he couldn't quite hide the small smile of victory that spread over his own features.

   *****

   "You gave me your word!" Sante hissed over the connection.

   Farlow nodded. "Your parents are safe."

   "That's not what I meant and you know it. You swore this wouldn't hurt him!"

   A shrug. "What can I say? He's got an odd system, you said so yourself. How could I predict that?"

   "If he was anyone else it would have killed him!"

   "I think they were just trying to worry you."

   "They succeeded!" She gritted her teeth, trying not to let her fear and anger show. "I did my part, now let my parents go."

   "Your part isn't quite finished yet," Farlow drawled, his tone deceptively mild.

   "I said let them go!"

   "Not until you finish this. You said Sheridan was at death's door. Your parents are still very much alive. Look, I'll prove it to you. Talk to them." The image shifted and Sante found herself staring at an almost bare room. A row of light fixtures in the wall illuminated the scene. In the middle were two chairs. One was occupied by a woman who was staring at the floor, her arms folded across her stomach with her hands gripping her sides as she rocked backwards and forwards. The other was empty, its occupant pacing the room near the camera. Her parents.

   "Mama? Papa? Can you hear me?"

   Her father stopped, his eyes scanning the walls and ceiling as he sought the origin of the familiar voice. "Maria? Maria, is that you? Where are you?" He continued to search the room and Sante realised he was receiving audio only.

   "I'm safe, Papa. Are you all right?"

   "I am fine, little one. Your mama's here. They hit her but she's all right."

   "Mama?!" Sante gripped the side of the monitor, staring at her mother.

   Her mother looked up to reveal an ugly swelling on the side of her face and a black eye. "It's nothing, Maria. A little bruise. Nothing that will not heal. But they will not tell us why we are here. And it's cold here, Maria. I can hear the wind outside and it never stops."

   "I'm going to get you out of there, mama. I promise. I love you. I won't let anyone hurt you..."

   The image clicked off and Adam Farlow's grinning face reappeared. "See? I told you they were fine. Whether they remain that way is up to you. Now I just heard you promise your mama you'd get them out of there. There's only one way to do that, and that's by finishing what you started."

   "You're mad."

   "So I've been told. I prefer to think of it as having a unique approach to life."

   "I won't kill him. I told you that at the start. We had a deal."

   "And the deal's changed. Your choice. Kill him, or we kill your parents. All I have to do is order my people to open the air locks and wait. Won't take long, I promise. After all, I wouldn't want them to suffer."

   *****

   "That low down, murdering, two-faced, treacherous bastard. I'll wring his neck with my bare hands, tear it off and stick him on the docking pylons," Zack swore as he watched the conversation courtesy of Garibaldi's stealth technology.

   "Not if I get to him first, although I think her parents are probably even closer," Michael returned from the other end of the private channel they were using.

   "Whadderyer mean?"

   "Listen." Michael tapped at his console and a small screen appeared inside the main image that continued to run in the background. While the covert conversation between the Ranger and the blackmailer continued to be recorded in the background, Michael rewound a section and increased the sound levels, playing it inside the smaller screen. "Hear that?"

   Zack cocked his head for a second and then nodded. "Yeah. It's wind. The lady said it was always blowing outside."

   "Yep, and we know it's cold, and then our friend there went and said there's an airlock. Now where in the Sol system d'you suppose they might be, hmm?"

   Zack grinned. "Can you track 'em?"

   "Doing it now, old buddy. Doing it right... Got 'em! Right near one of my labs. Kind of him to put himself so close to Edgars-Garibaldi Security Inc. wasn't it? Give me twenty minutes. Those two will be safe and out of there."

   "What about mister nice guy?" Zack replied, nodding towards Farlow who was still talking to Sante. "If she doesn't say yes he's gonna open the doors before you get there."

   "I've already sent my people. If she can stall him for a bit we'll still get to them in time."

   Zack turned the volume back up on the clandestine conversation. Sante was obviously putting up a fight. He'd check the rest of the recording later.

   "I don't think you'll do that," Farlow smiled in response to what was clearly a threat from Sante. "For one thing, they're not going to be too happy when they find out you poisoned the President. Second, with him dead there won't be any Rangers. No one'll trust them, no one'll want anything to do with 'em. After all, if they can't be trusted not to kill their own boss, who the hell wants 'em?"

   "The President is not the leader of the Rangers, Entil'zha Delenn is. And I can assure you she won't stop until you're dead."

   "Then we'll deal with her too. You think you're the only person on the inside who's working for me? Think again, sweetheart. If you finish this, Sheridan'll be dead and your parents walk free. Don't finish it, and Sheridan'll still be dead, but then so will your parents. Basic numbers. One dead or three dead. Take your pick." He leaned back, the smile on his face nothing to do with humour. He rocked on his chair for a few seconds, waiting for Sante's reply, then let the chair fall forward again so that his face occupied the entire viewer. "Tell you what, because I'm a nice guy I'll give you half an hour. If I don't see ISN reporting Sheridan's taken a turn for the worse or been declared dead within that time... well, don't say I didn't warn you." He paused and then added, "And don't try to convince ISN to send out a fake report. Like I said, you're not the only one on the inside and I'll get a report either way."

   "Then why not send your other goon to do it and let my parents go?!"

   "Now why would I want to do that when I already have a perfectly good... operative available to me? That back-up is insurance. Just my little way of making sure you do as you're told."

   "You're bluffing! There's no one else!"

   "If you believe that then why not wait and see? Oh yes, of course, you can't because then your parents would be dead. But don't worry, I'll make sure they know what you've been doing before they're killed. I'm sure they'll be proud of their little Maria." He snapped off the connection.

   Garibaldi and Zack stared at each other. "Who the hell else is in there?" Garibaldi said at last, voicing what was on both their minds.

   "I don't know, but we'd better find 'em quick or we're gonna be short one President." Zack reached for his link but Garibaldi stopped him.

   "Wait! If this other person is on the inside they may be part of your security forces and that means they'll know we're onto them. We don't want to tip our hand." He rubbed his hand over his head, trying to see a solution. "Who can you absolutely trust over there?" he asked at last.

   "Right now? I give up. Hobbs, Ivanova, Lochley, Jan Petrov..."

   "Who's he?"

   "A Ranger. Sheridan vouched for him."

   "Sheridan vouched for Sante and she turned out to be an assassin. If this guy managed to get something over one Ranger, why not others? Take my advice, arrest Sante, arrest Petrov, get Ivanova in on this and let her watch over Sheridan. If anyone can protect him, she can."

   "I dunno, Michael. I've been talkin' to Petrov. He's pretty ticked at Sante. If it wasn't for orders I reckon he'd have spaced her already. Plus, he's been in on the game since this started."

   "Which is as good a way as any to cover your tracks if you're the back-up plan. He could be leaking information as we speak. We can't afford the risk, Zack. Sheridan's too important. I'll do my bit and get back to you. I'm still trying to trace the other end of the call but that guy's clever. Apart from Central Europe I haven't been able to nail him down yet. The software's working on it, though. You do your job, let me do mine and we'll talk again in half an hour. By then we'll know either way, and if it's not Petrov you can let him out."

   "And if it's not him and the killer strikes because we arrested Sheridan's guard?"

