SELLING OUT (IV)
"Oh my God!"
"What is it, honey?" Kate Griffith called from the kitchen. "Now I told you, you shouldn't do that," she gently admonished her youngest son, punctuating her sentence by daubing his nose with a blob of flour. The five year old giggled and shared a conspiratorial look with his older sister who grinned. Kate wiped her hands on a tea-towel hanging from the apron around her waist. "Honey?" She called again and then frowned when she didn't get a reply. "You two, behave yourselves. I don't want to find the dog's ears full of pastry like I did last time, you hear me?" They nodded and went about adding details to the pie crust they'd been making. "Charles?"
Kate walked out of the kitchen and saw her husband staring at the screen. ISN was on and there seemed to be some commotion aboard Babylon 5. "What's happened?"
"They've killed him," he breathed, afraid to speak too loudly.
ISN filled in the details. "...The Interstellar Alliance has refused to comment. President Sheridan, who was fifty-four years old, collapsed during a conference on Babylon 5. His condition was reported as critical but no details as to the cause of his collapse have been released. Theories have ranged from exhaustion to complications arising from a wound he received during the Shadow War. ISN will keep you updated as news is released. For those just joining us, unconfirmed reports indicate that President of the Interstellar Alliance, John J. Sheridan, has died. Our reporters on the scene..." Griffith jammed his thumb on the remote and the screen blanked.
"I can't believe they actually did it," Charles muttered.
"Did what? ISN said it was exhaustion or an old war wound." She came around the couch and took in his ashen countenance. "Charles? Honey, what's wrong?"
Charles was gnawing his thumbnail, running through scenarios in his head. Farlow would find him if he ran. He probably had people watching the house right now. But if he waited until the Alliance caught up with him he'd be just as dead. He had to confess if he was to have a chance of leniency, but he couldn't afford to put his wife and children in any more danger.
"Charles, you're scaring me. What's wrong? Are you saying someone murdered the President?"
He grabbed her arms. "You've got to leave!"
"Get out, now. Just take the car, grab the kids and go." He thought for a moment. "No, not the car. Get a taxi to the station. Don't tell me where you're going, don't make a fuss or draw attention to yourself, just get out of here."
Sarah, the couple's daughter, stuck her head around the door. "Mommy? What's the matter?"
Kate plastered a smile on her face. "Nothing, sweetheart. Your father's just had some bad news. Go back into the kitchen. Mommy will be with you in a minute."
Looking very uncertain, Sarah did as requested.
"Charles, you're scaring the children. Stop this!"
"Kate, I'm not joking. You've got to get out of here. I can't tell you what's been going on. If I did you'd be involved and I don't want you to get into trouble on my account. Just trust me when I say you're not safe here. I've made some terrible mistakes and I have to try and fix this. The only way I can do that is if I know you're safe." He stood up and held her face in his hands. "Please, do what I say. Don't ask any questions. Pack the barest essentials and get away from here. When you get to a credit machine, transfer all our joint account funds into your name. All of those are clean and you won't have any trouble. Then just buy a ticket to somewhere and go. When this is all over I'll find you again, I promise." He pulled her into a desperate hug and then released her almost as forcefully.
"Charles, I don't..."
"There's no time. You'll understand later. I love you. Now go!" He pushed her away and then ran up the stairs to his office. He slammed and locked the door behind him, leaning against it heavily as he tried to slow the headlong rush of his heart.
Standing there, the blood rushing in his ears and a black hole opening in his stomach, he heard Kate urging the children to change into travelling clothes. He heard his daughter, in tears, asking what was wrong with daddy, and his son, picking up on his sister's distress, started to scream. As his wife ran around, grabbing the basics for travel and trying to calm the children at the same time, he slid slowly to the floor, his head in his hands.
"What have I done?" he murmured, the sobs welling up from his gut. "Oh sweet Jesus, what have I done?"
"Typical!" Garibaldi muttered. "All right then, if you're not in Geneva you have to be in Bern. I'll get you yet, you bastard!" He redirected all his equipment to the Bern search and sat back. Now, all he could do was wait.
Hobbs was steadily working her way through the complex chemical bondings demanded by the antidote, but it was a slow and painful process. There were some things you simply couldn't rush. Her head was starting to sag when a low beep from the machine announced the completion of another stage. Jerking herself upright she drew a deep breath and then set to work once more. She couldn't afford to stop but she couldn't afford to make a mistake either. With painstaking care she checked that the result was as predicted and then moved on to the next step. If this one worked she'd have the final result in about an hour. Having followed the instructions to the letter she programmed the computer, checked everything again, and then, with a quiet prayer to any gods that might be listening in, pressed start. At this level, the human hand and eye could only do so much. She could program in the amounts that had to be combined and the conditions under which it had to be done. The machinery, delicate enough to identify and select a single molecule, had to be trusted with the rest. By creating micro-environments from temperature to gravitation, it could speed up processes that might otherwise take days. Its precise tools were vastly more steady and reliable than those in the hands of any human, and certainly better than a very tired doctor under considerable pressure to get the job done in a hurry. Still, it needed a human to check that the results at the end matched up to what was expected to within acceptable parameters, and do the double blinds that would ensure the machinery itself was reporting the results accurately. And she couldn't trust herself to do that if she didn't take a few minutes' rest.
"Computer, wake me when this program finishes."
Taking up the traditional position of the overworked at their desks, her head resting on her arms, she fell asleep.
"So, what do we do now?" Ivanova wondered aloud.
Lochley sighed. "We wait. There's nothing else we can do. As soon as Garibaldi knows where the guy is, he'll inform the Rangers and then tell us."
"What about the Med-tech?"
Lochley quickly accessed Security and scanned the files. "So far all we know is that he's not Anton Myers. That man was killed in a car crash three years ago."
"Big surprise," Ivanova yawned. "Sorry."
"That's OK," Lochley assured her. "I know how you feel. Zack's checking some leads but the man seems to have come out of nowhere."
"If I know Zack, he'll track him down. Garibaldi trained him well and he's got a grudge. That's always a good incentive."
"Hmm. Do you want to go back to Medlab?"
Ivanova shook her head. "No. I mean I do, but there's nothing I can do down there and if I got back too soon it'll look suspicious. I'll stay here for a bit, if that's OK with you?"
"Be my guest."
She looked around. "Nice to be here again. I miss it, sometimes. I used to like that quiet time when we'd locked down the last arrival for the day and I could just sit up there and watch the stars in peace for a bit."
"Did you get many of those?" Lochley asked.
"Not as many as I'd've liked," Ivanova snorted. "John always had a way of making this place exciting."
"So I gather. I called it the Sheridan-Garibaldi effect, but it seems he can manage it all on his own."
The two sat, swapping tales of life aboard the station as the minutes ticked by.
The bed had been duly installed in Medlab and, in deference to Delenn's Minbari heritage, the staff had set it at an angle. The trip to Babylon 5 had been fraught with worry and now that she was there Delenn found there was nothing she could do but wait. When Ivanova and Lochley had left to put on their little performance Delenn had eschewed the chance to watch the proceedings on ISN. It was a little too close to the truth for her tastes and until she knew for certain that John was recovering she didn't want any reminders of his mortality. Alone with him in Isolab, his monitors the only sound, Delenn felt exhaustion creep over her. The bed looked inviting but she didn't want to sleep. She wanted to stay awake at least until Dr Hobbs came up with the antidote.
She sighed. Hobbs had left without giving any indication how long her work would take and if Delenn was in the room it would be hard for them to start without her noticing. There was nothing she could do right now and nothing she wouldn't do better later for a few hour's sleep.
She slipped off her shoes, put her tunic over the back of a chair and lay down on the bed. If she looked to her right she could see John's profile, the steady rising and falling of his chest and the regular peaks of the ECG. She watched for a minute or so and then closed her eyes.
