THE TERROR THAT AWAITS YOU

By Castor (formerly known as Anon)

 

 

 

The usual disclaimers. The characters are Joe's, the story mine, the rest is subject to change without notice!

 

 

 

 

*****

Prologue

 

T-2 days.

    Had anyone entered that bar they might not have noticed the group of 6 men and one woman huddled together in the corner. The air was thick with smoke from various legal and illegal substances. The smell of beer and some kind of cooked meat whose origins were probably best not investigated in too much detail added to the already seedy atmosphere. The Downbelow bar was a favourite haunt of those who did not want anyone prying into their business. As such the group simply faded into the background. One more illegal 'business' meeting among so many others.

   In addition to its gloomy lighting - which obscured details of face to the point where sometimes identifying species from a distance was impossible - the bar was also conveniently located at an intersection of several key corridors. Waste reclamation was a short walk away, and there was also an emergency air-lock nearby. Body disposal was not, therefore, a problem. The ever present Pak'Ma'Ra could also be relied upon to be discreet. Their particular eating habits were not well catered for in the more salubrious sections of Babylon 5, and while their ambassadors had put their mark on a number of documents that purportedly guaranteed that their citizens would not eat any alien who had not signed (without coercion) a pre-consumption waiver in advance, not all of their people felt bound by those agreements.

   Nevertheless, the present occupants of the bar -- denizens who felt no fear at the thought of any number of physical threats and alien menu items -- would probably have felt a sudden urgent need to be elsewhere had they known that one of their number was a member of the Babylon 5 security office. Then again, maybe they wouldn't.

   'OK, are we all clear on the timetable?' There were nods from 6 of the 7 conspirators. Dobbs stared at the 7th, a stocky man whose emotionless, fixed expression might have led an observer to believe he had died many years before. 'Kaplan?' Kaplan raised his eyes and held Dobbs with a hollow stare before looking away again. Dobbs refused to be intimidated. 'Are you *clear*?' Kaplan apparently didn't feel the question worthy of his attention, and remained silent. 'Kaplan, if you want out, just say so. I don't need a Minbari speaker that much. They speak English anyway.' He reached over to shake him. In a split second, Kaplan's hand came up and caught Dobbs in a grip that caused the younger man to wince. Increasing the pressure, Kaplan's voice was low as he spoke.

   'But they don't speak it when tied up with a gun to their heads.'

   'They'll be together,' Dobbs got out through gritted teeth. 'He doesn't speak Minbari.'

   'Don't bet on it.' He let go of Dobbs' hand.

   Surreptitiously rubbing his wrist under the table Dobbs shook his head. 'Whatever. It won't win you any points. She's gonna recognise you.'

   'Maybe. Maybe not. It's been a while, and the Minbari are so proud of their detention areas. They don't think humans are intelligent enough to escape. But I know them. I know their ways. It was only a matter of time. And she won't be looking for this face.'

   The female, Taylor, looked at him. 'You're so sure? Maybe there are records...'

   'I don't *leave* records. Mechanical or otherwise. The only way they'll know who I am before I tell them, is if they get a Ouija board.' His mouth twisted into a smile that had nothing to do with humour. 'No. I got your timetable. I'll be there to meet them. I'm looking forward to seeing her face when she realises who's back. He'll wish he'd killed me the first time.'

   'Yeah. Well, we all make mistakes.' Dobbs contemplated Kaplan, wondering if he was one of his. 'Just remember we've got to keep them alive until the demands are met and we're all clear of the station. Personally, I don't care what you do with them after that, but I doubt the Alliance'd be too willing to keep to their side of the bargain if we've killed 'em. So if you don't mind, none of your experimentation! This isn't your personal war, Kaplan. Don't make me sorry I took you on.'

   'They're the only ones who're gonna be sorry.' Kaplan resumed his contemplation of some inner demon.

   'Yeah. OK. Macland,' he turned to the blond man with the scraggy beard to his left. 'You and Stern take out the power couplings at 19.00. Taylor, you take out the back-up. And be careful. We don't wanna shut down the spin, atmosphere or anything like that. There are a lot of humans on board, don't forget.'

   'Not to mention us.' Taylor's dry comment elicited a chuckle from two of the men.

   'Right. So watch it. We just need the shuttle itself, and the lights and mirrors covering the core.'

   Macland tapped the table with a lighter. 'I was looking over the schematics. Those conduits are close to the ones for the alien sector atmosphere regulators. You want me careful or clumsy?'

   Dobbs considered for a moment and then grinned. 'It'd be a good distraction. Make 'em think we're just a bunch of stupid trouble-makers. By the time they figure someone's missing we'll be in place and covered. Anyway, they're just animals. Might as well put 'em out of their misery, right?'

   The lighter slipped from Macland's fingers and clattered onto the table, the noise lost in the general din of the bar. He smiled. 'Whoops. Butter-fingers.'

   Dobbs turned back to Kaplan. 'You and Bryant have to be ready to board the shuttle the minute you see 'em arrive. Robinson?' A young, brown-haired man, barely more than a boy, nodded. 'Have you worked out a way to get on top of the shuttle without being seen?'

   'Uh huh. There's a maintenance corridor with access from the dock. I can hide in there undetected until Bryant gives me the go-ahead. I've practised it and it's possible to lower yourself onto the core shuttle as it passes underneath without making any noise. It takes a few seconds to clear the dock before it picks up speed. Once the power shuts off I'll put the bomb and the security camera on top. There'll be a few seconds delay as the station rotates before the mirrors drop out of alignment with Tigris. Once the lights go out I'll use the jet pack to fix the other camera underneath. I've got cables to link it all up.'

   Stern stared. 'Cables? What's wrong with a transmitter?'

   'Because they can jam the transmission, you idiot.' Stern began to rise from his seat but Dobbs restrained him.

   'He's right. But he's just a kid so cut him some slack.' Now it was Robinson's turn to find his hackles rising, but before he could respond Kaplan rapped the table sharply and fixed him with a stare.

   'You better learn some manners, boy, or you and me are gonna have a falling out WITHOUT a jet pack. Do I make myself clear?' Kaplan's reputation had preceded him. Robinson sat down sullenly.

   'The camera'll work. He,' Robinson jerked his head in Kaplan's direction, 'can see everything that goes on. They won't get anywhere near us without our knowing about it, so long as he remembers to switch to infra-red.'

   Kaplan looked at Dobbs. 'Oh, I'll remember. I don't want anyone interrupting our little party this time. I've a score to settle with that freak and her husband. No one's gettin' in the way this time.'

   The security officer straightened his shirt and considered the group. He seriously wondered whether they were capable of carrying out such a grandiose plan. Something would go wrong, he had no doubt. It was just a question of what and when.

 

Chapter 1

 

T-1 day

   'And the agenda for today is?'

   'My first meeting is at ten. Yours at nine. We're both together for the Brakiri-Gaim dispute at eleven.'

   Sheridan rolled his eyes. 'Great. Any idea how we're gonna deal with that one?'

   'Lennier is looking into it. He said he would be here at nine if he had something. Otherwise he will meet us in the conference room at eleven.'

   'Computer. What's the time?'

   The computer's clipped female voice responded. 'The time is 07.00 hours Earth Standard Time.'

   Sheridan smiled and stroked his fingers down Delenn's throat to the cleft between her breasts, and then took her mug away from her and placed it on the night table beside him. 'One whole hour to ourselves before we have to get ready. Got any idea how we should use it?' He resumed his gentle exploration of her chest, first with his fingers, and then with his mouth. As he moved up her neck, alternately kissing, nipping and nuzzling her, she moaned softly and tangled her hands in the short hair at the back of his neck.

   'Hmm. Well, that's a good start.'

   He paused. 'Computer. Alarm call at 08.00 hours.'

   'Acknowledged.'

   'Now. Where was I?'

*****

Sheridan sighed. The meeting was not going well. In fact, he was playing with the idea of shooting the Brakiri and Gaim representatives, and then feeding their remains to the Pak'Ma'Ra to hide the evidence. The notion had merit and, to judge from Delenn's expression, he'd have help moving the bodies.

   'When we agreed to that Treaty we had the Shadows threatening to destroy us. Of course we gave in to your demands. We had no choice. Now things are different. The Shadows are gone; we are no longer powerless, and we want our territory back.'

   In response, the Gaim's translator glowed brightly, reflecting the ambassador's agitation.

   'We are not interested in circumstances. We gave help. You needed help, we gave it. This is the price. You will pay.' The high-pitched voice the translator gave the Gaim was getting on Sheridan's nerves. Both sides had a point. How the hell was he going to sort this one out?

   'But if you take those planets there'll be nothing left of us. They're our industrial centre. You'll reduce us to nothing.'

   'That is not our problem. You agreed to the price. You should have thought of this before signing the treaty.'

   'You refused to help us *unless* we signed it. It was a choice between a quick death and a slow one. We hoped you'd be more reasonable once the crises was over.' The Brakiri was clearly desperate.

   'Look, isn't there some other planet you could offer the Gaim that would be of value to them but not so great a loss to yourselves?' There had to be something the Gaim would accept as an alternative.

   Sheridan noticed Lennier quietly enter the room, lean over Delenn's shoulder and whisper something to her, simultaneously handing her some flims. She listened intently and then examined the report, nodding as he continued his explanation. As the Gaim prepared yet another counterattack, going over the same ground as before, Delenn cleared her throat.

   'I believe,' she said, as Lennier took his seat at the table, 'that Lennier may have found a compromise.' She turned to the Gaim. 'Ambassador. As I understand it, you have a shortage of some minerals on your planet due to over-mining. Yes?'

   The Gaim stiffened in response to the perceived criticism. 'We must do this. They are vital to many of our medicines and religious rituals.'

   Delenn raised her hand placatingly. 'I understand. But it has just been brought to my attention that those same minerals are a by-product of certain Brakiri industrial practices.' She turned to the Brakiri. 'You regard these minerals as a dangerous pollutant on your world. Could not something be worked out? The minerals are worth far more to the Gaim than the territories under dispute.'

   The Brakiri considered for a moment. Sheridan held his breath. This was the break they'd been looking for. Now if both sides would only...

   'And how much would you be prepared to give us in return for this valuable commodity?'

   Sheridan couldn't believe his ears. Surely now a solution was within their grasp, the Brakiri wouldn't wreck it with bluster and posturing? However, he noticed that the Gaim was not in the least bit surprised.

   'We may return your territories. How much would you pay us to remove this pollution from your planet?'

   Sheridan had had enough. 'Now look...'

   Delenn interrupted. 'I think now would be a good time to adjourn to give both sides a chance to consider their position. Perhaps we could reconvene tomorrow afternoon?'

   The Brakiri eyed his opposite number, inscrutable as ever behind its insect-like breather mask. After a pause the Brakiri nodded.

   'I find that acceptable, but only if the Gaim agrees.'

   There was a slight pause, and then...

   'We agree.' The magic words. Sheridan filled in the final coda.

   'In that case Ambassador,' he nodded to each in turn, 'Ambassador. 14.00 hours Earth Standard Time?' The two nodded and left. Lennier too stood up, bowed, and made to leave the conference room. 'Mr Lennier.' Sheridan stood up and walked towards the aide. 'Thank you! You have no idea how much I appreciate this.' Lennier merely nodded, formed the shape of the triluminary, bowed to both and left. Sheridan shook his head. 'What would we do without him?'

   'I do not know what I would have done. He has been my aide for five years now. More than that, he has been my friend, my guide and my strength. I was supposed to be his teacher. I think the reality has been rather the other way around.'

   'Hmm. Well, he's given us a break until two o'clock tomorrow afternoon.'

   'I doubt that meeting will happen. Once they stop posturing to each other they will realise the solution is ideal. Both will look like heroes to their respective governments, and wise to each other. Honour will be served and two problems resolved simultaneously. I suspect the treaties will be drawn up by this evening.'

*****

Delenn was right. As they sat down to dinner in their quarters the Babcom beeped. Answering, Sheridan found himself face to face with both ambassadors, who were going to leave the signed Treaty in his office for formal Alliance ratification by the President in the morning. As the Babcom logo replaced the images of the two satisfied diplomats, Sheridan let out a sigh.

   'One more interstellar dispute avoided. I wonder what tomorrow will bring?'

   'Its own problems. Now relax and enjoy your dinner.'

   Sheridan took a mouthful. 'This is excellent. Another Lennier masterpiece?'

   Delenn shook her head. 'Not tonight. I ordered in. I thought it would be good if we gave Lennier some time to himself as reward for his hard work.'

   Sheridan grinned. 'Not to mention us?'

   Delenn had a mouthful. 'Hmm.'

   Sheridan ate in silence for a minute, and then poked at his food thoughtfully. 'Delenn. How is Lennier handling, well.... you know. You and me?'

   'He always knew this was going to happen.'

   'That's not what I asked. It's one thing knowing something with your head. It's something else accepting it in your heart. He was very close to you for many years. He's got to be a bit resentful.'

   'It would be dishonourable for him to show it, and you would insult him if you mentioned it to him.' Her expression held a warning.

   'He's a good man, Delenn. I don't want to... oh, I dunno. I guess I know how I'd feel in his shoes. He's very fond of you, you know.'

   Delenn nodded. 'I know. I'm very fond of him. More than that. But I followed my heart and it led me to you. I was never meant for anyone else. He understands.'

   'You're sure? It's asking a lot.'

   'It is right. And what is right must be accepted, no matter how we feel about it.' She regarded him levelly. 'John. It pleases me to see your concern, but Lennier knows what he must do and what his position is. Do not underestimate him, or the Minbari devotion to duty and honour.' She held his eyes until he nodded and returned to his dinner.

   Finishing her last mouthful, she washed it down with some juice and then rose to take her plate to the kitchen. Sheridan shook his head.

   'Leave it. I'll do it.' She continued to clear away the debris from their meal. Stuffing a forkful into his mouth Sheridan rose from his seat, grabbing his plate and glass. He downed the last of the juice as he crossed the room and put it and the plate on the counter, wrapping his arms around his wife from behind. 'I said leave it. It's no big deal. I can do it in the morning.'

   'It is, as you say, no big deal. And if we leave it until the morning, either it will take twice as long, or Lennier will end up doing it.'

   Sheridan shook his head and then raised his hands in surrender. 'Okay, okay. We'll share it. ' Between them the task was done in no time, though Delenn found John's inability to tidy up without drenching himself and the floor with the contents of the water glass beyond comprehension.

   'John. Next time, I'll put them in the cleaner!'

   He shrugged, 'Ah, it's only a drop of water. It'll soon dry out. On the other hand...' He undid his shirt and hung it over the back of a chair. 'It'll dry much better like that.'

   Delenn smiled. They'd only been married a few months, and somehow she still couldn't quite get used to seeing him naked, whether partially or wholly. He reached up and gently cupped her face in his hand. She responded, leaning into his caress and then accepting the invitation of his open arms.

   He hugged her for a while, savouring the feel of her against his skin. With a final squeeze he beckoned her to the couch. As he sat back she curled up against him and he wrapped his arm around her.

   'You know, it's still pretty early. You wanna watch a vid, or listen to music or something?'

   'I think I shall fall asleep whatever we do.' She yawned and he grunted.

   'Know what you mean. I wonder if we could move Babylon 5 to a forty-eight hour day so we could get everything done and still have time to sleep and be by ourselves?'

   'I suspect Captain Lochley might object to that, although some of the Ambassadors would find it much more amenable.'

   'Uh, in that case, maybe it's not such a good idea!'

   She chuckled against his chest and snuggled in deeper. He stroked her hair, idly fingering the bonecrest, and then leaned down and kissed the top of her head, rousing her.

   'Delenn. I think we need to go to bed.' She murmured but didn't move. 'Delenn. C'mon. Up we go.' He slid out from underneath her and pulled her to her feet.

   'Ugh! I'll sleep here.'

   'Oh no. C'mon.' He picked her up in his arms and carried her into the bedroom, placing her gently on the bed. 'You know you can't go to sleep like that. Up you get.'

   She sighed and sat up, undoing the clasp on her dress and slipping off her shoes. Sheridan pulled off his trousers and socks, his shoes having been discarded as soon as he entered the room. He disappeared into the bathroom and Delenn finished changing. As they passed in the doorway she reached up and kissed him. Grinning he climbed into bed and put the bedclothes down on the other side. She joined him a few minutes later, curling up against him and falling asleep almost immediately.

   He shook his head. How on earth did she manage to switch everything off and fall asleep with such ease? He'd been able to do that, once. Now, with the fledgling Alliance in his hands, he felt and remembered every failure far more acutely than each success. He was constantly second-guessing his actions and words in dreams and waking thoughts. Could he have done better? Was he doing enough? He was his own worst critic, and completely unforgiving of his own perceived failures, even though he successfully covered his feelings in public and forgave others far more readily.

   Thus it was not uncommon for Delenn to wake in the night and find herself alone. This was one such night. Somewhere around two a.m. she found his side of the bed cold. Rising, she slipped on her dressing gown and walked into the lounge. The room was illuminated by a single, flickering candle. In that uncertain flame she saw Sheridan's face. He looked impossibly old. Ravaged by time and cares well beyond his years. She let out a slight sound and his face changed as he noticed her, his smile seeming to drive all the cares from him. She was not convinced.

   'Are you all right?'

   He sighed. 'Hmm. Couldn't sleep, so I thought I'd try some of your meditation techniques out here. I didn't want to disturb you with my tossing and turning.'

   She stood behind him, passing her arms around his neck and crossing them over his chest, kissing the top of his head as she did so. 'I don't mind. And you really shouldn't keep your problems to yourself. Remember the Reverend Dexter's advice to you?'

   He frowned. 'That's OK. It's just the usual. There doesn't seem to be enough of me to go around any more. Every time I think I'm getting ahead of it all, something else comes up. I'm not sure....' he stopped and stared into space.

   'What? What are you not sure of?'

   He put his hand over hers, stroking her fingers and raising them to his cheek. 'Nothing.'

   'Something, I think.'

   He shook his head. 'It doesn't matter.'

   She wasn't going to be put off so easily. She had the feeling that she knew what he had been about to say. 'If something is bothering you we should talk about it. Perhaps sharing it will help you to sleep.'

   It was not a subject he wanted to discuss. 'You don't share everything with me.' He felt her stiffen and regretted his words immediately. 'I'm sorry. I shouldn't have said that. I'm tired. Ignore me.'

   She shook her head. He was right. After Z'ha'dum she'd told Franklin that her secretive nature had forced Sheridan to make his decision. She'd felt responsible for his death. She'd sworn that if she could go back and do it over, things would be different. Then he'd returned from the dead, and she was given a second chance. Yet still her Minbari training consistently led her to keep silent rather than divulge everything. And there was so much she feared he would find out. What would he do if or (as she feared) *when* the truth came out? She sighed.

   'No. You're right.' She moved around the settee to sit beside him. In the dim light she didn't see his long legs stretched out in front of him and tripped. In an instant he caught her and pulled her onto his lap.

   'You OK?' he asked. She nodded. 'Sorry. I should have moved.'

   'No matter. It gave me an excuse to sit here.' She smiled and kissed him, and then she drew a long breath. 'In Minbari relationships it is not uncommon for secrets to be kept. Is it usual in human marriages for the couple to be a hundred percent honest with each other all the time?'

   He paused. 'Well, if you can't talk to the person you love...'

   She nodded. This had to be dealt with. 'What do you want to know?'

   Now he was offered the chance to find an answer, he found he wasn't sure he wanted her to tell him. If she didn't feel she could tell him without being pressured into it, perhaps it was better he didn't know. He hesitated and she offered a compromise.

   'I'll tell you what you want to know, if you will tell me what is bothering you. Agreed?'

   He stroked her throat and watched the light from the candle flickering over her skin. At last he looked up and spoke. 'What happened when you went off station after the last night of the sleeping ritual? You weren't there when I woke up. It must have been something important to make you curtail a ritual. You said it was clan business.'

   'It was.'

   Now he'd started, he wasn't going to be put off so easily. 'Delenn, the way you spoke to me that last night I was afraid you weren't coming back.' He heard her catch her breath and realised he'd struck a chord. Stunned, he took her face in his hands and looked into her eyes. 'You didn't think you were coming back either, did you?'

   She hesitated and slid off his lap to sit on the settee beside him. 'I wasn't sure.'

   'Why not? Didn't you want to?'

   The pain in his eyes caused a pit to open in her stomach. 'Yes! In Valen's name, yes. I... I was afraid. I thought... I thought they would try to stop me from coming back to you..'

   He stared at her. 'Why? Why wouldn't they...' a thought struck him. 'Starkiller! Is that it? They still haven't forgiven me for the Black Star? What was I supposed to do? Let them kill us all?'

   'No. It's not that. Not entirely. They wondered about my reasons.' She paused to marshal her thoughts and Sheridan waited quietly. He sensed that he could not make this easier, whatever it was. She had to find her own pace. So he offered her the only thing he could: silent companionship and support. She took a deep breath. 'John, I was part of the Grey Council when we declared war on your people. Dukhat was my mentor and my friend. I was there when he died. He died in my arms.' She stared at the candle, her mind still hearing the chaos of that terrible day. Then she looked at her hands as though she expected to see Dukhat's blood still there. Sheridan gently closed his hand over hers and brought her back to the present. She turned to him, her face set firm against the fear boiling up inside. 'When revenge was demanded I did not hesitate. I did not even *try* to stop it. His blood was still on my hands when they called for a vote.' She looked back at her hands, and pulled them from his grasp. 'I voted for revenge.' She paused and swallowed, terrified of his response. At last she found the courage to look into his face. Expecting to see anger or, at best, confusion, she was stunned to see only sorrow. He knew how hard that had been. She must have been terrified. Now he wanted to reassure her.

   'We didn't know what we were doing. It was ignorance and arrogance and fear. In our stupidity we forced you into an impossible position. Do you think we'd have reacted any differently if the situation had been reversed?' He shook his head. 'We're not so very different, Delenn. Hurt someone we care about, and we react immediately and without thinking. Remember?' He gently stroked his hand over her back at the spot where a would-be assassin's knife had struck her instead of him. His own fury had driven him to chase the man down and beat him senseless. He understood the Minbari's initial response. The rest could probably be put down to momentum and then a refusal to accept their own excessiveness. But... 'What has this to do with you and me?'

   'No one on our planet had taken a non-Minbari for a mate. There are people on Minbar just as there on Earth who do not want aliens...' She couldn't say it. She didn't have to.

   'I understand. They didn't want me 'polluting' the gene pool, right?' She nodded, relieved he'd saved her the pain of having to speak the words. He gave her a rueful grin. 'There's nothing new out there, is there?'

   'They said I was marrying you because I felt guilty about being part of the war. They wanted to make me think about it. They thought they could convince me I didn't really love you at all. They weren't going to let me come back unless I could prove to them my love was true and stemmed from the right source.'

   'And you did. How?'

   'Eventually. I performed a ritual we call The Dreaming and that showed me the way. I reminded Calenn that Valen was not Minbari and he was the best of us.' Still she wouldn't tell him everything. Being a child of Valen was not something she was ashamed of, but she wasn't sure how John would react to learning that he was related to Jeffrey Sinclair. Albeit indirectly. 'If he was acceptable, then you had to be.'

   'They know who Valen was?'

   'Some. It's not common knowledge for obvious reasons.' He grunted. He could imagine the trouble *that* little revelation would cause in some quarters. 'John. I'm sorry. I didn't want you to know how antagonistic my people were. With all the trouble your people were having with me it seemed better to keep silent. There was nothing you could do. They would never have listened to you, anyway.'

