2284 (II): THE STRANGER IN MY MIRROR
By John Hightower
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Earth Year 2284
She was looking across a wide chasm. Mist swirled around her, so thick in places that she could see the other side only indistinctly. Looking down, she could not see the bottom, only blackness that seemed to close on her feet as she observed it.
Delenn of Mir had had this dream many times before. Somewhere in her unconscious mind, the voice of reason told her it was only a dream, and not even a new one. She knew that eventually she would see John through the mist on the other side, if she looked hard enough.
She didn't want to look. She'd had enough of looking. Looking, and longing for someone she could never have again. That part of her life was over. Or so her head told her. Her heart, however, was another matter. It still believed. That's why she kept having this dream.
Angrily, she wished her heart and her head would come to some sort of understanding. Still, she was in the dream anyway. She might as well look, work through the soul-wrenching pain that came when she saw John across the chasm reaching for her, and get it over with for tonight.
Dutifully, she stared into the mist. Eventually, the mist parted (as it always did) and she could see the other side.
There was no John. Only an empty plain where John should be.
Delenn stared at the empty place for many seconds, dumbfounded. John was always there. Was this the end? Had John finally given up and left her? He had said he would wait for her…
<John, no! I did not mean to tire of the dream! Don't leave me! If this is all of you I can have, I accept it gladly! Come back, please!>
She started to wail. In her dream, she put her hand to her mouth and tried to stifle the wailing, but there was no stopping it. That part of her that was rational told her that this was a most undignified action for the President of the Interstellar Alliance and a former Satai, but her heart was in firm control now.
<Look here, my love.> Delenn turned at the sound of his voice.
John was standing on her side of the chasm, not ten feet from her. His arms were outstretched.
<John?> She said through her sobs. She tried to move towards him. This was new. She had never tried to move in the dream before, and wasn't sure she could. He was so close, though… For John to hold her one more time, however, she would try until her heart burst from the effort.
She was moving. Everything seemed to be in slow motion. She couldn't get her legs to move faster. She was trying. Valen, she was trying. He was reaching for her now. She was almost there. She could feel his presence all around her. Almost…
Delenn awoke with a start. For a second, she was disoriented. She was trembling. She drew in a shaky breath. Her dream slowly came back to her as her breathing evened out.
"Lights, low" she managed to stammer out. The new additions to the dream came back to her. She had almost been there. It had seemed so real.
Awareness of her reality returned, threatening to set off another bout of sobbing. John was gone, had been gone for three years now.
She looked over at "his" side of the bed. Still empty, as it would be from now on.
Rising from the bed, Delenn padded towards the kitchen as she attempted to shake off the effects of the dream. She was quiet, but despite her care she had been heard. "Mistress, are you well?"
Delenn turned. Ardenn, her young aide stood in the doorway of her small room. She was in her sleeping attire. Delenn had obviously awakened her.
"I heard you cry out, mistress. I thought you might have hurt yourself. Are you all right?" Ardenn was not entirely truthful, but believed it might insult Delenn's honor if she mentioned that she had heard her sobbing in her sleep.
"I am fine, Ardenn. Thank you. I had what the Humans call a 'nightmare'. An unsettling dream. I am just getting a glass of juice and I will return to bed shortly." Delenn hoped that this explanation would satisfy her young apprentice.
"Sleep well, then." Ardenn made a short bow and turned to go back into her room. Just as she was leaving, she paused. "Mistress, what is that sound?"
Delenn stopped and listened a moment. She heard it, then. A steady tick-tock-tick-tock coming from John's old office. Both women moved to the office hurriedly. As she entered the room, Delenn commanded "Lights" and the room was bathed in brightness.
The sound was coming from an old earth clock hanging over John's desk. "What is that device, mistress? I have always meant to ask about it."
"It is called a clock, Ardenn. It is an Earth machine used to keep time. It really serves no purpose here since our day is shorter than Earth's, but my husband was fond of it. He told me that it had been in his family for almost 400 Earth years. A long time even for our people. Strange." Delenn tapped experimentally on the face. "This clock has not been wound since my husband left."
"It makes an awful noise. How did you sleep with it ticking all of the time?"
"Not easily, Ardenn. I always thought of this device as John's life clock. I could hear the minutes and seconds ticking away on his time with me. No, I did not sleep easily listening to this device." Delenn opened one of the desk drawers and removed an odd-looking key. "This is required to wind the clock. I have not used it. I wonder how it started? Someone has to wind it, and I gather you did not."
"No, mistress. I have never touched this device. Should I stop it?"
Delenn considered it for a moment. She had always hated the clock. For some reason, the ticks did not seem so threatening to her now. They were almost soothing, as if John were with her again. "No, let it run. Let's return to our beds. We can consider the mystery of the clock in the morning."
As Delenn entered the bedroom, she closed the door. Usually, she left it open, but she was still shaken from the dream and felt like a having a little privacy for a while. She could still faintly hear the clock ticking through the door. Listening to it made her think about John. She started to lie down, then got up again. Moving to the closet, she rummaged around in the back for a minute, emerging with two items.
<Ardenn would believe me deranged if she could see me now,> Delenn thought as she slipped John's oversized blue robe across her slender shoulders. Moving back to the bed, she curled around John's old matted pillow, the other item she had pulled from the closet, and closed her eyes.
In her dreams her soul called out, seeking his presence again. On this night, for the first time in three years, there was a faint reply. Faint, but it was there…
In her sleep, she smiled and hugged the pillow a little more tightly.
The few hours after John had awakened had gone by in a blur. Once Dr. Styles had determined that he was awake and coherent, other technicians had come in to perform various tests and procedures on him. Dr. Styles had remained to supervise, but all of John's confused questions had been deftly put off by the scientist. "All in good time, Mr. President, all in good time." He had said, waving John off. "You'll get your answers in due course, but now is not the time."
The technicians had literally hosed John down with some foul-tasting chemical to get the green slime coating his body off. John learned that the 'slime' was actually residue from the cloning tank, a biologically neutral compound used to introduce nutrients and other chemicals into the growing body. The foul liquid had once functioned as his 'embryonic fluid' and had permeated much of his body.
Once he was relatively clean, he had struggled to a sitting position and tried to stand. That had been a mistake. His body was fully formed and the scientists had used electro-stimulus to exercise the new muscles, but they had never before supported his weight and were not yet up to the task. Fortunately, several orderlies were able to catch him before he fell completely. John allowed them to support his weight until he could get into a chair. One of the technicians assured him that some strength and balance would return within a few days. He would be able to walk, although it would take several months of steady exercise for him to regain full strength and coordination.
Injections, reflex tests, and an eye examination came next. Everything was going so quickly, John felt as if he were on an assembly line. Hypos were going into both arms at once while another technician banged on his knee with a rubber mallet. A fourth technician was asking him to read an eye chart. John spent what he thought of as a silly few minutes dumbly pointing out which direction the 'E' was facing while the other hand covered either one eye or the other. Apparently the technician was satisfied that John's vision was good, because he eventually made a few notes on a chart and left.
Towards the end of all of this activity John could feel himself growing tired. Dr. Styles noticed this and waved the other technicians off. Motioning to an orderly with a wheelchair, he approached.
"Mr. President, we're going to take you to a place where you can rest for a while. Your new body doesn't have the stamina for prolonged activity yet. We'll let you get a few hours of sleep."
Sheridan was too tired to argue. He simply nodded as the orderly helped him into the wheelchair. As he was being wheeled to what he assumed would be his room, Styles continued. "After you get some rest, there are test you will need to take to test your cognitive abilities and your memory. I expect that you will find your memory to be better than it was before, although it will take a couple of days for the memories to mesh with your personality overlay in your brain. You may feel a little confused at first, but this will soon pass."
