SMALL TALK

By Cheryl Hathaway

 

 

 

Greetings,

   This story is another gap filler. It takes place immediately following my story "Fine" and, also, occurs during the episode of Babylon 5 entitled "Between the Darkness and the Light." It is the "missing scene" between Michael and John.

   A part of me didn’t want this scene to happen at just this moment in time, but there were only so many times and places it could have happened. During the rescue was too soon and once John leaves Mars and rejoins the fleet is too late, because Michael obviously stays on Mars as part of the assault team. At least, if felt too late for me. I wanted the meeting to have happened so that (staying within canon to the best of my ability) Michael could be trusted, as he is, in "Endgame" and "Rising Star."

   As always the universe and characters belong to J. M. Straczynski, WB, PTEN, TNT, and anyone else with legal rights to them. Only the tale itself and a med tech named Trimm are mine.

   I still believe that there is more for these two characters to work out at a later date, but for now there is just a ‘short’ talk that needed to happen before John left Mars.

 

 

 

 

*****

Number Forty-three pulled her hood up over her light brown hair and waited patiently for the other commuters to exit the transport tube they had shared on the way out from MarsDome. As the last person left, she brought a pre-printed flyer out from under her jacket and activated the stick-um at its corners. Now where to put it?

   One of the ever-present "Have-You-Seen-This-Man" posters with John Sheridan’s picture on it was stuck to one of the endpanels in the tube. Moving swiftly, she attached her poster next to and mostly covering that one. Not that it would do a lot of good. Everyone on Mars with eyes had already seen Captain Sheridan’s picture. Earthforce had plastered its wanted posters everywhere in the first day or two after his escape.

   "That’s the last one," Number Forty-three thought. She had left MarsDome with almost fifty. "The handwriting on the wall," she remembered Number Two calling them when he’d asked her small Resistance group to distribute the flyers.

   She looked at the advertisement she’d just posted: Su Lin’s Take-out Chinese Restaurant was opening in Mars Dome. The small flyer was as good as many other ads she’d seen on the tubes and in the tube stations. It seemed almost, but not quite professional, and its border was decorated with a variety of Chinese characters.

   Civilians reading the flyer would see nothing unique or out-of-the-ordinary. Resistance people, on the other hand, would be able to easily decipher its code. They’d know the truth then about the last few days--no matter what Earthforce said. They would know that the captain was safe and that the time to strike was approaching very quickly. They would be prepared.

   She wondered, just for a moment, where John Sheridan was now. Probably, he was back at Babylon 5 or with the White Star fleet. From what little she knew of Clark’s forces he’d need some recuperation time before he’d be able to do much.

   She shook her head at the trust the Resistance leaders had shown in Sheridan’s former security chief, Michael Garibaldi. She wasn’t sure if she could ever have trusted him after his betrayal of Captain Sheridan. Fortunately, it wasn’t her problem, and at least they had gotten Captain Sheridan out. She shivered. She still had friends "being questioned and detained" by Earthforce. That was not someplace anyone wanted to be.

   Number forty-three debated just staying on the tube and riding it back to MarsDome. She was tired. It had been a long day, but the Resistance hadn’t survived this long on Mars by being stupid or doing things the easy way. There were strict orders "not" to do use the same transport coming and going from a contact point. It was tempting, but she didn’t do it. She sighed and moved to the door of the tube. It opened quietly. She stepped out.

    ----------

   "Aw, shit!" Michael Garibaldi, looking for all the world like a second-shift janitor, swore as he wiped the soapy water off the tops of his shoes. He rested the bucket and mop he had been carrying against the hallway wall. He was out of practice dealing with Mars’ gravity, and it had just gotten him two very soggy feet.

   He looked around. No one seemed to have noticed.

   He felt lucky that he had found the hospital where John Sheridan was being treated. It hadn’t been easy, but he had had contacts on Mars for a long time. No one, however, had bothered to tell him it was a psychiatric hospital or that one whole section of the hospital complex was run by and for the Psi-Corps. He shivered--a combination of wet feet and pent up emotions. If there was one thing he hated, it was telepaths. *Why did it always have to be Psi-Corps?*

   Michael Garibaldi hated telepaths and all that they stood for, and he hated them for a reason. He remembered a particular one-sided conversation in a tube car just outside William Edgars' prestigious compound. Mr. Bester of the Psi-Corps elite had summoned him to that meeting, summoned him against his will using deeply implanted telepathic commands. Bester had done all of the talking. Bester was a Psi-Cop, one of Earth’s most powerful telepaths. He was also a man without morals or scruples.

