2284 (I): A ROAD PAVED WITH GOOD INTENTIONS

By John Hightower

 

 

 

[Note from the JumpNow.de editor:
Please send all feedback for the author to fanfiction@jumpnow.de . We will forward it to him.]

 

 

 

 

*****

   Earth Year 2280

   John Sheridan sat patiently on his friend's couch as he waited for the results to come back. Not that he had any doubts what Stephen Franklin would tell him, but he waited patiently nonetheless. If nothing else, being married to a religious caste Minbari taught patience. Hell, he'd sat through more ceremonies and rituals over the years than any human had a right to. Remembering all of the exasperated looks he'd suffered from Delenn over her rituals and his barely concealed desire to get them over with brought a faint smile to his lips.

   <Soon there will be no more ceremonies, no more rituals,> John thought, as his smile turned to sadness. He always pretended that they were a big 'pain in the butt', more to amuse Delenn with his annoyance than anything else. Secretly, he had come to find them rather soothing. Over the past year, he noticed that Delenn had increased the frequency of the various rituals he participated in. It had annoyed him at first. He had jokingly told Delenn once that he was sure she was making them up as she went along, just to keep him occupied. Laying on the couch that night after the resulting argument, he had slowly reasoned out that they were more for her than for him. They were her way of preparing herself for the pain she knew was coming. He had not joked about the rituals again and had cheerfully participated in every one since.

   Delenn was currently on Mars for a conference with their new President. She hadn't wanted him even to take this short side trip to Earth. "Don't you want to see Michael, Lise and Mary?" she had asked. Of course, what she had meant was "What if something happens while you are away?" John chuckled to himself at her concern. He was fairly certain that he would know when time became truly short; he was not worried that she would somehow miss his last days. Somehow, he would ensure that she was there at the end.

   He had kissed her then, reassuring her that it was only for a short time and that she should not worry. The Mars President didn't need to meet with Entil'zha, and the Garibaldi family had enough to worry about with Edgars Industries without an unwanted houseguest dropping by.

   As much as Sheridan hated to admit it, most of the galaxy functioned well enough now without him. The slow transition to an Alliance minus one John Sheridan was moving along nicely for the moment. There were only a few more matters for him to take care of before the end came.

   Brushing off Delenn's concerns, he had glossed over his reasons for returning to Earth. It would have been easy to tell her he was coming to see Stephen, or he wanted a last look at his homeworld, but telling her so would have set off alarm bells in her head and he didn't want to deal with a worried Delenn right now. She had the weight of the Alliance on her shoulders and that was worry enough.

   And it would have been a lie. He couldn't lie to Delenn. He was such a poor, pathetic liar that she would have seen through it instantly. So, rather than lie, he glossed over his reasons for returning. Had he told her the real reason, those alarm bells in her head would have been a five-alarm fire. In his heart, he knew that she would have moved immediately to stop him from doing what he intended to do by any means at her disposal.

   Allaying her concern, he had come. He had not lied. He told her there were people in Earthdome he needed to see. That was true enough, except he didn't really 'need' to see them. The government officials he was referring to were just a cover so he could see Stephen and put his idea into motion.

   John harbored no illusions about his condition. He was slowly dying, pure and simple. He could feel it. Lorien's gift running down within him. All he awaited was Franklin's confirmation of what he already knew.

   John had come to Stephen over the years even though there were plenty of skilled Minbari doctors available to him. Confidentiality among Minbari medical personnel, however, was practically nonexistent. Their practice of keeping family members informed of all medical information didn't appeal to him. Truth be told, there were things about his condition that he didn't want Delenn to know. The fatigue, the rapid aging…She could see these things whether she chose to acknowledge them or not, but knowing them as medical facts would be different - somehow harder. Now, near the end of his life he wanted to spare her more hardship. Things would be hard enough when the time came.