   "Like I said, get Susan in there!"

   "OK, Allan out." Zack stepped out of his office, wondering what to do next. If he couldn't trust his own guards he couldn't send someone to arrest Sante while he was dealing with Petrov or vice versa. He didn't care for the idea of trying to arrest Petrov when he had no evidence and all his instincts were telling him the man was completely trustworthy. "He's gonna go ape," he muttered to himself as he jogged down the corridor towards Sante's quarters. Still, it was only half an hour. If he could keep the guy talking or busy away from Sheridan at the same time as they dealt with Sante...

   That was it! He tapped his link. "Zack Allan to Ranger Petrov."

   "Petrov here."

   "I need you to arrest our suspect."

   "Have you got what you need?"

   "Yep."

   "All right, I was on my way to Sante's quarters anyway. I'll be there in two minutes."

   Zack's hackles rose. Why had he acted prematurely? "How come?"

   "Does the word kidnapping ring any bells?"

   "Yeah, it does."

   "I get the impression our suspect is as much a victim as the President. I don't want her to do something stupid so I'm going to keep an eye on her."

   More and more this didn't sound right. Petrov had been homicidal less than two hours ago. Now he was offering to be Sante's guardian angel? This didn't make sense. And where did the news of the kidnapping come from? Only two people knew about that right now. The only other source Petrov could have was the kidnappers themselves. Michael was right. Petrov had to be the back-up plan. "I'll meet you there. Allan out."

   Now to get Ivanova on the case. He tapped his link again. "Medlab, this is the Security Chief."

   "Medlab, go."

   "Where's Dr Hobbs?"

   "She's working in the lab and has left orders not to be disturbed by anyone unless the President takes a turn for the worse. I'm nurse Walters. Can I help you?"

   "No, I need to speak to Dr. Hobbs. It's urgent."

   "I'm sorry, sir. She's working with some very delicate equipment in a sealed area. Once the door to the lab is closed we can't get in until she wants to come out."

   "For crying out loud, there has to be an over-ride!"

   "No sir. Because of contamination risks the room can't be opened until the person inside makes the call. The only other way is to turn it into a vacuum first."

   "So call her up on the link!"

   "I'll try, but I know she turned her link off before because she needed to concentrate. I don't think she'll be much longer, but unless I call a Code Blue in Medlab I doubt she'll answer calls."

   Zack debated whether he should order the nurse to declare a Code Blue, then thought better of it. If she was in the lab she was working on the antidote for Sheridan. If his need to get her to beef up security for her section meant she blew some important detail, then his efforts would have been wasted. He couldn't rely on the guards or this nurse in case one of them was the assassin, but he did need to get someone he could trust in there.

   He thumped the wall in agitation. Great, just great! Now he'd have to deal with Sante and Petrov and then get back to Medlab before the half hour was up in case it wasn't one of them he had to worry about. Could things possibly get any worse? "If Hobbs comes out, get her to call me. Allan out." Zack broke into a run. "Allan to Ivanova!"

   *****

   "Ranger Sante? It's Petrov. Can I talk to you please?" Jan waited outside her door, praying he wasn't already too late.

   Silence reigned in the corridor and the door remained stubbornly closed.

   "Ranger Sante, please open the door. This is important." Still silence. "If you don't open the door I'll be forced to break in."

   The door swung open. "I'm sorry. I was trying to meditate."

   Petrov took in the state of the room. From the smashed glass on the floor he deduced her meditations weren't bringing her a great deal of relief. He pointed to the shattered remains of the table. "Is this a new technique they're teaching now?"

   She glanced at the wreckage and shrugged. "I was practicing my Denn'bok and misjudged the size of the room. Why are you here?"

   "And the length of the Denn'bok, I see. Perhaps you should hold it closer to the middle?" Her hand was bleeding, wrapped in a makeshift bandage.

   She rose to her full height and folded her arms, effectively hiding the cut. "I'm not in the mood for this, Anla'shok. Was there a reason why you chose to interrupt me?"

   He eyed her carefully. "I thought perhaps you might want to talk... about your parents?"

   She stiffened. "What about them?"

   "I gather they are... not where they would like to be." This was like tap-dancing on eggshells.

   Her eyes narrowed. "Who told you?"

   "A very reliable source. VERY reliable. He... he sensed your thoughts."

   She gasped. Given what had happened there was only one person Petrov could be referring to. "He's awake?"

   "He was, briefly. He told us what had happened. Told us... told me... to forgive you."

   Rangers rarely cry, as Hobbs had observed. It's a sign of weakness they simply can't afford. So they bury their emotions, wrap them around with steel bands of discipline and let them out only as coldly directed thrusts of clinical precision against those who would try to bring them down. Nevertheless, Petrov saw the tell-tale evidence of a glitter in Sante's eyes. Her head bowed as she learned that the man she'd tried to murder, albeit unwittingly, had ordered that she be forgiven even from what might prove to be his death bed. He couldn't blame her. He'd felt the same way himself. But she had crossed the line and he had his duty.

   "Chief Allan has ordered your arrest."

   The glitter vanished. "He can't do that."

   "Oh yes he can. He's on his way here now."

   She shook her head. "There's still a danger. I don't know who, but someone on the inside... If I don't..." She shook her head, shutting out the personal consequences. "They're going to kill him. They've got someone else on the inside."

   "Any idea who?" He was happy to talk. It stalled her until Zack arrived and they might find something out.

   "No, but it has to be someone with access to Medlab. They said if I didn't finish the job in half an hour, they'd do it anyway."

   "Who's they?"

   "I don't have time for this. I have to get to Medlab and stop them. You want to help, be my guest, but you're not arresting me. Not now." She took a step forward. Petrov blocked her path.

   "I can't let you go. Tell me who these people are that are behind this."

   "I'll tell you on the way." Again she tried, again he blocked her.

   "Tell me now. Security can look after the President."

   "It might *be* someone in security who's the danger. We have to go there now!"

   "How do I know you're not going to try and kill him yourself?"

   "After what he said, you have to ask?"

   "I'm not privy to what the President heard in your mind and I don't know if he got the whole story. Besides, he was barely conscious when he said it. I can't be sure I understood him correctly."

   Her hands flicked at her waist. Petrov's eyes noted the movement and his stance shifted slightly. "I don't know the name of the man I talk to. He never gave it and I could never trace the calls, and believe me I tried. I can give you a physical description, even a computer-fit when this is over with, but right now I have to get to Medlab. We're running out of time."

   "The Chief will be here in a minute. He knows about your parents as well and his information came from another source entirely, so if your description matches his you might be able to convince him."

   She shook her head. "Sorry. I don't have that kind of time to waste." Her reactions were lightning fast. One second her hands were by her sides, the next an extended Denn'bok had smashed into his stomach, sending him sprawling. As he gasped for air Sante leapt over him and started to run down the corridor.