Charles Griffith's hand was shaking as he keyed in the number for Edgars-Garibaldi Industries. He knew Michael Garibaldi because his was another of the Saturn Consortium of businesses, albeit only a small percentage of the EGI group's holdings were covered by that business umbrella. Garibaldi certainly believed in diversification. Charles had never met Garibaldi. If he attended meetings at all it was always by video link. It didn't matter. Garibaldi was on Mars and Sante's parents were there. Charles wasn't sure where they were exactly, but that wasn't important. Garibaldi had been Sheridan's Chief of Security aboard Babylon 5 and his right hand man again after Sheridan became President. He could legitimately call Garibaldi under the guise of a Saturn matter and perhaps bypass any checks that were being made on his phone. And even if he was being monitored, his wife and children were gone and, hopefully, safe. Farlow was certifiable and that meant that even if they got away with this one, Charles couldn't guarantee he'd live to see another year if he continued working with the man. If Farlow didn't send his goons out to kill him, Charles wasn't sure he could live with the knowledge he had. One way or another it was time to put a stop to it.
He finished dialling the number and waited. After a short pause the call was answered, not by Garibaldi's secretary, but by the man himself.
"Mr Griffith? What can I do for you?" Garibaldi asked.
"I... I'm sorry. I was expecting your secretary."
"It's late, I sent her home. I'm waiting for some data processing to finish and I'm kicking my heels around here." He paused and took in Griffith's expression. Years as a security officer meant he could spot someone weighed down with guilt even when they were trying to brazen it out, so when a man sat on the other end of the video link white as a sheet, a sheen of sweat on his forehead and top lip, hands shaking and his eyes flitting from side to side as though he was afraid someone was going to come out of the shadows and smash his brains out with a baseball bat it didn't take much to figure the man was scared.
Garibaldi also knew the chances were that whoever was laundering the money for the drug lords had to be in the Saturn Consortium simply because that was the only conglomerate in the system big enough to handle that amount of money quietly. He'd seen the ISN announcement and knew what was going on, but news like that would shake anyone who knew the truth. Charles opened his mouth to speak and Garibaldi raised his hand.
"One moment, Mr Griffith. I'm gonna put you on hold for a few seconds. I've got another call coming in." Switching the video-link to pause so that Charles couldn't see him, Garibaldi quickly sent his snooping software down the line. It wasn't Charles's whereabouts he was trying to determine -- it was clear the man was in his office at home merely from a cursory glance at the background furnishings, and the mail address of every board member was open knowledge. What concerned Garibaldi was that there might be someone else on the line.
The red warning light confirmed his suspicions and he sent his electronic sniffers to track the source. As they worked he considered his options. Griffith was scared and calling him after an announcement that the President may be dead. Griffith's line was being tapped by someone who, it was already becoming apparent, was in Switzerland, while Griffith was in London. There were two interpretations of those events. The charitable one said that Griffith had decided to confess but had already been pegged as a weak link by the people who scared him and was even now putting himself in danger by making the call. The not so charitable one said that the people pulling the strings had Griffith by the balls and had forced him to make the call for some reason, but were monitoring it to make sure he didn't say anything he shouldn't. Either way, Garibaldi gave Griffith a one in five chance of actually completing the call and living to see the next day. If this man had the information he needed he couldn't afford to lose him.
Garibaldi sent a message to the Rangers and ordered them to Griffith's house and then reactivated the video-link. "Sorry about that. You know what it's like when you're the CO of a company. People can't take a crap without wanting to check with you first, right?"
Charles nodded vaguely. "Mr Garibaldi..."
"Mr Griffith... I'm sorry, what's your first name?"
"Charles," he replied, a little confused by the question.
"You mind if I call you that? Sounds less formal and I figure I shouldn't be on formal terms with members of the Saturn Consortium. I mean, hell, I only have small holdings there but small from EGI is bigger than a lot of people. How's my stock doing, by the way? I haven't had a chance to check today. Been a little busy." Michael was desperately trying to stall the man. If he said the wrong thing before the Rangers got to him it might already be too late. On the other hand, he couldn't just cut him off. It could send up a red flag or make Charles run.
"Uh... to be honest I've been a little distracted myself."
"Yeah, I know what that's like. Actually, I'm glad you called. I was taking a look at the figures last week and there was a downturn I meant to discuss with you. Actually, I think I recall asking my secretary if she could ask you to contact me about them. I guess that's what this is about right?" Before Charles could reply, Michael ploughed on. "Can you hang on while I get the figures? Would help if we were both working from the same data, right? I'll be right back!"
The screen went into hold mode again.
What the...? Charles had received no such message and he seriously doubted Garibaldi had sent one. There'd been no downturn in his figures. Quite the reverse. EGI was doing extremely well at the moment and Garibaldi knew that. He knew that because the automated report had been sent out only the day before and a businessman of Garibaldi's skill would have been on it within minutes of its arrival. It didn't matter it was a small offshoot of the main company. Garibaldi would know every detail because he was that kind of man. In the few years Griffith had dealt with EGI he'd found its CO to be extremely well informed, almost preternaturally so.
So what was he playing at?
Charles leaned back in his chair and gazed into the middle distance, his mind running through possible scenarios. Garibaldi was stalling, that much was certain. Every time Charles had tried to speak the man had almost run him over in an effort to stop him. Past experience meant Charles knew Garibaldi usually thought carefully before speaking on any matter pertaining to business, yet he'd made up a reason for the call that was quite clearly bogus and it was apparent Garibaldi knew that Charles knew that. After all, you didn't get to be chairman of a major banking corporation at the age of forty-one without having some serious game.
OK, so that meant Garibaldi suspected the real reason for his call and was trying to stop him from talking about it. Why would he do that?
Charles's eyes widened as the implication hit him. The call was being tapped and the only person who could be doing that was Farlow. Garibaldi must have picked it up when he first put Griffith on hold. Since Charles's own security software wasn't picking it up the tap had to be using the very latest tech. It didn't surprise Griffith that Garibaldi already had software to counter it since a man who'd worked in security to that level and ran one of the biggest corporations in the Sol system would always have the very latest equipment. The fact that Charles's calls to date had probably all been logged and checked frightened the hell out of him, but it was too late to worry about that now.
That still left the question as to why Garibaldi was stalling him. He knew where he lived so it wasn't to trace the call. He probably didn't know where the person tapping the line lived so he could well be using this as a way to trace them. Well, that was just fine with Charles. His own software couldn't detect the tap or Garibaldi's countermeasures, so he doubted Farlow's would do any better and that meant Farlow's paranoia could well be the noose by which he hanged himself. Sweet irony! Charles grinned and then the smile faded.
A trace wouldn't take that long but Garibaldi had asked him to wait so they could discuss the figures. Why did he want him to stay on line? It occurred to Griffith that Garibaldi would be returning shortly and would want to talk finance. With the line tapped it was almost certain his computer was being monitored. If he called up the details from the bank Farlow would see this was a charade.
He quickly stood up and grabbed a file from the bookcase. It contained the figures for the previous year, but unless Farlow had put a video monitor in his office no one would know that. He flicked open the file folder and placed it flat on the table so that the date couldn't be seen through the monitor. He'd had an idea why Garibaldi was stalling. Now he just needed to find out if it was true.
The screen blinked back into life and Garibaldi was sitting on the other side with an almost identical folder in front of him. In fact, Griffith would have bet good money it was the same set of figures. EGI had hit a downturn at this time last year and it would make sense to use that as the base set of numbers so there was agreement in the discussion.
His head spun. He hoped Garibaldi was as intelligent and as honest as his reputation, or he was about to hang himself.
"Right, got them!" Garibaldi looked up, noted the file folder in front of Charles and the change of expression on the man's face. "Ah, I see you've gone for the hard copy as well. Easier than the computer ones when you're trying to talk business, isn't it?"