   

*****

    Stephen Franklin watched his friend silently through the glass door as he waited for the results. Sheridan had aged so much. His face was lined with the evidence of the passing years, his hair gone almost completely gray and white. A legacy of Lorien's gift. John had aged rapidly; far more rapidly than a person of his age should have. <He should be in the prime of his life> Stephen thought, <not this old man I see here now.>

   The aging had become apparent soon after the end of the Earth rebellion. At first, Stephen had thought that it was just him noticing it. Only when both Delenn and Captain Lochley had privately approached him about it had Stephen realized that others noticed it as well. As near as Stephen could tell, the organisms in John's body were not completely compatible with human biochemistry. While they functioned to regenerate tissue and bone, they did so less efficiently each time they were needed. Deprived of their original host, Lorien, they slowly faded over time. In the process, it appeared they were aging him at approximately twice the normal rate for a human. They were killing him even as they preserved his life. Stephen had not told Delenn this. It wasn't his place. Sheridan would have to be the one to talk to her about this.

   An orderly handed Stephen a clipboard and spoke briefly to him. Stephen nodded and entered the room where John was waiting.

   "John," Stephen said as he slid the door aside and walked into the room, snapping Sheridan out of his reverie "We've analyzed the test results and they confirm what you've already suspected. The organisms in your system are losing their efficiency. They're slowing down." Sheridan nodded in confirmation and Stephen added quickly "This doesn't mean they've stopped. At their current level, you could go for several more years…"

   "Or I could just 'stop' tomorrow." Sheridan finished. "No, Stephen, Lorien gave me twenty years and that's what I'm going to get, I think." Sheridan paused. "One year left, give or take."

   "Have you talked to Delenn about this? Does she know how short the time is?" Stephen asked as he began to put his instruments away.

   "No. She suspects of course, but I think she still holds out hope that Lorien was somehow wrong. Even believing that, she watches the clock more closely than I do."

   "You still ought to talk to her, John. She'll need your help to get through this."

   Sheridan shrugged. "On almost anything else, I can talk to her. On this…well, Delenn has a tough time remaining rational about it. She's afraid and I don't blame her." Sheridan pinched the bridge of his nose before continuing. Hell, he already felt tired.

   Opening his eyes again, he continued. "We do talk, Stephen. I just don't know the right words, I guess. Our discussions in this area usually end in tears. Hell, twenty years seemed so long eighteen years ago. Now that it's upon us, she's afraid. She feels helpless. Delenn is not a woman that helplessness comes easily to."

   Sheridan looked thoughtful for a moment, as if considering whether or not to say anything more. Delenn was still President of the Alliance. He need to be careful when discussing personal information about her, even to a friend. Personal weaknesses could become weapons down the road. "Being alone is the one thing in the universe that truly frightens her, Stephen. It's her greatest fear."

   "She won't be alone, John. Michael, Susan…we're all here for her. You know that. She has David." Stephen regarded his friend, wondering if he should say what was on his mind. He decided to broach the idea.

   "John, don't take this the wrong way, but have you ever thought about the possibility of her finding someone else? I know it's probably an uncomfortable idea for you, but she's still not particularly old by Minbari standards. Not even middle age, really. You know, sixty for a Minbari is the equivalent of our mid-forties."

   "I know, Stephen. Believe me, I've considered this." Sheridan sighed. This was hard to talk about. In all his time with Delenn, he had never dared to discuss this with her. "I'm going to tell you something about my own ignorance all those years ago. When I asked Delenn to marry me, I assumed that we would live out my span as happily as we could and that after my passing she would eventually find another…" Sheridan stumbled over his thoughts, "well, another companion."

   Sheridan looked forlorn as he continued "I was selfish and ignorant, Stephen. I should have researched her culture more closely before asking her. You see, when Minbari take mates they mate for life. Both lives. The marriage bond is not broken by death. When Delenn became my wife, she mated with me for her life as well as mine."

   Stephen grunted as the implications sank in. Delenn could never remarry or take another lover.

   Sheridan continued. "In her culture, she will always be considered married. Even if this were not the case her own society would not allow her to take a Minbari mate." A note of anger appeared in his voice. "She's not 'pure' enough for them, even now. Can you imagine? As for another human…well, she told me once that she would never even consider it since she's already loved the best of our race. Who would measure up?" Sheridan flashed a brief smile at his friend. "Hey, no offense. Her words, not mine. I'm sure she likes other humans, but she only loves one."

   Turning serious again, John looked down at his hands. "If I had known this at the time, I wouldn't have proposed, as much as I love her. How could I have done this to her?"