   At the corner she heard the distinctive thud of boots that had to be Zack Allan. As per her training she'd scoped out the corridors when she arrived and knew every hiding place. She ran two steps, jumped up and knocked out a ceiling panel. Then she jumped up again, grabbed the edge and hauled herself up into the space above, sliding the panel into place just as Zack appeared. She watched from her hiding place as he skidded to a halt and then charged down the corridor to her quarters. Satisfied he was out of earshot she quickly crawled along the service corridor until she reached a hatch near the transport tube. She waited, listening for any hint that Zack and Petrov had figured out her mode of escape and then pulled the hatch up. Using the Denn'bok she tapped the call button and then waited, her ears straining for any sound that indicated the arrival of her pursuers. The doors opened and she quickly swung down and stepped inside.

   "Medlab One," she ordered, and the elevator promptly responded to the order, whisking her away.

   *****

   "What the...?" Zack rushed forward and knelt beside Petrov who was curled on the floor, cradling his stomach and choking.

   "She... got... away," Petrov managed between gasps. Never in his life had anyone winded him that badly. If they ever managed to catch up with Sante he wanted her to teach him that trick.

   "So I see. What did she hit you with? An air lock?"

   "Denn'bok. Knocked... the... wind..." He started coughing again.

   "Ok, ok. Take it easy. I get the message. Which way did she go?"

   "Medlab."

   "Oh jeez!" He leapt to his feet and then stood, undecided. If Jan was the back-up he certainly wasn't in any fit state to complete his assignment, and such punishment went beyond all reasonable demands if he was faking it. Zack's opinion was reinforced when Jan tore at his uniform exposing his midriff. A large, red welt right on his solar plexus and already starting to develop the hues of a first class bruise showed the source of the trouble. "I've gotta stop her. Can you walk?"

   "Crawl. Go ahead. Meet... you there."

   He didn't have time to debate the point but there was still the nagging question of where Petrov got the information about Sante's parents. "Who told you about the kidnapping?"

   "President."

   Zack was confused. "Huh?"

   "Sensed it... from her. Told us."

   "Who's us?"

   "Dr Hobbs..."

   "She's in the lab."

   "Wasn't earlier." Petrov choked again and then drew as deep a breath as his lungs permitted. "Sante said there's... someone else. Going to kill... the President. You've got to... stop them."

   "OK. I'm on my way. Get yourself to Medlab when you can walk." To hell with Garibaldi's suspicions. Petrov wasn't the problem, Zack would stake his life on it. Which meant the problem, right now, was ten minutes away from murdering the President. Was it the nurse? The guards? Another doctor? There was no one except Hobbs on site he could trust to protect the President, and she was incommunicado. That left him. If he ran like hell he might just get there in time.

   He ran.

   *****

   When Sante reached Medlab the guards outside instantly stiffened. They hadn't been informed of Sante's treachery because of the information blackout, but they knew something was wrong by the way she almost skidded into them.

   "Let me through."

   "Sorry, ma'am. We've been instructed to let no one pass unless authorised by Dr Hobbs."

   "I was in here earlier. I'm President Sheridan's personal guard. Now let me in there."

   The guards drew together, their hands moving to their PPG's. It was clear that reasoning wasn't the answer. She shook her head. "Someone is trying to kill the President. They may be in there right now. You have to let me in so I can protect him!"

   "The only people in there are medical staff. No one else has been allowed. I'm sorry ma'am. We have our orders."

   Sante reached for her Denn'bok and the guards stiffened. Realistically, they didn't have as much chance as Petrov who, as a fellow Ranger, at least knew the warning signs. The weapons hadn't even cleared their holsters before both men found themselves sprawled on the floor wheezing in a desperate attempt to drag air back into their lungs. Sante leapt past them and dashed into Medlab, careening around the corner towards Isolab.

   Two nurses and a med-tech, the one who'd been there earlier, looked up.

   "What do you think you're doing?" nurse Walters cried, instantly jumping up from her stool and taking a protective stance in front of the entrance to Isolab.

   "Has anyone else come in here? Has anyone gone near the President?" Sante demanded.

   "No." The nurse folded her arms and regarded Sante with the sort of imperious 'don't even think about it' look that centuries of work had perfected in senior nurses and top grade secretaries. It said that if a herd of bison came charging in they'd still be ordered out with their tails between their legs before they got one inch closer to the person being protected.

   Sante relaxed slightly. Through the window of the Isolab she could see Sheridan sleeping peacefully. His monitors showed steady rates of heart and respiration and there was no sign of distress. Either the killer wasn't here or hadn't acted yet. Sante glanced up at the chronometer on the wall. There were still four minutes left before she was supposed to kill Sheridan, which meant four minutes and one second before the back-up would kick in. So all she had to do was stand her ground until that time was past. By then either Chief Allan would have arrived or the killer would have revealed him or herself. While she couldn't be certain of anyone except Sheridan himself, Allan was an old friend of the President's and seemed to top the list of least likely candidates for assassin of the year. That left Hobbs -- who was working to save him -- the guards outside -- who were still struggling just to breathe, let alone stand up -- and the staff in here.

   She eyed nurse Walters. The woman was built like a rhino and had a similar belligerent expression on her face. No one was getting past her to the President. He might die from lack of care while the rest of the world was denied access, but the woman wouldn't allow an assassin through knowingly. She was safe.

   Sante turned her attention to the other nurse. She was petite, with short, brown hair and was clearly very shaken. She kept looking to Walters for support and received a stern nod that told her without a word being uttered that she was to get back to her work and take no notice of the troublemaker making all the noise. She bent over the collection of equipment in front of her, checking each item off on her list, then she tapped the med-tech behind her and pointed to another small bottle that stood on the rack. He passed it to her without a sound and went back to his work.

   The nurse rose and walked towards the Isolab. Sante immediately stepped in front of her.

   "Where are you going?"

   "I have to..."

   "She has to give the President his medication. Dr Hobbs left strict instructions that have to be followed." She narrowed her eyes. "To the minute," she finished, daring Sante to contradict her.

   "I doubt they have to be that precise," Sante assured her, refusing to surrender her position. "They can wait another..." she glanced at the clock, "five minutes, I think. In fact, I'd be happier if we waited until Dr Hobbs was here to do it herself."

   "And you're a doctor, are you?" Walters returned, her tone dripping with sarcasm.

   "All members of the Anla'shok are trained to a high standard of proficiency in basic medical care. We have to be. Our postings don't always permit full medical facilities and separate staff. I know enough to know that five minutes won't make that much difference when it comes to things like that. It might make all the difference to keeping him alive. We'll wait."

   "No, I don't think we will." Sante turned to see Ivanova levelling a PPG at her. "As you can see, I don't take unnecessary risks with Rangers. I have far too much respect for your training. Now, unless you have a specific reason to believe those medicines have been tampered with, I suggest you step aside and let the nurse do her job, or I will personally blow a hole straight through you, big enough for her to walk through. Do I make myself clear?"

   Sante hesitated, taking another look at the clock. Four minutes. If she could just stall them another four minutes...

   The distinctive whine of a PPG being powered up broke the silence. "Like Rangers, I don't bluff. Now step aside."

   If there wasn't a problem, Sante was making a fool of herself and the real danger might still come from somewhere else. If there was and Ivanova shot her before she could figure it out, it would be too late. "I have reason to believe those drugs might contain something harmful to the President," she stated flatly, waiting for Ivanova to pull the trigger.

   "And I have reason to believe you're the one who put him here in the first place."