   Michael grimaced. He remembered sitting unable to move, unable to lift a finger, while Bester scanned his mind for the information he required. He had watched helplessly as Bester toyed with a P.P.G. debating whether or not to kill him. In the end Bester had chosen to let him live. It hadn’t felt like much of a gift. At the end of their conversation, Bester had returned control of his body and his mind to him. That should have been a good thing, but it wasn’t. With that control came the knowledge of everything he had done while he was under the telepath’s control. He knew then that he and he alone was responsible for the capture of his friend, John Sheridan. In his case, Psi-Corps hadn’t performed a "wipe-and-rewrite" change. They had simply enhanced parts of his personality. They had done the tampering, but he was at fault.

   No matter how he looked at it, Michael felt guilty and violated. Bester had raped him. He couldn’t come up with a better analogy for it than that. He’d been used, despised, and discarded. And when it was over, no one--none of those in the Mars’ Resistance and none of those on Babylon 5--had wanted to believe him. He knew he’d always been something of a "black sheep," a loner. Now, he felt like a pariah.

   There’d always be doubts in some people’s minds about his loyalty, about how much of his betrayal of the captain had been his own doing and how much had been Bester’s programming of his mind. John Sheridan was, had been, his friend. Of all the pieces of Bester’s manipulation, that one hurt the worst. *Damn Psi-Corps!* he thought and turned his attention back to the matter at hand.

   Michael knew he was in the right building, in the right hallway, and, if the information he had wheedled out of Stephen earlier that day was accurate, he should be standing just outside John’s hospital room. He hadn’t quite dared to ask Stephen whether or not it would be advisable for him to try to talk to the captain just yet. He had, however, been able to ask enough leading questions so that Stephen had opened up and talked reasonably freely about how his friend was doing.

   The bottom line seemed to be that John wasn’t doing well at all. He had been unconscious by the time they had gotten him out of the Martian tunnels and had apparently stayed unconscious, on the brink of a coma, for the first three days thereafter. Once he had regained consciousness, the recuperation process had been difficult. John was dealing with a lot of psychological "garbage" that Clark’s interrogators had deliberately planted. What had hurt Stephen the most was the fact that they had used his image, possibly as a hologram and definitely as a drug-induced hallucination, to question and to hurt the captain.

   Physically, John would recover. The ribs and collarbone would take a while, but he would heal. Most of the internal injuries were getting better already. Bruises and abrasions would disappear with time. Mentally, no one could say for sure. Only time would tell. He had been through a lot. Stephen had said that he was improving, but that "post traumatic shock syndrome" could surface even years later, and apparently John was having "flashbacks" from the drugs he’d been given as well.

   *John, I’m sorry.* Michael rehearsed yet again the most important part of what he wanted to say to his friend. Now, all he had to do was walk through that door and say it. He had to try to make things right, try to explain to John what had really happened. He took a deep breath and winced.

   *I probably shouldn’t have come,* Michael thought. He felt the half-healed wound in his back pull as he straightened up. He’d walked out of the Resistance’s infirmary only hours before. It was only a wide space in one of the tunnels with beds and medical supplies. No one had released him; he’d just left. They’d give him hell when he got back, if they didn’t shoot him on sight. The level of trust that Number one had shown in him was nothing to write home about. It didn’t matter. He needed to do this. He needed to do this now. He squared his shoulders and prepared to step through the door.

   If he didn’t see John before his friend left Mars, he didn’t know when or how they’d ever get to reconcile this thing. His eyes closed partially, and his brows drew down as he thought of all the history he and John shared--good and bad. They had been through a lot. Now, things were happening fast, almost too fast, and from what Stephen had said John wasn’t going to be here much longer.

   "Hello! Can I help you?" A senior med tech with short brown hair and a smile appeared though John’s door. She almost ran into Michael and seemed as surprised to see him, as he was to see her. "This is a restricted area. You’ll need to show me some authorization, if you’re going to be working in here."

   "Hey, lady," Michael slid into his best injured-innocence routine. "I just got to do the floors. It’s my job. Soon as it’s done, I’m outta here." He reached for the mop and bucket, hoping he really wouldn’t have to pick them up again. They were heavy.

   Gina Trimm stared at him. She was the special-duty nurse that Dr. Stephen Franklin had assigned to Captain Sheridan. She knew instinctively that she should know who this nearly bald, morose-looking man was, but she couldn’t, for the life of her, remember where she’d seen him. Then it clicked, as her mind inadvertently picked up the intense nervousness underlying his air of injured innocence: this was Michael Garibaldi, the former security chief of Babylon 5, the man who had sold John Sheridan out to Clark’s forces. She remembered Stephen saying that he’d been involved with the rescue somehow, but, if the devil himself had been standing in that hallway, she wouldn’t have been more frightened of him than she was of this "hero of the people."

