NEGOTIATIONS

By Katie

 

 

 

Spoilers: Season 4, through Face of the Enemy & Intersections in Real Time.

   Alternate Universe: This is another possible way things could have happened after Sheridan was captured on Mars. If you didn't leave him there, you either had to send in rescuers or negotiate for his release. This is about the results of such negotiations.

   Disclaimer: Characters, cast, universe, vehicles all belong to JMS, Warner Brothers, and anyone else with legal right to them. No infringement to those rights is intended. They are being borrowed for purposes of telling this story only.

 

 

 

 

*****

Chapter 1 ~ The Exchange

 

 

 

‘Earth, Geneva’

    Arrangements had been made for the release of Captain John J. Sheridan. It hadn’t been easy, and it hadn’t been quickly accomplished. But it was with a certain sense of satisfaction that Centauri Ambassador Mollari turned to greet the crowd of spectators waiting for what was in essence a prisoner exchange.

    President Clark’s forces had captured John Sheridan on Mars and, after a period of extensive interrogation there, had transferred him to a secure facility on Earth itself. No one had been sure exactly where.

   The opportunities for freeing Sheridan on Mars had been few and extremely dangerous to pursue. The chances of releasing him, without having those holding him execute him, had decreased astronomically once they had successfully moved him to the Humans’ home planet. Hence, his friends in the Army of Light and the League of Nonaligned Worlds had pursued a negotiated release.

    Londo Mollari had a long-standing, working relationship with Earth Gov. He had been an ambassador to Earth itself way back in the days before the Earth-Minbari War. He had connections. He knew people. Some of them were still very influential in the government or their replacements remembered the reputation of this high-stakes gambling, hard-drinking alien. In any case, Clark’s representatives had agreed to deal with him when they would not deal with the representatives of any of the other planets in the League of Nonaligned Worlds. He had done his best. He hoped it was good enough.

    Londo winced remembering how long it had taken to work out some of the provisions of Sheridan’s release. In truth Clark had not wanted to let him go at all, ever.

    President Clark hated John Sheridan. It was not a rational hatred. It was the kind of emotion one saw reflected in dictators and madmen. Because Babylon Five and Sheridan’s Army of Light had been outside his control, Clark had apparently—in his own mind—made them scapegoats for all the riots, rebellions, and civil discontent he had had to deal with back home. Megalomaniac that he had become, Clark knew he couldn’t put all of Babylon Five’s crew and residents on trial. Nor could he subdue by force of arms the entire Army of Light with its Vorlon-inspired, Minbari-built White Star ships. What he could and had done was taken it out on John Sheridan.

    True, the fact that Babylon Five and the captain had been symbols for those rebels and rioters could not be denied, but to blame one man, John Sheridan, for all the events that had taken place during those revolts and civilian uprisings was irrational. Many things President Clark did these days might be deemed irrational, but a wise man didn’t go out of his way to point out these details.

    Londo drew a deep breath and let it out slowly. He needed to keep his temper very tightly under control. He needed to give President Clark and Earth Gov no excuses to cancel the deal at this late date. The smile on his face felt as wooden as it looked, but he refused to show his true feelings to these insufferable imbeciles. He even managed a small polite wave for the I.S.N. camera crew that was striving to get his attention.

   "Let’s get this over with," he thought. It was nearly noon Earth time here in Geneva, and the sun was high in the sky over Earth Dome. Centauri do not sweat as humans do, but he was becoming increasingly uncomfortable standing on the blackened tamarack of Earth’s most important spaceport. Judging by the number of ships launching and landing just now, Earth was not making good use of the facilities, but one really shouldn’t judge by today. This was a special case, and he suspected that the greater majority of traffic had been diverted ‘elsewhere,’ out of the way. Certainly the marks left on the hard surface from previous takeoffs and landings looked recent enough.

