2284 (III): RED SKY AT MORNING
By John Hightower
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Earth Year 2284
Control hated problems. What was supposed to be a straightforward assassination had become a problem. The John Sheridan clone had become a problem.
"Styles, Our pigeon has flown the coop."
"This isn't good. I've decided to implement our backup plan for dealing with President Delenn. It's messier, but it will be just as effective."
"Are you sure you want to do that, sir? Even if Sheridan didn't go straight back to her, he eventually will."
"I can't risk waiting much longer. I've already ordered the clone's termination. Right now, he's holed up on Mars at Edgars Industries. He's probably spilling his guts to that oaf Garibaldi even as we speak."
"He doesn't know anything. What can he tell them?"
"Styles, you're an idiot. He doesn't have to know anything. His mere existence will put them on their guard. Garibaldi isn't going to sit back and do nothing. He has his own resources, including a decent security apparatus. Sheridan knows names, including yours, and I'd rather not have Garibaldi's industrial spies looking into our organization."
Control paused for a moment, reflecting on something. At last, he continued. "I don't take failure well, Styles. It's a weakness of mine, you know."
"Sir, the operation is not a failure yet. There's still a chance Sheridan will do what we want."
"I hold you responsible for this, Doctor. I gave you an easy task, and you bungled it from the moment the clone walked out your door."
"Sir, I didn't…You said…"
"I understand one of your daughters was involved in a tragic accident at college today. I'm sorry for your loss."
"Oh, you didn't know? I forgot, news travels slowly out there. It was horrible. Apparently a suicide, but they're still investigating. Who could have known she was having all of these emotional problems? Kids today, I tell you…"
"Oh God, oh God…"
"I guess it's good that you have two other daughters. I hope it stays that way. Goodbye, Doctor."
"Who are you?"
They had waited two days to start the interrogation. John was being held in a secure area of the Edgars Industries complex. While he hadn't exactly expected Michael to greet him with open arms, he had at least expected the questions to come from Michael personally, and in a somewhat different venue.
As things stood now, John was finding this experience a little too reminiscent of an interrogation he had undergone almost a quarter-century prior. Oh, there were no paingivers, drugs, or cybernets in use this time, but the general concept was the same.
"John Sheridan." John answered tiredly. <How long is this going to go on? Surely Michael is watching all of this somewhere.>
John's interrogator, an agent from Edgars Industries Corporate Protection Division, sighed in response. He'd been getting the same answer for over an hour. "John Sheridan is dead. He's been dead for three years now. You're a little late to be impersonating him, don't you think? Now, I'll ask again. Who are you?"
"John Sheridan. Look, you've been asking me this question for God knows how long. If you want answers, get me Mr. Garibaldi." Looking toward the mirror on the wall, John continued, "You hear me Michael? I know you do. You want answers? I'll give you answers - but not to this guy. I want to talk to you, and only you."
"Why are you here?" the interrogator continued.
John was growing exasperated. "What is this? A Vorlon convention? OK, I'll tell you why I'm here. I need Mr. Garibaldi's help. There's a plot against the Alliance and I can't fight it alone."
"A plot? Against the Alliance? Why should Edgars Industries be concerned with a plot against the government? We're a private corporation. You should have gone to Tuzanor and reported it. It's not our concern."
John leaned forward towards the interrogator. "Look at me." John indicated himself. "You think this reception is bad? This is ten times better than I would have gotten on Minbar."
"So what do you want Edgars Industries to do about this alleged plot…" The interrogator looked at John's identicard, "Mr. McPherson?"
"I want you to report it. Mr. Garibaldi has worked with the Rangers before. He can report it credibly without involving me."
"Why not involve you?" The interrogator asked, "If you are who you say you are, you're already involved."
John sighed. They were going in circles. "Again, look at me. You already think I'm a nut. How seriously do you think a warning from a man who's been dead three years is going to go over with the Minbari?"
"Why did you come here, Mr. McPherson? If you are John Sheridan, you could have gone to President Delenn. She has far greater resources at her disposal than we do."
"Because that's what they wanted me to do. They know that if I go to Minbar, she'll want to see me personally. I don't know what significance there is in that, but I'm sure that if they want it, then it's not good. For that reason, I've avoided going to Tuzanor."
"Who exactly is this 'they' you're referring to?" The interrogator leaned forward. Now they were getting somewhere.
"Bureau 13. And, by the way, congratulations. I just put your life in danger. If you ever breathe that name outside of this room, they'll probably find you, so I'd be careful." John really wished the man no ill will, but he had been backed into a corner. He hoped his warning to the interrogator would be heeded.
"I've never heard of them, but thanks for the warning." The interrogator put his elbow on the table and placed his chin in his hand. He eyed John for a second. "So. Let me get this straight. This covert organization wants you to return to President Delenn. Why?"
"I don't know. Yet."
The interrogator continued watching John, seemingly relaxed. "That's not a good answer."
"It's the only one I've got right now." John sat back and rubbed his temples.
The interrogator eyed him thoughtfully. "You know, if you are John Sheridan you're looking younger. Are you taking some sort of anti-agapic?"
<Well, this should tear it open,> John thought. "No. I'm a clone. I was created using a genetic sample."
"A clone, huh? First you're John Sheridan, and now you're a clone. Well, you're a very good clone if that's the case. Edgars Industries has the best technology in known space in that area and I can guarantee that you're beyond our ability to duplicate. How do you explain that?"
"Bureau 13 used Shadow technology to create me."
The door to the interrogation room flew open. In stormed a bald, slightly portly man chomping on an unlit cigar.
"Hello, Michael," John began, "I was wondering when you were going to bust in. I figured the references to Bureau 13 and Shadow technology would interest you."
Michael Garibaldi glared at Sheridan for a long second. Turning to the interrogator, he said "You. Out."
John was relieved. Finally, he was about to talk to someone who could help him. "Thanks, Michael. I really need to ta- Ooof!"
As soon as the door closed behind the interrogator, Michael moved around the table with surprising speed for someone of his age. John didn't even have a chance to get his sentence out before Michael grabbed him by his shirt front and slammed him up against the wall. "You listen to me. I don't know what you are and I don't care who you think you are, but you're not John Sheridan. He's DEAD, understand? You are not him. Period. End of story. Now, you'd better start giving us some straight answers or I'll take you apart!"
John stared in surprise at Michael. For a moment, he was too shocked to speak. Michael didn't let go, and John could feel himself growing angry. He'd gone through so much to get to this point, and now he was faced with nothing other than animosity and suspicion.
"Are you going to hit me, Michael?" John said, in a low dangerous voice. "Go ahead, but remember I gave you your freebie a long time ago. You'll have to pay for any punches you take this time."
Slowly, Michael relaxed. Letting John go, he turned in confusion, running a hand over his bald head. He started pacing around the room. "This can't be happening. I don't believe it," he muttered to himself.
"Michael, I'm not literally the John Sheridan you remember from three or four years ago. You're right in that respect. That John Sheridan went beyond the Rim, or whatever, just as he was fated to do. He's gone." John moved toward Michael, who stepped quickly away from him in revulsion. "I'm a clone, Michael. Just as I told your interrogator. I was created using illegal Shadow technology by Bureau 13."
Michael ceased his pacing and looked straight at John. "If that is true then we ought to destroy you now."
John sat down dejectedly in a chair. "Believe it or not, I don't totally disagree with you. Bureau 13 created me as a weapon to use against the Alliance. Apparently, they've had my creation in the works since before my previous self's disappearance."
"So how were you created?" Michael stayed out of arm's reach. He really should get rid of this - thing - but he was curious in spite of himself.
"Bureau 13 somehow got hold of one of my Earthforce genetic samples. They used it to create this body. That's fairly straightforward. Even Earth could make a rough copy of me without using Shadow tech. My personality, well, that's a longer story. Four years ago, I had Stephen prepare a neural map of my brain. Somehow, Bureau 13 found out about it and secretly made a full personality matrix at the same time. They grew the body, and implanted my personality in it a little over four months ago. About a week ago they released me, expecting me to run straight back to Delenn. I ran here instead." John noticed Michael still looked doubtful. "Look, Michael, I'm not here to hurt anyone whatever Bureau 13's intentions. Not you, not the Alliance, and certainly not Delenn. I came to warn you about them. They're moving again. They think Delenn's weak now and it's a good time for them to strike."
Looking at his friend with as much earnestness as he could muster, John spoke urgently. "I think the Alliance in general, and probably Delenn personally, are in great danger. I'm a part of it, although I don't know how or why. I do know that I'm not the only option they have open to them. This organization is vast, with plenty of backing and resources. They'll have another plan. They may already have put it into motion now that I'm here."
"Bureau 13 knows you're here?" John had rarely seen Michael look worried, but he did now.
"They're on me like stink on shit, Michael. You had one of their hit men locked up in your security area a couple of days ago. Look, I know this is hard to accept. If you can just give me a little time, I'll try to explain everything I know."
"OK, OK. Hold on a minute. I have to make a couple of calls." Michael got up and left the room.
About five minutes later, he returned. "I've increased security around the building. I also called Lise and Mary and told them to leave for a secure location." Spinning a chair around backwards, he sat down. "OK, Mr. Clone, I'm listening. If you want my help, you'd better give me the whole story. You, Bureau 13, how you got here…"
"Michael, to tell you the whole story of my involvement with Bureau 13 would require a major history lesson. That story goes all the way back to before I was commander of Babylon 5."
"Then I guess we're ordering takeout for dinner tonight. Start talking."
John eyed the man who had been both a friend and an adversary to him over the years. Even now this was hard. Michael was asking to hear things that he had never told anyone before, not even Delenn. Things that probably only he and the elusive, unknown leader of Bureau 13 knew or remembered. Taking a deep breath, he committed himself. "Everything started for me in 2253. Shortly after I assumed command of the Agamemnon, before Babylon 5 had even been built, I was approached by General Hague and a number of other high ranking Earthforce officers on behalf of President Santiago. Santiago was beginning his efforts to integrate Earth into the greater galactic community, but there was a problem…"
"…So, if they aged you back to your previous age, why do you look younger? You look pretty good for a guy who should be pushing seventy about now." Michael asked as John's story was wrapping up.
"The genetic sample they used was taken before we broke from Earth, before Zha'dum. It had none of Lorien's organisms sustaining it. My body is completely natural. There's none of the rapid aging that came with Lorien's gift. I look as I would have looked had I not gone to Zha'dum. Besides that, the aging is based on my age when I disappeared. It was a rough guess on their part. Physically, I'm probably in my late fifties to early sixties. Also, this body has had none of the wear and tear you would associate with normal aging."
"Man, that's quite a difference. Your lifespan?"
"Normal, as far as I can tell. According to their genetics people, I could go another fifty years. Perhaps even longer."
"OK. Look…uh, John. There's something I need to tell you." Now that he had the full story, there was a lot Michael knew he needed to do quickly. He owed the man sitting in front of him some sort of warning, though.
"What is it?" John didn't like the look of reluctance on his friend's face.
"There's a reason we waited two days to start questioning you. You see, when you came to my office and sent the note, I checked you out through our security system. You looked so much like, well, yourself. And then there was the reference in the note about the spider…Only the two of us could have known that. No one else was there to hear it…" Michael rubbed his chin in thought before continuing, "I thought it was enough to make a couple of calls. Stephen should be here tomorrow, and he wants to check you out."
"That's great, Michael. No problem. In fact, there's an issue I need to discuss with him."
