2284 (IV): IF THE WHOLE UNIVERSE STOOD BETWEEN US

By John Hightower

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

*****

   Earth Year 2284

   "Eerie, isn't it? The resemblance, I mean." Michael Garibaldi's voice startled David Sheridan, pulling his gaze away from the viewscreen he had been staring at for the past few minutes. On the screen, Stephen Franklin was running a battery of tests on a man who appeared to David to be a younger, healthier copy of his father. There was no audio, but their lips were moving in conversation.

   "Eerie doesn't begin to describe it, Michael. Spooky, maybe. Surreal? I'm opting for downright frightening." David turned back to the viewscreen. "Is there a way to pipe the audio in here? I'd like to hear what they're saying."

   "Sorry. This conference room isn't set up for that. If you want, we could go to the gallery above the lab, but he'd be able to see you. I recommend against it, though. He doesn't know you're here yet, and your presence might influence his responses to some of the tests Stephen is running him through."

   "Is it him? Is that my father sitting down there?" David was so close to the screen that his nose was almost touching it.

   "The answer to that is what Stephen is working on now. We'll know more when he finishes his examination. Some of the preliminary results are in, but I'd prefer to wait until he's done before discussing them with you."

   "Fair enough, Michael. I've got to tell you, though, that the heat is definitely on Susan. The…uh, individual down there was sighted by a Ranger from the local base when he was coming here to see you. She reported the sighting, and the station chief forwarded the report to Tuzanor. Your information on this Bureau 13 organization and Dad's involvement with them, which I assume you got from him, was forwarded as well. Susan was forced to lock Mother out of those files, as well as shut down her links to the local base on the off-chance she might call here."

   "That sounds prudent, given the circumstances."

   "Mother found out about the lockouts. Apparently, she was already suspicious. That's my fault, I'm afraid. I assume Ardenn heard part of my conversation with Susan about this assignment and told Mother about it. I should have been more careful, but I had a lot on my mind when she called."

   "That's not good, David. Your mother likes keeping secrets a lot more than having them kept from her."

   "Yeah, I know. Mother called me after I left asking about this assignment, and I referred her back to Susan. Susan took some heat about it and ended up passing most of the information about Bureau 13 to her, minus the information about my…about him of course."

   Michael pulled a cigar out of his pocket and stuck it in his mouth. "That's really not so bad, David. Your mother is forewarned now, at least about Bureau 13. That was information she needed to have anyway. It's good Susan was able to find a way to pass it to her without informing her about the rest of this. With what happened this morning, she needs to be on her guard."

   "What happened this morning?" David turned away from the screen again to face Michael.

   "My chief interrogator, the man who initially questioned John when he arrived, was found in a waste compactor near his home. There wasn't much left of him." Michael turned and looked out the window. "This is a serious group we're talking about here, David. Long before you were born, your father told me that people had died just for knowing their name. He didn't really want to even tell me that much."

   "Do they frighten you, Michael?" David had known Michael Garibaldi his whole life. He had even dated his daughter for a while. In all that time, he had never known Michael to be afraid of anything.

   "David, I sent Lise and Mary to a secure location the minute John mentioned Bureau 13 to me. I haven't left this building since I first talked to him. I've doubled the security around this complex. My Executive Protection Division is personally screening anyone who comes any further into this building than the front steps. What does that tell you?"

   "OK, I understand. What about steps to protect Mother?"

   "Susan has Rangers crawling all over the presidential compound. Your mother is leaving for Fulmer's Colony today, and she'll be travelling aboard a Victory-class starship rather than her personal White Star. No one but Rangers will be aboard, and Susan has decided to personally accompany her and Ardenn. I don't think even Bureau 13 has the resources to take down a full-sized warship. She's as safe as we can make her." Sighing, Michael continued. "Still, you need to understand this about terrorists. No one is invulnerable. If a person is a target, they will find a way to strike. We can take preventive measures, but without more specific information it's tough to close off the window of opportunity. I wish your mother would cancel her trip, but the threat isn't specific enough and we can't lock Delenn up in a glass case based on a nonspecific threat. If she changed her schedule based on every threat she received, she'd never be able to walk out her door. She can't run a government that way."

   David grunted in agreement and turned back to the viewscreen. Stephen had moved a full-body scanner over John. David watched as Stephen presumably scanned John's internal organs and skeletal structure. Stephen paused. John said something to him, and Stephen conducted the scan again, pausing the scanner at a point above John's ribcage. Something evidently didn't seem right, because Stephen removed the body scanner and got what appeared to be a smaller device, running it over John's ribcage. He spoke to John again, looking at the readings he was getting. Stephen said something else to John, turned, and ran out of the room. "Michael," David said as he watched, "there's something going on down there."

   Just as Michael was rising to take a look, a comm panel beeped on the wall. "Yeah, go." Michael acknowledged.

   "Mike," Stephen's voice sounded from the comm panel. "We've got a major problem. You need to evacuate everyone in this building."

   "Why? What's the problem?"

   "John's been implanted with an artificial rib. He told me that he found what he presumed to be one of his ribs in a specimen jar before he came here. I did a scan and it's true. Somebody took one of his real ribs out and implanted a fake one. And Mike, this fake rib shows traces of highly explosive compounds under a more detailed scan. What I presume to be a triggering device also showed up on the second scan. I think the rib is packed with enough high explosives to take out a floor of this building."

   David and Michael looked at each other. "Oh, Shit," was all either could think of to say.

   

*****

   "Now if you'll just hold still a second…" Stephen positioned a full-body scanner over John, "…we'll see what we can see concerning this rib you told me about." Stephen keyed in a sequence and the scanner hummed as it cycled through its routine.

   John attempted to remain motionless as the scanner worked. "I appreciate you looking into this for me, Stephen. You're the first person who hasn't accused me of anything since I got here."

   "Well, it's a lot for everybody to swallow. You've been presumed dead for three years. Give people some time. It's a big adjustment you're asking them to make. Besides, I was there when they made the neural map. You and I were the only two who knew about it. What you've told me so far confirms my suspicions that more than one crystal was made. Hmm…so you remember nothing after going to sleep at the Institute?"

   John racked his brain for any remaining memories. "No…well, that's not entirely true. There were… images, Stephen, in the beginning. The specifics have faded, but I remember a struggle, I think. Lorien was there, and I think Delenn was, too. A ship. I was on a ship, and Lorien was talking to me about something. I was tired, I remember that." John shook his head. "I'm sorry, that's all I can remember. When I first awoke there was more, but I was so weak that I couldn't write it down."

   "Those were probably dream images induced by the telepathic scans. Nothing to really worry about. But no conscious memories after that?" Stephen paused the body scan over John's ribcage.

   "No. Sorry. I know I 'went on' for about another year after we made the neural map, but that might as well have been another person. All I know about the last year of my…original's… life is what I was able to find out through researching news databases."

   "Don't be sorry. I didn't expect any. A personality matrix on a crystal is essentially frozen in time. The matrix doesn't have the capacity to think for itself, it's just a storage medium." Stephen stooped back to his work. "You know, this all must seem pretty strange to you. I mean, waking up and finding four years have passed you by. Very Rip Van Winkle-ish. Hmm…speaking of strange…"

   "What is it?" John raised his head so he could see what Stephen was doing.

   "Lie back, please. Hmm. You're correct. One of your ribs is definitely not original equipment." Stephen cycled the scanner again. "That confirms it. This rib is not organic. Hold on a second, I need to get a more detailed scan." Stephen moved the body scanner aside and picked up a more delicate instrument. Waving it over John's ribcage, he continued. "You know, It's lucky Edgars Industries has such modern equipment. A regular physical workup at almost any other facility would've missed this."

   Stephen stopped scanning and looked at the indicator on the instrument. "Oh, Shit. This is bad. This is really, really bad."

   Stephen started to run to a comm link. "Jesus, Stephen! What is it? What's wrong?" John shouted after him.

   Stephen turned back quickly. "You just lie there and don't move. Understand? Don't do anything!"

   John watched Stephen speak quickly into the comm panel. John couldn't hear what was said, but it was apparently a quick, heated discussion. After a moment, he heard a fire alarm sound in the distance. Stephen slowly walked back over.

   "John, listen to me. The artificial rib inside you is packed full of a high explosive compound. There are probably enough explosives in you to take out a floor of this building. There's also a triggering device attached to it. You are a walking bomb. Do you understand?"

    "A bomb? Inside me?" John laid his head back, realization suddenly hitting him. "Oh, God, Stephen. That's why they were so eager for me to go to Minbar, wasn't it? That's why they wanted me to return to Delenn. So I could kill her." Tears started running down his temples as the enormity of it sank in. "Dear God, Stephen. If I had gone back…If I hadn't stumbled into their lab and found that rib, I wouldn't have even thought to ask you about it." John swallowed hard, thinking. "I didn't know Stephen, I'm sorry. I didn't know. You tell Michael…you tell him that he needs to terminate me now. I'm putting all of your lives in danger. Who knows what might set this thing off?"

   "I know you didn't know about this John, and Michael does too." Stephen thought a moment. "If the device is specifically targeted against Delenn, it'll have safeguards to ensure it doesn't go off unless she's near you. Somehow, something about her presence would be unique enough that the bomb would be stable until then."

   "Or it could be manually triggered by someone watching us." John countered.

   "Perhaps. But then, why wouldn't they have set it off before now? It's obvious that Bureau 13's plan to get you to Minbar has failed. I would think they'd have already blown you up if they could."

   "They've probably already tried." John and Stephen heard Michael's voice as he walked in. "Fortunately for us, this building is shielded against outside transmissions. It keeps my business competitors out. I can only assume that whatever secondary triggering device Bureau 13 is using is blocked out as well. I've seen stuff like this before. As long as you're in this building, I think you're fairly safe. We're certainly under surveillance, though. If you were to walk out of here…"

   Michael moved to the side of the examination table. "Stephen, we can do one of two things. Either we can call in the bomb squad, get the rest of us out of here and blow John up, or we can attempt to remove the rib, if you're willing."

   Stephen stroked his chin in thought. "Well, the removal procedure is fairly simple under normal circumstances. I'm willing to try it. There may be anti-tampering devices, though, so you probably ought to leave as well, Mike."

   "With all I know about this Bureau 13 business? Hell, Stephen, they've probably got a sniper watching out for me as soon as I leave the building. Not a chance. Personally, I don't really relish the blowing up idea." He smiled down at John. "I've got a lot invested in this facility and I'd hate to lose it."

   "Thanks for caring, Michael." John replied sarcastically.

   Michael chomped on his cigar. "Hey, for you, old buddy, no problem. Oh, yeah. I almost forgot. David's here."

   John almost leapt up off the table. "Goddammit, Michael! Here I am 'John, the walking bomb' and you've got my son here? Get him out! If we survive this, he can come back and give me the third degree later."

   "Calm down, John. Where's he going to go? Remember what I said about snipers? This building is like a big roach motel. Bugs come in, but they don't come out. The same holds true for us, right now. He will have to put his faith in the quackery of our friend Stephen here," Michael put a friendly arm around the doctor's shoulders, "just like you and I will. Damn! This is just like old times, isn't it fellas? Enemies all around us, a vast conspiracy…all we need is Susan and Delenn here and then we could all sit around and wait for the 'Boom'."

   John turned to Stephen. Gesturing at Michael, he said, "Is he all right?"

   "Yeah, he just hasn't had a lot of sleep lately. He gets a little punchy, you know. Well, we might as well set up for surgery then." Turning to Michael, he said, "I assume that you have the necessary equipment? Like I said, the procedure itself isn't hard, but I can't do it with a pocketknife." At Michael's affirmative nod, Stephen looked down at John. "I hope you're ready to take a little nap. Hopefully we'll all still be on this side of the Rim when you wake up."

   

*****

   Delenn stared at herself in the mirror for about the tenth time that morning. Last night had been a nightmare. What had she been thinking? She had caught herself on fire, and hadn't even noticed it. Thank Valen for Ardenn. Had she not been there, Delenn knew, she would have been severely burned, perhaps even permanently scarred.

   Absently, she traced the huge welt on the side of her face. She had tried to hide it with her makeup, but it was still faintly visible; a large ugly bruise Ardenn had inadvertently caused in her haste to beat out the flames. The bruise was sore, but certainly preferable to the alternative.

   Delenn sometimes forgot how much stronger that she Ardenn was. The young Minbari had forgotten as well. She had almost knocked her teeth out. When Ardenn realized how rough she had been on her, she had been embarrassed. She had slunk out of her room early this morning just so she wouldn't have to look Delenn in the eye over breakfast. Delenn sighed. She would need to talk to her and let her know how grateful she was, and that the bruise on her face was of no concern.

   John. Then there was John. She had almost touched him, had been closer to him than she had been in three years. Delenn knew she had no telepathic capabilities of any significance. She should not have been able to reach him like that, yet she had. In the instant before Ardenn had jumped on her, she had looked into his face. He had seen her as well, she was sure. Another portent. Delenn could not help but feel that she was standing on the edge of a great change, for good or ill she did not know. She would meditate on this later. Despite Ardenn's admonitions, she was not finished with this approach. She would try to contact him again. Next time, she reflected, she would be sure to place the candle further away.

   "A French Twist?" Delenn turned to see Susan leaning against the doorframe, watching her. "I haven't seen you wear a French Twist in twenty-five years. Do you have a hot date or something?"

   Delenn forced a smile. If anyone were going to notice her hair, it would be Susan. She had been the one to teach her this hairstyle in the first place. "No. I am a married woman. Married women do not have 'hot dates' as you call them, unless they are with their husbands." Susan merely raised her eyebrows; a gesture Delenn had learned either indicated surprise or skepticism. Not for the first time, Delenn envied the humans their eyebrows. They conveyed so much emotion without the need for words. "If you must know, I had a very bad hair day yesterday and was forced to shorten it by several inches. This is the only style that I find acceptable in my hair's present state."