   The shuttle that had brought Ambassador Mollari here from Babylon Five was waiting on the field behind him. Its engines were idle now, but he knew that they were in a constant state of readiness. Inside the shuttle were a pilot, a copilot, and a medical technician as authorized in the signed-and-sealed, negotiated agreement. Zack Allan was the pilot. The fact that the copilot was, also, Minbari ambassador Delenn was a subtle bending of the terms of that agreement, but she was a certified pilot. He did not anticipate a problem. She had agreed to stay inside of the shuttle at all times and had even donned the flight suit and baseball style cap worn by normal crewmembers. Trying to keep her away would have been more work than it was worth. The medical technician was, also, slightly overqualified. Doctor Stephen Franklin would not hear of anyone else coming to do this job. There was no one else he trusted with the life of Captain Sheridan in what the doctor felt sure would be the first few crucial hours after his release.

   Stephen Franklin knew, from reports Londo had been able to forward to the station, that since John’s capture on Mars the captain had been held by three distinct and different groups. Any one of those groups might have broken his friend. They all had the resources and were certainly capable of it.

   Edgars Industries had employed John’s first group of captors. It was one of the largest pharmaceutical corporations anywhere. With the help of Michael Garibaldi, the former head of security for Babylon Five and a man who had once been John’s friend, they had apprehended John on Mars. They had been professionals. Whether or not they had used any of their stock-and-trade drugs on the captain, Stephen didn’t know. What worried him more was the possibility that they had dared to use some of the experimental drugs in their pharmacological bag of tricks. Such drugs would represent unknown factors. They might or might not be toxic; there might or might not be antidotes for their effects.

   The second group had been President Clark’s Earth Force people. They considered the captain to be a traitor and a disgrace to the uniform they wore. They had been responsible for him during much of his incarceration on Mars and for his clandestine transportation from Mars to Earth. They were brutal, thorough, and far too well practiced in the art of breaking people. It was an art they had shared willingly with the galaxy.

   Londo shuddered remembering his own nephew who as leader of a Centauri outpost had been interrogated and ‘convinced’ to lie about a Narn invasion of the farming colony where he had been stationed. Given enough time such tactics could break anyone. Not that the Narns had needed lessons from Earth.

   The last and current group holding John Sheridan frightened Londo the most. Apparently, when Clark’s Earth Force personnel had sufficiently weakened Sheridan’s defenses, the President had ordered John turned over to Psi Corps for in-depth interrogation. Psi Corps was an organization made up of telepaths—all kinds of telepaths. The ones who had been called in to work on, or perhaps more accurately work over, Captain Sheridan were Psi Cops. They were the most powerful telepaths and the most ruthless. Given enough time, they could mind-wipe an individual, any individual, and create an emptiness—a void—where a human being had one existed. They were, also, quite capable of implanting telepathic suggestions and/or alternate personality profiles for later use; in fact, they had done just that with Talia Winters, a charming young female telepath who had served on Babylon Five some time ago. One day she had been an intriguing young woman. Londo always noticed intriguing young women. The next day she had been a homicidal maniac. Her real personality had been destroyed forever. Londo was afraid of these people. He was afraid for John.

   The deep-bass rumble of shuttle engines interrupted Londo’s uncomfortable musings. He looked up shading his eyes against the bright midday sun. The lake that surrounded Earth Dome was itself surrounded by high, snow-covered mountains. Alps, he believed they were called. Over those mountains from the south came an Earth Force shuttle. As it drew closer the Psi Corps insignia was clearly visible on its under side.

   The Psi Corps shuttle landed perhaps a hundred yards away from Babylon Five’s shuttle. No sooner had it touched down than a landing ramp extended from the back of the ship and two rows of black clad men and women walked toward Londo. In the lead was the infamous Alfred Bester. As they crossed the distance from one shuttle to the other, they spaced themselves along the edge of an invisible corridor. Londo did not need to be told that they were establishing a telepathic block within that space, so that no one there could or would be scanned.

   "Ah, Mr. Bester," Londo greeted the head Psi Cop, "I see you, too, have decided to oversee the exchange personally."

   Alfred Bester looked at Ambassador Mollari with hard, dark eyes that seemed to try to penetrate the man’s soul. Bester was a small man physically, but he carried within him a presence that made him formidable at all times.