   'Well. They'll have to listen to me now. They can hardly ignore the President of the Alliance!' There was mock pomp in his voice, but he was right and she laughed.

   'No. As you say, they'll just have to grin and bear it.'

   'So. You let them know how much you loved me, huh?' She nodded, wondering where this was going. 'And do they know how much I love you?'

   She nodded. 'If they didn't think you were serious they would never have let me come back to you.' She paused. Her trial of truth was over. Now it was his turn. 'John? What were you going to say earlier? When you said you weren't sure about something. What was it?'

   He groaned. He'd made the deal, now he had to stick to it, but he didn't want to, and not for his sake, but for hers. He decided to bite the bullet.

   'I'm not sure I'll be able to do everything that needs to be done in the time I have left.'

   She nodded. She'd thought that was what he was going to say. Now it was time to talk this out. 'John. We still haven't talked about what Lorien said. It's time we did. We both have to face it, and it won't go away.'

   He turned to the candle, gazing into its blue and gold depths. 'What's to discuss? I was dead. I got a second chance. Most people aren't so lucky. I just want to live it and make the most of it. I mean, we all know we're gonna die, but because we don't know when or how, most of us put things off, or just don't do everything we could. And then death sneaks up on us and catches us out. We're all full of regret, but we say we didn't know. I don't have that excuse any more. I have to fit everything into the next nineteen years. I feel I'm running like crazy just to say in the same place. And I'm tired, Delenn. I can't afford to be, but I am so tired. I'm tired of the pettiness, and the posing, and the fights and the arguments. Life is too short and too valuable for us to waste it like this.' He shook his head and in his eyes she saw the flame of his hope flicker. She felt a pricking behind her eyes, but said nothing. He turned to her. 'And what about you? When I die, what will you do?'

   'Live,' she said, simply.

   'And?'

   'I don't know. I'd be lying if I said I think it will be easy. You *are* my life. The other half of my soul. When you die...' she swallowed hard, but kept going. This was something she'd been thinking about ever since she'd learned of his fate, and she'd gone through this enough times alone that she could speak the words aloud. But it was a struggle, and her voice cracked as she spoke. 'When you die you will take a part of me with you, and I'll always feel that loss. When I see something wonderful and want to share it with you. When I go to sleep at night and find you in my dreams, only to wake in the mornings and remember you're gone. When I walk along the paths we took, or listen to music we enjoyed,' she gave him a rueful grin, but it never reached her eyes. 'Even when I cook flarn I'll be thinking of you. I know that not a day will pass without something reminding me of you, and it will hurt as much twenty years later as it will the day....' She couldn't say it, though she tried. 'The day....'

   He reached up and stroked away a tear. 'Shh. I know.'

   She swallowed and cleared her throat, and when she looked up her eyes were full of resolution. 'So I want to live the next few years to the full too. I want to fill them with memories to last me the rest of my life.'

   'You might find someone else.'

   She shook her head. 'No. There *is* no one else. You know that.'

   'You don't know that. I was married before. I found you. Think what I would have missed if I'd refused to accept there could be anyone else.'

   'There is only one soul-mate. Even if I did re-marry, no one could take your place in here.' She placed her hand over her heart.

   He took her hand and placed it over his own heart. 'And no one could replace you in here. But don't stop looking after I'm gone. Promise me?' She didn't answer him. 'Delenn...'

   She interrupted him. 'John. I've changed my mind. I don't want to talk about this any more. Please?'

   'Delenn, you have to carry on. You can't shut yourself away for the rest of your life just because I'm not there.'

   'Please!?' Her cry was desperate. He sighed and nodded.

   'We've got plenty of time to talk about it.'

   She shuddered, but said nothing. Instead, she traced the outline of his beard across his face and down his throat to his chest. Looking up she smiled. 'Do you think you could go to sleep now?'

   He groaned. 'Ahh. I have to try, I've got early meetings tomorrow. I wish I knew how you turn things off in your head, though.'

   She stood up and took both his hands in hers, pulling him to his feet. 'Then come, and I will teach you.'

   Picking up the candle he followed her into the bedroom. 'More meditation?'

   She smiled. 'Something like that.'

   He picked up the candle and turned to her. 'Would you let the President take you to bed with him?'

   She smiled coyly at him. 'I'm not sure.'

   'Hmm. Well, would you let an old ex-Earthforce officer take you to bed with him?'

   'I'll think about it.'

   'How about if your husband says it's OK so long as he's along to watch?' He was grinning broadly now.

   'Well, I think I would rather he were doing more than just watching.'

   'Oh you would, would you?' Suddenly, he wasn't sure he was that tired after all. 'And what, precisely, do you want your husband to do?'

   'Oh, I'm sure he will think of something.' She headed for the bedroom but he caught her before she reached the door, putting the candle down on a nearby stand.

   'Oh no,' he said, putting his arms around her, 'Not so quick. I want an answer. What...' and he reached for the belt of her gown, 'exactly...' he untied it, 'do you want him...' he put his arms around her waist inside the dressing gown, 'to do?'

   'Well, that's a good start.' She reciprocated, sliding her hands around his waist and felt the heat rising between his skin and the material of his dressing gown.

   'Is that all you want me to do?'

   'You could kiss me...'

   He kissed her on the forehead. 'Like this?'

   'A little lower.'

   He kissed her cheek. 'Here?'

   'Perhaps a little further across? And you can use your tongue if you want.'

   Deliberately misunderstanding her he went to her neck just beneath her ear and began to kiss his way down, stroking his tongue around the base of her throat. Pulling his arm from her waist he moved her dressing gown aside so he could continue along her shoulder. He pulled back and gazed at her, and then pushed her gown off her shoulders until it slid to the floor, revealing her night dress.

   Lightly, he moved his fingers from her cheek, down her throat, pausing at her breast. He looked into her eyes, almost as though he were seeking permission. She nodded almost imperceptibly and he raised his other hand to trace the outline of her breasts through her dress, stroking his thumb across the nipple. He watched her respond; saw her sharp intake of breath, and felt the tissue becoming stiff under his fingers. Lowering his hands to her waist he ran them across her abdomen and up between her breasts. Again, he looked into her eyes.

   The candlelight to which they had become accustomed had dilated her pupils, but as her body responded to his touches her eyes were becoming almost black. Still watching her reactions his hand dropped down across her belly and onto her thigh. Piece by piece he pulled her night dress up, gathering the material in his hand. Reaching the hem of it he slipped inside and slid his hand between her thighs. As she parted her legs slightly he moved up. She gasped, and he felt his own body stiffening in response. Gently stroking between her thighs he bent to kiss her. As he pressed his tongue to her lips, gaining entry, so he pressed his fingers into her. Assaulted from both directions at once she staggered and found herself supported by his other hand at her back. As he gently probed with his fingers, feeling the wetness and heat that signalled her desire, he kissed her cheek and moved to her ear, muttering in a low voice that aroused her still further.

   'I want you.'

   She struggled to find her voice. In the pause that followed he stroked his finger across her clitoris, feeling a shudder pass through her, and spread his fingers across her back to support her further.

   'I want you now....please.' There was an edge of desperation in his voice. He pulled back, and she saw in his eyes that he was as aroused as she. Responding to his need she held his gaze as she brought her hand around to brush across the front of his shorts. She felt his penis jump under her hand and she increased the pressure.

   'Yes.'

   He withdrew his hand and stood for a moment, savouring her caresses. She brought her other hand around to increase the stimulation, guiding his penis from within his shorts. He closed his eyes and swallowed as he fought for control. Finally he caught her hands and raised them to his lips. Kissing each palm which had so recently aroused him, he scooped her into his arms and carried her into the bedroom to lay her on the bed. Wanting to keep the effect of the candlelight he returned to the lounge and retrieved it, the flickering flame casting distorted shadows around him as he placed it on the night table.

   The intensity of his expression would have been disturbing had Delenn not seen that look before. All his passion and desire held in check but raging within him. His eyes roving over her body as if he'd never seen her before. It was almost as if he were trying to hold her in place with his eyes. Normally it worked, but not tonight. He removed his dressing gown, but before he could complete his undressing Delenn had sat up on the bed and reached for his waist. Pushing his hands aside she paused for a moment to admire his state of arousal, and then eased his shorts from him.

   In the months since their marriage they had enjoyed any number of sexual encounters but, as yet, Sheridan had typically led the way. Tonight Delenn decided it was time she took some measure of control. He'd given her so much pleasure, and she had accepted everything. Tonight it was his turn to accept whatever she offered.

   'John. Lie down.'

   He wasn't sure about the turn of events. 'Delenn...'

   She smiled. 'Trust me. Lie down.'

   Curious but compliant, Sheridan lay down on the bed, watching her. Slowly, so as to achieve maximum effect, she pulled her night dress over her head and tossed it aside. He admired the way her breasts were lifted as she raised her arms. The skin and flesh, already firm, pulled taut by her actions. He reached out to her as she knelt on the bed, but she held him away.

   'Close your eyes.'

   'What are you doing?'

   'Loving you as you have loved me. Let me?'

   He smiled and closed his eyes. For a moment she just admired him. Then she leaned forward and kissed his eyes, pressing her tongue to the closed lids.

   'Hmm. Feels good,' he murmured.

   Moving down she kissed his throat and then his chest. Licking around one nipple she lightly brushed her fingers over the other one. Catching him between her teeth she scraped them across him, waiting to hear him moan as he always did, before she released him.

   She brushed her fingers across his stomach, admiring the muscles as they clenched and relaxed in response to her touches. He raised his hips towards her but she dropped her hands to his ankles and slowly worked her way back up.

   'Delenn, this is torture. Please!'

   'John, trust me. Relax and enjoy it.'

   As she reached for his thighs, stroking inside and out, he moaned again and tried to guide himself into her hands. Suddenly the sensations stopped. He waited to see what would happen next. It was not what he had expected. There was hot breath on his thighs, and then moist heat encircled his penis. He gasped and looked down to see Delenn had closed her lips and was gently sucking on him. Her tongue teased the tip, sending shivers up his spine. He clenched his fists into the bedclothes and watched her, fascinated. She'd never indicated she wanted to do anything like this before, and he'd been wary of introducing her to anything new until he was certain she'd accept it. Now, apparently, she was telling him he'd not been moving fast enough or, at least, she was ready for some variation.

   Taking him as deeply as she could she ran her tongue around the base and then up the sides as she pulled back, sucking gently all the time. She teased the end again with the tip of her tongue and then licked her way down the side to the base. There she kissed and licked all the way round, ran up the side, flicked her tongue across the top and then descended to the base once more. To his delight she carefully kissed and licked his testicles, closing her lips around them tenderly. He couldn't stand much more. He had to have her.

   'Delenn. My God. I can't stand this. Love, please.' He tried to sit up, but she pushed him back.

   'Not yet. A while longer. I have waited to do this for so long.'

   He reached for her, but could only touch her thigh with his fingertips. 'Then move around a little. Let me touch you, too.'

   She did as he asked and felt his hands stroke over her thighs, rising to her buttocks. At the encouragement of his touch she lay on her side and parted her thighs. He turned too and, kissing her thigh, gently caressed the soft skin before parting her labia and nuzzling her. He felt her return the touch, licking the end of his penis, enveloping the head and then taking it deep into her mouth. She continued to suck and lick him as her fingers stroked the inside of his thighs and his testicles.

   He moaned and began to lick her, teasing her clitoris and probing her with his tongue. She writhed, pressing her hips towards him, and he responded, using his fingers in combination with his mouth. Pulling away with a gasp she stared at him. Valen, but he was good!

   'John. Why didn't you do this before? It's wonderful.'

   Rather than answer her, he took the opportunity to move himself around so he could concentrate his attention. At first she protested, but then he pushed her down the bed enough that he could lie between her thighs, raising her hips to enable better access. She gasped as he closed his lips around her, teasing, licking and stroking her from her clitoris to her vagina, pressing his tongue as deeply as he could into her. Her moans became desperate and he pressed his fingers into her, seeking the rougher parts that he knew were more sensitive. He rubbed his fingers in and out. First one, then two and then, for the first time ever, he gently inserted three fingers into her. She groaned and he hesitated. He didn't want to hurt her.

   'Is this all right?'

   She nodded, unable to articulate anything anymore.

   Still fearful that he might be going too far he probed gently, stretching her a bit at a time, flicking his tongue over her clitoris all the while. Her whimpers and moans as he pulled back slightly to rub her clitoris with his thumb stiffened him further.

   'Lights low.' Looking up at her he smiled. 'I want to watch you. Shh.'

   In the dimmed lights, but with his eyes used to the candle flame he could see everything. Her labia glistened with her juices and his saliva. As he moved his fingers within her he saw her contract around him. Withdrawing to stroke her clitoris for a while he watched her clench and quiver in response to his touch. Bending to lick her once more he looked up to see her watching him. He concentrated his touch on her clitoris, one moment using his tongue as a stiffened probe which teased the nerves, the next as a soft salve, soothing and moistening her. She struggled to maintain eye contact while his touches burned like white fire, but she couldn't. She closed her eyes, and within a moment felt his hand reach out for hers and grip her tightly, shaking her slightly. She looked down once more. He was still watching her. If he'd been a telepath he would have been inside her mind, but she didn't need telepathy to be able to read him. He wanted her to share every feeling, every wash of emotion, every shudder that passed through her, and she did, until...

   'John, I'm close. I want you, now.' He continued his ministrations, but she shook her head. 'Please.'

   He kissed his way up her abdomen to her breasts, easing himself between her legs. He knew he was only moments from release himself. He rose to her throat and then her mouth, their tongues entwining as he entered her. His path was firm but easy. She was so aroused she hardly needed any more encouragement. As he moved his hips to drive himself as deeply as possible she groaned and broke away, panting, her hands grasping his back.

   'Show me how you feel. Let me hear it.' His voice had become a low growl as he neared his own climax. Suddenly she gasped and he felt her clench tightly around him. 'Let it go.' He thrust into her and watched the flush spread across her breasts. She threw her head back and her hands gripped him so tightly the nails dug into his flesh. He held her face between his hands, feverishly kissing her throat and cheek, interspersing his kisses with words. 'I love you. Oh God, Delenn, I love you so much,' finally surrendering himself to the explosion of pleasure that coursed through him

   As her own orgasm faded she felt his take him. She wrapped her arms around him and held him. This was the moment she loved best. To see him lose control of himself completely while in her arms. It was the ultimate expression of trust and love, and he never held anything back, being as passionate in his love-making as in his beliefs.

   For a while they just lay there in each other's arms. Sheridan occasionally kissing her as he recovered; Delenn stroking his neck and back, feeling the dampness of his hair at the nape of his neck. After a while he looked up at her and she smiled. He rose slightly, feeling her muscles clench around him briefly before he slipped from within her. Leaning on his elbow, he brushed some stray hairs from her face.

   'Hmm. God, that was good. You're incredible.'

   She reached up to stroke his cheek, now rough with stubble. Such a contrast to the longer hairs of his beard and moustache, now quite soft. 'So are you.'

   He rolled onto his side and wrapped his arms around her as she nuzzled into his chest.

   'I like this,' she muttered, reaching up and kissing his throat before snuggling down again.

   'Me too.'

   After a while Sheridan gave a contented sigh.

   'It's good to be with you now. To wake in the morning to see you beside me. To feel you near me at night. It feels right. You know?'

   She nodded, 'I know. I've always known. Sleep now. We may not have to deal with the Brakiri and the Gaim, but I'm sure something else will demand our attention. We both need rest.'

   She felt his muscles relax around her and smiled. Carefully, trying not to disturb him, she reached over and snuffed out the candle that was burning by the side of the bed. The room was plunged into darkness.

 

Chapter 2

 

T-0

   The alarm awoke her at seven thirty. She opened her eyes to see him smiling at her.

   'Good morning.'

   She yawned and stretched. 'Hmm. Have you been up for long?'

   'No. I'm used to the alarm being earlier, but I'm training myself out of it. I've made some tea. Want some?'

   'Hmm. Yes please.'

   He slipped out of bed, revealing the fact that he'd been up long enough to put on some shorts at least, and padded across to the kitchen. Delenn retrieved her night-dress from the floor beside the bed and slipped it on. Sitting up in bed she arranged the bedclothes around her waist as he walked in carrying not one, but two trays, laden with crockery. He caught her expression and grinned.

   'It's OK. Even I can't screw this up.' He handed her one tray and then placed his on the night table as he climbed back into bed, taking it on his knees once he was comfortable. She contemplated her tray. Tea, an orange split into quarters, and the Minbari equivalent of cereal, except with juice instead of milk. 'Always did like breakfast in bed. Very civilised! Computer. Appointments.'

   As the list ended he bit into his orange and fought to catch the juice as it dribbled down his chin. 'Hmm. Watch it!' His mouth was full and he swallowed. 'They're loaded. Where the hell does Garibaldi get these things?'

   'I believe they are a legacy of Edgars' Industries.' She sipped her tea thoughtfully and then looked up. 'Computer. What are my appointments, please?'

   He smiled. The station's computers were officially classified as intelligent, but he'd never met anyone else who used 'please' and 'thank you' when using them, unless it were sarcastically. The list ended and he noted that while several of their meetings were together, a greater number were private consultations with ambassadors, businessmen and politicians. He groaned.

   'Oh boy! Another fun filled day! When did you say we'd be moving to Tuzenor? I might be able to avoid some of these ambassadors there.'

   'I gather work is proceeding steadily, but I do not have a completion date yet. I would estimate between two and three more months as your calendar goes.' She reached over and squeezed his arm. 'But I'm afraid many will simply follow you there, grumbling all the while about distance, inconvenience and cold.'

   He grunted. 'Great!' He put the now-finished breakfast tray on the night table, stretched and yawned. 'Time to face the day.'

   As he ran a shower she slipped on her dressing gown and took the breakfast trays into the kitchen to clean them. She was putting away the last of them when the door chime rang. It was Lennier. He bowed, formally.

   'Good morning, Delenn. I trust you slept well?'

   'Very well, thank you. Do you have my papers for today?'

   'All ready for you. Since your first meeting is not until nine forty-five I thought you might like to take the time to look over these notes I prepared. I believe they may be of some use.'

   Sheridan's voice emanated from the bedroom. 'Delenn. Have you seen my blue shirt?'

   'You spilled coffee on it. I sent it to be cleaned.'

   'Oh hell! I'd forgotten.' He walked out, unaware of Lennier's presence, still clad in only his shorts. 'Oh. Hullo Lennier. I didn't know you were here. I came out for some coffee.' He went to the percolator and poured a cup. A legacy of Ivanova he was more than happy to exploit. 'Want some?'

   'No thank you Mr President.'

   Sheridan rolled his eyes. 'Lennier, do I *look* very presidential to you right now?'

   'Looks are not important. You are the President no matter your appearance.'

   'Lennier.... Ah hell. Let me get dressed. We need to talk about this.' He disappeared into the bedroom. Delenn excused herself and followed him.

   'What are you going to say to him?'

   Sheridan put on a grey patterned shirt. 'I'm going to explain to him that he needs to drop the salute when we're in private. He calls you Delenn. I'd like him to call me John when I'm not on official business.' He pulled on his trousers and tucked the shirt in.

   'John, please. Lennier is right. You are what you are, no matter your attire or the time of day.'

   'If you can get him to stop calling you Satai, I can get him to stop calling me Mr President. For cryin' out loud, Delenn, I was practically naked! It felt ridiculous!' He sat on the edge of the bed and pulled on his socks, lacing up his shoes as she responded.

   'There were good political reasons for my wanting to keep my position on the Grey Council quiet when I came here.'

   'Uh huh. And there are good personal reasons for my wanting to forget I'm the president when I'm standing barefoot in the kitchen.' He stood up and gripped her shoulders, kissing her on the forehead. 'Don't worry. He'll understand.' Before she could stop him, he'd shrugged on his jacket and gone back into the lounge.

   'Lennier. I regard you as a friend. I respect and admire you. It feels very awkward when you address me by my title in private. It's John.'

   Lennier bowed. 'Yes... John. If that is your wish.' He looked very uncomfortable.

   Sheridan sighed. 'It's not a command, Lennier. It's simply my wish because I respect you. Look, we can discuss this later. I'm gonna be late. Over dinner, perhaps? Join us. We can get Chinese or something.' He slapped his link onto the back of his hand. 'Delenn,' he kissed her. 'I'll see you at 1. Bye!' and he dashed out.

   Delenn watched the door close and then turned to Lennier. His face was controlled. *Very* controlled. So controlled, in fact, she feared it would shatter under the pressure.

   'Lennier. Please sit down.'

   'Yes, Delenn.' He sat carefully, perched on the edge of the chair, and waited for her to speak.

   'You're upset.'

   'I'm sorry. I...'

   She interrupted. 'No. It is I who am sorry. John is...' she struggled for the words. 'For all the years he has spent as a soldier, or perhaps because of it, I think he prefers to drop formality when he can. The way he explained it to me before was that he didn't like being saluted when he couldn't return it.' Lennier cocked his head curiously. 'No. I'm not sure I understood it either. Something to do with Earth military protocol I believe. It is awkward for him when you are formal in informal circumstances, just as we find it awkward when Earthers are informal in circumstances for which we have rituals. Do you understand?'

   'I think so, but understanding is not required, only obedience.'

   'Lennier.' She reached out and took his hand. He looked down. 'Lennier. Look at me. Please.' He raised his eyes, but he was hesitant, and clearly felt himself to be on very uncertain ground. 'You mean far more to me and John than any mere acolyte or aide. We have stood, side by side, and fought the darkness for five years now. You are a friend and an ally. Do not regard this request as an order. If you cannot do it because John would like you to, then do it because I would like you to. I ask you as my friend, and as someone I care about a very great deal.'

   Lennier was well trained, but Delenn could see how much her consideration mattered to him. He would do anything for her. 'Yes, Delenn. I will do as you ask.' Tentatively, he covered her hand with his own. At that moment the door opened and Sheridan stepped in to see his wife and her aide sitting, hand in hand, gazing into each other's eyes. For a moment he was stunned. In that second one or other realised the view they presented and the hands separated abruptly.

   'Uh. Sorry. I left my notes behind.' He grabbed the offending pile and looked at them again. 'Everything OK?'

   Delenn was calm as ever. 'Yes. Everything is fine. I was explaining your request to Lennier. I'll see you at one.'

   'Uh huh. Right. Well, see you.' Striding down the corridor Sheridan tried to sort out what he'd just seen. After his talk with Delenn last night the worst interpretation was unthinkable. He just couldn't work out what that left. For a conversation on the use of his first name when in private, things seemed to be rather more private than he felt comfortable with. He knew they were fond of each other.... He shook his head. Nah, couldn't be. Anyway, he'd ask her later. Right now he had a Narn problem to deal with. But the nagging question still lurked in the back of his brain.

*****

The business of the day was hectic. So much so that even lunch was a hurried affair during which they pored over diplomatic papers in preparation for the afternoon, and conversation was confined solely to business. The last meeting, however, was a rather special occasion. A formal ceremony to confer a medal on one of the Starfury pilots whose forethought and quick reactions had averted a major disaster. As they walked together towards the Observation Dome, Sheridan's mind turned to that morning's image.

   'Delenn. Um. Look, I don't want to pry or anything, but, uh, when I walked in this morning...'