   Her friend's tone indicated that this was a touchy subject. Susan decided to back off. "Well, I've always liked that style on you. I'd imagine that it's kind of difficult to work around your bonecrest, though."

   "Any styling of my hair is difficult, particularly when you consider that I have to prepare it myself. The hair care industry is not exactly the path to personal enrichment on my planet, after all, so hairdressers are in rather short supply." Delenn took one last look in the mirror. "Are we ready to depart?"

   "A flyer is standing by on the pad, and the Far Traveler is awaiting us in orbit." As Delenn turned, Susan noticed the bruise. She stifled the urge to ask about it. If Delenn wanted to discuss it she would bring it up in her own time. Something strange had definitely occurred, though.

   Delenn noticed the quick look Susan gave her, and the expression of concern that flitted across her face. Thankfully, she didn't ask for an explanation. "Good. Is David apprised of our plans? I would not want him attempting to reach me here, only to find us gone."

   <You mean, you want to hear his report as soon as he sends it. > Susan thought. "He knows your schedule, Delenn. He will contact us on the ship if necessary."

   As Delenn and Susan made their way to the compound's landing pad, Susan felt someone touch her elbow from behind. Susan turned and saw Ardenn walking slightly behind her. The young woman looked morose. Dropping back to walk beside her, Susan let Delenn walk on ahead. After a moment, Ardenn spoke. "Ranger One, please forgive my demeanor toward you the other evening. I meant no disrespect."

   "There is nothing to forgive, Ardenn. I just want you to know that my curtailment of David's leave couldn't be helped. If there was anyone else I could've sent, I would have."

   As they walked, Susan noticed that the young Minbari seemed despondent. "Ardenn is something wrong? You seem upset."

   "No…Yes." Ardenn looked undecided for a moment. Biting her lower lip, she came to a decision. "I should not be saying this to you, but you are Delenn's closest friend, so I will. I would not normally speak of this, but I need advice and I have no one else to turn to."

   "Thanks for the vote of confidence, I think." Ardenn's endorsement sounded less than ringing to Susan. "What is it?" Susan was expecting Ardenn to discuss David. She was unprepared for what Ardenn said next.

   "I am concerned about Delenn." Ardenn seemed to be forcing herself to speak. "For the past several months, she has indicated to me that she has been able to sense her husband's presence. Before that, she could not. I am told that this is not unusual for widows, so I considered this change a good thing as it offered her some comfort. Now, I am not so sure."

   Susan considered this information for a moment. Delenn couldn't know anything, could she? "Go on, Ardenn. I'm listening."

   "A few days ago, when you sent David to Mars, she was upset, as you know. Then, when you came for dinner you must have said something to her to make her speculate that she might not be a widow after all."

   "I said no such thing, Ardenn. I merely discussed security matters. We did talk about John, but only in the past tense."

   "I do not know what was said, but I saw the effect. She behaved erratically all day yesterday. Last night, she decided to try to contact her husband through a form of deep meditation. Master adepts in Temple use the technique she attempted, but only rarely. Delenn is many things, but she is not a master adept, and she does not have the skills to perform this safely. Last night, she used a candle to focus herself, and she became so caught up in her attempt that she burned a significant portion of her hair in the flames. That is why she has groomed herself differently. We had to cut the burned parts away."

   Susan couldn't help gasping in shock. Ardenn noted it. "The sort of meditation she is performing is not really meditation. It does not cleanse the spirit. It locks the soul into obsession, and I fear that she will try to put herself into a trance again. It is unhealthy. I do not want her to hurt herself."

   "And the bruise on her face?"

   Ardenn bowed her head, abashed. "I did that to her. When I saw that her hair was burning, I rushed to put it out. In my haste, I struck her." In a small voice, she continued. "I struck the President of the Alliance. This is unforgivable. I have been waiting all night for her to send me away." Susan considered Ardenn's observations. "Ardenn, I appreciate what you have told me. Don't feel badly about the bruise, you did the right thing. You saved her from a far worse injury. I'm sure she recognizes that as well." Susan thought for a moment. "I'll find a way to discreetly dissuade her from trying this deep meditation again. I won't mention that you said anything to me."

   Susan wondered if she should say anything about the young Minbari's relationship with David. <What the hell, > she figured. <I've already talked to David about it. I might as well…> Looking to ensure that Delenn was still out of earshot, she leaned conspiratorially over to Ardenn. "You know, since we're being so open with each other, I ought to mention that David has spoken to me about you. He cares for you very deeply, but I think you already know that."

   Ardenn said nothing, but she hesitated in her steps for an instant and Susan could see fear in her eyes. Susan could almost read her mind in that instant. She thought Ranger One was going to condemn the relationship, perhaps even tell Delenn about it.

   "Relax, Ardenn. We spoke in confidence, just as I am speaking to you now. It's not my place to say anything to Delenn. That's between the two of you and her. I just wanted to let you know that if you need someone to talk to, I'm willing to listen. I might be able to offer you a 'human' perspective that you wouldn't get otherwise."

   Ardenn recovered from her surprise quickly. "Why would you do this for me?" Ardenn was unsure where Ranger One was leading.

   Susan started ticking reasons off on her fingers. "Oh, I don't know…perhaps because if I had a son, I would want him to be David. I would want my son to be happy, and you make David happy. Perhaps because I like you, and think you are good for him. It could be that I've watched David bury himself in the Rangers for the past three years, and a man his age needs more than just work. Possibly it's because I'm tired of seeing him go home alone while his crew goes home with their families. Who knows? Maybe I'm just a romantic at heart. The point is, I want to be your friend, Ardenn, just as I am for David." Susan held out her hand. "Friends?"

   Ardenn recognized the human handshake ritual. Ranger One was showing that she had no weapons. She took Susan's hand. "Friends." Ardenn couldn't help smiling at Susan. As they walked, Ardenn thought of a human ritual she had been puzzling over. "Ranger One, David has told me of the human reunion ritual. 'Bon Voyage' I think it is called? I am to meet him when his ship returns from this assignment…well, depending on whether we return before he does. He will not go home alone again, at least for as long as he wants me to meet him."

   "First, please call me Susan as long as no other Rangers are around, OK?" At Ardenn's acknowledgement, Susan continued. "As for meeting David when he comes in, I'm glad, although a young, pretty Minbari female meeting a Human male there will set a few tongues to wagging, I'd wager."

   "Yes. I have considered this. I have decided that, as Delenn would say, they will have to learn to deal with it."

   Susan beamed at the determination in the younger woman's voice. "Ardenn, you and I will get along just fine, I can tell already. Yeah, they'll learn to deal with it, all right."

   "Are the two of you coming or am I to make this journey by myself?" Delenn stood waiting by the flyer. "What were the two of you conspiring about back there?"

   Ardenn opened her mouth hesitantly to speak, but Susan was faster. "Ardenn is concerned about your security, Delenn. With all of this terrorist business, you can't be too careful. I was merely reassuring her."

   "Oh." Turning to the young Minbari, Delenn smiled. "Yes. She has become quite concerned about my well being as of late. Do not worry Ardenn. I receive threats every day. It is good to be cautious, but they do not frighten me."

   "Yes, Delenn. If you are not worried, then I will not worry." Ardenn silently thanked Susan. Ranger One had lied for her, honorably.

   Susan strapped herself in the pilot compartment of the flyer. "Well, all aboard. The Far Traveler awaits…"

   

*****

   "Good work, Stephen. You didn't blow us up." Michael spoke as he, Stephen and David sat down in the conference room. Stephen had just returned from performing the extraction. "How's the patient doing?"

   "He's doing fine, although he's still under sedation. It'll be a few hours yet before he comes around. He's missing one of his floating ribs, so he's going to be pretty sore for awhile. I've implanted a rib bud, so the rib will eventually grow back." Stephen pulled out the extracted rib and slid it across the table to Michael. "Don't worry. It's inert now. Your security people took it and examined it while I was closing him up."

   "So what is it?" David asked as Michael slid the rib across to him.

   "Very simple technology. The rib itself is duraplast around a hollow core. The cavity that would normally contain marrow on a real bone is filled with an explosive known as 'C-4'. It's one of the oldest explosives in Earth's inventory. It's been around for 300 years or so."

   "And the trigger?" Michael asked.

   "That's the interesting part. It took your guys a little while to figure that one out." Stephen took the rib back from David and pointed out a chip inserted into the duraplast. "There are actually two triggers. One of them, as we surmised, is a radio-controlled switch. The explosive could be detonated remotely through this. Your people believe this was the secondary trigger, in case John didn't do what Bureau 13 wanted him to do." Flipping the rib over, Stephen pointed out a second, smaller chip. "This is the primary trigger, a proximity-fused sonic switch." Looking at David, Stephen continued. "This switch is keyed to your mother's voice pattern. It's set up so that she would have to be within two or three feet of him to set it off. All it would have taken was for her to speak to him in close proximity to detonate the device."

   "Suppose she had spoken to him over a link or through a comm terminal?" David asked. "Would that have detonated it?"

   "No. Links and comm systems subtly alter voice patterns. If John had called her in advance, it wouldn't have been enough. They would need to be physically co-located."

   Michael chewed thoughtfully on his cigar. "Simple, and extremely clever. Sometimes 'simple' is the most ingenious method."

   "OK. So now what?" Stephen asked.

   "There may be a way to turn this to our advantage. Let me think about this for a while." Michael leaned back in his chair, pondering the idea that was forming. Grunting, he sat back up. "So what else have you got for us, Stephen?"

   "Well, I have the results from my examination."

   "Go on, then." David spoke up. "Is that my father or not?"

   "The short answer to your question is yes, at least physically. First, let me give you some vitals." Stephen looked at the notepad he was holding. "Chronologically, his cellular age is around 62, although he looks younger because his body is virtually free from wear and tear. In terms of memory, he's around 64, which is consistent with the time the personality matrix was made, a year before he passed. My first reading on his genetic sample came back as nonsense. Now, I have to tell you that this part gave me fits. It didn't match up. Then, I realized that my baseline genetic sample was taken after Zha'dum. Three years ago, to be precise. After I filtered out the effects of Lorien's gift, I retested the sample from the clone. It matched your father to five one thousandths of one percent." Michael gasped as he realized the level of detail to which Bureau 13 had gone. Stephen continued. "Yeah, that was my reaction as well."

   David looked puzzled. Stephen turned back to him. "Let me put that in perspective for you. Our current cloning technology shoots for a 98% replication rate. That's what we consider success. This clone is several orders of magnitude beyond what we can achieve with what we have now. This, by the way, is also consistent with John's story that Shadow technology was used in his creation."

   "So he's virtually a perfect match, minus Lorien's biochemical thingies?" Michael asked.

   "Now hold on, I didn't say that. There are differences. He's an inch shorter, which is consistent with growing a body on a heavy-gravity world. His muscle mass and bone density is fifteen percent greater, also consistent with augmentation for living on a heavy-gravity world. Additionally, his reflexes are faster. That's not an augmentation. That's because he's in good shape and has been doing a lot of physical training, again, on a heavy-gravity world. I don't know what his point of origin was, but I can guarantee that it was a planet where the gravity was significantly higher than Earth's. At least 1.3 g's. In short, he's as strong as a bull. You definitely do not want to get in a fight with this guy. He'd take most humans apart fairly quickly and could probably give a Narn or Minbari a run for his money.

   "What I'm really concerned with is the mind inside the clone. Is that my father, as well?" David asked.

   Michael answered. "So far, his story has held up, David. If a full personality matrix of your father was downloaded into the clone, then I'd have to say yes." Thinking for a moment, he continued. "I've got people on Earth tracking down the telepaths that made the neural map for your Dad four years ago. We'll know more when we find them. Of course, even with that it would take a deep telepathic scan to know for sure."

   "Where is this neural map? I want to see it."

   Stephen and Michael looked at each other. Reaching into his pocket, Stephen took out the data crystal and handed it to David. David held it up to the light. It looked as if a thousand tiny diamonds were shining through as the light shone on it. "This is it, huh? All my father's adult memories." Placing the crystal in his pocket, he continued. "I think I'll just keep this, for now. By rights it belongs to my mother. You realize, of course, that she is going to hit the roof when she finds out about this crystal. You two are going to have some heavy explaining to do." David sighed. "You said that he'll be sedated for the next few hours?"

   "Yes," Stephen replied. "Simple surgery is still surgery. He needs the rest."

   "Good. It'll make this easier." Tapping his link, David spoke to someone outside the room. "Would you send Ranger Nashon in, please?" Looking back at the two older men, he spoke gravely. "I intend to take you up on your deep scan suggestion. You're right. Since we don't have the original personality matrix this is the only way to know."

   A Minbari Ranger entered the room. "This is Ranger Nashon. He's a telepath. He would be considered a P11 on Earth. He can scan the clone and tell me what I need to know now, while he's still unconscious."

   Stephen and Michael almost leapt out of their chairs. "You can't do that, David! He's still a person, and what you're intending is unethical!" Stephen shouted.

   "Not to mention illegal. You'll be violating his rights." Michael chimed in.

   "No, I won't. He's a clone. He's not a citizen of the Alliance or of Earth. Frankly, he doesn't exist legally. He has no rights." David stood up and pointed at Stephen and Michael. "I know you two are Mother's friends. I know you would never try to hurt her. I don't know that about this guy. I want you to know that I don't do this lightly, but I will take any measures I deem necessary to protect her, period, and right now this is all I can think of that will answer my questions." David paused for a moment before continuing. "Have either of you ever seen my Mother lose complete control of herself?" At their negative nods, he said, "I have, once. To say that it wasn't pretty would be an understatement. It was the saddest day of my life. This clone's mere existence could destroy her emotionally, even if there's no other threat associated with him. If it's true, if that is my father in there…then this crystal in my pocket will mean nothing when compared to her reaction to a living John Sheridan. I'm sorry, but I have to know so I can advise Susan on what to tell her. If you think I'm an asshole now, just picture the job Susan may have."