   Stephen thought for a moment. It hurt seeing his friend like this. "John, this really bothers you, doesn't it?"

   "Yes." Sheridan continued looking at the floor.

   "I don't know if this makes it any easier, but look at it this way," Franklin continued. "You told her about your lifespan before asking her, didn't you?"

   "Of course. Lorien and I met with her alone and told her soon after I returned from Z'ha'dum. She didn't take the information particularly well."

   "I would imagine not. Anyway, she wasn't under any obligation to accept your proposal, was she?"

   "No. I certainly wasn't going to force her into marrying me. She could have refused. I would have been hurt, but I would have understood."

   "So what you're telling me is that she accepted with both eyes open. Even if you didn't know about her culture's marriage rules, she certainly did. Give her some credit, John. If she hadn't already decided that life with you was worth it, she would have said no. You had to give her the choice."

   Sheridan seemed to be following his logic, so Stephen continued. "In the final analysis the decision was hers, not yours. I wouldn't feel too guilty about it. She made the decision. All you did was ask the question."

   "That doesn't change the fact that she'll be alone for God knows how many years. I don't think the fact that she chose to accept this life will make it any easier for her." Sheridan looked back up at the doctor.

   Actually, Sheridan thought, this conversation was a good jumping off point for the real reason he was here. He'd been trying to think of a good way to broach the subject, and now seemed as good a time as any. Actually voicing the idea to Stephen made John nervous. Even after knowing Stephen for close to 35 years, he wasn't sure how his friend would take this. "This kind of brings me to the other reason I came to see you. I need your help with an idea I've been thinking about for some time now."

   "Go on." Stephen settled back to listen. He had time. Being head of xenobiology for Earthdome meant that he saw very few patients and was more of an administrator than a practicing physician. He had thought there was more to John's visit than a routine medical exam.

   "You know me too well," Sheridan chuckled, seeing the knowing expression on Stephen's face. "I guess I lead into that with all the finesse of an elephant." Growing serious again, John continued, "From time to time during my tenure as President, I was made aware of research projects that were being undertaken on the various worlds of the Alliance. One of the Earth projects dealt with artificial personality matrices and neural mapping. I have discovered that the technology exists to create copies of knowledge and memories that can be downloaded onto data crystals. It occurred to me that if I did something like this, I could preserve some of the insights I've gained over the years for Delenn and the rest of the Alliance. Kind of a database of life experiences. It might prove useful."

   Stephen was surprised, almost falling onto a stool as he registered the import of what his friend was asking. "Are you sure you want to consider something like this?" He finally managed to stammer out. Not that it was unheard of. Top researchers in several specialized fields in the scientific community regularly had similar procedures performed to ensure the preservation of their work. Still, the ethical ramifications of creating artificial personalities were still a hot topic on Earth. The idea of creating some kind of emotional trinket for Delenn seemed out of character for John. "John, Delenn will survive without this. She is a strong woman, probably the strongest I've met. You survived Anna's death, didn't you? Do you expect any less of her?"

   "Actually, Stephen, I was thinking more along the lines of stability for the Alliance and helping her with that aspect of it." John replied. He saw what his friend was thinking. That he would give Delenn some sort of personal toy on a data crystal. Such a gift, he thought, would bring her far more pain than joy. He could never do that to her. "I'm talking about a neural map, not a personality matrix. I don't want a self-contained consciousness. More like a data record."

   "I still don't think it's a good idea, John. Were talking about a procedure that was pioneered by the Psi Corps. Yes, it's done. There are researchers right here in this facility who have had neural maps made. There are telepaths available who were in Psi Corps and have experience in this area. Just because it has been done doesn't mean that it is without risk or isn't still experimental. I personally am wary of some of the 'aspects' of the procedure. I can arrange it if you insist, but I have to tell you this makes me very uneasy."

   "Stephen, I won't ask you to go against any moral or ethical standards you may have with this. To be honest, I'm not sure it's a good idea either. I'm sure not happy with the idea of letting telepaths into my head. Still, I know what's coming. The Alliance will be unstable after my passing. Maybe having this database available will help."