Sheridan grunted at this. There was too much that was confusing to him as things were anyway. He'd sort everything out later. There was one thing he needed to know now, however…
"Delenn. Where is she? How's she doing?"
"President Delenn is on Minbar, of course. As to how she's doing…well, we'll explain that to you when you regain some strength." Seeing the look on Sheridan's face, Styles added "Oh, she's not sick or injured or anything like that. Don't worry about it now."
<Don't worry about it. Huh.> John thought.
After a few moments they reached the room that would be John's for the next few months. Since he was already in pajama-like clothing, there was no need to help him change and the orderlies assisted him in getting into the small bed. John barely felt his head hitting the pillow before he fell into a deep, dreamless slumber. Dr. Styles made a short notation on a pad he was carrying and closed the door quietly.
John awakened several hours later in his small, sparsely adorned sleeping chamber. He looked around, momentarily disoriented, until the knowledge of the previous day returned to him. He was a clone, and it was four years later than it felt like to him. Somehow, he had a sense that this was true, although he had no recollection of the passage of the time. Not that he would, if his consciousness had been recorded on a personality matrix and had only now been reimplanted.
If he were truly a clone, this raised many questions. What had happened to him after seeing Franklin and the telepaths? His last conscious memory had been listening to Dr. Potts as he dozed off from the sedative. He had seen things in his dreams that were obviously events that had not occurred. Even now, his memory was becoming hazy about them. Had he seen his own death? Had he seen an old version of Delenn? What did these images mean? He had a sense that Lorien was there. Was this all just fantasy?
Of more immediate concern, however, was his present situation. Who were these people? Why had they gone to the trouble and expense to create a clone? Where had they gotten his personality matrix and his genetic sample? For what purpose was he created?
John Sheridan only knew one thing for sure. Delenn did not know anything about this. If she had, she would certainly have been here. Having lived with her for nineteen years, and having known her for even longer, he had no doubt that she would have never approved of this sort of procedure. No matter how much she missed him.
These people were possibly up to no good. They had plans that included using him in some fashion. So far, they had been friendly and helpful. How would that change if he became uncooperative?
John resolved then and there to play along with them for a while, at least until he regained some strength and figured out at least some of their plans for him. If they boded ill for Delenn and the Alliance…well, he'd do what he could, get word to somebody somehow.
After that…after that. He didn't know.
John sighed to himself. Right now, he was just too weak to think this through completely. Better to cooperate for now.
Looking around his room, he thought back to the previous day. He assumed that at least several hour had gone by. Since he had not been outside, he must be in the same complex as the lab where he had been "resurrected", for lack of a better term. There was a small bed, a desk with nothing on it but a computer terminal, a chair, a dresser with some common clothing items and a small washroom. There was also a small window, although John was as yet not strong enough to raise himself up to look out. In reality, his room resembled a cell in a correctional facility, although it was more comfortable.
Swinging his legs heavily off of the small bed, John attempted to stand. <Urgh!> He thought as he shifted slowly to a standing position. He overcame a quick wave of nausea as he slowly raised himself on his new legs for the first time. There! He was standing. Shakily, but he was finally on his own two feet. With effort, he shambled over to the dresser.
Resting for a moment, he shifted again in an effort to get to the washroom. After what seemed an eternity, he got to the sink. He wanted to see himself in the mirror. How different was he? Dr. Styles had not shown him his own image when he awoke…
Four years. FOUR YEARS.
John Sheridan stared into the mirror for about the fiftieth time since his "reawakening", carefully studying the face of the person staring back at him. Oh, it was his face all right. Definitely his face. No one who knew him would ever mistake him for anyone else.
"They haven't completely re-aged me," Sheridan spoke softly to himself. "Why age me at all if they weren't planning on aging me completely?"
It was his face, but not his face. There was no facial hair, other than eyelashes and eyebrows. Dr. Styles had explained that they had periodically trimmed his facial hair as it grew during the cloning process. Otherwise, he said, Sheridan would have come out looking like a crazed hermit.
Absent the facial hair, the man staring back at Sheridan looked a lot more like he had twenty years prior than the older man who had gone to see Dr. Franklin. His hair was no longer white; it was a dark blonde heavily shot through with gray. His face was no longer as deeply lined as it had been. He looked ten, even fifteen years younger than the man he had been at the end.
In the weeks that followed, John worked hard at getting himself back into shape, both physically and mentally. He cooperated with every test and activity they wanted him to take part in, reasoning that cooperation would be the easiest way to gain their confidence. It seemed to be working. As the staff grew used to having him around, they relaxed somewhat, becoming more familiar with him in their daily interactions. Gradually, he began to learn things that might prove beneficial later. As of yet, they had asked nothing of him that would raise his suspicions about their motives. This did not lessen his initial suspicions, but did make him wonder about how much of his true purpose was known by the people he was dealing with. John was harboring the growing feeling that the true players in this scheme were hiding behind the scenes. With patience, he was sure, they would reveal themselves.
During one of his many physical training sessions, John asked Dr. Styles about the seeming irregularities in his age. "John, we simply don't know," the scientist had replied, "according to our aging matrix and mortality tables, you are physically close to the age you were when you vanished. At least within two or three years. All of our instruments tell us that you are as you should be; a healthy human male in his early sixties." Scratching his head, he continued. "Unless there is some other explanation which we are not aware of, you look like you're supposed to look. Your new body, of course, has not had the wear and tear on it that your old one had…"
Somewhere in the back of John's mind, a suspicion was forming. "You conducted blood and tissue workups, I'm sure. Did you find anything unusual?"
"Absolutely not. There are no tissue irregularities and your blood tests out as a perfectly normal O+." Styles was giving in to a natural tendency to boast about his work, something John had been counting on. "Frankly, had we found any irregularities, we would have terminated the body and begun again."
"If I may ask, how old was the genetic sample you used to create this?" John indicated himself.
"There's really no reason you shouldn't know," Styles answered. "We used your last Earthforce sample, from 2259. You were, hmm…43? We overstimulated the aging centers in your brain to replicate about twenty years of additional aging."
That was it, then. Sheridan tried to hide the import of this. No blood or tissue irregularities. Perfectly normal. The sample used to create his "new" body had not had Lorien's organisms running through it. Thus, this new body was completely natural.
"I'm completely normal, then." John tried to make it sound offhand.
"Quite." Styles turned back to the notes he was taking. "Now, John. If we can continue. Ten laps of the gymnasium…Oh, and try to cut a few seconds off your last time, please…"
John was learning a lot about the present state of affairs in the Alliance even as he worked on getting himself back into shape. In his free time, he studied and read constantly. He was sure that the information sources at his disposal were censored, but if even part of what was getting through was true, he was concerned.
Things were unsettled, to say the least.
Since his "ascension" (The story purportedly put out by the Alliance to explain his disappearance), the Alliance had never completely recovered. John thought it inexplicable that he personally had such influence over the stability of the union he and Delenn had created.
After his passing, there had been an immediate backlash in public opinion on Earth against the Alliance. Earth's population was pragmatic, and there had been serious talk of a Minbari power grab orchestrated by Delenn and the Grey Council. A theory had even been put forward that Delenn had somehow engineered his disappearance to get him out of the way.
The Alliance had shifted many purchasing programs to the Centauri Republic to jump start their damaged economy. This had resulted in Earth and Narn corporations losing billions of credits in Alliance spending. John had pioneered that program in the wake of Emperor Mollari's death as a way of keeping his promise to the dying old man, but Delenn had put her name on it as one of her first acts as President. Now it appeared she was taking the blame from Earth and Narn.