   Michael and Stephen sat silently. Presently, Michael spoke. "Look, uh, David. You do what you have to do. We know you mean well, but this business still leaves a bad taste in my mouth. I've been on the receiving end of a deep scan before, and frankly, they suck. I wish we had more time."

   "I do too. I don't like this any more than you. If it's any consolation, Nashon is good at this and he'll be as careful and gentle as possible."

   Stephen spoke up. "If you're going to go through with this, then someone else needs to sit in and observe. He's weak from the surgery and I don't want him pushed too hard."

   "Very well, Stephen. I think that's appropriate. Nashon won't hurt him, but I'll watch." David motioned to Nashon. "Doctor, if you'd escort Nashon to the…patient, he can prepare and we'll get this business over with." David turned to Michael. "Is there a place here where I can make a secure call? I need to contact Susan and bring her up to date. I will also want to talk to the…clone…when he awakens, no matter what Nashon finds out."

   "Sure. You can call from my office. Follow me."

   

*****

   "Ranger One, I don't really know how you will take this, but the clone is virtually a genetic match of my father. Michael and Stephen are firmly convinced that it is him."

   "I see. To be honest, I suspected they would be. What do you think?"

   "I haven't talked to him yet, so I'm undecided. I was going to, but Stephen discovered that he was booby-trapped. One of his ribs was packed full of explosives and was set to detonate to Mother's voice. I also took possession of a data crystal that has Dad's neural map on it. Stephen's been holding on to it for four years." David held up the data crystal and the rib.

   "A neural map? If nothing else, your Mother will freak when she hears that one." Despite everything, Susan was disappointed. "I'm sorry, David. The information I passed your Mother could have come off that crystal. The clone could be a red herring."

   "I don't know. Stephen says the information on the crystal isn't enough to animate a clone. He removed the rib, and it's fairly apparent that the clone knew nothing about it, at least consciously. I've got Nashon preparing to do a scan on him now. I told him to look for any blocked memories, alterations, hidden pockets, embedded commands or other telepathic interference. I also asked him to look into the clone's memories to see if there was a personality wipe conducted before the new personality was implanted. If there wasn't one, and the personality isn't artificial, then…well, it's him, or at least a copy so close to the original that the difference is indistinguishable." David sighed and ran a hand through his hair. "We're not done with this by a long shot. Have you talked to Mother?"

   "No." David noted a worried look that passed over Susan's face. "David, we need to talk about your mother. Ardenn told me that she is strongly sensing your father's presence."

   "I'm aware of that. She told me the same thing."

   "I'm not so sure this is a good thing. It seems that she isn't content just to feel his presence anymore. She's actively trying to reach out and contact him, for lack of a better explanation. Ardenn tells me that the meditation skills that this requires are beyond you Mother's capabilities and could be risky for her." Susan paused. He had a right to know. "David, I don't want you to worry about her, but she had an accident trying this technique last night. She fell too far into a trance and was burned. She hasn't admitted it, of course, but Ardenn was worried enough that she violated your Mother's privacy and told me about it."

   "She burned herself? How badly?" Despite Susan's admonition, he was worried.

   "Luckily, she just lost some hair. She had to change her hairstyle, but it's hardly noticeable. Ardenn and I are keeping a close eye on her, in case she tries again." Susan groaned. This was getting to be too much. "She suspects, David. I don't know how, but she suspects. I need to tell her something soon; at least by the time we leave Fulmer's Colony. We'll be there in three days."

   "I should be getting Nashon's report soon. Once I get it and talk to the clone, I should be able to tell you something definite. Probably by tomorrow. Can you hold out that long?"

   "Well, it looks like I'll have to, doesn't it? Yes, David. I can put her off that long." Susan sighed the words. "Unless there's anything else, I've got to go."

   "Take care, then. Sheridan Out."

   Susan stared at the bulkhead of her cabin for a long minute after terminating the connection with David. Explosive ribs, neural maps, genetically perfect clones…This was starting to sound like an old spy novel. Susan would have laughed had the situation not been so serious. She needed a cup of coffee. One with some Vodka in it.

   Just as she was pouring herself a steaming cup <minus the Vodka, unfortunately>, her link sounded. "Ivanova. Go."

   "Susan," Delenn's voice came across the link. "I need to see you at your earliest convenience. Please come by my stateroom."

   <Ah, Hell. And so it begins…> Susan thought as she gulped down the coffee. "On my way."

   

*****

   <Shit. It's beginning all over again…>

   Images were filtering through his mind, just like before. John felt as if his whole life were flashing before his eyes. Some of the memories were…painful. The destruction of the Black Star. The break from Earth when he was commander of Babylon 5. The argument with Delenn over Anna…then Zha'dum. Falling…and never hitting the bottom.

   Some of the memories were good. Happy times during childhood. His time at the Academy. Putting on an Earthforce uniform for the first time. Meeting Anna. Meeting Delenn. Marrying both…David's birth, what a miracle that had been…Delenn's face as she realized she really was a mother. Their years together as a family…

   Whatever was searching through his mind ran up against a wall, some sort of hidden corner. John could feel the presence probing around the closed off space, looking for a way in. Presently, it found one. John was carried along into the abyss…

   Light. There was light. John was tired. He was struggling with something, but he was tired. He sensed others there. Lorien. He recognized him. In a flash, he was on a ship. John recognized it as his personal White Star flyer. Lorien was speaking to him. "Time to rest, now…" he said.

   "No!" John shouted in his mind, as the light engulfed him.

   ***** David glanced up from the chair beside John's bed as Nashon hurriedly broke the telepathic link and jerked away from the bedside. The Minbari had a shocked look on his face.

   "Nashon, what is it? What did you see?" The Minbari didn't answer, just continued to stare at the unconscious man on the bed. He was trembling.

   David jumped up and grabbed the telepath by the shoulders. "Talk to me, Nashon. What did you see!"

   "I-It is as they say, Ranger Sheridan. There are no alterations or traps. His mind is open and free of adjustment." Slowly pulling himself back together, he continued, "His mind is whole. His memories are those of John Sheridan. There are no others, and no signs of a mind wipe. As the humans said, his memories stop about four years ago and then restart more recently, indicating a time gap consistent with his story." Now that the link was broken, his voice became professional. "The synaptic linkages are of a uniform strength, indicating that the memories were implanted all at once. Had this body physically lived those memories, the linkages would be of varying strengths, depending on how often the memories were accessed and how recent they were. This is consistent with a personality matrix download, although there are the beginnings of linkage degradation. This is normal for a healthy mind."

   "You mean he's starting to forget things."

   "Not exactly. Some of his memories are fading back to normal for a human. When the memories were freshly implanted, he would have had total recall. This is not a human mind's natural state. Time is passing for him again, and the neural connections are finding their natural pathways. His memory is still better than most, and will remain so for the rest of his life."

   David mulled this information over. "Good work, Nashon. You can go rest now. I know this was hard for you."

   Nashon sat down heavily in a chair, and put his head in his hands. "Wait. There is more, much more. I must speak of this…I-I found a hidden corner of his mind. Even he did not know it was there. The way was blocked, but I gained entrance after some effort."

   David looked up sharply. "What did you see? Is he a threat? Did his creators implant some hidden command?"

   Nashon's face took on a faraway look. "No hand of man created what I saw. I saw the end. Entil-zha's end." Nashon drew in a shaky breath. "There were beings of great power there, Ranger Sheridan. The First of the First Ones. They struggled. The First One wanted to take him. Entil-zha resisted at the last moment." Nashon's hands were shaking. "It was hard to watch. I wanted to turn away in fear, but I could not. The First One was the stronger of the two, but Entil-zha had left his body behind and was a being of Light as well. I think that the First One would have overborne Entil-zha still, but his resistance was just strong enough."

   David stood with his mouth agape, not believing what he was hearing. "Strong enough to what?" He managed to whisper.

   "To stay here." Nashon sighed tiredly. "Ranger Sheridan, I have seen what no mortal should see before their end. I must meditate on this." When the telepath looked up, he had a strange gleam in his eyes. "And our people must know of this. We must tell them that Entil-zha has returned to us, just as the Priests foretold. You will tell them, will you not?"

   David recovered himself quickly. "I must speak to him first, Nashon. Then we will decide what to do. Tell no one else of this, do you understand?" Nashon nodded and then shuffled out to rest almost as if he were sleepwalking, looking at the still form on the bed as he left.

   As the door was closing, David heard a groan. The man who would be his father was waking. David moved to the bed and sat down in the chair he had recently vacated. <What do you say to your long-lost father? > He wondered. <Start with the obvious. > "Good Morning. How are you feeling?"

   John was still groggy. "Ugh. Like shit, David. I feel like I was on an all-night bender and then someone worked my chest over with a baseball bat. Could you ask your mother to bring me a glass of w…" Realization returned quickly. "David? You're really here?" John moved to rise off the bed.

   "No. Stay down." David motioned for John to remain on the bed. "You've been through surgery. Stephen had to go in and take one of your ribs out. Do you remember?"

   "Yeah…yeah, it's coming back to me now. I guess we didn't blow up." John winced as he felt the headache. "Damn! It feels like I've had brain surgery as well." John laid his head back on the pillow. Looking over at his son, he took in his appearance. David looked older. The worries and cares of adulthood were on his face. Physically, he was more filled out than John remembered. He looked good in his Ranger uniform. John looked in his eyes, the one facial attribute that was his Mother's. "It's good to see you, David. Uh…I wish it were under better circumstances."

   "It's 'disconcerting' to see you, from my perspective. I know you're tired, but we need to talk." Now that David's trepidation had worn off, he was all business. "First, are you John Sheridan?"

   "I don't honestly know, David. I feel like me. I seem to remember all that I remembered before, at least up until I visited Stephen. I am a clone, as you probably know. How would I know the difference?"

   "A fair enough answer. Do you represent a threat to the Alliance?"

   "No, David. I think I represent more of a threat to the organization that created me at this point. Now that the rib is out, the purpose they created me for is moot. Unless there is some telepathic command knocking around in my head, I can't think of any way I could be."

   "There aren't any. We checked. That's why your head hurts." David pulled the data crystal out of his pocket. "Do you know what this is? And yes, I know it's a data crystal."

   John sat up a little to see more clearly. "I assume that's either the neural map that Stephen was holding for me or you somehow got hold of the full personality matrix that Bureau 13 made. You know about Bureau 13, right?"

   "Yes. That information has been transmitted to Tuzanor. This, by the way, is the neural map." David placed the crystal back in his pocket. "I'm going to give it to Mother. You were wrong to instruct Stephen to hold it without telling her."

   John sighed. "It would be better if you'd just destroy the thing. That hair-brained idea of mine resulted in this whole mess. If I hadn't had that made, then Bureau 13 wouldn't have had the opportunity to pirate a full matrix. None of this would have happened, and you could be getting on with your life."

   "Past regrets do us no good now. You're here, and the present isn't going away. What are we going to do with you? I suppose you're ready to trot back to Minbar and see Mother now."

   There was something in David's tone that put John on his guard. "Uh…actually no, David. I came here to deliver a warning about Bureau 13. My original intent was to get Michael to warn Susan, and then I was going to go away somewhere where I wouldn't be any trouble. Things worked out differently than I expected, but the warning has been delivered. I'm not going to bother you or Delenn. You have moved on. It would be painful and unfair for all of us if I came walking back in the door now."

   David was surprised. This wasn't the response he had been expecting. "So you just pop in, say 'Hello, you're in danger' and go off to live on some colony world somewhere? Do you have any idea what kinds of hoops we're jumping through to keep Mother from finding out about you? How far out on a limb Susan's hanging right now regarding this? Mother doesn't know you exist yet, but she can sense you, you know. She feels your presence. That's not going to change no matter where you go. She's even tried to reach out and touch you."

   "I know. I felt it. I even thought I saw her, for an instant."

   "Yeah, well how about that. You'd just go off and leave her with nothing but memories and longing?" David was angry now. "You know, I had my doubts about you, but I can see now that you are my father. Leaving like that would be so typical of you."

   John sensed that there was an unresolved issue between them, one that he was unaware of. "David, I don't understand. Was there a problem between us? Where is this anger coming from?" John thought about it for a moment. David had been through the last year of John's 'original' life, and seen him pass away. These were events that his 'present' self had no memory of. "Son, I think you're angry about something I really don't remember. My memories only go as far forward as 2280. You had just entered Ranger training. We were on good terms, at least as far as I can recall. What happened?" John thought he knew where this was springing from, but he dreaded asking all the same. "Tell me what it was like...at the end."

   David realized that the man in front of him didn't know, but his outburst still was so strong it surprised even him. "I can't…at least not firsthand! I wasn't there! You wouldn't let me come home!" He snorted derisively. "No special treatment, you said, as if other 'ordinary' candidates wouldn't be allowed to go home if their fathers were dying."

   So that was it, then. John understood. His previous self, for some unknown reason, had made David stay away at the end. And he resented it. John listened as David continued. "Oh, you had all of you friends there, Michael, Stephen, Susan and the others. But not your son. Hell, it was a big party! A great send-off! Your last days on this side of the Rim. And I wasn't good enough to be there. I couldn't miss any Ranger training. Like I was really concentrating on that! And then there was Mother…

   John didn't want to hear this. In some corner of his mind, he knew what was coming. Perhaps selfishly, he tried to forestall it. "Your Mother is a strong woman, David. The strongest person I have ever met. She knew the price that would have to be paid for our twenty years together."