"Uh, that's not the only call I made. I… uh, I contacted Susan. She's going to send someone who should be able to determine if you're legit beyond any doubt."
Putting two and two together, John put his head in his hands. "David."
"Yeah. He should be leaving Tuzanor late today. With a quick travel time, he'll be here in two days."
"Thanks, Mike." Raising his head, he stared off into space. "Does Delenn know?"
"I asked Susan not to tell Delenn. I wasn't sure how she'd react and I wanted to be sure about you. She said she wouldn't tell her anything for now. You know Delenn, though. She can smell a secret a mile off and Susan's with her daily. It'll be tough for her to keep this from her indefinitely."
"Well, thank God for small favors. Any other good news?"
Michael smiled. "We washed your clothes and brought you some clean underwear. Does that count?"
"Well, Hello there, Ardenn!"
Delenn's aide froze up as she heard the cheerful voice behind her. He was back! Quickly smothering the expressions of anticipation and pleasure that washed across her delicate features, she assumed an attitude of polite interest, turned and bowed respectfully in greeting. "Ranger Sheridan, welcome home. It is good to have you here again."
David gave her a big smile. "Please, Ardenn, 'David' will do. Haven't I told you this before?" Leaning over, he whispered in her ear conspiratorially " I know Mother likes a certain amount of formality, but I'm not her. OK?"
Ardenn was thrilled, although she was careful not to show it. Her world was so much brighter when David was around. The young Ranger had the ability to fill the room with his personality wherever he went, a characteristic Delenn had told her he inherited from his father. When she had met him for the first time she had been so shy and skittish he had almost overwhelmed her. He was so infuriatingly…human. He was boisterous. He was chaotic. He seemed to eat all the time. He put his feet up on the furniture. Ardenn found it hard to believe that Delenn was his mother. Privately, she had speculated that some poor human family had left him in a basket at the Sheridan's door as an infant and they hadn't had the heart to send him back.
At first, she had done everything she could think of to avoid him. It was impossible. The harder she tried to withdraw, the harder he would try to draw her out. Gradually, his seemingly inexhaustible good humor won her over and the two of them became friends and confidantes. She realized, ironically, that the two of them had a lot in common. Both had grown up essentially as only children surrounded by adults. He had grown up in the shadow of near-mythical parents and she had grown up among the remote and mystical Sisters of Valeria. No longer being alone was a new and exhilarating experience for her. She had never had a friend before. David always took care to make her feel like a family member, not a subordinate.
Unable to maintain a neutral facade when he was being so jovial, Ardenn's face broke into a smile in return. "All right, David." <Those beautiful green eyes…If he had any idea how I feel when he looks at me that way…> Ardenn didn't finish the thought. She wasn't sure exactly when she fell in love with him. One day, they had been talking about inconsequential things and she simply realized the emotion was there.
She said nothing about her growing feelings towards David to anyone. She was realistic enough with herself to acknowledge that it was an emotional state that was not without complications in her present position, so she was very careful to hide it away, opening herself to the emotion only when no one else could see. Still, that became harder each time he was near…
As she was daydreaming, David straightened back up, dropped his bag at the door and stepped in to the hall. Much to Ardenn's surprise, he took her in his arms and gave her a big, friendly hug. Inwardly, she noted that her heart was threatening to beat its way out of her chest. After a moment, she returned the hug, reflecting that humans had no conception of personal space. With David holding her, however, she found that she didn't care. Hugging wasn't the Minbari way, but it was David's way and she wasn't about to argue.
Pulling away from her, David held her at arm's length and looked her over fondly. She was petite, even for a Minbari, with the tip of her bonecrest barely reaching his shoulder. Her features were delicate and feminine, accented by iron-gray eyes, which were now sparkling with merriment as she gazed at him. Her lips, David noted, were full, red and quite kissable. Her robe was cut similarly to those his mother favored but rather than being of many colors it was a simple off-white. It was tight in the right places and accented the curves of her perfectly proportioned figure far better (he was sure) than the garment's designers had intended. Red-lettered Minbari runic script around the collar and down the folds at the front identified her as an apprentice to the Sisters of Valeria. The gentle curves carved into her bonecrest, different from any of the castes, would have identified her as such even without the tell-tale robe. In short, Ardenn was beautiful, smart and (at least in his eyes) desirable. If she had possessed any status at all in Minbari society outside of the Sisters, she would probably have already made some lucky Minbari male an excellent wife, he admitted to himself somewhat wistfully. As things stood, few Minbari would look twice at her despite her beauty and talent. Being a casteless orphan, Ardenn had no family connections and nothing to offer a prospective mate.
Pushing that suddenly somber line of thought aside, he continued. "I've missed you. You look wonderful! So, are you packed yet? Are you ready to quit this aide business and come see the stars with me?"
Ardenn laughed politely at the running joke between them. "Perhaps some other time. Your mother would be in a mess if she returned to discover that there was no one here to handle her administrative details."
"All right, all right…I won't make you come with me today. We really need to do something about that practical side of yours, though." David said with a mock frown. He took Ardenn's arm and slid it through his own, pulling her along with him as he started down the hall. "I guess it's for the best. You're too young for the big, wide world anyway."
"I am two human years older than you, as you well know." Ardenn smiled up at him. "So who is calling who young?"
David returned the smile affectionately. "OK, you've got me there, Grandma."
As they strolled down the hall, David looked from room to room. "So where's Mother? I called her and told her I was on my way. I assumed she was going to meet me at the base when my ship came in."
"Why would she do that, rather than meet you here?"
"Well, tradition I suppose. In the old navies of Earth, a sailor's loved ones would wish him 'Bon Voyage' when he left and would be there to greet him when he returned." David grinned. "You know, hugging, kissing…long farewells, enthusiastic greetings. That kind of stuff." Ardenn nodded her understanding and he continued. "The tradition held over into Earthforce and has been adopted unofficially among the Rangers."
"Ah, I see. Human rituals of parting and reunion." Ardenn toyed with the idea and found that she liked it. An image of her and David engaging in such a ritual came to mind, bringing a slight flush to her cheeks as David continued.
"Not just Human anymore. Even the Minbari families that show up tend to be more open with their affection for each other than Minbari society at large, at least for that moment."
"Then that is a good thing. Our people are supposed to be learning from one another. In that way the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, as the humans say." Ardenn sighed, then looked back up at David, smiling again. "I believe your mother planned on meeting you, David. She was here until a short time ago, but the Advisory Council called a meeting on short notice to discuss the latest updates regarding the Drazi. She decided I ought to stay here to meet you when you arrived."
Ardenn wasn't being entirely truthful. She had asked Delenn to let her remain. There was no way she would miss David's return. He had been away almost six months and, although she would never admit it to Delenn, she had missed him terribly the whole time. She wanted a little time alone with him, time where she could relax with him before reassuming the mask of semi-formal efficiency she wore around Delenn. Delenn, kind as she was, tended to keep her at a distance. From her talks with David, Ardenn learned that there had been some unspecified trouble between his mother and a previous aide. For that reason, David explained, she had gone without a personal aide for almost twenty years, only surrendering to the need for administrative help when his father was no longer around to assist her.
As it stood, Ardenn was very conscious of the warmth of his body next to hers, and the feelings their proximity created within her. In her mind's eye, she could easily imagine a more intimate welcome between them, one that involved opening herself to him in a way that would make 'relaxed' more than an understatement. <Yes,> she said to herself, <those thoughts are very un-Minbari for an unbonded female, but they are also very pleasant.> Once she had recognized her growing feelings for what they were, she had (very discreetly) researched the comparative anatomies of Minbari and Humans. She discovered that, cultural prohibitions aside, a physical union between the two was entirely possible and would probably be extremely pleasurable for both, as long as the two parties involved were careful to avoid damaging one another.
She looked up at him again, pressing closer while trying to make it appear as if she weren't.
David, of course, seemed oblivious to all of this in the way only human males could be. He continued on, not noticing that Ardenn wasn't really paying attention to him. More accurately, she was paying rapt attention to him, just not to what he was saying. "The Drazi, huh? I've spent six boring months on the border of the Drazi Freehold chasing down blockade-runners. I hope they can work out a solution soon, because I don't want to see Drazi space again anytime soon." When she didn't reply, David looked down and saw the expression on her face, noticing in the process how close to one another they were. He grinned and nudged her gently. "Hey, are you still with me in there?"
"Pardon? Oh, yes, the Drazi." Ardenn's reverie ended. Her rational mind noticed how tightly she was pressed against him and she pulled away abruptly. As she did so her hip caught the edge of a table and with a resounding thump, a small vase tumbled off. David quickly withdrew his arm from Ardenn's and tried to catch it. He missed, and the vase hit the floor with a crash. "Crap. We're in for it now," he said, stooping to examine the fragments. "This one's an antique from Dad's family."
He examined the fragments more closely. "Well, it's in pretty big pieces. I suppose I can glue it back together." He snorted amusedly. "Maybe if I don't say anything, she won't even notice…Naah. Everything Dad owned is precious to her. She'll notice."
Turning to Ardenn, he started to ask her to find the glue, but saw that she had a shocked look on her face. Mumbling a curse at herself in Adronato, she closed her eyes and mentally kicked herself. Every time he visited, she broke something. She felt like crying from embarrassment. David saw the look on her face, took her by the shoulders and pulled her in to him. "Hey…hey, it's OK. Don't worry about it. It's just a vase. She won't be that upset, I promise."
"I am sorry, David," Ardenn spoke softly into his shoulder, hiding her face so he wouldn't see how red it had become. "I am not really worried about your mother being upset. She's not a monster; she treats me much better than anybody else has. It just seems like I break something every time you are here. You must think I'm awfully clumsy." She pulled away from him, eyes downcast. "I want you to think well of me."
Placing a finger gently under her chin, David lifted her head and gazed into her eyes. "I do think well of you, Ardenn. You have no need to worry about that. You don't really think I come home just to see Mother, do you? I prefer your company far more than sleeping at the Ranger compound." David chuckled as he stooped to pick up the fragments of the vase.
"I would much prefer that you sleep with me as well, David." Ardenn murmured softly. "Your companionship means a lot…" She trailed off as she realized what she had just said. The implication was out there before she could stifle the words.
David paused for a millisecond, then continued scraping the pieces together, trying to act as if he hadn't heard her Freudian slip. "Uh, well, I think I got them all. I'm…I'll just leave these on the table for now. If you'll find me some glue, I'll just go and drop my bag off in my room."
Ardenn stood rooted to the spot, mortified. She couldn't believe she had said what she said. She had forgotten her place and embarrassed her mentor's son. Amends must be made immediately. "Ranger Sheridan," she said formally, casting her eyes down in the traditional gesture of a subordinate, "I have embarrassed you. I spoke without thinking about the effect of my words. I apologize. It was most inappropriate of me."
David searched his mind desperately for a way to allow Ardenn to recover from her faux pas with some dignity. Playing her words off as a humorous misstatement seemed the safest bet. Mustering up a foolish grin, he said "Damn, Ardenn. First you get my hopes up, then you go apologizing. And here I was trying to figure out which closet the Shan'Fal candles were stored in. You sure know how to spoil it for a guy who's been on deep patrol for six months."
Ardenn didn't raise her head, but she glanced at his face briefly before casting her eyes back down towards the floor. She recognized that his rather pathetic attempt at humor was his way of offering her a way out of what she had said. She was at a crossroads. She could laugh with him and drop the matter, or…this might be her only chance to follow her heart. She chose. "David, I said my comment was inappropriate." In her mind's eye, she could see herself placing her heart in his hands. "I did not say that my comment was…not the way that I felt."