   She smiled. It had been Lennier who had sensed their position would be misinterpreted and had pulled away, thereby inadvertently compounding the confusion. She had no problem with what she had said or done, but she was not naïve, and had sensed all day that John wanted to speak to her about the matter. Now she could clear it up.

   'I was trying to make him understand your need for more informality. He was confused. His training was very thorough, and he is used to a strict hierarchy. And yes, you were right, he does, I think, have some trouble with our relationship. I was trying to reassure him that the heart has room for everyone it loves in every different way. I do care about him, John. He has saved my life and never wavered in his loyalty to me.' She saw his expression and smiled, slipping her arm through his. 'He is not you. Your place is special, you know that.'

   He looked suitable chagrined. 'I know. Sorry. That was stupid of me.'

   'No. Not stupid, just human.' She nudged him, smiling.

   He grunted. 'Well, if he's joining us for dinner tonight, I'd better order it. He is joining us, isn't he?'

   'I will remind him. What time?'

   'When do you think we will be finished with this? Seven?'

   'Easily, but order for seven-thirty to give us time to change.'

   He nodded and stopped at a Babcom terminal. Links would route the call via C&C, and the nature of his evening meal was hardly the concern of the command staff. Getting through to the restaurant he placed an order for 'the usual' for seven-thirty to be delivered to his quarters. Chinese food had certain similarities to some Minbari dishes, and the couple frequently enjoyed it as a happy compromise between their culinary tastes.

   Suddenly a thought struck him and he paused, 'Hang on,' he said to the waitress on the terminal screen. He turned to Delenn. 'I've just remembered. My quarters or yours? I mean, it's your turn tonight, but the smell of Chinese can kinda linger...'

   She nodded. 'And I have an early appointment. I'm not sure the air recycling will clear it all out before then.'

   'My place then.' He turned back to the terminal and confirmed the order. Handing over to her he stood by while she left a message for Lennier. Then they walked side by side to the Observation Lounge.

   Entering the lounge they smiled and nodded to the assembled crowd before taking their places. Shortly thereafter the ceremony began. Since this was a military concern the bulk of it was handled by Captain Lochley. Sheridan was merely there as a courtesy and as the previous commander of the lieutenant being recognised. Nevertheless, Lochley turned to him for a few words. Brevity was the order of the day. He took his place.

   'I could give you some long speech about how Lieutenant James represents the finest aspects of the service: forethought, ingenuity, discipline, and a willingness to risk himself for the sake of others. But you've heard all that already. So I'll just say I'm proud to know him, and happy, but not at all surprised, that he's being honoured today. Now, I'm going to shut up and let him enjoy the rest of his day!' The audience laughed and applauded and Sheridan shook hands with the lieutenant, warmly congratulating him.

*****

Everything was in place. Robinson had been given the all-clear to get into position in the maintenance corridor. The ceremony was over, but the President and his wife would doubtless hang around for a while. Dobbs positioned himself outside the Observation Deck ready to warn Bryant and Kaplan the minute the targets left.

*****

A small reception followed. Despite his good intentions, Sheridan found himself hanging around because James proved to be excellent company. He had not had the chance to get to know the man very well when he was commanding. Now he found himself wishing he had. For his youth, the man had done a great deal. He was highly educated and even shared Sheridan's fascination with Oriental culture and American military history. Delenn quietly nudged him.

   'We really ought to leave.'

   Sheridan was distracted. 'Hmm? Yuh, hold on.'

   'John! Lieutenant James' friends have been waiting for over an hour to take him to Earhearts!' She directed his attention to the three pilots standing awkwardly in the doorway. 'Let him go.'

   'Oh, sorry. I lost track of the time. Lieutenant, we must meet up and talk some more.'

   'Yes, sir. I'd like that very much.'

   Sheridan grinned. 'Yeah, I'm sure. Standing just shy of attention for several hours would probably be the highlight of your week, right?'

   'The conversation is worth it, sir.'

   'A diplomat *and* a good officer. Watch it, Lieutenant. They'll be pinning a general's star and a desk on you before you're thirty-five!' James had the grace to grin, though it was clear he had certain ambitions in that area. Sheridan, too, had sensed this. 'So I suggest you make the most of your chances while they present themselves. Drunken generals don't look good, and I think your friends have some plans for you tonight.' He leaned conspiratorially close 'Just make sure they don't try and shack you up with an Arnassian.'

   'Don't worry, sir, I won't.' He saluted. 'Mr. President. Ambassador.' Sheridan and Delenn nodded and watched him leave, his friends clapping their hands on his back the minute he was within reach and dragging him away. Sheridan shook his head, smiling.

   'Good man. Worth keeping an eye on. I have the feeling he'll go far.' He took Delenn's arm and they left the deck. Sheridan nodded to the security guards on duty outside as he passed.

*****

As soon as the President and his wife were out of sight, Dobbs slipped his hand into his pocket and activated his communicator, tapping out a pre-arranged signal.

   Over on the other side of the station, Macland heard the tap, tap, tap, tap which was his signal. He was an electronics expert and over the past two weeks he'd been monitoring Babcom communications both public and private. He'd nailed down the signal for Sheridan's link, and now he by-passed the station's internal communications to send his own message.

*****

Sheridan and Delenn had left the crowd behind when his link went off. 'Sheridan. Go.'

   'Sir, there's a problem down in the gardens and the Minbari are asking for you and the Ambassador.' Sheridan frowned and looked at Delenn.

   'What kind of trouble?'

   'I don't understand the nature of the dispute, sir. I was just told to ask you to attend,' the unknown voice on the link returned.

   Sheridan shrugged. 'Whereabouts?'

   'Near the Water Recreation Facilities.'

   Sheridan frowned at Delenn. Why on earth would Minbari be having a row down by the pools? It didn't make sense. Delenn shrugged. She was as confused as he was.

   'Are you sure?'

   'Yes sir.'

   He shrugged. 'All right. We're on our way.' He tapped his link and turned to Delenn. 'Was there some kind of sports event planned?'

   'I can't imagine what. With the cold on our planet and the higher gravity we are not in the habit of swimming.' She shook her head and then smiled. 'Well, with any luck it will be simple to resolve. And we haven't walked in the gardens for a long time.'

   He smiled. 'A romantic stroll before dinner?'

   'If we have the time.'

   Together they made their way to the core shuttle.

*****

Well, he'd predicted something would go wrong sooner or later, and apparently it was hitting sooner. But of all the things that could have interrupted his plans the voice of the Head of Covert Operations was the last thing he needed. 'Ah, Mr. Dobbs. I've been looking for you.'

   Dobbs snapped to attention. 'Sir!'

   Garibaldi eyed the man. 'Hey, this ain't an inspection, Dobbs. I just needed to check up on a few things.'

   Dobbs tried to relax, but his nerves were already shot. The bomb was due to go off in less than ten minutes. He tried to tell himself Stern, Macland, Taylor and the others would follow the plan even if he wasn't supervising. But long ago he'd learned the maxim 'if it can go wrong, it will' and this was one time he didn't need it coming true. Garibaldi's unwelcome interruption of his thoughts was proof enough of that unhappy saying. Of course, he knew the Head of Covert Operations would be at the ceremony, but he didn't think he'd want to talk to so lowly a security grunt as Dobbs.

   Garibaldi grinned. 'Hey! If I didn't know you better, I'd say you had somewhere you wanted to be. What's up? Got a hot date tonight?'

   Perfect excuse! The tension left Dobbs' shoulders. 'I'm hoping so, but you know what these women are like. They tell you they don't mind you're not some big shot executive, then expect you to come up with the cash anyway to take 'em to dinner in Fresh Air!'

   Garibaldi snorted. 'Know what you mean.'

   Dobbs decided to play on the story. There was nothing he could do now, and in any case, what better alibi than discussing his love life with Garibaldi when all hell broke loose? 'Got any ideas, sir?'

   'Well, there's a new place opened in the Zocalo last month. A bit pricey, but nothin' on Fresh Air. I'm told the food's really good, and it's a classy joint. They get kinda busy, but I know the head waiter. You want I should put in a word for you?'

   'Hey, would you do that? That'd be great!' The alibi was getting better and better!

   'Sure thing. What time?'

   Dobbs thought for a minute. 'Well, I'm already running late. The President hung around a bit.' Garibaldi rolled his eyes in sympathy. 'Do you think I'd have a chance at eight?'

   Garibaldi whistled. 'Jeez. You *are* cutting it fine. I'll do what I can.'

   /You have no idea./ Aloud Dobbs said 'Thank you, sir!'

   'I'm not Zack, Dobbs!'

   'Sorry sir, I mean, Mr. Garibaldi.' Dobbs was enjoying this. It was almost too easy. Now if only Garibaldi would let him go. Garibaldi nodded and turned away. Yes! Dobbs went to leave, his duty done now the President had gone. Then Garibaldi turned back, one hand raised like a question mark.

   'Uh, Dobbs?' Why have you been in the maintenance corridor for the core shuttle two days in a row?'

   Dobbs thought he was going to have a heart attack. How the hell? Of course! Robinson was using his pass to over-ride the security lock-outs. Who'd've thought Garibaldi would be so anal-retentive as to check something as insignificant as who went into the maintenance corridors? The man needed to get a life! Now what could he say? Fear hot-wires the brain, they say, concentrating one's thoughts wonderfully. The solution came out of thin air.

   'Well, sir, uh...' Garibaldi waved it aside. 'It's two things really. The chief asked me to check it out for tonight's ceremony. Several of the alien ambassadors have to take the shuttle to get from their sector and it would be a perfect site for an ambush. We can't count on angels turning up every time we need one!' The story of Sheridan's rescue was part of Babylon 5 legend.

   'No. I guess not.' Garibaldi didn't look entirely convinced. Why two days' worth of visits? Still... 'Good to hear Zack's got the place covered. And the second reason?'

   This was the realistic touch for which Dobbs had Robinson to thank. 'Have you ever looked at the view from up there? I mean, when you're on the shuttle you haven't really got time to just admire it 'cos you're whisked along so fast. From there you can step out and actually watch it for a while. It's really something.'

   'Yeah, I guess it must be. Never had time to go look at it myself.'

   'You should! Definitely worth it, and there's never anyone up there.'

   'Apart from you, you mean?' Garibaldi still had a nagging feeling, but he couldn't pin it down. He shrugged. 'Maybe some day. I'll leave a message in your quarters for the reservation. You'd better go grab a shower, you haven't much time. So long.'

   Dobbs watched Garibaldi go with a mixture of relief and triumph. He'd been bullshitting and he'd got away with it. He'd never been in the maintenance corridor in his life, but he guessed that the same held for Garibaldi. All he had to work from was a passing comment from Robinson. The gamble had paid off. Now he could.... Damn! The time! He checked his chronometer. Just under three minutes to go. He was supposed to be in the control centre in Downbelow before it went off. There was no way he could get there now.

*****

Kaplan and Bryant joined the queue for the shuttle either side of the Presidential couple. Robinson -- jet pack on, belt, back pack and jacket stuffed with equipment -- prepared to lower himself onto the shuttle as it passed underneath. He doubted he would have been able to remain quiet in standard gravity: he was carrying over a hundred pounds in gear. As it was, in the near-weightless conditions of the central core, that extra weight was all he needed to help him drop onto the shuttle with some measure of control.

   While they waited, a Narn female joined the queue behind Bryant. Sheridan and Delenn nodded in response to the acknowledgements and bows of respect directed to them. As Kaplan nodded to her, Delenn shuddered. Something about him was familiar, but she couldn't place it. Not his face, that was certain. She never forgot a face. But his eyes...

   Sheridan, feeling her unease, turned to her.

   'What's wrong?'

   'Nothing. A chill I think. I'm all right.'

   Sheridan was unconvinced. 'You sure?'

   'Hmm. Fine. Don't worry so!'

   'Well now. I'm married to a beautiful woman who also happens to be the head of the advisory council. Of course I worry.' He grinned.

   Kaplan turned away in disgust. She was a freak! A Minbari freak to boot. How could this so-called hero see anything in her? He seriously doubted the story of the Black Star's destruction. So far as he could tell, none of it matched with his experience of John Sheridan.

   Sheridan saw the reaction of the man at the front of the queue but chose to ignore it. Some people would never understand or forgive. Delenn hadn't seen it so there was no need to respond. Nevertheless, he made a mental note to have the man quietly encouraged to leave in the morning. People with so clear an anti-alien position did not belong on Babylon 5. They were too often the catalyst for trouble. Anyway, there was something about him. Something familiar. Sheridan couldn't place it, and he considered the man's general demeanour to see if it would give him a clue. He had the look of one who had once been larger but who had lost a considerable amount of weight. From his cold expression and heavily lined face, Sheridan guessed the weight loss was not voluntary. He suspected the man had been a guest of someone's security forces quite recently. Another reason to get rid of him. He'd get them to check the security vids later and get a visual. So long as the man wasn't immediately offensive he couldn't call down security on a whim.

   The shuttle pulled up and they climbed aboard, strapping themselves in. As well as Sheridan, Delenn, Bryant, Kaplan and the Narn, there was a Gaim on his way back to the alien sector after the party. Just as the shuttle doors were about to close, a young Minbari dressed in Ranger uniform came charging through the doors, doing his best not to fly off in the near-weightless conditions.

   'Entil'zha!'

   Sheridan released his straps and held the door, allowing the Ranger to enter, the latter thanking him profusely. As they strapped themselves back in, the Ranger turned to Delenn, bowing his head respectfully to Sheridan as he did so.

   'Entil'zha. I am sorry. I have a message from Tuzenor.' He handed her a data crystal which she regarded for a second before slipping it into her robe.

   'What is it, Merann?'

   The young man smiled. 'I have not looked at it, Entil'zha. However, I believe progress on the building may have advanced rather faster than we predicted!' His smile was open and infectious.

   'You mean it's ready?' Sheridan's eagerness grated on Kaplan's nerves. So keen to move to an alien planet? Was Sheridan really Sheridan at all? Had he, perhaps, been substituted by another Minbari freak? Maybe Minbari plastic surgery was even more advanced than the place he'd found on Mars. Well, he'd be able to check soon. The shuttle began to move slowly out of the station.

*****

Moving swiftly, Dobbs disappeared into the shadows and pulled out his private communicator.

   'Macland, Taylor. Come in.'

   'Where the hell are you?!' came Macland's frustrated response.

   'Garibaldi wanted a word. No problem, but it's held me up. Can you manage on your own for a bit?'

   'Getting in was a cinch. Getting out again? C'mon, Dobbs; that was supposed to be your job! When these things go off, this place'll shut down faster than a dust deal at a security convention!'

   'I know. I know. Can you reset the timer? Give me ten minutes. That's all I ask!'

   Taylor broke in. 'They're already on their way. It's too late.'

   Stern came on line. 'I can give you another three minutes. Hang on.'

   Taylor couldn't believe it. 'Stern? Stern! Where the hell are you? It's too late! Mine's gonna go any second!'

   'I'm OK. I know what I'm doing.'

   Suddenly, there was a low thud. A sound which would have been more felt than heard from where Dobbs was standing, were it not for Taylor's link. The lights flickered and died. In the darkness Dobbs muttered into the communicator as loudly as he dared.

   'Stern? Stern! Answer me, dammit! Stern!'

   'Forget it,' came Taylor's voice. 'He's gone.'

   'Shit! Macland? Are you still there?'

   There was a pause, and then Macland came on line. 'Yeah, I'm here. Taylor, get over here. I've found a way out, but I don't know for how much longer.'

   'On my way. Dobbs, we'll meet you at the control centre.'

   'Confirmed. Dobbs out.'

   Every plan always hit a glitch. He could only hope this was the one and only one for this plan. He couldn't afford any more. He looked around. He was still alone. He decided he'd risk one more check.

   'Bryant?' There was a tapping on the communicator. The arranged signal that meant they couldn't talk, and the conversation was awkward. Dobbs switched. 'Robinson?'

   'Here. Shut up, for God's sake. They'll hear you! I'm on the shuttle. Everything's in place. Contact you at command when everything is set up. Robinson out.'

   Abrupt, but to the point. Thank God one of the teams knew what it was doing. It looked like everything would work out after all.

*****

As the shuttle gathered speed Sheridan regarded the strangely lean man. 'Excuse me, do I know you?'

   'I doubt it.' Kaplan's tone would qualify as insubordinate from a non-civilian.

   'You seem to be having some problem with me. May I suggest you get off at the next dock and take another shuttle?'

   Kaplan knew his moment was about to arrive. As he turned to answer, a dull rumble echoed though the core. The lights flickered and died, and the shuttle's emergency inertia brakes kicked in, bringing it to a halt. The straps ensured no one was harmed by the halt, but tension levels in the shuttle rose perceptibly. They became near tangible as Kaplan pulled out a PPG and pointed it at Delenn. He looked at Sheridan in the reflected light of the sun which would illuminate the core for a while longer until the station's orbit of Epsilon 3 took the mirrors out of alignment.

   'No,' he said, in response to Sheridan's suggestion. 'I think this one will do just fine, now.'

   Delenn blanched. *That* voice. He could disguise his face, his body, but he hadn't changed his voice. 'You!?'

   'Still feeling sorry for me, Ambassador?'

 

Chapter 3

 

Dobbs was waiting in the room they designated as the control centre. He was worried. There was no sign of the others, and he hadn't heard from Kaplan, Bryant or Robinson since he'd contacted the latter twenty minutes before. Surely it didn't take THAT long to set up the cameras and the rest? The station was in chaos, which was what he'd intended, but he hadn't expected to lose contact and hence control quite so fast. He had Macland's communications taps monitoring the station's messages and, so far, there was nothing about a hostage crises, just constant chatter on the explosion, the cause of which had not yet been determined.

   He started at the sound of the door chime, then relaxed when he heard Taylor's voice.

   'Open.'

   Taylor and Macland slid inside, and Dobbs ordered the door locked. Then he turned to them. 'Well? Is everything all right?'

   'The power and the back-ups are out. Haven't heard from the shuttle, but then if they'd worked out what'd happened, it'd be all over security by now.' She nodded to the communication set-up.

   Dobbs grunted. 'We haven't much time. Macland? That's your baby...' he nodded to the communications equipment.

   'Uh huh. Hang on. I've got Sheridan's link tapped and blocked.' He sat down at the communications table and adjusted the controls. As voices came over the speaker he grinned. 'He's operated his link thinking C&C will pick it up and find out what's happening. Do we tell him, or let him keep hoping?'

   'For now, let him think he's getting somewhere. It may be in our interests later. Anything about Stern, yet?'

   Macland adjusted the controls once more to pick up the full range of internal comm. traffic. Listening intently he finally settled on one signal. It was a conversation between a security officer at the site of the bombing and Zack Allen.

   'Not much left, sir,' the officer was saying.

   'Any identification?' That was Zack's voice.

   'Nah. We're gonna need forensics on this one.'

   'OK. I'm on my way. Get someone to help you seal it off until we can get there, just in case.'

   Dobbs looked up. 'I'd better get over there. We can't afford for them to find anything that leads them to us.'

   'Like what? Doesn't sound like there's more than two cells still stuck together.' Taylor was annoyingly cool. 'Anyway, you're supposed to be off duty.'

   'They're calling everyone in. If I don't turn up somewhere they'll be suspicious. Alien sector is a mess, and the power loss seems to have been a signal to every low-life to come out of hiding and hit on everyone they can.'

   'Good luck to 'em.' Taylor had her feet up on a table, the pieces of a PPG rifle spread out over the table and in her lap as she cleaned and checked it. She was ex-marines. She'd been on the wrong side during the war between Clark and Sheridan, and her hopes of promotion had been dashed the minute Sheridan's forces turned up in Earth orbit. Her anti-alien sentiments had ensured there was no place for her in the new order - a fact made abundantly clear the first day her new C.O. arrived on the scene. There'd been clash of temperaments that had resulted first in an insubordination charge and eventually a dishonourable discharge. She had no fondness for authority any more. She barely tolerated Dobbs' leadership of the group, regarding it as a necessary evil if they were to achieve their aims.

   Dobbs turned on her. 'Idiot! You think they'll agree to our requests if the station is turned upside down with rioters?!'

   Taylor bristled. 'Look, Dobbs. I came in on this thing because you needed someone good with weaponry and tactics, and because you promised me we'd make Sheridan pay for the trouble he's caused. Other than that, I couldn't give a shit about your plan! If the place is a mess, good! It'll throw them off balance and make their lives pretty miserable, and that's just fine with me. And you come calling me an idiot again...' she raised the rifle which she'd been reassembling as she spoke 'and I'll ram this thing where the sun don't shine and let forensics sort out the mess.'

   Now it was Dobbs who exploded. 'And if I hadn't offered you this, what would you be doing, huh? Selling your arm to some stinking alien. We're on the side of Earth, remember?'

   'Shut up you two! I'm trying to listen.' Macland was bent over his communications equipment. Taylor was just about to pass some comment on what she thought of Earth and Dobbs' high ideals when Bryant linked in from the shuttle.

   'Station two to home base. Station two to home base. Come in home base.'

   Dobbs motioned Macland aside and sat down. He stared blankly at the makeshift array in front of him before Macland, rolling his eyes, indicated the transmission switch. Dobbs operated it as Macland sat on another chair and put his feet up on the table.

   'Home Base here. Is everything set?'

   'Cameras are up and running. Our guests are secure.'

*****

Bryant looked up as Robinson stuck his head in the doorway, the latter having been forced open after the power outage. Robinson gave a thumbs up and Bryant turned back to his comm. link. 'The back up is in place and ready to go if needed. We have targets plus three aliens.'

   Sheridan and Delenn looked at each other. There was no question now that this whole thing was planned from the start. Whoever was behind this was both organised and in with station security. Getting out of this mess was not going to be easy. As she looked at him, Sheridan looked down at the red light on his link which he was partially covering with his other hand. Everything the terrorists said was being broadcast. Apparently, they didn't know the President still wore his link while on station. Sheridan found this slightly curious, but so long as they didn't notice, he wasn't about to complain.

   As Bryant spoke, Kaplan gave Robinson his PPG and then relieved the Narn of her weaponry. Rather than move from person to person Robinson kept the PPG trained on Sheridan and Delenn. The Narn or the Ranger might be willing to risk their own lives. They wouldn't dare risk that of the President and the Head of the Alliance Advisory Council. Recognising the situation, most of the hostages watched the proceedings silently for now, which was more than could be said for the Narn.

   'You will pay for this! The Narn Regime will not stand for this treatment of one of its citizens! I am warning you. Ambassador G'Kar...'

   Kaplan interrupted '...isn't here. But I am. You've got a choice. You can either shut up, or I'll throw you out. Which is it going to be?'

   As Kaplan spoke he reached into the Narn's boot and took out a long knife. While he was thus distracted, Merann slid his fighting pike out of his tunic and passed it to Delenn who slid it underneath her without a change of expression. Sheridan saw the exchange and, when she looked at him, he frowned. His expression was clear: 'Is it going to be safe there?' She looked straight ahead at Robinson who, momentarily distracted by the Narn's frustrated yelling, now turned his attention back to them. Sheridan looked down and then back at Kaplan.

   The Narn hadn't quite realised how bad things were and was still angrily protesting the rights of citizens of the Narn Regime on board the station. Sheridan interrupted.

   'Our friend here is not too concerned with aliens' rights as I remember Mr.?.....'