   "You’re Garibaldi. Aren’t you?" she queried. She decided to try the official government version of the incident. "You’re the one who turned in that traitor Sheridan." He nodded in response.

   *Oh, my God, what do I do now?* They both though simultaneously.

   Gina knew John Sheridan was only a few feet away and that at any moment the ruse she had worked so hard to preserve--the simple plot that had let him recuperate safely here--could be totally destroyed. She had been working with Dr. Franklin and the Resistance to hide and help Captain Sheridan ever since they had brought him here, since his escape from Clark’s interrogators. Michael, for his part, was trying to decide how to get around this minor female impediment to his plans to see John.

   "What’re you doing here?" she asked, watching Michael warily. "And why are you dressed like that?"

   "Uhmmm..." Michael hesitated. "It’s a long story. I’m working sorta undercover for a little while. You understand?" He looked at her hopefully.

   She didn’t understand, but she knew enough to be afraid. *He’s here looking for John. He has to be.* She just knew it. Her psi abilities weren’t great, but they had served her well in nursing. This man was broadcasting nervousness and bravado. Every sense she owned told her that he was here looking for the man she had been asked to help protect. Could he be planning to sell Sheridan out again? What should she do?

   She reverted to a well-used feminine ploy. She dropped something--in this case, her data pad--and, when he bent to help her retrieve it, she clobbered Michael Garibaldi with every ounce of strength she possessed. He crumpled in a heap on the white tile floor. So much for "minor impediments."

   *Now what do I do?* she asked herself. *Get him out of here before someone sees him, I guess.* Grabbing him under the arms, she hoisted the solid male off the floor and unceremoniously dragged him into John’s room. Years of manhandling patients helped her move him quickly and reasonably quietly.

   John, who had been lying down and resting, looked up at the commotion.

   "Wha...?" He started to ask, but she cut him short.

   "It’s that security man from Babylon 5, the one who ISN is crediting with your capture. He was in the hall, just now, looking for you." She pulled Mr. Garibaldi’s body into the middle of the floor and laid him down. Bending over him, she quickly checked his pulse. He’d be all right.

   "And you just knocked him out and hauled him in here, all by yourself?"

   Gina nodded. John sat up and dangled his feet over the side of the bed.

   "Bring him over here," John requested.

   Gina maneuvered Michael across the smooth tile floor until he was lying on the floor beside John’s bed. Then she found and brought the captain a robe to wrap around his shoulders and helped him slide his feet into his shoes. He had been almost entirely dressed and ready for Stephen to come and take them to the transport that would get him- -God willing--safely off Mars. Departure time was less than two hours away. *How, in hell, did he find me?* John wondered.

   John eyed the former security chief of Babylon 5 who was already beginning to stir. His last memory of Michael was a jumbled one from his escape.

   Michael and Stephen and Lyta had come for him. He’d given up on anyone ever coming to get him out, and then they had just appeared. Only the fact that the three of them had been together had given him any hope. There had been so many distorted dreams. Stephen had cut him loose and given him something to help him walk out on his own two feet, but it hadn’t lasted long, not nearly long enough.

   Then they had been together with him in the tunnels during his escape. He remembered not knowing whom to trust. He had tried to pull away from Michael and from Stephen. He had tried to make it on his own, but he hadn’t had the strength to do it. He hadn’t known which way to go, whom it was safe to talk to, or even where he was much of the time. Every time he had faltered, unsure which way to go--every time he nearly fallen, unable to keep his footing--Michael had been there helping him. He had kept him on his feet somehow. John shook his head. He remembered not enough or too much of what happened in those tunnels. What he remembered most was that he had been afraid, very afraid.

   Memories of his escape from Clark’s forces fell into two categories: huge black voids and crystal-clear visions. The former were gaps his memory could not or would not fill. The latter were imprinted in his mind like images on a data crystal.

   One of those crystalline images was of himself firing a P.P.G. at someone in an Earthforce uniform. He thought the person he had shot was one of the guards who had delighted in tormenting him. He shook his head. His memory said he had fired the weapon until the charge was exhausted--eight, nine, ten times. Then he had turned and just looked at Michael. If what he had felt then wasn’t hate, it was the next thing to it. It had probably been a good thing for Michael that the charge had been spent by that point. Still, he didn’t remember pulling the trigger again. Maybe, he’d realized that Michael was trying to help him. Maybe, he’d just run out of ammunition.