David was dumbstruck. A human woman would have laughed his poor humor off and gone on about her business. He wasn't dealing with a human woman. He couldn't joke his way out of this. For a long few seconds he simply watched her. She had essentially left herself wide open to him.
As the seconds stretched, Ardenn began to tremble. She had miscalculated terribly, she was sure. Staring at the floor so hard she could almost count the seams in the tile, she knew she wouldn't be able to maintain her composure much longer. She closed her eyes when she felt the tears starting. "David, please say something. Don't leave me like this."
David made his decision. He did want her, had wanted her for a long time. She needed to know that now, even if nothing ever came of it. He gently reached out and coaxed her to look at him. "Ardenn, what you said was very appropriate." His slid his hand up her jawline and gently caressed her cheek. "I would be lying if I told you that the idea you inadvertently voiced had never occurred to me before. Now that I think about it, it's long past time one of us said something, at least to acknowledge that there's more than friendship between the two of us. You have nothing to apologize for." Trying to lighten the mood, he smiled again and continued. "By the way, I still like 'David' a lot more than 'Ranger Sheridan', at least coming from you."
Ardenn was speechless, not even daring to breathe. The tenderness in his eyes, coupled with the warmth of his touch on her cheek brought on a rush of pleasurable emotions she couldn't immediately identify. A strange warmth was spreading from her chest and flowing through her body. How could he so effortlessly reach inside her and touch her so intimately? In the back of her mind, she thought she could hear singing. She fought to keep her voice level. "I do not want you to be uncomfortable around me, David. All I have comes from your mother and you, and the relationship you and I have built over the years is precious to me. Now I fear I have jeopardized that by allowing my emotions to speak for me."
David watched her for a moment. He had known for a while that Ardenn was fond of him, but had not expected her to ever say anything that would indicate it was more serious than that. It wasn't the Minbari way. Until now, he had no idea that her feelings for him were this powerful. The knowledge was both exhilarating and, he admitted to himself, a little frightening. He could feel her reacting to his touch. She was trembling. He searched his mind for something to say that would acknowledge the special place in his heart that she held. Something…Delenn-ish. "Sometimes our hearts speak for us when our minds cannot think of the words. The heart doesn't ask the mind for permission. It chooses its own time. Yours chose now. Who would fault you for that? Certainly not me." He was still standing there with one hand on Ardenn's cheek and the other holding a broken vase. Placing the vase fragments back on the table, he cupped her face tenderly. "Our relationship is special to me also. You could never say anything that would make me uncomfortable around you. The emotions you feel…I feel them as well. I don't think I have the words to describe how important you are to me."
Ardenn reached up slowly and removed David's hands from her face. Thinking he had embarrassed her, he started to lower them. Ardenn didn't let go, instead gently sliding his right hand slowly down the front of her robe until it was over her heart. For a moment, she covered his hand with hers, then removed it. She mirrored his gesture by placing her hand over his heart. The two gazed into each other's eyes for a long moment, all barriers down. This wasn't the formal Minbari gesture of greeting and farewell that David was familiar with. It was intensely intimate, almost sexual. David could feel her heartbeat. Her heart was pounding. Wryly, he speculated that she was probably feeling the same thing with his. Somewhere in the back of his mind, he realized Ardenn was speaking softly to him. "My heart is speaking now, David. Do you understand it?" She whispered.
"Yes." Over the past few years, David had avoided building any serious romantic relationships. He had told himself that it was mostly because of his family. It was tough to try to lead a normal love life when your last name was Sheridan. Up until now, the few remotely romantic or sexual encounters he had experienced had all been human females, and those had not lasted. He had become something of a running joke among his Ranger friends, who had taken to calling him 'Monk', a nickname he had accepted with a laugh. Now, as he considered it, he had been all wrong. His heart, he realized, had always known that this moment was coming. He hadn't expected to find love with a Minbari, though. Even considering the unique relationship of his parents, the idea that a Minbari female would seriously consider him attractive was…well, daunting.
A little voice in the back of his mind said 'OK, you can move now…' and David dropped his hand. Ardenn lowered hers as well. It had been such a small gesture, but in Minbari society small gestures could speak volumes. Neither had any doubt that this few short seconds had changed their relationship irrevocably. He reached down and took her hand in his. "Ardenn, you and I need to talk about this. About where we stand with each other now, and where we want to go together. We should have talked about this a long time ago. Right now is probably not the time though. I wouldn't want mother walking in on us."
Ardenn nodded in agreement, still excited and shaken by what had passed between them. "I had almost forgotten about her." Looking up at David, she smiled shyly. "Do you think that makes me a bad aide?" David couldn't help but notice a gleam in her eye that he hadn't noticed before. "No. As my father would say, that makes you a 'human' one." Picking up the fragments of the vase again, he started toward the kitchen. "Now, if you'll go find the glue I'll see what I can do about this."
Ardenn stood in the hall a moment after he had walked off. As the blood ceased pounding in her ears, she became aware of other sounds. She could hear the ticking of the clock from the office. That ticking spurred another memory of another conversation. <I think I understand now, Mistress. I know what you were trying to tell me. > Smiling to herself, she left to find some glue for David.
A short while later, Ardenn found David in the kitchen. He was bent over the fragments of the vase, the tube of glue she had obtained in one hand, a shard of crockery in the other and a look of intense concentration on his face. The vase appeared to be almost reassembled. Leaning against the doorframe, she stood silently and considered him. He was a tall man, relatively slender like his mother but with broad shoulders. He had large green eyes, a shade which guaranteed that they would be the first thing anyone (particularly females) noticed when they saw him. His hair was dark blonde, almost brown. His face was almost a mirror image of pictures Ardenn had seen of his father in his younger years. It was a face full of mirth; David Sheridan was a man who laughed often although she knew he could be deadly serious if the situation required it. As far as Ardenn was concerned, he was beautiful, even by Minbari standards. She knew she was not alone in this belief. In the past, she had watched other unbonded Minbari females eye him speculatively when he wasn't looking. Delenn noticed it too, and as a result kept a close eye out when David participated in public functions. She was very choosy about the females he came in contact with.
As for what had passed between them a short time ago…she smiled to herself. She would examine that later. She tried not to worry about Delenn's reaction when she found out.
Glancing up, David noticed her standing there and grinned at her. Amusedly, she wished he would stop doing that. It made her knees weak. <He knows this. That's why he does it.> She thought wryly.
Returning his concentration to the task at hand, he spoke as he worked. "I think I've about got it…There we go," he slipped the last glued piece back into place. Stepping back, he admired his handiwork. The vase looked as good as new. "As long as mother doesn't put any water in this before it dries, I think it'll be all right."
"We have to tell her I broke it. It wouldn't be right not to."
"Oh, we'll tell her. I'm not concerned about that anymore. While I was reassembling it I noticed that it has been broken before. I probably broke it as a kid." He moved to look at it at a different angle. "With that in mind, I doubt she'll be too upset. It looks as good as it did before, anyway."
"Thank you for fixing the vase, David. Had I been here alone, I probably would have left it broken for your mother to find. I will have to find some way to repay you." She smiled almost seductively at him. As David smiled back, a musical beep sounded in the background. "There is a call coming in. That will probably be your mother calling to ensure you arrived safely. I will return in a moment."
David watched her from behind as she walked off. Every move she made was so graceful, despite her opinion about her clumsiness. She had a fabulous figure, and it cost him a great deal of self-control to keep from wondering what her body looked like beneath her robes. For the first time, it occurred to him that he stood a good chance of finding out. <No,> he chastised himself, <Don't even go there right now. You'll only end up frustrated. She's still Minbari, after all.> He chuckled to himself at the irony of it. <Three years. We have lived in the same house off and on together for three years. How could I spend all this time in places all over the galaxy only to find love waiting for me in my own house? Why is this happening now? > As David silently considered the vase other, more serious thoughts presented themselves. Did he and Ardenn have any future together? The more he looked at it, the more potential obstacles occurred to him. This would require very careful thought. He had to know exactly what he was doing, for both their sakes. A mistake anywhere on his part could hurt her emotionally, or even get her sent back to the Sisters in shame…No. He wanted her. He wouldn't allow that to happen.
"David?" Ardenn called his name uncertainly. She had walked back in to see him brooding, his attention far away. Inwardly, she uttered a silent plea that he wasn't having second thoughts about what had occurred between them. "David, are you all right?"
"What? Oh, yes. I'm fine." He forced a smile to his face that he didn't really feel any more. "Did mother call?"
"No. It is Ranger One. I came to get you. She is still on the link to speak with you." Ardenn looked worried, already anticipating bad news.
"Thanks. Did she say what she wanted?"
"Only that she wanted to talk to you alone."
"Hmm…I don't like the sound of that. OK, give me a few moments." David left to take the call. Ardenn pulled out a chair and sat at the kitchen table to await his return. She caught snatches of conversation, but she had not been invited to participate so she did her best to ignore what she could hear. At one point, she couldn't help but notice a reference to David's father.
She heard David terminate the connection. He didn't return. After a few minutes, Ardenn became concerned and went looking for him. After some searching, she found him on the balcony gazing out over the spires of Tuzanor and the mountains in the distance. Thinking at first to mildly reprove him for leaving her sitting alone, she paused as she saw the ashen look on his face, her comment dying on her lips. She moved to his side, lightly touching his arm to get his attention. "David? Are you all right? Are you ill?" She asked worriedly.
"No." David tried to force some lightness back into his voice but failed under Ardenn's concerned gaze. Moving to the nearby bench, he sat down heavily. "No, I'm not all right. Don't worry though, I'm not sick." Ardenn continued to watch him and he could see that she wasn't going to be satisfied that easily. Forestalling the question he could see forming on her lips, he continued. "I've received some…disturbing news from Ranger One, that's all."
Ardenn moved to the bench. Gathering the folds of her robe, she sat down next to him with her hands in her lap. Turning slightly to face him more comfortably, she said, "I see. Can you talk about it?"
David continued to look out at the horizon. "No. I'm sorry. I wish I could, but I can't." He turned to look at her. She was so beautiful in the sunshine, he thought. She continued to look at him, her delicate brow ridge accenting the concern in her eyes. "I have to go away for a while."
"I understand." Ardenn turned away. She didn't want David to see the disappointment in her face. Reining in her emotions, she reconsidered. "No. I'm sorry, David, that is not true. I do not understand." When she looked up again, there was an angry glint in her eye. "Minbari tradition says that understanding is not required. I have never accepted that. The Sisters say that it is one of my failings but I do not consider it so. How can Ranger One send you on an assignment when you've only just gotten back? You have been gone for almost six months. You are tired, David. I see it even though you are trying to hide it from me. Are you not to be allowed a chance to rest? Why is she doing this to you? What is so important that it requires your personal attention?" Her words were starting to run together and her vision was starting to blur, but she didn't care. "Why do you have to go, David? How long will you be away from me? I want to understand. Tell me, David. Please… "
As she spoke, her voice was rising as her despair began to bubble to the surface. David could see where her outburst was leading. Reaching across the short space between them, he took her and pulled her tightly against him. She buried her face in the crook of his neck just as the first sob broke through. "I-I'm so sorry, David," her voice was muffled against his cloak as she spoke through her tears. "You do not deserve my anger, but I needed this time with you…you have no idea how much I have been looking forward to having you here. Your company means so much to me. I-I thought we could spend some time together, just the two of us…perhaps take a trip into the mountains. And talk…I so enjoy it when we talk. I never had any family or friends, not until I met you and your mother. And…and now that you and I know that we are more than friends, I was hoping perhaps…that we could explore our new relationship further…"
David said nothing, just sat and rocked her in his arms as she worked her way through her crying jag. He stroked the delicate ridges of her crest gently and made soft sounds as he listened to her vent her frustration. After a short time, he felt her shudders subside and heard her breathing slowly returning to normal. She ceased crying, but made no attempt to pull away from him. For a moment, he could sense time standing still for them. Finally, he spoke. "You know, I have often wondered how many times my mother has sat on this bench and done exactly what you just did. Probably more times than most would realize. Her life has not been exactly what one would call 'happy'." Ardenn said nothing, but David knew she was listening. "This is her special place. She sits on this bench when she wants to talk to my father, even to this very day."
