BUYING TIME

By Cheryl Hathaway

 

 

 

 

*****

Darkness pervaded the universe--darkness, and a high pitched sound so painful, so overwhelming that the mind automatically discounted it as an impossibility. The darkness was both actual and perceived.

   Within the perceived darkness, the unconscious one, were all the "might-have-been's" and "what-if's" of a lifetime, all the regrets for things not said, all the dreams that would never be. Within the other darkness were realities: things that had happened, were happening, that were too painful to bear close examination, the inescapable facts of existence. In the darkness, the line between the two shifted and staggered along a razor-thin edge.

   From that edge both the waking and the unconscious states were voids--endless, dark, despairing places. Captain John Sheridan had hovered on the brink between those voids for a long time. Concussion would have been the medical term for it, and Doctor Franklin would have been deeply concerned over so protracted a period of unconsciousness, but Stephen Franklin wasn't here, and the Medlab on Babylon 5 was a long, long way off.

   Dreams and pieces of nightmare chased each other through John's darkness: Lorien asking what he had that was worth living for, rock music pounding in time with his heartbeat, pain in his knuckles and the satisfaction of seeing at least one of his attackers go down, Delenn waiting for him in the garden, the scent of orange blossoms that he associated with the night he had asked her to marry him, the scream of a Shadow ship, the smell of his own vomit, the taste of corned beef, the agony of "pain givers," his father's confidence in him, a mob of ISN reporters screaming "Minbari-lover," a warrior caste Minbari sneering "Starkiller," the long dark hallway, the chanted cadence of the Last Rites, the tapping of Sebastian's cane as he moved through the corridors of Babylon 5, an endless queue of faces and fists waiting their turn to prove loyalty to Earth by beating a bound captive, falling--oh, my God--forever, as a world burned around him. Scents and sounds arose without substance. Voices echoed from his past. Being a prisoner, a captive, a hostage of fortune is never a good thing; being "the" focus of so much hatred and anger had been nearly unbearable.

   John Sheridan had commanded the Babylon 5 space station before its secession from the Earth Alliance. He had been the man in charge, the one who got to make the unpopular decisions, the one who had decided that Earthforce ships were no longer going to be allowed to destroy civilian targets. Now he was the military governor of the independent Babylon 5, the leader of the Army of Light, and a prisoner. He had done what he thought was right, and it had made him many enemies.

   Even Michael Garibaldi the former Security Chief from Babylon 5, a man he had once called friend, seemed to be his enemy now. Lost in the darkness, his mind tried vainly to make sense of what had happened between them. Why had Michael betrayed him, trapped him, and handed him over to these tormentors? In the bar, on Mars, John had tried to fight them off, the men who had come for him. Despite the tranquilizer on his hand, he had tried. There had been too many of them.

   John's mind drifted from unconsciousness to consciousness. Within the darkness there was little comfort and less hope. Again and again he relived those last hours before his capture--the urgent message that his father had been taken, Susan Ivanova pleading with him not to put himself in jeopardy, and even the captain of the *Agamemnon* advising against going alone. He hadn't listened.

   The Thunderbolt borrowed from the *Agamemnon* had gotten him safely onto Martian soil in spite of his distracted piloting. He remembered walking into the restaurant that Michael had designated as a meeting place. It had been no more than a bar with loud music and poor lighting. He almost hadn't gone in. He had turned around twice and started back for the ship, but he couldn't make himself do it. He couldn't just leave. If they had his father, he had to try to get him back.

   John had walked knowingly into the trap. He cried out again, still, into the darkness with the incoherence of his relived nightmares. There were no words in his cry, just raw emotions -- anger, fear, frustration, loss, desperation, and denial.

   The video technician monitoring his cell with infrared light and other scanners wondered whether to inform his superiors that the prisoner was regaining consciousness. He decided not to bother them. The prisoner had cried out before and doubtlessly would again.