An investigation into illegal trade practices within the Alliance had uncovered sponsorship by the Drazi government. Two years ago, Delenn had confronted them with it publicly. The Drazi had refused to comply with an Alliance cease and desist order, resulting in Delenn's ordering a blockade of Drazi space a little over a year ago. The Drazi had not withdrawn from the Alliance as the Centauri had once done, but they had come close. The blockade was still in place. After a year, many members of the former League of Nonaligned Worlds were becoming sympathetic to the plight of the Drazi, arguing that the Drazi people were the ones suffering, not the government. They were putting pressure on Delenn to lift the blockade.
A scandal had occurred when the Alliance Vice-President, a Narn named Ka'deth, had been implicated in an assassination attempt involving a political rival on the Narn homeworld. Amid controversy, Delenn had been forced to ask for his resignation. She had had nothing to do with his actions, but he was a powerful political figure on his world and her request had created resentment within several circles of the Kha'ri.
The list went on and on. Many problems. The common factor in all of them was that they all seemed, either directly or indirectly, to lead back to Delenn. According to the reports he was reading, Delenn had become increasingly reclusive after his passing. Understandable, John thought. Grieving Minbari tended to withdraw from society. Added to that, she seemed to be under attack from many different directions. Even after three years, she hadn't really reemerged other than for official duties.
John had obtained a recent photo of her from an ISN report. Looking at it made his heart ache. She looked tired. She was still the most beautiful creature he had ever seen, but the strain of holding the Alliance together under these circumstances was showing. Her hair was a touch grayer than he remembered, and she looked thinner. Her face still had that timeless quality that John associated with adult Minbari, but the laugh lines around her mouth looked as if they hadn't seen use for some time. Once a Minbari reached adulthood, they seemed to age little until they were quite old. Delenn would be sixty-five years old now in human terms, John knew. Still barely middle-aged for one of her race. Her eyes, though, they were the most telling feature. Where once they had sparkled with laughter, love and fire they now seemed sad and weary. It probably didn't help that the ISN report he had gotten the image from was questioning her fitness to lead. He felt an infinite sadness and sympathy for what she must be going through. <All alone. When I was President, I had her to lean on in the rough times. She has no one, nothing but memories.> Well, not quite no one. There was David, of course, although John had been able to find out very little about his son other than he was a Ranger and was commanding his own White Star now. Delenn also had another powerful friend in her corner. Susan Ivanova had been appointed Anla'shok Na. John was glad to see that he had kept to his idea of appointing her in his place. Not only was Susan the toughest fighter John knew, she had influential contacts on Earth. Contacts she could use to help the Alliance. John knew that her dedication to the Alliance, and Delenn, would be unquestionable.
Delenn also had a powerful ally among the Earth Megacorps. Michael Garibaldi and his wife, Lise might have problems with Alliance contracting, since Edgars Industries had lost several contracts to the Centauri, but their personal friendship with Delenn was rock-solid. They might oppose her politically over this issue, but if things got really bad between the Alliance and Earth, they would undoubtedly stand in Delenn's corner.
Reviewing the information sources allowed him, John began to get an inkling of what might be asked of him. Return home. Use his personal connection with Delenn to undo some of the actions she had taken over the past few years. Make conditions more favorable for…what? That, John reasoned, was what he didn't know. Yet.
The man known as 'Control' punched a code into his comm. terminal. It was time to see how his latest project was going. After a moment, a face appeared on the screen.
"Dr. Styles. I trust that things with 'President' Sheridan are progressing on schedule?" The old man sneered slightly as he enunciated the word 'President'.
"Yes sir. He is progressing well. He has regained most of his strength and is reviewing the information we are feeding him. I believe he is 'distressed' about the state of the Alliance."
Control motioned impatiently. "Will he do as we want him to do when the time comes? That's all I'm really concerned with. The other matters are immaterial."
Styles started at the abruptness of his boss. "I know he misses Delenn terribly. He's downloaded several images of her off of his terminal. He asks about her constantly. I believe he will return to her directly once he is released from here. But…"
"But what?" Control leaned forward in his chair. Problems at this stage were most unwelcome.
Styles hesitated before continuing. His master had a temper and little patience for details. "I do not believe Sheridan trusts us. He hasn't said anything, but he's been feeling out the staff and probing for information not available to him. He's far more subtle than we suspected."
"Nonsense. Everybody knows that Delenn was the brains in their marriage. He was her puppet for twenty years. Now he can be our puppet for a while." Control leaned back, satisfied. Sheridan's suspicions mattered little to him, as long as he went to Delenn when the time came.
"Sir, I think a telepath may be necessary to adjust him completely to our way of thinking."
Control slammed his fist down on his desk angrily. "We've been over this before, Styles. It's simple. Even you can understand it. The Minbari bitch isn't just going to welcome him with open arms, no matter who he is. She's smarter than that. Half the teeps on Minbar will be scanning him before he gets within half a planet of her. Deep scans, Styles, and their teeps are just as good as ours. You think they won't notice any adjustments?"
Styles sighed. His mercurial boss just wouldn't understand the problem. "Then I can't guarantee that he'll cooperate."
"Let me make this clear. I don't care whether or not Sheridan believes us. I don't care whether he cooperates. As far as he's concerned, it's all the same to me. For him, all roads lead back to his Minbari whore. He won't be able to resist returning to her, period. The two of them together in the same room. That's all I require. In fact," Control smiled evilly, "it's all the better that he be himself at the end. I want him to have that one split-second of realization of what he has done as he and that thing he took to his bed die. That moment will be priceless."
Control thought for a moment in the silence that followed. "Does he suspect what we have done to him?"
"No, sir. The procedure was performed before we reimplanted his personality. He has no way of knowing."
"Then allow him to act on his own free will. The end result will be the same."
"I still don't understand…" Styles began. Control cut him off. "As our 'allies' the Minbari say, 'Understanding is not required, only obedience'. Be obedient, Styles. You are not the only genetic specialist I have available."
"Yes sir. I will contact you when we release him."
"Until then." Control started to terminate the connection, then continued "Oh, and Dr. Styles?"
"Don't forget that we know where your family lives."
With a satisfied smile, Control terminated the connection.
One of the physical activities John was most fond of was working out with the Minbari fighting pike, the Denn'bok. John had learned after his marriage to Delenn that she was quite skilled in its use. Although not an expert by any means, she was more than capable of defending herself with the ancient weapon.
John had trained on the 'Bo', a similar Earth weapon, while he was a cadet at the Earthforce Military Academy. One day, he had (foolishly, in retrospect) challenged her to spar with him as a jest. Several minutes and many bruises into the bout, he had decided that his training in the Bo was a little rusty. At the end, he was simultaneously amused at the situation, embarrassed at the thrashing he had taken, and proud of the gleam in his wife's eye. She had referred to his bruises as 'love taps'.
As Delenn would later say about him, he did nothing in half measures. John had taken to training with the Denn'bok zealously, even taking training from Sech Durhan once he had learned all he could from Delenn. Durhan had insisted that he learn Adronato as payment for his instruction. Thus John Sheridan had killed two birds with one stone. Delenn had been inordinately pleased.
As President, the Denn'bok became his primary form of exercise. He was not a master and never would be, but after several years he had reached a point where he was skillful enough to make almost any Human and, in reality, most Minbari think twice before attempting to take him on. He had long since repaid his wife for the 'love taps' she had given him in his first bout. This time, she had been proud of him - although she had paid him back by complaining that she was "too sore" for lovemaking for the next several nights. John had taken the hint and never seriously sparred with her again.
Now, John was discovering that his new body had an advantage over the old one. Because he was unimpeded by Lorien's gift, he was physically stronger and had more stamina. When combined with weight training and running, he was more muscular. He discovered that his thrusts with the Denn'bok were faster and more powerful than they had ever been, and he could keep up the practices longer. The staff he used to work out was not a Denn'bok, just a wooden pike, but it was the same length and weight. It proved an acceptable alternative.