Ardenn's finally spoke up from where she had laid her head on his shoulder, although her voice was still shaky. "Yes. I can feel her spirit here. And another." David was still stroking the sensitive folds of her bonecrest, an action the Minbari referred to as 'The Lover's Touch'. The sensations he was creating within her were making it difficult for her to concentrate. She could feel herself becoming sexually aroused. Forcing herself to focus on another subject, she said "Lately, she's taken to speaking to him in his old office. She says she can sense his presence more strongly now than she has been able to since he passed…Mmm, David? I think I am beginning to enjoy this too much…" Her last words came out almost as a moan.
"Does she now?" David ceased his caresses, abruptly realizing what he had been doing to her. "Uh, sorry about that. I wasn't thinking."
"I was not complaining. You are permitted to touch me in this way if you wish, although I think if you had continued both you and I would have found our parting more difficult." Ardenn murmured. Nestling in against him a little more closely, she shifted her head so that it was resting on his shoulder. He relaxed his grip on her and rested his arm lightly around her.
"So, how long has mother been sensing my father's presence again?" David asked.
Ardenn traced the outline of David's Ranger brooch with her finger. "About four months. She has not been more specific about the impressions she gets than that. I felt that it was not my place to inquire further on such a personal matter." She wanted to stay like this forever, but knew they could not. After a moment, she sighed in resignation. "When do you have to leave, and how long will you be gone?"
"I leave in about thirty minutes. I guess it's good that I didn't unpack. As for how long I'll be gone, I don't really know. There may be nothing to this." Gazing down at her and smiling, he continued "I promise you, though, that it won't be a moment longer than it has to be."
"Will you at least wait until your mother arrives? She will be extremely disappointed if she comes home to find you gone. I know she wants to see you as much as I."
"It'll be better if I'm gone before she arrives. Seeing her now would lead to questions that I really don't have the answers to right now. It would be more appropriate if she gets her answers from Ranger One anyway, although I doubt Susan will be very forthcoming."
Abruptly, Ardenn pulled away from him and stood. Smoothing her robe, which had somehow become rather rumpled, she said, "Wait here, David." She ran back inside. David stayed as she asked, puzzled.
After a moment, Ardenn reemerged. She was wearing her traveling cloak and had a small handbag in her hand. "What are you doing?" David asked.
Ardenn smiled, although her eyes were still sad. "I will accompany you to the base. You need a loved one there to wish you 'Bon Voyage', as you call it. As you will not wait for your mother, I shall take her place."
David started to smile, but saw she was dead serious. "Thank you, Ardenn. That's very thoughtful of you, but Ranger One is sending a flyer here to pick me up. Besides, someone needs to be here when mother gets home." David heard the sound of an engine whine in the distance. Looking out over the balcony, he saw a flyer setting down on the pad. "In fact, there's my ride now. They're a little early. There's an envelope on the table for mother. I'd appreciate it if you would see that she gets it."
Ardenn hung her head in disappointment. It was time for him to go. David walked over and stood in front of her and started to place his hand over her heart in a traditional farewell. Unexpectedly, Ardenn pushed his hand away. "No. Not like this, David."
David thought she was angry with him. "Ardenn? What do you want me to say? I have to go."
"Not before I say this, David. I might not have the courage later." She couldn't let him walk out with out saying what was in her heart. "You have joked with me for years about taking me to see the stars with you. Every time you did that, I did my duty and laughed along with you, but inside I would cry because I so wanted it to be true. Now that I know that we mean something to each other, I do not want you to say that to me again, not until you truly intend to take me. The next time you ask me that, my answer will be 'yes', and it would destroy me now to have it be a joke." She could see the pain in his eyes as he realized how his innocent kidding had hurt her. She didn't want to hurt him, but there was no time and she didn't want him leaving until he fully understood. "I am less than an ordinary person in Minbari society, David. Were it not for this robe I wear and the influence of your mother, I would have no status at all. The Sisters can recall me from your mother's service at any time, and they most certainly will if they believe I have overstepped my bounds with you. Your mother could also send me away if she thought our relationship was improper. I am willing to take these risks, if you are. I want you to consider this while you are away from me. Finally, I want to be the one to meet you when you return. I want to be the person you come to when the crews are receiving the 'enthusiastic greetings' from their families when the ships come in. All you have to do is ask, and I will be there. Please ask me, David.
David reached out and stroked her cheek. "First, Ardenn, I know who you are, and you are so much more than you think. You are what I see in you, and your status means nothing to me. Second, I have always wanted you to say 'yes' to my offer. I would have found a way to take you. The next time I ask, you will know that I am serious. Third, don't underestimate my mother. She has ties to the Sisters that are far more binding than you realize. They would not act against her wishes. If she does not wish you to be recalled, then you will not be." David chuckled as he continued "If you promise not to tell her I told you this, I'll let you in on a secret." He felt Ardenn nod against his hand. "The local Sisters did not choose you to be mother's aide. The Head of your entire Order did, at mother's request. The Mother Superior herself would have to recall you. They have…uh, an interesting relationship, in a manner of speaking."
"Finally, I want you to come meet me when I get back. You do not need the excuse of coming in mother's place. You are a loved one in your own right."
Ardenn closed her eyes and leaned into his palm. "I will be there for you, David. Always." Straightening, she stood as tall as she could, still barely reaching his shoulder. She gazed up, looking David in the eye. "There's one other thing I want."
David laughed. She was so tiny beside him, yet her determination made her seem larger. "Only one? What's that? You've exhausted just about all of the flowery prose I've got."
The look Ardenn gave him then was anything but innocent. Using a tone she hoped he would consider sultry, she said, "I want your human ritual. I want a long farewell." She moved in close to him, pressing herself against him so hard she could feel her skin tingling. "You know, the hugging, the kissing...That kind of stuff."
David slipped his arms around the petite Minbari, almost completely enfolding her small frame in the folds of his cloak. He gazed into her eyes. Her lips were full, red and inviting. They were parted slightly in anticipation. Slowly, he bent and softly kissed her. His tongue slid between her lips and caressed hers. Small, satisfied sounds came from her throat and she tightened her grip on him, sliding one hand up to run through his hair. She could feel his body pressed against her, his hands roving over her back and moving up to caress her crest. She could feel him becoming aroused against her and she smiled into the kiss as she felt her own body respond. Arching slightly, she pressed herself firmly against him, acknowledging his need with her own. She broke the kiss to nibble on his neck, feeling his lips trailing up her cheek and across the delicate skin molded against her bonecrest. Working her way up to his ear, she murmured softly to him between kisses. "Hall closet, second shelf. In a blue box."
David broke the kiss and gazed at her. Both were out of breath. "What was that about?"
"You asked where the Shan'Fal candles were. I was simply informing you as to their location, should they be required at some later time." She kept her face neutral, but her eyes were dancing.
"Oh." David thought a moment. "Wait. Why would mother still need Shan'Fal candles?"
Ardenn raised her hand and gently caressed his cheek. "They are not you mother's, David. They are mine. I have known how I felt about you for a long time, even if you have not." Stealing a quick last kiss, she said "Go, now, before I start crying again."
"Please take care. I will expect to see you waiting when I return."
"Farewell, David. I will be the first person you see when you come back." David turned and walked to the door. As he entered, he turned to look back at her once, and then he was gone.
As David left, he pondered what had transpired between the two of them. <So this is love, > he thought. <What a difference a few hours can make. One minute, you're just happy to be getting a break and the next thing you know your whole universe has shifted. Shan'Fal candles…she's already bought them. If I didn't know any better, I would think she'd set me up. Perhaps she has. Six months alone was a long time for her, also. > His smile turned to a more serious expression as he considered his new assignment. Reluctantly pushing his thoughts about Ardenn aside, he began mentally ticking off the things he would need to do when he arrived on Mars.
"I hope you enjoyed your time off, Ranger Sheridan." A no-nonsense female voice spoke up from the pilot compartment of the shuttle, rousing David from his thoughts. "Correct me if I'm wrong, but wasn't that your mother's aide you were smooching with, or were you just checking her tonsils? It appears I got here just in time to save you from her clutches."
"Ranger One, forgive me for speaking my mind, but you can be positively insufferable at times." David grinned at Susan Ivanova. "Here I am, starting to build a relationship with a beautiful woman, and you have to come dropping this bomb in my lap. I really don't know how to thank you. First Ardenn, now this. It must be my day for life-changing events."
"Let me pass on a life-lesson to you, Junior. Every day brings life-changing events when you're a Ranger. You should know that by now." Susan returned his grin and continued. "Seriously, though, you need to be careful with her. Don't jeopardize her position with your mother. I'd hate to see a nice girl like Ardenn get into trouble over a relationship with an undisciplined dirtbag like you."
"Actually, I'm worried less about mother than I am about her clan. If things got serious between us, I doubt mother would do anything, but Clan leader Callenn can be a real asshole. He'd gin up that 'Minbari don't take outworlders as mates' business and the shit would hit the fan. Or, failing that, he'd probably try to insinuate that Ardenn isn't good enough to be a Mir. Frankly, I don't know how my parents put up with that pompous jerk for all those years. And then there are the Sisters. Valen knows what they'd say, despite mother's relationship to them. They agreed to temporarily provide mother an aide, not to provide her son a potential mate."
Susan continued speaking as she flew. "Your mother went through the same spiel from Callenn when she declared her intention to marry your father. I don't know all of the details, but essentially her clan allowed the relationship to continue because your mother wasn't 'pure Minbari' anyway. Ardenn looks 'pure' to me, so that argument might not work. On the other hand, I'm just a human anyway so I really don't give a rat's ass about all of this purity stuff. If you love her and she loves you, then go for it. Never pass on a good thing. I've been down that road before. Take that as another of Aunt Susan's life lessons. Hey, you're getting two for free. What a bargain."
"Susan, she's already bought Shan'Fal candles. You know what that means?"
"David, that probably means she's already watched you sleep without you knowing it, and she liked your true face even if you drool like your dad. Think about it. You live in the same home, and Minbari females have a strong devious streak. Your mother did that to your father for the first night, after all, and in case you haven't noticed Ardenn is a lot like your mother. The Minbari don't mess around when it comes to love, and you've been in her gun sights for a while."
Susan sighed. She hadn't been able to make a relationship work in her whole life. How was it that she always ended up being the one to dispense advice to the lovelorn? "Seriously, this is what I mean when I say be careful. I know you're part Minbari, but you have chosen to live as a Human. That's all well and good, but you cannot handle a lovestruck Minbari like a Human. She will expect, and her society demands, some sort of commitment from you if you go any further. If you are not ready to give that to her, then stop before it goes too far and you end up really hurting her."