   Michael groaned bringing both John’s and Gina’s attention back to him. He looked up blinking at the high ceiling lights. Shaking his head, he fought to sit up.

   John felt his whole body tense. He had seen the face of the enemy, and it had been Michael’s face back lit by strobes in a dingy bar on Mars. Bile rose in his throat. His body was torn between fight and flight. One part of him wanted to strike out, to get even, to pound on his betrayer. Another part of him wanted to flee, now--right now, before Michael fully regained consciousness. He did neither.

   Gina watched John with sympathy. He’d been her special charge this week, and she’d come to recognize some of his moods. She’d seen him afraid during nightmares and flashbacks. She knew he was afraid now, but he covered it well.

   Warily, she looked at Mr. Garibaldi. Every instinct she possessed said that she should get him out of here now, but John was just looking at him. Despite his fear, John was curious. *Why had Michael come?* She overheard his thoughts.

   Finally, John spoke. He kept his tone carefully neutral.

   "Hello, Michael."

   "Hello, Captain."

   "Didn’t expect you to be dropping in?" John let his voice make it a question.

   Michael looked up at him from the floor, and levered himself the rest of the way onto his feet using the white plastic chair beside the bed. "Didn’t plan to ‘drop in’ exactly. I just wanted to talk to you--to have a long talk, if possible, about what happened."

   "When I found out from Stephen and Lyta that you were planning on leaving soon, I figured it better be a ‘short’ long talk. You know ‘small talk’ just between the two of us. Now sorta seemed like the best time--hell, the only time--for it." Michael was talking to cover his nervousness. "And, actually, I didn’t expect to ‘fall’ quite so hard for your nurse." He rubbed the back of his neck carefully. A stab a pain shot up from his wounded back when he raised his arm. *Damn, that hurts.*

   John just looked at him. Michael Garibaldi had been his friend. His mind told him that he wasn’t any longer, but his heart still said "my friend" when he looked at him. *Damn,* thought John, *What do I say or do now?*

   "Can we talk?" Michael sat down in the plastic chair beside John’s bed and looked at him. There were both pain and hope in his eyes.

   "About what?" John was leery, very leery of where this was going.

   "About what happened. About us. About why." Michael couldn’t seem to figure out what to do with his hands or his eyes. He’d come for this reason--to talk to John--but, now that he was here, it was easier said than done.

   "Will it change anything?" John asked regretfully.

   "No," Michael admitted, "...But it might make me feel a little bit better about it."

   "Okay!" John sighed. "Then we’ll talk. Where do we begin?"

   Michael closed his eyes for a few seconds. He felt the pressure in his chest ease, just a little. He was going to get a chance to tell his story. John was going to listen.

   He began his story. "We’ve gotta start quite a ways back--back about the time you took off for Z’Ha’Dum with the payload of all time." Michael remembered supervising the loading of that payload--two nuclear devices--onto the White Star ship that John had chosen to take he and the Shadow-Anna back to Z’Ha’Dum, the Shadow planet. Of course, at the time, no one had been sure that she wasn’t the real Anna.

   John remembered that payload, too. Those bombs had been "insurance," the kind of "insurance" he had needed, and he had used them--by God--to destroy the Shadows’ largest city. He shivered remembering the blast.

   "Yeah! And Anna never did suspect a thing." John let his expression relax at the memory. He and Michael had worked well together back then. They had even gotten away with using a code so that Anna wouldn’t know that the bombs had been loaded. John had said if all was ready--if the bombs were aboard--they’d talk about the weather, and they had. "Did it really snow in New York?" he asked remembering Michael’s weather report that day.

   "Yup!" Garibaldi affirmed. "Three inches. Just in case somebody was checking."

   "Michael, Z’Ha’Dum was the worst thing that had ever happened to me. They wanted to use me...."

   "Yeah. They were real good at ‘using’ people." Michael cut him off. "I was one of them."

   John looked at Michael. Understanding was just beginning to dawn in his eyes.

   "While you were flying off to their home planet, the Shadows came calling at Babylon 5. Ivanova scrambled everything that could fly to defend the station. I...I was part of ‘everything.’ Probably, I shouldn’t have been. I was old enough and high enough in rank. I should have sat it out in C & C, but there were these great ugly ships screaming across the sky. I had to do something. I had to try to help."