   Kaplan smiled. 'You remember the important stuff. That's good. Maybe you'd like to explain to her what I do to troublemakers.' He moved on to the Gaim, but he wasn't carrying any weaponry. As he turned to Merann the latter made a lunge for the door, flinging his arm as if throwing something. Robinson was caught off guard for a second, but then the sound of a PPG powering up filled the shuttle. Kaplan had grabbed Merann's arm and twisted up behind his back. Now, as he pulled the Ranger to his feet, he increased the pressure and, with a sickening crack, broke it. Merann's face went white but he remained stoically silent. Delenn cried out at the sound and moved forward, but a combination of Robinson's PPG, the knowledge that Merann's pike was underneath her and would be revealed if she moved any further, and Sheridan's cry of 'No!' stopped her.

   Kaplan pushed the Ranger back into his seat and roughly pulled the seat restraints into place, bashing the broken arm in the process. Merann grunted and tears of pain welled up in his eyes, but he clenched his teeth together and lifted his face to stare defiantly at Kaplan.

   'You must have a death wish.' Kaplan rummaged through the Ranger's clothes and, coming up empty, shook his head. 'All that for a pike?'

   'It belonged to Durhan himself. Your hands should not sully it.'

   Kaplan shrugged, moving on to Delenn. 'I've already got a collection. You're not the first Ranger I've met.'

   Delenn frowned. 'A Ranger would not hand over...' she stopped as the implications of Kaplan's words sank in. He nodded, seeing her understanding.

   Sheridan watched Kaplan check Delenn for weapons, all the time tensed in case the man took his 'search' too far. But Kaplan seemed uninterested in such things. His search was just that, and he didn't ask her to stand up. He seemed to think it unlikely that she would be carrying a weapon, but he knew where Rangers kept their Denn'bok and checked that pocket thoroughly before moving on.

   Sheridan stared straight ahead as he was checked. He kept his hand covered throughout, until Kaplan calmly tapped on his wrist. 'C'mon.'

   Sheridan revealed the link and Kaplan smiled. He spoke clearly while looking straight into Sheridan's eyes. 'Home Base. I'm using Sheridan's link. Do you read me?'

   The voice on the link came back loud and clear. 'We read you, Station two. Prepare for next phase.'

   Delenn gasped, and the Narn cursed under her breath. Kaplan looked around, satisfied with the effect. Sheridan removed the link from the back of his hand and tossed it over his shoulder, out of the door. It was useless to him now, and perhaps someone would find it in the garden and work out what was going on. He managed to hide his frustration, but Kaplan didn't need to see it to know. Satisfied, he turned back to their communications equipment.

   'Ready.'

*****

'Hello?' The lights came on as he entered the room, but it was clear that, barring himself, there was no one home.

   Lennier was confused. He knew he was supposed to be dining with Sheridan and Delenn tonight in Sheridan's quarters, but there was no sign of them. He checked the chronometer again. It was not like them to be late. The door chime went off.

   'Come in.'

   It was the delivery man with the meal. Lennier had him set it down and, as he had done on numerous occasions before, signed for the meal and gave the delivery boy the usual tip on the credit chip. It did not matter that it was Delenn's credit chip. As a matter of practicality, Lennier had been given access to her account to pay for those ambassadorial requirements that it was his duty to organise. Delenn never questioned his pay-outs, and he never took advantage of her trust. It was simply not in his nature.

   After pacing for a while he sat down. He knew of the celebration and assumed they had been delayed rather longer than they had intended. He could wait. When Sheridan and Delenn had married, and once again as a matter of practical necessity, Sheridan had allowed Lennier access to his rooms. If they didn't wish to be disturbed, Sheridan simply left a message to that effect or changed his lock-code. It was always changed back again later. Nevertheless, Lennier always felt uncomfortable in Sheridan's quarters without Delenn there.

   He sat back and thought about the morning's conversation. He'd found himself spending a lot of his off-duty time (and considerable amounts of on-duty time, though he kept it well hidden) thinking about Sheridan and Delenn. He was determined that his head would rule his heart, but even all his years of training could not train out the one emotion he had thought himself incapable of experiencing: jealousy.

   He shook his head. No. That was not right. She was happy. What more could he wish for? His inner voice grew louder.

   'Fool! You know what you wish for! You wish she was happy with you instead.'

   'She was always destined for Sheridan. She would never love me.'

   'She might. She does care about you. Look at the way she touched you when Marcus gave his life for Ivanova. She told you not all love was unrequited. You know she was talking about her feelings for you.'

   'Yes! But not in that way.'

   'How do you know? You never asked. You never tried. Always the trusted acolyte. The aide who never lets her down. If Sheridan were not here...'

   Lennier stood up sharply and spoke aloud. 'NO! I MUST NOT think this way.' But the voice was insistent.

   'Why not? You don't have to do anything. Just make sure no one else does. This is a dangerous place. Accidents will happen...'

   Now Lennier grew frightened. Never had his inner self been so vindictive. For all his desire that Sheridan had not entered the equation, never once before had he ever wished the man... No!

   'Nineteen years. It's all you have to do. Just hang around for nineteen years. Or an accident.'

   Lennier smashed his hand down on the servery table. He didn't see the fork lying points-upwards on the table: a leftover from a meal some time before. Pain shot through him and silenced the voice. He cradled his hand and then examined the damage. Three bleeding points on the muscle. He regarded them. Three prongs on the fork. Three castes. The Three who are One. Himself, Sheridan and Delenn. Why was it always three? It was supposed to be sacred, so why did it feel so wrong? Why did he want it to be only two?

   He noticed that because of the angle of the hit one of the prongs had dug deeper than the others and was consequently bleeding more. One was building up, but not yet flowing, and the third was barely a red smudge. That was probably symbolic of something else, but he didn't want to think about it any more. He sucked the wound and then took out a handkerchief to bind it, making his decision as he did so.

   He walked to the Babcom console. 'Lennier to Lochley.' Captain Lochley's face appeared on the screen.

   'Yes, Lennier. What can I do for you?'

   'I believe there may be a problem with the President and Delenn.'

*****

Lochley regarded the Babcom screen for a while after Lennier's message. She'd seen Sheridan and Delenn leave the party. She knew they'd been on their way back to Sheridan's quarters. She linked in to C&C.

   'Lieutenant. Where is the President?'

   'I don't know, Ma'am. Would you like me to try to raise him?'

   'Please.'

   There was a pause and then 'Captain. According to his link, he's in the garden, but we can't get a response.'

   'Get security to check. Something isn't right here. And Lieutenant?'

   'Ma'am?'

   'Any news on the bomb?'

   'Not yet, Captain. Zack Allen went to take a look a few minutes ago.'

   'All right. Get back to me when you find out what's going on with the President.'

   'Yes sir. Corwin out.'

   Lochley tapped her fingers on the desk top for a minute before rising and straightening her jacket. No, she thought as she left her office, something definitely wasn't right.

*****

Dobbs shook his head. 'We might have been able to use that if Kaplan hadn't wanted to show off.'

   Macland shook his head. 'Sheridan would have guessed. No one's so stupid as to leave a link available. Once he'd found it, it was useless.'

   'Are we still connected?'

   'No. I don't want to risk their tracing it to here. I switched off the block as soon as it went silent.'

   'OK. Time this place paid the piper.' Dobbs cleared his throat. 'Are the scramblers ready?' Macland nodded. 'Good. Put me through to C&C.'

*****

Lochley had just reached C&C when Corwin received a strange message. He tapped his ear-piece a couple of times and shook his head as though to clear it. Lochley looked at him.

   'Lieutenant. Is there a problem?'

   'I'm not sure, Ma'am. I think it's a message but... Ahh. The system's adjusted. It's scrambled. Hold on, I'll put it on the speakers.'

   The voice was heavily distorted, but the meaning was loud and clear. '... and if you don't get a connection to ISN available to us in thirty minutes, they will die. I repeat, we have President Sheridan and Ambassador Delenn hostage. We want an open channel on which to broadcast our demands. You have thirty minutes. If you don't get a connection to ISN available to us in that time, they will die. We will contact you when the time is up.' The speaker went silent.

   'Can you trace it?'

   'Trying to, Captain.' Corwin's hands flew over his controls but to no avail. 'Couldn't get it. Sorry.'

   'All right. Send a copy to Mr Garibaldi's office. Perhaps he can trace it, or at least identify the voice. Has security found Sheridan yet?'

   'No Sir. Just his link. It was lying in one of the pools.'

   Lochley thought for a moment. 'He wouldn't throw it away without good reason, so it must have been taken by someone else. They didn't want him to use it. What's the nearest sector to that lake?'

   'Green sector, but that's ambassadorial chambers and a major security section. No one would take anyone there to hold them hostage. The only other place is the Waste Management Systems.'

   Lochley nodded. 'Downbelow. That'd make sense. Get some teams together. Tell them to sweep towards the explosion. The two must be connected.'

   'Aye sir.'

******

Dobbs looked at his chronometer. Two more minutes. He wiped his palms on his trousers. Taylor looked up.

   'You're gonna wear a hole in the floor you keep pacing like that. Relax. If they give us what we want, we win. If they don't, Sheridan dies and we still win.'

   'And if Sheridan dies, we lose our bargaining chip and might as well throw ourselves out the air-lock. I'd better remind Kaplan.'

   'Suit yourself. I'd let him have his fun if I were you.'

   'You're not.'

*****

'You can't keep us up here indefinitely you know.' Sheridan was slightly concerned by the Ranger's expression. He looked about to pass out. There was blood flowing down his arm where the bone had been forced through the skin, and the whole limb was swelling visibly. Given the relative density of Minbari bone structure, this maniac was either very skilled or very strong. Given his background, Sheridan suspected both. 'At least let us call for Medical.' Sheridan went to move to the communications equipment and found a PPG charging under his nose. He sat down again.

   'He'll live. Unless I say otherwise. You underestimate the Minbari. They take a long time to die. He'll be fine.'

   'Well what the hell are you waiting for?'

   Kaplan ignored him. He hated to admit that he was waiting on the orders of another. In point of fact, he was seriously considering going ahead anyway and to hell with Dobbs' plan. But there was a certain satisfaction in seeing the look on Sheridan's face. He was afraid. Not for himself, true. That would come later. For now he was afraid for the Ranger and for the others in the shuttle. Dobbs turned his PPG on Delenn, just to see the effect it would have. He saw the muscles along the side of Sheridan's jaw clench but the man said nothing. He suspected it was a ruse to get a reaction, clearly. Dobbs powered up the PPG again. He saw Sheridan tense. He was ready to throw himself in front of her if he had to. Dobbs backed away a little. If Sheridan wanted to throw himself into the line of fire, that was hardly Kaplan's fault. And it would guarantee at least one thing he wanted to achieve.

   He took aim.

   Dobbs came on line. 'Home Base to Station two. Come in Station two.'

   Kaplan lowered his PPG slightly, but held his position. Bryant responded.

   'Station two here. Go ahead.'

   'Remember to keep targets alive as long as possible. They're no good to us dead. Kaplan? Do you hear me? Save them 'til last!'

   Kaplan swore under his breath and Sheridan raised an eyebrow, but held his tongue. At least he had a name, now. And some time, apparently. He wondered how Kaplan would wreak his revenge. He was soon to find out.

 

Chapter 4

 

Corwin looked up. 'Captain. They're back. Putting them on speaker.'

   'Time's up, Captain. Do you have our connection?' came the distorted voice.

   'It's taking a little while to set up. It's late on Earth. ISN's asleep.' Lochley knew as she spoke that it was a poor excuse, but right now anything was worth a shot. Corwin raised his eyebrows but said nothing. The voice on the other end of the connection said what everyone was thinking.

   'You must think I came in with the last shipment, Captain. ISN is open around the clock. In any case, this station is set to Earth Standard Time. It's only nine forty-five there now. I'll give you a second chance, but just in case you think we're bluffing, a little down-payment. Look out below.' The line went dead.

   'Look out below?' Lochley stared at Corwin, who shrugged.

   'Beats me.'

*****

Zack surveyed the mess near the power relays. The smell of burned human flesh filled the air and he gagged. He was glad the task of clearing up fell to Medical. No matter how many times he encountered things like this, his stomach just couldn't seem to get used to it. However, he noted the same problem did not seem to afflict Michael Garibaldi, as the man strolled around the corner.

   'Hiya Chief.' Zack still occasionally called Garibaldi chief, even though, as head of covert operations, Garibaldi was not, strictly speaking, his boss any more. It was a sign of respect, and Garibaldi took it as such.

   'Zack,' Garibaldi nodded, 'What you found so far?'

   'Nothing yet. Only just got here. Don't think we're gonna find much, though. I mean, it's not like there's a lot left. I reckon he must've been right over it when the thing went off.'

   'So either he was plain stupid, or something unexpected happened.'

   'Yeah. Well, I'd go for stupidity.'

   'The big question is, was this a one-off? Is he alone, or part of a group?'

   'We got a report of another explosion by the back-up relays. Either he came back to this one, or there's someone else.'

   'Assuming it was a he, of course.'

   'You reckon it could have been a woman?'

   'Dunno, Zack. But something ...' He looked around, frowning. 'Something about all this just doesn't feel right. I don't think it's over yet. Not by a long shot.'

   Zack felt a chill come over him. Everyone had learned to listen when Garibaldi had one of his 'feelings'. They invariably proved correct.

   Garibaldi saw Zack's expression and decided to move on. 'Ah, it may be nothing. So. What's been affected so far?'

   'Well, the alien environment is the worst hit. They knocked out the back-up so we've had to bring in portable breathers and environment suits. It'll take a while to get it back on line. We've lost one kid already, but otherwise things are pretty light. Could'a been a lot worse.'

   'Yeah,' said Garibaldi, squatting down to examine what, to Zack, appeared to be a particularly gruesome piece of someone. 'That's what's scaring me. I mean, if you *really* wanted to do over the alien sector, how would you do it?'

   'Well, I'd use something less obvious. Something that'd kill most of 'em before they even realised they was in danger. And I'd make sure security was distracted enough that help wouldn't get here soon enough.'

   'Yeah. So would I. So what's the target here? This feels more like a distraction than the real thing.' Garibaldi thought for a minute. 'No effect on ambassadorial or command staff quarters outside the alien sector?'

   'Nah. It's all clear. The only other place that's havin' trouble are the restaurants and rest areas in the core. With the mirrors affected together with power it's pretty dark in there right now, and anyone who wants to get to the other end of the station via the core shuttle is screwed. It ain't goin' nowhere for a while.'

   'Any idea if there was anyone in the gardens or the Core Shuttle who might be a target?'

   'No idea. Apart from the ceremony there wasn't much going on today. The Captain's in C&C and no one else important would be taking the Core Shuttle at this time of night. Someone could'a taken a stroll in the gardens. You want that I send someone to see what gives?'

   Garibaldi looked thoughtful. 'Yeah. Good idea. And get someone in a jet pack to go up to the Core Shuttle. Better reassure whoever's in there that we're working on getting 'em down.'

   Zack nodded and went to tap his link when it beeped at him. He looked at Garibaldi and then answered.

   'Allen here. What's up?'

   'Chief. We've found President Sheridan's link in one of the pools. There was a call put through to C&C but it was scrambled. The Captain's got people out searching. We've got a hostage crises on our hands.'

   Garibaldi swore. 'I knew it!' He tapped his own link. 'Garibaldi here. Have you managed to trace the message?'

   'Not yet, sir. Captain Lochley had a copy sent to your office.'

   'God-damn it. She might've told me! I'm on my way. Garibaldi out.' He turned to Zack. 'I'm gonna go take a look at that message. Get forensics in here stat, and then get Medical to come clear up the mess before it becomes a health hazard.'

   'Sure thing, Michael.'

   Garibaldi nodded and left, muttering under his breath.

   Zack looked around and then turned back to his link. 'Pete. You still there?'

   'Here, Chief.'

   'Get Forensics down here stat. We gotta try and trace who this was.'

   'They're on their way. Anything else?'

   'No. I'm on my way back. Allen out.'

   Zack shook his head and turned, his foot landing in something the nature of which he didn't want to investigate in too much detail.

   'What the...? Oh Jeez! Just what I needed. Where the hell...?' He looked around for somewhere to wipe his shoe. He was still looking when Forensics turned up a few minutes later.

   'Found anything, Chief?'

   'I dunno. Any idea where this might be from? Uh, on second thoughts, don't answer that. I don't think I wanna know. Just get it off my shoe so I can leave without taking any evidence with me.'

   The tech looked at his shoe. 'Uh uh, chief. You're gonna have to leave that here. No knowing what might be caught in the grip.'

   'Great! Thanks a lot!' He hopped to the doorway and removed the offending shoe. 'When you're finished, just clean it up and return it, OK?'

   The tech nodded. 'Sure thing!'

   'And tell me when you find something.'

   

   *****

Kaplan was staring at the monitor screen while Bryant watched over the hostages. The Ranger, whose ashen appearance was now a cause for concern to all except the terrorists, turned to Delenn and began to say something in Minbari, but Delenn forestalled him.

   'Did you know our captor worked as a spy during the Earth-Minbari war? His understanding of Adronato is really very good. I suspect he understands the worker and warrior caste languages equally well.'

   Kaplan turned angrily and pointed his PPG at Delenn. 'Do that again and I'll kill you. And I don't give a damn if it's convenient or not!'

   Sheridan tried to intervene but Delenn stopped him with a shake of her head. 'It's all right, John.'

   Kaplan turned back to the monitor. Suddenly, the comm. beeped.

   'Go.'

   It was Dobbs. 'They need some encouragement. Give them a warning.'

   Kaplan grunted an acknowledgement and switched off the comm. Then he turned to his hostages, and the smile he gave had nothing to do with goodwill. 'Looks like your troubles are almost over,' he said, tapping the door frame with the gun. Robinson's head appeared from his vantage point atop the shuttle and Kaplan handed him his PPG. Robinson trained it on Delenn. Kaplan reached into a pocket a brought out a small flare, which he tied to the Ranger's cloak before releasing him from his seat and pushing him roughly towards the open door.

   Sheridan stared. 'You can't be serious? It'll kill him!'

   'Like I said, this ain't the first Ranger I've met. Say your goodbyes, kid. You're about to become a fly-boy.'

   The Ranger took a deep breath and pulled himself erect. He turned to Delenn and bowed, saluting both her and Sheridan in the traditional manner inasmuch as it was possible. 'Entil'Zha.' He turned back to Kaplan. 'We live for the One. We die for the One.'

   'Your choice. I'd say you've got the wrong one.' With that, Kaplan activated the flare and pushed the Ranger out.

   'No!' Delenn reached out, but Robinson's attention stalled her. 'I wouldn't if I were you.'

   The flare ignited and the Ranger fell. At first he seemed to almost float in mid-air, his good arm and legs flailing as he tried vainly to overcome the force of gravity, weak though it was. Delenn stared in horror as he began to slip further away from them, and then she turned and buried her face in Sheridan's shoulder as the Ranger's mass pulled him ever faster to the floor of the rotating station. Soon, all they could see was what looked like a shooting star, hurtling towards its destruction.

   Sheridan ground his teeth, holding Delenn tightly and saying with his look what he knew he could not say aloud. Whatever it took, Kaplan would pay for that.

*****

Since the Core Shuttle was out of commission, Garibaldi was forced to go the long way back to his office, and he decided to make the best of the situation by calling in on the teams searching the gardens en route. Their flashlights made them easy to track down.

   'Found anything?'

   'Not yet, sir.'

   'Well, keep searching. You never know...' His attention was distracted. 'What the...?'

   The security team looked up. The flare was hard to miss in the twilight, but what was that attached to it? Garibaldi's eyes were sharpest.

   'Oh hell!' He activated his link. 'Garibaldi here. Where's that jet pack for the Shuttle? I need it in the gardens now. We've got someone falling from up there.'

   'Can't get there in time.'

   'Shit!' Where was a Vorlon when you needed one? 'Where's he gonna land?'

   The security officer shook his head. 'Wherever it is, I'll lay you odds it won't be soft.'

   Garibaldi's link went off. 'Garibaldi, go.'

   It was Corwin. 'Mr Garibaldi. We've had a threat. They say they're giving us a warning and to 'look out below'. Be ready.'

   'Too late. We just got the message. I think I know where Sheridan and Delenn are.'

   Lochley linked in. 'Where?'

   Garibaldi winced as the body hit the ground, the flare marking the spot for all to see. He looked up and thought he spotted a faint light, but the purple after-image of the flare was still in his eyes. He shook his head. He didn't need to be able to see to spot the answer a mile off. 'In the Core Shuttle.'

*****

Delenn was horrified by Kaplan's action but, after her previous experience of the man, it was not entirely unexpected. Sheridan was more furious than surprised.

   'And you honestly believe killing him will encourage them to do as you ask?'

   'They know we mean business.'

   'And what if they still don't comply?'

   Kaplan looked at the Narn. 'Then it'll be time for another flying lesson.'

*****

Garibaldi, Lochley and Zack surveyed the core shuttle through infra-red glasses, but from this distance there wasn't much to see.

   'We need to send an assault team up there and take them out.' Lochley was nothing if not direct.

   'Captain, with all due respect, I'm not sure that's such a good idea.'

   Garibaldi bit his tongue and waited to hear Zack's reasoning. He agreed with him, but he doubted Lochley would.

   'And why is that, Mr. Allen?'

   'Well, because they can see us coming for a start. The cameras on that shuttle aren't a standard feature. And if they put them there, I'd guess they can see us as well as we can see them.' He weighed the binoculars in his hand. 'They were smart enough to get the President and Delenn in there and then take out the lights in the core. It ain't likely they'd forget the cameras would have to be infra-red.'

   Lochley thought. 'You may have a point. What do you propose?'

   'Get 'em their feed. Let's find out what they want. That'll stall 'em at least for a while, and we can get the core lights back on. Right now, they've got the advantage.'

   Garibaldi nodded. 'And one more thing, we should get some more jet packs ready. If they decide to throw out another guest we need to be ready to catch them this time.'

   'Agreed. See to it Mr. Allen.' She turned away, 'Mr. Garibaldi, I want a word with you.' As Zack called up the additional jet packs, Garibaldi and Lochley moved away. 'I need an explanation, Mr.. Garibaldi, and I need it now.'

   'What?'

   'How come the President and his wife were not guarded all the way back to their quarters?'

   'The ceremony was over.'

   'So?'

   'They live on this station, Captain. Or hadn't you noticed? I can't put a twenty-four hour guard on Sheridan. He resents the guards I DO put on him. Why don't *you* try?'

   'So long as he was engaged in an official station function, he was covered by station security. I am satisfied Mr. Allen discharged his duties to the full. As soon as the function was over it fell to you to see to it that he got back to his quarters safely.'

   'Oh come on, Captain. How the hell were we supposed to know there'd be a bunch of terrorists aboard?'

   'Well now, that brings me to my second question. How DID they get aboard? From where I'm standing, you're doing a pretty lousy job of intelligence work.'

   'Now look. Just because the President of the Alliance lives here doesn't mean I can go and search every single ship that docks looking for assassins. They don't wear a big badge, or have 'assassin' printed on their entry form. Now I'm doing the best I can, but unless Sheridan and Delenn suddenly decide to live cocooned in an isolation zone there's not a lot I can do.'

   'Then I suggest you find yourself another job, Mr. Garibaldi. You're clearly unsuited to this one.'