"I'll bear that in mind." David changed the subject. "So, what the hell is happening on Mars? Did I understand you correctly? My father is alive?"
"I don't have all of the details, but Michael Garibaldi is spooked enough that he contacted me. If this 'person' is convincing enough to make Michael call, then he's worth checking out. Outside of your mother, you're in the best position to determine what this guy's angle is. Believe it or not, we've had imposters before, but we've been able to debunk them before they gathered this much attention." At David's surprised look, Susan continued. "Until now, we haven't told you or your mother about them. They have all been con artists, and it would have been especially hard on your mother to have to deal with these frauds. She's got enough to worry about right now. For that reason, your mother hasn't been told about this. If this turns out to be another attempted con, as I expect it will, she won't be told about this one either. It'll be between us. Understand?"
"I understand. I won't say anything." David leaned forward and spoke earnestly, "I hope you understand, though, that she's expecting me to be home when she walks in. When she discovers that I've gone, you'll be the first person that she calls for an explanation. With all due respect, Susan, I hope you've got dancing shoes handy. You'll need them for the Grand Inquisition."
Susan sighed. "Don't I know it." She seemed to slump. David realized that Susan was worried, and that this was serious. "Just so you know, although I think this is a con, Michael thinks this guy might be legitimate. I won't lie to Delenn, but I've already taken steps to ensure that she is protected from this, for her own good. Hopefully, she won't even notice what I've done. If she does, I'll have to find some way of convincing her not to ask too many questions. She'll be angry about not being informed, but I can deal with that." Susan turned to look a David with a dead serious look on her face. "If it turns out there's something to this…I don't know what I'll tell her. This could turn out to be really, really bad. I just don't know."
Straightening back up, Susan continued briskly "Anyway, I'm counting on you to make some sort of determination about this guy. I'll decide what to do based on what you tell me." Noticing David's forlorn look, she smiled and continued "Hey, no pressure. I'm just asking you to go meet a guy who claims to be your presumed-dead father and figure out whether or not he is who he claims to be. Happens every day, right?"
"Um, yeah. In those mystery vids they show on ISN late at night, and in pulp fiction novels…sure, it happens all the time."
The flyer touched down on the flight line at the Ranger base, near David's White Star. David could see a few members of his crew pre-flighting the ship.
"Since this is essentially a milk run to Mars, I've taken the liberty of letting most of your crew enjoy their time off. You've got a skeleton crew for this flight." Susan smiled. "Even if I can't let you enjoy your new girlfriend's attentions, I can at least allow most of your people to spend some time with their families."
"Thanks, I appreciate it. I'm sure they do too." It was good that his crew, at least, could enjoy some free time. David grabbed his bag and began to step out of the flyer. Susan caught his attention.
"Uh, David?" He turned to look at her. "Thinking about you and Ardenn together reminded me of this. I've, uh, been meaning to ask someone about this for years. It's kind of delicate…"
David was curious. Susan looked uncomfortable, in an amused sort of way. "What is it?"
"OK, Well…um, here goes. Between Humans and Minbari…does everything uh, fit together? I mean, different races and all…The Centauri have six, for example…" Susan gestured confusedly, holding up six fingers.
"What? Oh." David figured out Susan's meaning. In the midst of all this tension, count on Aunt Susan to find a way to break it. He started to chuckle, an action that quickly turned to laughter as he watched Susan's expression. He was sure this was what Susan intended, a good laugh to relax him. "You mean you've been working around Minbari for almost thirty years and you don't know?" He opened his arms wide as he stood laughing. "I'm here, aren't I?"
"That's not quite what I meant." Susan was also laughing now, although she was a little red in the face from embarrassment. "Your mother is essentially human, after all. I was referring to full Minbari."
"Fair enough." David wiped tears of mirth from his eyes. "Actually, 'delicate' is a fairly appropriate word for a joining between the two." Now it was his turn to be embarrassed. "You understand that I have no practical experience um, with any Minbari but to answer your question, yes it is possible. Humans and Minbari are very close physiologically, much closer than any of the other races. There are differences, though. Human males tend to be somewhat, um, larger than their Minbari counterparts, while Minbari females are, uh…proportioned for Minbari males. At the same time, Minbari females are physically stronger than human females, perhaps even stronger than the average human male. Do you get the picture?" Susan looked dubious, but she nodded. "I would assume that given that combination, the couple would have to be very careful. If the male uh, lost control he might hurt the female. Similarly, if the female grew too excited she might tense up and…" David gestured helplessly "…and, well…I guess it would be rather embarrassing to get stuck in that position. So you see, you have to be careful. At least until the couple becomes adjusted to one another."
Turning somber, he continued. "As for children, however…if Ardenn and I came to that, let's just say that mother wouldn't have to worry about any grandkids getting underfoot. Even with mother being mostly human, my conception was a one in one hundred shot. Practically miraculous. A human and a full Minbari? No chance whatsoever." Susan turned serious. "David, I think you and Ardenn would make a beautiful couple. Seeing the two of you together reminded me a lot of your parents many years ago." A far-away expression crossed Susan's features and she continued almost as if she were talking to herself. "Those were good times, although it seemed like the universe was going to hell around us. Watching love develop between you mother and father. There was a time when your mother's love was all your father had, and I loved her for giving it to him." Brightening, she returned to the present from the depths of her memory. "For what it's worth, I never pictured you with a Minbari but I think she suits you. I hope she's the one. I know both of you are disappointed that you have to leave so soon, but hopefully I can make it up to the two of you when you get back." Trying to lighten the mood on what had started as a humorous conversation, Susan continued. "And if you and she encounter any problems, you call on your Aunt Susan. I'll be in your corner if you need me."
"Thanks, Susan. I appreciate your support, but we're putting the cart before the horse here. Ardenn and I haven't even really discussed any sort of permanent relationship. There wasn't time." David stooped to pick up his bag. "Well, I guess I'd better get going. Mars isn't getting any closer while we discuss comparative anatomy."
"Good luck, David. Contact me as soon as you find out anything."
As David walked to his ship, his conversation with Ranger One brought another chuckle to his lips. That was one of the things he loved about Susan. She was so off the wall. Nothing was too sacred or too embarrassing for her to joke about. She could be as hard as steel and as funny as a comedian almost at the same time. Her leadership style often gave the Minbari Rangers fits. Human Rangers found her refreshing, even if she was a hard taskmaster. In short, she was perfect for her job; simultaneously balancing and leveraging the talents of what was largely a Human - Minbari fighting force. No one could ask for a better friend, or a more formidable opponent. Next only to his mother, she had been his father's best friend. Over the past few years she had become one of his as well.
It was amazing, David thought, that the same woman who could joke with him about Human/Minbari mating was the woman who had almost mercilessly taken down a Shadow-enhanced Earthforce fleet during the Earth Rebellion. David knew that for all of her joviality, Susan's whole purpose in life was to act as the IA's sword arm; the mailed fist to Delenn's velvet glove. She wouldn't hesitate to eliminate any potential threat to the Alliance or his mother. Including the potential threat he was going to meet.
"David? I'm home…Hello? Is anyone here?"
Delenn walked from room to room, looking for any occupants. She had expected to find David home, or at least Ardenn waiting for her. So far, her quarters seemed empty. Perhaps David and Ardenn had stepped out for a few minutes…
"He is not here, mistress." Ardenn returned from the balcony when she heard Delenn enter. "He was home until about an hour ago. Ranger One required his services for another assignment."
"And he did not even have time to say hello to me before he was off again?" Delenn was crestfallen. Her meeting with the Council was only supposed to last a short time but, as meetings usually did, it had stretched into several hours. "What was so important that he had to leave so suddenly?"
"I do not know, mistress. He would not tell me." Ardenn picked up an envelope sitting on a nearby table and handed it to Delenn. "He left this for you."
As she took the envelope, Delenn noticed Ardenn's eyes. They were red-rimmed. The younger woman was obviously upset about something and was trying hard not to show it. Ardenn averted her eyes almost immediately.
"Ardenn, have you been crying?"
"What is wrong? Did something happen between you and David? He can be brash and quick-tempered sometimes, I know. If he has been impertinent to you I will have words with him. It is not his place to be rude. You do not work for him." Delenn considered for a moment. "Still, it is of course none of my business. You do not have to talk about it if that is your wish."
"Ranger Sheridan and I did not argue, mistress. In all my time here, he has never treated me rudely. I am sorry you saw me like this. I should have made myself presentable before you arrived." Ardenn took a deep breath. Casting her eyes down, she continued. "I do need to…to talk to you. I have needed to do so for some time now, but I have been afraid to. Perhaps later, if it is all right with you. You have been busy lately."
"Look up, Ardenn." Delenn saw Ardenn's problem with crystal clarity. Delenn was disappointed that David was gone, but Ardenn was beyond mere disappointment. Yes, there had been words, perhaps more, between the two of them, Delenn surmised. "Have I ever given you reason to fear me? You take as long as you need. When you are ready, we will speak of this. Do not worry about how busy I might be. I will make time for you. Is that acceptable?"
"Now, go freshen up. I will read David's note and we will see what we will see." As Ardenn turned to leave, Delenn called to her almost as an afterthought. "Ardenn? When you and David are alone, do you call him 'Ranger Sheridan'?"
"No, mistress. I call him 'David'. I know that it is improper, but he insisted."
"And when you speak to him of me, do you call me 'mistress'?"
"No, mistress. I refer to you as 'Delenn'. If this troubles you, I will stop."
"If David has extended you the privilege of using his first name, you may do so around me. Similarly, I find that I've grown tired of being referred to as 'mistress' all the time. As my husband would have said, it makes it sound as if I run a bordello." She smiled encouragingly at the younger woman. "Please call me Delenn from now on."
"It will be as you say, mis…ah, Delenn." Ardenn tried to hide a slow smile that was fighting to make it's way to her lips. Given her position, this was a giant step forward for her. "Uh, Delenn? What's a bore-dele-oh? And why would you run one? Is not your present position enough?"
As Ardenn spoke, Delenn had opened David's envelope and briefly scanned the short note inside. Ignoring her questions for the moment, she spoke as she read. "David is enroute to the Sol system. To Mars. He hopes to return soon. He does not give a reason. He sends his love…" Delenn's brow furrowed, "…to both of us, no less." Looking back up at Ardenn, Delenn cocked her head and smiled amusedly. "This has apparently been a significant day for you, has it not?" Ardenn blushed deeply. "It is of no importance. Go freshen up. When you return, we shall contact Ranger One and invite her to dinner. I think Susan Ivanova has been absent from our house for too long. I suppose I could torture her with a ceremonial meal…the humans hate those, you know. It would be fitting, seeing as she's sent my son away without even a farewell…"
Ardenn listened to Delenn muse out loud as she made her way to her small sleeping quarters. He had sent her his love. And Delenn did not seem particularly concerned about it. Perhaps David was right. She could only hope…then she remembered.
"Delenn? I just remembered one other thing." As Ardenn walked back from her quarters, her spirits sank. Delenn was closely examining the vase David had repaired, eyeing it curiously.
"Other than this freshly glued vase? Or was this it?"