   "So there I was, in a Starfury doing what every other Starfury pilot worth anything was doing--peeing my pants--‘cause they were so big and so fast, and there were so many of ‘em. We fought ‘em. We fought hard and lost a lot of good pilots. There’s a whole wall of casualty names in the crews quarters from that encounter."

   "Did you know that one of those names was yours?" John asked soberly. Michael nodded and continued. He’d seen it. He had been listed ‘missing-in-action’ after that battle. He’d stood before the small bronze plaque and run his finger over it. He’d felt nothing. Bester’s programming hadn’t let him care.

   "We fought well, but it wasn’t enough." His voice deepened, and his hands finally came to rest in his lap. "We were losing.... Hell, we never really stood a chance, not in Starfuries." Michael had begun perspiring heavily. Whether it was from the pain in his back that seemed to get worse by the minute or from the strength of his memories, he didn’t know.

   "...Then, they just started going away. I never knew why. And when they went, John, ...they took me with them. One of those huge black monstrosities just opened up and absorbed my entire ship with me inside it. I don’t remember much of what happened immediately after that. I know I passed out...might have been from lack of oxygen or, more likely, from being scared nearly to death. I just don’t know...."

   Michael had a rapt audience hanging on his words and no idea whatsoever that his story was holding both John and his nurse in suspense.

   "I woke up once in an ugly medical facility somewhere. The interrogation rooms where Clark was holding you reminded me some of that place, but not quite. It was very dark and quiet. I guess, from what Bester told me later, I’d been handed over to Psi- Corps by then. Apparently people with that psi stuff don’t need as much light or sound systems."

   John looked at Gina. He knew--well, suspected--that she was a telepath. Nothing Michael had said so far seemed to phase her. *Okay,* he thought. *If she’s a teep, she’s not one of Bester’s.* She didn’t seem offended or shocked by what had been said.

   "Michael, Stephen told me that the Psi-Corps had used you. He didn’t tell me about the Shadows. How, in God’s name, did you stand it?"

   "Mostly, I don’t know. I wasn’t conscious much when the Shadows had me, and I haven’t told anybody else about it. Didn’t figure it was something I wanted to advertise even now that the Shadows are officially gone."

   John nodded in understanding, and Michael continued his story.

   "Bester told me that, if you had died at Z’Ha’Dum, there were three people who could’ve replaced you in the Army of Light: Delenn, Ivanova, and me. They figured that they could ‘deal with’ the ladies later, if need be. Me, they were going to use. Hell, they did it!"

   Michael’s voice shook ever so slightly as he went on. "They went inside my head and made changes--no huge ones according to Lyta, but lots and lots of small ones that added up to one hell of a personality shift. I’d always been a hardnose and a bit of a bastard. They just made it worse. I couldn’t stand working for anyone--so I walked away from the best job I ever had. I wouldn’t let others help me. I couldn’t let them get that close. I couldn’t." His voice cracked. He closed his eyes and lowered his head fighting to regain his composure.

   "Fortunately, it didn’t work out quite like the Shadows had planned. You came back, so I didn’t get to be the great new leader of the army...but Bester is one sneaky son of a bitch. He had the programming set up so that he could use it too." Garibaldi shuddered.

   "John, can you imagine being a prisoner inside your own body--inside your own head. I knew what was happening, and I knew that it was wrong. I couldn’t do one damned thing to stop it or change it. He manipulated me easier than you could a yearling calf...led me around by a ring in my nose and watched me do tricks on command. He had no pity and no time for tact. I was a tool; he used me."

   "He set me up to join forces with and then, later, betray William Edgars. Edgars owns, owned, this huge pharmaceutical company, and he hated telepaths. He had his experts create a virus that would virtually enslave and, if desired, destroy telepaths. Nasty stuff, but no nastier than what Bester’s been up to."

   "John, part of what I was programmed to do was ingratiate myself with this man Edgars. In the process of gaining his trust, I was to do whatever was required. John, I did it. I did it all."

   "I threw away the love of a beautiful woman. I walked away from Babylon 5. I left behind everything, everyone, I ever cared about. I played Judas. I sold you out. John, I’m sorry. Inside, way deep inside, I knew I was doing it, but I couldn’t stop it from happening. When Edgars demanded that I set you up and let Clark’s forces have you, I told him I thought that the last guy had gotten ‘thirty pieces of silver’ for the same job. I guess Bester’s programming let that much of my conscience filter through, but it wasn’t enough to keep it from happening. In the bar, I sat and watched when they took you. I couldn’t turn away. Deep inside, I was screaming at myself, at them, and at you for being fool enough to believe me and walk into their trap. None of it did any good."