   Some part of John had known this trap was coming long before Michael's message. He had even half expected a trap when he had shuttled over to the *Agamemnon.* He was the visible leader of the rebellion against Earth. His enemies knew where he was, and he knew they would come for him. The media had spread his picture everywhere: the traitor to Earth. It had only been a matter of time until someone sold him out. He just hadn't expected it to hurt so much. He hadn't expected it to be Michael.

   Michael was his friend. He still couldn't think of him any other way. They had worked and cried and fought together. One of his recurring nightmares was of Michael just watching while the "hired help" in the bar overpowered and beat him. He had cried out to Michael not with words, but with every ounce of his being, and Michael had turned his head and looked away, abandoning him to live or die at the whim of his captors. The pain of Michael's betrayal stung and burned like salt in an open wound.

   Gradually his thoughts became more lucid. Slowly he pushed away the wall of darkness, only to find more darkness. His small corner of the universe was totally devoid of illumination. It did not matter if his eyes were open or shut: all was blackness. It might be blindness, possibly trauma-induced, or it might just be that it amused those who held him to keep him in a state of sensory deprivation. He had no way of knowing. and it truly didn't matter. It wasn't that he didn't care. He did. He was desperately afraid they had blinded him, but there was nothing he could do about it here and now. Just now life was something to be endured, nothing more. John endured. He could not let it matter; that way lay madness.

   Alone in the darkness, he retreated within himself, and the sound began again -- high-pitched and hurtful, like a lament for all his losses, for all the words unspoken, for all the things not done. It hurt just listening to prisoners when they reached this point in the "breaking" process. Both the guard outside John's cell and the video tech monitoring it cringed as the wordless cry went on and on, echoing in the small room.

   Something, someone in his world of darkness grabbed John's shoulders and shook him hard. His head lolled from side to side, but the noise stopped. That was something to be grateful for. He never really realized then that he himself had been making the painful, keening sound. He only knew it had stopped. Somehow his battered body managed to stay conscious and slip into a badly-needed sleep.

   The video tech said a silent thanks to the guard who, having quieted the prisoner, vacated the cell. The official orders called for "no human contact," but a guy could only stand just so much. The tech checked his chronometer and rewound just a little of the tape, to cover the guard's actions. There were orders, too, to inform his superiors as soon as the prisoner showed signs of regaining consciousness. He made a choice not to inform them. It wasn't that he cared about the prisoner, but rather that he didn't want to get the guard, or himself, in trouble. Missing minutes on a tape could be big trouble. The prisoner would wake up again, the tech felt sure, and at least it was quiet now.

   In choosing to not report the guard for breaking the "no contact" rule , the video tech let John get the first real, uninterrupted sleep he had had since his capture. Just this once, no one would arrive with lights or recordings or subtler means of keeping his body awake, of keeping him from getting desperately needed rest.

    ----------

   The leader of the Army of Light, awoke to a sense of light, a glow inside his eyelids. He thanked the fates for the gift of that glow. He hadn't been blinded, at least not yet. Lord knew, the darkness had had enough victories already. He opened his eyes slowly, cautiously, in case he had an audience in the room with him. The right eye wasn't too bad, but the left one was swollen nearly shut, and didn't want to focus.

   He was lying on the cold, hard floor of his "guest room." Of course, he wasn't sure whose guest he was--Psi Corp, President Clark, Earth Force, or one of the alien governments. It didn't matter a lot. He had been here, in this damp, subterranean, cell for many days. He knew because his stomach, dry mouth, and cracked lips told him he had neither eaten nor drunk in far too long. That could have been induced with drugs, but he also knew because his whiskers had finally grown to a point where they had stopped itching so terribly and begun to feel somewhat softer to his fingers, when they left his hands free to explore even that much. Mostly they had kept him bound or manacled to that interrogation chair.

   The chair was the worst. Whenever they came to put him in it, he fought them. Not that it did him any good. They always came in numbers, never less than three, and his strength and ability to fight them was diminishing with time. Starvation and dehydration were taking their toll.