   "If you are scanning me, you son of an anatomical impossibility," Londo let himself think, "then you know what a useless piece of worm-ridden waste I truly think you are." Londo’s eyes held Bester’s for a long heart beat. The artificial smile was still painted across his face.

   Bester returned Londo’s insincere smile. Earth Gov should have posted frost warnings for several square kilometers adjacent to this exchange of pleasantries. There was no love lost between them and little respect accorded by either one to the other.

   "Is everything in readiness?" Mr. Bester asked pointedly.

   "Yes, I should say so, at least from this end. Are you ready, Mr. Bester?"

   Bester did not speak, but raised his chin in a gesture of acquiescence.

   "Shall we begin?"

   Londo Mollari motioned to the cargo handlers who were waiting near his shuttle. At a prearranged signal, the cargo bay doors were raised. Four sealed cryogenic units were deposited by an automatic unloading device onto the fire-blackened pavement immediately behind Londo’s shuttle. They were large and obviously heavy. Cargo handlers moved forward to take possession of them. Londo stayed them with a motion of his hand.

   "Now, for your part of the bargain, Mr. Bester." Londo’s eyes, too, were hard, but not as hard as his voice. He was a gambler by nature. If he had not been, he would not have been here. He did not think Bester was bluffing. He did not think he was being finessed, but he wasn’t prepared to take chances. He was a very, very good negotiator and a very difficult one to take advantage of. He had had a great deal of practice.

   "How do I know Caroline is in one of those?" Bester nodded at the freezer units that rested now in the full sun under Geneva’s sky.

   "You don’t," agreed Londo. "How do I know that you have John Sheridan on that shuttle? At this point, either we’re both living up to the conditions of this agreement or we’re not. I want to see him. I want to see him now, and then you may check the identity of the individuals sealed in those units."

   Bester looked uncomfortable, but determined to carry this negotiated charade to its logical conclusion. He, too, turned and motioned to the shuttlecraft behind him. Down the ramp that Bester and his Psi Cops had descended four figures escorted a fifth. The crowd at the edge of tamarack hushed.

   Londo felt one of his hearts skip a beat. He dug the fingernails of one hand into its palm. He would not display emotion: not here, not now.

   At the bottom of the ramp, the five figures stopped. Two of the Psi Cops approached the figure they were escorting. One removed a heavy leather hood from the prisoner’s head while the other moved to unlock the manacles and shackles on his wrists and ankles. They had transported him under what could only be deemed heavy security.

   As Londo watched, John Sheridan tried to look up. He couldn’t do it. The light from the midday sun was much too bright for his long-shrouded eyes. He squeezed his eyes tightly shut. A thin leash-like rope extended from the captain’s neck to the hands of one of his captors. Using that rope, he was guided forward. He stumbled often, and Londo watched as the Psi Cops forming the path he took reached out and steadied him. Londo shook his head at the man’s emaciated condition.

   As John slowly approached the Babylon Five representative, Londo motioned the cargo handlers to begin transporting the cryogenic cases to the Psi Corps shuttle.

   Three of John’s escorts turned at the halfway point and marched back to their shuttle. The fourth continued until they stood immediately behind and just to the left of Mr. Bester.

   As each cryogenic unit was wheeled past him, the head Psi Cop strained to read the identification stamped on the side of the unit. He did not trust the official paperwork the peacock-haired Centauri ambassador had handed him any more than the ambassador trusted him. Londo had, of course, saved the best for last. The final cryogenic unit’s identification indicated that Caroline, the woman Bester had been waiting for, was encased within.

   Caroline was as important to Mr. Bester as John was to Ambassador Delenn. Caroline and Bester had been friends and then more than friends. Londo suspected, but could never prove, that Caroline had been the Psi Cop’s mistress before her abduction by the Shadows. She had been one of nearly a hundred telepaths rescued by Babylon Five from a Shadow ship. However, Babylon Five hadn’t had sufficient resources to arrange for the removal of the "implants" the Shadows had used to control them. To awaken any of the telepaths without removing the implants was the equivalent of murder. Caroline and all the other rescued telepaths had been in cryogenic suspension until she and the others could be safely transferred to Earth where, hopefully, they could be returned to normal, or whatever passed as normal, for telepaths.