"No, not the vase, although I will explain that later as well." Ardenn hoped David wouldn't consider this a breach of confidence. "When Ranger One spoke to David, I was not in the room. I did not hear the conversation and I was not trying to listen, but I overheard Ranger One mention something to do with your husband. When I spoke to David afterwards, he seemed upset."
Delenn almost dropped the vase. With some effort, she kept her hands steady as she replaced it on the table. She turned away from Ardenn and strode briskly to look out onto the balcony. Ardenn could see that the mention of John Sheridan troubled her. She was unconsciously wringing her hands. "And this was all you heard?"
"Yes. That and he seemed unduly interested when I mentioned that you were feeling closer to your husband's spirit now. I really did not pay as much attention as I could have. I was trying not to listen. It was a personal call." Ardenn looked down and noticed that she was unconsciously mimicking Delenn's hand-wringing. "Delenn, David and I…we talk when you are not around. Forgive me, I mean no disrespect, but I can discuss matters with him that I would be…uncomfortable discussing with you. I had told him of a personal matter that was weighing heavily on my heart. He told me that he had to leave and I…became upset that he was going. I was behaving irrationally and I was so caught up in my own emotions that the reference to your husband slipped my mind. I did not question him about it. I apologize."
"He would not have told you in any event. It was just as well that you did not press him on it." Sighing, Delenn ceased wringing her hands and turned. "You have raised my level of concern about this assignment David is on. Place the call to Ranger One now. She will be coming for dinner whether she wants to or not. Tell her…tell her that I am preparing flarn using my husband's recipe, so she may want to bring some antacids with her. She will understand my meaning. We dine in two hours. Once you finish that, I want you to access the situation reports sent from the Mars Ranger base to Ranger headquarters for the past week. Flag them and send the reports to my terminal. There may be nothing there, but it does not hurt to look. Finally, confirm the status of our trip to Fulmer's Colony. If I recall correctly, we leave in two days for the spaceport dedication. I had hoped David could accompany us, but I suppose he has other tasks requiring his attention."
Ardenn was already keying information into a comm. terminal to establish a link to Ranger headquarters. "Do you think Ranger One is hiding something from you? That does not seem logical."
"Like I said, it may be nothing. Hopefully, it will only take a few moments to find out." Delenn moved to her office. In the background, she could hear Ardenn talking to Susan's aide, her counterpart. She heard the connection terminate. After a moment, Ardenn came to the doorway.
"Ranger One was not available, Delenn. She is enroute back from the launch facility. Her aide relayed the information on dinner tonight to her flyer while I listened. She will be here as you requested. Also, it appears that she understood the flarn reference. Her language became most inappropriate at the mention of the family flarn recipe."
Delenn smiled. "Don't worry, Ardenn. I won't make you eat any. You and I will have the good stuff." Delenn was not really angry at Susan. She understood the necessity of sending the best man for the job and she understood secrecy. The reference to John was too personal, however. Anything involving him garnered her instant attention, even after three years alone. Susan either needed to tell her what was going on, or give her a good reason why she should not. Delenn sat back, listening to the ticking of the clock. Too many small pieces of information were trickling in to be mere coincidence. She was a firm believer in portents. The clock…the strange but wonderful feeling that John was close to her again…David's mission, possibly involving something to do with John on Mars…Things were not making sense.
Delenn heard Ardenn utter a rare curse from her terminal station outside the door. She heard the machine outside beep at Ardenn in futility. After a moment, the young Minbari reappeared in the doorway. "Delenn. I am having a problem accessing a few of the situation reports from Mars you requested. I have accessed all but the three latest. They appear to be encrypted differently from the others."
"Let me see." Delenn looked over Ardenn's shoulder. All of the other reports appeared normal. The last three looked like gibberish. A small gold box appeared in the corner of each encrypted file. The decrypted files had a red box. "This is strange, Ardenn. This is what we get for using these Human computing devices. These files are encrypted using a more complex code key than the standard files. Wait a moment." Delenn returned to her office, returning with a small card. "I have never tried to use this before. There has never been any need."
"Computer. Voice recognize President Delenn." "Confirmed. Voice recognized as President Delenn. Please Continue."
Following the instructions on the card, Delenn touched the icons for the three encrypted files. "Invoke Presidential Override for indicated files." In an aside to Ardenn, Delenn said "I have to type in my code. I am sorry, you have to look away for a second. There…this should do it."
"Cannot comply. Subject files restricted access. Interstellar Alliance Code 563."
Delenn and Ardenn looked at each other in disbelief. "What is Code 563?" Ardenn asked.
Delenn shrugged. "Computer, what is Interstellar Alliance Code 563?"
"Code 563 of the Interstellar Alliance Constitution - Delineates the duties of the Head of the Anla-Shok in his or her role as primary protector of the person of the President of the Interstellar Alliance. Under Code 563, Anla-Shok Na is granted broad discretionary powers to protect the person of the President from threats both physical and non-physical, when such protection does not restrict the ability of the President from performing his or her constitutionally- mandated duties. Upon invocation of Code 563, Anla-Shok Na is required to present a report to the President and Advisory Council within ten days outlining the nature of the threat, and measures taken to neutralize the threat. Code 563 protection can be rescinded by the President at such time as the threat is determined to be neutralized, or a majority of the Advisory Council determines that such protection restricts the President from his or her duties, or Anla-Shok Na and the President jointly concur that such protection is not in the best interests of the Interstellar Alliance."
Delenn was grim, and quickly becoming angry. "Susan has locked us out of these files with her personal codes, using this codicil from the constitution to lock my override code out. Yes, Ardenn, she definitely gets John's flarn tonight." Thinking for a moment, she continued. "Ardenn, establish a link directly with the Mars Ranger base. We will go directly to the source."
Ardenn moved to comply. After a moment, a screen with the Anla-Shok seal appeared. "Cannot comply. External links from the Presidential Compound to Mars Prime Facility are now routed through Tuzanor Main Base. Access restricted. Code 563."
"Ardenn. This is bad. Susan is definitely up to something that she does not want me to know about. Something potentially dangerous to me personally, if this code 563 is to be believed. Whatever it is, she has sent David into the middle of it." Delenn went to the comm. terminal. "Establish a personal link to Ranger One. I do not care if she is in her flyer or not."
After a pause, Susan's face appeared on the screen. "Madame President, what can I do for you? I can't wait for the flarn tonight."
"Susan." Delenn's low tone immediately put the other woman on her guard. "You can get over here now. Do not wait for dinner. If you can get over here yesterday, that would be even more preferable. You have some explaining to do to me. About Interstellar Alliance Code 563. You had better hope I concur with your explanation, old friend, or else you will walk out of here with my flarn stuffed up your fourth point of contact, as John would say."
"Er…I'm on my way."
"I will be waiting. Patiently. But not too patiently, Susan. As your President Luchenko once said, do not mistake this for a conversation. It is not one." She terminated the connection. To Ardenn's surprise, Delenn fired off a volley of epithets in the Human tongue that would have fried an acolyte's ears. Turning to Ardenn, she gave her a determined look. "We cannot access the files or contact Mars without Susan's concurrence. I have known her for almost twenty cycles and she has never done anything like this. She must have good reasons for taking such extreme measures to lock me out. We will find out how good her reasons are when she arrives. Meanwhile, there is one more avenue we can try." Turning back to the screen, she said "Connect me with White Star 74. Ranger David Sheridan." As she waited for the connection to go through, she said, "I do not usually contact David on his ship. It is not a privilege extended to ordinary Rangers and it seemed unfair for me to use my position to contact him when other families cannot contact their loved ones. I believe it is justified in this instance, however."
"Connection established. Ranger Sheridan is standing by."
David appeared on the screen. "Hello, mother. This is an unusual call, although not unexpected. How are you?"
"I am well, David. I am sorry I missed you when you were here. I was looking forward to your visit. I am disappointed, as is Ardenn. I understand from your note that you are enroute to Mars. Hopefully you will not be gone long?"
David could sense that his mother was fishing for information. "Right now, I should be back in a little over a week, given travel time. It's hard to say at the moment."
"Ardenn and I leave for Fulmer's Colony in two days. Our returns should roughly coincide, then." Delenn hesitated a moment, knowing that she was about to place David in an uncomfortable position between her and Susan. "David. This is not why I called, although I do want to see you terribly. Are you alone?"
"Yes, I took this call privately. I can guess why you have contacted me. You want to know what's going on."
"I am concerned, David. It is unusual that Susan singled you out for a short-notice mission, when she knew I was looking forward to seeing you. I have also discovered that I am being denied information about the current situation on Mars. I cannot imagine that Susan would deliberately do this to me without good reason. Do you know what is happening?"
"I know…some…of what is happening, mother." David look uncomfortable. "Ranger One may be overreacting a bit to this situation, although I am sure she either knows or suspects more than she has told me. I do know enough to agree with her reasons for keeping you uninformed at this time. Do you plan to talk to her about this?"
"She is on her way to see me now. I am very upset with her. She will hear from me when she arrives."
"You know that Susan would never deliberately act against you. This may be nothing, but I will tell you this. Susan is worried, and she's doing all she can to protect you. Mother, if you force the issue, Susan will eventually tell you." David sighed. "Please don't try to force it out of her. Give me a couple of days to get to Mars and assess the situation. Once we know a little more, we will tell you everything."
Delenn considered her son, absently stroking her chin with thumb and forefinger. "Very well, David. I will ask her about this, of course, but I will not try to force any information out of her. I will accept what she is willing to tell me. For now. I send my love, son. I think I probably speak for Ardenn as well. Take care."
"I will. And my love to the two of you also."
"Please enter, Ranger One. President Delenn is awaiting you on the balcony." Ardenn greeted Susan Ivanova as she arrived at the door. She and Delenn had seen her land a few short moments before. Ardenn knew that David was extremely fond of Susan, but she couldn't help a note of frostiness in her tone as she greeted the older human woman. She had sent David away. Ardenn was angry, and Susan noticed it.
"Thank you, Ardenn. I know the way." Susan walked in prepared for a fight. She knew in her heart that Delenn was an innocent victim in this whole affair. She had resolved to bear that in mind during the confrontation she suspected was coming. She would not get angry, no matter what her friend said. Even if it was to fire her.
Susan found Delenn sitting on the bench. Her and John's bench. Susan observed her silently for a moment. She sat so erect and proud, looking out over the skyline of the city to the mountains beyond. <She could be a statue, and probably will be some day in the future.> Susan reflected. Wryly, Susan noted that in all the time she had known Delenn, she had never seen her slouch.
"I am glad you could come so soon, Susan." Delenn said without taking her eyes off the skyline. "Are you planning on coming over here? I assure you that Ardenn will tackle you if you try to bolt for the door now."
"I have no doubt about that, Delenn," Susan replied as she walked over to the bench. "I gathered from my greeting at the door that I'm not on her list of favorite people at the moment."
"She misses David, Susan. It is entirely understandable. They are friends, and she was looking forward to his visit." Delenn motioned to the empty place beside her on the bench. John's place. "Please, sit down. Ardenn is preparing the flarn. It will be ready shortly." As Susan sat, Delenn continued to talk. "I believe there is more than friendship between David and Ardenn. I have discreetly observed her reactions to his presence for some time now. I believe that she is in love with him. Your actions in sending David away so soon after his arrival interrupted something between them. A moment of revelation, perhaps. I will find out in due time. Ardenn, I think, has grown desperate enough that she will soon unburden her heart to me."
"And what will your reaction be, if she says what you suspect?"