"Absolutely," Charles agreed. How could he ask the question? "I hope we can rectify this situation. As you say, EGI only has smallholdings with this bank, but they're big in the great scheme of things. It affects us when your business isn't running at peak capacity. I'm eager to ensure we both continue to enjoy a secure future."
Garibaldi laughed. "So you're hoping I'll turn out to be the cavalry, is that it?"
"In a manner of speaking," Charles returned carefully. Had he got the message?
A nod. "I think I can promise you, Charles, that EGI and this CO in particular will do everything in its power to ensure you can continue to enjoy the benefits of a successful business." His tone was apparently friendly but heavily loaded. "Makes a difference, doesn't it, when you can go back to a nice house and your family and know all's right with the world?"
Charles had been right. The cavalry was indeed on its way. Now Garibaldi was fishing for information on his wife and children.
"Actually, Kate's taken the children for a day out. Kind of a last minute thing and I don't know where she's decided to take them. You know women. You walk in the door and they're walking out of it with a 'see you later, honey!'" Boy, that sounded hokey but it was the best he could do by way of improvisation. This was the most bizarre conversation he'd ever engaged in.
"Just got in the car and went, huh? Can't do that here, of course, but Lise'll take off in the shuttle with Mary and the next thing you know I'm kicking around an empty house."
"Exactly. No, I think she's gone a bit further afield. She'll probably call when the joint account runs out." Talk about cryptic! Please let this man be as intelligent as he's supposed to be.
"And they sure can go through money, can't they? Yeah, I know where you're coming from. Anyway, let's take a look at these numbers, huh? I'm sure we can figure something out so don't worry. Shouldn't take too long. Now, if we look at January and compare it to March..."
As predicted, both sides had chosen the same numbers and for the same reasons. They had exactly what they needed. In fact, it was the only file that would have done since EGI had been remarkably stable over the years. Charles knew Garibaldi was working on a solution and it was near at hand. He just had to wait a little longer. They kept up the pretence until Garibaldi turned aside for a moment and then interrupted.
"Charles, I'm getting another call and it's urgent. Looks like a collection I've been waiting for. I have to go and I'm sure you've got things you need to do as well. So let me just say I'm happy with your suggestions and if you can collate all the data for the past, say, four years we can talk about this in private again soon, ok?"
"I'd like that. It's been a pleasure doing business with you, Mr Garibaldi."
Garibaldi nodded and the connection was broken. Less than ten seconds after that the front doorbell rang. Charles tapped open a data port and pulled out the crystal that held the previous day's automatic backup of his files. He was about to leave when it occurred to him that Farlow might find something on his hard drive if he took the trouble to do so. The fact Garibaldi's business was doing well, names and addresses of family members and friends Kate might stay with, or the fact Charles had kept a backup of everything since he'd started doing business with Farlow. He opened a locked drawer to his desk and removed a small box with a combination lock. He undid that, retrieved the red crystal inside, inserted it into the machine and activated it. The virus started to run amok on his hard drive, shredding it completely. Happy he'd left nothing that Farlow could use to trace his activities or his family's whereabouts, he went downstairs to answer the door. Standing outside was a man in a dark suit. Charles frowned until the man held up his hand and said quietly,
"I've been sent by Mr Garibaldi. I believe you need some help?" He motioned to a car parked in the driveway. Two more men in suits were waiting beside it.
"I'm not certain..." Charles hesitated. Was this the cavalry or the enemy?
The man turned his jacket slightly to reveal the distinctive badge of the Anla'shok. "Entil'zha Delenn would also like to speak with you," he said.
He nodded. "What about my wife?"
"They were at the shuttle station. We've got them. It's time for us to go Mr Griffith. Mr Garibaldi has a lot of questions and your lines are not secure."
Charles nodded, grabbed his coat and followed the Ranger to the car. Once inside the others surrounded him, patting him down and running a scanner over him as the car took off at a steady pace that would not draw attention. Wedged between the two Rangers Griffith wondered where they were going until a monitor in the back of the car flickered into life.
"Charles, let's talk," Garibaldi said. He was all business.
"That's quite a run around you gave me back there, you know. For a while I wasn't sure we were talking about the same things."
"The feeling's mutual I assure you."
"I take it you figured out your line was being tapped."
Charles nodded. "Did you get him?"
"The Rangers should be there any minute. What's his name?"
"Adam Farlow, and yes, he's the man who's been trying to poison the President. Mr Garibaldi, I have to know... is the President truly dead?"
Garibaldi drew a breath, shaking his head as he did so and then expelled it noisily. "Not yet, but that situation could change at any moment. What I'd like from you is some information. You know that even if you give us your full cooperation you're going to jail for this, right? Your help will mitigate the sentence, but you still aided and abetted an attempt on the life of the President of the Interstellar Alliance and there has to be a price."
Charles hung his head. "I know," he said quietly, "but I couldn't stand by any longer."
"Why'd you stand by as long as you did?" Garibaldi's voice had daggers in it.
"Because I didn't think he'd go that far," he responded desperately. "I thought he'd incapacitate the President maybe... take him off the field for a while to give him a chance to regroup and relocate his organisation or just get the Rangers off his tail, but he's insane!" He suddenly remembered a detail he'd discovered when Farlow was boasting. "Do you know about Ranger Sante?"
Garibaldi nodded. "She's dead, by the way."
Charles almost choked. "He killed her too?!"
"No. She was killed defending the President. Her parents are safe, though." Garibaldi leaned forward. "Now, what I want from you are the records. I want every single file you've got on Farlow. I want every company he's hiding behind and every alias. I want to know everything you do, Mr Griffith, and if you hold back so much as one name, one detail, a comma even, I'm gonna take the leash off those Rangers sitting around you. They don't take too kindly to people trying to kill their boss."
Charles took in the stern features of the men sitting either side of him. Their cold looks were enough to tell him Garibaldi wasn't making idle threats. He nodded and reached inside his coat, pulling out the data crystal. "It's all on here," he said. One of the Rangers took it and inserted it into the console. It lit up as it was being accessed and less than a minute later, thanks to White Star communications that were relaying the information, Garibaldi was nodding.
"It's coming through now. You keep very thorough records, Mr Griffith." His eyebrows raised as he recognised some names and he whistled. "Very thorough!" he nodded approvingly then looked up. "If this is as good as it looks, I'll do what I can to see they don't go too hard on you. I can't make any promises, though."
"I don't care. So long as my family's safe I don't care what happens to me. I should have spoken up a long time ago."
"Yes," Garibaldi replied grimly, "you should. And if the President dies..."
"I know," he interrupted. "For what it's worth, I never wanted this."
"Then why the hell did you get involved in the first place? You're an intelligent man. You should have known better than to get mixed up with scum like this."
He sighed. "Because I was unbelievably stupid."
"He's late," Larson muttered, tapping his fingernail on the table. He turned his pale gaze on the Professor and Farlow.
"Not quite," Farlow responded, still convinced he was secure. "He has another minute."
"If he was going to call he would have done so by now," Larson insisted. "He's been caught and we have to get out of here."
"I agree," the Professor said, rising from the table. "I believe you said you have a shuttle?"
Farlow shrugged. "If you think it's necessary. Never let it be said I don't keep my promises." He stood up and began to move around the table. "Follow me gent..."
The door crashed open and a dozen Rangers poured into the room. Larson and the Professor were closest and were caught between trying to defend themselves and the sickening realisation that the end was already a foregone conclusion. Farlow dived back behind his desk and activated a hidden switch. A drawer popped out of the edge of the table revealing a slim, state of the art PPG rifle. He grabbed it and began to fire.