   A low moan emanated from the Isolab and everyone turned. Sheridan was shifting on his bed, and his monitors were registering increasing levels of distress. Ivanova motioned to the tray the nurse carried.

   "What's in that batch?"

   "Dr Hobbs p... put them together," the young woman stammered, her hands shaking. The bottles rattled on the tray in sympathy.

   "And what's in them?" Ivanova asked again, her tone heavy with barely suppressed annoyance at having to repeat herself.

   "Dr Hobbs insisted on making up the bottles herself. She wouldn't let anyone else touch them," Walters supplied.

   Sante frowned. Why was Hobbs being so secretive? Was she, in fact, the insurance policy? If she was, why had she tried to hard so far to keep Sheridan alive?

   "And where have they been since she made them up?" Ivanova asked.

   Sante looked at the clock. Just under three minutes. Could time possibly drag any slower?

   The nurse nodded at the desk in the middle of the room. "Right there on the rack."

   "Has anyone touched them since then?"

   "Not until it came time to give them to the President," Walters said stiffly. "And that time is now past, so if you don't mind..."

   Ivanova cocked her head at Sante. "Satisfied?"

   "To be honest, no. I'd be much happier if Dr Hobbs came out here and checked the things herself before they were allowed within ten feet of the President, but since I don't seem to have that option..." Sante was racking her brains even as she stepped aside. There had to be a clue, somewhere. She knew her enemy. For all her bluster on the comm channel earlier, there was no question in her mind that the man meant what he said when he claimed to have a back-up. She also found it hard to believe she'd managed to thwart the assassin so easily. These people were better than that. They had the money and the power to get the very best. Rangers were the elite fighting force and if they'd threatened her own life they would have got no where. Unfortunately, her parents were her weakness. She had no brothers or sisters, children or a husband. The only family left to her were her parents and she'd thought them safe. She'd been horribly wrong.

   While Sante was trying to figure out how the assassin would complete his or her task, the nurse had entered the Isolab and was exchanging a saline bottle. Sante eyed it warily and then looked around the room again. A commotion outside heralded the arrival of Zack and, in a tribute to the Anla'shok's powers of recuperation, Petrov, who was still holding his stomach carefully.

   "Sorry about that," she offered weakly.

   "My fault. I should have seen it coming. But you can teach me that trick some day," Petrov returned. "Did you find the killer?"

   She shook her head and glanced, once more at the clock. "Less than a minute to go and it seems clear."

   The med-tech walked over to Walters, whispered something quietly in her ear, received an answering nod and went to leave. Sante frowned.

   "Where are you going?"

   "My shift's over," he replied simply.

   "Let him go. You can't hold the staff hostage forever," Ivanova added.

   Sante, still confused, nodded vaguely, her mind seething as she sought the solution.

   She glanced back at the Isolab and saw the nurse preparing to inject the bottle into the saline drip.

   'Solution'...

   The med-tech. His face was familiar. He was sitting by the centre table, right by the President's medication.

   "WAIT!" Sante dived past nurse Walters before the woman had a chance to stop her and shot into the Isolab. As the young nurse spun around in surprise, Sante made a grab for the syringe.

   "For crying out loud!" Ivanova growled. "Get that damned woman out of here!"

   Zack and Petrov nodded and followed Sante, wrestling her away from the nurse.

   "No! Wait! Don't use that!" She pointed at the syringe.

   Zack shook his head as he fought to hold Sante's left arm while Petrov struggled with her right. "Ignore her. Just get on with it."

   "You don't understand!" Sante insisted. "The med-tech. I remembered where I've seen him before!" Using Petrov's most obvious weakness, she elbowed him in the stomach and then turned to shove her now free right hand up under Zack's jaw, sending him sprawling. As Petrov curled in on himself, nursing the agonising fire that had erupted in his stomach as well as fighting, once more, for breath, Sante made a second bid for the syringe. The nurse, totally confused but obeying the command of her senior on the floor, fought back. Meanwhile Sheridan, the so-far unaware subject of the contest, was shocked towards waking as his bed was pushed to one side by the combatants.

   Ivanova ordered the guards outside to bring the med-tech back and then went into the Isolab, her PPG wavering as she tried to get a clear shot that didn't place either the nurse or the President in the line of fire. The increasingly erratic feedback from Sheridan's monitors added an eerie background percussion to the disaster that was taking place around him. Answering their programming, the software sent a message to the labs that the monitored patient was in considerable distress.

   Zack, mouth full of blood and utterly furious, hurled himself at Sante. Sante crashed back against the nurse who threw the syringe up in the air. The syringe spun and then came down, heading for Sheridan's now shifted bed. Sante, seeing the danger, reached out and managed to grab the thing in midair, before Zack piled onto her, throwing her away from Sheridan. As she tried to brace herself from hitting the wall too hard, the syringe was depressed and Sante felt a burning sensation in her hand. She yanked the syringe out and emptied the rest of the contents onto the floor before sliding down the wall, her head spinning.

   "What the HELL is going on here?!" Hobbs had come running from the lab in response to the alarms from Sheridan's monitors. Her concern first and foremost for her patient, she stepped past Ivanova and then over the still groaning Petrov to Sheridan's bed. The latter's face registered considerable pain and as he finally managed to get some control over his limbs he brought his hands up to cover his ears, desperately trying to shut out the cacophony of mental and verbal yells that were assaulting him.

   "Nurse, see to that man," Hobbs ordered, pointing to Petrov while at the same time trying to calm Sheridan. Walters nodded and bent to help Petrov up. "Nurse Simmons, see to the Ranger." The younger nurse, still shaking herself, carefully straightened her uniform and went over to Sante. "Zack, get up and get out of my Isolab. I will not have people fighting in here!"

   "To be fair, Doctor, Zack was trying to protect your patient from a renegade Ranger," Ivanova offered, nodding towards Sante who was shaking her head vehemently and trying to force nurse Simmons away.

   "I don't care. Get out. Where's the med-tech?"

   "I sent the guards to fetch him back," Ivanova supplied, holstering her PPG.

   Hobbs didn't have time to ask why her med-tech was apparently under arrest. Sheridan was regaining consciousness and the SD2 was putting him through torment. "Where's the medication I prescribed for the President?"

   Ivanova pointed at the floor. "Most of it is down there. Sante got it into her head that the stuff was poisonous, which is what the fight was about. She got a dose of it herself in the struggle. I don't know what's in there, but you might want to take a look at her."

   Hobbs waved off the suggestion. "Put her on a bed somewhere. She'll be fine. It's primarily a sedative with some vitamin and mineral supplements to boost the President's system while I work on the antidote."

   Ivanova motioned for Zack to move Sante to a bed. None too gently, Zack hoisted the still faintly protesting Sante over his shoulder and carried her outside to one of the standard beds where he dropped her.

   "Antidote to what?" Susan asked.

   "Help me move his bed back," Hobbs ordered. "Nurse Walters! Fetch the medication for the President and a new syringe, and hurry!"

   "Yes, doctor!"

   Ivanova grabbed the foot of the bed and helped Hobbs realign it with the monitors. Hobbs continued to reattach various sensors that had been yanked aside during the fight.

   "Doctor."

   "Hmm?"