   "Don't you dare try to tell me how strong Mother is! Or about prices! You were married to her, yet you have no idea of the true cost! No amount of time prepares a person to lose their mate!" David strained to calm himself. When he continued, his tone was still angry, but lower. "You had to have a happy day, a good day for a Sunday drive, you called it. No one was to spoil it for you. Well, Mother gave you what you wanted. She pasted on a smile and played charming hostess for your friends even though grief was tearing her apart inside, and then she somehow found the strength to let you go. Huh. Talk about strength, will you? You wouldn't let her grieve while you were still there to hold her. You wouldn't let her be alone with you even though you knew she wanted it. At the end, you wouldn't even let her cry, although she needed to in the worst way. No, nothing to upset your happy day. No son, no tears, and no comfort for her." David took a shaky breath. "Yeah, Mother was strong…for about five seconds after your ship took off. Thank Valen Susan stayed with her and called me home. Mother was a wreck. I never want to see her like that again. She wanted to die…prayed for it, just to follow you. The things she said…I almost cry just remembering. You know, she slept huddled in the closet wearing your bathrobe for a week, because sleeping in your bed was too painful for her. Can you imagine? Oh, and she fasted. Boy, did she fast. She must have lost twenty pounds and she wasn't big to begin with. She still hasn't gained all of her weight back. Strength, yeah. She was strong, but she's also flesh and bone. Do you want to hear some more? No? Good." David drew in a shaky breath. "Well, it took Susan and I some time to get her back to something approaching normal. She's never truly recovered, though. You took a big part of her with you when you left, and we've all missed it. That's how strong Mother is. So now you know." David rested his elbows on the bedside and put his head in his hands. He could feel tears welling up behind his eyelids.

   John had listened in shocked silence as David described his previous self's final days. What had he done? John could think of no reason why David couldn't have come home. He couldn't imagine himself pushing Delenn away during such a heart wrenching moment or any time, for that matter. There was so much he didn't know. Old wounds had reopened for his son, as they would for Delenn, he surmised. Reaching out, he stroked David's hair. "Son, I don't know what to say. I'm so sorry. I wish you and your mother had never had to go through that. I can't imagine what that was like, or why I would treat the two of you that way. I would never hurt you or your mother." John swallowed hard. He could feel tears streaming down his cheeks. "If I could wave a magic wand and take back that time in your life, I would. Life teaches some hard lessons, though. Those lessons make you who you are. Life is also about mistakes, and it would appear that I made some big ones at the end. I know that my original self is long gone. He and I have moved in different directions. The decisions he made at the end were based on a different set of circumstances than those I'm faced with now. You can't forgive him. Can you forgive me?"

   "I forgave long ago, Dad, as did Mother. But it still makes me angry." David placed his hand on John's cheek for a moment. It was wet to the touch. Withdrawing it, David wiped his eyes. "Still, this doesn't change the fact that you're coming with me. You owe Mother at least the chance to see you and talk to you before any decisions are made about your future." David smiled through sad eyes. "Besides, her life is still in danger. I want you near me until that is dealt with."

   "David, I want to be with your Mother so badly it physically hurts. I love her more than my own life, but don't you understand? Seeing me this way will be agonizing for her. She'll look at me and see him, but she'll know I'm not truly the man she married. Knowing that I exist, but that I'm not really 'her' John will gnaw at her soul. In the end, she'll reject me. How could she not?" John sighed tiredly. "I have told you about Anna and Zha'dum, David. This situation isn't all that different."

   David would not be deterred. "I think I'll leave that decision up to her, Dad. Like you said, she's a strong woman. She didn't lose her strength when you left, only her heart." Shifting in his chair, he continued matter-of-factly, "Let me put it to you in a way I know you'll understand. You are coming with me. I'm not giving you a choice."

   "You'd take me against my will? I don't think so."

   "Oh, yes. I can take you and I will. Let me remind you that you're a clone. Like I told Michael and Stephen, you aren't a citizen. Your only ID is fake. As much as it pains me to say it, you don't legally exist." David stood. "You get some rest. When you're well enough to travel we're going. Your presence can't be hidden much longer. Too many people are finding out about you, and the ones that don't know, Mother included, are beginning to suspect."

   

*****

   Aboard the IAS Far Traveler, Delenn eyed the new hairstyle Susan had just completed. Her hair was shorter now than it had been, barely reaching her shoulders. It was not fancy but it was neat and of a uniform length, something Ardenn, well intentioned as she was, wasn't exactly skilled at doing.

   The previous evening, Ardenn had taken Delenn's request that she cut the burned parts away literally. She had cut only the burned parts, leaving Delenn's hair looking like a rag mop when taken out of the braid. Delenn had wasted no time calling Susan as soon as they were safely on their journey. She smiled, recalling Susan's reaction to her hair. When she arrived, Ranger One hadn't even needed to ask why she was called. She had looked at Delenn's head, looked at Ardenn (You did this?), and said, totally deadpan "You let a Minbari cut your hair, Delenn? A Minbari? For you, this is a good haircut? Bring me scissors. I hope your insurance is paid. This will be major surgery." Susan had proceeded to wash, cut, dry and brush Delenn's hair. Ardenn had looked on, entranced.

   After Susan departed, Delenn decided to meditate. She lit a candle and settled herself. As she relaxed, she could feel a pair of eyes at her back watching her closely. She smiled. Her shadow was looking out for her. "Ardenn, I assure you that I will not be burning myself up this evening. I am not sure I could withstand another round of your firefighting efforts. You may relax. Join me, if you wish."

   Presently, Delenn heard the younger woman settle down beside her. Delenn looked over at her, and Ardenn avoided meeting her gaze. She was uneasy, and Delenn decided that it was time to reassure her. "Ardenn, look at me." Delenn placed her finger under Ardenn's chin and turned her head towards her. Delenn gazed into Ardenn's eyes for a moment. Leaning over, Delenn planted a chaste kiss on the younger woman's forehead and cupped her cheek in one hand. "That is for what you did for me last night. I am very grateful that you kept your presence of mind when I neglected mine. Do not feel badly about the bruise. It is already fading, and perhaps it will remind me over the next few days to exercise a little more caution."

   Ardenn relaxed. Delenn was not angry with her. <This might be as good a time as any… > "Thank you, Delenn. I feel much better knowing that you are not angry with me." Bowing her head slightly, she spoke hesitantly. "You said that I should come to you when I was ready to talk and this seems like a good time to…speak to you about David. About David and me…" Ardenn trailed off, displaying her nervousness by rubbing the back of her neck in unconscious imitation of her mentor. "Now that I have the opportunity, I am not really sure how to say this to you…"

   "David and you?" Delenn interrupted in mock surprise. "Then there is some problem between the two of you, as I thought." Playing her part to the hilt, she pursed her lips as if considering a unwelcome piece of information. "Well, no matter how good people are, sometimes they just do not get along. I really must be more observant." Seeming to reach a decision, she continued. "If David is distracting you from your duties, then I will simply tell him to go through me if he needs something from you. That should keep him away. Do you think that will solve the problem?"

   "No!" Ardenn's outburst was sharper than she intended, and she recovered quickly. "No. I am sorry, Delenn. I do…like…David. I want just the opposite. I was hoping that you would not object to my spending…uh, more…time with him."

   Delenn found that she was enjoying herself, despite her aide's obvious discomfort. Ardenn must be thinking her as dense as a piece of the ship's hull at this point. "Ardenn, you are my aide, not his. If he thinks he can shift some of his work off on you so he has more time to 'goof off', as the humans say, then you just give him a firm 'No'. He should know better than to ask you for this."

   "Please, Mistress!" Ardenn almost wailed, forgetting in her distress to call Delenn by her name. "I want to spend my personal time with him. Not work. I am speaking of seeing him…socially."

   <It is time to show mercy, she is nervous enough without me toying with her. > Delenn thought. Chuckling amusedly, she said, "I knew what you meant, Ardenn. Forgive me for my little joke. I am really not as obtuse as you must be thinking right now." Taking one of Ardenn's hands between her own, she continued. "Why do you not just say what it is that troubles you? Sometimes the simplest words are the best. Just relax and speak."

   Ardenn took a deep breath. "I have fallen in love with your son, Delenn, and I have loved him for a long time now. I am no longer comfortable trying to hide it from you or him." There, she had brought it out in the open. "I can think of no simpler way of saying it."

   <What is it about my aides? > Delenn wondered. <There must be something in the air…> "A Human and a Minbari?" Delenn gasped in mock horror, "Why would that combination ever cross my mind?" Shaking her head in mirth, she continued, "Seriously, I have been waiting for some time for you to come to me about this…" Ardenn looked as if she were about to melt through the deck. "Oh, Ardenn, do not hang your head so! I am not so old that my eyesight is failing. I have not forgotten what being in love feels or looks like. I am still in love with my husband, you know." Releasing Ardenn's hand, Delenn slid over until they were side by side and put her arm around the younger woman. "What did you think I would do if I knew? Send you away? You really must not know me very well. I do not wish to train another aide." Ardenn still looked forlorn. "Do you not feel better now that you have, as the Humans say, 'taken the squirrel by the horns'?"

   "I do feel better, Delenn, it is just that…I-I did not know what you would do. I truly did not think you would send me away, but I was not sure. You took me into your home…you have been so kind to me, and I repay you by wanting to take your son away from you. I know that even if you accept me as worthy of him my Order will recall me if they find out. I could not bear to leave him now, I think."

   "Ardenn, David is his own person. For you to build a relationship with him does not mean that he is taken from me, not in the sense that you are implying. As for your Order, they simply will not find out, at least from me. Whether or not they find out from you is another matter." Delenn knew she could keep the Sisters from recalling Ardenn, but there might still be problems. She would consider those later. "Have you spoken of this to David? Does he know how you feel?"

   Now that it was apparent that Delenn was not going to chastise or interrogate her, Ardenn was calmer. "He knows. I made my feelings clear to him before he left for Mars. He said he felt the same for me. That is why you found me so upset when you returned home. We had no time to discuss how we would handle this. I needed to be with him, if only for a short time, but he had to leave. I was hoping that we could eventually approach you together, after we had explored our emotions and decided what to do, but that option was taken from us."

   Delenn paused a moment to consider what she should say in this situation. "Ardenn, if you want to see David socially, as you say, I have no objection. However, I want you to consider your actions most carefully. Humans are different from Minbari, and David considers himself a human. Humans fully commit to each other later in relationships than we do. They are physically intimate with each other earlier than we are. Their rituals are not as formalized as ours. Their way is not necessarily wrong, but it is alien to us. I caution you, because I have been through this myself, to be absolutely sure that both of you fully understand the nature of your relationship. I am not saying you cannot be intimate. Both you and he are adults and you can decide, within the prescribed rituals, when that level of contact is appropriate. I am telling you to be discreet. There is still prejudice, equally among the humans and our own people. Our people and their opinions you know about. The humans you have met so far…David, Susan and others among the Rangers…are the enlightened ones. Their race has a dark side, which you have not been exposed to. Be wary of it."

   "I understand, Delenn."

   "No, you do not. But you will." Delenn fell silent, quietly observing the young woman beside her. Perhaps it was time. "Ardenn, there is one other matter we need to take care of. Wait here a moment." Delenn uncrossed her legs, rose and left the room.

   Ardenn could hear her mentor rummaging around in her sleeping area. She returned a few moments later, carrying a small box. Settling back down beside her, Delenn spoke as she looked for something in the box. "There is more than one reason I was waiting for you to come to me regarding David…Ah! Here it is." Delenn removed a small, triangular object. Showing it to Ardenn, Delenn asked, "Do you know what this is?"

   "In Valen's name, Delenn…that is one of the holy relics! They are all supposed to be in the keeping of the Grey Council! How is it that you have one?"

   "It is still in the keeping of the Grey Council…technically. There are three of these relics, and they are dispersed. There is one in the staff of office of our leader. One is kept for the Council by your Order. I have the third. It is called a Triluminary, brought to our people by Valen when he appeared over one thousand years ago. I 'borrowed' it from the Grey Council many cycles ago." Delenn smiled conspiratorially. "Dear me, I seem to have neglected to return it to them. I suppose I will have to remedy that some day. Do you know what it does?"

   "One does not question the holy relics, Delenn. They simply are." Ardenn gave the rote answer she had learned from the Sisters, expecting that was what Delenn wanted to hear. "Still, I have been curious about them, although I have never seen one until now."

   "You gave the answer I would expect from most of our people. It is a good, Minbari answer." Delenn replied. "I suppose I am not really a good Minbari though. Like you, I was curious about its function. Our scientists would have refused to examine it, for the same reason you just gave, so I committed what some would consider a sacrilege. I took it to the human scientists and had them examine it. They are far more pragmatic about such things." Delenn held the Triluminary up in front of Ardenn. "Touch it. It will not harm you."

   Ardenn hesitantly extended a finger to the Triluminary. As she brushed it, it began to glow brightly. "What is it doing, Delenn? Is it supposed to do this? What does it mean?"

   Delenn nodded in confirmation of her suspicions. "It is as I thought. It means you have options…for the future, perhaps. You need not worry about these now." Delenn placed the Triluminary back in the box. "Do you know of the Children of Valen?"

   Ardenn lowered her hand. She looked at her finger as if it were not attached to her. "Yes. They are the descendants of Valen himself. You are saying I am one of them?"

   "As am I. As are many others among our people, most of who do not know and will never know. I suspected from the beginning that you might be one of us. Among our people, there are certain characteristics that indicate the possibility. Curiosity, independence…nonconformity…" Delenn chuckled and indicated her hair, "…among other things." Growing thoughtful again, she continued. "As to what the Triluminary does, the human scientists were unable to divine many of its functions. One of its functions they were able to determine is that it is a genetic key, set to recognize a particular gene sequence. You have that sequence. That is why it glowed when you touched it. It is also the master trigger for a device known as the Chrysalis. That is the device I used to become as I am."

   "I do not understand, Delenn. If the device is a genetic key, how could it make you a human?"

   "Do you truly want to know? Are you ready for that knowledge, Ardenn? You would be the first Minbari not of the Religious caste to be told. Think before you answer."

   Ardenn did not need long to consider. "I want to know."

   "Very well, then. Valen was a Minbari not born of Minbari. He was a Human." Delenn expected Ardenn to be surprised, and Ardenn did not disappoint her. "He changed in much the same way as I, but in reverse. The genetic sequence the Triluminary identifies is a human sequence, not a Minbari one. You, I and many of our people are part human. When a Child of Valen uses the Chrysalis device, that human genetic sequence becomes dominant. If a human, such as Valen was, uses the device it recompiles the gene sequence to replicate, but not duplicate, Minbari." Delenn looked hard at Ardenn to drive home her next point. "You now know one of the greatest secrets of our race. Guard that knowledge carefully."