   Sheridan looked at his friend. "I'm willing to make this concession. Once this is done, I want you to hold the crystal. After I'm gone, you can either give the crystal to Delenn if you think she can use it or destroy it if it isn't necessary."

   "Should I tell her about it?"

   "No. If it turns out there's no need for it then it's better that she never knows that this has been done. It might cause more harm than good."

   "OK, John. If you want to do this, let me make a few calls. When do you want to have this done?"

   "The sooner the better. I'm on borrowed time as it is."

   "Are you staying on Earth for a while? This will take a few days to set up."

   "I'm planning on making a few office calls here in Earthdome for the next few days. I'll be here for about a week. Delenn is attending a conference on Mars. She's not expecting me there until the conference is finished. We have time."

   Stephen Franklin sat and thought about Sheridan's request for a long while after John left. He didn't like this idea. Too many things could go wrong. The deep scans necessary had, in a few cases, caused brain damage in the subjects. True, the procedure had become a lot safer over the years and the risk of neurological problems was small…and if it's what he wants, the risks really weren't any worse than any other deep scan…

   Sighing, Stephen went to the com system on his desk and began to contact the necessary people…

   

*****

    "We have been presented with an unexpected opportunity…"

   The man behind the desk in the bowels of a facility far below the ruins of San Diego had gone without a name for so long he wasn't sure he remembered it himself. He had operated in the shadows since before the Interstellar Alliance, even before the Clark regime that had preceded it. Shadows, always within the shadows…and now he could see the beginnings of a revenge long anticipated but forever put off coming into play.

   "Our 'beloved' ex-president has requested a neural map," the man continued. "Something to be left behind after he leaves us. This gives us an opportunity."

   "An opportunity for what?" The young man on the other end of the comm. screen asked, "to pry secrets from his mind?"

   "No. There is little Sheridan knows that we do not already. I have in mind something better. You know of his shortened lifespan? He is dying. I find this quite ironic…"

   "How so? His death changes nothing for us. His freak wife is President now. His policies will continue under her."

   "I find it ironic that this little man thought he could brush us aside, like a spider in the tangled cobwebs of his house. Look at us. Over twenty years and he has failed to root us out. And now he is dying, and we are still here. That's irony." The man laughed. "Sheridan has set up quite a little aristocracy under the guise of a democracy. First, he is President, then that alien bitch he married. Soon, I'm sure that half-breed thing he calls a son will wrangle his way into power as well. Quite a democracy, wouldn't you say?"

   "But you have a plan." The other man sounded a bit dubious.

   "Yes, I do. We can end this failed experiment they call an alliance. It will take several years but as you know, nothing good comes quickly. Here's what I want you to do…"

   As the plan was outlined to him, the other man's eyes widened. Incredulous at first, he started seeing the possibilities as the intricacies became clear. This could work. If successful, neither Sheridan nor his wife would ever be an obstacle between Humanity and its destiny again.

   Turning off the comm. screen, the man known to no one outside and only as "Control" to his organization smiled. "And so it begins," he thought to himself.

   

*****

    "…I've made the arrangements you asked for, but I still recommend that you reconsider what you are doing," Several days had passed, and Stephen and John were in a softly appointed office in the psychological research wing of the Xenobiology Institute. "I don't mind saying that I'm uneasy about this."

   "Stephen, I'd be uneasy if you weren't uneasy." Sheridan tried to put his best face on it. "You said yourself that the risks were within acceptable limits. You'll be observing the whole time. Look," Sheridan tried to reassure his friend "It's a neural map. Just a series of recorded deep scans. It's an approved procedure. Yeah, a few have gone badly, but the vast majority go without a hitch."

   "John, don't make light of this." Stephen wanted to make sure his friend fully understood. "There's always a risk of neural damage in any deep scan. Brains get fried. I have this horrible mental image of having to explain to Delenn why I allowed her husband to become a vegetable without even notifying her. That is not a conversation I want to have."

   "Look, Stephen. I have at most about a year left. Delenn has taken over the functions of the Presidency. David has left home to begin Ranger training. I'm working with the Rangers now, but essentially I'm overseeing a self-perpetuating organization. Whether now, tomorrow, or a year from now a point will be reached where life will continue on without me."