   "Antidote to what?" For all the softness with which the question was asked, Hobbs heard the steel behind it.

   "Nurse!" Hobbs tried to avoid Ivanova's question, but Susan was having none of it.

   "Coming!" came the voice of Walters. She ran in with the bottle and a new syringe.

   "Doctor! I think you should come out here!" The voice was Zack's.

   "In a minute," Hobbs yelled back, one arm holding Sheridan's shoulder as he tried to curl over on himself.

   "How much?" Walters asked.

   Hobbs glanced at the bottle and then at Sheridan. "All that's left."

   The nurse began to fill the syringe.

   "DOCTOR!" Zack was sounding panicked.

   "Come on, hurry up!" Hobbs urged as Sheridan tried to throw her aside.

   Walters handed Hobbs the syringe and Zack sprang into the doorway as Hobbs injected the syringe into Sheridan's drip.

   "NO!" Zack yelled.

   "What the...?" Ivanova spun around as Zack flew past her and hurled himself at Hobbs. Before he could reach her, Sheridan himself yanked the needle out of his arm, his eyes now wide and terrified. Blood spurted out onto the bed linen to be spread and thinned by the liquid now dripping down from the disconnected drip.

   "Mister Allan!" Hobbs seethed. "What is the meaning of this?!"

   "It's Sante!" he gasped, pointing towards the main area. "She's dead."

   *****

   Delenn tapped her foot anxiously as the shuttle was guided through the station to its docking platform. By the time the disembarkation steps thudded against the hull she was ready to tear the door off with her bare hands. As it swung open she took a breath, trying to still the frantic pounding of her heart. It would do John no good at all if she arrived looking flustered. Right now it was necessary to prove that the business of the Alliance would carry on in capable hands no matter what. As she stepped outside she was greeted by Captain Lochley who was waiting for her at the foot of the stairs.

   "Captain," Delenn bowed as she reached her host.

   "Delenn. I would like to be able to say it's good to see you, but the circumstances aren't exactly ideal. Would you follow me?"

   "How is the President?" If she didn't say "John" or "my husband" it was easier to maintain control.

   "He's in the Isolab. Dr Hobbs is looking after him."

   Delenn stopped. "Captain?" Lochley turned. "Thank you for telling me where he is and who is in charge of his care. Now I would like you to answer my question."

   Lochley released a breath and glanced around the bay, but she'd left strict instructions the area was to be sealed and they were alone apart from Delenn's own Anla'shok honour guard. "The answer to that is a little complicated," she began.

   "Of course it is. Why would I think otherwise?" Sarcasm never really sounded right coming from Delenn, but she was learning to master it. John had it down to a fine art these days. Sometimes it was the only way he could express himself in front of visiting dignitaries without getting into trouble. They might raise an eyebrow -- or whatever they raised that was the equivalent in their species -- but the innocent smile he'd give them always belayed their doubts while causing Delenn to have to smother a smile of her own at his gentle ribbing. Right now, however, smiling was the last thing on her mind.

   Lochley's expression showed she knew exactly how Delenn felt. "I'll fill you in once we get past the reporters. I should warn you, they're camped out in the arrivals lounge. Someone saw the White Star..."

   "And, as you would say, put two and two together," Delenn finished.

   "Exactly."

   "Would it not be better if you 'filled me in' *before* I had to face the press?"

   "Not really, no." Lochley was clearly frustrated and Delenn was at a loss how to respond.

   "Captain..."

   "Delenn, look, all I can tell you is that he's in the Isolab. He passed out during the conference and Dr Hobbs rushed him to medical. We've posted a twenty-four hour guard outside and Dr Hobbs is doing all she can." She moved off towards the doors leading to immigration.

   "I take it, then, that this is truly serious? Not one of John's... tricks?" She'd been holding on to the hope the whole thing was some kind of ploy to flush out the drug dealers.

   "I think it's moved a bit beyond that, now."

   "Captain Lochley..."

   Lochley cut her off. "He's unconscious and Dr Hobbs is looking after him. Now when we get..." Her link beeped and she rolled her eyes at Delenn. The latter nodded. "Lochley, go."

   "Captain, you need to get down to Medlab, stat." The brevity of Zack's near command only added to the sense of urgency his voice conveyed. Before Lochley had the chance to ask the obvious question, Zack supplied the answer. "Ranger Sante is dead and it looks like murder."

   Delenn raised her hands to her mouth, belatedly smothering the gasp of shock that had escaped. Over the link there could be heard the sounds of shouting.

   "How's the President?" Lochley demanded.

   There was a pause. "Uh, not good. The poison was meant for him."

   Hobbs' distinctive voice broke through the pandemonium. "I said OUT! All of you! You're making it worse!"

   "I'm on my way!" Lochley replied and turned to Delenn, but the Minbari was already several yards ahead of her and making for the doors.

   *****

   For the First Lady of the Alliance, immigration and customs were, of course, a formality, but one that had to be observed if only by a quick sweep of the Identity card and a hurried "Thank you, ma'am." The blinding flash of cameras as she swept into the arrivals hall was also becoming something of a ritual.

   "Delenn! Delenn!" The reporters surged forward making the security cordon bow under the strain. The Rangers took up positions either side of their charge, their stance making it clear that anyone who broke through the cordon would suffer the direst of consequences.

   "Have you heard the latest condition of the President?" one reporter yelled.

   "There are rumours this illness may have been an attempt on his life, could you comment on that?"

   "You weren't scheduled to attend this conference and the President only fell ill a few hours ago. It's a three day journey from Minbar. What made you decide to come to Babylon 5?"

   "Several delegates at the conference were arrested for drug trafficking. Could you comment on that? What was your relationship to the delegates? Did you know any of them?"

   "Have you been able to talk the President through Stellarcom?"

   "How will the President's illness affect the smooth running of the Interstellar Alliance?"

   The flashes were blinding, the voices deafening, the general atmosphere chaotic. Delenn covered her eyes to shield herself from the barrage and turned to Captain Lochley. The Captain nodded and turned to the assembled reporters.

   "WILL YOU BE QUIET?!" Lochley yelled in a tone that brooked no argument. The crowd hushed.

   Delenn bowed her thanks to Lochley and stepped forward. "I cannot answer all your questions at once. I have not seen my husband yet, nor have I spoken to him. I am informed he is in critical condition in Medlab. I have not heard of the arrests at the conference and so cannot comment. I was in the area, attending to Alliance business when I received the ISN report on my husband's illness and came at once. The business of The Alliance cannot and will not be affected by the illness of any single member, no matter who they are. I cannot answer any more questions until I have conferred with Dr Hobbs. If you will excuse me."

   Security forced the crowds aside, their authority reinforced by the two Rangers, both of whom seem to have been chosen for their rather imposing height and build. Delenn and Lochley strode through the gap followed by the Rangers who then took up their positions both behind and in front of their charge. As they entered the transport tube Lochley gave the order for Medlab and then turned to Delenn.

   "Thank you for not mentioning Sante's death."

   "Until we know the circumstances of her death it seems foolish to give the press any more..." she paused, "ammunition?" Lochley nodded. "We cannot afford to have any questions raised as to the stability of the Alliance. There are too many who already question our ability to lead through a crises. After the Shadow War and then the Civil Wars on Earth and Minbar were concluded I am surprised anyone still has doubts, but..."