   "If this is true, then Valen should not have been able to have children. His genes were not truly Minbari. They were only recompiled to appear as such."

   "Quite true. You have a questioning mind, Ardenn. I can see that David will have his hands full with you. Most would not have thought of that." Delenn shook her head. "The specifics are lost to time, but some in the Religious caste speculate that Valen's mate was a human as well, one who underwent the same change as he. Their children were close enough to join with our people."

   Ardenn started to ask another question, but the comm panel beeped just as she was opening her mouth. "Yes?" Delenn asked.

   The screen activated, and Susan's face appeared. "Delenn, turn on ISN. I'll be down to see you as soon as I get a report." The screen blanked out.

   "We shall continue this discussion later." Both Delenn and Ardenn rose and crossed to the terminal. "Screen on. Give me ISN." Delenn said. The words 'ISN Special Report' flashed across the screen followed by what appeared to be a news feed. The picture was grainy, owing to the distortions of hyperspace, but the two women could make out what was happening. Smoke was rising from a building on what appeared to be Mars. In the foreground, a reporter was speaking as emergency vehicles and rescue personnel rushed around in the background. The situation appeared to be chaotic.

   "…We're recapping the events that occurred approximately thirty minutes ago on Mars. Acting on an anonymous tip, our cameras were there when a suicide bomber apparently carried out his threat to detonate an explosive device at the Edgars Industries complex. Damage to a sub-facility of the complex is extensive, and there are injuries. Sources from within Edgars Industries indicate that at least five are presumed dead. This attack follows a four-day period of increased security at the complex, possibly involving rumors of a black project in conjunction with the Rangers. It is speculated that the earlier execution-style assassination of Wayne Fowler, a senior official with Edgars Industries Executive Protection Division may be related to this incident. The whereabouts of Michael Garibaldi, Chief Executive Officer of Edgars Industries, are unknown. Sources indicate that he was in the complex, as were several Rangers when the device detonated. Stay tuned. We will bring you more information, as it becomes available…"

   Delenn and Ardenn listened in shock. Realization dawned quickly. "David? My son…no." Delenn managed to choke out. She staggered over to a nearby chair. "No, Ardenn. He's…all right. He has to be." Her breathing was shaky. She continued, desperately trying to reassure herself. "Susan…she told me this assignment had minimal risk…she told me. I…I would know if something had happened to him. I would feel it. I know I would." She looked up, and Ardenn had never seen such despair written across her features. "I have lost my husband. The Universe cannot take my son from me…I could not bear…I cannot survive going through this again."

   Ardenn was having a hard time focusing. Tears were blurring her vision. "David…we have only just found one another…this is not happening. Not happening. Tell me this is not happening, Mistress, please." She choked out her last word through a sob. There was no help coming from Delenn, who was sitting with her face buried in her hands. Ardenn realized that Delenn was suffering as badly as she, perhaps even worse. She struggled over to the older woman, going down on her knees and burying her face in Delenn's lap as she wrapped her arms around Delenn's waist. "Do not despair, Delenn. We do not…we do not know the full story yet. Susan is coming…we cannot let her see us like this."

   Ardenn felt Delenn's hand gently touch her cheek, lightly caressing her. She spoke in a whisper. "Susan has seen me far, far worse than this, Ardenn. But you are correct," Her voice gained a measure of strength as she spoke. "We…do not yet know the full story. She will be here in a moment. We need to pull ourselves together."

   When Susan arrived, she instantly faced two sets of worried eyes. Outwardly, the two Minbari seemed relatively calm, for which she was thankful, but she sensed that both were extremely upset and trying hard not to show it. As she began to speak, the two clasped hands, fearing the worst. "First, I want to reassure you that David is all right, as are Michael and the others. I didn't come down immediately because I wanted to confirm that before speaking to you." The two instantly relaxed.

   When Delenn spoke her voice was still shaky, both from fear and budding anger. "What was all that about, Susan? You had Ardenn and I terrified for David."

   "I wanted you to see that report so you would gain some understanding of the threat we are up against. That was a Bureau 13 device that was exploded, one that was originally meant for you, Delenn." Susan glanced down at a data pad she was holding. "An explosive device that would have been delivered to you last week, had the delivery not been circumvented. An…old friend took steps to ensure that you did not receive it."

   "I have few old friends who are still on this side of the veil. Who was it?"

   "Someone who wishes to remain anonymous at this time."

   "But you know who it is."

   "Yes." Susan realized that Delenn was ready to play twenty questions, if she didn't cut her off now. "I'm sorry, that's all I can say for now. Other than you need to be on your guard. I recommend that we cancel this trip and turn this ship around."

   Delenn mulled it over for a second. When she spoke, it was as the President. "No. This Bureau 13 will know that I have seen this. To cancel now would indicate to them that I am afraid. We cannot give in to terrorism, Susan. To do so would repudiate everything the Alliance stands for. They are not merely threatening me; they are trying to intimidate all of us. I will not allow it."

   "I thought you would say that, but I want to remind you of John's inauguration. You faced much the same problem, and recommended to him the same as I just recommended to you."

   "When I gave him that advice, I was a concerned wife. Now that I am President, I realize that there was some wisdom in his decision. I have made up my mind. We will continue."

   

*****

   "You are out of your fucking mind, Michael." John watched, both fascinated and repulsed, as Michael tore a strip off of a roll of duct tape and stuck it to the rib Stephen had recently removed from his body. "Where in the hell did you find these…uh, guys?"

   "They're cadavers. Occasionally, we use human remains for some of our research." Noting John's grimace, he hastened to explain. "Hey, we didn't raid the morgue for these guys. They sold their bodies to further scientific research. Granted, this isn't exactly what they intended but we need some eye candy for the reporters." He took the rib and taped it to the midsection of one of the cadavers. "This is going to work. Trust me."

   John wasn't convinced. "Hey, Michael, do you know how to say 'Fuck You' in Adronato?"

   "How?"

   "Trust Me."

   Michael grunted as he rolled the cadaver into position. "Well, I'm a human, not a Minbari. Trust me." He grinned at John's joke. "And then, fuck you. OK?"

   "That joke was awful. I can't believe you would tell one like that." David chimed in from where he was positioning another cadaver.

   "Don't blame me. Blame your mother. I got that one from her. It's an old Warrior caste joke." John chuckled, his laugh turning into a grunt of pain as he bent awkwardly to shift one of the bodies. Stephen had completely sealed the incision at his midsection, but the area was full of regen packs and still extremely sore. It would be several days before John could move freely without discomfort. "Ugh. Uh…You should have heard the one I told her in exchange."

   "Maybe some other time." Michael paused to look at a small receiver he carried with him. A red light flashed on the tiny display. "Yep, there it is. They're transmitting your 'destruct' code once every thirty minutes, on the dot. Probably hoping they'll get lucky."

   "Are you sure you don't mind blowing up this building? We could have alerted the local Ranger garrison and had them sweep the perimeter of the compound." This had been David's plan. Sweep the area and make a run for the spaceport.

   "This facility was where Old Man Edgars developed his telepath virus. I haven't used it for anything for twenty years. It was on our demolition plan anyway, so this is as good a time as any to take it down." Michael threw another body up on a table. "As for alerting the local Rangers, that would be sure to attract more attention than we need. ISN would certainly find that of enough interest to send a crew out. This way we control events rather than having events control us. It's simple. We alert ISN that a terrorist is loose in the complex. When they arrive, Mr. McPherson here…" He indicated the cadaver with the rib, "…will blow, in the process splattering our alter egos all over the place. ISN gets live shots, which hopefully, our Bureau 13 friends will see. They'll think they got lucky and John is dead, perhaps us with him. Then you, John, Stephen, your Ranger Nashon and me go out with the bodies. We all exit the complex without anyone the wiser."

   "OK, our 'friends' are in position. What now?" John asked.

   "I make a call. Hold on a moment…" Michael keyed a number into a small personal communicator. "Hello, ISN? This is a freedom fighter for the Voice of the Liberation. I'm working to destroy the tyranny of our corporate masters. Edgars Industries is seeking to repress the will of the proletariat. Power to the People! I have a bomb, understand? I am going to blow up Edgars Industries in about…uh…twenty-five minutes. I have hostages. Down with the Oppressors! Viva Libertad! Uh…Save the Whales!"

   David looked at his father. "Save the Whales?"

   John put his head in his hands. "Forget it, son. He's on a roll."

   Michael continued. "My movement wants you to see that we're serious! Come now, and watch the industry patricians squirm! Today, Edgars Industries…tomorrow the world! Uh…yeah, thanks. No, I'm not selling anything. No, that's all. Good-bye." Closing the connection, Michael turned back to the other two men. "They're coming, I think. Now, we reactivate the bomb and get to cover. My people will pose as orderlies and carry us out of here in the confusion."

   It had been relatively easy, once the bomb was out of John's ribcage, for Michael's security people to isolate the frequency on which the bombs destruct command operated. A quick scan outside the building confirmed that someone was transmitting that frequency at regular intervals. Thus, Michael had developed the plan for getting all of them out of the building unnoticed. Use the device to create confusion, misdirect Bureau 13 into thinking they had eliminated John and slip out as 'fatalities' of the blast. Stephen would return to Earth, Michael would go to supervise the effort to locate Bureau 13's cloning facility and John Sheridan and the two Rangers would return to David's ship.

   The minutes stretched as John and the others waited for the blast from a relatively safe part of the facility. John looked over at his son. David might be worried, but he didn't show it. The Rangers had trained him well. He was his own man, but John couldn't help but see Delenn whenever David looked at him. If David went through with his intentions, John would be facing her before long. He was totally at a loss about what to say to her. "David? I need to ask you something."

   David started a little at hearing his name spoken in his father's voice. It would take some getting used to, after all these years. "What is it?"

   "What are your plans once we get to your ship? Am I a prisoner? Are you going to lock me up somewhere? What's my status?"

   "No, you're not a prisoner. My crew will see you in any event, so hiding you would do no good. We're going back to Minbar, to the Ranger compound. I'm sure Ranger One will want to debrief you in detail. Uh…you may be confined to the compound for some time. Ranger One and Mother are off-planet right now, and it wouldn't do to have you wandering around Tuzanor. The people…well, they wouldn't understand and you might create some sort of religious crisis. I think Ranger One is going to tell Mother about you before they arrive, so she won't be completely surprised when she meets you. She's just waiting for my final report before telling her. I'll send it once we're underway." David hesitated. The man in front of him was his father, but at the same time seemed a little like a stranger. How much should he say? "Look, I told you Mother took your passing hard. I kind of dumped it on you, and that wasn't fair to you. I know that you don't remember, and it wasn't literally you that left. I want you to know that I don't know how Mother is going to take this. She still loves you and she always will, but she's…uh…not quite the same as you remember. She's still strong but she's more subdued, more withdrawn. I think she feels very alone, even when Susan and I are around." David paused at the questions burning in his mind. "Do you love her enough to face her? It occurs to me that I might have been a little harsh with you earlier." David hung his head. "It also occurs to me that you might honestly not want either of us back."

   "David, I admit I'm afraid. Not so much about what she might say, but about the emotional effect I might have on her. Hearing about how she handled my previous self's departure makes me even more worried." John took a breath. "Son, I do love her, and I love you. The two of you are my whole universe. For that reason, I'll face her. She can say nothing that would change my feelings for her, even if she were to say that she cannot love me and that I am a cheap imitation of the original. I want you to be prepared to hear just those words, son, because that's what I think she will say. If that is what she says, can you accept it?"

   "If I thought that would be her reaction, I wouldn't put you through this. We will agree to disagree, for now." David put a hand on John's shoulder. "If she does react as you expect, I'll take you anywhere you want to go. I'll never mention you to her again, and you can live out your life as you wish."

   John covered David's hand with his own. "Son, I have nowhere else to go, and no other life to live. But…thank you."

   Any further words between them were drowned out in the explosion.

   

*****

   Bernie Hammond wasn't a criminal. He wasn't a terrorist. He was a low-level security guard at the new spaceport complex on Fulmer's Colony. He was an ordinary guy. He was on time for work every day, made a comfortable living, and was well liked by his peers and superiors. He was looking forward to retiring in a few years, with enough saved up to buy his small apartment and live on his pension.

   He was afraid, however. The day prior, he had received an anonymous call requesting that he return home because of a family emergency. Bernie dashed home, only to find that his wife was gone. Then the second call came. "Do as you're told and no harm will come to her…"

   The caller had directed him to a warehouse in the city where a number of bundles were stored. He was not to look in the bundles. All he was to do was drop the bundles at predetermined points within the security perimeter, and see to it that no other security personnel found them.

   He wanted to balk. He wanted to report the kidnapping. He was sure that this had to do with President Delenn's upcoming visit, now only two days away. The kidnappers, however, had made it clear that his wife was as good as dead if he did anything suspicious. They were watching him. No, even the President's life wasn't worth risking his wife.

   He drove his little cart around the perimeter, every now and then reporting 'all clear' into his link. The guard on duty at the security station ticked off the security areas as he reported them. He checked the loading derricks, the runway, spacecraft blast pits, and the various outbuildings around the VIP area. Each time he stopped, he dropped off a bundle, hiding them in nooks and crevasses and covering each with a small net as he did so. The nets, he figured, were versions of changeling nets, as each bundle disappeared once the net was affixed to the top.

   A stage had been set up, backing up against the new passenger terminal. Soon, workers would begin setting up chairs and other items needed for the formal opening ceremony. Soon after that, Delenn would arrive, along with other visiting dignitaries. Her own people's security sweeps would not find the bundles.