His workouts also led to a monumental discovery, one that would profoundly affect his course of action later.
It was about four months since he had been "resurrected". The staff at the facility had become fairly relaxed around him once they had discovered he wasn't going to run out on them at the first opportunity, and they no longer seriously watched him. For the most part, he was allowed to come and go from the gym as he pleased. He was working out with his pike, going through the proper forms and skills taught to him by Sech Durhan. Many of his "guards", those staffers assigned to monitor his whereabouts, had taken to watching his practices. They often applauded when he completed a complex move. In the beginning, a few had wanted to try their hands at taking him on. John had disavowed those few quickly.
For this practice, he only had one watcher, a good-natured orderly named Bill. As he worked out, Bill sat at a table reading a novel. Every now and then, he would glance up at John and then go back to his reading.
Finishing his workout, John grabbed a towel and, wiping sweat from his face, walked over to a water fountain to get a drink. He pushed the button, and instead of water, a gurgling sound emerged from the guts of the machine.
"Hey, Bill. This water fountain is broken." John said to the guard. "Yeah, I know," Bill replied, not looking up from his book. "We've got a work order in on it. It should be fixed tomorrow."
"What am I supposed to do for water?"
"Use the one down the hall. I just got a drink from it. It works." Expecting Bill to follow, John moved to the door. When Bill didn't budge and didn't appear to be about to put his book down, John continued on out.
As he walked down the hall, John passed several closed doors. Just as he got to the water fountain, John noticed that the door immediately opposite was slightly ajar. John got his drink, but then couldn't resist peeking in. When he saw what the room was, he gasped involuntarily. It was the laboratory where he had awakened.
John had not been back to this room since that time. He had been so confused that he had not taken stock of his surroundings and, truth be told, his memories of that first day were foggy. Quickly ascertaining that there was no one inside, John took a quick glance down the hall to ensure Bill was not following and entered.
The room was larger than John remembered. The center of the lab was taken up by a raised platform, upon which the table he had awakened on sat. A large scaffold with various surgical instruments dangling from it extended from the ceiling, hanging down over the table. Various monitoring instruments and computer terminals were spaced around the room. Shelves with jars and specimens lined the back wall. Also against the wall was a large tank. John assumed the tank was the one he had been 'grown' in. There was something odd about it.
Moving over to the tank, John looked at it closely. It was obviously not of Human manufacture. It was black, but not black. On closer inspection, light seemed to slide off of it. It was hard to look at.
Reaching out to touch the tank, John discovered that it felt oily. Yet, when he removed his hand, it was completely dry. Suspiciously, John moved around the device, looking for identifying features. He was starting to get a bad feeling…there they were. John's suspicions were confirmed. Shadow runes. He recognized the look of them from his time on Zha'dum, even if he didn't understand what they signified. He had been created with Shadow technology. Banned Shadow technology.
John recalled that one of the things he discovered in the wake of liberating Centauri Prime from the Drakh was that the Shadows had been trying to breed their own 'weapons components' so they wouldn't be dependant on the younger races for 'spare parts'. This machine, then, was a part of that program. John was dumbfounded. Any doubts about the motivations of his creators were put to rest. There could be no legitimate reason for anyone to use this technology.
Realizing that Bill would miss him soon and come looking for him, John quickly turned to exit. As he was leaving, something caught his eye on one of the shelves. A large, liquid-filled glass jar. John padded over to look at it. There was something inside. The label said [Sheridan #13047 - 2284]. Inside, what appeared to be a human rib.
Incredulously, John felt around his ribcage. No, they all seemed to be there. <I'm wasting time,> he thought. <I've got to get out of here now.>
Moving to the exit, he left closing the door quietly behind him. Returning down the hall, he entered the gym door just as Bill was getting up.
"Where were you? I was just gettin' ready to come lookin' for you." Bill said accusingly.
"Hey, I'm sorry. I stopped at the can while I was out there. You didn't want to watch me take a dump, did you?"
"No. Oh hell no." Bill backpedaled quickly. "But you shoulda said somethin'. You can't just wander around this place. Styles would have my ass."
"I'm sorry Bill. It won't happen again. I don't want to get you in trouble." John tried to appear sincere. Most of the working people, he had reasoned long ago, had little knowledge about what went on at the facility, over and above the fact that they had a dead President walking among them. Bill was about as "working people" as you could get.
"Well, OK. Lets get out of here. Your sleep period is about to start." Bill led John back to his room.
Later that night, John tried to reason out what he had seen. What he reasoned out made him sad. He was a clone. He had known that all along, of course, but seeing the tank brought the fact inescapably home. He was not the John Sheridan he had been before. He had the memories, the feelings, the urges and emotions, and he even had a better body, but he was a copy, not the original. He had been created using illegal Shadow technology and a personality matrix off of a data crystal. He did not yet know why he was here, but he was sure it boded ill for Delenn and the Alliance. And then there was the rib in the jar…what did that signify?
John Sheridan knew one thing, and that one thing sent a tear coursing down his cheek. He could never return to Delenn. If for no other reason, she would never accept a Shadow-spawned clone in place of "her" John. Even if she would, he had been created for reasons unknown, by people unknown, probably as some sort of weapon to use against her. No, returning to Minbar was out of the question. Delenn could not even know of his existence. The knowledge would tear her apart.
He still needed to do something, he thought. Warn someone about this facility somehow. If they had created him, they could create anybody. Anyone with these resources and hostile intent is a major threat to the Alliance. They must be dealt with, for John Sheridan was sure that no one with these resources only had one project going. These people would work on several fronts. Their web would be cast in many directions. Their web…Shit.
John could think of only one secret Human organization with the kind of resources it would take to pull off his creation, would have hostile intent against the Alliance, and was still in existence.
Bureau 13. The spider he had sworn to find and kill. The one anti-alien organization he had failed to root out during his previous life. In his life, he and Delenn had been symbols of everything they hated, and now they had pulled him back from death to take their revenge. They would use him to take their revenge on a lonely and besieged Delenn.
The thought that they would attack Delenn when she was at her weakest elicited a cold fury within him. That they would try to use his love against her. He had no doubt no that that was their plan. No, he could never return to her or make up for what she had lost, but he could do this one thing for her, although she would never know. He would somehow finish this organization off. He hadn't been able to do it before, but he would find a way this time. They thought they had created a weapon to use against the Alliance but, John mused grimly, they had sown the seeds of their own destruction. They had given him a second chance. No enemy gives John Sheridan two chances and survives. Not the Black Star, not the Shadows, and not these guys.
John eventually dozed off, determined that he would find a way to finish this, once and for all.
"John, it's time we let you know why we brought you here."
John Sheridan and Dr. Styles were sitting in Styles' well-appointed office. John had been brought here moments before. He had not been in this wing, and he was rather surprised that he wasn't in his normal testing area. He had been putting up a good front for the past week, since he had figured out who was behind his creation. As far as he could tell, no one suspected that he was on to them.
"Great, I've been wondering about that since my first day." John tried to appear relaxed.
"I know you have, and I'm sorry for the secrecy. Our backers insisted on it however, or I would have told you sooner."
"Your backers? And just who are these backers?" John asked. He really didn't expect an answer, at least not a truthful one. But, he reasoned, you never know unless you ask.
"Lets just say they are people with resources who are concerned with the way Alliance policies are being carried out. They wish to remain anonymous. They have spent several million credits creating you, so I think they deserve to have us honor their wishes."
John nodded, seeming to consider the answer. "Good enough, I guess. So, you were saying?"
"I'll be frank, John. You've read the reports, seen the news. The Interstellar Alliance has become unstable over the past few years. The Advisory Council is a shambles. The Rangers are turning the IA into a Police State, with General Ivanova as the main enforcer, and Delenn is just letting it happen." Styles was pleading his case as effectively and sincerely as he could. "Delenn has antagonized Earth and Narn, isolated the Drazi, and just about ruined several other worlds economically. I know you love your wife, but you have to recognize that she's getting some bad advice. The old League is up in arms. Surely you can see that."