   "Everyone's a critic," Lochley muttered in sour tones.

   "John says that everyone wants to be the pilot until you offer them the controls. Then they all want to be passengers or on the ground." The mention of Sheridan's name brought the full weight of Delenn's concerns down upon her. Taking a deep breath she stilled her now shaking hands and turned, once again, to Lochley. "And now that we are alone and the reporters behind us..."

   "Not yet. Let's get into Medlab first and Hobbs can help me explain the situation."

   The doors opened and the two made their way down the corridor. As they reached their destination they saw Zack Allan talking to two guards who were holding a struggling med-tech between them.

   "Knock him out if you have to, I don't care. Frankly, I wouldn't care if you accidentally mistook an air lock for the head and spaced him, but the Ombudsman might not agree with me." The man struggled again. "If he so much as blinks wrong again, shoot him. No one sees him without my say-so, I don't care who they are. He doesn't eat, drink or use the head without someone watching him. I want a twenty-four hour guard on his cell and then I want more guards on the guards. If he sneezes and the air escapes, I want to know about it. You got me?"

   "Yes, sir!" replied the guards in unison, the vice-like grip they had on their prisoner tightening. As they turned away the man saw Delenn and smiled.

   "We haven't finished with him yet!" he yelled. "You can't stop us!"

   Zack, who'd turned away, sighed loudly, spun on his heel and rammed his fist into the med-tech's face. The man sagged between the guards, blood dripping from his nose and lip.

   "Get him out of here!"

   "Yes, sir." The guards dragged their unconscious prisoner away as Zack walked back to Lochley and Delenn, shaking and stretching his hand.

   "Mr Allan, I hope I didn't just see you strike a man who was under arrest?" Lochley said as he reached them.

   "No ma'am. I was swatting a bug and missed."

   "That's what I thought. Who was he?"

   "Turns out he was workin' for the people who've been poisoning the President. He spiked the medication Dr Hobbs prepared and if it hadn't been for Ranger Sante recognising him..." He shook his head. "She tried to stop us but we wouldn't listen. There was a fight and she got the dose instead."

   Lochley winced at the near miss, as well as at the loss of the Ranger. "A redemption of sorts, I suppose. Better if she hadn't put him there in the first place, though."

   Delenn's head was spinning. A Ranger put John on the critical list? "Captain, I must see my husband now," she insisted.

   "Of course."

   The replacement guards parted to allow Delenn, Lochley and Zack entrance and then closed ranks, their PPG rifles and flak jackets evidence that no one was taking any chances this time around. The Rangers stepped inside and then took up positions either side of the doorway. Anyone trying to get in now had four guards to face, and two of them didn't answer to anyone but Entil'zha herself.

   Lochley turned to Zack. "How is he?" There was no need to explain who 'he' referred to.

   "Hobbs got a clean sedative and knocked him out, so he's quiet again. The SD2 meant he couldn't just hear the fight, he could hear what everyone was thinking, including Sante. He realised the dose had been spiked and knew his life was in danger so he yanked the IV out before it was too late."

   Those were the cold facts of the matter. Sheridan might have viewed the event rather differently.

   *****

   Shock, the President thought in the aftermath of Zack's announcement, was a wonderful thing. It was amazing how everyone's mind blanked for a few seconds. Suddenly he was no longer hearing the mental and verbal screams of a roomful of people, not to mention every thought of every person on Babylon 5. While that background din probably continued he honestly couldn't remember hearing it. For those few, blessed seconds it was as if someone had hit the mute button on the universe. Of course it didn't last long, and when the noise returned it was, if anything, louder than before.

   His head throbbed with the panic around him and his mind echoed everything from Hobbs' terror as she looked at the drip and absently turned it off, to Ivanova's realisation, Zack's fear and anger, and the moment of Sante's death. He'd heard and felt it all and it was steadily driving him over the cliff of madness. He covered his ears again, pulled up his knees and tried to bury his head against his chest, desperate to silence the din.

   Ivanova stepped forward to offer what help she could, still in the dark as to the actual cause of his distress. Not that suddenly waking up to a bar brawl and attempted murder going on around you wasn't enough to make anyone panic, but the danger was over now and, if anything, the President seemed to be even worse off than he had been a few seconds before. Zack tapped his link to call Lochley, and Simmons fought with Petrov who, despite his weakened state, was trying to get up to help the President.

   Hobbs' yell to clear the room may have helped a little, but Sheridan was too far gone to notice. It didn't matter if people were nearby or at the other end of Brown Sector, he could hear them all. Ivanova refused to go and demanded an explanation. Hobbs, seeing orders wouldn't get her anywhere this time and pretty shaken up herself at the thought of having been seconds from killing the President, decided it was time to come clean.

   "He's been pumped full of SD2," she said and then turned to Walters. "Go to the supply cupboards and bring me a clean batch of sedatives. And bring the scanner with you as well. Hurry!" She turned back to Ivanova. "He's hearing everything. We could be silent right now and he'd still be deafened by our thoughts."

   Ivanova summarised the situation and came up with a solution. Before she had the chance to verbalise the idea Sheridan grunted his understanding, raised his head and concentrated on her with every fibre of his being. Inside her head, Ivanova was building the telepathic blocks she'd learned as a child, offering him a safe haven in her mind while the nurse went to fetch a chemical solution to his problem. Every time his concentration wavered the room seemed to press in on him. Ivanova stepped forward and took his hand, increasing the contact and giving him a clearer route into her mind. She might only be a low level teep, but if she could keep this up for just a few minutes it might be enough to bring him back from the brink.

   Hobbs, seeing her patient was calmer, stepped away to give Ivanova room and minimise the effect of her own thoughts on Sheridan. Walters entered and while her external demeanour was all business, Sheridan's sudden jerk in the bed indicated her mental anguish. Hobbs took the sealed bottle and the scanner and ordered Walters to leave the room and concentrate on something quiet: a wood, a beach, an empty room, anything that would calm her mind. The same orders were relayed to Petrov and Simmons while Hobbs checked the batch to make sure it contained nothing but what it said on the labels. Satisfied everything was clear she filled a syringe and stepped back towards her patient.

   Sheridan saw her coming and his eyes flickered from the drug in her hand to her eyes. In her mind he saw nothing but absolute conviction that the batch was safe. He no longer cared. Death would be an improvement on this. He nodded. As Hobbs injected him he kept his eyes and mind on Ivanova until darkness claimed him, silencing the station once more.

   Sheridan fell back on the bed and Ivanova finally exhaled, her head spinning as she finally took a breath, releasing the tension. Her knees felt like they would buckle under her at any second. Hobbs rushed to provide a chair for the stricken Captain and Ivanova accepted gratefully. She sat with her head cradled in her hands, breathing heavily.

   Hobbs finished checking Sheridan and, satisfied his was merely the normal sleep of the safely sedated, stepped outside to check on Petrov. The Ranger was in pain but there was no long-term internal damage. A little rest was all he needed. Then she turned her attention to Sante. The scanner registered a fatal dose of highly concentrated SD2, together with some other drugs that had no business in the human system. A check of the bottle registered the same, as did Sheridan's drip when Hobbs returned to her patient. She tore down the drip, tubes and all, and ordered Walters to destroy them and bring her fresh ones. Fear and stress could dehydrate a person in record-breaking time and Sheridan was in no state to withstand such pressures. With her patient finally settled for the next few hours at least, she turned her attention to Ivanova.