Suddenly the outcome wasn't so certain and Larson and the Professor engaged those closest to them. As they did so a transparent screen dropped from the ceiling with such speed and force that a Ranger, thrown aside by Larson and sprawled in its path, was neatly sliced in two. Larson and the Professor turned as the Ranger's cry was cut off and saw Farlow give a totally disingenuous smile before vanishing through a hidden door that had opened behind a monitor at the back of the room. Their brief distraction was all the Rangers needed and the two men were brought down with lightning speed. Their last image was of their erstwhile ally running to safety.
Farlow stepped into the elevator he'd had installed when the building had been constructed to his specifications, safe in the knowledge that there was no one still alive who knew the details, and the plans had long since been destroyed. The elevator led to an underground tunnel with direct access to the spaceport. When he reached the tunnel he ran a short distance before reaching a tube car that would ferry him the rest of the way. Farlow had always been a big fan of the old spy movies and enjoyed the opportunity to indulge some childish fantasies when his wealth permitted. To his mind, the biggest problem with the bad guys in the movies was their insistence upon telling the hero everything he needed to know as a prelude to killing him. Farlow didn't tell anyone anything if he could help it, and the only person who knew every detail was Farlow himself. He had businesses and outlets neither the Professor nor Larson knew about. Griffith wasn't the only money-launderer on his payroll, he was merely the most significant. If Sol was no longer safe for him that didn't matter because there were plenty of other places ready and waiting. There were other factories presently churning out legitimate goods that could, at a moment's notice, switch their production to the manufacture of SD2. There were connections set up on old League World planets that merely awaited his order and none of this organisation had been done with the knowledge of his partners. The money had come from sales he'd arranged privately and funnelled into accounts outside the Sol Sector. If he had learned nothing else from watching those old movies it was that the only way to keep a secret was not to tell anyone.
At the moment all his waiting partners thought he was a legitimate businessman. They ran his factories and sold his perfectly innocuous but lucrative goods satisfied they were doing nothing wrong and pleased with their quick rise to prominence in his organisation. What they didn't know was that the reason they'd been on the fast track was that he had something on all of them. A little blackmail, as he'd discovered with Griffith, was a wonderful thing. He'd caught Griffith by dangling some old pictures of him and the wife of the late and not much lamented CO of the bank Griffith now ran. It was a brief but passionate affair they had enjoyed and was the perfect tool for Farlow. In return for Griffith's cooperation in some minor money laundering, Farlow had promised not to send the originals to the CO. As Griffith became more and more embroiled in Farlow's schemes he'd slowly pulled the noose tighter. Removing the old CO had been child's play. A carefully orchestrated car crash, some words in the right ears so that business deals organised by those next in line fell through with disastrous consequences and Griffith, who was the only one turning a consistent profit for the bank, was suddenly elected to the head of the board. By that time, Griffith was so caught up in Farlow's web that he couldn't wriggle free without risking everything. Even so, Farlow had kept a careful watch on his private communications. He had detected the call to Garibaldi and initially watched it with interest, but the whole degenerated rapidly into another of those boring business calls Griffith engaged in with monotonous regularity. He'd left the machine recording in case there was something of interest but had otherwise ignored it, returning to his guests in the main boardroom where he knew he was always safe provided he could get to one side of the table in time.
The tube car slowed to a halt and Farlow climbed out, straightening his jacket fastidiously. The Janus awaited him, but naturally he wasn't going to be using that ship. Larson and the Professor both knew about it and that was enough to make it insecure. They knew about his private shuttle, too, so there was something else he would abandon. Always have a back-up plan and, sometimes, a back-up to the back-up. It had been his motto for years and had allowed him to escape arrest or worse on several occasions. He made his way calmly to a small freighter that operated an hourly run to ships orbiting Earth. The captain was checking off items on a list when Farlow arrived. He nodded.
"It's time," Farlow replied. That was all that needed to be said. The captain ordered his men to lock down the ship and prepare to launch immediately. Abandoning their crates they quickly ran through the pre-launch sequence as Farlow settled into his chair. It was a little meagre compared to the rather more up-market conditions his shuttle offered, but that was the point. It was unobtrusive, uninteresting and so far removed from what one would think a man of Farlow's wealth and power would use that it was the perfect disguise.
The captain inserted a crystal into his communications console and activated it. He had no idea what it did, he just knew that was what he'd been told to do should Farlow ever arrive. The comm. system opened a private channel to a ship that lurked in hyperspace, forever on watch. It acknowledged the call giving co-ordinates for a rendezvous in return, then exited from its hiding place to wait patiently for its guest to arrive.
Farlow sat back as the captain got clearance and launched, his mind already jumping ahead to the profits that awaited him. This little setback would cost him a great deal, but that didn't matter because it had already provided the foundations for his next enterprise and that would be at least as lucrative as its predecessor, if not more so.
Hobbs snapped awake instantly. After a few seconds to orientate herself she rubbed her eyes and checked the chronometer. The machine had taken fifty-six minutes to complete its run and she'd been asleep almost the entire time. She yawned, stretched and then turned her attention to the reports the machine was now providing. Taking a sample of the antidote she fed it into another machine and then set it to run the tests again, checking off the results as they matched those provided by Garibaldi's R & D department. Next she ran some simulations of the antidote's effects through the computer under various conditions and levels of drug saturation, up to and including a level that should have long since killed the patient. Everything was looking positive until she fed in Sheridan's unique biochemistry. At that point the simulation red-lined, the biofeedback dropped through the floor and the virtual patient surrendered to a painful and inglorious death.
Hobbs groaned and tried again. Again the results were terminal. With a shake of her head and a deep breath she settled down to explore the reasons for the failure.
"Captain Lochley. I have Michael Garibaldi on channel four."
Lochley nodded and was about to open the connection when Ivanova, now fully recovered from her bout of chemically induced tears, nudged her. "May I?" she asked.
Lochley grinned. "Be my guest."
Ivanova tugged on her uniform, straightened and then accepted the call. "Michael. Good to see you."
If Garibaldi was thrown by the sight of Ivanova in C&C he didn't show it. A slightly raised eyebrow followed by a broad grin was the extent of his shock. "Hey, Susan! Trust you to be in the thick of things. How's the view up there?"
"Same as always. I'm hoping you're going to be able to improve it some." She waited with barely concealed impatience to hear his report.
He nodded, all business once more. "Is Captain Lochley there with you?"
Lochley stepped into view of the screen. "What have you got, Mr Garibaldi?" she asked.
"I'm encrypting this signal just to be on the safe side. Can you set your system to match up?"
Lochley nodded and tapped in a decoding password. The image flickered for a moment and then reset itself, a small icon at the bottom reflecting the new security status.
"OK, good news and bad news. The good news is that we've caught two of them in their main office, plus the guy doing their money laundering had a twinge of conscience and delivered all his files into my hands voluntarily. I'm sending them over on a sub-channel right now."
Ivanova acknowledged the receipt of the signal and settled down to read it while Lochley continued the conversation. "And the bad news?"
"The bad news is that the guy behind it all got away." Michael couldn't quite smother the disgust in his tone.
"Who is he?"
"His name's Adam Farlow. You've got all the details in the report. He had a security shield and a back door. By the time the Rangers managed to get through he'd vanished. They sealed the spaceport and got Farlow's shuttle, but a freighter had just taken off. We got the freighter but Farlow had already transferred to another ship and that one's vanished."
"You're sure he was on the freighter?"
Garibaldi nodded. "The Rangers can be pretty persuasive and the Captain of the freighter liked his ship. Turns out Farlow paid him a substantial sum each month to be on standby. He also gave him a hefty bonus for ferrying him up to his ship. Beyond that, the Captain's clean as a whistle and his freighter is legit. Farlow wasn't a declared fugitive when he left, so as much as I'd like to I can't order the Rangers to arrest him. Basically, he was an expensive cab ride."
"Did you get a description of the ship he met?"