   Garibaldi saw red. Just who the hell did this woman think she was? He was just about to explode when Lennier's voice came out of the darkness. The aide had arrived silently and had been listening. Now he felt it was time to intervene. He bowed to Garibaldi and turned to Lochley, quietly distracting her and giving Garibaldi a chance to regain his composure before he said something he'd regret.

   'Captain. Is there any news of the President and Ambassador Delenn?'

   Lochley nodded and, handing Lennier the binoculars, pointed up. Lennier stared for a minute in confusion, then raised the binoculars to his eyes and peered at the core shuttle. After a pause he lowered them again. 'In there?'

   'We believe so. They just sent us a warning.'

   'In what form?'

   Garibaldi pointed to the still-visible flare, now losing its potency, but attracting flashlights to augment its dwindling illumination. 'They threw someone out.'

   Lennier blanched. 'Do you have any idea who it was?'

   'Not yet, but it won't be Sheridan or Delenn. They need them as a bargaining chip.'

   Lochley's link went off. 'This'll be them now. Lochley here. What have you found?'

   'Captain, the person thrown out was a Minbari Ranger. We're trying to find his identity card now. Hold on....' There was a pause and then, 'Here it is. His name was Merann.'

   Lennier bowed his head for a moment, and then looked up. 'Merann was our liaison with Minbar, and almost certainly delivering information on the development of the Alliance headquarters at Tuzenor. His clan will be informed.'

   Lochley nodded. 'OK, get him to Medlab. Dr. Franklin will have to deal with it. Lochley out.' Her link went off again. 'Yes?'

   'Another message from the terrorists, Captain.'

   'Put them through.' As the voice came over the link, Garibaldi's demeanour changed. 'What?'

   'I know that voice. It's distorted, but I'm sure I know it.'

   'Then you will be able to track them down. Good.'

   The voice on the link continued. 'So. Assuming you now understand we mean business, you have fifteen minutes to set up the ISN link, before we send you another gift.' The link went dead. Lochley tapped it again.

   'Corwin?'

   'Here, Captain.'

   'Get that ISN link established stat.'

   Garibaldi shook his head. 'Captain, hang on. Do we want to give them that much publicity?'

   'Are you determined to kill the President, Mr. Garibaldi?'

   'Hell no! But do you think it'll help the Alliance if people see its President held to ransom all over ISN?'

   'You should have thought of that when you were setting up your security procedures.'

   The two were now facing each other again, the antagonism sparking the air. Lennier intervened. 'Forgive me, but it seems to me that now is not the time for recriminations. We must work together if we are to resolve the problem. If Mr. Garibaldi has a suggestion, it would seem wise at least to listen to it.'

   Lochley was clearly furious, but she regained her composure and nodded. 'Very well. What?'

   Garibaldi, now given the chance to explain his idea, swallowed his own temper and nodded his thanks to Lennier. 'OK, look. Why not make it LOOK like they're on ISN without their actually BEING on it? I mean, they've gotta be either watching the channels somewhere on the station, or be in contact with someone off station who can feed them information, right?' Lochley nodded, non-committally. 'Now, we can block off station transmissions, or we can trace them to their source, or we can tap into them. All interstellar station communications have to pass through the main grid. There's just not enough power for a private line all the way back to earth. At worst, we can just block all outgoing transmissions except Gold Channel. It's standard procedure in situations like this anyway. Unauthorised hacking of Gold Channel is easily checked. So that means their only clue as to whether they're getting their moment of fame is the ISN broadcast we receive. We could ask the guys at ISN to do a special. They owe us a few anyway.' Here, Garibaldi looked pointedly at Lochley, but she refused to rise to his bait and merely raised her eyebrow. He carried on. 'All ISN broadcasts have a code to them. We couldn't fake it ourselves, and we don't have the broadcasters here, anyway. So, we ask them to do a special feed to Babylon 5, dealing with the issue, and ask 'em to be quiet on the rest of the network until we get this resolved. We can let 'em have the full story when it's all been sorted out. At least that way we still have some control over the situation. You know the panic this'll cause amongst the other Alliance Worlds if this gets out.'

   'I hate to point out the flaw in your brilliant plan.' Lochley's voice was dripping with sarcasm. 'But as you may perhaps have noticed, there are rather a lot of network connections throughout the station. How do you plan to prevent anyone but the terrorists from seeing it?'

   'By finding out where the hell they are first. Look, at the very least we can blank out the Ambassadorial quarters and the public areas from that feed. Leave them with the standard one, and channel the special to other areas.'

   'These other areas wouldn't include places such as the more populated regions of Downbelow, would it?'

   'We can cut off public transmissions in those areas completely. Keep only the private ones working. We can't run the risk of their seeing two different versions. They'll realise what we're doing.'

   'And this is an improvement? All the Downbelow section hearing about it?'

   'It's the best we can do, and we're running out of time. At the very least, it'll minimise ambassadorial panic. Do you REALLY want Londo or G'Kar breathing down your neck?'

   Lochley sighed. 'Not especially. All right. But you have less than ten minutes. I suggest you hustle.'

   Garibaldi was gone before Lochley finished the sentence. Lennier watched her. 'Excuse me, Captain, but I was wondering... What is your antagonism toward Mr. Garibaldi?'

   Lochley was stunned at the straightforward nature of the question. 'I don't believe that is any of your business, Mr. Lennier.'

   'Of course. I apologise, Captain.' Lennier bowed, making the sign of the triluminary. With a last look, he turned and disappeared into the darkness.

   Lochley shook her head, and set off towards C&C. But Lennier's question had troubled her. Garibaldi was the only person (apart from Sheridan while she was married to him) who immediately raised her hackles. He was a recovering alcoholic, which in and of itself made her uncomfortable. She knew all too well the dubious reliability of those with drug problems, even those who claimed to have it well in hand. He'd sold Sheridan to Clark. True, she'd been fighting for Clark at the time, but Garibaldi wasn't, and she had no patience with traitors. OK, he was supposedly under Psi Corps influence at the time (privately, she wasn't altogether convinced of that argument. It sounded too much like a convenient alcoholic excuse), but even so... It was said that under the type of programming Garibaldi had supposedly been exposed to (she'd read ALL the reports on the matter) no one would do something they really didn't want to do. So there must have been some element in Garibaldi that was willing, in order for the Corps to bend him to their will, and that element wouldn't disappear when the Psi Corps programming was removed. She didn't trust him.

   She walked down the corridor and summoned a transport tube. Entering, she nodded to the Pak'Ma'Ra occupant, and stood 'at ease' awaiting her stop. Still Lennier's question nagged. There was one other thing in particular she knew was causing the clash between herself and Garibaldi: he was as strong-minded and determined as she. Worse, he still felt free to break the rules when it suited him, and he had an annoying habit of getting it right. Lochley felt bound by the rules. In her youth she'd turned her back on society, rebelling against the strict governance of her Marine father and becoming a drug addict and a dropout. She'd learned her lesson. There was no excuse for her behaviour. The world did not owe her a living. As a result she was strict with everyone, demanding the highest standards of all, but most of all herself. Unforgiving of those moments when people lost control. Unforgiving of people like Garibaldi.

   'He's too like me!' she muttered. The Pak'Ma'Ra turned to her, its expressive forehead wrinkling at her in query. She smiled and shook her head. 'Sorry. Thinking out loud.' The Pak'Ma'Ra looked at her a second longer, and then shook itself as its stop was reached. With a nod it exited the transport tube. Lochley continued to her destination.

*****

Lennier was looking up into the darkness of the core. Somewhere up there, shrouded in twilight, was the shuttle and Delenn. And here he was, safe and frustrated. There had to be something he could do.

   'Mr. Allen?'

   Zack turned. 'Hmm?'

   'Is there something I can do to help?'

   'Ahhh. Nah. Not really, Lennier. Right now all we can do is wait and find out what they want.'

   'I understand. But I would like to help should the opportunity present itself.'

   Zack was distracted. 'Yeah, yeah. I'll let you know if there's anythin' you can do to help. 'Scuse me.' He went to talk to one of his security officers, and then left the garden.

   Lennier looked up again. 'There's nothing I can do down here,' he muttered. 'I have to get up there.' He stood, deep in thought for a while, and then followed Zack out of the core.

*****

Garibaldi was talking to the ISN producer. A woman who, fortunately, had worked her way up from the bottom and knew the set-up inside out. '... and can you stall them, for just a few minutes?'

   'What do you need?'

   'We're trying to isolate the info feeds across the station. So we don't just need two feeds from you, we need the second one for the terrorists to be indistinguishable from your usual broadcasts. Can you do it?'

   'Ahh, well. We can use set B. The one we usually use for interviews?'

   Garibaldi shook his head. 'Nah. They'd expect to be the main story.'

   'Well we can't use the main set. It'd throw off our other viewers. They'd know something was wrong.'

   'OK. Can you make it *look* like the main set?'

   The producer turned to her staff around the table. Muttered comments were followed by an assurance. 'Yes. We can do that.'

   'OK. I'll give you the go ahead when we can go on line. Mean time, you're going to have to stall this guy. Give him a reasonable excuse as to why you can't start immediately. He's smart, so make it good.'

   'Technical difficulties are NEVER hard to generate. I'm sure we can come up with something convincing. You want them to think they're being seen all over the network, right?'

   Garibaldi nodded. In the background, a constantly changing voice kept repeating the threats. Garibaldi was filtering the voice records in an effort to isolate the terrorist's real voice.

   'OK. When he comes back on line, give him to me. I handled Clark's interrogators, this shouldn't be too hard!' The producer gave a slightly nervous smile. Garibaldi nodded. 'And when this is over, do I have Captain Lochley's assurance ISN can have exclusive reporting rights to the whole incident?'

   Garibaldi swallowed. If this went wrong, it would be the worst thing that ever happened to the Alliance. On the other hand, if it went right, it would not only show that terrorist methods were not tolerated within the Alliance, but that they couldn't win no matter who they attacked. Either way, ISN had to have their promise. 'Yep. So let's hope it all works out OK, or this is gonna be a real depressing broadcast.' The producer nodded. Garibaldi looked at the chrono. 'One minute before he comes back. Get ready.'

   Garibaldi returned his attention to the voice filter. 'Let's see. Whoever it is, at least one of them has to know the station real well. That means its probably either military staff or a permanent resident.' He stood up, pacing the room. He didn't have time for this right now. He contacted Zack. 'Hey, Zack! How're you doing with the feeds?'

   'Getting there, Michael. I reckon another ten minutes or so to isolate all the public terminals from the private ones, and split the signals. Man, this is a nightmare. You any idea how many pieces of creative rewiring we've encountered? Station maintenance is always having to re-do this stuff, but I had no idea...'

   Both received the message from Corwin simultaneously. 'It's the terrorists.' Corwin linked them all in to the latest message.

   'Are you ready now?' asked the distorted voice. <Damn, but it was familiar!> Garibaldi listened as the ISN people took over.

   'This is Philippa Laker, Producer at ISN. Mr..... uh.....?'

   'Nice try. Forget it. Just get me on air. I'll know if you're lying to me. I'm watchin' the channel right here, so don't try anything.'

   Garibaldi nodded to himself. He'd guessed right. Now to see how ISN handled it.

   'Of course. We're setting up the link now. Shouldn't take more than, oh....' Garibaldi flashed his two hands twice at the monitor. He wanted twenty minutes. Laker could see Garibaldi on a monitor in front of her. She passed on the message. 'About twenty minutes.'

   The terrorist wasn't having any of it. 'Twenty minutes? Forget it. You've had long enough already.'

   'Look, Mr. whoever-you-are, we were only just contacted. You've got our attention, and we'll fix up the link as fast as we can, but these things take time. Now it's your choice: you wait 20 minutes, or you get nothing. I can't move any faster than that. You want this done properly, right? Not as a messy side issue shoved into the basketball reports. We're getting our star Babylon 5 reporter for you, but she wasn't ready, and no way will she go in front of the cameras looking like she was dragged through a hedge backwards. This is a combined visual/audio and audio only feed. We're not going to have her staring into thin air in there. At least we need to root out some up to date pictures of the hostages and some feed-back from the security cameras on B5. They have to set up a feed to us. It would also help if we knew something about your motives so the interviewer isn't just flying by the seat of her pants.'

   'No way. You could just edit it or switch me off. I've seen how ISN works. I wanna hear myself on the news as I speak. You hear me? And any more stalling and another hostage gets it.'

   Garibaldi linked into the core. 'Garibaldi to core security. You got some jet packs on down there? They're threatening to dump another hostage.'

   'We're ready. We'll catch the next one.'

   Laker tried to calm him. Garibaldi was impressed. The woman had clearly earned her promotions. 'OK. You'll hear yourself. Don't worry. We'll make sure everyone hears your demands. Look. We can't call you 'Mr. Terrorist'. It sounds ridiculous. Give us *something* the reporter can use. A nickname, anything.'

   There was a pause. Garibaldi gave the thumbs-up to Laker. Every second of stalling was working in their favour. The voice came back.

   'OK. Yeah, I'll give you a name. You can call me Michael Allan. Now, you've got ten minutes, lady. Or it's bye-bye to the Narn.'

   Laker turned to Garibaldi as the connection to the terrorist went dead. 'Michael Allan?'

   'He's taken my first name and Zack's last. It ain't his real name.'

   'Sure?'

   'I'll double check, but yeah. Only an idiot would gave out his real name, and this one ain't stupid. Are you ready?'

   'Hey, whenever you are!'

   'Zack?'

   'Five minutes longer, Michael, and we'll have everything ready.'

   'OK. Good.' Garibaldi leaned back in his chair. There came a bleep from the computer.

   'Voice match found.'

   'YES! OK, who is it?'

   'Voice identified as Timothy Dobbs. Security. Hired...'

   'Off.' Garibaldi punched the table. 'Dammit! Of course. That's why he was accessing the shuttle maintenance tubes. Ah, nuts! Garibaldi to Lochley.'

   'Lochley here.'

   'Captain. We've got the terrorist's voice. It's Timothy Dobbs. He's one of the station security officers. He was on duty outside the Observation Deck earlier this evening.'

   'You're sure?'

   'Yeah. I was talking to him.' Garibaldi sighed. While station security was Zack's responsibility now, it still irked him to know it was one of their own who'd betrayed them. Not to mention he had some idea of the anvil of fury that would be descending on Zack very shortly. 'We'll get a team to check out his quarters, but I doubt he'll be there. He'll have rented somewhere else. Garibaldi out.'

   Dammit! Dobbs was one of those he felt sure would be on the fast-track to promotion. Intelligent, quick, efficient. All the best traits for a security officer, all the worst for a terrorist they had to beat. He linked in to Zack. 'We've got a name, Zack.'

   'Yeah? Who?'

   'Dobbs.'

   'Ah shit! The captain's gonna go nuts.'

   'Uh huh. Meet you at his quarters in five minutes. Bring a full security and bomb disposal team. I have the feeling we're gonna need it.'

 

Chapter 5

 

Zack and Garibaldi arrived at the same end of the corridor almost simultaneously, both puffing slightly from the run. A security team was already in place, and checks had been made to see if the corridor was wired for cameras or bombs. A thumbs-up from the officer who had slowly worked his way to the door signalled the all clear. Garibaldi linked in to the rest of the team.

   'OK. As far as we know they're not aware we're onto 'em yet. We don't even know if he's in there. I suspect not, but be ready. Where's Davies?'

   The bomb disposal expert pushed his way through the crowd. 'Here.'

   'OK. We'll open the door and make sure there's no one waiting to blow your brains out the second you stick your head round the corner. Then we'll let you go in and check for devices. Usual routine. Forage and secure. This one is tricky, so watch yourself. Clear?'

   'When aren't they? Yeah, I've got it.'

   The other members of the team nodded and Zack and Garibaldi crept along the wall to the door. Zack inserted his door override and, as the door swung partially open, one marksman trained his infrared sight through the gap, checking for habitation. He nodded to his companion who pushed the door up, and the two stepped inside, flattening themselves against the wall. Davies followed them, indicating they were to keep quiet. Wearing infrared goggles he checked for any photo-sensitive trips and, satisfied there were none, activated the lights. As the room became illuminated he moved forward slowly, sweeping the area with a hand-held scanner until he reached the door to the vibe shower. Finding nothing he nodded to the other two who swept across the room and pushed the door in. Nothing.

   Turning back as Garibaldi entered, Davies' machine began to flash. He raised his hand to stall Garibaldi's entrance and waved the device around until he pinpointed the source. He waved his hand behind his back, and the two security officers exited swiftly. Garibaldi remained in the doorway, waiting to hear the result. Davies worked his way to the computer console, pausing just in front of it. He pulled a can out of his cargo pocket and sprayed the air. A thin, green laser light showed up over the computer console. Garibaldi shook his head and pulled back. It figured the whole thing would be set up to prevent anyone getting at the computer. If there was anything likely to hold information, that was it.

   Davies traced the light to its source, then pulled out a reflective pad which he swiftly inserted between the laser light and its mirror, sending the shortened beam back to the receptor without first crossing the computer console. Lying flat on his back he peered up at the device to see if there were any wires or other booby traps. Satisfied there were none, he pulled out his rolled-up equipment pouch from another pocket and carefully explored the bomb using mirrors and then a sensor. Satisfied as to the nature of the device he withdrew a small screwdriver from the packet and carefully removed the front plate, revealing the circuitry inside, checking all the time for booby traps. That done he inserted a tiny mirror into a laser connector, redirecting the beam around the main trip, and then deactivated it. Sweating, he removed the mirror slowly, muttering his usual imprecations to whatever powers that be that he might not get to see their faces *too* soon. Nothing. He pulled the device from the wall and handed it to another security officer who came in to collect it. He then turned a switch on his detector and scanned the room again. Sighing, he turned back to Garibaldi.

   'All clear. You can come in now.'

   Garibaldi sighed, wiping his mouth and top lip free of the sweat that had accumulated. 'Thanks, Davies. I owe ya.'

   'Any time. You can buy me one in Earheart's tonight.'

   'You betcha. You gonna take that down to the lab?'

   Having put his equipment back in his pockets, he retrieved the bomb from the other member of the team, turning it over in his hands as he spoke. 'Yeah. I doubt he'll leave any clues, but you never know. Good luck with the computer. This guy is good. I'll lay odds he's wiped it clean.'

   'Yeah, well, we'll see how good his wipe is. Let me know if you find anything.'

   'Sure thing.' With a jaunty toss of the device, Davies left the room and headed for the transport tube. Zack and the others started to scan the room for other clues, while Garibaldi went to the computer and switched it on.

   'Let's hope the bastard screwed up.' He scanned the files, but there was nothing but the standard installations. 'Zack, we're gonna have to take this one down to the lab too. See if they can resurrect any data.'

   'OK. Jethro, you and Dan get the core of that thing out and down to the lab.'

   Zack and Garibaldi continued to explore the room while the officers disconnected the core of the computer. As they did so, a little light went off. It was tiny, invisible, and since it was merely a piece of internal rewiring, none of Davies's scanners would have picked it up. But over in another part of the station, a warning light gave the terrorists all the information they needed.

*****

'Damn! They're on to me.' Dobbs activated the link to Kaplan. 'They know it's me. Watch yourself. If anything goes wrong, you know what to do.'

   'Got it,' came Kaplan's voice.

   Dobbs switched off the connection and picked up a small transmitter lying by the communications unit. 'Bye-bye, guys.'

*****

In the transport tube, Davies was exploring the innards of the device in his hand. As he did so, a small light blinked briefly into life.

   'Oh shit!'

   The explosion rocked the section and Garibaldi and Zack turned as one towards the transport tube.

   'DAVIES!' yelled Garibaldi, and shot off towards the tube. Using his security override he forced the doors open to find nothing but debris and the mutilated remains of Davies. Feeling sick he turned away as Zack came up behind him, took one look and then joined Garibaldi. The latter thumped the bulkhead in fury and then turned to Zack.

   'Goddammit, I want this bastard found! I'm gonna tear him apart with my bare hands. I want him found, Zack, and I don't care how you do it!'

   'We'll get on to the computer core ASAP.'

   'Get it checked first. And I MEAN checked. Don't leave ANYTHING to chance.'

   'You got it.' Zack ran back to the room and ordered Jethro and Dan to put the core down. Then he linked in to call up another disposal expert, before contacting Medlab to come and pick up the remains.

*****

In C&C Corwin received another call.

   'Shouldn't have gone looking for me. I want that link to ISN NOW, do you understand me?'

   'We're working on it.'

   'You have TWO MINUTES. After that, the Narn is dead.' As the channel was shut down Corwin turned to Lochley. 'What the hell happened?'

   At that moment, Lochley's link went off. 'Lochley here, go.'

   'Davies was just blown up in the transport tube. There was nothing on the computer, but we're taking it to the lab. We'll let you know if we find anything. Zack out.'

   Lochley turned to Corwin. 'Answer your question, Lieutenant-commander?'

   A pall fell over C&C. Davies was popular. One of those who lived life to the full and encouraged others to do the same. Lochley gauged the atmosphere and then cleared her throat. 'OK. We know what we're up against, and we've ALL got a reason to get results. Get to it people. Use any and all methods and find a way.'

   Spurred by anger and grief the crew set to work, following every lead available on Dobbs and his associates. They'd been working hard before. Now they were like people possessed. Lochley contacted ISN. 'We've got trouble. You're gonna have to talk to them in less than a minute. You ready?'

   'We are. The question is, are you?'

   Lochley contacted Zack. 'Chief, have you got the ISN feeds isolated yet?'

   'Almost. One last piece of jimmy-rigging and we're clear.'

   'We have less than a minute, Mr. Allan. Expedite it!'

   'Understood.' Zack contacted the mechanics working on the feed. 'Where does that feed go to?'

   'A couple of sections of Blue Sector.'

   'Then they'll have to live without their ISN for a few hours. Shut it down, fast!'

   OK, Chief.' Mack looked at Bo. 'Suggestions?'

   Bo turned to the security guard standing behind them. 'Can I borrow your PPG for a second here?'

   The officer handed Bo the PPG who turned to Mack. 'You want the honours on this one?'

   'Nah, never liked those things anyway. Go ahead.'

   All three backed away and Bo shot the console, causing sparks to fly out in all directions. Mack inspected the damage and smiled, turning to the security officer who, with a slightly surprised look on his face, was holstering the PPG. 'You can tell the Captain the problem's solved.' Then he turned to Bo. 'You any idea how long it'll take to fix that molten mess?'

   ''Bout two day's overtime I reckon. Time for lunch?'

   'Sure. You got any o' them sandwiches you had the other week?'

   'If I had, I ain't swapping 'em for any more o' that damn spoo!'

   'Nah. This time I got the good stuff. Minbari flarn! They rave about it.'

   'Really? You sure?'

   'Well, Delenn suggested I try it.'

   'When did you talk to her?'

   'Last week. We talk often.'

   'Oh yeah! Like she's always hanging out in the maintenance corridors.'

   'Hey. She likes me!'

   'She likes both of us.'

   The security officer shook his head as the two disappeared around the corner, still arguing.

*****

Back in C&C, ISN was waiting as Dobbs' came back on line. 'You ready now?'

    Laker was prepared and Corwin linked the two up. 'OK, Michael Allan, or whatever your name is, we have Susan Henderson as your interviewer. She's one of our top reporters. We go on in one minute.'

*****

Dobbs watched the ISN feed on his monitor. 'Taylor. Go outside and check the corridor monitors, will you? I wanna make sure we're seeing the real thing here.'

   Taylor sighed and put aside the rifle. 'You wanna drink while I'm out there?'