"Oh, I will act suitably surprised. She is young, and she thinks I am blind to her affections for my son. I have not forgotten the look that comes over one's face when love is young and burning brightly. I wore it myself, you know." Smiling to herself, she continued. "I have had it in my mind for some time now to test the triluminary on her. Doing so might reveal…possibilities for the future, perhaps. I will not be too hard on her."
"I think they make a good couple, Delenn. David's personal life has consisted mainly of his relationship with you. He's reached a point in his life where he needs the love and companionship of a woman his own age." Susan sighed.
"You know that with Minbari it is much more than companionship, Susan. My greatest concern is that David will look at this situation as a Human. Entering into a relationship with a Minbari is no casual fling. Commitments are made. When I joined with John, I was over forty of your years old and I had never had a lover. I had never even fallen in love, and the idea had never even crossed my mind seriously. David lives as a human, and I do not begrudge him this, but if he is to have a relationship with a Minbari female then he will have to treat her as such, with all that entails. His father understood that clearly when he took me, and I will have to make David understand that as well if he is to have a relationship with Ardenn. I owe that to her.
"I think David understands that, Delenn. I can't imagine a man of his quality and upbringing trifling with Ardenn's affections. He knows who and what she is and he respects her."
"I know he does, Susan, but if Ardenn publicly declares herself for him then there is no going back. Not for her. If she formally asks me to bless her in this endeavor, I cannot in good conscience give her what she wants without being sure that David is equally committed. For her sake, although she would not see it as such and would become hurt and resentful at my refusal." Delenn lowered her voice, which had become louder as she spoke. Ardenn was not close enough to listen, but there was no need to advertise. Delenn spread her hands plaintively. "Ardenn is a young woman with much to think about right now."
Susan recognized that Delenn was making safe conversation for the moment. She would get around to the true subject in her own time. Still, as far a Susan was concerned, David's love life was his own. She wouldn't mention that she had seen the two of them kissing earlier. Delenn would have to get that information from them. "I guess all that would explain her attitude, then. I'm sorry I had to ruin David's visit. I'll make it up to him when he returns."
Delenn turned to face Susan. Her small, delicate hands absently fingered the hem of her robe as she spoke. "This is not just about Ardenn. I am disappointed at David's absence as well. How do you plan to make it up to me?"
"I can't, other than to say that it is necessary. David is uniquely qualified for the assignment. There was no one else whose opinion I would trust in this matter. He is traveling as my personal representative."
"And what is this assignment that is so important that you had to dispatch my son without even time to greet his mother after six months away? Have the Shadows returned? Is Sol about to go nova?" Delenn's voice rose as she spoke, her anger starting to manifest itself. "I would like an explanation, Susan, and I have not even gotten to the fact that you have restricted my access to the comm. system and files on the computer."
So this was it. Susan had hoped that her maneuvering would go unnoticed at least until Delenn left for Fulmer's Colony. <If wishes were fishes, then the world would be a sea.> She mused. "I wish you wouldn't worry about David's assignment. The mission I have assigned him is not physically dangerous. There is virtually no chance that he will come to any harm." As she spoke, Susan reflected that her dancing was extremely poor.
"You have not answered my question."
"No, Delenn, I have not. Unless you directly order me to, I won't. If you give me that order, I will tell you all that I know, although I think you would regret the knowing." Susan sighed, running her hand through her graying hair. "I ask you not to do that, though. I'm not trying to hide anything from you. I'm merely waiting until we have more information so we can provide you a complete picture. We are developing the situation. That's what I have David doing for me." Susan reached across and took Delenn's hand in her own. "If I ask you, as my friend, to wait a few days and let me get a report back from David before you ask me about this again, will you agree?"
Delenn considered Susan's request for a second. "Yes. I agree, although my heart tells me that no good will come of it. Tell me this, though, if you can. Why is it so important that I not know anything now?"
Susan tried to figure out a way to reply. Delenn had given in rather easily and she deserved something. "If I were to tell you what I know now, you would be severely tempted to react immediately. That is precisely what we don't need right now."
"Very well, then. I will wait. I will hold you to our agreement, though. In a few days, I will expect answers. I will not forget about this, so do not even hope that it will slip my mind. I also expect you to remove the blocks on my comm. system and my codes. Immediately."
"I will. I only locked the three most recent situation reports from Mars. I would prefer that you not read them right now. There are some…details…in them that are unconfirmed."
"You do not trust me. I thought the two of us knew each other better than that."
"I trust you implicitly, Delenn. It's the source of the information contained in those reports I don't trust." Delenn still looked hurt. Susan knew that simply not knowing anything would give Delenn fits over the next few days. With the blocks off of the reports, she might be tempted to read them despite her agreement. Susan decided to give her some of the story, at least enough to keep her satisfied for a couple of days. "I know it's hard for you to not know. If I give you a broad overview, will that satisfy you for now?" At Delenn's nod, Susan took a breath and continued. "We have received information through Edgars Industries Security on Mars that an Earth-based organization known as Bureau 13 has become active again. They are a terrorist group that was in league with the Clark regime a quarter-century ago."
"I have never heard of this group."
"Nor had I, up until today. Anyway, the assessment of the Edgars Industries people is that this group represents a credible threat to both the Alliance in general and to you, personally."
"Why me? Our relationship with Earth has been stressed of late, but overall it is good."
"The answer to that requires a short history lesson." Susan paused. This would be dangerous ground, and would certainly raise more questions. Still, she had started. She might as well tell her the story. "It also means that I need to tell you a little more about your husband's background then you probably know. The answer also would probably reveal more about you than you thought we humans knew. We all have our secrets. You do, I do…and John did. Some are more serious than others. John's appear to be very serious, if reports are to be believed. Do you want to hear it?"
"This is the information contained in the reports from Mars?"
"Some of it. Some of it I already knew. Delenn, If I tell you this, I do not want you reading the reports from Mars. I can't force you not to…"
"You already have my agreement. I will abide by it. Please continue."
"Twenty-five years ago, John assumed command of Babylon 5. Like everyone else there, including you, he was more than he appeared to be. It turns out that John was one of the leaders of a clandestine organization within the Earth military charged with rooting out the darkness within our government. Michael, Stephen and I became members of his 'cell', for lack of a better word, although many more were involved that he didn't tell us about. I never knew all of the details, although I think Michael knew some of it. Anyway, this group was made up of forward-thinking people in the Earth military who recognized that Earth's destiny was tied to that of your people's, among others."
"Yes. John's 'Conspiracy of Light'. Draal mentioned the name to me, but John never discussed the activities of the group or his part in it. I asked him about it once and he would not tell me anything, so I respected his privacy on the matter. I knew he was working with others. I think your General Hague was a part of it as well."
"John's group was dedicated to reversing the slide of Earth back towards isolationism. He was very much aware of this Bureau 13 organization and their activities. At the time, Michael knew the name but that was all. None of the rest of us had even that much knowledge."
"The leaders of the 'Conspiracy of Light', as you call it, were responsible for getting John assigned as the commander of Babylon 5. They knew it would upset your people, but they had no choice. President Santiago's assassination and your government's insistence on having Jeff be the Ambassador to Minbar forced them to act before they were ready. They needed a member of their leadership in a position to interface with the other races, since Clark and the Psi Corps were in league with Bureau 13, and John was the only credible conspiracy leader available. Had John's people not moved quickly, Clark would have picked a different commander. Probably Colonel Ari Ben Zayn. Have you heard of him?"
Delenn shuddered. "Yes. I remember speaking briefly to him on the station. I did not like him. The way he looked at me made me feel…unclean."
"His assignment would have been a disaster. He had little respect for the other races, and he would have come in with a mandate to run all non-humans, including you, off the station. Fortunately, John's people were able to circumvent his assignment, substituting John instead. President Clark thought that John would be just as bad as Ben Zayn, perhaps even worse given his reputation among your people, so he approved the assignment change. Anyway, John came here with instructions to build a rapport with the other races, particularly yours. This is where you come in." Susan squeezed Delenn's hand and continued. "You see, John and the others realized that a Satai could be an important ally to them in the struggle, even one who had been so intimately involved in the war against us."
Delenn hung her head. "So your people knew who and what I was all along. John never said any of this to me. Now that I know, I am surprised he could even tolerate my presence."
"Our people may not be as advanced as yours, Delenn, but our intelligence-gathering capabilities were, and are, formidable. John knew long before he even arrived on the station. I think Michael found out from Jeff. I knew because it was my job to know everything. I don't think anyone else did." Delenn looked miserable. "It doesn't matter now, Delenn. John deplored the war between our people. He knew you regretted it also. He wasn't one to hold a grudge and neither were we. John worked with you, liked you, and eventually loved you. That's all that matters." Susan squeezed Delenn's hand again and continued. "Your position and your relationship with John had a great effect on what happened afterwards, though. Bureau 13 and their allies were watching the two of you, even as John was watching them. They saw your growing relationship with John, and they didn't like what they were seeing. At the same time, the Conspiracy of Light was striking against Bureau 13 more openly. The end result was that Bureau 13 decided to strike at John in two phases. The first was to knock his support structure out from under him and then to remove him from Babylon 5 directly. To do that, they needed to neutralize you. They were afraid you would intervene on John's behalf if things got rough.
"I did. I loved him even then, even if he didn't realize it at the time."
"Yes, but you don't know everything. Bureau 13 knew that your position on the Grey Council was vulnerable since you did not get their approval for your transformation. They did something the Conspiracy of Light never expected. Representatives of Bureau 13 approached your Warrior Caste about getting them to move against you in the Council. Their argument basically was that Earth wanted nothing more to do with the Minbari, the Warrior Caste wanted nothing more to do with Earth, so why not cooperate and remove you as an obstacle to our going our separate ways? They found the Warriors agreeable to this, not surprisingly. Thus, you were removed from the Council, even as Bureau 13 influenced Earthgov to move against John and the others through Nightwatch. They were very effective. Conspiracy leaders began disappearing. Soon, the Conspiracy collapsed, leaving only John and General Hague as threats. Then, Hague was killed during the revolt, and John was alone. Except for you. Fortunately for us, you had resources at your disposal independent of your position on the Council. The implied threat was enough to make Bureau 13 cautious. Things would have gone badly, otherwise."
"And then what?" Delenn was mesmerized. There was so much she didn't know, she realized. She was seeing many of the events from that period of her life with a new, fascinating perspective.
"Then the Shadow War pretty much put the conflict between the few of us left and Bureau 13 on hold. John turned his attention to the more immediate threat. Because most of Bureau 13's agents were eliminated from Babylon 5 when we broke away from Earth, they couldn't reach us. After the war, John struck at Bureau 13 again while you were away on Minbar as part of his effort to unseat Clark. When Clark was overthrown, Bureau 13 went into hiding. I can only assume they were afraid of John and what he knew about them, now that they didn't have any support within the Earth government. Now we're here, twenty-three years later. You are potentially an obstacle to this group. Well, the two of us are, now that I know all of this."
"Do you think they will move against me?"
"I think they already have, Delenn." Susan paused. She had already said more than she should have, she suspected. "I think their first effort against you has backfired on them. There will be others." Now she was sure she had said too much. Edgars Industries could only have gotten this information from two sources, one of whom was John Sheridan himself. Given time, Delenn could probably figure that out. "Now, I have told you all that I am able."