   Bester was satisfied.

   Turning on his heel without a word, Bester marched back to his ship.

   The Psi Cop who had accompanied Captain Sheridan dropped the rope he had been holding—the one attached to John’s neck, spun on his heel, and followed his leader. As he and Bester passed each pair of telepaths, they fell into step behind them. And, then, they were simply gone.

   The Psi Corps shuttle launched off the spaceport apron and swung swiftly south away from the cameras, crowd, and, most especially, away from the representative of Babylon Five. As quickly as it had come, it was gone.

   Londo had an uncomfortable feeling about all of this. This was a media event. It should have been a feather in Psi Corps’ cap that they had been able to obtain four hostages—four of their own—in return for one. He sighed. I.S.N. and the other news networks had their cameras working overtime as the ambassador stepped forward.

   "John, we can go now." There was no response from the figure standing before him. The eyes remained shut. The head lowered.

   "It’s all right." Londo said the words, but in his heart of hearts he knew that it was not. He could not put a name to the problem but he knew that whatever had been done to John Sheridan, the man was far from ‘all right.’

   Londo reached out to take the captain’s arm. The man let him touch it, but did not move, did not respond in any way. The leader of the Army of Light stood as if he were a figure made from wax and wire. No wonder Bester had left so quickly. He had gotten what he wanted and left them…what? A marionette with snipped wires, a statue, an empty shell?

   "Oh, Great Maker," Londo thought, "What have they done to you?"

   By chance, as Londo moved to try to look into John’s face, his hand brushed against the rope the Psi Cop had left dangling from the man’s neck. John reacted. He flinched away from Ambassador Mollari, as if afraid that Londo would hurt him. It wasn’t much, but it was a reaction. Slowly, tentatively the Centauri Ambassador reached for and gripped the rope-like leash. It was much more than it appeared. It was some kind of link. Just by holding it, Londo found that he could feel the other man’s fear.

   John Sheridan trembled. Instinctively the ambassador assumed it had something to do with the link created by the rope in his hand. Londo thought he saw John try to open his eyes again but, if he had tried, he had been unsuccessful. Whatever the mystery of this ‘thing’ was, if it would let him get John safely aboard the shuttle and out of here, so be it. Londo wrapped his free arm around the back of the trembling man supporting him and hoping to make it somewhat less obvious to the gathered onlookers that the only way John was responding was through the use of the Psi Corps-supplied collar and leash.

   "Great Maker! What a thing to do to a sentient, to another member of the same species?" Londo had seen great cruelty, especially in the war. He’d watched Minbari kill humans, Centauri kill Narns, and Shadows kill everything in their way. He still could not understand how anyone could do such a thing to another from the same planet.

   Pushing with the arm wrapped around the captain’s shoulders and pulling gently forward on the damnable leash, Londo urged John toward the shuttle. The man was not walking well. If anything the stumbling and swaying were getting worse. Just as they reached the foot of the boarding ramp, John collapsed. Immediately two other crewmembers, Stephen and Delenn, descended and picked him up bodily. Carrying him between them, they loaded him onto the ship. Londo followed them up the ramp rapidly. He waved away the last of floating news cameras. He was smiling. All he wanted to do now was get away from this accursed place and get something for this inexplicable headache which had just begun. The boarding ramp was raised and doors were sealed.

   Almost instantaneously the shuttle was aloft. Grabbing an unauthorized launch window, it deserted the Geneva spaceport before Earth Gov could change its mind, before clearance could be denied. Aboard the small unarmed vessel the ambassadors and Dr. Franklin held their collective breaths. They rose past the defense grid platforms; nothing stirred. They accelerated toward a rendezvous point just beyond Earth’s moon where one of the White Stars was waiting to open a jump point for them. Still there was no sign of pursuit.

   The familiar silhouette of a White Star became visible against the stars. Londo exhaled and drew another deep breath. They were going to make it. The yellow glow of a forming jump point lighted their way away from Sheridan’s home planet. To Londo it was a beautiful sight. The White Star held position, waiting for them to precede it into the glowing swirl of light that marked an entrance into hyperspace. They could have waited for the shuttle to land in one of the White Star’s docking bays and made the jump to hyperspace as a single unit, but none of them were willing to spend any more time than was absolutely necessary in Earth-controlled space.