   John’s eyes were locked on his face. Michael had expected John to hate him. There was no hate. He had expected loathing for the thing that Bester had turned him into. There was no loathing or abhorrence. John wasn’t a saint. He was a human being, but he had been Garibaldi’s friend for a long time...even back to the days when he’d still had some of his hair. John shook his head.

   "Michael, I don’t know what else you could have done. You were fighting to find a way out of the trap you were in, and there just wasn’t one." John cleared his throat. "I know what I went through. It was hard, and I know I’m not over it yet. But, I can’t imagine going through what you did, for as long as you did." He shook his head again.

   "We were both prisoners, and now--by the grace of God--we’re both free!"

   "Yeah!" Sometimes the less Michael said, the deeper the feelings were that went with it. His lips pressed into a strong, firm line. He repeated just that one word, "Yeah!"

   "And Michael, thank you for coming in and getting me out." Of all the possible outcomes to this meeting he had imagined, having John thank him for the rescue wasn’t even on the list. Michael smiled a small, tight smile.

   Gina looked at the pair of them--one sitting on the bed and the other in the chair beside it--the beloved captain and his trusted officer. She wondered if either one of them truly understood the extent of the friendship bond between them. One of her gifts was the ability to sense just such bonds between people. She smiled without reservation. She had done the right thing bringing Michael into this room, even if she hadn’t known it at the time.

   She remembered, belatedly, the mop and bucket abandoned in the hallway. Quietly she went to retrieve them before anyone became too curious about the unattended objects. The pail was heavy, and she marveled that Mr. Garibaldi had had the strength to carry it down the hall let alone into the building.

   When she reentered the room, she heard a quiet chuckle. Whatever Mr. Garibaldi had just said, it had made John laugh. That was fine with her. They were both convalescing, recuperating from their "experiences" on Mars. Neither one of them should really be up yet, but she had a feeling that events were going to keep both of them busy for quite a while to come.

    ----------

   "Are you sure you’d be up to hiking around like that?" John asked Michael. "It’s cold outside on this planet, especially after dark." The two of them had spent the better part of an hour discussing plans for the upcoming assault on Mars. Gina had gone on about her other duties preparing for their departure. She’d listed this room as empty on the hospital computer. Soon enough it would be. Both she and the captain were ready to leave Mars as soon as transportation arrived from the spaceport.

   She was trying to give John and his friend a little time together. Gina figured they deserved some privacy, and she knew Mr. Garibaldi’s props needed to be returned to their proper owner. Michael had finally admitted having bribed a custodian into having a "quick one" at a local tavern while he "played a joke on a friend." She slipped out quietly.

   Neither man noticed her absence. They were busy making plans for the future, not the far future either. Things were rapidly coming to a head. As soon as John was back with the fleet, the attacks on Mars and then Earth would begin.

   "Would it be better to try to take over the whole base or to just disarm the weapons system and take out the perimeter?" Michael mused.

   "I’d go for just the perimeter," John suggested. "It wouldn’t take as much manpower, and you’d still have the base under control." Michael nodded.

   There were many things that needed to be done. Michael knew he could do some of them better than anyone else, and John was going to let him do them. Being trusted even just to talk about such plans made him feel incredibly better than he had even a few hours before. How things would be elsewhere--whether anyone else would share John’s trust in him--he didn’t know, but here and now he was accepted again.

   Lyta and Stephen had both warned him about Susan Ivanova’s "I-want-him-shot- on-sight" order. He felt truly saddened by what John had told him about her condition. He didn’t want to be shot by her, nor by someone carrying out her orders, but neither did he want her to die. He shook his head at her Russian stubbornness. Why hadn’t she listened to Marcus? Then again, when had she ever listened to anyone? *Poor Susan.*

   *Poor John, too.* He was taking this hard. Giving orders and living with the results was never easy. In this case it had been doubly hard. John had turned command over to Susan for what should have been only a matter of hours or a day or two at most. Because of the trap, the one that he himself had helped spring on John, Susan had been forced to lead through many conflicts.

   Michael shivered. He’d now heard three different people tell the story of the Shadow-enhanced Earthforce destroyers. His mind boggled at the thought of such ships, and his skin crawled. How could anyone from Earth have actually done business with the Shadows? He found himself hoping that Earth’s scientists had been talented enough to meld the Shadows’ organic technology with their own, but he sorely doubted it. Shadow minions were everywhere--always asking, "What do you want?" and delivering mayhem and disaster. Michael felt a twisting pain in his guts.

   "John, can I use your ‘can?’" Michael’s aversion to the Shadows was such that sometimes all he could do was vomit. Even before John nodded, he was on his way through the door.