"Yep. I added that to the files I just sent up for what it's worth. It's a pretty big galaxy and a very small ship, although pretty distinctive. Still, if anyone does find it I think it'll be more by accident, and this guy seems too anal to let that happen."
Lochley nodded and then turned at the sound of Ivanova's low whistle. Garibaldi grinned. "Makes interesting reading, doesn't it?"
"I'll say. John's gonna be thrilled when he reads this." With the fugitives captured or on the run there was no longer any need to maintain the ruse in C&C. Even so Lochley raised her hands as the entire crew turned as one at the news.
"People, I know you're relieved but don't breathe easy just yet. The President is still critical in Medlab and we don't know if he'll come out of it. So keep your posts and if so much as a whisper gets out of here before I say so I'll have you all outside in spacesuits cleaning the station!"
"I'd make the spacesuits optional," Ivanova added in a voice that, though quiet, carried to every ear. The crew quickly returned to their tasks lest Lochley decide to take her up on the suggestion.
"So, he's no better, huh?" Garibaldi's tone radiated his concern.
Lochley shook her head. "He's still unconscious."
"Has Hobbs tried... you know?"
"She's still locked in the lab working on it."
He frowned. "Shouldn't take that long. What's the hold up?"
"God damn it!" Hobbs swore as another attempt left her virtual patient en route to the morgue. She'd tried every variation R&D had supplied, plus a few more of her own devising and none had proved effective. The very thing that had kept Sheridan alive so far was now the one thing stopping her from curing him. She glanced at the chronometer and saw she had less than two hours before Sheridan would need to be sedated again or risk him going completely insane. Neither option was acceptable.
She paced the room, running through every test in her mind to see if she had missed anything. Satisfied she'd covered every base she turned to the monitor. "Computer, put a call through to Earthforce Medical. I want to talk to Dr Stephen Franklin." There was a pause as the computer relayed the request and then the screen flickered to reveal the ex Chief MO of Babylon 5. He was greyer than the last time she'd seen him, but otherwise unchanged.
"Lilian! To what do I owe this pleasure?" His smile faded as he took in her expression. "What's happened?"
"I'm going to invoke a secure channel. Can you set your system to keep up?" Franklin tapped on a panel out of sight of the screen and then nodded. "OK, here's the problem..."
Franklin, as the man who'd run endless tests on Sheridan when he'd returned from Z'ha'dum, was her last chance. While a lot of the information was available to her, some of it still lay beyond her security clearance and she needed him to release that information in case it contained the solution. She really didn't want to dwell on the alternatives if it did not.
The Charon navigated the swirling red of hyperspace with ease. She maintained a lock on the beacons but, in order to minimise the risk of being detected, lurked at the edges of the main route. She had the very latest in navigational technology, smuggled out of an Earthforce R&D division that dealt with alien tech. Farlow didn't care which aliens had provided it -- in his business you couldn't afford to be picky about your customers or your sources. He'd learned about the existence of the system a year before and had worked very hard to get his hands on it. The first and most obvious source, Interplanetary Expeditions, had proved remarkably unresponsive to his overtures and very tight-knit. He hadn't been able to find a chink in the armour anywhere. Earthforce, however, always had low paid technicians or even relatively low paid scientists who could get access, and he'd investigated a considerable number of them before finally landing his prize.
Even then it had taken some time before the tech could be incorporated into a standard ship. At least one of those working on it had fled in terror, swearing that when he activated the new system the ship had shuddered and then uttered a low sound that resembled nothing so much as a muffled scream. Farlow had laughed it off but, for once, allowed the man to live on the grounds that it probably wouldn't hurt his reputation if word got around that this ship was menacing not only in its obvious physical aspect, but inside as well. The ship was jet black and the surface moved in a manner Farlow hadn't been able to understand. Apparently, it was a by-product of the navigational system that used the entire ship's surface to sense its position in space. Some crew members had complained the ship 'gave them the creeps'. Farlow had made it plain that the crew had two choices: operate the ship or leave, via an airlock. They'd promptly buckled down, but there was no denying they were skittish.
From the command chair that he always occupied when aboard, Farlow could sense the disquiet in his crew. The Captain stood behind him ready to relay his orders. Stiff and upright, his expression neutral, the man still managed to radiate an aura of unease.
"There's a problem, Captain?" Farlow asked in a tone that communicated the further comment 'there'd better not be!'.
"No sir," the man automatically replied, but he couldn't help the flicker in his eyes as he said it.
"You know," Farlow replied lazily as he leaned back in the chair, "I'm extremely good at sensing lies, Captain. I hope on this one occasion I was wrong."
So much for faking confidence. "It's just this ship, sir. You already know how the crew feels. With all due respect, you don't have to stay aboard her all the time. It gets to you after a while."
Farlow raised his eyebrows. Either the Captain had a death wish or the ship really was a problem because that was the first time the man had dared to suggest Farlow didn't fully understand the situation.
"I can always reassign you." That euphemism was well known among the crew. The new assignment didn't involve breathing.
"Sir, I'll be honest with you. Much more of this and you won't have to. I'll do it myself."
OK, *that* got Farlow's attention. He spun around in the chair. "What, exactly, is causing the problem, Captain? Is there something specific or is it just the ship in general that doesn't meet with your approval?"
The snarl in his voice was unmistakeable but the Captain didn't rise to the bait. "The ship in general is causing problems, but one section in particular we've had to lock off completely. Anyone who spends time there goes crazy."
Farlow stood up. "Where? Let's get this nonsense sorted out once and for all!"
"I don't think that's a good idea, sir."
"I said 'where?'. I'm going to prove to you and the rest of the crew that there's nothing sinister about this ship. It's just alien tech. There are no devils or demons, just other races who do things differently and, in this case, better than we do. I don't intend to be left behind because I'm scared of the unknown. Now show me."
The rest of the crew were now watching the exchange with interest and not a small amount of trepidation. Farlow ignored their stares and indicated that the Captain should precede him. With a curt nod the Captain led the way from the command deck and down to engineering. From there he pointed to a locked door that led to the navigation processing core.
"It's in there, sir, but I really don't recommend..."
"Which is why I'm the one who pays your wages," Farlow interrupted. He stepped up to the door and reached for the keypad. His own security code would bypass anything the Captain had installed.
"Sir, it might be a good idea if we leave hyperspace before you go in there."
"You're beginning to irritate me."
"The... 'thing'... it doesn't like to be disturbed. If you interfere with it while we're in hyperspace..."
"Captain, you sound like a five year old scared of the monsters under his bed. If I'd known you had such an overactive imagination I'd have hired someone else." He tapped in his pass code.
"Captain to bridge. Drop out of hyperspace."
"Farlow to bridge, belay that order!" He turned on the Captain. "What the hell do you think you're doing? I give the commands. We'll stay in hyperspace. I've got an appointment with my business associates in less than two days that I don't intend to miss, so let's just get this nonsense out of the way so I can get to it with the minimum of fuss." He stepped into the room.
The Captain waited until the door slid shut and then, with remarkably little decorum for someone who had once been a senior officer in Earthforce (before the alacrity with which he enforced orders while on the wrong side during the Civil War got him court-martialled), bolted. He knew where the nearest life-pod was and it had a beacon and basic navigation. If he could get inside that and off the ship before Farlow sent it into a tailspin he might just be able to save himself.
Farlow advanced into the darkened room. He'd never actually seen the tech that had cost him so much, but he'd been assured that not only could it skirt the edges of the beacons, it could also go off-beacon safely and navigate where other ships would flounder. If that was the case then it didn't matter if they were in hyperspace or not. Besides, he had grown tired of the Captain's night-terrors. As soon as he'd proved there was nothing to be scared of, there would be a terminal reassignment.