John wasn't buying any of it, but he had to concede a little, just to move the conversation along. "I've noticed that things are 'unsettled' right now, but as a former President, I understand that the Alliance is still going through growing pains. Periods of turbulence occur. I know Delenn better than anyone alive today. I know she's working on solutions."
"Precisely. You're the former President, and her husband. Our backers know she wants to make things better, but she's not succeeding."
"Delenn might debate you as to whether or not a clone would qualify as her husband. Still, if you think for one moment that I'll act against her, you're crazy. I may not agree with what she's doing right now, but I could never move against her."
"Why not? You moved against President Clark when you didn't agree with his policies. You moved against Emperor Mollari when you didn't agree with him. I know you loved Earth, and that you cared about the Centauri, but you acted anyway."
"That was different. Delenn isn't Morgan Clark or Londo Mollari."
"John, the point is that we don't want you to act against Delenn anyway. We want you to help her. Our backers recognize that the Alliance operated more efficiently when both of you were in power. You complimented each other. You had a special bond, and it affected the way the Alliance was run. Our backers think you can have that bond again. They want someone who can see the big picture. Someone who is above reproach who can act in everyone's best interest."
"And I'm that someone. All right, I'll concede that things could be better." John acted resigned. "What, exactly, do you want me to do?"
"Soon, you will be released from this facility. We'll transport you to the Narn homeworld with a new identity and enough credit to do just about anything you need to do. Narn is the closest major spaceport." Styles passed John a credit chip and identification documents. "Actually, your younger appearance works in our favor. There's less chance of people asking questions. From Narn, you're on your own."
"On my own, huh?" John sounded and looked dubious.
"Well, we'll arrange transport for you from Narn to Minbar. We're assuming that you'll want to get back to your family as soon as possible. You do want to return to them, don't you?" Styles leaned forward anxiously. The possibility that he might not want to return to Delenn had just occurred to him.
"More than you'll ever know." <It will never happen. I'm sorry, my love.> John thought.
Styles leaned back, relieved. He was already thinking of the positive update he'd send to Control. Sheridan would go back to Delenn. Or so he thought from John's nebulous response. This was just what Sheridan wanted him to think.
"And what are your backers looking for from me?" John queried.
"Just a sympathetic ear, a willing hand on the tiller. Someone to help Delenn help herself. We're not pushing specific policies here, it's more about attitude."
"And money. It's always about money."
"Money is a part of it, yes. Our backers make more money when things are stable. Stability is what we're looking for from you."
"When do I leave?"
The shuttle flight from the facility to the local jump gate was spent in darkness. Styles wanted John seeing as little of the outside as possible until he was in Narn space. Only after the shuttle had entered the jump gate was John allowed to come forward to a cabin with a viewport.
Hyperspace, John noted as he stared into the spinning maelstrom, had changed little since he'd been gone.
The crew of the shuttle was not inclined to be talkative. John did not attempt to carry on lengthy conversations with them. He was caught up in trying to figure out how he was going to avoid getting on the ship bound from Narn to Minbar. Despite what Styles said about his appearance, John knew that the first Minbari to take a close look would recognize him. They had good memories, and just about every Minbari knew his image, either as Delenn's husband or, more darkly, as Starkiller Sheridan. If he set foot on Minbar, he had no doubt that she would find out about him. Whatever plan Bureau 13 had, he thought, involved him linking up with Delenn. For that reason, he could not allow that to happen.
Now that freedom was almost within his grasp, John had to consider what he would tell the authorities about Bureau 13's activities. Obviously, he couldn't walk into the local Ranger Station or Alliance office and announce himself as John Sheridan risen from the dead. That would create nothing but chaos, word would reach Susan and, through her, Delenn.
Even if he could warn the Alliance somehow, what would he really be able to tell them? About the cloning, obviously, but what else? He didn't know where the facility was and had no way of finding out.
Just as John was ruminating over this, one of the shuttle crew walked by. John barely took notice of the man; he was not really noticeable. He was wearing a standard shuttle flight suit. It was a tan one-piece affair with a small leather nametape sewn over the left breast. John noted his name idly, "Kevin Warner". As the man passed, John hesitated for a second, then sat up stiff as a board. He had an idea.
All of the shuttle crew were wearing nametapes. Even though he did not know the location of the facility, he now potentially had the names of five men who knew the hyperspace coordinates. In the hands of the right person, those five men could easily be tracked down and "encouraged" to cooperate. Since Narn was the closest spaceport, it was logical that this crew probably made this run regularly.
<Damn!> John thought as he committed each name and face to memory. <Having this powerful new memory sure is coming in handy.>
Most of the trip passed in silence. John reviewed the identity he had been given. His new name was John McPherson. He was a sales representative for an Earth-based communications company conducting a swing through the major Alliance worlds. Checking his credit chit, he noted that his 'expense' account was substantial. Almost enough to buy his own ship. Apparently this John McPherson was one top-notch salesman.
"Mr. McPherson, we'll be landing at the main Narn spaceport shortly. You need to strap in."
"Thanks," Sheridan replied. Moving back to his seat, he secured his small carry-on. It was the only luggage he had. He wasn't leaving the facility with much. His keepers had reasoned he didn't require much for the few days that it would take to reach Minbar.
Soon, John could feel the increasing turbulence and pressure of entry into Narn's atmosphere. In all of his time as President, John had only been to Narn a few times, and then for official visits only. He had never had time to really survey the damage the Centauri had done over twenty-five years before. From what he had heard, the planet was still bleak and barren despite the Kha'ri's efforts to rebuild.
After a short time, John felt the resounding 'thump' of the ship as it touched down. Presently, the flight engineer came back to John's seat. "We're down, Mr. McPherson. You can unstrap and debark at any time. Hope you enjoyed your trip."
"Thanks, it was a productive one. Appreciate the lift." John started to get up.
"By the way, has anyone ever told you that you look a lot like John Sheridan?" the engineer asked. John looked at his face and saw nothing but innocence. He didn't know.
"I get that all the time." John replied.
"Well, it's true. It's a shame he died so young. We could use him about now." The engineer moved off and went about securing the ship. John grabbed his bag and put on his cloak. He was counting on the cloak to both keep him warm (It was winter on Narn) and to hide his appearance from any in the spaceport who might get too curious. Without any fanfare, John left the ship and reentered society.
Moving through the terminal, John was struck by the mass of people moving to and fro on their own errands. In the great mix of different races moving about, no one paid any attention to him. Slinging his bag over his shoulder, he moved off into the crowd.
It didn't take John long to figure out he was being followed. Two humans seemed to always be near him no matter where he went. He had moved about the spaceport at random just to check his theory. They continued to turn up. John figured he'd better go ahead and pick up his boarding pass before they became suspicious.
He worked his way over to the ticket counter, which was manned by a young Narn female. As he approached, he took out his identification and handed it to her. She glanced at it and handed it back. "We already have a reservation for you, Mr. McPherson. Your boarding pass for Minbar is in the slot on your left. The ship boards at 1400 from gate B-13. Have a nice flight.
John couldn't resist a chuckle at the gate number. Thanking the Narn and taking his pass, he noted that he had a few hours to kill. He casually looked around. <Yep, still there.> he thought as he noticed his two 'fans' still in the area. Growing serious again, he went and checked the departures monitor. The monitor showed his ship on schedule for 1400. Looking down the list, he noted that there was a ship leaving for the Gaim homeworld five minutes later. Another ship was leaving for Brakir five minutes prior. Neither would suit his purposes. There was a ship for Earth leaving at the same time as his. That one was a possibility, although he noticed that the gate was in a different terminal. His tails would be on to him before he could move to that area.