   John shook his head in sympathy. *Been there. Done that,* he thought.

    ----------

   A perfunctory knock at his door brought John’s head around.

   "What the...?" A startled young med tech looked John Sheridan up and down. *Oh, my God!* He’d found the escaped prisoner. It had to be. This man was the spit and image of the photographs that were posted on every flat surface on Mars.

   John remembered everything Stephen and Gina had said about trying to look and act the part of someone who belonged in this kind of hospital. As a precaution for a whole week, he’d worn their ugly, demeaning coverall shifts. He knew Gina had kept a duplicate medical log on him for the same reason. Unfortunately, Gina wasn’t here now and, in his traveling clothes, he realized he was all too recognizable even with his beard and the bruises left from his captivity.

   *Shit!* John thought. *The best laid plans....*

   The med tech keyed his link: "Security to Gamma three one seven. Stat!"

   Unlike Gina, this med tech was a tall male with no apparent psi abilities. Otherwise, he would have noted Michael silently emerging from the bathroom and sneaking up on him from the rear even as he approached John’s bed.

   "Captain, you really need to lay down and rest. I have your medication right here." The tech had a hypo in his hand ready to inject as soon as he got close enough. Visions of dollar signs danced in his brain as he imagined the reward Clark’s people would come up with for the return of the "renegade captain."

   John backed away from this new threat--the med tech and his ‘medication.’ He drew his legs up onto the bed and balled the robe around his right hand planning to use it as a shield if the man got close enough to try to administer the hypo. He blanched. Act, or no act, the thought of letting them drug him one more time was debilitating. He swallowed the hard lump in his throat. They might take him again, but he wouldn’t go easily.

   "No," he cried out, pulling his body as far from the tech as possible. His eyes were wide and wild.

   John heard the music. He saw the lights, saw Michael putting the "tranq" on his hand. It burned like liquid fire in his veins.

   At just that moment, Michael struck. It was an one-armed, professional blow. The young tech slumped partly across the bed and partly across John.

   "Are you all right?" Michael had not been warned about the possibility of John having to ‘play a part’ in this hospital nor had he really understood about the ‘flashbacks.’ The whole scene had left him shaken. However, John’s quick recovery reassured him.

   "Yeah!" John was back, back in his room in the small psychiatric hospital. The Phobos Bar was again a memory. "I’m okay, but I think my cover here has been blown sky high."

   John shook his head ruefully. "Michael, do you know how to get out of here? I mean you got in. You must have some idea how to get out. Right?"

   "Yeah!" Michael shook his head affirmatively.

   "Then get us the hell out of here. Now!"

   Michael nodded and grinned. *Welcome back, John,* he thought as the captain took command. "Yeah, I can get us out, but we’d better not waste any time. The first thing he did was call for security. Let’s go."

   On the way out the door, Michael turned and surveyed John’s room. He shivered. Of all the places and ways he’d expected to find his friend, this hadn’t been one of them.

   On his way over to the hospital, Michael had picked up a little ‘something’ from one of his contact on Mars. He thought a diversion right now couldn’t hurt. Carefully extricating it from one of his overalls pockets, he thanked his lucky stars that it hadn’t gone off when John’s nurse had flattened him. He threw the miniature smoke bomb in the general direction of the bed. It erupted in an ugly, nauseous cloud. He pulled the door shut and started down the hall.

   Michael grabbed a thoroughly exasperated Gina Trimm who had been on her way back to John room, as she stepped off the lift. She hadn’t known a janitor could get that drunk that quickly. She was surprised, but not unduly alarmed by their need for flight. She’d been anticipating this day ever since John had arrived.

   Michael thoughtfully pulled the third fire alarm box he went past on their way out. He didn’t want anyone to get hurt. He just wanted a nice healthy dose of confusion. He got it.

   Gina looked at him, understanding dawning as alarms and strobe lights began going off on all sides. She realized that there were indeed faint wisps of smoke in the hallway behind them.

   Avoiding the lifts, they ducked down a now-unlocked "fire stairs" and out into the small grassy park that surrounded the hospital. Emergency personnel of all kinds were arriving. Waiting for an opportune moment, Michael commandeered an unobtrusive gentleman’s credentials and used them to key into the tube system and employee lockers. He couldn’t make his living as a pickpocket and thief, but in a pinch he could get by.

    ----------

   Michael, Gina, and John settled into the second tube transport car that arrived. All three of them were wearing ‘borrowed’ cold weather gear. Gina had insisted on giving the largest parka they could find to John and on pulling its hood as far forward as possible.