   'Just tell me if it's real. I'll have a drink when this is all over.'

   'Whatever you say.' There was a hint of insubordination in her voice, but Dobbs ignored it. He no longer cared about Taylor's opinion. Things were moving fast, and his fifteen minutes of fame were about to be realised. He'd get to say his piece and the whole world would know that many on Earth still objected to the alien influences. They had their bargaining chips, and even if they were caught, they'd get their revenge at the very least. Nothing was going to detract from this moment of victory. Nothing.

   Taylor went to the door and stepped out, checking her surroundings carefully before sauntering down to the nearest bar.

   There she ordered a beer just as ISN interrupted a sports broadcast. The words 'News Bulletin' flashed up on the screen to a chorus of groans from those who had been engrossed in the baseball match between Mars and the underdogs from Europa who were putting up a remarkable fight for the championship.

   The groans turned to astonished silence as the face of Susan Henderson appeared saying 'We are interrupting this broadcast to give you a live report from Babylon 5. At this moment, the President and First Lady of the Interstellar Alliance are being held to ransom by terrorists in the core shuttle. Reports just in suggest that one of the terrorists was killed as a bomb planned to disrupt the atmospheric controls of the alien sector exploded unexpectedly. One Gaim child died as a result of the failure of atmosphere controls.'

   In the bar one man cheered, and a drunk muttered 'Bloody insects. Serves 'em right.'

   Taylor accepted her beer without comment from the barman, keeping one eye on the broadcast, and another on the reactions of the customers.

   'Since then one of the Minbari Rangers who was in the Core Shuttle with the President and First Lady has also been killed, we assume while he was trying to protect them. A third death occurred when a bomb disposal expert became the victim of a booby trap. Sources on Babylon 5 say that the terrorists are well organised and one may even have managed to breach their security, though this is as yet unconfirmed.'

   'Yeah. Like they'd admit it!' The customer grinned at the room. 'Looks like our Mr. Allan has his hands full! Fancy a bit of fun, anyone?'

   'Shut up!' came another voice. 'I'm tryin' to listen.'

   The first speaker tried to remonstrate but was silenced by a chorus of shushes from the rest of the room. Taylor sighed. A perfect opportunity for mayhem lost to media fascination. She downed her drink and went back to her room. There the ISN feed continued.

   'ISN has been granted exclusive coverage of this event, and we are now on-line with one of the terrorists who identified himself as 'Michael Allan' although we have been advised that this is probably not his real name. Mr. Allan, you have asked to make your demands known. What is your message to the members of the Interstellar Alliance, and what forced you to take such extreme measures to achieve your aims?'

*****

In C&C Lochley turned to Corwin. 'This had better be good!' she muttered.

   Corwin merely raised his eyebrows. They both knew it would be another piece of anti-alien rant. Lochley nodded.

   'I know. You could write the script, couldn't you?'

*****

Garibaldi, Zack and a number of the security forces were also clustered around a monitor. Many had their arms folded, while others were tapping their PPG's, waiting to hear the voice of the man they wanted to kill. Garibaldi sought to calm them.

   'Keep your ears open. ANY clue as to where they're broadcasting from that you can pick up, let me know.'

*****

Up in the shuttle, Sheridan squeezed Delenn's hand as they listened to the report relayed over the communications equipment. They hadn't known about the other deaths, and Sheridan shook his head as the news came in.

   'Children?'

   'Aliens,' muttered Kaplan, dismissively. 'Doesn't matter if they're adults or kids. They're still aliens.'

   'You do not seem to care that one of your own has been killed.' Delenn was trying to find some chink in Kaplan's armour, but there was none.

   'He was an idiot. Deserved what he got.'

   Bryant looked up 'Sometimes people have to be sacrificed. You know that as well as I do.'

   Sheridan gave up. He wanted to hear the demands and there was nothing he could say to sway these men until he understood their motivation. Not that he thought there would be much he could do even then, but he could hope. He felt Delenn cover his hand with her own and he turned to her. She shook her head. She knew as well as he that unless security could find a way to pick off the terrorists, or at least incapacitate them, they were both going to die. Even if the demands were met (and Sheridan seriously doubted that would be possible), Kaplan was enough of a loose canon that he suspected they'd both be shot anyway. He put his arm around her, and then heard the sound of a PPG charging. Looking up he saw Robinson levelling the weapon at them.

   'Careful, Mr. President. I'm watching you.'

   'She's my wife. She's frightened. It's what you wanted, isn't it?'

   'Oh, I want a lot more than that,' said Kaplan, looking over his shoulder. 'And before the end of the day, I reckon I'll get it, too.'

   Sheridan sighed and hugged Delenn more tightly. There HAD to be a way out of all this.

   Dobbs' voice came over the communications equipment. 'We are NOT terrorists, either by choice or in fact. We represent an ever-growing number of people on Earth who are concerned about the growth of alien influence on our planet. We have been forced to these extreme measures by the present situation. We do not feel that Earth can or will be well represented by the Earth Alliance President or the Captain of this station while they are under the influence of aliens. While we recognise the right of any person to marry or sleep with whomsoever they choose, we do not think that those who marry aliens, or who are in regular contact with same, can claim to be free from prejudicial influence. We believe that the representative of Earth should be from Earth, resident on Earth and for Earth. President Sheridan has made it clear that he intends to move to Tuzenor on Minbar as soon as the facilities are complete. We do not have to remind anyone that the Minbari were a terrible enemy of Earth who tried to annihilate us, despite our repeated efforts to surrender. That they finally realised they could not defeat us and surrendered was a tribute to the efforts of our soldiers and pilots who fought to the end. To now hand over our sovereign rights and be dictated to from Minbar is unacceptable. President Sheridan's continued presence as leader of the Interstellar Alliance is an insult. Earth's continued subjugation at the hands of that Alliance is also an insult. We have tried to explain this reasonably.'

   At this Sheridan balked 'That's not true. I've never even HEARD of you people before now!' Kaplan charged his PPG in response and Sheridan fell silent.

   'Now we are using the only method left to us. We are ready to die in the name of our cause. We can no longer tolerate this situation. We therefore demand that: (One) President Sheridan be removed as head of the Interstellar Alliance. His presence is a falsehood. With the half-blood Delenn at his side he can never truly speak either for Earth, or without prejudice to Earth. He was a traitor to Earth and his continued presence at the head of the Alliance makes a mockery of Earth justice, insulting those who died in the Earth-Minbari War, and the recent war of alien aggression. (Two) We demand that the force known as 'the Rangers' be banned from entering Earth-controlled areas of space. Earth will not be dictated to by puppets whose strings are pulled by alien governments. (Three) We demand that all aliens living on Earth-controlled planets be recognised as the threat they represent to Earth security and be deported. (Four) We demand the Babylon station be brought back into earth controlled space to act as a command centre in case of invasion, or destroyed. Its continued existence in its present form is unacceptable. (Five) We demand the release and reinstatement of those accused of being traitors to Earth during President Clark's administration. They are heroes, not traitors, and should be recognised as such. (Six)…

*****

One of the security guards behind Garibaldi groaned 'Oh Jeez! How many points does this idiot have? Is he EVER gonna shut up?'

   'Shh,' said another. You hear that noise in the background?'

   All ears were suddenly attuned to the sound and Garibaldi ordered 'Computer, increase volume.' A distinctive throbbing could be heard dimly in the background. Garibaldi grunted 'That's the waste reclamation system. It could be a red herring. That's where our last mad bomber hung out. It's in the reports. Dobbs has been studying hard. I wouldn't put it past him to set up a recording in the background to lay a false trail.'

   'But worth looking into, surely?' The young recruit's face showed both an eagerness and a concern. He didn't want to miss a chance to nail Dobbs and he suspected Garibaldi might be over-analysing the situation.

   'Oh, we're gonna check all leads. I just don't think that one'll pan out. But you never know, we might get lucky. Zack, you wanna take a security detail and start checking out the sections around waste reclamation?'

   'Pretty big area, Michael. Any suggestions on how we narrow it down a bit?'

   'Nope. Just do the best you can.' As the huddle of security officers began to disperse Garibaldi turned back to the monitor. 'Man, I have had enough of this!' and with that he snapped off the monitor.

*****

In the computer labs the technicians were using every trick they knew (and a few they were inventing) to try to retrieve information. As they reconstructed the bits and pieces of data still encoded into the computer core, a pattern began to emerge.

   'You know, I reckon this guy must have done a course on data destruction. I've never seen such a thorough job!' Stacski, the more junior of the two techs presently analysing the data, was shaking his head. 'I sure hope nothing depends on this.'

   'Shh. Hang on, I think I might've found something.' Crowther's face was illuminated by the readouts flickering across her monitor over which she was poring. Stacski tried to see over her shoulder but without success.

   'Well, come on. What have you got?'

   'I'm not sure. I *think* it's part of an appointments' schedule.'

   'Ah, that's probably from the person before. I mean, it's not like he's gonna keep a diary, is it? 'Monday, buy bombs, Tuesday, capture President, Wednesday...''

   Crowther looked over her shoulder. 'According to the computer, this was accessed in the last two days.'

   'You're kidding? Well, what's it say?'

   'Not much. Let's see...' she typed in some commands, her hands flying over the consoles in a complicated high-speed whirl. 'OK, so far I've got a name, a date, and two initials, ST. That could be the beginning of a name, or another word, or just his own code. Not much use there.'

   'What's the name?'

   'Heinlein.'

   'Huh? Who he?'

   Crowther bent over another console. 'Well, if my guess is right, he's a twentieth century science fiction writer.'

   'So the guy likes SF, big deal.'

   Crowther checked another readout and smiled. 'It is also, my friend, the name of a passenger transport that docked here just over a week ago.' She tapped the console thoughtfully. 'You know, I think it's time we got some religion.'

   Stacski frowned and Crowther shook her head. 'How long have you been here, Peter?'

   Stacski drew himself up to his full height, such as it was. 'Fourteen months.'

   'And you've NEVER run into Brother Theo? How did you manage that?'

   'Who?'

   Crowther shook her head and activated her link. 'Crowther to C&C. Can you patch me through to Brother Theo, please?'

   There was a pause and then... 'Theo here. How may I help you?'

   'I think I've got some work that's right up your alley. We've got a recording of a meeting with the transport Heinlein that docked nine days ago. We've got what *may* be the initials of the person our terrorist was meeting, but I can't be sure. We need to go through all the files ASAP and see if we can track down anyone and everyone who is still here, is not alien, and who might be one of our terrorists. It's a tall order, but as you say...'

   'Faith manages. My brothers and I will be happy to assist you, Sarah. What are the initials?'

   'ST. Not much to go on, I'm afraid.'

   'It's a start. Can you clear my brothers and me for access to the station logs?'

   'Consider it done. Crowther out.' She tapped her link again. 'Crowther to C&C.'

   'C&C here, go.'

   'Can you give Brother Theo full access to the station logs for incoming and outgoing passengers for the past nine days, starting with the passenger transport Heinlein?'

   There was a short pause and then 'Cleared. Have you got something?'

   'Not sure. It's up to Theo now. We'll see if we can unscramble any more down here. Crowther out.'

*****

In C&C Corwin linked in to Lochley. 'Captain, the techs think they may have something, and they've handed it over to Brother Theo's order to track down. I gave them full access to the passenger logs. Do you want me to follow it up from here?'

   'No need. I'll get over there myself. Lochley out.'

   Corwin looked out at the stars in front of him. 'If you do exist,' he muttered, 'we could sure use some help in here.' One of the techs looked up and Corwin gave a half smile. 'It can't hurt to ask!'

   'You only just started?' The tech returned to her console, muttering. 'I've been praying since this whole thing began!'

*****

When Lochley found Brother Theo, he was poring over his own data pad while watching over the work of ten others of his order who were carefully and silently scanning all the records that had been sent.

   'Anything?'

   Theo indicated that Lochley should lower her voice so as not to disturb the brothers in their work and moved her away from the main area. 'So far we have managed to narrow the field considerably. Of the nine hundred and seventy-eight aboard the Heinlein that day, Four hundred and thirty-five were alien.'

   Lochley was surprised. 'That many on an earth transport?'

   'The dispossessed of the Shadow War will be with us for many years, Captain, and Earth is doing its best to help them.' Lochley nodded and Theo continued. 'Of the remainder, all but forty-three have either moved on or returned. Babylon 5 is not the tourist trap it once was.'

   'Thank God for that.' Theo raised his eyebrows. 'Sorry!'

   'On this rare occasion I think we can thank Clark. Now, my brothers and I are assuming the initials may well be bogus, or that the person came in under an assumed name, so we're checking the remainder individually.'

   'Brother Theo!' One of the brothers looked as close to excited as Lochley had ever seen in one of their order.

   'Yes, Brother Michael. Have you found something?'

   'Two of the people on the transport were destined for our order.'

   'Two?' Theo changed the readout on his data pad and flicked through it. 'I haven't had two new initiates. I was supposed to, but...' his voice trailed off. He leaned over Brother Michael's console and tapped a few keys. 'Captain, I believe we have found your man, or rather woman.'

   Lochley read aloud the readout on the monitor. 'Sister Terrence? You're telling me one of the terrorists is a nun?!'

   'Hardly. I received news from the bishop the day before the transport docked that the real Sister Terrence had been found dead. If someone has docked here using that name, I think you can fairly safely assume that their vocation lies, uh, elsewhere, shall we say?'

   'Did she rent any quarters aboard the station?'

   'She did indeed, Captain. A rather seedy section of Downbelow.'

   Lochley took in the address on the monitor. 'Lochley to Security Chief.'

   'Allan here. Go.'

   'I think we may have finally got a break, thanks to the good offices of Brother Theo. We've got an address in Grey sector. Grey nineteen, section twelve, room fifty-seven. Get an assault team to cordon off the area, then I want you to flood it with anaesthazine gas. I'm not taking any chances this time.'

'And if it's not them?'

'I'll deal with that later. An apology is a lot easier than more death.'

   'Whatever you say. I'm on my way. Allan out.'

   Lochley turned to Theo. 'Good work!'

   Theo bowed. 'It is our way of serving God, Captain. And it was your computer lab which provided the information for us.'

   'I'll remember to thank them too. If this pans out, I'll be joining you on Sunday!' Lochley turned to leave.

   Theo called after her retreating form. 'I will hold you to that promise, Captain.'

*****

The area was quickly and quietly evacuated. Any protestations were quickly silenced with a warning that the area would soon be flooded with gas. Of course, if they wanted to wake up with a thumping headache in the brig, security were happy to oblige.... The bar patrons, who preferred their headaches to be the result of excessive alcohol consumption, promptly left.

   Zack turned to one of the security guards who was standing nervously behind him. 'You OK, Simon?'

   'Uh, yeah. I was just wondering when the gas masks would turn up.'

   'It's OK. We're only flooding that one room, but it's best to clear everyone out, just in case. You'll stay back here.'

   The guard looked relieved. 'Thanks, Chief. Hate that damned gas.'

   Zack's link beeped. 'Zack here.'

   'All clear, Chief?'

   Zack waved to the guards at the other end of the corridor who gave a thumbs-up signal. At that moment the door opened and Taylor, who'd decided there was just so much rant she could put up with in one day, stepped out. One look told her more than she needed to know and she let off a couple of PPG shots before diving back inside.

   'Shit! Chief to C&C. Do it, now! They're on to us!' He looked down at Simon, now sprawled on the floor at his feet. As C&C acknowledged and the gas poured into the room he bent beside Simon and tested for a pulse, but Taylor was too well trained and her shot had been true. Too many deaths. Death of Personality was too good for some people. He wondered if anyone would notice if the bodies of the terrorists were a bit bruised when they were finally delivered to the authorities.

*****

Chaos reigned inside the terrorists' room. Dobbs broke contact with ISN and contacted the Core Shuttle. 'Bryant, you there? We've got trouble. They're outside.' Before he could finish his explanation the room began to swim and his knees gave way. As he fell he saw Taylor reach for her rifle, only to fall to the floor as her finger touched it.

*****

Up in the core shuttle Robinson was nervous. 'What's going on? Where'd the ISN feed go?' As Bryant tried to re-establish contact the line began to crackle. Realising there was another communication trying to get through he adjusted the receiver in time to hear the end of Dobb's message. 'They're outside.'

   Sheridan turned to Delenn as the sound of a PPG charging filled the air. Kaplan forestalled Robinson by knocking the PPG up, the shot impacting harmlessly with the roof of the shuttle, causing a few sparks to rain down on the occupants.

   'Not yet, you fool! We need them alive for a little while. You think we'll get out of here if they're dead?'

   'I thought you didn't care what happened to them?' Robinson was nursing a bruised wrist.

   'I don't care about them, and I don't give a shit about you either, but I DO care about me! We can still get out of this in one piece, but NOT if they're already dead. Now settle down! Bryant, see if you can re-establish communications with Dobbs. He's probably screwed, but see what you can get.'

   Bryant nodded and continued to try and raise Dobbs.

   Sheridan gripped his wife firmly. 'You OK?'

   Delenn nodded, but he could feel her shaking despite her cool demeanour. 'It's OK. Not much longer now.' He gave a half smile, but they both knew that now, more than ever, their lives were in danger.

   Kaplan turned and regarded the couple for a minute. 'Don't get any ideas. You know if I have to, I'll kill you.'

   'You know you've lost.' Sheridan's bravado had little effect.

   'Not while I have you two. So long as you die, I can deal with what happens to me. Make the most of it, 'cos there's only one person between you and hell.' He looked at the Narn. 'And she won't be around much longer.

*****

'C&C to Chief.'

   'Allan here.'

   'The room is flooded. Give it another minute and then we'll clean it out again. Good luck. C&C out.'

   Zack motioned to the guards to move towards the room. A minute later he put his security override key-card in the lock and the door opened a crack. A marksman trained his PPG rifle through the crack as Allen forced the door open, breathing a sigh of relief as there was no response from within.

   Zack put his finger to his lips, indicating the teams were to keep quiet as they worked, and then gave the go-ahead. Swiftly and silently the teams rushed in, quickly disarming all the terrorists. One moved to the computer console, but Zack stalled him, indicating that even now there might be a booby trap. Mindful of what had happened to Davies the guard paled and moved slowly and carefully away, retracing his footsteps. The communications console was still active.

   'Dobbs? Dobbs are you there? C'mon Dobbs, answer me! We've lost communication with ISN. What's going on?'

   Zack resisted the temptation to say something to the terrorists still in the core shuttle. The less they knew of events, the more likely they would start jumping at shadows. Zack liked his opponents off guard and jittery. They were more likely to screw up. Turning the room over to the bomb disposal team he whispered 'Leave the communications open until the last minute and record everything you can get. When you have to, just shut it down. Don't say ANYTHING that'll give the game away. They'll work it out anyway, but I don't want them knowing they're all alone up there.'

   Packer, Davies's replacement, nodded and stepped inside, his partner moving smoothly behind him to scan the other side of the room. Zack left to the sound of the terrorist's increasingly concerned voice.

   'Dobbs, you sonofabitch! Answer me, dammit. What's going on down there? Who's outside?'

   Zack smiled grimly. They were closing in at last.

 

Chapter 6

 

'OK. Shut it down. We've lost them.'

   Bryant sighed and turned off the connection to Dobbs. 'You reckon they're still alive?'

   'Probably. Didn't hear any PPG fire.' He paused and then, 'We need to remind them they're not done yet. Contact C and C.'

   Bryant made the connection and Kaplan, with a warning glance to Robinson to keep his enthusiasm under control, leaned down to the mike. 'You hear me?'

   'C and C here. We hear you.'

   'It ain't over yet. Not by a long chalk. We've still got your precious President and his 'lady' up here. And just to remind you we mean business, we're gonna send you another little gift.' He snapped off the console and turned to the Narn. 'Your turn now.'

*****

'C and C to Lochley.'

   'Lochley here.' Lochley was running down a corridor towards the brig. She wanted to see the people they'd arrested and find out how long before they'd be in a fit state to answer questions.

   'They're sending us another 'gift' from the core shuttle.'

   'Dammit! OK, get a jet pack up there, stat!' Running back the way she had come, she headed for the core. The others could wait. Right now they just needed to catch one of the hostages and make the terrorists realise that method wouldn't work any more. As she ran she continued to talk into her link. 'Can ISN cover this? I want them to have a success ASAP.'

   'There are camera 'bots down there now. I'll connect them to ISN.'

   Lochley tapped the link off as she jogged round the corner. This had to be the first time she actually WANTED reporters around.

*****

Kaplan's expression was cool to the point of ice as he fixed the flare and the bomb to the Narn's back. Her hands were already tied in front of her and attached to her waist so she couldn't disarm herself. Noticing Sheridan's expression, Kaplan smiled.

   'Oh yes. I know what they're gonna try and do, Mr President. But it won't work.'

   Bryant looked nervous. 'Hey, Kaplan. Look, if we hang on to her we can use her and the Gaim as a shield when we get out of here.'

   'So we've got one left.' Kaplan stared at Bryant for a moment. 'You really think they're gonna let us go, now? Forget it.' There was a manic gleam in Kaplan's eyes as he pushed the Narn to the door. 'Best we can do now is make sure they know we've got the will and we mean business.'

   'C'mon, Kaplan. The more hostages we've got, the more chance we have.'

   'The only two that matter are right here. They won't do shit while we've got them, so long as they know we're not ready to bargain. Otherwise, they'll probably get some psychiatrist to try and talk us down while they try and figure another way to kill us. Or they'll move us inside one of the docking stations.'

   'With a bomb on top? They wouldn't dare.'

   'They may not know about it. And if they do then I'd say it's a fair bet that they're working on it. I want 'em to know that just 'cos Dobbs is out of the picture, they ain't got rid of the head.'

   Bryant was starting to panic. This wasn't what he'd signed up for. 'Kaplan, you're out of your mind. We've lost! Let's just try and get out of this in one piece, OK? We tried, and we failed. It was a nice idea, but they got us.'

   'We haven't lost!' Kaplan snarled. 'Not so long as we have them. And if you don't like it, you can follow her. Clear?'

   'But they'll never grant our demands now, no matter what we do.'

   'Who cares about the demands? I've got what I wanted right here.'

   Sheridan turned to Delenn. Each knew that this dissension was both the best and the worst thing that could happen. On the one hand, any fewer terrorists meant they had more of a chance. On the other, Kaplan was the danger, and Bryant the voice of reason. If Bryant was killed, Kaplan would have no one to stop him. Sheridan cleared his throat and turned to Bryant.

   'Look, we might be able to work out some of those demands, if you just calm down and let us all go. If you kill anyone else there'll be no way you can blame it on Dobbs. Up until now he's been responsible. You're an accomplice. It's bad, but the worst they can do is send you back to prison. Kill her, and it's death of personality at least. C'mon, be reasonable.'

   Kaplan suddenly went calm. The sort of calm that comes from white-hot anger. Delenn recognised it, and tightened her grip on Sheridan's hand. The last time he'd looked like that he'd only been stopped from shooting her by the arrival of Boggs, the Nightwatch member who'd been in charge. This time, there was no one. Bryant was still collecting his thoughts as Kaplan answered. 'Reasonable? You want me to be reasonable? You forget, Sheridan, I've been to that prison, and I've got you and that bitch to thank for it. You think they were 'reasonable' there? You think I want to go back there?' He nodded at Delenn. 'Last time we met, you told me you felt sorry for me. But there's nothing to feel sorry about. I've almost got what I want. Once you two are dead, I don't care what they do to me. I've got nothing to lose.'