   Bernie felt awful. Despite the occasional grumbling about her being a half-breed that he heard around the office, he liked Delenn. She was pretty in an odd, exotic way. His wife had kidded him about that on occasion. He imagined Delenn's small, broken body lying up on the stage in a pool of blood and shuddered. Best not to think too much, he told himself. No, he had to get his wife back. Best not to think about anything else…

   

*****

   David was tired. He hadn't realized how tired he actually was until he, Nashon and his father had arrived back at the ship. Michael's plan had worked flawlessly. Shortly after the explosion, the five of them had been wheeled out to waiting ambulances with sheets thrown over their bodies. Once at the hospital, they had gone their separate ways.

   Introducing his father to the crew had been almost comical. Seeing a living John Sheridan walking up the ramp had been an exercise in discipline for his crew. They were young, like David, and most of them had graduated from training while John Sheridan had been Ranger One. The humans had gazed in open-mouthed astonishment. The Minbari…well, David was sure he'd have to talk to a few of them privately. They were shaken. Some of them were following his father around even now, muttering about prophecies and the return of Entil-zha. Nashon was the worst. He had seen into John Sheridan's mind, and he was firmly convinced that a pivotal moment of biblical proportions was at hand.

   David had remained on the bridge just long enough to exit Mars-controlled space. After the ship jumped into hyperspace, he had excused himself to rest for a while. He needed to think. His father was out and about, reacquainting himself with those from the crew he knew and meeting the newer Rangers. David was amazed with the effortlessness with which they were being won over. His crew, once their initial astonishment wore off, was ready to accept the clone without reservation.

   He didn't want to lie on his bunk. Even tired, he was restless. Too much was going on in his life now. Exiting his quarters, he made a round of the ship, spot checking some systems even though he knew they were in perfect working order. Eventually, he found himself in the conference room. Slumping tiredly in a chair, he activated a terminal and idly flipped through a few programs, not really paying attention to what he was seeing. He knew he should be preparing his report to Susan, but after all that had transpired over the past few days he didn't have the energy yet.

   "David? Shouldn't you be contacting Susan?" David looked up to see his father standing in the doorway.

   "Yeah, I should be. I was just trying to collect my thoughts." Chuckling to himself, he amended his statement. "Well, that's not true. I guess I'm putting it off. It's not often that I get to unleash a firestorm. Perhaps in a few minutes."

   John moved into the room and took the chair beside David's. "Do you want me to call her? I'm sure that would throw her for a loop. It would be good to talk to her again."

   David smiled, thinking of the expression on Susan's face were that to happen. "As tempting as the idea is, I'd better do it. You're my responsibility for now. You'll have plenty of time to talk to her later."

   John fell silent in thought for a moment. "You know, David? With all of this happening right now, you and I haven't just talked. I haven't even asked you how your life is going right now. I've been so wrapped up in getting to this point I haven't asked you how you're bearing up. How do you feel about all of this?"

   "I'm still trying to come to grips with it all. I mean, this doesn't happen every day. Intellectually, I accept that you are my father. The emotions…well, they're confused right now. I can't explain it any better than that." David laughed nervously, in that moment looking to John less like a grown Ranger and more like the son he remembered. "Believe it or not, my life is complicated enough even without you thrown into the mix."

   John nodded. "I understand. A mission, responsibilities, duty…I know that command of your own ship is complicated. I commanded several of them over the course of my life. Each one was a unique challenge."

   David shook his head with an embarrassed grin on his face. "Uh…actually, commanding a ship is the least complicated part of my life right now."

   "Oh." Female complications. Now John did understand. "How is Mary, anyway? Are you still a couple? It never even occurred to me to ask Michael about her."

   "Mary's fine, Dad. We're not a couple anymore, although we're still friends. We stay in touch." David sighed. "After you left, we dated for a while. With me in Ranger training, and her getting ready for college, we kind of drifted apart. It wasn't anyone's fault. Last I heard she had met someone special at school. I hope she's happy."

   "I'm sorry, David. I didn't mean to bring up a sore subject."

   "Don't be sorry. I…I've found someone special as well."

   "That's great, son. Who is she? A Ranger?"

   "Uh…no." David considered not saying any more, but cast the thought aside. If anyone would understand, it would be his father. Hadn't he been in a similar situation? "Well, I might as well show you. You'll meet her soon enough anyway." David keyed a microphone on the table. "Computer. Display holographic image. Ardenn of Valeria. Most recent record." A life-size three-dimensional image sprang up on the holopad. "Image displayed. Record taken November 4, 2284. Earth standard calendar."

   Ardenn's hologram stood formally for a second, her hands clasped in front of her. She bowed, then began to speak. "Ranger Sheridan, I hope this message finds you well and in good spirits." She straightened up. With the formal greeting out of the way, the woman in the holo appeared to relax. She smiled. "Hello, David. I received your last message, and I want you to know I miss you also, as does your mother. Six months is a long time for you to be away, and we both look forward to your returning to us. Activities here have been hectic, as you can imagine. Your mother has been heavily involved in finding some sort of solution to the Drazi situation. I hope she does, as it will bring you back to me…to us that much sooner…"

   The hologram, obviously from David's personal correspondence, went on to describe everyday events and anecdotes. As the message played, John saw a diminutive Minbari with delicate features, strong gray eyes and an unusually carved bonecrest. She was wearing robes similar to Delenn's, but without the colors. Red script ran around the folds of the robe. She looked very young, probably not much older than his son although it was hard to tell with Minbari. John worked hard not to appear surprised, knowing that David probably expected him to say something about her race. Her infatuation with David was obvious. John could see it in her eyes and hear the affectionate undertone in her voice. "She's beautiful, David. I don't recognize her caste, though. She's not a worker or warrior, and I don't remember any religious caste with that style bonecrest."

   David had been unconsciously holding his breath, anticipating having to defend his choice to his father. "She doesn't have a caste, Dad. She's a Sister of Valeria. Well, an apprentice to the Sisters." He hesitated before continuing. "The fact that she's a Minbari doesn't bother you?"

   John almost laughed. "Son, I married a Minbari. What did you expect me to say? You're not completely breaking new ground here." With that, he became thoughtful. "Still, other Minbari and humans may give you a hard time about this. Are you prepared for that? Is she? Plus, even though she's just an apprentice, there's the possibility that she could be invited to be a full Sister. She'd have to forswear outside relationships. That happened to your grandmother, you know."

   "Yeah. I thought of that. That's why this is so complicated. There's so much I don't know. I know she loves me. She made that very clear when we were last together. I love her, too."

   "How did the two of you meet? It sounds like she's involved with your mother in some capacity."

   "She's Mother's aide. After you, er…your previous self vanished, Mother needed administrative help but she didn't want to seem to favor one caste over another. She also didn't want a male aide, for reasons I think you understand. She approached the Sisters, who loaned her Ardenn. Since she's casteless, no one gains the appearance of undue influence. She's been with us for three years."

   John had a sobering thought. He knew well that Minbari females could be crafty when they saw something (or someone) they wanted. "David, I don't mean to pry, but how far along are the two of you? Have you been through any rebirth ceremonies with her? Has she fed you any red fruit or asked you to participate in any rituals?"

   "I know what you're getting at. No, she hasn't secretly married me. None of that has happened. I do suspect that she's watched me sleep without me knowing it. She lives in the household, and would have had plenty of opportunities."

   "That's typical. Your mother did that to me the first night. Minbari females are wily." John considered his next words carefully. "At the same time, be very careful with her. Minbari are relatively innocent when it comes to love, when compared to humans. They don't fall in love easily or often, but when they do they fall hard. They don't open themselves up to anyone like they do to a lover and they can be easily hurt. What does your mother think about this?"

   "I think she probably knows a lot more than she says, but we haven't approached her." David gazed wistfully at the image for a moment, then turned to his father. "I think you'll like her when you meet her. She's very shy, so just give her a chance to warm up to you. She's a lot like I imagine mother was as a young woman. I think that's how mother sees her, as well." David rose from his chair. "Well, I guess I'd better start working on that report."

   "Uh…David? Before you go…I don't suppose you have a current image of your mother loaded into your computer, do you? It might uh…help me figure out what to say when I see her."

   In response, David leaned back over the microphone. "Computer, display holographic image. Delenn of Mir. Record of October 24, 2284." Ardenn's holo disappeared, replaced by Delenn's. "Image displayed. Record taken October 24, 2284. Earth standard calendar."

   There she stood. It was only a hologram but John felt his heart ache as he looked at her. The images he had viewed before leaving the Bureau 13 facility were pale imitations, simple two-dimensional images from newsfeeds. This was almost like having her in the room with him. Rising from his seat, he walked over to the image. She was thinner, and her skin was pale. Her face was still ageless and beautiful, just as he remembered. Perhaps her hair was a little grayer, but it was not as noticeable now as it had seemed in the images he had viewed previously. Although she was smiling, John could see that her eyes were sad. Tentatively, he raised his hand as if to stroke her cheek. "Good Morning, Starstuff…I've missed you…"

   Almost as if in response to his touch, the image leaned against his fingers and looked up at him, straight into his eyes. "Hello, Dearest, I want you to know that I miss you terribly…" For an instant, John almost believed she was speaking to him. The message continued, obviously intended for David, but John held onto the illusion as long as he could, basking in the sensation of her presence. Eventually, the image leaned through his hand, subtly distorting the holographic effect. John lowered his hand and watched, squinting to fight back the tears he could feel forming. Yes, he would face her. But to never touch her or hold her or make love to her again…well, he would take a chance. He loved her. Perhaps she could find a way to love him in return. What else was there for him? He had not lied to David. In the final analysis, despite all his intentions to the contrary, there really was no other place for him to go and no other person to go to.

   In the doorway David paused, observing quietly. He had chosen this message specifically because of his mother's greeting. It was a little thing, but it was having the desired effect on his father. If there were any chance he could restore true happiness to his mother, he would take it. In his opinion, the universe hadn't given her a fraction of the happiness she deserved. If the balance could be righted, he would move Heaven and Earth to do so. "I think your choice of the first thing to say to her is a good one, Dad." He murmured quietly.

   John stood entranced. "David…when you get ready to send your report, let me know. I…I want to send a message to your mother along with it. I want her to see me as I am now, before we have to face each other in person. It might help both of us deal with this a little better."

   David nodded his assent. "I think that's a good idea."

   Leaving his father alone with his thoughts and memories, he went to prepare his report.

   

*****

   Susan couldn't help trembling a little as she read. It was all there. Every detail. David had been very thorough. Background information about Bureau 13, his examination of the clone, the scan and the incredible information it had revealed. And a private message to Delenn…Susan had resisted the temptation to play it. It wasn't for her.

   It was him. Just like Michael and Stephen, David had no doubt. Susan wanted to talk to him, but she had promised Delenn that she would tell her everything as soon as David sent his report. He had sent it. She couldn't put it off any longer. Hesitantly, she keyed her comm panel. "Delenn?"

   "Yes? What is it, Susan?"

   "I need to see you." A part of Susan's mind fervently hoped Delenn was busy. "Do you have time?"

   "I am working on my notes for the dedication. I am almost finished for now. What do you need to see me about?"

   "We've received David's report. I promised you that I would tell you everything once we had it. We…we need to talk."

   There was a long pause at the other end. "Delenn? Are you still there?"

   "Yes." Susan heard Delenn take a deep breath. <She knows something's coming, > Susan thought. "Come now. I will be waiting."

   The walk down the corridor to Delenn's stateroom was one of the longest of Susan's life, but it was over all too quickly. She rang the buzzer. Delenn acknowledged her and the door opened.

   Delenn and Ardenn were working on the notes for Delenn's speech. "I think that about does it for now, Ardenn. We will leave this portion as it is. The rest we will deal with later." Delenn looked up at Susan. Her friend was as pale as a ghost. "Susan? What is wrong? Are you well?"

   "No, I'm fine, just fine. Ardenn, I need to talk to Delenn alone. I'm sorry."

   Delenn turned and laid a gentle hand on the younger woman's shoulder. "Go ahead, Ardenn. I will call you when I need you again."

   Ardenn picked up a data crystal and cleared the table of paper. "I will be in my cabin, then." She hesitantly turned to Susan. "Did…did David send anything for me?"

   Susan saw that the young Minbari was crestfallen at being sent away. She smiled gently at her. "Yes, he did. David hasn't forgotten about you. There's a message waiting for you in your quarters."

   "Thank you." The door slid shut behind her as she hurried out. Susan's smile faded as she turned back to Delenn.

   Delenn had known Susan a long time. In all that time, she had never seen Susan filled with such trepidation. "We are alone, Susan. I can see that you are troubled. Whatever it is, we will deal with it together."

   Susan managed a weak, nervous laugh. "Funny. Now that we've reached this point, I don't know where to start."

   "The beginning is always a good starting point."

   "Very well, then, the beginning. You need to sit down, Delenn. This will take a while, and you'll probably want to sit anyway when you hear this. Hell, I think I'll need to sit, too." Gathering her robe, Delenn sat, folding her hands neatly in her lap and looking at Susan attentively. Susan pulled a chair around and sat so she was facing Delenn. Clasping her hands together in front of her, she began. "Four years ago, you and John visited Mars. You had just taken office, and you were going to meet with the new Mars President. John wasn't scheduled to meet with anybody, so he decided to take a side trip to Earth. He told you that he was going to informally meet with a few Earthgov officials."

   "I remember. Go on."

   "Well, he didn't tell you everything. He met with a few people, but he really went to see Stephen. He could already feel himself slowly running down, and he was concerned that all the knowledge he had gained over the years would be lost. To prevent this, he asked Stephen to prepare a neural map with his adult memories embedded in it. Although Stephen was reluctant to do so, he complied with John's wishes. Afterwards, John told Stephen not to reveal the neural map's existence unless there was a dire need for it. Stephen locked the neural map away in his archives, where it has remained until this time."

   Delenn's eyes widened in shock and anger. "John's memories? Stephen made this? And did not tell me?" She started to rise. "Where is this neural map now? Under Earth law, John's property, physical and intellectual, is mine as his wife. I am jealous about few things, but this is one of them. I want it. I also want to talk to Stephen. Four years, Susan. I am very displeased with him and he has a lot to answer for."