John had almost run out of hope that he could avoid going to Minbar when he spied another entry at the bottom of the list. There was a small ship leaving for Mars from the gate directly opposite his at the same time. That might work, if that ship had an empty seat. He'd have to lose his followers long enough to find out.
John wandered aimlessly around the main terminal for awhile, learning the layout of the place. Once committed to memory, he put his quickly formulated plan into action.
The terminal restrooms were located in a large central pillar in the main terminal with entrances on either side. Moving casually to the restroom, John watched his tails out of the corner of his eye. They were both on his side of the pillar, as he had hoped they would be. Entering the restroom, John quickly moved to a stall. Removing his cloak, he stuffed it into his bag and left the restroom out the opposite door. He knew he was at risk of being identified, but it was a necessary chance. Fortunately for him, his shadows were nowhere in sight because they were still on the opposite side waiting for him to emerge. Luckily, also, there was nobody but Narns in sight. John was counting on the Narn joke about all humans looking alike to them to be true.
John moved to the nearest ticket counter. "Excuse me," he began, "I've just received an important call from my home office. They want me on Mars rather than Minbar. Is it possible to exchange my ticket and get on your Mars run?"
The ticket agent quickly checked her monitor. "It appears you are in luck, sir. There's one seat left on the Mars flight. Should I book you into it?"
"Yes please. Here's my boarding pass for Minbar."
The ticket agent took the boarding pass and exchanged it for a different one. "Here you go, sir. Your flight leaves from gate B-5 at 1400. Have a nice flight."
John took the pass and moved back to the restroom, wondering at the synchronicity of the gate numbers. Under different circumstances, he would have taken the numbers as a portent. Now, he didn't have time. Entering the restroom, he took the opportunity to relieve himself, donned his cloak, and emerged out the door he had originally entered. So far, so good.
His tails were still there, and they followed him as he left the main terminal and made his way to departure terminal 'B'. John quickly found both gates B-13 and B-5. Taking a seat in the waiting area of B-13, John got a book out and pretended to read while watching both his followers and Gate B-5. Soon it would be time to break openly with the organization that created him.
Eventually, the area began to fill up as passengers for both Minbar and Mars filtered in. There were more than a few Minbari on this flight, and John pulled his hood down further over his head to avoid being recognized. Fortunately, Minbari respect the privacy of others and none looked too closely at him. Soon, the gate agents on both sides of the corridor called for boarding to begin. At the rate they were going, the flight for Mars would fill before the larger ship for Minbar.
John continued to wait. The Mars ship was almost done, while a few still remained for Minbar. John's tails, milling around a newsstand further down the corridor, were starting to get jumpy since he had not boarded. Soon, they would move closer if he didn't act.
The gate agent for the Mars flight was making his final call for passengers. He got up and moved to the boarding door. John got up and ran across the corridor just as he was beginning to close the gangway entrance. Abandoning all pretense, John's tails realized too late what he intended and began running down the corridor towards him. They were shouting.
John handed the Mars gate agent his boarding pass and slipped through. The door clanged shut behind him and sealed. The two tails slid to a halt and demanded the gate agent unseal the door.
"I'll unseal the door when you show me your boarding passes." The agents held up their boarding passes, and the gate agent examined them. "I'm sorry, these boarding passes are for Minbar. If you hurry, you can still get on your ship over there." He indicated the Minbar gate.
"We want on this ship," One of the tails pulled a PPG and held it under the gate agent's nose "Now open up!"
"Y-you're too late, sir!" The panicked gate agent waved toward the window, where the Mars ship was lifting off.
The second tail pulled the first away from the gate agent. "Come on!" He shouted in the first agent's ear, "We've got a call to make. Our people on Mars will catch up to him. Let's get out of here."
The two moved off quickly. Spaceport security never located them.
In John's opinion, there had never been a more bleak or barren place that Humanity had colonized except for perhaps the Moon.
Mars didn't hold many fond memories for John. True, he had been the driving force behind that planet's independence from Earth, and it had played a great part in liberating the Earth Alliance from President Clark's influence, but his memories of Mars were mainly dark. He had been held here. Tortured. Almost broken.
To John's memory, he had only visited Mars a few months ago. In actuality, it had been four years. Delenn had been meeting with the new Mars president when John had taken his side trip to see Stephen. That had started this whole convoluted mess.
<Not much has changed in four years,> John thought as he disembarked the ship from Narn. Barren and red.
Very few things would bring John willingly to Mars. This trip was out of necessity and Mars was a convenient destination. As much as he hated to admit it, he could not alone fathom Bureau 13's plans for him and the Alliance. He needed help, and there was a person on Mars with just the resources to help him.
John's relationship with Michael Garibaldi was filled with ups and downs. They had been both the best of friends and the bitterest of enemies. While they were enemies no longer, there had been times during John's presidency when IA policies had come into conflict with Edgars Industries' bottom line. From his research, John knew that now was such a time. The IA policy regarding Centauri reconstruction was costing Michael's company millions of credits as Alliance resources were diverted to Centauri Prime and away from lucrative contracts with the Earth Megacorps. John only hoped that Michael's friendship with him and Delenn would override his anger at the lost revenues.
<Besides,> John thought, <Who else do I have to turn to?>
Reaching the Mars terminal, John looked around for the inevitable Bureau 13 welcoming committee. While no one looked particularly suspicious, John was sure that the people on Narn would have informed their bosses that he was on his way to Mars. His solitude would not last and, in the mainly Human-occupied terminal, his new tails would be harder to spot.
<I might as well take advantage of this now.> John moved to the nearest public communications terminal and activated it.
"Welcome to Marscom," the terminal intoned, going into it's automatic introduction subroutine. The screen displayed a list of options.
"Information," John stated. Reasoning that Michael would be at work, he continued "Connect me with Edgars Industries headquarters. Mr. Michael Garibaldi."
"Cannot comply with request." The machine replied. "The connection for 'Michael Garibaldi' is restricted access. Please try again."
<Shit,> John thought. <It makes sense that no one is going to contact a Megacorps CEO on a public terminal. Hmmm…> "Ok, connect me with the office of the Chief Executive Officer of Edgars Industries."
"Stand By. Connecting." After a moment, the face of a middle-aged human woman appeared on screen. "This is Edgars Industries Reception. Mrs. Davis speaking. Can I help you?"
"Yes," John replied. "I need to speak with Mr. Garibaldi on a matter of great importance. Can you connect me with him please?"
At the mention of Michael's name, the receptionist grew wary. "And who may I say is calling?"
John knew that his real name would make the woman think he was a crank, and his fake identity wouldn't be enough to get him through. "An old friend."
The receptionist was getting annoyed. "Sir, people in Mr. Garibaldi's position have plenty of old friends. Most of them want money. Mr. Garibaldi is a very busy man. Unless you can give me a legitimate reason why you need to talk to him you won't."
"I can't tell you. I have to tell Mr. Garibaldi personally."
"Then goodbye, sir. Have a nice day." The receptionist terminated the connection.