   "How are you feeling?"

   Ivanova snorted. "Like the Rose Bowl, the World Series, six party conventions and the Shadow War just took place in my head. I had no idea this place was so noisy."

   "Well, Medlab hasn't seen this amount of excitement..."

   "No, I mean the station as a whole. He can hear everything, and I do mean everything. I swear I was picking up ships parked outside. No wonder that stuff drives people nuts."

   Hobbs nodded and leaned against the partition, her arms folded. "So what did you just do?"

   "I gave him a safe haven inside my head... well, the best I could manage, anyway. I'm no P10, but I've been around teeps long enough to know some of the tricks. I built the walls up around us and shut out everything I could. While I concentrated on the walls, he concentrated on staying inside them. He couldn't do it alone. There was just too much noise." She pressed her palms to her ears a few times as though trying to clear a blockage and then shook herself. "Is he gonna stay under for a while? Because I don't think I can do that again in a hurry."

   Hobbs nodded. "He's out for the count. We've got at least six hours before I have to give him another dose."

   "You can't keep him sedated forever."

   "I know. I'm working on the antidote but I'm having trouble with some of the sequences. This is pretty advanced stuff. I was just getting a handle on it when all hell broke loose in here."

   "Then you'd better get on with it. We don't want to go through that again."

   Hobbs nodded and turned, to see Delenn standing in the doorway.

   *****

   "Extraction complete. Phase two is in place," the security officer said. Garibaldi nodded. "I'll contact you if there's any movement. In the meantime, the package is being delivered under guard to a safe house."

   "Right. I'll check in with you later. Garibaldi out." Michael leaned back in his chair and then pumped the air with a satisfied "Yes!" before turning back to the computers that were still tracing the other end of Sante's call. He had to admit the guy was clever. He'd already had to put two advance tracing programs on the job so that the route could be picked up again as temporary lines were disconnected. There were enough blind alleys, twists and turns to make Daedelus proud and give the Minotaur terminal heartburn, while Zeus himself would have admired the number of disguises the man at the other end was hiding behind. Nevertheless, all these frustrations served to do was increase Garibaldi's determination to find his target.

   That determination was further fuelled when he received an update from Zack informing him that the back-up had been captured but only at the cost of Sante's life. She had managed to explain before she died that she'd seen the med-tech once and fleetingly in the background of one of the messages sent early on when her parents had been kidnapped. Zack was at pains, too, to point out Petrov's heroic attempts to carry out his orders and the damage that had been inflicted upon him in the course of doing so.

   "OK, so I was wrong," Garibaldi admitted grudgingly. "What's happening there now?"

   "The med-tech's registered name is Anton Myers. We're running it through the databases but I think it's gonna turn out to be an alias. When he comes to we'll see if we can force a little more out of him."

   "What happened to him?"

   "He started yellin' threats at Delenn and then his face ran into my fist."

   "Delenn's there?"

   "Uh huh. Just arrived. She's with the President now, together with Ivanova."

   "Well, at least you won't have to worry about security for a while."

   "Ya got that right. So how's your end comin'?"

   "Slowly, but I'm homing in. He's somewhere in either Geneva or Bern."

   "My bet's on Geneva."

   "Mine too. We know he did a lot of his hacking from there, which is why I've put most of my software to check out those leads, but I don't want to miss him because he doubled back or moved shop. It won't be long now. Uh... when Delenn has a minute, can you ask her to contact me? I need the Rangers so we can catch him. The guy's wanted on several planets and I don't want to run the risk that Earth'll try and claim jurisdiction over the Alliance judiciary because he was arrested by Terran security. Extradition can be a pain in the butt and this guy's the type who'd find a way to escape on the way from the cells to the dock. He's probably got half the local judges in his back pocket."

   "I'll let her know but give her a few minutes, first. She's got a lot of catching up to do."

   *****

   As the story unfolded around her -- Hobbs, Lochley and Ivanova filling in each stage -- Delenn shook her head in bewilderment. It was sounding more like a comedy of errors. John hadn't wanted to panic her so he'd kept his counsel to himself, and he'd not wanted to risk a security breach so he'd kept almost everyone else out of it as well. Lochley hadn't wanted to worry him about Delenn's concerns so she'd kept quiet, Susan wasn't supposed to have seen anything so she kept quiet...

   "I think we need to make some new rules around here," Delenn said at last from her chair beside Sheridan's bed. The latter was sleeping soundly, his monitors the only aural indication of his presence in the room. "From now on, when it comes to my husband there is no such thing as something I do not want or need to know. Do I make myself clear?"

   Having listened to the catalogue of communication break-downs Hobbs, Lochley and Ivanova had to concur.

   "He does have a way of confusing the issue, doesn't he?" Hobbs offered.

   "He's a man and the President of the Galaxy. It goes with the territory," Ivanova responded, her face deadpan.

   "To be fair, I don't think you can blame him for the fact we weren't honest with each other," Lochley added reasonably. "Although he was the one who gave the orders that made that difficult."

   "Well from now on *my* orders supersede his," Delenn asserted, "at least where his welfare is concerned. I do not care to go through the last three days again."

   "I wanted to talk to you about that," Ivanova said, her voice still edged with exhaustion but her curiosity piqued. "How did you get here from Minbar so fast?"

   Zack stuck his head around the corner. "Delenn? I'm sorry to bother you but Mr Garibaldi needs your help in assigning some Rangers to arrest the guy behind the kidnapping."

   "He's found him?" Lochley and Ivanova said at once.

   They held each other's expressions for a moment and then Ivanova gave a weary sweep of her hand. "Your serve."

   "Where is he?" Lochley demanded.

   "Right now it's evens between Geneva and Bern but he reckons he'll have nailed it down to an office block within the next hour."

   "Tell Mr Garibaldi that the Rangers will be ready," Delenn replied and stood up. "Dr Hobbs, I wonder if you could arrange for another bed to be moved in here. I would like to stay with my husband."

   "Of course. And then, if you've no more questions, I really do need to get back to the lab." Hobbs had waited to fill out the details, knowing the work she'd left running in the lab still had a few minutes to go, but now she could move on to the next stage and she didn't want to delay any longer.

   "Please do."

   The doctor swept out, followed by Delenn who spoke quietly to one of the Rangers giving him instructions that were to be relayed to the White Star and then conveyed using the Anla'shok's private communications to the ships in orbit near Earth. They, in turn, would deliver a strike force, supported by those Rangers already on the planet, the second Garibaldi gave them a target.

   "I have to plant a little seed of my own. If you'll excuse me?" Lochley asked when Delenn returned.

   "What do you mean?"

   "The people behind this are expecting a report of the President's death. If they don't get something they'll realise we're onto them and run. We can't afford that."

   "No, no of course not," Delenn replied softly, but she was clearly shaken by the idea. "It might not be best for the Alliance if such a report goes out, however."