   "Sit down, Delenn. Beating Stephen up now would serve no purpose. He complied with John's wishes, misguided as they might have been. David has the crystal and will give it to you when you see him. Unfortunately, this gets worse." Susan rose and began pacing as Delenn slowly settled back into her chair. "I told you about Bureau 13 and their relationship to John. Bureau 13 agents found out what John intended, and moved to take advantage of the opportunity he presented them. They had their agents secretly download John's full personality while the neural map was being made. Do you know what a personality matrix is? Comparing one to a neural map is like comparing an encyclopedia to a child's bedtime storybook. It's everything, Delenn, everything that makes a person who he is. Thoughts, emotions, memories…a person's whole life. For lack of a better term, it's a snapshot of a person's soul."

   Delenn was horrified. "Shag Toths, Susan…" she murmured distantly. "They are no better than Soul Hunters. My John's soul…in their hands." Looking down at her lap, she noticed that her hands were beginning to shake as the realization of what this meant sank in. Stifling her growing dismay with anger, she looked up and glared hard at Susan, her voice low and dangerous. "You will hunt them down, Susan, these soul thieves. I do not care how far you have to go, how long it takes or what you have to do. Hunt them down and take back what they have taken. I will not tolerate having John's soul held prisoner by these…animals. Do you understand?"

   "We're already doing that. Michael and his people are working on it now." Susan paused. This would be the hardest part. The revelation about the personality matrix was affecting Delenn badly. She was already trembling. Susan hoped she would hold together for the rest. "Delenn…there is more, much more. Are you sure you want to hear this now?"

   "Go on." Delenn managed to stammer out as her confusion and rage mounted. "Give me…tell me all of it."

   Susan forced herself to continue. "Bureau 13…they had John's personality matrix. They stole a genetic sample from Earthforce archives. One that was left over from before he took command of Babylon 5…"

   Delenn's eyes widened as the implications dawned on her. "Susan, is this going…where I think it is?" Susan mutely nodded in response. "No, no…" A sob seemed to come out of nowhere as her rage was abruptly replaced with sheer horror. She bit back the ones threatening to follow it. She couldn't make herself look up.

   Susan could feel herself tearing up as well. Her friend was in pain. "They…cloned him, Delenn. They made a copy of him and downloaded the personality matrix into the clone. It took them three years, but they ended up with a genetically perfect copy. They ended up with a living John Sheridan, Delenn. One they intended to use as a weapon against you."

   Delenn had begun to suspect something like this, but actually hearing the words tore into her. She started crying openly, no longer able to resist. Wracking sobs that shuddered through her whole body. She tried to speak through the tears, but her words were unintelligible.

   Susan rose quickly and poured Delenn a glass of water. She leaned over the stricken woman. "Drink this." Delenn took the glass in shaky hands and forced down a few sips. Susan gently rubbed her back as she drank. "Breathe, Delenn. Don't pass out on me."

   "I…I am still with you. What…What did they do with the clone?" Delenn furiously tried to still her hands. They would not stop shaking. Why would they not stop shaking?

   Susan gently pried the glass from Delenn's fingers. Kneeling in front of her, she took Delenn's trembling hands between her own. Gazing into her eyes, she saw shock, bewilderment and despair all battling for prominence. Susan wasn't sure she could take much more, but she had to finish this. "I told you that Bureau 13's first attempt against you backfired on them. John was their first attempt. You see, they copied better than they realized. The original John would never hurt you. Neither, they discovered, would the clone. When they released him, they expected him to come straight back to you. The cloned John figured out who they were but did not know how they intended to use him. He decided that the best way to protect you was to stay away. But he had to warn somebody, so he went to Michael and warned him. Michael called me. Bureau 13 then tried to cover their tracks by destroying what they had created. That was the explosion you saw on ISN."

   Delenn could feel herself losing the little remaining control she possessed. She cried out in despair, doubling over with her head almost between her knees. "They destroyed him? You…knew?" She wailed. "All this time, you knew. You knew and…and you said nothing to me. Nothing! What…What kind of friend are you, Susan? Get away from me!" Delenn struggled to pull her hands out of Susan's grasp, anything to get away from her. Susan did not let go. After a moment, Delenn's struggles weakened. "I care about you so much. How could you treat me this way?" she sobbed in a small voice.

   "Come here." Susan gently pulled Delenn out of the chair and down onto the floor with her. Cradling her friend's head against her shoulder, she stroked her hair as she felt her own tears running down her face. "I'm the kind of friend who loves you, Delenn." Delenn was limp and unresisting, beginning to turn inward on herself. Susan recognized what she was doing. She was trying to run away and hide. Three years ago, she had done the same thing. "Oh, sweetheart, don't go back to that dark place. You've been there before and you know John isn't there waiting for you. You're not alone. You don't have to be alone. Stay here with me, please. We've been through so much together. Shhh." Susan soothed. She could feel Delenn shuddering against her shoulder. "John was not destroyed. The attempt failed." Apparently, Delenn heard her. She stiffened, clinging tightly to her and trying hard to get her breathing back under control. "I'm so sorry. I'm sorry about the secrecy. We…we had to be sure. John passed Michael all of that information about Bureau 13. I was suspicious. I had to protect you, even though I knew it would hurt you. Had I allowed you to read the reports, you would have found out where the information came from. We've had hoaxes before. I…didn't want you getting your hopes up. Michael believed it was him, though, and that was enough for me to send David."

   "Is it truly him, Susan?" The words were muffled against Susan's shoulder. "Or is this…person…merely a shadow of what was?"

   This was good. Delenn was slowly pulling herself back from the edge. Susan had seen her go over the edge once before and had no desire to see it happen again. "He only remembers events up until four years ago, up until he visited Stephen on Earth to get the neural map made. He does not have any memory of the last year of the original John's life. He is aware of what happened in a general sense, that is, he knows what he's read and been told. Physically, he is John. The genetic sample used to create him came from John. The personality matrix is not artificial, like Anna's was. It is authentic. With that said, I have not actually spoken with him. David, Michael and Stephen are convinced that it is him, however." Susan felt Delenn's grip tighten around her. She said nothing, but Susan could tell she was hanging on every word. She continued. "When David met with the clone, he had a Ranger telepath do a deep scan on him. Delenn, I have always been of the opinion that clones have no souls, but the telepath says he saw things in his mind that could not have been implanted by Bureau 13. He says he saw John's final moments…a struggle between beings of light." Susan shuddered. "All of this is beyond me, but it convinced the telepath. The clone has no conscious memory of this."

   Delenn leaned silently against Susan's shoulder for a long time. Finally, she felt she had the strength to speak. "Does the clone believe that he is John?"

   "He's not sure. He knows he's a clone, and the knowledge weighs heavily on him." Susan began stroking Delenn's hair again. "He's just as bewildered about all of this as we are. He's afraid and he's stuck out of his time. He didn't want to open old wounds, didn't want you to go through this…He didn't even want you to know he existed. He was going to go away once he was sure you were safe. I think seeing David forced his hand." A lone sob came from Susan's shoulder. If Delenn squeezed much harder, Susan reflected, she'd be unable to breathe.

   "I do not know…what to do, Susan." Delenn murmured plaintively. "Tell me what I should do."

   "I can't. That's up to you." Susan blinked tears from her own eyes and sniffled a little. "I can recommend, though. First, do nothing for now. Give yourself some time to digest this and think. Do you feel capable of continuing with the engagement on Fulmer's Colony?" Susan felt Delenn hesitate, and then nod weakly against her shoulder. "We'll do that, then. There's no rush. John version two isn't going anywhere. David will see to that. At some point after this engagement, you may want to talk to him. I know I can't tell you not to worry, but I'll say it anyway. Don't worry about that now."

   "That, I think, will be impossible." She had been close, but she was beginning to reclaim herself. Now that the initial shock was past, Delenn could feel a measure of control returning. She slowly released Susan and pulled away slightly. She was still very shaky and upset, but she could at least think again.

   Susan gazed into her friend's face. Her eyes were red and tears were still streaming, but she was recovering her control. Delenn sniffled and wiped at her eyes. Susan spoke. "On the practical side, we need to find out where John originated. You're right about the personality matrix. We must retrieve it so these 'soul thieves' cannot try this again. Michael's people are already working on this, as I said, and we will assign our own people as well."

   "When you find the matrix, destroy it. It is too dangerous to keep, even if it is in our possession." Delenn hesitated, then continued. "I still want the neural map, though."

   Susan nodded. "Very well. We will destroy the personality matrix when we find it." Susan rose, helping Delenn to her feet as she did so. Delenn staggered a little, and Susan assisted her in getting back into her chair. "There's one other thing." Susan reached into the folds of her tunic and pulled out a small object. Delenn could see it was a data crystal. "This is a personal holo message for you." She pressed the crystal into Delenn's trembling hand. "I think you know who it's from. I haven't watched it." Reaching over, she took Delenn's hand in her own, closing Delenn's fingers around the tiny object. "Are you going to be all right?"

   "I…think so. I…need to think. This will take some getting used to." Delenn felt totally drained. "Thank you, Susan. I am sorry about what I said. You have always stood beside me, even before I met John. I know how good a friend you are. Never doubt that."

   Susan smiled weakly. "I never have. I want you to get some rest. Sleep for a while. You have plenty of time. If you want to talk later, just call me."

   Delenn looked at her hand, her thoughts swirling chaotically. She was clenching the crystal so hard her knuckles were white. She forced her hand to relax. <What would he say? What will he look like? Susan said he had not planned on seeing me again. Does he want to? Does he still want me? > "I…I think I will lie down for a while, before I look at this." She started to rise, and found that her legs were weak. "Um…perhaps I could use a little help getting over to the bed, if you do not mind."

   Susan assisted Delenn in standing and moving to the bed. "Rest now. I'll send Ardenn over in a few hours to check on you. Do you want me to tell her anything?"

   "No. I will tell her later." Delenn closed her eyes and breathed deeply, forcing herself to relax. "Poor Ardenn. She finally found the courage to admit her love for David to me. She is trying to find her own path and sort out her own emotions and now she will have this to deal with as well." She took a deep, calming breath and continued. "Knowing about John now, I find a strange sort of symmetry in all of this. Perhaps there is order in the universe after all."

   Susan reached out and brushed a few stray hairs from Delenn's face. "I hope so, Delenn. I hope so. Sleep now."

   

*****

   Unbeknownst to Susan, Delenn, and the crew of the Far Traveler, they were being followed. A medium-sized ship was paralleling their course, just outside sensor range. At first glance, most would assume that it was a simple bulk transport. This transport, however, belonged to Bureau 13 and was packed full of the most sensitive electronic warfare equipment in known space.

   "We've reached optimum target range, Captain. The Far Traveler is one-tenth of a light second ahead of us on the Fulmer's beacon. We are 36 hours out from the beacon at present course and speed. Stealth mode is engaged. The target shows no signs that they have detected us."

   "Very well, First. Maintain course and speed. EWO (Electronic Warfare Officer), have you mapped the target across the frequency spectrum?"

   "Affirmative, Captain. We are now monitoring all voice and data nets to and from the target. No jamming."

   The ship's captain ticked off several items on his checklist. "When is the target's shift change scheduled?"

   "Their crew is scheduled to conduct a shift change at 1300, ten minutes from now. Most personnel, including the bridge crew, will be briefing their relief at that time."

   "Very good. EWO, I want you to begin passive jamming at 1300. I want you to intercept and record all voice and data signals to the target. At 1310, begin retransmitting the signals to the target and continue to do so until further notice." The Captain grunted in satisfaction. "If this goes smoothly, they won't realize that we've built a ten-minute delay into their communications. All normal traffic will be passed through. Anything that might alert them to their danger will terminate with us. They'll never know. At worst, they'll chalk it up to hyperspace variations. When they get to Fulmer's Colony, they can kiss their freak goodbye." The Captain smiled at his first officer. "God, sometimes I love this job."

   The first officer grinned in return. "Yes, sir. We might not have big guns, but there's more than one way to take down a warship. They're flying deaf and don't even know it."

   The Captain almost laughed. "Control and his Special Warfare boys…clones, exploding ribs…how ridiculous can you get? Who does he turn to when the big brains fall on their faces? The guys who spin and grin, that's who. A simple hit team and us. Easiest thing in the book."

   The voice of the EWO spoke up. "Time is 1300. Passive jamming and frequency denial operations have started. Target shows no signs of detection…"

   

*****

   Delenn awoke with a start. <What an odd dream. Susan came to me and… > It hadn't been a dream. She sat up hastily as the memory of her conversation with Susan flooded back into her conscious mind. John, or at least a version of him, was alive.

   Thinking about him threatened to set off another bout of crying. She fought the urge off. <No. I have cried enough for today. Enough to last a lifetime. > She laid her head back on the pillow. <Now I know. I knew from the beginning, but I was afraid to allow myself to believe it was he. >

   Abruptly, she remembered the data crystal. <He has sent me a message! What did I do with it? > Delenn looked down at her hand. It was not there. With a cry, she jumped out of bed and started tossing pillows and coverings around, frantically searching. Getting down on her knees, she looked under the bed. With a sigh of relief, she saw a glimmering object on the floor. It had rolled out of her hand as she slept. Picking up the crystal with trembling fingers, she was just tucking it into a small pocket in her robe as the door chime rang. "Yes?"

   "Delenn? It is Ardenn. Can I come in?"

   "Yes…yes of course. Open."

   The door slid aside and Ardenn entered. "Ranger One requested I come and check on you. It has been three hours. Are you awake? Is everything all right?"

   "I have just awakened. As to being all right, that remains to be seen." Delenn considered her aide. "Ardenn. I have a message I need to view, but it is a holo message. I need you to find a room on this ship with a holopad for me."

   "The conference room down the corridor has a holopad, Delenn. It is not in use now."

   "Good. I shall return shortly." Delenn started to leave.