Susan watched Delenn's face. Potential questions were written all over it. Silently, Susan begged Delenn not to ask any. She had promised David that she would not lie to his mother. If Delenn asked about the source of this information…
"I sense there is much you have left out. Still, I will accept what you have told me for now." Delenn stood, smoothing the folds of her robe. "Well, I think dinner is ready. Shall we go?" As they walked back inside together, Delenn continued, "I must confess I lied to you Susan. I didn't really have Ardenn prepare John's flarn recipe. The food tonight will be edible."
Susan laughed as she pulled a roll of antacids out of her pocket. "I guess I won't be needing these, then. I came prepared…" ______________________________________________________________________________________
"Jesus Christ, Stephen! How could you condone such a thing?"
Michael Garibaldi had developed a reputation over the years as a man with a hair-trigger temper. Dr. Stephen Franklin was now bearing the brunt of it.
Stephen backed up, surprised at his friend's outburst. "Hey! John came to me and asked for it. I tried to tell him it wasn't a good idea, but he didn't listen."
Michael held up a large data crystal, examining it closely. "So this is John's neural map, huh? And you've had it all this time and told no one. Not me, not Susan, and definitely not Delenn. Nobody."
"It's been in the vault at the Institute for four years, Michael. John left instructions that no one was to have it unless there was a compelling need. It was my intention to destroy it after John passed beyond. I guess I forgot to." Stephen was on the defensive now.
"Do you have any idea how much this thing would be worth if the galaxy at large found out about it? John Sheridan's neural map? What do you suppose certain people would pay for this sort of thing?" Michael slammed his hand down angrily on his desk, making the objects on the surface jump in response. "I'll tell you. There could be information on here that's priceless. And you've had it where any simple researcher could get at it! Not to mention protecting John's privacy. Family moments, things he shared with us, intimate encounters with Delenn…They could all be on here. Hell, we could end up seeing sex scenes involving the two of them on ISN! Wouldn't that be special for the President, huh?"
"None of that has happened, Michael! I took precautions. I didn't just leave it out with a label saying 'take me'. It was secured in the vault under my personal code. The only time it's been touched since I locked it away was when I got your call to come here."
Michael sat back down, his anger cooling. "Did you ever look at the contents? Is this the original?"
"Yes. But listen, Mike, there's not enough on here to animate a clone. This crystal is all memories. There's no associated personality. Looking at the data on this crystal is a lot like reading an encyclopedia. You get words and images, but no emotional content. I'm telling you, this was not how that man got to where he is. There must be something else."
"I know what a neural map is, Stephen. I'm intimately familiar with Psi Corps technology. If John's memories are on that crystal, then an artificial personality can be constructed around them. Remember Anna?"
"Yes I do. That isn't the case here. This crystal contains all of John's adult memories. Childhood and teenage memories were left off, since John didn't think they would be pertinent to what he was trying to do. Building a convincing artificial personality without a full set of memories would be virtually impossible. Hell, Mike, the Shadows couldn't do it in Anna even with a full set of her memories. John knew there was something wrong with her right away, and their technology was far in advance of what we could do. No, the two telepaths that made this thing gave John exactly what he asked for."
Michael thought about this for a moment. "You said 'two telepaths', Stephen?"
"Yeah, what of it? I contacted two P11 telepaths that work in the psychological section of my lab and had them do the work. One of them performed the scans and the other verified them and made sure they were properly recorded."
Michel leapt out of his chair, chomping furiously on his cigar. "And this was the only crystal they made?"
"Uh…I guess so. I only saw one recorder, although both wore headsets."
"Shit. Did it ever occur to you that they could have hidden another recorder? One more advanced, perhaps, than the one you saw? Let me ask you this very carefully, Stephen. Is it possible that there was more than one?"
Stephen thought for a moment. "Yeah, there were places in the lab where another recorder could've been hidden. I didn't see anything that looked like one, though."
"The reason I ask is because I know it only takes one telepath to make a neural map. It takes two, however, to prepare something as detailed as a full personality matrix. And those two would have to be at least Psi Cop-level P12s." Michael sighed in frustration. "Look, do you happen to know how we can contact these two? I can have my people on Earth round them up."
"Sure, they still work for me. Do you want me to contact them?"
"No. Stephen, I've got a bad feeling about this. Let my people handle it. If you call them, I think they'll conveniently disappear on us. I want them taken with no warning."
"What do we do now?" This was bad, Stephen saw. Michael was acting calm, but Stephen could see worry in his eyes.
"First, take this," Michael handed the data crystal back to Stephen. "Delenn is its rightful owner. She needs to have it. May God help you when you give it to her and she finds out how long you've been holding on to it without saying anything. She'll consider this a piece of John's soul. Warn me before you do because I'll definitely want to be somewhere else." Stephen took the crystal as if it would burn him. "Have you examined the clone yet?"
"No. I came straight here."
"You need to. You'll need a genetic sample from him, in addition to a complete physical workup. I have the best facilities in human space for this sort of work, and they're at your disposal."
"I know my job, Michael." Stephen said testily.
Michael sighed again. "I know you do. Look, I'm sorry, but if you come back and tell me what I think you're going to tell me, then the shit is going to hit the fan in a major way. And I mean major, Stephen. I think this Bureau 13 implanted John's authentic personality in a virtually perfect clone. I think you're going to come back to me and confirm this. If that's the case, then we have the closest thing to the real John Sheridan that we can get minus divine intervention sitting in there, alive and kicking. I've got David Sheridan arriving tomorrow, and Susan is burning up the subspace comm system for additional information. On top of all that, Delenn knows something's going on and she's asking Susan uncomfortable questions.
Michael stopped pacing and stood looking out the window of his office. The Martian skyline spread out below him. "We're going to hurt her, Stephen. All of us, all of her best friends are going to stand around her and hurt her worse than she's hurt since John passed over. Perhaps even worse than that, since we'll be dumping all of this on her with virtually no warning." Michael turned to face Stephen. "Not to mention that poor guy I've got locked up. I've talked to him at length and he's John, I'm firmly convinced. Will Delenn look at him that way? Or will she reject him? Everything he's told me up until now indicates that he's worried enough about that possibility that he doesn't even want to go back and face her. With David coming, I doubt he'll have any choice."
She sat in the darkened office, the ticking of the old clock the only sound that broke the silence. Before her, a lone candle flickered.
Delenn silently went through the steps necessary to bring herself to a full meditative state. Divorcing her thoughts from the physical world, she cleansed her mind of her daily duties and troubles, letting them fall away like water droplets after a shower. Slowly, she drifted until she felt she was ready.
Usually, she was content to bask in his presence, drawing comfort simply from his relative nearness. This time it would be different. This time, she would not be a passive observer.
This time, she was going hunting.
Once before, she had done this quite by accident. John had been a captive on Mars, she remembered. She had felt his pain. It had alerted her that something was wrong. Her bond with him had been so strong, and his pain so great, that she had actually caught a glimpse of him in his cell on Mars. Later, John had told her he had seen her, also. She had given him strength to resist the torture. She hadn't tried to do it, but then, all Minbari are a little telepathic.
Now, she would consciously attempt to repeat the effect. The whole day after Susan had revealed some of the information from Mars to her, she had been distracted. Something didn't add up. Then it had hit her, almost like a religious epiphany. Where had Susan and Michael's people learned these things? Everyone who knew about those past events was dead…
Delenn had spent the next two hours refusing to think about the possibility that had briefly crossed her mind…
The outside world faded into a grey mist as she focused on the candle, the light of John's soul. "John," she called in her mind, "John, can you hear me? Are you out here? Come to me, love, I need to see you."
All she sensed was silence. In her mind's eye, she walked through the mist, calling out to him. Stretching her senses in all directions, searching for a hint of his presence. Still nothing.
Undaunted, she pressed harder. She was starting to feel the strain on her mind, and she compensated by focusing harder on the light. Mentally, she was running through the mist, growing more desperate.
Was there something there? Suddenly, she wasn't alone anymore. A presence was near, although she could see nothing. "John?" She spun around. It seemed to her that a light flickered in the distance. She began moving towards the flicker. At first she seemed to be closing on it, but abruptly, it began moving away. Delenn pushed harder. "John! Wait for me, please! Don't run away! It is me, Delenn. I love you. Don't leave me here…"
The light seemed to slow, and then stop. Delenn hurried to catch up. She was close, so close. She was almost there. So close. She glimpsed his face as the light turned towards her. His breath was warming her skin with its nearness. Almost there…
"Delenn? In Valen's name, DELENN!" Ardenn had glanced into the office to check on her. When she saw what was happening, she ran into the room where Delenn was meditating, robes flying. Ardenn slammed into her, knocking Delenn halfway across the room. Tearing a strip off her robe, she scrambled after the older woman, straddling her and beating furiously at her head with the cloth.
Uttering a Minbari curse, Ardenn beat aside the shocked woman's flailing arms "Hold still, Delenn! Hold still! Your hair is on fire! In Valen's name, what were you doing?" Wrapping, the cloth from her robe around Delenn's head, Ardenn stifled the last of the flickering, smoking embers. Breathing hard, she tried to calm herself while pulling Delenn up into a sitting position and attempted to survey the damage. Still sitting astride her, she gazed into Delenn's shocked features. A large welt was rising on Delenn's cheek where Ardenn had struck her full force in her haste to douse the flames. Ardenn abruptly remembered that, as a full Minbari, she was physically much stronger than Delenn even if she was a smaller woman. She had probably nearly beaten Delenn unconscious. Reaching out to caress the welt softly, Ardenn murmured "Oh, Delenn, I hurt you. I am so sorry, but you were on fire. Forgive me. Are you all right?" After a moment, Delenn nodded, but did not speak. "What in Valen's name were you thinking? Thank goodness the flames didn't reach your face. You could have been seriously burned!"
Delenn had fallen so far into her meditations that she had unconsciously leaned too close to the candle. The flames had licked up her long hair. She hadn't even noticed. As her awareness returned, Delenn began to tremble as she realized what had happened. Tears began to course down her cheeks.
At first, Ardenn thought she was crying about her hair. Pulling Delenn into her embrace, she pressed her cheek against the top of Delenn's head. She spoke softly. "Do not cry, Delenn. We can trim the burned parts. You can change your hairstyle a little and I doubt anyone will notice. But do not ever do that again."
"I was so close, Ardenn. So close to him. I saw him, Ardenn. I could have reached out and touched him…" A sob broke through, and Delenn made no attempt to stop it. It was followed by another. Soon, Delenn was crying in full force. She did not stop for a long while.
Ardenn rocked the distraught woman making soft noises into her hair, all the while remembering the similar way David had held her when she was upset. She could feel the distress Delenn was radiating. Ardenn understood. Although she missed him, Ardenn knew David would return soon to hold her again. The man Delenn cried for would never return to hold her. It was a sad thought, and Ardenn felt herself tear up as she considered it. As she listened to Delenn cry, Ardenn wondered what kind of man John Sheridan had been. A man whose mere memory could reduce the greatest of the Minbari to tears. He must have been truly formidable, the best his race had to offer.
Ardenn wished she had met him. For some reason, despite his reputation as a warrior, she felt that she would have found him to be a gentle and kind man.
On a planet far away, a sleeping man awakened. Rolling over in bed, he stared into the darkened room. For just an instant, she had been there. He had seen her out of the corner of his eye. Bolting up in bed, he called out to her. "Delenn? Is that you?"
His answer was silence.
John settled back onto the bed. <That was no dream. She was here, if only for a moment. I can still smell her perfume…> he thought. He did not get any more sleep that night.
To Be Continued...
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