The tech was surrounded by a transparent shield in the middle of the room. He leaned over to look at it more closely. The black mass pulsed and shivered, like the putrefying remnant of a satanic heart -- the surface ever-shifting, trying to adapt, trying to find... something. Farlow shook off the tech's mesmeric quality and pressed a button on the console. As the cover slipped back, exposing the obscene mass to the air, it seemed to shudder slightly and the surface rippled in a way that struck Farlow as almost eager.
He could understand why no one wanted to get too near it. If he were honest with himself the idea didn't appeal much to him, either, but he had a point to make and he was going to make it. He slowly lowered his hand towards the mass. He'd get close but wouldn't touch it on the grounds that since it was wired into the ship there was a chance of a shock. He might dismiss the Captain's irrational terrors, but he had a healthy respect for power. After all, he'd sought it (and the financial rewards it offered) his entire life. He neared the surface and the hair on the back of his hand stood up as though in an electric field. He nodded to himself. As he'd suspected there was a lot of energy flowing through here. He was wise not to get too close.
In the next second he got closer than he'd thought possible and the captain's fears suddenly seemed understated.
He'd barely made it and sweat was running down the side of his face, dampening the collar of his jacket as he drew deep breaths and watched the Charon shimmer, pulsate and turn. It bore down on the Captain's life-pod as though it fully intended to run him over for the cowardly nature of his departure. Desperate to avoid a collision, the Captain activated the emergency thrusters. The Charon flew past, barely missing the tiny pod. The Captain breathed a sigh of relief and then clamped his hands over his ears as an unearthly scream seemed to tear at the fabric of space and time, trying to drive a sonic wedge between them. The Charon spun crazily, the surface rippling and twisting as though the navigator was drunk at the controls and the skin was trying to get away from the source of discomfort. It continued on its erratic course until it was almost lost in the swirling redness of hyperspace. Then the ship stopped, impossibly abruptly for a space ship, and silence reigned. The Captain was no fool. Such stillness usually heralded disaster and he flung himself at the controls of his ship, trying to put as much distance between himself and the Charon as was physically possible. He locked on to the nearest beacon in the hope that some passing ship might detect him if he stayed on the normal navigational routes. With his back to the Charon he didn't see it explode, but the cabin was suddenly filled with a brilliant light and, a few seconds later, the hull was struck by tiny pieces of shrapnel that was all that was left of his erstwhile command. Buffeted slightly by the rush of gas and fragments he fought with the controls until all was still once more. Only then did he dare to turn and look back. A slowly dissipating cloud of particles marked the final resting place of the Charon and all aboard, save himself.
He tried to calm himself by running through a series of checks on life-support, hull integrity, energy reserves and signal strength. He had two days before he was out of power and oxygen, perhaps three if he conserved them both as much as possible. He set the ship to detect any passing vessel and alert him, minimised energy usage on lights and heating, grabbed some thermal blankets from the emergency supplies and settled down, determined to try and sleep and so waste as little oxygen as possible. But sleep does not come easily when your mind is still echoing with a scream that sounds far too much like someone you know.
"I can't accept..."
"I can't accept that, doctor."
"Lillian, listen to me!"
"You're going to kill him!"
"No, *you* will if you don't listen to me." Franklin drew a deep breath and waited for the overcharged atmosphere to calm a little before continuing. "Look, you called me, all right? And you did that for a reason. I *know* Sheridan's system, or at least as much as anyone outside the First Ones can know about it. It's not the SD2 that's been causing the violent reactions, at least not directly. It's Lorien's energy trying to cope with the SD2. That's what caused the fits, the skin reactions, everything. You try and give him this medication and it'll react with his system as well. Now I'm not a First One, but I'll bet my life and his that Lorien's gift will react as badly to something designed to help him as it will to the SD2." He paused to make sure his next words sunk in. "Which is exactly what the simulations have been telling you."
Jaw tight, Hobbs couldn't deny the truth of that comment. She narrowed her eyes, frustration warring with recognition on her face. Finally she sighed in acquiescence. "All right. So what do I do? Keep him sedated? There's a limit to how long I can keep this up, you know." She folded her arms, her body still radiating a certain belligerence of manner.
Franklin tapped at his screen with his stylus and then shook his head. "I don't think so."
"Doctor, if I don't do something the President is going to go mad. He's already hearing everyone aboard the station and most of those on the ships outside. Even in his sleep he's picking stuff up."
Franklin nodded. "I know, and believe me I don't want to add to it, but if my analysis is right then the sedatives are delaying the healing process. I'm sending the file back to you now."
Hobbs quickly accessed the updated file and ran the simulation. She sat down heavily.
Franklin nodded. "I don't think we've got much choice."
"Assuming nothing else is interfering with the healing process, yes."
"Could we do it an hour at a time, maybe? Let him heal a bit, then knock him out again before he starts crawling up the walls?"
"Check the stats. I tried that." He smiled, although it didn't quite reach his eyes. "I know I've got a reputation for being a bit of a bear, but I don't actually believe in torturing my patients any more than is strictly necessary, doctor."
Hobbs was reading the displays. "We've got to get him away from the station," she muttered.
"With as few people around him as possible."
"That would be my solution, yes."
Hobbs stood up and paced the room. "The White Stars can be flown by just one person, can't they?"
"Yes, but Sheridan won't be in any state..."
"I wasn't thinking about him. We need to have as small a crew compliment as possible. Big enough to run the ship, small enough he's not deafened by dozens of mental voices."
"In that case, yes. One crew, one doctor, a nurse in case you need more help, and Sheridan himself."
"Delenn's going to want to be there," Hobbs mused.
"She might help keep him calm. On the other hand, she might just add to the din."
"You want to try and stop her?"
Franklin laughed. "Uh uh. That's what they pay you the big bucks for. Besides, I'm at the end of Stellarcom. She can always switch me off when she's had enough. You've got the edge over me there."
"Gee, thanks." She drew a breath, nodded to herself and then turned back to Franklin. "All right, I'll ask her if we can borrow a White Star. I'll contact you once this is all over... one way or the other."
"Where were you going to take him? You can't be over a planet. At the rate he's going he'll pick up half the population. And if you're near any of the main shipping lanes he'll feel like he's trying to cross the freeway in rush hour, blindfolded."
"We'll find somewhere before we wake him up. Thank you for your advice doctor. You probably just saved his life."
Franklin shrugged. "It's what I'm here for. Glad I could help. Good luck!"
"Thanks. Hobbs out."
As the screen blanked Lillian turned and headed towards the lab door. "Just so long as she doesn't kill the messenger I should be fine," she muttered, exiting the room.
She turned the corner into Medlab and a yell rent the air. Entering the Isolab she saw Delenn trying to hold down her husband who was wide-eyed and frantic. Hobbs quickly instructed the nurse to bring another sedative and then stepped into the fray, but by then Delenn's calming voice and presence was having an effect. Still shaken and breathing fast, Sheridan slowly brought himself under control, nodding to Delenn's gentle urging that he try and relax.
"What happened?" Hobbs asked.
Delenn opened her mouth to explain but Sheridan touched her arm, indicating he'd deal with it. "I heard..." He shook his head. "No, it's impossible. They're gone, now."
Delenn encouraged him. "What did you hear?" When he continued to shake his head she prompted him again. "John?"
He looked up. "A Shadow scream. I know it has to have been in my imagination but it was so real."
"Probably nightmares from during the war," Hobbs offered matter-of-factly.
"No," he said adamantly. "I've had those and this didn't feel like one of them. This was new, not a memory."
"You believe there is a Shadow ship near the station?" Delenn and Hobbs exchanged glances. The implications if this wasn't a nightmare didn't bear consideration.
"Was." He corrected. He reached out and activated one of the controls for the bed, raising the head so that he could lean back on it. As Delenn quickly arranged the pillows to make him comfortable he carried on. "It was close... or maybe it was where it was that made it seem close. I don't know. I sensed it. It was... confused..." He looked up, his eyes reflecting his struggle to express what he'd experienced. "Confused and then terrified." He turned to Delenn who was now resting her hand on his shoulder. "You remember when we went to Ganymede and EarthForce were putting someone into the ship?"