   'That wasn't the plan!' Bryant was desperate. 'We were supposed to let them go once our demands were met. If he can get them to accept any of Dobbs' terms...'

   'You really believe all that shit, don't you?' Kaplan sounded surprised. 'Let me explain something to you: I'm here for one reason and one reason only, to get these two. I only joined up on the understanding I'd be in charge of this section, and now I'm here, I'm gonna finish what I started. I tried to kill them both two years ago. I bet she still carries the scar, right Ambassador?' Delenn kept her face neutral. There was nothing she could say or do that would make any difference now. Kaplan turned back to Bryant. 'I *never* intended to let them go. You understand me? NEVER! They were dead from the moment they walked into the core shuttle.'

   Bryant was in shock. 'Mad. You're totally mad.' It was a horrified whisper as the truth slowly sank in.

   'So I've been told.' With a last, almost serene look he turned to the Narn and pushed her out of the door.

*****

Down in the gardens they saw the flare light up as the Narn left the shuttle. Within seconds a security guard was in the air, arrowing towards her. As he neared, he could see her shaking her head furiously. Confused, he tried to get close enough to make out what she was shouting over the noise of the jet pack and through the protective helmet he was wearing. He tried to reassure her with signals that everything would be OK, but she didn't seem to understand.

   With her hands strapped down the Narn couldn't make the warning signals that would drive her would-be saviour away, nor remove the bomb. All she could do was shout until she was hoarse but the guard was determined. As the camera 'bots recorded, the guard neared his quarry, and then both were forced apart as the device detonated. The guard was sent spiralling end over end, his jet pack shattered. As others scrambled to try to rescue him it quickly became clear that no one was near enough to do so.

   Garibaldi and Lochley, both in the core while Zack dealt with the prisoners, stared in horror as two more victims were added to the list. Lochley heard Garibaldi's mutter before it grew into a full blown shout.

   'Dammit, dammit, DAMMIT! How do we DEAL with these people? What the hell do they WANT?'

   'Apparently, to make a point.' Lochley sounded cooler than she felt. This was no time to lose control, but inside she was shaking. She took a deep breath in the face of Garibaldi's astonished regard.

   'That's all you can say?'

   'Whatever I say will not save those two now. We have to find a way to save the President and Delenn. Our friend up there has had his fix for a while, so we'll have a few moments breathing space. Do you think we can get a sniper up in the air to pick off the man on the roof and disable those cameras? I mean, without getting killed.'

   Garibaldi looked at her a moment longer and then shook himself. 'Yeah, yeah, I reckon we can do it. Needs a steady hand, though. Station keeping in those things is a bitch.'

   'Who's the best?'

   'Anderson. And he's a good shot, too. But look, Captain. That guy up there is nuts. He'd probably push Delenn out if we did that.'

   'Which would at least leave us the President and a chance at saving him.'

   'WHAT? You can't be serious!'

   'You have a better suggestion? We can stay here and do nothing. Sooner or later they'll get thrown out anyway, and we've just seen there's nothing we can do to stop it. Or we can try to save *someone*. Frankly, Mr. Garibaldi, right now I don't rate our chances much either way. But I'd rather be doing something that nothing.'

*****

Up in the shuttle docking station Lennier had the same feeling. 'Excuse me,' he said, bowing to the guard on duty.

   'Mr. Lennier, we kinda busy up here. Was there something you wanted?'

   'As a matter of fact, yes.' And with an expert kick Lennier smoothly dispatched the guard. 'My apologies, but I don't think you would have given me this if I had asked nicely.' To himself he muttered 'I will do penance for this later.' He removed the jet pack the guard had been wearing and put it on, experimenting with the controls briefly to find his bearings. Once he was satisfied he knew how to operate the machine he moved towards the mouth of the bay, staring into the blackness of the core. 'Now, all I need is those cameras disabled and I will have a chance.'

*****

Anderson was edging slowly towards the shuttle. He had a high powered PPG rifle, capable of damaging metal at some distance as well as people, but he had to make sure that while he was close enough to hit his target, he didn't become one in turn. The jet pack was his pride and joy. It was the closest thing to flying like the birds humans would ever get, and Anderson had always wanted to fly. The pack was his own, bought (at some expense) several years ago with money he'd saved. While security usually frowned upon its guards modifying equipment, Anderson's work was so good that his modifications often became standard on other machines. He'd been working for some time on minimising the sound of the jets and the flare. It was a pet project. Another effort to get closer to the birds. In comparison to the standard unit the other guard had been wearing, this one was whisper quiet. It was trickier to handle, and Anderson was still working out a few kinks in the system, but his piloting skills were more than adequate to the task ahead.

   He raised the rifle to his eye, holding it with one hand while manoeuvring the pack with the other. A one-handed design was another modification on this system, but it required the use of one leg as well. Up and down motion were controlled by sensors attached to his right leg, while forward, back and turns were controlled by his left hand. This left his right free to hold the rifle. As he neared he watched the targeting system try to get a lock. It wasn't easy, since even with his finely-honed skills the pack tended to move as it hovered, upsetting the PPG's delicate targeting systems. As he neared his target he knew the margin for error would increase, until the man on the top would be a sitting duck, but whether that would be too close for his own safety was another matter. Right now, his target was leaning into the shuttle, apparently watching some kind of argument inside. Uttering a quiet invocation to Mercury, the winged messenger, that his target would remain thus distracted, Anderson moved closer.

   'Target acquired.' The words flashed in green across the bottom of the display and Anderson slowed his forward movement, putting the machine into a locked mode before releasing his grip on the mechanism and slowly bringing his hand up to steady the rifle. PPGs didn't have a lot of recoil, but here the slightest miscalculation would send him head over heels, and he couldn't afford not to take out every target assigned. He doubted he'd be given a second chance.

   'Ok, my friend. It's time to meet your maker.' Anderson squeezed the trigger.

*****

As far as Kaplan and Bryant were aware, Robinson simply lost his footing, tumbling past the open door as they paused in their ever more heated argument to witness his demise. His hand hit the sill of the door as he fell, knocking the PPG free and sending it in a slow-motion curl up into the cabin and then on to the floor. Sheridan kept a covetous eye on it, but it was too far away for him to reach it before his enemies realised his intent and put an end to it.

   Kaplan was dismissive. 'Stupid idiot.'

   'That's ALL you've got to say? Kaplan, he was a kid!'

   'He was a stupid kid. He should've held on tighter.'

   'Why doesn't he use his jet pack?' Bryant was confused, but Kaplan clearly considered the matter irrelevant and offered little by way of explanation'

   'Knowing him he's probably turned it on while he was pointed at the deck!'

   Bryant stared at him. 'What are we gonna do now?'

   'Exactly what we were going to do before. There's just one less of us.'

   'You're out of your mind!'

   'If I am, you can blame her.'

   'We've got no lookout. They can take us!'

   'We've still got the cameras.'

   There was bang from the top of the shuttle and Kaplan turned to the camera views in time to see a the jet-packed guard take out the last one. 'SHIT!' He turned back to the door, grabbing Robinson's PPG and dashing Sheridan's hopes. He turned to the Gaim who, all this time, had been keeping as low a profile as possible in the hope that by doing so he might be ignored. It was not to be. Kaplan grabbed his arm and pulled him from his seat. 'C'mon you mutant! You might as well be useful!'

   Kaplan pushed the Gaim in front of him. Then, standing slightly to the left of the door frame with the Gaim on his right so as to expose the least body area to fire, he took aim at the guard, but he was too far away. 'C'mon. Move a little closer, and see if you can get past me.'

*****

Anderson contemplated his position. If he moved in for the kill, he might become a target himself. If he stayed out here, he couldn't hit Kaplan who was carefully shielded by the alien and the shuttle walls. He contacted the ground.

   'Anderson to Captain.'

   'Lochley here, go.'

   'I've taken out the guard and the cameras. I see a bomb connected to the shuttle. Looks like it'll activate if we try and move it. What do you want me to do now?'

   'Can you hit any of the terrorists inside the shuttle?'

   'Not without getting closer, and they've seen me. One of them is using a Gaim as a shield. I can't pick him off without hitting the Gaim.'

   For a moment, Lochley contemplated whether she could explain the Gaim's demise as collateral damage, then thought better of it. ISN were all around her, and there'd be no way she could excuse the evidence of the camera 'bots. 'OK, keep your distance. We're sending help.'

   At that moment, Anderson saw a movement out of the corner of his eye and turned to see someone wearing a jet pack, but clearly not a security guard, edging his way along the support struts towards the shuttle. 'Captain, there's someone up here and they're moving towards the shuttle.'

   'Who is it?'

   Using his targeting scope to get a clearer view in the darkness, Anderson paused in astonishment before answering. 'I think it's Lennier!'

*****

'WHAT?!' Lochley couldn't believe her ears. 'How the hell did he get up there?'

   'Wait a minute, Captain. He's our best chance yet.'

   'He's an attache, Mr Garibaldi, not a security officer!'

   'He's devoted to Delenn and skilled in hand to hand combat. If anyone can get there without being seen, I'll bet he can.' Garibaldi thought for a minute. 'Look, let's keep 'em distracted. Send up a few more guards to hover around out of range. They'll think we're trying to attack 'em from below. They can't see the top of the shuttle any more, and it might give him the chance he needs.'

   Lochley nodded slowly before activating her link. 'Agreed. Lochley to all security in the core with jet packs. Hover below the shuttle, out of range. Move around a bit as though you're trying to get a good shot, but don't get too close.'

   Seven telltale flares started on the ground and rose towards the shuttle. Taking position they hovered just out of firing range, occasionally moving from one point to another as though trying to find a clear shot. In the darkness of the core they looked like fireflies. Garibaldi grunted.

   'Good. That should keep their heads down for a while. Now, Lennier, it's up to you.'

*****

Lennier was edging as quickly and as quietly as he could along the cable towards the shuttle. His journey had begun before Anderson had taken out Robinson and the cameras, and he had been trying to work out a plan of attack as he moved. Now the two biggest dangers had been neatly dispatched he was in a hurry to finish the job. He saw the flares of jet packs starting on the ground and feared there was about to be a free for all, but when he saw them take up station-keeping positions just outside the range of a PPG below the shuttle, he realised his position had been noted, and someone was doing their level best to see to it that he succeeded. Now all he needed was the terrorists off-guard at the crucial moment. Without a link he couldn't ask Lochley what she intended. He shook himself.

   'Faith manages.'

*****

Inside the shuttle, the distraction Lennier needed was about to be delivered.

   'I've had it with this, Kaplan. You may not want to live through this, but I do. I haven't killed anyone. The worst they can do to me is lock me up for a long time, but it's a helluva lot better than dying. Now give me that PPG and let's surrender.'

   'No way. You can't chicken out on me now. We're gonna finish this thing!'

   'You're gonna finish us. Now come on!'

   Bryant reached towards Kaplan who backed away, pushing the Gaim out of the door in defiance before turning his PPG on Delenn. 'One more move, and the Minbari gets it. Do you think they'll just jail you then?'

   'Kaplan!'

   Bryant took a step forwards, and the air was filled with the sound of the PPG charging. Realising he meant it this time, Sheridan threw himself in front of his wife.

   "NO!"

   The gun fired. The blast took Sheridan in his left side, throwing him backwards. He hit the seats on the other side of the cabin before collapsing to the floor. His face was twisted in pain and Delenn was aware of a sickening smell of burning flesh.

   "John!" Oblivious to the PPG still pointed in her direction Delenn rushed towards her husband. Simultaneously, Bryant threw himself at Kaplan, knocking his hand up and sending the next blast into the ceiling. As the two struggled she rolled Sheridan over and saw the shocking PPG burn in his side. The cloth of his jacket and shirt had melted with the heat, fusing into the wound and making it difficult to see where his clothes ended and the real damage began. Blood was beginning to ooze from the charred flesh. He was conscious, but fading fast. Delenn leaned over him, trying to protect him from the flying feet of the combatants with her body. Another blast singed the top of her crest and she pressed herself lower, pain burning through her skull.

   'Delenn?' It was Sheridan who spoke.

   'Yes, John. I'm here.'

   'I'm sorry.'

   'You'll be all right. Help is on the way.'

   'Not sure if I can wait.' His voice was a whisper, and she struggled to hear him over the grunts and shouts of Kaplan and Bryant.

   'Yes you can. You must. Please John, don't leave me.'

   'I don't want to. I love you, Delenn.' His eyes rolled up into his head and his breathing grew shallow.

   'No!' Angry and afraid, Delenn turned to the two still fighting. She spied the fighting pike, long since forgotten, now lying on the seat she had recently vacated. Before either of the terrorists could see it she lunged for it, activating it swiftly as she turned. With as much skill as she could muster in the confined space she tried to swing it up under Kaplan and knock him backwards. Momentarily stunned, Kaplan turned to his attacker, abandoning Bryant who was gasping for breath on the floor. As she made another thrust he parried her with his arm, the blow making him wince slightly. She tried again, and again he blocked her.

   'Give that to me.' He moved towards her and she backed across the shuttle until her feet encountered Sheridan's prone form. She looked down and then back at Kaplan who smiled. 'Just give it to me. You can't win. I've taken those things off far better than you.'

   Delenn looked dejected and deactivated the pike. As Kaplan reached out to take it she changed its angle and reactivated. As the ends shot out, one impacted hard on Kaplan's stomach. Stunned and winded, he staggered. Seizing the advantage she advanced, knocking him backwards until he was by the door. With one last attack she forced him out, failing to notice that the cabling in which he had become entangled as he fought was also under her feet. As he fell the cable snapped tight, whipping her legs from under her and dragging her towards the door. She flailed around for a handhold, dropping the pike in her desperate search, but her fingers touched only air. As she reached the door she grasped the edge of it, but she could not close her hand around the edge and she began to slip. As a last resort she made a grab for the cable, even though she knew it was only attached to a monitor, not nearly strong enough to hold both of them suspended even in the reduced gravity of the middle of the core. At the last minute, the monitor locked between one of the chairs and a support strut. Delenn gasped as the cable snapped tight, jerking her arms up and leaving the two dangling beneath the shuttle.

*****

As the Gaim fell, Anderson swooped down and caught him. He could almost hear the cheers from the floor of the core as one of the hostages was rescued and handed over to two more jet-packed guards, freeing Anderson to continue his observations. On the floor of the core Lochley grunted in satisfaction.

   'It's not who we wanted, but the Gaim'll be pleased, so that's one less Ambassador I have to deal with when this is all over.' The thought of facing G'Kar to explain the Narn's death was not a pleasant one, although privately Lochley suspected G'Kar would be a great deal more understanding than most.

   Garibaldi eyed Lochley for a moment and then turned his attention back to the shuttle. The real work had still to be done. But he allowed himself a small smile of victory which he quickly schooled to seriousness as Lochley turned to him.

   'Just as well we couldn't get the shuttle systems back on line before. That would have made one hell of a fireworks display.'

   'And a funeral pyre.' Garibaldi was grim.

   'Indeed. Luck seems to have been on our side for once.' Garibaldi merely grunted. He didn't really believe in luck, but he certainly wasn't going to jinx whatever advantage they'd been given by voicing his opinion.

   Lochley was eyeing the shuttle through the infra-red binoculars. Finally she lowered them thoughtfully. 'Is the shuttle near enough to the docking bay to use the manual retrieve systems? Now we don't have a sniper I think we have a chance.'

   'Dunno. It's worth a shot. But it would rather require someone on the shuttle to operate the system from there. You have to release the catch for the auto-retrieval system, and that's a manual lever. Somehow I don't think our terrorists would be too obliging.'

   'But Lennier should be able to once he's inside.'

   'You're assuming he'll get that far.'

   'You were the one who told me he was skilled in combat.'

   Garibaldi merely grunted and held his peace.

*****

Lennier had reached the top of the shuttle just as the deadly shot had hit Sheridan, and, for a moment, he paused. This was it. He didn't have to kill him. He didn't have to do anything. All he had to do was NOT do anything. Just stand there long enough so that by the time the shuttle moved into the docking bay it would be too late. He fought with himself. It was wrong! Sheridan was Delenn's mate. She loved him. But an insidious voice beckoned.

   'The universe finds a way. Faith manages. What will be, will be, if it should be so. This is how it should be.'

   'But she has chosen him.' It was a thought, not uttered, but it sounded like a shout in his mind. The quiet voice kept on.

   'And she will choose you once he is dead. See the bomb? The shuttle cannot be moved. Even if you disable it quickly, he will probably be dead by the time they reach Medlab. But the bomb may be tricky. It could easily take several minutes to deal with. Take your time. You don't want to blow them all up now. It's not your fault.'

   Lennier was stunned. He hadn't seen the bomb as he arrived, being more concerned with those inside the shuttle. But his subconscious had registered it. He looked at it closely. It did not appear in the least bit difficult. A simple mechanism triggered by the movement of the cable on a sensor. Could there be a hidden device? A booby trap, as there had been with so many others?

   At that moment he heard Delenn cry out and knew he had to act. The voice was silent and his way suddenly clear once more. Whether Sheridan lived or died, Delenn had to live, and Lennier never hesitated when Delenn's life was at risk. He eased the sensor away from the cable and removed the bomb. Anderson floated nearby.

   'Throw it over here!' he shouted. Lennier moved to the edge of the cabin roof and hurled the bomb into the void. Executing a neat manoeuvre, Anderson caught it and moved away. At that moment Kaplan tumbled out of the cabin, followed by Delenn.

   'Anderson to Lochley.'

   'Lochley here.'

   'Mr Lennier has reached the shuttle. One of the terrorists and Ambassador Delenn have fallen out but are hanging on to some kind of cable. Must be the one for the cameras, so I don't think it'll last long. Lennier has disabled the bomb. I'm bringing it in.'

   'Can you help Lennier with the other terrorist?'

   'I don't think he needs any help!'

   Grabbing the edge of the shuttle roof Lennier swung inside, knocking Bryant back and on to the floor. Bryant was still conscious and Lennier held position for a moment.

   'Do you wish to live?' he asked simply. Bryant nodded carefully, his head aching from the blow of Lennier's feet. 'Then remain where you are and do not move or touch anything.' Bryant nodded again and lay back slowly on the floor of the cabin.

   Lennier paused for a moment, staring at Sheridan. His face was pale, his breathing shallow, the damage in his side appalling, yet still Lennier waited. Hearing Delenn below the shuttle he turned and tried to pull her back in. As he did so Sheridan groaned and tried to move.

   'Lennier.' It was barely a whisper. Lennier ignored him. 'Lennier, for pity's sake.'

   Lennier continued his efforts, but over his shoulder he said 'There is nothing I can do for you. I must save Delenn.'

   'Lennier. The lever. Activate...activate the...manual override. They can...pull the shuttle back...no power.'

   Looking over the side Lennier saw that by pulling the cable taut he had actually eased Kaplan's progress back towards Delenn. In the low gravity of the core the two were now nearly floating, their initial velocity generated by Kaplan's forced exit and the yanked cable having been overcome. As Kaplan touched her ankle Delenn looked down and kicked him away, but he held on tight. Another kick and he was sent spinning backwards. With his ankle snagged in the cable he was left dangling below her, fighting to get upright again. Delenn looked up at Lennier.

   'Save him, Lennier. Get the shuttle into the bay. I can climb back in myself.' Lennier hesitated and Delenn stared at him. 'Lennier?'

   Duty took over. 'Yes, Entilzha.' He used what slack he had managed to acquire to tie the whole more securely to one of the shuttle's upright struts, and then turned back to Sheridan. He saw the latter trying to drag himself over to a panel. The effort had ripped open the PPG-seared wound and there was a trail of blood on the floor of the shuttle. Lennier intercepted his progress and reached the panel. Forcing it open he pulled on the larger of the two levers he found within. It was not as easy as he had thought, but he persevered until the lever was in the fully down position and a locking sound emanated from the floor of the shuttle. The task completed, he turned to see Sheridan still watching him.

   'The smaller lever....pump it. Has to...has to reach the docking bay.' Sheridan was gasping and the pool of blood in which he now rested was growing wider. 'When ready, release it.'

   Lennier did as instructed, pumping the smaller lever until he could not push it any further. He then flicked a switch and there was a strange twanging sound from below the shuttle. Having completed the task Lennier turned to see Sheridan nod and then roll on to his back, his muscles going slack as he slipped into unconsciousness.

*****

'Maintenance to Lochley.'

   'Lochley here, go.'

   'Captain, we've got an emergency line to the shuttle. Do you want us to pull it in?'

   Lochley nearly cheered. 'Do it, but be quick. Ambassador Delenn is hanging outside that thing!'

   'Starting now.'

*****

Delenn had nearly reached the top of the cable when the panel below the shuttle dropped open, hitting her as it did so. She stifled a cry as she slipped, but managed to hold on. An arm extended slowly from the panel and then locked into position. The far end pointing towards the dock resembled the barrel of a gun. Looking towards the docking bay she saw a larger panel had opened below it, revealing gears and cogs she had never known existed. Suddenly, something shot out of the arm below the shuttle, trailing a cable behind it. In the low gravity environment it flew straight and true, being caught and directed into a winch mechanism. Security guards then began the arduous process of hauling the shuttle in.

   As it began to move Bryant closed his eyes against the dull throbbing in his head. The nightmare, as it had become, was nearly over.

   The same could not be said for Delenn's. Kaplan was once again trying to use her to climb back up into the cabin. She continued to kick at him to shake his grip but he kept coming back. The guards hovering below the shuttle moved in to assist, but Lennier, his purpose within the shuttle now completed, activated the jet pack and moved outside the cabin, steadying his descent as swiftly as he could without sending himself into a spin. Then he rose towards the shuttle once more. With a swift kick he knocked Kaplan backwards, the man dangling upside down from his leg. While the latter fought to get up again, Lennier grabbed Delenn and lifted her back to the shuttle. As soon as she reached it she flew to Sheridan's side, desperately looking for signs of life. Her dress was darkened as it soaked up his blood and she struggled to staunch the now reduced flow from the wound. His face was pale and she could barely find any sign of breath. What she could detect was shallow and irregular.

   'Lennier, they must hurry!'

   'They are doing the best they can, Delenn.'

   'Then they must do better!' her voice was a desperate sob and Lennier felt his heart give a startling thump. How could he have thought she would turn to him? No one could replace Sheridan in her heart. He would always be a friend to her, but never anything more than that. Did his delay, however brief, spell her doom as well as Sheridan's?

   Mere yards from the docking bay the shuttle stopped. Lennier rushed to the door. 'The President is injured, you must hurry!'

   The guards pointed below the shuttle and Lennier looked out to see Kaplan still hanging there. He had managed to get upright once more and was still struggling to climb up the cable, but the bottom of it had snagged in the emergency winding gear. As the shuttle shuddered a little closer to its destination, the tension on the cable grew and Kaplan's foot was dragged into the gears.

   Instead of crying out as everyone expected, Kaplan bit his tongue, staring up into the faces of his would-be captors. He seemed determined to deny them any sign of emotion. The guards had given their all to priming the gearing mechanism before letting it go, and now it was beyond their control, using the stored energy the only way it knew how.

   The gears rumbled again and Kaplan's ankle was crushed. Still he remained silent. But now the gears were jammed. They tried to pull the shuttle in, but the cable with Lennier's knot in it was still holding fast as the pressure increased. It was only a matter of time before the cable snapped, but time was something Sheridan didn't have.