   "The networks can do most of the work for us and we can maintain full deniability. All we have to do is give them enough to fuel their own imaginations without actually telling them anything."

   "And how...?"

   Lochley turned to Ivanova. "How are you feeling?"

   "Better."

   "Up to a little acting?"

   Ivanova stood up. "Well, if you need me to win awards..."

   "Nothing so grand." She walked out of the Isolab followed by Ivanova. "Nurse?"

   Walters turned around as did Simmons who was helping Petrov take some painkillers. Lochley beckoned Walters to her.

   "Can I help you?"

   "What have you got in here that would have the same effect as chopping two large onions? We need to persuade the press that the President's comrades in arms are having a hard time keeping their emotions in check."

   Walters frowned for a moment and then smiled. "I know just the thing!" she said and went to a cabinet. "We used this to deal with some sophomore football players who wanted to play practical jokes on the girl's dorm when I was a student." She was mixing some chemicals and the aroma was already quite pungent. "Put this in a few vials and left them strewn around the entrance and the ground floor window. They stepped in, broke the vials..."

   Ivanova sniffed. "Tear gas?"

   "Not quite, but close enough. Moral of the tale? Don't mess with chemistry students. Now, which of you is the stoic commander and which the grieving friend?"

   Lochley and Ivanova stared at each other and then Ivanova grabbed the bottle. "Oh, give it here." She turned towards the Isolab. "John, you owe me three dinners so far and counting. You'd better be around to pay up when this is all over." She wafted the bottle in front of her face and instantly screwed up her eyes. Lochley, a mere two feet away, felt the effects and stepped back. She needed to look like she'd gone through hell but was still in charge no matter what her personal sorrow. A little redness was all right. Floods of tears was not.

   "Oh jeez," Ivanova sniffed, "this is terrible. No wonder those jocks backed off!"

   "Never bothered us again," Walters smiled.

   "I'll bet." She coughed, sniffed again and turned to Lochley. "How do I look?"

   "Terrible. The perfect grieving friend. Now imagine your crew is out there and you're putting a brave face on it."

   "That won't be hard. They ARE out there! I am *never* gonna live this one down."

   "When the truth comes out you'll get letters from the Academy. Come on, it's show time."

   *****

   It wasn't hard finding the reporters. Avoiding them until you wanted to find them was the real trick. Thus it was a mere two minutes later that Lochley, stiff and upright, and Ivanova, red-eyed and clearly distraught, entered the lion's den that was the nearest unrestricted corridor to Medlab.

   The reporters took in their expressions and, for a second, silence reigned. As the obvious implications sank in, the roar of questions fell like a tidal wave.

   "Captain Lochley, is the President dead?"

   "Captain Ivanova, Captain Ivanova!"

   Susan looked up and a dazzling light show stung her already sore eyes, instantly (and conveniently) causing the tears to well up again. She waved the reporters off and pushed her way through the security cordon that Lochley had ordered to precede them.

   "Captain Lochley! Is the President dead?!" the reporters repeated, their matching cries echoing in the confined space.

   "I can't answer questions right now. There'll be a formal statement of the situation as soon as First Lady Delenn is available. In the meantime if you would excuse us."

   "Captain Ivanova, are you leaving the station?"

   "No. I would not leave the First Lady alone at this time." She sniffed, wiped her eyes, drew herself up and glared at a reporter who had managed to dodge under the cordon, his stylus poised over his recorder. One look was enough to tell him he had just made a fatal mistake. He instantly backed off. With a final sniff and an angry dismissal of the crowd, Ivanova and Lochley shunted past the last of the reporters and into the peace of the transport tube.

   "Nice touch on that last line," Lochley complimented as they were carried away.

   Ivanova nodded and pulled out a handkerchief. "Thanks. I was rather impressed with the way you tap-danced around the questions as well." She wiped at her eyes.

   "I think we've sown the seeds."

   "I think we've just planted several large forests," Susan agreed, blowing her nose noisily. "It should keep the lid on things until Garibaldi and the Rangers can close the trap."

   They entered C&C and the entire crew stood to attention. As they noted Ivanova's red-rimmed eyes a gasp rippled through the room.

   "Keep your posts, people," Lochley ordered. "This isn't over yet." It was as close as she dared come to an outright denial of the implications. She didn't like lying to them but until they had the leader of the group in custody she couldn't run the risk that there might be other leaks aboard the station. She went to the Captain's office area, offering Ivanova a seat. "Computer, find ISN."

   *****

   "She did it," Farlow cried in triumph as the images of Ivanova and Lochley came through on the TV monitors.

   "Or someone did," Larson commented mildly.

   "You will notice that they do not actually *say* that the President is dead," The Professor observed.

   "Of course not!" Farlow grinned. "They need to prepare an official statement and give themselves time to draw in their forces before news like that hits. They know that when it's formally announced there'll be panic in the streets, stock market falls, the whole nine yards. The main thing is, we've cut off the head. They'll be too busy picking up the pieces to concentrate on us."

   "But when the autopsy shows he was killed by SD2...?"

   "It'll back up the files I sent to ISN showing he's a drug user. His reputation will be shot and so will the Alliance. Doesn't matter how much they claim it was an assassin, no one will believe them."

   "I wonder why those files have not already been mentioned?" The Professor mused. "They have had plenty of time to verify them."

   "They're hardly gonna announce he's a drug addict when he's at death's door, are they? They need to wait until he's gone and a decent period of mourning has passed. *Then* they can start the character assassination. It's perfect. Just as the Alliance starts to get back on its feet the news hits that he was a victim of his own self-abuse and the whole lot is plunged back into chaos. There'll be calls for Delenn's resignation as head of the Rangers, we can implicate Sante as Sheridan's supplier, which'll screw what's left of the reputation of the holier-than-thou Anla'shok... I tell you, it worked like a charm."

   "It worked almost too well," The Professor mused. "You are either very good or something is not as it appears." His expression indicated he did not place the former option very highly.

   "Well, I tell you what, Professor... Masterson is due to call in at eight, EST. That's less than two hours from now. My private shuttle's waiting at the spaceport and we can be out of here and off the planet within thirty minutes if he doesn't call in. From there we dock with the Janus and she can take us anywhere we want to go. If it makes you happy, I'll even order the Janus to be waiting for us. How's that?"

   "And if Masterson says it was he and not Sante who killed the President?"

   "Then her parents get to go walk the surface of Mars without breathers."

   "What happens if Sante did it?" Larson asked.

   "She'll be under arrest so she won't miss them." He looked at the faces of the two men. "What? You think I'd leave anyone alive who could link back to us? I'm many things, gentlemen, but stupid isn't one of them."

   The Professor nodded and leaned back in his chair. Larson merely grunted, Sante's parents apparently warranting no further consideration on his part. Neither doubted the necessity, it was just that until that moment they hadn't known if Farlow would carry it out. Apparently he would, but then anyone who would finance and plan the assassination of the President had already proved his ruthlessness. It was his common sense they questioned. Sante should have known her parents were dead from the moment they were kidnapped. If she didn't, she was an even bigger fool than she appeared.

 

*****

 

 

The JumpNow FanFiction Archive
To submit a story, questions, or removal of your story please mail to fanfiction@jumpnow.de.