   John remembered being manacled to that chair and having agonizing charges of electricity passed through his body--not once, but again and again, until he could not control his body, until he became a spastic mass of muscles unable to speak or think. He knew the shame of being forced to incontinence and of having them come in and strip and hose him off from time to time, when they decided it needed doing. He was never quite sure why they bothered to dress him again; certainly they cared nothing for his sensibilities. Maybe they were afraid of offending the audience who would eventually watch the video recordings he was sure were being made of at least part, if not all, of his ordeal. Maybe President and Mrs. Clark liked home movies, but not X-rated ones.

   The pre-formed concrete floor on which he lay was spattered with blood, his blood. Slowly it was forming a pool in the lowest depression near the nearly useless drain. Funny, he didn't even remember the question the interrogator had wanted answered. That might be a side effect of the electrical shocks, or of the fact that the questions really didn't seem to matter to the interrogators either. They just wanted to break him. He was getting all too good at waking up in this room in a pool of blood or vomit or urine. At first they would take him out strapped on a gurney or dragged by security officers and pretend to be going someplace else, but they never did. The room was always the same one. There had been three -- no, four -- interrogators. The female hadn't lasted long.

   Turning his head slowly, painfully, John realized that the pool of blood had spread further this time; he had lost considerably more blood than he had thought. He rested his cheek against the coolness of the floor, and let both of his eyes shut.

   *Can't take too much more of this,* he thought. *Got to though. Got to keep buying time.*

   He felt like he had been "buying time" forever, and the "coin of the realm was pain." Soon someone would come for him. *Soon.* It had become a mantra he chanted to himself: "Buying time. Coin of the realm. Soon. Soon. Soon." Key words and phrases designed to help his people find him. Innocuous enough to pass unchallenged by his enemies who might or might not be scanning him.

   "Buying time" was for recognition: a white flag to the telepaths saying, "Yes, this is really me," and, "coin of the realm" was his escape hatch: a red flag saying, "Come get me now, I can't hold out any longer." He'd been waving both flags, mentally, for longer than he cared to remember. *Soon. Soon. Soon.* That was his own. He had to believe they were coming for him. He had to believe they were winning...had won.

   John knew the more his enemies worried about him, the less they would be worrying about the others -- the Resistance, Stephen and his precious cargo, the White Star fleet, the Rangers. *The plans to take over Earth and Mars must be close to completion by now. Susan will have done a good job as commander. She has the right instincts. If only the others have followed her lead. If only....* The same old set of worries ebbed and flowed through his thoughts. *Soon. Soon. Soon.*

   John cautiously moved his swollen tongue inside his bloody mouth. Another tooth gone, a molar by the feel of it. *Probably cracked it trying not to scream.* He eased the side of his face further onto the concrete seeking some relief for the throbbing nerve endings. *Trying not to scream,* that hadn't worked. The memory of the omnipresent, keening sounds that could only have come from him, from the destruction of his self, filtered slowly back into his consciousness. He grimaced as much as his face would allow; it was not the way you wanted to think of yourself as behaving.

   *Oh, God! Did I tell them what they wanted?* For a moment, he came close to panicking. *I must have held out. I must have, or I'd be dead.*

   He knew that whatever group had captured him would only keep him until they had broken him and gotten all the information he had to give, all the information they could bargain with or sell to the highest bidder.

   *Once they break me, once they find out what they want, they won't need me anymore. I'll be expendable.* The other word for expendable people was dead. He hadn't talked, not yet.

   John longed for a tall, cool glass of water, served with cracked ice. He could almost see the moisture misting the outside of the crystal goblet. Hunger had been a constant companion for far too long to bother him now, but he needed water. Without water he would die soon. He knew it, and he was fairly sure his captors knew it. Maybe this would be it; maybe they would just let him lie here in peace and "pass beyond the veil," as Delenn would have said it, "to the place where no shadows fall.".

   *Fat chance,* he told himself, cynically.

   They would find a way to keep him alive, but just barely. Alive and hurting seemed their goal. He looked at the pool of blood again. Somebody had gotten careless or overzealous. If they hurt him that badly again, they might not have any information to sell nor any hostage to buy their lives with when the Army of Light arrived. That had to be the second reason for taking him and maybe for keeping him alive, to buy themselves an out when and if his White Star fleet was victorious.