John would have tried again, but just then he noticed two swarthy-looking men eyeing him curiously. Not willing to take a chance that they were his new tails, he left the Marscom booth, slung his bag and began walking toward the tramway to Marsdome. Sure enough, the two men followed from a distance. They seemed to be making no attempt to hide the fact that they were following him, but they also made no attempt to close the distance. <Probably trying to figure out what I'm doing before moving in.> John thought. <Not that it can be any great secret. Bureau 13 would know that Michael lives here.>
Reaching the tram terminal, John tried to appear nonchalant as he waited for the next tram. He doubted that they would approach him in a crowd. It was more likely they would wait until he was in a relatively empty area. John considered his options. Both tails were large men, but as long as weapons didn't come into play, John reasoned, he could probably take them. He was in top shape and the gravity on Mars was about half what it had been at the facility. Assuming they were local Mars residents, of course…
After a short wait, the tram pulled up. John boarded immediately and started forward. Moving from car to car as people boarded, John noticed that the two men were following, jostling their way through the crowd in an effort to keep up with him. Presently, John heard the message he was waiting for. "Doors are closing. Please finish entering the car. Doors are closing." The automatic system intoned. As the doors started sliding shut, John hopped out the other side, nearly losing his cloak and bag in the process. The two men tried to follow, but were unable to unseal the now-closed doors. They beat on the plexiglas and glared angrily at John as the tram pulled out of the station and into the transport tube.
John waited patiently for the next tram. He figured that it would take his followers a few minutes to get to the first station and contact their controllers to explain what happened. Hopefully, by then he would have gained a little leeway. As the next tram pulled up, John started considering his next steps. Getting in touch with Michael was critical, and it appeared the only way he might get to see him was in person. He had hoped to avoid directly meeting with any of his old friends, but it appeared that Michael's overly efficient office staff would make that hope impossible. John only hoped that if he made it that far, he could get Michael to believe his story.
On the tram, John watched the station map closely. Edgars Industries, it appeared, had its own stop. John reasoned that he would have a reception committee waiting for him there. He decided that it would be better to get off a couple of stops prior to the obvious one. Unfortunately, that stop was the local Ranger Station. It couldn't be helped. He would have to hope that no Rangers were milling around the station. If he could get to ground level, he should be able to lose himself in the crowd.
<Oh, Hell.> The station was crawling with Rangers. John belatedly remembered that the Mars Ranger base was the main base for the Sol system. It was nearly impossible to keep from bumping into them as he exited the tram. <One good thing,> John reasoned, <those goons definitely won't be milling around here.>
Momentarily lost in his reverie, John slammed full force into a Ranger as he stepped out of the tram. The Ranger fell, and John instinctively reached out a hand to help her up. She was a Minbari, and she looked John full in the face as he mumbled his apologies. "No, I apologize, sir. There was no harm d…" John saw recognition flash across her features. "Entil zha!" she hissed. "No, you're mistaking me for someone else…" John tried to extricate himself from her grip. She held on tightly. "You are Entil zha!" she continued, her voice rising with excitement. "I know you! You awarded me my Anla shok brooch!"
This was just what John had wanted to avoid. "I'm sorry, I have to go. You have the wrong person." The young Minbari was looking at him as if she'd seen a ghost. Breaking away from her, John noticed that other Rangers were beginning to look their way. "Come back!" The Ranger started to follow. If they blocked him in, he'd never be able to explain his way out. Moving as quickly as he could without appearing to rush, he spied an exit. Glancing back quickly, he saw the young Minbari talking excitedly with several other human and Minbari Rangers and gesturing in his direction. At the exit, he took the steps to the surface two at a time, his cloak billowing out behind him. <Hopefully, they'll think it just a case of mistaken identity.> John thought. John wandered through the crowded street in the general direction of the Edgars Industries complex, checking behind him often for either Bureau 13 tails or following Rangers. He did not immediately see any. Rangers would be pretty obvious but Bureau 13 operatives would not stick out in the crowd. John had no doubt that he would encounter Bureau 13 operatives prior to reaching the complex. By now, they would have figured out his destination.
John spent the next several hours working his way towards the Edgars Industries complex. While the distance wasn't far, only a couple of miles from the station where he'd disembarked, he wanted to give any potential observers time to get lazy and bored. Despite the waiting, John knew the clock was on him, however. It would do him no good to get into the building only to find everybody gone home for the evening.
Finally, it was time. John could wait no longer. He walked to the front of the building in which he knew Michael's office to be and started up the steps. He didn't get ten feet before the expected happened.
John felt a PPG pressed into his lower back. A voice hissed in his ear. "Act natural, Mr. McPherson, and no sudden moves. I want to have a word with you. See that alcove over on your left?" John nodded. "Good. Move that way please."
Once John was in the alcove, the man shoved him against the wall. "Aren't you supposed to be on Minbar now, Mr. McPherson? My associates and I figured you'd be all curled up with your bonehead wife about now. Then again, maybe she's not so good at hanging onto a human after all?"
John spun around. "You guys said I was on my own after you got me to Narn. I decided to come here."
"Here's not where our backers want you to be. They want you on Minbar. That's where you're going." The man stuck his PPG up under John's nose. "I'm taking you right back to the spaceport and sticking you on the first flight to Minbar. I'm going to personally watch you get o…!"
The Bureau 13 agent realized his mistake a little too late. While he was talking, John had seized his gun hand and jerked him to within arms' reach. Clamping his assailant's gun arm under his armpit, John drove his other fist into the man's face with bone-crunching force. John's assailant crumpled without a sound into his arms, unconscious.
"Hey! What's going on over there!"
John looked up to see a man in a uniform approaching him with a drawn PPG. John briefly considered going for the PPG his assailant had dropped when he was knocked out, but he realized that he'd never reach it before the uniformed guy dropped him. As the man moved closer, John saw that he was an Edgars Industries security officer.
John put on his best innocent face. "Hell, I'm glad you got here. This guy was trying to mug me. If you hadn't distracted him, he probably would have shot me."
"Have you got any ID?" John handed over his fake identicard. "Well, Mr. McPherson, since this assault occurred on Edgars Industries property, you'll have to come along and file a report in our security office."
"No problem. I have an appointment in your building anyway." John was delighted. He hadn't been able to figure out how he was going to get past the front reception area and this was just the break he needed. Going in through security would bypass all that initial scrutiny. He might even be able to get directly into the executive suite.
As they waited for backup, the security guard turned to John. "Hey, has anyone ever told you that you're a dead ringer for John Sheridan?"
"You're only the second person today to say that. Usually I get it a lot more."
"Uh, OK. Sorry. I'll bet you get tired of hearing that." The guard turned his attention back to securing John's assailant.
Shortly, several other security guards arrived and took John's assailant away. John followed the team back into a side door of the building he had been approaching in the first place. They entered and the guard motioned John to a desk. The unconscious Bureau 13 operative was secured in an adjacent room since the security office didn't have a holding area. John spent the next half-hour filling out paperwork.
As he finished, the security guard said "We'll hold this guy until the police arrive. We'll turn him and your statement over to them. They'll probably want to contact you about pressing charges."
"That may be a problem. I'm only on Mars for a little while."
"Well, then Edgars Industries will probably press charges. We don't take kindly to people being accosted on company grounds. Your statement should be enough." Placing the paperwork in a file, he continued, "You're free to go. Do you want me to let anyone upstairs know that you're running late?"
"No, that's OK. I'm actually still a little early. If you could point out the way to the executive offices for me I'll just let the receptionist know I'm in when I get up there."
The guard directed John to a bank of elevators around the corner and told him the floor. As he rode up, John considered how he was going to get in to see Michael, and what he would say when he did.
As it turned out, just getting past Michael's executive assistant was proving to be daunting. The woman was used to being the gatekeeper, and wasn't about to let John just slide by.
"You say you're an old friend of Mr. Garibaldi's, but you don't have an appointment."
"No I don't. Believe me, he'll want to see me."
"Mr. Garibaldi's schedule is very busy. Make an appointment and come back then."
"I don't have time for that. I need to see him now. It's very important."
"OK, what do you need to see him about? You can tell me and I'll make a determination."
"I can't do that. What I have to say is for him alone."
"That's not good enough. Either leave or I'll call Security." The woman started to punch a button on her communications terminal.
"OK, wait a minute. Would you at least pass him a note for me?"
The woman hesitated, her finger still on the button. "OK. Write your note. Make it quick."