   Ardenn looked at her queerly. She glanced over Delenn's shoulder into the bedroom, where bedclothes and pillows were scattered messily all over the floor. "Are you sure you are all right? I do not think you want to be seen in the corridor looking as you do."

   Delenn did not understand at first. Ardenn motioned for her to look in a mirror. Delenn immediately saw what Ardenn was referring to. Her hair was disheveled and what little makeup she wore was smeared and runny. It was evident she had been crying. Her clothes were rumpled. Running her fingers through her hair, she murmured, "I cannot let him see me like this…"

   "Let who see you, Delenn?" Ardenn asked worriedly from behind her. "There is no one else here." Tentatively, she continued "Perhaps I should call Ranger One…"

   Delenn rounded on her. "I am not losing my mind, Ardenn! My husband is alive! This is the news Ranger One brought me!" Fumbling around in her robe, she pulled out the crystal. Holding it out in front of Ardenn's face, she continued. "See? Do you think I am dreaming? He sent me a message! My John…a message for me…" Abruptly realizing that she looked and sounded a little hysterical, she pocketed the crystal, picked up a brush and combed it vigorously through her hair in irritation. In the mirror, she could see her aide standing there, head bowed. Delenn softened her voice. "I apologize, Ardenn. I know you are concerned about me. I have behaved erratically the past few days. It will pass. You have no blame in this." Delenn sighed. Picking up a makeup brush, she started trying to repair her face, talking as she continued. "You are so young. Young and in love. You dream. You see a whole universe of possibilities before you. I, by comparison, have accomplished everything I set out to do in this life and I still have half a lifetime ahead of me. Where do I go from here?"

   Finishing with her makeup, Delenn smoothed her robe and turned to her aide. "Look at me. What do you see?"

   Ardenn silently thanked Valen that her mentor sounded calmer. "I do not understand what you are asking, Delenn. I see 'you', the same as I always have."

   Without a word, Delenn walked into the bedroom, returning with the same small box that held the Triluminary. She opened it. "Everything I own that means anything to me is in this little box, Ardenn. It is not much to show for a life, is it?"

   "That would depend on what the box contains, Delenn."

   "A wise answer. You are learning." Delenn fished a small photograph out of the box and handed it to Ardenn. "Look at this. What do you see?"

   The photo, Ardenn saw, was one of a younger Delenn. Her hair was brown without a trace of gray and her face was fuller. She was slender, but not as slender as she had become in the intervening years. She was smiling, her eyes sparkling with merriment as if she had just heard something amusing. It was a good picture, from happier times.

   Delenn explained as Ardenn examined the photo, "I keep this picture because it was John's favorite. He once told me that no matter how much we aged this would be the person he saw when he looked at me. The woman he fell in love with. Now, look at me. Do you see her?"

   "I did not know you then. The image I carry of you is the person I see now."

   "Do you think he will see her when he sees me again? Will he see the woman he fell in love with? Or will he see the thin, gray, pale remnant of that person that I have become? I was a dreamer then, Ardenn. Look at my eyes. Are those my eyes now? I think not. I have more nightmares than dreams now. Do not pretend that you have not heard them." Delenn seemed to deflate before Ardenn's eyes. "Will he still love me, or will pity be the best I can hope for?"

   Ardenn considered her answer carefully. She had never seen her mentor less confidant of herself. "Respectfully, Delenn, it sounds to me as if you are looking for a reason for him not to love you. I think…I think that if he did not believe he would see the woman he loves he would not have sent you a message. I also think he will answer your question far better than I will. Go view your message, Delenn. Hear what he has to say before you belittle yourself."

   It was Delenn's turn to hang her head. "You are right, of course." Looking up again, she smiled wanly. "I am being morose. Thank you, Ardenn."

   Ardenn smiled in return. "You have given me so much and you ask for so little, Delenn. How could I not attempt to cheer you up?" As Delenn turned to leave, Ardenn called out, "Oh…and Delenn? When you smile, I do see her…the Delenn in the photograph. She is not gone. She is merely waiting for an opportunity to reappear."

   Delenn reached out took Ardenn's hand. "Perhaps." Releasing it, she strode from the room.

   

*****

   Delenn easily found the conference room. Thankfully, it was empty, as Ardenn had said it would be. She entered and sealed the door behind her. Now that she was here, she could feel butterflies fluttering in her stomach. She should have eaten something, she reflected. Food might have helped her control the butterflies.

   After some searching, she found the terminal that controlled the room's holopad. With shaking fingers, she powered up the terminal and inserted the crystal in the data port. The holopad sprang to life. "Holopad activated. Accessing data crystal. Message found. Stand by." Delenn hesitantly walked over and stood in front of the pad.

   "Message retrieved. Voice authorization required."

   "President Delenn." She tried to keep her voice steady.

   "Voice recognized and accepted. Message from John Sheridan, recorded November 20th, 2284. Earth standard calendar.^"

   The hologram appeared on the pad. Delenn gasped in surprise. He looked…well, younger but not younger. Different. Healthier. She had prepared herself to see the John Sheridan who had passed away. This was not he. His hair was not white, as it had been. It was gray, with a dusting of blond left in it. The beard was gone. Physically, he looked stronger, more fit. She could feel her heart pounding as she looked at him. Somewhere in the back of her mind, a suspicion was forming. <In Valen's Name, Susan told me the genetic sample was before John took command of Babylon 5. Why did I not think to ask about this? He has not been to Zha'dum! This is the John that would have been had he not gone…> The realization threatened to knock her literally off her feet. She grasped a chair to keep from falling.

   Clasping his hands in front of him, John seemed to look her straight in the eyes. With a gentle smile, he began to speak. His voice was the same. A flood of oddly familiar emotions coursed through her as she listened to a voice that she had never expected to hear again, at least not until she joined him in the place where no shadows fell. Dimly, she recognized within herself love, warmth, happiness, longing…and desire. Almost forgotten for the past three years, her body recalled his touch, a sensation she had gone without for far too long. Delenn forced her budding urges out of her thoughts. However insistent they might be, now was not the time for physical needs. Straightening, she tried to face the image as dispassionately and objectively as possible.

   Good Morning, Delenn.

   Since you are watching this, I assume Susan has come to you and told you about me…about what has happened. If she hasn't, this must be a bit of a shock. Suffice it to say I am just as surprised to be here as you are to see me. There is so much I want to say to you. Now that I have the opportunity, of course, most of these things escape me. I'm sure I'll think of a million of them as soon as this message is finished. First and foremost, I want you to know that I love you. You are the brightest star in my sky and always will be. Never doubt that. As you watch this, I do not know if you are angry, afraid, confused or all three combined. If it is any consolation, I feel the same way. I have spoken with David at length over the past couple of days, and he has told me some of what the two of you went through after my 'previous' self passed beyond. I am so sorry, Delenn. I do not remember these events. That last year is a mystery to me, but I feel responsible all the same. Please understand, if I could somehow go back and change those things, those events in your life, I would move the galaxy to do it. Sadly, I cannot. All I can ask for is your forgiveness, just as I did of David. Similarly, I apologize for the emotional turmoil you must be feeling right now. I never intended this, Delenn. But I cannot change the fact that I am alive…again. The Universe must really have a grudge against me. It will not let me die in peace.

   David has been gracious enough to lend me a few of his messages from you so I could see what you look like. I am looking at one now to aid me in formulating my thoughts. The past four years…the past twenty-five years have not dimmed your beauty in the slightest. You are so beautiful, and I miss you so much. David wants me to meet with you. It was not my original intent, not because I do not love you or want to see you but because you have moved beyond me. I am a creature of the past trapped in the present, and I am unsure whether seeing me in person as I am now would bring you joy or pain. I am not exactly the John Sheridan you loved once upon a time. That John Sheridan met his destiny three years ago, as he was fated to do. He and I now follow different paths. At the same time, that John Sheridan still lives within me. I will not pretend to understand how this can be. Perhaps you, with your special relationship with the Universe, can understand it better than I can.

   I also need to take this opportunity to warn you about Bureau 13, the organization that created me. I know Susan has passed you the information about their history and my involvement with them that I provided. I should have told you these things long ago. If I had known that they still existed, I would have. Their hatred of me has made you a target. Do not underestimate them. They failed in their attempt to use me as a weapon against you but they will try again. I intend to do everything in my power to prevent this. My resources at this point are somewhat limited; in fact, you're looking at all of my resources right now. Forewarned is forearmed, though. Be on your guard, dearest, but do not be afraid.

   There are so many other things I could say, but time is short. David is waiting for this message so he can send his report about me to Susan. I will close with this. David has turned out to be more than I could have ever wished for in a son. I see greatness within him and I think he will eclipse us some day. You are in large measure responsible for that. If for nothing else, I am grateful I returned and got to see the man he has become, the man I never thought I would get to meet. I am very proud, both of him and of you. By the way, Ardenn looks and sounds like a wonderful and worthy young woman. Very much like you. For what it's worth, if David and she can find happiness together, I approve.

   Well, you have now seen and heard me, which was my intent in sending this message to you. I leave any further decisions in your hands. If you call me, I will come. If you do not, I understand. No matter what you decide, I will remain only a thought away and always in your service. I will always love you. You are not alone, and never will be, not if the whole Universe stood between us.

   Take care, Starstuff.

   Despite her determination to remain objective, Delenn's composure crumbled almost immediately. Almost against her will, she felt hot tears beginning to trickle down her cheeks as the message played. With each sentence it seemed that a massive weight on her heart was lifting, becoming insubstantial. He loved her, and he always would. He missed her. He was proud of her. He was proud of David. She was not alone. <Beloved, you have no idea how much I needed to hear you say you still love me. You have no idea how I have longed to hear those words from your lips one more time. I am not angry, and you have my forgiveness, always. >

   Delenn found herself moving towards the projection, reaching out as if she could touch it. He fingers brushed over the area where his heart would be, and moved up as if to caress his face. The contents of the message left no doubts in her mind. This was her John, despite his statement to the contrary. She needed no genetic scans, no telepathic probes, no medical examinations. She knew. One look into his eyes and she knew. The Universe was correcting a mistake, and she would revel in it. "I will call for you, John," she murmured softly to herself. "Oh, yes, I will call for you. Have no doubt about that."

   Delenn lowered her hand. Smiling slightly to herself through her tears, she found a chair at the conference table and sat down. Keying a microphone, she said "Computer. Replay message. Continue to replay until I say otherwise." Leaning back, she closed her eyes and relaxed, listening as his voice began to wash over her again.

   

*****

   Two men sat huddled over a table in a small apartment on Fulmer's Colony. The room was darkened, and the windows covered. The only light came from a lone lamp beaming down on the table.

   On the table were two photographs. "These are the targets, eh?" said the first. Lifting one of the photos, he examined it closely. "Human female, late fifties…hmmm. She looks like she's in good shape. She'd probably survive a torso shot, unless I put a round through her heart."

   The second man spoke. "She'll be sitting somewhere behind the podium. General Ivanova won't be speaking, so getting a clear shot at her will be a problem."

   "That depends. How messy do you want this? Does collateral damage bother you?"

   "No. Control says 'the messier the better'. He's going for maximum shock value."

   "OK," The first man took a red grease pencil and made several tick marks on the photograph. "A head shot, then. I guarantee that it will be messy. Anyone else gets in the way, it will be even messier."

   Setting the first photo aside, he picked up the second. "President Delenn. A human female, after a fashion…interesting. Now, this one will be more difficult."

   "How so? I'd think she'd be the easy one. She'll be standing out in front."

   "The problem is her bonecrest. I use a low-velocity round for terminating people. I like for the bullet to rattle around in the head or body for a while before exiting. That way, it does the most damage." He examined the photo a little more closely. "With her, that bonecrest gets in the way. If the round strikes it, the bullet could be deflected up or down, skidding along her skull. It might not penetrate her brain. The wound would be messy and disfiguring, but probably not fatal. Minbari have hard heads." Laying Delenn's photo back on the table, he picked up a protractor and laid it across the photograph. Starting at Delenn's eyes, he drew a line back to her temple, where the bonecrest emerged from her skin. As he drew, he continued. "A torso shot on her might do no good. I'm not sure how her internal organs are arranged. Still, impact somewhere in the area between the corner of the eye and the temple ought to kill her. Hmmm…I'll have to take her down first. I'll get Ivanova on the second shot, or I can let your people on the ground deal with her in the confusion."

   "If you do your job right, my people on the ground will just melt into the crowd. They won't be necessary. They'll be ready, though. Just in case."

   "If you're as prepared as you say, I'll guarantee the first round kill. I won't do that for the second. Too many people are up on the stage."

   "OK, you just worry about Delenn, then. If you get the opportunity, take Ivanova down as well. Beyond that, my team will handle the rest." Taking the pictures off the table, he stuck them on a bulletin board affixed to the wall. He removed two red pushpins from the bottom of the board, sticking one in the left temple of Delenn's photo and one on the skull of Susan's. "Delenn and Ivanova…you know, I knew them a long time ago. Back on Babylon 5."

   "Really? How?"

   "In Security. I was working for the Bureau even then, even before Sheridan took over. Hell, I almost felt sorry for the big, dumb bastard when he arrived…his wife dead and all. I figured he'd be nailing Ivanova in no time. We could've lived with that. We even had a bet going on how long it would take for them to shack up. I got shipped out just after Sheridan arrived, but I know the story. Along came that Minbari witch with her big eyes, working her spell on him. Ivanova just stood aside for her…let the whole thing happen. Now look at that freak and her spawn. She's set out to pollute the human race by joining us with the dead-end genes of her people."

   "So, killing the President doesn't bother you?"

   "No, it doesn't. I look at this as more than a job. Ivanova…she was a fine officer once, until that traitor Sheridan and his pet bonehead corrupted her. I'm just releasing her from her misery. That's business. Delenn, though…that's pleasure. Delenn is a mongrel. I'm doing our world a service by taking her out, kind of like…well, you know, kind of like I'm correcting one of the Universe's mistakes…"

   To Be Continued…

 

*****

 

 

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