   The door opened. Someone had obviously been paying attention and had reported that they could start again. John sighed softly as three Earthforce officers and an interrogator entered. The officers picked him up bodily and forced his arms and legs into position for the manacles on the heavy metal chair. He struggled and tried to curse them in pieces of three languages, but the job was quickly done, and they were gone. He sat alone in a darkened room with yet another unknown interrogator.

   "Do you have any allergies or illnesses I should be aware of? Are you taking any medications? Have you had any problems with your heart?"

   His mouth and tongue were so dry he didn't think he could make an intelligible reply. He simply nodded; he had learned the hard way that the interrogators would apply as much force to getting the answer to these simple-minded questions as they would to the exact location--as if he still had any idea--of the White Star fleet. He allowed his chin to sink to his chest and kept his eyes down as well. The sooner he could pass out the better. God willing, it would be soon enough.

   There was no question. The interrogator simply reached across the glowing panel on the desktop and sent a sheet of electrically-induced agony through his body. His head was thrown back, mouth gaping, fists clenched until blood ran from one palm. A scream was torn from the throat he was sure was much too dry to give up any sounds, and it rose and fell in pitch as the pain went on and on.

   Finally, the pain stopped. John found himself dripping with sweat in this cold room populated by all the demons in hell, and they all looked like a fussy little man with a black vest and balding head.

   *Oh, God!* It was a cross between a prayer and a curse.

   *I've got to hold on. I've got to give them time enough to get the fleet in position. Got to buy them time to get the telepaths ready. Let them blindside Clark. Soon. Please, God, soon. Let this end.*

   Waves of pain and exhaustion came and went, flowing over him like ocean water over pebbles on a beach. There is a side to torture where the pain ceases to matter, where victims simply retreat within themselves. John was fast reaching that dubious state. His head was held immobile now by a construction of metal rods one of the officers had attached to the high back of the chair. He could move it neither vertically nor horizontally. He could not avoid any of the visions they chose to show him. They were using sensory overload techniques: sounds, loud and intrusive rising to nearly eardrum splitting levels; brightly colored lights flashing images in random patterns; computer-generated odors ranging from unpleasant to unbelievably nauseous. Despite the lack of food or drink, Sheridan found himself retching at the last.

   *An earthquake!* Sheridan, his senses reeling, wondered how this newest effect had been created. He had felt the powerful vibration through the chair and heard, or almost heard, the subsonic rumbling. If it hadn't been an earthquake, it was a very large explosion, he thought. It made him clench his teeth, something he immediately wished he hadn't done. An earthquake hadn't been in the repertoire the last time he'd been through this set of stimuli.

   The door opened. John saw the rectangle of light on the floor. He could not see who was there; his head was still held firmly in place. He did see the interrogator collapse across the desktop as a PPG blast ripped into the room. He could not tell how many shots had been fired, only that his tormentor had gone down. The desktop and lights, all the interrogator's equipment, collapsed in a shower of sparks.

   And they were there, his people--Delenn, Susan, Stephen, and even Marcus. Delenn and Susan rushed to release him while Stephen and Marcus took defensive positions crouching on either side of the door. Marcus scanned the hallway with Ranger- trained eyes. It seemed clear. There were none of the opposition in sight. John felt the deep vibration again, rocking the entire room. The chair to which he was bound began to tip and threatened to topple over. Immediately Susan and Delenn were beside him, steadying the chair. Between them they found the release for the wrist manacles. His hands were free.

   He realized then that Delenn's mouth was moving as she worked to free his head from the metal restraints, but he could not hear anything she was saying. That hopefully would pass. It had the last time. The cacophony of sound had simply been too much for his body to endure. It had shut down. Instead of trying to make her understand or talk to her, John reached up with his just-freed hands and brought her face down to his level, kissing her before letting her go. As kisses go, it was more a matter of intent than intensity. He loved her so much, but he was so tired.