   "But…" Stephen began to interrupt. Sheridan would have none of it.

   "No, let me finish. I'm not blind, Stephen. I'm important still, I know. When I do pass, the repercussions will be felt across the Alliance. Delenn will have to deal with that as well as her personal grief. It will be hard for her. I don't want her or those that follow her to lose my perspectives or experience. I want these to continue to be available to them if they want them or need them. This is the only solution that I can think of. I don't have time to write a book. As for the risks, well, I have accomplished most of what I wanted to accomplish in this life and I have very little to lose.

   "OK, John. If this is what you want. I've told you my misgivings and said what I wanted to say. If you'll follow me, I'll take you to meet the others."

   Stephen led Sheridan into a small laboratory off of the psychologist's office. Two people, a young human man and woman were waiting. Both were dressed in lab smocks and were standing next to a device which looked somewhat like a standard data crystal recorder. Two headsets sat nearby.

   "John, this is Dr. Jim Cahill and Dr. Carolyn Potts. They are telepathic researchers here at the facility. They are both P11 telepaths specifically trained in deep scanning. They will be conducting the scans for the neural map."

   Sheridan shook hands with both. "Good to meet you."

   "Good to meet you as well, Mr. President." Dr. Cahill returned as he returned the handshake. "I want you to know what an honor this is for us. Also, I want to assure you that both Dr. Potts and I are fully bonded and insured. Your health and the confidentiality of the scan contents are safe with us."

   "Both of them have impeccable backgrounds." Stephen added.

   Sheridan examined the recording device. "Why two telepaths? Can't one perform the scans?" he asked.

   Dr. Potts spoke. "Normally, deep scans aren't recorded. We usually do a deep scan and then transcribe our impression of the results manually. Since we will be physically recording the exact imagery from your mind, one telepath alone cannot both map your neural pathways and transfer the map to the crystal. It would be forcing the telepath to do two things at once and might degrade the quality of the impression on the crystal."

   "Dr. Potts and I will work in concert," Dr. Cahill continued, "I will perform the actual scan on you while Dr. Potts error-checks my scan and images the scan onto the crystal. This provides redundancy in the system. The crystal itself is a special high-density matrix developed by the Minbari for use in heavy data-intensive applications.

   Sheridan nodded as the procedure was explained to him. Both telepaths seemed confident that the procedure was safe. "How deeply will you scan?"

   "As deeply as you want us to go." Dr. Cahill answered.

   "How far back can you go?"

   Potts and Cahill looked at each other before replying. Potts turned back to Sheridan. "When we were a part of Psi Corps, we went as far back as womb-recollection on our test subjects. We can record memories you don't even know that you have, synaptic links that have faded over the years. Believe it or not, the memories stored on the crystal will be more accurate than the memories in your mind."

   "I had no idea that such a thing was possible…" Sheridan decided against asking about the fates of the 'test subjects'. Psi Corps was no longer. Better not to dredge up the past. The technology they developed was now being put to better use.

   "We won't lie to you, Mr. President," Cahill seemed to know what he was thinking. "This technology was developed through methods that some consider unethical." He glanced at Stephen. "The risks involved increase the deeper we go. Until the dissolution of the Psi Corps, such capabilities were kept secret. In the past, similar techniques have been occasionally abused..."

   "Abel Horn" Stephen mouthed at Sheridan.

   Cahill continued as if he had heard nothing. "…Also, we think you ought to know that procedures such as this one are becoming more popular, but are still extremely rare outside of a clinical environment."

   "Do you still want to continue?" Potts asked.

   Sheridan hesitated a moment. He had come this far… "Yes. I understand the risks. I don't think it will be necessary to go back to the womb. Early adulthood should be sufficient."

   "Very well then, sir. Oh, one other thing," Potts continued as Cahill lead Sheridan to a couch near the recording device "Deep scans can be painful. We have found that deep scanning unconscious persons lowers their natural resistance to the scan and mitigates the pain somewhat. We'd like you to allow Dr. Franklin to give you a sedative prior to beginning. Even so, you will leave here with a severe headache. It should pass quickly. We apologize in advance."