John grabbed a piece of paper and an envelope off of her desk. He quickly jotted a note.
This will be hard for you to believe. I'm alive, and I need your help. I believe the Alliance is in danger and I have no one else to turn to. It's very important that I see you immediately. I know you'll take convincing, and I'll explain everything as soon as I see you.
Once long ago I told you about a spider in the web that I would catch and kill. The spider is still in its web. I need your help to kill it.
John placed the note in the envelope and sealed it. Handing it to Michael's assistant, he said "Please pass this to Mr. Garibaldi. I won't bother you anymore. I'll be waiting in the reception area."
Michael's assistant too the note and disappeared through a door at the rear of the office. John went back to the waiting area and took a seat. After a few minutes, he began to fidget. <It shouldn't be taking this long,> John thought. <Something's wrong.>
Just as John was starting to worry, Michael's assistant emerged. "Mr. Garibaldi read your note."
John stood. "And…?"
"And you will come with us, please." John heard a new voice behind him, accompanied by the whine of several PPGs charging up. Turning, he saw three burly men behind him. Unlike the security guards downstairs, these men were in plainclothes. "We're from Edgars Industries Executive Protection Services. You can either come with us the easy way or the hard way, but you will come."
<Aww, Hell.> John sighed in resignation and put up his hands. Things were definitely not working out as he envisioned them…
The candle flickered almost in time with the steady ticking of the clock. Delenn could almost feel him beside her. Up until a few months ago, she hadn't felt her bond with John in years. It was both inexplicable and wonderful. The sense of loss she had carried with her for so long was…well, not gone, but suppressed. She couldn't understand it, and had given up trying. She was just happy to feel something approaching ' whole' again. Surely this heralded something portentous. What that might be, she could not say. Only that it was, and she would revel in it while she could…
Delenn broke out of her reverie as she heard Ardenn approach behind her. "Yes? What is it?"
"I'm sorry, Mistress. I did not mean to disturb your meditations. I have some correspondence to leave for you from the Advisory Council." Ardenn moved to place the papers on the desk.
"It's all right, Ardenn. You did not disturb me. I was almost finished anyway." Delenn could not help the slight smile forming on her lips as she contemplated the feeling of, well, 'completeness' that she had felt in her recent meditations.
Ardenn regarded her mentor for a moment. "You are content." It was a statement, not a question.
"Yes, I am. I feel better than I have in years." Delenn moved the still-burning candle aside. "That is not so bad, is it? For me to be content." She stared dreamily off into space for a moment, seeming to see something others could not.
Turning her attention back to Ardenn, she smiled at the young Minbari. "And I am sure it makes your life around here a little more tolerable."
Ardenn bowed. "My life here has always been more than tolerable, Mistress. It gives me pleasure to see you less troubled."
"Troubled. I imagine that's as good a description of my demeanor up until recently as any."
"What has changed, Mistress?" Ardenn asked hesitantly, curious but not wanting to intrude on Delenn's private matters. "I mean, you have taken to meditating in this room. Your sleep is less disturbed. You are smiling more. I thought you did not like that clock…" Ardenn indicated the device above Delenn's head.
Delenn propped her chin on her hand and looked off again, considering. How to describe it? "I feel him, Ardenn. I cannot explain it. His presence is with me, and I feel it most strongly in this room."
"Whose presence? Your husband's?"
"Yes." Seeing the look of confusion on her aide's face, Delenn continued. "You do not understand, because you have not yet found the other half of your soul." Delenn sighed. Her aide still looked dubious. "Let me try to explain. I think truly finding that other half is a rarity. Most people travel through their lives never finding their soul mate. Because they do not, they never feel the lack of completeness. When someone does find their other half however, as I did with John, a new bond is formed that opens up a higher level of intimacy for both halves." Delenn paused a moment, frowning, before she continued. "When John left, I felt that link sever. It was like a part of me had been ripped out. I was despondent. It was as if my life had ended as well as his."
"You loved him. That is understandable."
"I love him still, Ardenn. What we had…what we have is more than love, though. He and I…well, we do not have the words in our language to describe it. I doubt that the words exist in any language that accurately capture what we had together. We were…we are one person in two bodies. Two different aspects of the same soul." Delenn shook her head. Words rarely failed her, but describing the essence of her relationship with John defied even her command of the language. Turning her attention back to Ardenn, she asked "Have you ever loved anyone, Ardenn?"
"I love you, of course, Mistress. Everything I have now is because of my being in your service. If you had not taken me in, I would still be scrubbing temple steps for the Sisters of Valeria."
Delenn regarded her aide silently. Ardenn's parents had been killed in the short but violent war between the Religious and Warrior castes twenty-three years prior, leaving her an orphaned infant. Taken in by the Sisters of Valeria, she had essentially grown up as a nameless servant of that order. Well-educated, but with no family or caste, her prospects in Minbari society had been slim until Delenn had discovered her. Delenn had been seeking an assistant who was not affiliated with a caste and the Sisters, being above such concerns, had been a logical place to look. Finding a Sister with Ardenn's qualifications had been a blessing from Valen, and the two women had meshed well together.
Lately, though, Delenn had started noticing that Ardenn acted differently at times. She would become forgetful and clumsy. Delenn hadn't understood at first, until she noticed that Ardenn's clumsy periods coincided with her son's visits. Delenn surmised that Ardenn had developed what the Humans called a 'crush' on David Sheridan. Actually, she found the situation amusing. Thirty years ago, she would have been shocked to find out a Minbari was falling in love with a human but, having been through the same experience herself, she understood.
All of this flashed through Delenn's mind in an instant. "No. I meant romantic love, Ardenn." She wasn't trying to embarrass the young woman, but she was curious about how her aide would phrase her response. Minbari, after all, did not lie but Ardenn certainly wouldn't tell her mentor she was in love with her son. "Certainly some young acolyte or warrior has caught your eye at some point or other? Perhaps one of Susan's Rangers?."
"Mistress, I…um, I do not know if I would call it 'love' in the romantic sense, but I have um, associated with one who I would consider for a closer and more personal relationship. I have not approached him, as our stations in life make that kind of relationship most unlikely."
"My long association with the Humans has taught me that the 'unlikely' is often more likely than we think. You might be surprised. As you have no clan to speak formally for you, I would be more than happy to speak for you to his parents if you so desire." Delenn had to stifle a smile at the last.
If it were possible for a Minbari to pale, Ardenn would have gone dead white. "Mistress, if it ever came to that, I have no doubt that you would speak. At length."
Delenn knew that Ardenn was expecting her to ask who the lucky male was. She could see what John would have called the "deer in the headlights" look in her eyes. Delenn didn't completely understand the reference, but it described Ardenn well at the moment. She decided to have mercy on the younger woman. It would serve no purpose to embarrass her further. She couldn't help but wonder, though. Could history repeat itself with her aide and David? Idly, she wondered if she should test the triluminary on Ardenn.
"Well, the offer stands if you wish my intercession. Let's get to the correspondence, shall we?" Delenn turned her attention back to matters of state. As she worked through the mountain of paperwork, she couldn't help that her thoughts drifted back to John from time to time. Above her head, the clock ticked on.
In a small room deep beneath the Edgars Industries building, John Sheridan sat alone. In the middle of counting the holes in the roof tiles for the umpteenth time, he shivered involuntarily. <Someone just stepped on my grave.> he thought to himself.
Since his reawakening, he had occasionally felt a small, but persistant presence in the back of his mind. At first, he had tried to ignore it. It wasn't telepathic, and it wasn't a threatening presence. It was more like the impression that somewhere, someone was seeking him out. Given time to ponder the sensation, he would have eventually recognized it. Unfortunately, time wasn't high on John's list of expendable assets at this point.
Pushing the sensation aside, he resumed counting…
To Be Continued…
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