She shuddered and nodded. That memory would remain with her for the rest of her days... along with many others she could happily live without. "The person wasn't properly prepared. The ship went mad."
"That's what I got. Whoever it was didn't know what they were dealing with. I heard..." The hairs went up on the back of his neck as he felt the echo pass through his memory. "It was the same. Someone got hold of Shadow tech and then it got hold of them."
Hobbs frowned. No one had ever investigated the reach of someone on such a high dosage of SD2, but then no one had stayed sane and alive long enough for such a test to be carried out. Was it possible he did hear something? How far away was the ship. Was it still a threat? "Is it still out there?"
He shook his head. The shock of the sound had stilled the background din of the station, like a gun retort that leaves you partially deaf, but now it was creeping back with renewed vigour. He closed his eyes, fighting for some peace. At the very least it would help if the only people he could hear were those he was talking to. "It's gone. I think it blew up. It's silent out there now. In here, on the other hand..." He gave a half smile, but his eyes reflected the pain he was experiencing. At that moment, the nurse came in with the sedative. Hobbs quickly took it and nodded.
"This should put a stop to that, for a little while, at least."
He shook his head. "This is impossible. I can't sleep away the rest of my life. There has to be another way." His voice was rising, both with frustration and because he couldn't hear himself clearly over the background noise. Delenn gently tapped his shoulder, indicating he should lower the level. "I know, I know, but I can barely hear... no, I *can't* hear myself think!"
Delenn looked to Hobbs, her expression echoing Sheridan's own.
Hobbs nodded sympathetically. "I know. We think we might have a solution, but we have to get you away from here." She moved towards him but he stopped her with a wave of his hand.
"What solution?" he asked, consciously trying to modulate his voice so he wasn't shouting. Hobbs started to explain but he interrupted. "I can't hear you!"
The irony wasn't lost on any of them. Here was someone going deaf not because he couldn't hear, but because he could hear too much. Hobbs stepped forward again.
"I'll explain when we get out of here." She enunciated every word carefully so he could read her lips. "In the meantime..." She indicated the sedative still waiting in her hand.
With a sigh he nodded and allowed her to inject him. With an apologetic glance she moved quickly, before he could change his mind again. He winced slightly as the drug burned in his arm and then turned to Delenn.
"I'm sorry," he whispered, the drug already starting to take a hold, building on the remnants of the past injections still in his system.
Delenn nodded as Hobbs lowered the bed once more. "I know. It's not your fault. We'll find a way, I promise."
"Please." He'd never begged for anything his entire life, but right now the peace of the grave was looking like a viable option.
She nodded, stroking his forehead as his eyes closed. After a minute, the monitors settled down to a steady beat that indicated he was no longer in distress. Eyes flaming, Delenn turned the full heat of her own pain and frustration on Hobbs.
"You said there might be a way." It was a statement and her tone indicated that whatever it was, she would be involved. The doctor indicated they should leave but Delenn stood firm. "For a little while, at least, he cannot hear us. I will not leave. What solution have you found?"
Hobbs outlined Franklin's suggestion and Delenn nodded. "The White Star will be ready in under an hour. I can fly the ship but I think it might be better if we had a Minbari doctor aboard."
Hobbs frowned. "Why?"
"Because their mental discipline is better than that of humans. I mean no disrespect, doctor, but you are not trained in the meditation techniques of the Minbari. We can silence most of our thoughts and concentrate for hours on one thing. You said we must minimise the mental noise around John. Can you think of a better way to do that?"
"I'll need to explain to whoever you choose exactly what we're up against. And where are you going to find a highly qualified Minbari doctor you can trust at such short notice?"
Delenn's eyes flared. "I trust all my people, doctor. As for your other question, there is a Minbari Warcruiser parked outside. All capital ships have fully qualified doctors aboard." She stood up, her hand still resting on Sheridan's own, even though he was not in a position to return the caress. "I will have them reassign their medical officer to the White Star. We will be ready within the hour. Please have all your files ready." Delenn turned to Sheridan and bent to touch a gentle kiss to his forehead. "This will be over soon, my love. I promise," she whispered, then she stood, ramrod straight, and faced Hobbs once more. "Within the hour, doctor. We will be waiting for you in docking bay twelve." Before Hobbs could argue Delenn swept past.
Hobbs watched her go and then turned back to Sheridan's still form. "Well, I don't think even a Shadow Ship would cross your wife right now." Shaking her head, she turned and left.
Dimly, in the drug induced night that seemed to be his entire existence, Sheridan caught an echo of Hobbs' comment, and while the smile didn't register on the muscles of his face, he wore it nonetheless.
The White Star was duly prepared and a healer was dispatched from the Sech Dum. Hobbs collected him from the docking bay, supplementing the information that had been sent with the assignment. The healer nodded as she spoke, his somewhat distant demeanour belying the fact that he was soaking up every word like a sponge. By the time he reached the shuttle that would ferry them all to the waiting White Star he knew every detail of what had happened, the purpose and plans for the trip, why he had been chosen and what to do in the event anything unexpected should occur. Now all that was required was the patient.
That was not as easy an assignment as it might appear.
"They're everywhere!" Delenn muttered as another potential escape route from Medlab was reported to be guarded by the media. She looked around the sterile walls as though another exit would miraculously appear.
"We need a distraction," Hobbs agreed, her finger tapping on the table top as her brain ran through their options.
"And a big one," Lochley added. Her own trip to Medlab had not been uneventful and even now she rubbed her shoulder where an over-enthusiastic camera operator's equipment had crashed into her. "Anything less than a declaration of war and that lot are gonna be camped out until we bring out a body."
"Which we cannot do if we are to eventually reveal to them that John is all right," Delenn finished.
"So, what can we do?" Hobbs asked. She leaned back on her desk, arms folded and looked to the others for suggestions.
"I think, perhaps, that declaring war would be a little drastic," Delenn offered, her comment eliciting a chuckle from the others, "but can we manufacture some kind of emergency?"
"Like a damaged ship threatening to hit the station, you mean?" Lochley shrugged. "To be honest with you, I'm not sure it would be enough right now. Half of them would go to cover it, but unless you or the President were on it I doubt it'd hold their attention for longer than ten seconds. As for the other half..." She shook her head.
"How about a quarantine alert? Claim some highly infectious virus has come aboard and everyone has to go back to their quarters?" Hobbs offered. There was a short pause and then everyone shook their heads.
"No," they said in dejected unison.
"We could tell them the truth," Lochley muttered. When two heads spun towards her in shock she continued. "As long as they can't release the story until Sheridan's back, what harm can it do? Once he's back we're going to release the story anyway, and if... oh, damn!"
Hobbs looked to Delenn and then back to Lochley. "Don't stop now, you're on a roll. I can't wait to hear how you're going to keep that lot from using flashlights to signal Earth the news if we deny them every other avenue." Her sarcasm didn't penetrate.
"I forgot. We told the ISN reporter that they could have the story as an exclusive if they helped us with the cover-up until we nailed the drug lords. Damn it!"
"They would still have the exclusive on the whole story," Delenn said, her voice gathering strength as she thought the idea through. "All we have to do is give the reporters enough to get them away and let us get John to the docking bay. If we tell them there is going to be a press conference and I will host it, they will all come, thinking this is the report of John's..." She couldn't say it and the others simply nodded their understanding. "While I explain something of his condition, you could get him down to the docking bay and aboard the shuttle. Then I could join you and they need not know he has left the station."
"And when you bring him back?" Hobbs asked.
"We will, as you humans say, cross that bridge when we come to it."