   The transport car quickly filled with others only too glad to escape the mayhem. Everyone was talking at once.

   "Did you hear where the fire was?"

   "Was there really a fire?"

   "I heard it was a false alarm."

   "I heard it was some kind of test--something the bureaucrats invented to make us all crazy--like these stupid housing requirements." The speaker gestured to a handbill posted on the wall of the car. It was one of many including one for a new Chinese take- out place.

   The last comment got a chuckle from several people in the car. Obviously there were no bureaucrats in this group. Gina made a mental note of some of the details from that handbill and one about a new restaurant. Mentally she thanked the disgruntled lady who had brought them to her attention.

    ----------

   The three fugitives got off at the very first exit. From there they’d find alternate transportation to the spaceport. Arriving as they were, they’d generate curiosity. All three of them were a little short of luggage. They had walked out with only the clothing on their backs and the borrowed coats.

   *But,* thought John, *All I really need is waiting for me up there somewhere. Maybe Delenn is on Babylon 5. Maybe she’s somewhere closer.* He could only hope so and trust that the Universe had kept her safe for him.

   "I can get us to the spaceport," Garibaldi was saying, "But I don’t know how I’ll get the two of you past the emigration officers." Michael still had his own identi-card and, if need be, his own contacts here, but asking his contacts--some of them on the "wrong-side" of the law--to help get the captain out was stretching credibility right to the limit.

   "That shouldn’t be necessary," Gina interrupted.

   Both men just looked at her.

   "The Resistance didn’t begin the day before yesterday. Find us a public com-link and let me take care of the rest." She shook her head at their incredulity.

   No sooner had she entered the proper codes--not the phone number that the handbill listed, but a combination of other numbers from the text--than she was connected with someone who would have denied her call as a wrong number if she had ordered anything but the egg drop soup. The menu in this particular Chinese restaurant featured egg drop soup as the number one item, and there were two vid-phones for taking orders. On the one you could order anything. On the other all you could order was egg drop soup.

   Once Gina had placed her order, she felt better. Now she had a little bit of breathing space. Now her parents and fellow Resistance fighters would know she was safe. Once she finally got to complete her ‘order’ they’d have all the other pertinent details as well. The phone rang. She picked it up quickly, but not too quickly, on the second ring.

   "Hello. Yes, I ordered that. Hmmm, that sounds delicious too. Could I get a triple order? Thank you." This time, when she let her call disconnect, she drew a deep breath.

   "They know we got out and that we’re together. I asked for accommodations for the three of us on the fastest transport out. Looks like our old cargo ship is still going to be our best bet, and Mr. Garibaldi, they indicated that there’s something here they need you for?" She looked at him quizzically, "But first they want to see you back at the infirmary you walked out of this afternoon."

   Michael looked at her a bit sheepishly. "Hey, I just took a little walk. I needed to talk to somebody."

   "Michael, I’m glad you did."

   "So am I, John. So am I."

   The two men clasped hands. Michael rested his hand on John’s shoulder.

   "Go carefully, John."

   "You too, Michael. See you soon."

   "I’ll send you a post card from ‘the wicked queen’s castle.’"

   Michael turned his back and walked away into the crowd. He had work to do on Mars, important work that John had authorized him to do. He would do it and do it well. He’d do it as if his life depended on it. Maybe, it did.

   Number forty-three and two other members of the Resistance met John and Gina near the transport station. She and one of the others had collected their tickets and port passes from a friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend. After looking him over, Number forty-three had to agree with Number two’s assessment. Captain John Sheridan, even this haggard and bearded version of him, was still too recognizable to leave on a regular passenger liner.

   *Beggars can’t be choosers.* John thought accepting the port pass he hoped never to have to use and the ticket which would pay for his passage. He really didn’t like the idea of shipping in a cargo ship--especially in an airless cargo ship.

   The same friends who had brought them their tickets and port passes also produced rebreather masks and a portable oxygen supply. He felt a little better seeing those. Somebody had been thinking ahead, and again he knew he had things to thank the Mars Resistance for, ‘debts’ he would repay someday.

   Food had been provided, but neither he nor Gina ate any. Much of their flight would be weightless; weightlessness and digestion didn’t agree as a general rule. They were prepared to leave Mars.

   Gina would come back someday. Mars was her home.

   John hoped he’d never see this planet again. Mars held far too many painful associations, but he knew he probably would be back at least one more time. He still had to get his dad out somehow, and the future was an open book. One never knew where it would lead.

   One never knew....

 

*****

 

 

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