   Garibaldi arrived on the scene, took one look and grabbed a PPG rifle from one of the guards. Aiming carefully, he looked Kaplan straight in the eye before calmly shooting the cable in two. With mere flesh and bone to deal with the gear began to grind once more, dragging Kaplan into the mechanism. At his hip the machine jammed tight, but by then enough of the shuttle was inside the docking bay to allow Franklin and his crew to lift Sheridan out and get him to Medlab, Delenn moving as fast as possible alongside them in the low gravity.

   Garibaldi regarded Kaplan's body, now hanging limp from the winding gear. 'I suppose someone's got to go out and disentangle that mess.'

   Kaplan's head rolled over and his eyes opened. 'You haven't got rid of me yet, you bastard.'

   There was a flash of PPG fire from outside the docking bay and Kaplan collapsed, finally killed by an unknown weapon from one of the guards who had been floating outside to render assistance if needed. Garibaldi turned to the rest of the crew.

   'Anyone see who fired that shot?' No one answered and Garibaldi nodded. 'Good. Neither did I.' He turned to the shuttle. 'Get the other one.' The guards moved in, helping Bryant out of the shuttle and frog marching him towards the brig.

   Lochley came through the door just as the guards left and walked over to Garibaldi.

   'Where's the other one?'

   Garibaldi pointed below the docking bay and Lochley went to look. Just then the core lights came back on. The surge of energy overcame the inertia caused by Kaplan's body and the winding gear, now switched to power mode, sucked him in. Lochley grunted.

   'I suppose I ought to be sorry about that. He should've been made to stand trial.' Garibaldi raised an eyebrow and Lochley regarded him levelly. 'I said I ought to be. I didn't say I was.'

   As one they turned and walked away. The mess would still have to be cleaned up, but it wasn't their job any more. And for once they both agreed on something.

*****

Medlab was hectic. A nurse tried to tend to Delenn, but her patient refused to move away from the windows of the isolation lab, wherein lay Sheridan, stripped to the waist and hooked up a to monitors as Franklin fought desperately to save his life. Shock had finally overcome him as they rushed him to Medlab, and now time was running out.

   'Charging...charging... Stand back, people.' Franklin applied the paddles of the defibrillator to Sheridan's chest, the latter's back arching as the shock tore through him. Delenn stared at the heart monitor, willing it back to life. 'Again! Charging...OK, stand back.' Again the shock, again the back arch, but still nothing.

   Delenn pressed her face to the window. Her voice was a whisper. 'Don't leave me, John. I can't do this alone.'

   Franklin had a nurse adjust the charge and tried again. 'OK, one more time. Away!'

   Thud! In the pause that followed the heart monitor moved and then recorded a steady beat. 'Yes! OK, get him stable, we've got to repair that damage.'

   A nurse looked up 'It's pretty weak, doctor.'

   'It'll have to do. If we wait any longer we're gonna lose him.'

   'Ambassador. I have to tend to that PPG burn. He'll be all right. Dr Franklin knows what he's doing.'

   Delenn turned around and sat down heavily. 'I know.' She looked up into the friendly and concerned face of the nurse. 'I'm sorry. I'm just frightened of being alone again.'

   'He'll pull through, don't worry. And he won't be happy with you if you've neglected yourself in the meantime.'

   Delenn gave a wan smile. 'No, he wouldn't be, would he?'

*****

Sheridan survived the operation, but whether he would survive anything more was still open to question. Delenn practically lived in Medlab, only leaving when Franklin promised on his life that he would inform her immediately of any change. When she did leave, she was escorted by guards. At first she tried to reject their protection. The terrorists were either dead or under heavy guard. There was no longer any danger. But it wasn't the terrorists Lochley now feared. It was the reporters.

   As soon as the crisis was over Lochley had had to deal with ISN, who were demanding they be given the scoop they had been promised. Lochley was not naive enough to think Babylon 5 would come out of such a report unblemished, and had asked that certain images and facts, such as the death of the Narn and guard sent to rescue her, be kept quiet in the initial reports. ISN had dispatched a reporting team to deal with her reluctance, and to get interviews with those involved. With the life of the President still hanging in the balance there was no question where the news was going to be for the next few days at least. Thus they were hanging around as close as they could get to Medlab and on the route between there and Delenn's quarters, in the hope of catching her for an interview. The guards kept them as far back as possible, but public areas could not be sealed off permanently, and ISN was soon broadcasting pictures of the distraught ambassador all over the networks. Lochley was furious.

   'Can't you just back off for a while until we know he's in the clear?' she asked the reporter, a man called Charles Ransom, now sitting in her office.

   'People want to know, Captain,' Ransom responded coolly, his long legs crossed in front of him as he lounged in her chair as though he, and not the Captain, belonged in that office. His body language was designed to be offensive, and Lochley concentrated on calming herself before she opened her mouth and said something she would regret.

   'And they will know. All I'm asking for is a few days' grace.'

   'So you can refuse to give us the news again? You're trying to censor freedom of the press, Captain. I thought that's what Sheridan fought to end?' He paused before firing his next salvo. 'Oh, of course, I forgot. You were on the other side, weren't you?' He watched her carefully to gauge her reaction.

   'I was on the side of Earth, Mr Ransom. As were we all. I follow orders.'

   'I was only following orders. Where have I heard that before?' He flicked an invisible piece of lint from his jacket. 'One can't help wondering why Sheridan picked you. Could it be because you two were married?' The second bombshell. Ransom, while apparently cool on the outside, could feel his heart speeding up as he waited to hear the result of his revelation. It had taken a great deal of research before he had come across that particular nugget, and he was proud of himself.

   'My relationship with President Sheridan is irrelevant to this conversation. I am asking you to give Ambassador Delenn a chance to find out if her husband will live before you harass her.'

   'Perhaps. This could make an even better story. The two lovers of President Sheridan waiting at his hospital bed to see if he will live. Two people brought together by their love of one man. How do you two get on these days? Does the Ambassador even know you were married?'

   'That is ENOUGH!'

   'Truth hurts, doesn't it?'

   Lochley activated her clink. 'Security to the Captain's office, stat.' She turned to Ransom. 'Get out of my office.'

   'Or what? Are you going to arrest me for telling the truth? That'll look good on the front page of Universe Today. Not to mention the headline news on tonight's ISN report.'

   Security arrived and stood in the doorway, awaiting their orders. 'You have a choice, Mr Ransom. You can leave now, and I will ensure that you get the chance to do your interviews and give your report ASAP, or you can be dragged off to the brig and stay there until some other reporter takes your scoop from you. I do not take kindly to threats, and thinly-veiled threats are all you have been offering to me. When you are ready to talk calmly, we can speak again. In the meantime, I suggest you consider your position. There is no big news in the fact that I was married to the President. Ambassador Delenn is fully aware of it. The President told her.' Lochley studiously avoided the faces of the security officers to whom this WAS news. She would deal with them later if necessary. 'But your position will be undermined if you turn an attempt on the President's life into an expose of his past marital history. Bad taste will not begin to describe such reporting. The instant I am certain that the President is all right, I will contact Ambassador Delenn and ask if she would mind speaking to you. How much more you get will depend on you. I suggest you consider the advantages of a healthy and long-term relationship with this station and it residents over the short thrill of irresponsible reporting. President Sheridan is a fair man. Your help in this matter will not be forgotten. Think about it, Mr Ransom.' She smiled as sweetly as the rising bile in her throat would allow. 'How much better your position if you got an exclusive interview, with permission and sanction from the President and Babylon 5's military governor, with both him and Delenn when the time is right. Alternatively, think of the harm to the Alliance, an organisation that benefits Earth as much as anyone else, if you behave irresponsibly.'

   Ransom sat up in his chair. There were dozens of reporters trying to get these interviews. He'd had considerable trouble just getting to this point. If he could promise his would be the only fully endorsed report, and with both of them... 'Just me?'

   'Just you.'

   'With both of them?'

   Lochley swallowed. HOW she was going to explain this one to Sheridan she had no idea. She nodded. 'With both of them.'

   'And that's a promise? I can quote you on that?'

   'On my promise that ISN will get exclusive interviewing rights? Yes. You can quote me on that, and ONLY that for now. But it's dependent on your behaviour in the interim. I reserve the right to offer the interview to someone else should the situation warrant.' She took another breath. 'In the meantime, I've looked over your report so far, and I'll give the go-ahead to ISN as soon as this interview is over. I'll even mention your good taste in the matter, and ask that you be given the exclusive rights to all future interaction with this station. Babylon 5 is news, Mr Ransom. Your would have a sinecure for life. And if you got on with the President and First Lady there's a strong possibility you would be permitted to report other events from Tuzenor from time to time.' Lochley had her hands behind her back and quietly crossed her fingers. Sheridan was going to explode when he heard of this near-promise, she was certain.

   Ransom nodded, trying to hold back his enthusiasm. Whether Sheridan lived or died, he'd be made for life. And if he lived, and Ransom had the exclusive right to report from Tuzenor... People wanted to know about Minbar. Universe Today even had 'An Eye on Minbar' section to help satisfy the demand, but this... 'You have a deal. You know where to find me when the news breaks. Good day, Captain.' And he stood up and left.

   The two security guards remained in the doorway. One of them watched Ransom go before turning back to the Captain. 'Sir?'

   'You didn't hear any of that, did you?' Lochley fixed him with a hard stare.

   'Who, me? Never heard a thing.' Lochley turned to the other one.

   'Deaf and blind, sir,' the guard responded.

   'Good, because if I hear any of this in Earheart's tonight, you'll be on alien alternative atmospheres guard duty for the rest of your life. Dismissed.'

   The guards executed a smart about-turn and exited. Lochley sighed. 'Sheridan, if you get through this, you are going to kill me.' She frowned. 'If' was not a word she liked right now.

 

Chapter 7

 

Delenn maintained her vigil by Sheridan's bedside in Medlab. Each day that passed gave her more cause for concern. He was a strong man, but she sometimes wondered if the PPG had been too much on top of his already depleted reserves. Might Lorien's gift have failed him?

   Franklin sensed her worry.

   'It's OK, Delenn. It was deep wound, but he'll be all right. It just takes time.'

   She turned around to see him standing in the doorway watching her. 'I know, Doctor. I just wish he would show some sign of improvement.'

   'Well, you might not be able to see anything, but all the signs are that he's healing well. It shouldn't be too long now.'

   Even as Franklin spoke Sheridan stirred. Delenn spun around and took his hand in her own, pressing the fingers to her cheek. Franklin hurried over.

   'Delenn?' Sheridan had not opened his eyes yet but he could sense her beside him.

   'I'm here John.'

   He groaned. 'I feel like I've been hit by a cruiser. Where am I?'

   'You're in Medlab, John,' Franklin said, standing on the other side of the bed and checking the readouts. 'And you're gonna be just fine.'

   'Can I have that in writing?' he groaned again but Delenn smiled. His sense of humour was back. The rest would come before too long.

   Franklin increased the pain killers that were feeding into a drip in Sheridan's left arm. After a pause Sheridan sighed.

   'Ahh. Better.' He opened his eyes and smiled at Delenn. 'It's good to see you again.' There was a pause and then he remembered. 'Did we...?'

   'It's all right. We got them all.'

   'What about Kaplan?'

   Lochley, who always checked on Sheridan’s condition at this time of day, walked in having been alerted to his change of condition by the staff outside. 'He's dead.'

   Sheridan turned to her. 'Are you sure?'

   'Absolutely. There's not even enough left to bury properly.'

   Sheridan sighed and closed his eyes again. 'Good.'

   Franklin tapped Delenn on the shoulder. 'He needs some more rest, Delenn. He'll be OK now. Why don't you take a break?'

   Smiling, her eyes sparkling with tears of relief, she nodded. 'I think I can, now. Thank you Stephen.'

   'Just doing my job.' He turned to Lochley. 'When are you going to let the hounds know he's OK?'

   She shook her head. 'Not today. I'll let them know he's conscious tomorrow. Give him a chance to recover some more before he has to deal with that lot.'

   'Right. Now let's give him some peace and quiet.'

   They left quickly, Delenn pausing in the doorway to look back. 'Sleep well, my love.' Sheridan stirred slightly, almost as though he heard her, then he settled once more and Delenn joined the others outside the room. 'I will deal with the reporters.'

   Lochley and Franklin were surprised. It was Franklin who found his voice first. 'Are you sure? You haven't had very good experiences with them before.'

   'Captain Lochley can be with me.'

   'Uh, that may not be such a good idea, Delenn. He knows I was once married to John.' Franklin raised his eyebrows. 'It's a long story, Stephen, and not one I want to go into right now. I think it'd be better if you were there with Delenn. You can answer any medical questions Ransom might have.'

   'Ransom?' It was Delenn who spoke.

   'Yeah, I um, I promised him the exclusive. We'll do a press conference for the rest once he's had time to get his report in.'

   Franklin and Delenn both stared at Lochley.

   'I had to! The little sneak already knew too much. It was that or have him blast John's past over all the networks!'

   'I think,' said Delenn, after a short pause, 'that you had better tell me in detail how much this man knows. This time I intend to be ready for them.'

   Lochley nodded and she and Delenn left Medlab together. Franklin shook his head and turned to look at Sheridan through the half open glass door. 'Man, you do pick them, don't you?'

   Sheridan smiled and opened one eye. 'Yes,' he managed weakly. 'But I got it right eventually.'

   Franklin laughed as he walked in. '*You* are supposed to be asleep.'

   'With all that racket going on?' His low laugh turned into a cough and he grimaced at the pain in his side. Franklin quickly checked all the feeds and the regen. packs around the wound. Everything was in order.

   'No Rebo and Zooty for you for the next few days,' he smiled as he adjusted the drip line and tapped it.

   Sheridan sighed but didn't answer. Checking the readouts Franklin realised that this time he had indeed fallen asleep once more. He closed the door quietly but firmly behind him and turned to his other duties. In the background, Sheridan's monitors provided a reassuring beat.

*****

Franklin arrived in the President's office the next day fifteen minutes before the interview was to take place. Delenn was clearly nervous but managed to maintain a calm facade throughout the ordeal. There were the usual questions to start with. Delenn explained briefly what had happened and how it had been resolved. Her description was as matter-of-fact as the subject matter would allow, and while her voice did catch slightly as she described how Sheridan had thrown himself in front of her to protect her from the PPG blast, she otherwise held her own. Ransom then asked how the terrorists would be treated and how she thought they ought to be treated given the magnitude of their crimes, asking her opinion on the death of personality solution some were already proposing. Delenn refused to be drawn on the matter and, when pressed, she demurred, explaining that given the Minbari attitude towards the soul this was a rather involved question for another time. She would merely state that she had complete faith in the ability of Earth Gov. to deal with its own problems. Eventually, and inevitably, the matter of Sheridan's past life finally came up.

   'Ambassador Delenn. It has come to my attention that President Sheridan and Captain Lochley were once married. How do you feel about this? Is it uncomfortable having your husband's previous wife on the station? Do you think his experience with her influenced his decision to have her here?' Ransom sat back and waited to see what the cameras would record.

   Delenn looked at Franklin for a moment and then sighed. So much for keeping this one quiet. Still, since it had to be, perhaps it was as well that the news be broken in such a way that Delenn had the chance to show her full support. 'I do not think the President's past marriages have any relevance to this discussion. But since it is clear you will not let the matter drop, I will tell you Captain Lochley has my full support. She has shown herself again and again to have been the perfect choice for commander of this station. Regardless of past history, I do not believe he could have chosen better.'

   Ransom nodded, making a note on his data pad before moving on. 'Ambassador, I gather the terrorist who was crushed in the manual winding gear for the Core Shuttle was already known to you. Indeed, that he had escaped a Minbari prison where he had been held following a previous attempt on the President's life. An attempt in which you yourself were seriously injured. How are the Minbari going to deal with this lapse in security?'

   'The security station in question is going through a thorough investigation to determine how this could have happened. I can assure you, it will not happen again.' Her expression and tone made it clear that she meant every word.

   Ransom moved on. 'How do you feel about those who died in your stead during this incident? I mean the others in the Core Shuttle, those killed in the Alien Sector, and the security officers who investigated.'

   'I have visited the ambassadors of the races who suffered losses. We all share in the grief this incident has generated. I am very grateful to those members of the crew who gave their lives fulfilling their duty not only to myself and the President, but to all those who are endangered by terrorist activity. Their names will not be forgotten.'

   Ransom noted that Delenn was clearly very upset that so many had died in the course of the terrorist campaign. Nevertheless, he pressed on. 'But is it not true that had you not still been on Babylon 5 this incident wouldn’t have happened?'

   'If a person is determined enough, it does not matter where you are. But we will be relocating to Tuzenor on the Minbari homeworld as soon as the facility is complete. We do not wish to place others in jeopardy by our presence.'

   'So you don't think Earthforce is capable of protecting you?' Surely he could find one chink in the armour?

   'The situation was resolved by Earthforce personnel who did an excellent job under extremely difficult circumstances. The kidnapping was well-planned and carried out by people who knew what they were doing. The man killed in the winding gear had been an Earth spy behind Minbari lines during the war between our two peoples. That he survived that war is indicative of how well Earth trained him.'

   Ransom nodded, a hint of frustration behind his apparently collected facade. She was getting good at this. After seeing the previous recordings of interviews with Delenn Ransom had hoped he could wring some serious emotion out of her. So far all he'd got were some careful answers and a perfectly reasonable and appropriate sadness over those who lost their lives. Even the marriage line hadn't worked. He had very few questions left.

   'I notice it was your one-time attache, Lennier who helped to save the day at the risk of his own life. How do you feel about that?'

   'Lennier has been a loyal and hard working attache throughout his time with me. Since he began Ranger training he has learned new skills which he put to good use in this instance. In keeping with the traditions of the Anlashok he will be honoured by all for his actions.'

   Ransom turned to Franklin. 'How serious were the President's wounds?'

   'Very. We're lucky he survived. He lost a great deal of blood in the time it took to bring the shuttle in and get him down to Medlab. We almost lost him twice, but he's fit and I’ve no doubt he'll recover fully in time.'

   Ransom turned back to Delenn. 'Had you agreed to security personnel accompanying you on this station, might this situation have been avoided and many innocent people's lives saved?'

   'There was, in fact, a Ranger with us at the time. He was one of the first to die as I have already mentioned, but he did his best to protect us in the time he had.' Delenn neglected to point out that the Ranger had been present by dint of sheer luck and not by design. Ransom didn't need any more help. 'John and I agreed early on that we would not permit ourselves to become separated from the people of the Alliance by a wall of security. He felt it was important that he remain, as far as is possible, an ordinary man. It is hard to do that when a large security contingent is a constant reminder of your position. We did have security personnel with us on our way to the presentation ceremony as an honour guard. It was afterwards as we prepared to walk home that the kidnappers struck.'

   'Were you frightened?'

   'Of course. One cannot be in such a situation and not feel fear. But the President remained calm throughout and, in so doing, helped all those with us to face the kidnappers. President Sheridan is a very courageous man.' /As if there were not already enough evidence to support that!/ she thought.

   Ransom directed his last question to Franklin. 'Doctor. How long will it be before President Sheridan is in a fit state to talk to the reporters himself?'

   'Not for at least a week. Personally, I think he should have no less than fourteen days to recuperate, but if I know him he'll want to reassure people of his recovery as soon as possible. I think he'll be able to talk to you alone in about eight day's time. I would like to be present during that interview to ensure his good health, but a short interview then shouldn't put too great a strain on his system.'

   Ransom smiled. They were sticking to their promise to give him the exclusives. He nodded, thanked them both for their time and collected his notes, deactivating the cameras as he did so. Noting they were now off Delenn cleared her throat.

   'Mr Ransom. We do appreciate your understanding in this matter. I gather from Captain Lochley that she has suggested we might be amenable to your being the Interstellar Alliance reporter on Tuzenor. Given my experience with you today I think I can say that possibility is becoming increasingly likely.'

   Ransom nodded, his enthusiasm for the idea evident. 'Thank you Ambassador. Doctor. If I have any more questions may I assume you’ll be available to answer them?'

   'With due warning, yes. I would prefer you didn't try and waylay me in the corridor.' Delenn's gave him her most charming smile. Ransom nodded once more and left.

   When they were sure he was gone (and Franklin checked the corridor just in case), Delenn heaved a sigh of relief.

   'Nicely done, Delenn. I don't think they can do anything to that interview in the editing rooms.'

   'I hope not, Stephen. It's about time people accepted John and I for what we are and not what they are trying to make us. Still, I will be happier when I see the broadcast.'

*****

They didn't have long to wait. The entire interview, unedited, went out that night on the ISN broadcast. Sheridan and Delenn watched it on a monitor brought into his room in Medlab. Franklin had been slightly nervous about the idea at first. Although he had been there and seriously doubted they could do much to twist the facts, he still remembered the disastrous report that caused so much misery to Sheridan during the war against Clark. But Sheridan was insistent. If ISN was going to have another go at him he was determined to hear it for himself unedited. In any case, ISN was no longer the propaganda tool of Clark. There was no reason for them to go on the attack. After Franklin left Sheridan admitted to himself and Delenn that he was slightly nervous, but as it was all their doubts proved unfounded, and at the end the helms-woman for ISN bid Sheridan a speedy recovery. They switched the interview off.

   Sheridan sighed. 'For once an interview that doesn't blow up in our faces.'

   'Did Captain Lochley tell you of her offer to Ransom?'

   Sheridan nodded. 'This morning.' He thought back to the moment.

   Lochley had walked in at around ten a.m. asking Stephen if Sheridan was fit enough to deal with something that was rather urgent. Once the Doctor had given the OK Lochley had slipped quietly into Sheridan's room. Franklin, outside in case of any problem, heard the yell of 'You did WHAT?!' coming from Sheridan and charged in to see him coughing and struggling to breathe while Lochley looked distraught. He managed to settle his patient down once more and got the full story from Lochley as he did so.

   'I said you could talk to him. Not send him into a relapse!'

   'I'm sorry, but the interview is this afternoon and Delenn and I need to know what we can say.' Lochley was clearly unhappy about the whole affair, but as Sheridan calmed down she managed to explain, without sending his blood-pressure soaring any higher, precisely why she had made the offer to Ransom. At last Sheridan had acquiesced, accepting that she had very little choice.

   Sheridan groaned at the memory and then smiled as Delenn placed a concerned hand on his forehead. 'It's all right, Delenn. But you and I both know what that’ll mean. We'll have to dodge him at every corner.'

   Delenn smiled. 'Not necessarily. I am ordering the construction of a special building away from the main compound. He will be able to come in and request interviews, but he will not have the run of the place. I said he could come to Minbar and be the exclusive reporter. I didn't say he would be free to gather any and all information whenever it suits him. We Minbari can be very good at speaking without actually communicating very much.'

   Sheridan chuckled carefully, the smallest of grimaces crossing his face as he did so. 'So I'd noticed.' He took her hand in his and kissed the palm. 'And you're pretty good at communicating without speaking as well!'

   She smiled at the in-joke. 'Well, when you are better, we can go back to those sorts of communications.'

   'Can't wait.' He grinned and she leaned forward to hug him carefully. 'We survived this one, Delenn. Let's hope it's the last for a long time.' As she pulled back he looked at her tenderly. 'Have I told you today how much I love you?'

   'Not yet,' she said, stroking his cheek. 'But we have the rest of our lives for you to catch up.'

 

The End



 

*****

 

 

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