"Delenn, if you're going to do this then I suggest you talk to the ISN reporter privately first. If you don't give her a heads up on what's going on, she's going to think we've reneged on the deal and send out a report before we can stop her. We can't blanket all communications from the station for most of the day."
Delenn nodded. "I will speak to her. Ask her to come here." She looked through the Isolab window to her husband. "If nothing else, seeing John like this may make her understand the seriousness of the situation."
"I think she already knows, but I'll get security to let her through. Do you want me to announce the press release as well?"
Delenn nodded. "We will hold it in the Council Chamber. It will be crowded but at least that way you can seal it off if need be."
Lochley tapped her link and gave the orders. A few seconds later they heard the public address system announce the event to the waiting reporters, and a few seconds after that the sound of footsteps declared the arrival of Tracy Satchell. Lochley quietly took her leave, clearing Satchell with the guards as she did so. Entering Medlab, the reporter quickly took in the atmosphere. Everything was ticking over normally, barring the increased security. An air of quiet efficiency hung over the place, and given there was only one patient still in residence that meant...
She turned to Isolab and saw Sheridan still hooked up to the monitors. A steady beeping told her they were putting on a hell of a show (which was pointless, given what she knew), or he was still alive.
"Oh thank god. The reports of his death were somewhat exaggerated, then?" She smiled in genuine relief.
"Actually, no one ever said he had died," Delenn pointed out.
"I noticed that, but it was a good show. Had us all guessing... still is," she added. "So, uh... Delenn?" How did you address the wife of the President? First Lady sounded odd face to face, she wasn't convinced she could pronounce her Minbari title correctly and besides, she didn't know what it meant.
"Delenn is fine. Please, sit with me." She indicated two chairs that allowed them both to see through the window of the Isolab to the patient within. She took a moment to spread her skirt before nodding towards Sheridan. "As you can see, my husband's condition is still a cause for concern." Satchell nodded. "Which is why we need your help."
"Oh?" She leaned forward eagerly.
"The levels of SD2 in his system are exceptionally high. Were he anyone else we would not be having this conversation. I cannot tell you why he has proven so resilient, but I can tell you that the situation is deteriorating. The only way we can keep him sane is to keep him sedated and that is not an acceptable long-term solution. In order to remove the drug from his system we first need to get him away from the station and any inhabited area..."
"And you can't do that because you've got reporters camped out at every exit."
"Which is why you called a press conference."
Delenn was beginning to wonder why she was having this conversation, as Satchell already seemed to be one step ahead of her. "Indeed," she allowed, and then waited to see if the reporter was going to carry on. When she didn't, Delenn clasped her hands in her lap and leaned forward slightly herself. "I asked you here because I want to reassure you that you're not about to lose your... scoop?" Satchell nodded. "I need to tell the other reporters something while we move the President off the station and, to a certain extent, I will be telling them the truth. However, it is a limited truth. Only ISN has the full story at the moment." She leaned back again. "Now, it will take six hours to clear the drug from the President's system once he is conscious. We have an embargo on all news items until then." Satchell was shaking her head but before she could interrupt Delenn raised her hand. "What I want you to do is write your report. I realise your editor will be demanding that you produce something and Captain Lochley filled me in earlier on your help in this matter. You have more than earned your 'scoop' and I do not go back on one of my husband's promises. So, keeping in mind that we do not yet know how this will end, write your report. I would like to see it before you send it to your editor." Again Satchell opened her mouth to protest and again Delenn over-rode her. "Not to edit it... unless I see something I know for a fact to be an untruth and, if that is the case, I will tell you the real story if I can. No, I want to see it so that I can help you give the best story possible and to help you finish it. I do not want your publishing held up or ruined by an error. So, I will read it and as soon as the President's final condition is known I will inform Captain Lochley and ask her to tell you, but only you. That should put your editor in a better mood, yes?" The roll of Satchell's eyes was enough to inform Delenn that the editor was bringing a great deal of pressure to bear on his reporter. "Send it to him, but ask him to wait until you can give him the final part. You can tell him from the wife of the President of the Interstellar Alliance that ISN will have the first story, the first interview with me and, as soon as my husband is available, the first interview with him... assuming..."
Satchell nodded her understanding. There was still the chance that Sheridan wouldn't be coming back, but now was not the time for such depressing considerations. She glanced over her shoulder at the sleeping President and nodded. "He'll be fine, Delenn. And the minute he's up to it, it'll be my pleasure to do an interview with him. If you play fair with us, we'll play fair with you." She reached into her bag and pulled out a data crystal. She tossed it in her hand thoughtfully. "The whole report to date is on here. I've been adding to it as events unfolded and editing it while we've been waiting for further news. This is the only copy." She held it tightly in her fist before somewhat reluctantly handing it to Delenn. "I need it back," she added.
"Of course." Delenn checked the chronometer. The press conference was scheduled to start in fifteen minutes. She accessed the file and quickly read through it. To her knowledge there were no errors and nothing she could see that might cause unnecessary inconvenience later on. It was, however, missing some details. She popped it out of the reader and handed it back to Satchell with a smile. "Tell Captain Lochley I sent you and ask her to tell you of the Anla'shok raid on the leaders of this group."
"You mean they got them?"
"Not all of them, unfortunately. We are still trying to track the ringleader. But we know who he is and what he looks like. He will no longer be able to operate within the boundaries of the Interstellar Alliance. Obviously there are some senior officials from a number of worlds who are involved in this. As we speak, Anla'shok are taking the evidence of their complicity to the appropriate authorities on their planets to demand their arrest. We cannot release their names since that is up to the individual governments, but since there seems to have been a contact on over ninety percent of the planets of the Alliance I do not think it would hurt to admit the spread of this drug has been far reaching. More so than many realised." She stood up. "I have to go. I trust Captain Lochley to give you the information she can. I'm sure you can appreciate that we cannot violate the secrecy of member governments. I see you yourself have been... careful in how you explain the evidence of file tampering, so you understand the need."
"So once I get the rest of the story from Captain Lochley I can send it?"
She nodded. "With the caveat I stipulated, yes. It is not to be released until I tell you. Are we in agreement?"
"If it means we get the exclusive first interviews once this is all over I don't think I'll have trouble convincing my editor to sit on it a bit longer. Thanks, Delenn. It's appreciated."
Rising, she shook her head. "It is you who are to be thanked. Your information helped us to capture the perpetrators." She looked over to Sheridan. "You also gave my husband hope when he needed it. For that I have no means of repaying you."
"If you've managed to close down the group then that's thanks enough for me. I'm only sorry we haven't nailed the boss."
"The Anla'shok do not give up and they do not fail. Be assured, Miss Satchell, if he is still alive he will be brought to justice." She took a breath, fastidiously straightening a crease in her dress before looking up again. "And now we must leave. If I may ask one more favour of you?"
"If I can."
"Take the most direct route from here to docking bay twelve. If you should see any reporters on your way, let security know so that we can remove them. If you do that, then I will allow you to see us off."
Satchell shook her head. "I'll check some of the route, but if other reporters see me heading to the docking bays they might realise something's going on and follow me. I'll keep my eyes open and if I spot any I'll lead them on a wild goose chase. You get the President out of here and cured. I want to see him walk back onto the station under his own power and ready to fight a bear." She chuckled. "He's news, but... well, I like him. He deserves better than this."
Delenn cocked her head quizzically. "How did you ever manage to stay a reporter? You seem too... nice!"
"Oh, please don't let my editor hear that!" Satchell laughed and then schooled her features to seriousness. "I do my best to play fair. If I know I'm dealing with a scumbag I treat them as such. They've put themselves outside the rules so that means I don't have to play by them. But when people play straight with me..." She shrugged. "It helps to be trusted."
"It does indeed. Good luck." Delenn bowed.
Taken aback, Satchell did her best to return the honour. "And to you, Delenn. Thank you."
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