   He saw Susan grin as he release Delenn from the kiss. She continued her battle with the locking mechanism that controlled the heavy metal bands around his ankles. From her frustrated frown he guessed that it had apparently jammed when the desktop and controls were destroyed. In frustration he saw her kick the left manacle, which promptly released both itself and the one on his other leg as well.

   He knew Susan well. He could almost read her lips, "When in doubt, 'Kick it!" At least that's what he thought she'd said, and she was grinning like a banshee.

   Now Susan and Stephen changed places so that the doctor apparently could get a look at him and run a quick medical scan. Much as he wanted to just leave, he knew they were playing it smart. They didn't want to hurt him while trying to help him.

   Delenn hovered near as Stephen pulled out the medical scanner. John could sense the gist of her words, by watching her worried expression. "Is he going to be all right? He hasn't responded to anything I've said to him, except for the once." John realized the Minbari ambassador was blushing and Stephen was smiling a small, somewhat unprofessional smile. Something had embarrassed both of them, but what? The kiss?

   John sat patiently, if not comfortably, as Stephen ran the medical scanner over his body. By the pauses and the seriousness of the doctor's expression, he realized that his perceived injuries were, in at least some cases, very real. Stephen spoke to Delenn, apparently answering whatever question she had asked before. Her face showed some relief, so the news couldn't be all bad, though he doubted Stephen would tell her everything the medical scan showed.

   "He should be okay to move," Stephen said. "There doesn't seem to be any damage to the auricular nerves, but I don't think he's hearing anything we say just now. He's not in good shape by any means, but he should be able to leave here under his own power."

   John watched as the doctor poured a small capful of water from his med.-canteen, if nothing else he knew he needed water. Stephen, bracing one arm behind his head, held the cap so that he could drink. Holding it that way forced him to take small swallows. He drank greedily, but with each swallow the doctor tipped the cap up and away forcing him to take it slowly and in small amounts. He tried to put the gratitude he felt into a gesture, but found himself almost too tired to move.

   Stephen looked at the captain. The man had been badly used for several weeks; he had lost a lot of weight and looked like hell, but he had held on. He was alive. Stephen gave John Sheridan a thumbs up sign, acknowledging the captain's half-formed gesture, and helped him to his feet.

   They prepared to leave the room with Susan and Marcus leading with drawn PPG's. Sheridan and Stephen would follow, with Delenn bringing up the rear. John leaned heavily on Stephen, his eyes widening when he realized that Delenn too held a PPG and seemed more than willing to use it. His eyes clouded ever so slightly in pain. He still could not hear any of them when they spoke to him, but he knew there was something he had to say. Enunciating carefully, he spoke in a voice scarcely louder than a whisper, "Thank you," and realized by their smiles and nods that they knew he had truly meant it.

   They left the room, the compound, and -- within what felt like only a matter of moments to John -- the planet. Looking back from space, he realized that he hadn't been moved too terribly far from where he had been captured. He had still been on Mars, though not near Mars Dome or any of the population centers.

   *Who would have thought to come looking for me under a polar ice cap?* Below the rapidly rising shuttle craft hung the glittering whiteness of the Martian glaciers. He shivered despite the warmth of the shuttle cabin. *No wonder it took them so long to find me. The miracle is that they ever did.*

   John leaned back in the reclining seat of the shuttle and let his eyes close. It was safe here. He was among friends. He could let go, but still he felt himself holding on, not letting his guard down, not even here. Then he felt Delenn's hand resting on his, and opening his eyes he watched as she interlaced her fingers with his and settled down in the adjoining seat.

   "You need to rest now." Delenn informed him. "I will hold on for both of us, and watch while you sleep. John," she promised, "I will be here when you awaken." He was never sure later if he read her lips, heard her words inside of his head, or simply knew from her touch that he was safe. He only knew it was going to be all right. He smiled as much as his face would allow and with a conscious effort and a deep breath, let go. He was asleep nearly before his eyes closed.

 

*****

 

 

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