   Sheridan nodded his assent and Stephen administered the sedative. "What will it feel like to me? I mean, while the scan is going on?" Sheridan asked as he waited for the drug to take effect.

   "Most people describe a feeling akin to floating in a dark room. When you awaken, the memories will be vague. You won't remember a lot of what you saw. While unconscious, it will seem to you like you are watching a vid of your life in either fast-forward or rewind depending on the order in which we stimulate the synapses." Cahill and Potts were starting to recede as John slipped into a fugue state. He dimly heard Potts continuing. "You may experience the associated emotions, but they are more fleeting than the images. Some patients do, some don't. Significant life events tend to come through more clearly, since they are more deeply ingrained in your memory…"

   Sheridan heard no more…

   About six hours later. John Sheridan awoke from the scan with a splitting headache, just as the telepaths had told him he would. Franklin checked him over, found no real problems, gave him a mild painkiller for the headache and sent him on his way.

   Dr. Potts gave Stephen the data crystal with Sheridan's neural matrix safely recorded on it. Stephen Franklin took the crystal back to his office and placed it in his safe. Privately, he vowed never to remove it again.

   Two days later, Sheridan left Earth to meet up with Delenn on Mars. They returned to Minbar. Approximately one year later, Sheridan was gone and Delenn was left alone to guide the Interstellar Alliance to its destiny. The end of the story that created the next great story…

   Were that things always ended so easily.

   Neither Stephen Franklin nor John Sheridan were present to see Dr. Cahill and Dr. Potts slip a fake bookshelf aside in the lab to reveal another data crystal recorder. This one was far more complex than the one that Franklin and Sheridan had seen. The height of Psi Corps technology. Firmly ensconced within it was another data crystal.

   No, two telepaths were not required to produce a neural map. But two were required to create a full personality matrix…

   Cahill and Potts wasted no time in reporting their success back to their masters.

   

*****

    John felt as if his body were sinking as the world grew dim around him. Oddly enough, he never completely went unconscious. <The telepaths are right on the money so far> he thought. John knew that he was aware of what was occurring on some level, although he felt as if he were thinking through syrup.

   Soon his mind was enveloped in complete blackness. He felt as if he were floating in the dark. Just as John began to be annoyed at the lack of activity, images began to pass before him. Below him, he saw a picture of himself and Liz as children slide by. They were throwing mashed potatoes at one another. Off in the distance, an image of him in Tibet as a young man. Flying above him, Anna at their wedding. They had been so happy that day…

   The images were coming faster now. The destruction of the Black Star flew by, along with the grim satisfaction he had felt. His graduation from the Academy. His first pet, a dog named Rex. His good luck speech to an empty C&C on Babylon 5, so long ago. The first time he saw Delenn…so beautiful she had taken his breath away. A corny jingle from an ISN show that had irritated him…

   John felt flashes of emotion as the images continued to flow around him. Afterimages of love, pain, anger, happiness, regret, joy - they felt as if they were being leached from him; draining towards some great cosmic downspout he could not see in the darkness. Too many image flying now to register them all…A cell on Centauri Prime and an impassioned kiss. Michael staring at him as he was beaten unconscious on Mars. A Council meeting on Minbar to discuss trade relations. Too many emotions and images to keep track of and still they came. Delenn arching her back and crying out as he poured his love into her. David's first day of school. The horror of David's keeper. A cell on Mars. The Drakh plague. Londo, Lennier, Marcussusanelizabethlockleystephenliz…a jumble of faces out of his past, running together at almost impossible speed…

   Blindingly the pictures came now. John felt like he was drowning. He saw the Aggy. Gkar, Earthdome. The Lexington sailed past. "I do love you. If you believe nothing else I ever say, please believe that", Anna, returned from Z'ha'dum. Green eyes, heavy with desire during the culmination of the Shan'Fal ritual. Strangely the images started to alter as he watched. Something was different. "Good night my love, the brightest star in my sky…", dreams, haunting dreams, a farewell dinner. Tears on Delenn's pillow. A Sunday Drive…Falling, falling. Who are you? What do you want?

   "Wha…? Wait…Stop, STOP!" As if fighting his way through a fog John realized that he was seeing images he did not recognize, events he did not remember. The visions did not slow. Standing alone on an empty Babylon 5. Corianna Six - he hadn't been there in nineteen years. What was this? Delenn - his slowly-graying Delenn standing before him in her wedding dress, a dress he somehow knew she had been saving for the end. She was desperately trying to hold back her tears, barely choking out the words to the ritual of parting... "WHAT IS THIS? THIS HAS NOT HAPPENED!" John shouted desperately within his mind. He was coming apart…

   The images ceased. John was encased in darkness and silence. John floated, wrapped in his own confusion. <Am I dead?> he thought plaintively, <Have I died on a couch hooked up to a couple of telepaths? Was I wrong about the time I had left?> Then it came as if it were a whisper from a great distance. The Voice. "It's easy to die for something, John. What do you have worth living for?" Unbidden, the image of Delenn, the Delenn on the White Star of twenty years prior sprang into his mind. The images began again. He was on Z'ha'dum now. He climbed the rail of the balcony and jumped as the White Star crashed through the dome…

   Now a scene played out before him as if from a vid; He was watching himself on his personal shuttle. He was watching himself die, he knew, although how he knew escaped him. Lorien was with him. If he could just listen hard enough, he could hear the two of them. "Can I return?" he heard himself ask. "No" replied Lorien. "Your journey here is finished. Another one awaits…"

   Delenn on a bench alone, watching the sun rise. John recalled Delenn's words after their first lovemaking. "With me, you are the first and shall be the last. John, in this life you shall be the only mate I take. When you are gone, there will be no other." In that instant, had known both the joy and error of his proposal. He had both given her the greatest love she would ever know and condemned her to a lifetime alone. Was this his image, or Lorien's?

   He looked again. An old Delenn. Impossibly old, even for a Minbari. She sat on the same bench alone, the wedding ring he had given her still on her gnarled finger. She leaned forward heavily, palsied hands wrapped around a wooden staff. She seemed troubled, and she was speaking as if to herself. John leaned closer to listen…

   "My John. They will not let you rest even now. They are worse than Soul Hunters, these arrogant so-called researchers and historians." He saw a flash of his old feisty Delenn in her eyes, a flash that quickly faded. "I am tired. It has been so long, and I miss you so much. This is my life now, can you see? My life once spanned the galaxy and it has now been reduced to this little room, bench and garden…" She seem to look right at him. John somehow knew that she came here to talk to him often. "Come for me soon, my love. Please. I wearied of the world so long ago and I am ready to be with you again."

   John reached for her. <I am always with you, my love. Never doubt that.> he thought as he was about to caress her. As he touched her, he saw a look of surprise on her face. She was reaching for her cheek as her image began to fade. "John?" He heard her call to him as the darkness returned.

   Seeing this old, lonely Delenn snapped something in Sheridan. "No! I can't leave her like this! It shouldn't be this way! She doesn't deserve this lifetime of loneliness! It's not fair!" Sheridan didn't understand what he was seeing. "None of these events had happened! Why am I seeing these things? How can I have memories of events that haven't happened? The neural map - this can't be a part of it!"

   The darkness seemed to pull at him. He fought it, struggling like mad to free himself from a mist that seemed to arise out of nowhere. It clung to him like it was alive, pulling at him. Just as he thought he could fight it no longer, he felt the tension ease. With a snap, he found himself somewhere else…

   "Johnny, it's time to go!" John heard his dad shout. He looked down at himself. He was eighteen again at his parent's farm. What was this? "John! Grab your coat and come on!"

   "Dad! Where are we going?"

   "It's time for our Sunday drive, son! Come on! The others are waiting for us in the car!"

   "Wait, I'll get my coat and be right there." John turned to look for his coat. <There it is> he thought as he saw it hanging off the back of a chair. When he went to get it, he noticed a young girl in a tattered dress standing in the corner of the room watching him. She didn't speak, but her luminous green eyes followed him everywhere he went. There was something familiar about her…

   "Dad," John asked as he returned to the door, "did you know there's a little girl in our house?"

   "Yes, John. Don't worry about her. She'll be all right here while we're gone."

   "OK," John started to step through then hesitated. "Dad, maybe it's not such a good idea to leave that young girl here alone. Why can't we bring her with us?"

   "Johnny," John's dad looked exasperated. "We've been over this before. She has chores here at the house she has to finish before she can come. We'll take her some other time."

   John looked from his father to the little girl. It was obvious the child had been crying. Her eyes were red-rimmed and her cheeks tearstained. She looked unwaveringly at John. In the background, John could see a small table with a child's tea service set upon it. Two chairs were set at the table, each with a tiny teacup beside it . John gathered that he had been playing with the little girl and had been called by his father to leave. "Dad this is a small farmhouse in the middle of nowhere. We can't just drive off and leave this child here. You and the others go. I'll stay here and watch her."

   "John Sheridan. Come with me. The others are waiting. The girl will not come to harm. She is not yet old enough to come along with us. At some time in the future, she will be. All you need to do is step through the doorway…" John's dad reached out and grabbed at John's arm. "No dad. Not yet." John pulled his arm away, aware that his father was physically strong enough to pull him out the door if he chose to. "I'll wait here with her. When she has finished her chores, we'll both go. She can't have many to do and she might appreciate the company. The wait won't be that long."

    John's father looked disappointed, but made no further move to pull John along. "I will do as you ask, John. You may stay for a short time. The others, I think will wait a little while longer. You know," His father continued "She would have come to you eventually anyway."

   "I know, Dad. I think it's better this way. I will see you soon."

   "Perhaps sooner than you think, if you are not careful. Whether this additional time is an opportunity or a curse is for you to decide."

   John heard his father leave in the distance. The screen door slowly swung shut…

   

*****

    "Well would you look at that! The sun's coming up…" John felt a bright light shining down into his eyes through his eyelids. He knew he was conscious again because he could feel weight in his arms and legs. He tried to speak but no sound came out.

   He forced his eyes open and tried to sit up. The only reaction that produced was an immediate urge to regurgitate violently. Gouts of green liquid seemed to pour from his mouth and nose. A small part of his mind detached from the rest noted that he didn't remember having green slime for lunch that day.

   As he finished retching, John noted that his surroundings looked different. He was lying naked on a steel slab in what looked like a laboratory. He was covered with green slime not unlike that which had just come up from his insides. His vision was blurry. His head hurt like hell. "What the fuck is going on here!" Sheridan tried to shout, but the sound came out as a croak.

   "Hello," An unfamiliar voice spoke from somewhere behind him. Sheridan tried to swivel to see the speaker. "Careful, now. No sudden moves until you've regained some equilibrium. You'd probably feel better if you would lay back down for a minute."

   Sheridan complied. He immediately felt less dizzy.

   "Better, hmmm?" the voice continued. "I thought so. Do you know who you are?"

   "John Sheridan."

   "Good, good. How old are you, John?"

   "I'm sixty-four."

   "And what is the last thing you remember?"

   "I came to see Dr. Franklin about having a neural map made. He had commissioned two telepaths to map my memories onto a data crystal for inclusion in the alliance database. They sedated me for the scans. Now, here I am." Sheridan had an uneasy feeling. Had something gone wrong with the scans? Fighting back panic, he swiveled his head as far as he could without becoming nauseated again. "Now, if you don't mind, I'd like to know who the hell you are, where Dr. Franklin is, where I am, and what the hell has happened to me."

   "My name is Dr. Styles. I am the senior biotechnology research associate with the facility here. Dr. Franklin is back on Earth. You are at a biogenetic research facility on a colony world. To answer your question about your neural map; Yes, it was successful. You see," Styles continued, "you ARE the neural map, in a matter of speaking."

   Sheridan couldn't resist an involuntary gasp. Styles noted it.

   "I'm sorry, John. I know that this is hard for you to understand right now. Let me explain. You are a replicant, a clone for lack of a better word. Your genetic sample from the EarthForce archives was used to create your body. You have been implanted with a personality matrix made at the same time your neural map was made. John," Styles continued with real regret in his voice, "a lot has changed since you went to sleep and had that neural map made. It is now 2284, and you have been dead for three years."

   "My God, what have you done? What have you done to me…" was all John Sheridan could think of in reply…

   To Be Continued…

 

*****

 

 

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