   The shuttle and White Star passed through the jump point and into the red and black fog that was hyperspace. Aboard the larger ship, Lennier checked for the Babylon Five beacon. Locating it was not difficult. Once the coordinates were locked in, the autopilot would get them there in one piece. On the smaller one Zack Allan breathed a huge sigh of relief. They had made it.

    

    

    

 

Chapter 2 ~ Another Day

    

    

    

   ‘Earth, Location Unknown’

   "They" had come to get him from his cell early. At least he thought it was early. He could hear birds singing—somewhere, outside—and, somehow, his fog-shrouded brain remembered that birds sang at dawn and just before first light.

   "They" had come for him before, many times. It was never pleasant. Usually it had meant he was going to be hurt again; it had meant more pain. He had squeezed his eyes tightly shut when the door was opened. Hand-held spotlights had illuminated his shame. He had been naked and had known he was naked before all comers, male and female. Not that any of them had ever seemed to care. There had been no facilities. There had been no bedding. There had been only the darkness and a hollow emptiness. He had not known where "here" was, why "he" was in this place or even—God help him—"who" he was.

   A hood, a bag of heavy leather, had been lowered over his head. A strap held it in place under his chin. There were no eyeholes and air could enter it only through slits cut into the back of the hood, low down near his neck. Inside of it he was effectively blind and nearly deaf.

   Opening his eyes within the black bag, he had had a sudden and overpowering attack of claustrophobia. His body had tensed. He had wanted to cry out, to scream. He hadn’t done it. He had learned. He had learned the hard way that if they knew that something frightened him then they would use that knowledge to make his life more unbearable.

   Hands, large powerful hands had gripped his arms on either side. He had felt other hands putting something around his neck. It had felt rough and hurt where it came in contact with half-healed cuts and burns already there. He had made it a point to stand very still. They had "collared" him before. He had known, in a foggy, far-off way, what was coming next.

   He had sensed, become aware of someone who was holding the leash that went with the device around his throat. The "other," the one holding the leash, had stepped into his mind and taken over. He had wanted to throw up. He had wanted to scream. He had done neither. The presence in his head hadn’t let him. It had laughed at his fear and mocked his shame. He had tried to hide, to find some not yet violated corner of his own thoughts where just for a moment he could be by himself. There were no hiding places left. He was as naked and helpless within as he was without.

   Through the leash and the collar he had learned to receive instructions. Sometimes they had been orders—do this or do that—other times they had been demands for information or for control. For a long time he had fought their commands. He remembered—he wished he did not—the command to place his hand into the blue-white flame from a gas jet mounted on the burn-scarred countertop before him. He had watched as his right hand obeyed. He had smelled the odor of cooking meat. He had tried to pass out. They hadn’t let him.

   Now, they did not repeat a command. They did not have to any more. Vaguely he remembered someone who had tried to disobey. He hadn’t known anyone could be hurt that badly. He hadn’t known, understood the lengths to which they would go.

   Now, there was another voice, a new voice, inside his head. It had ordered him to walk, and he had walked blindly out of his cell and down a long corridor. There had been no sounds here except the metallic clang as doors were opened and closed before him and behind him. They had stopped, and he had been ordered to stay. He had stayed as he had been taught with his head down and his arms slack at his sides. Cold jets of water hit his body. He had shivered. He did not understand. He endured.

   A rough brush or something similar had been impersonally and swiftly run over his entire body. He had wanted to cry out. Every cut, every burn mark, and every open sore had felt as if liquid fire were being poured into it. His knees had started to weaken under him, and the command through the leash had been reinforced.

   "Stand. Stay."

   Beads of sweat had mingled with beads of water on his face, chest, and back. Then that too had been over. Fresh blood from reopened wounds had dripped down his body mingling with the chill water that had still cascaded in small rivulets to the cold, wet floor.

   He had been ordered to walk, to follow. Dripping wet, staggering from the agony of "whatever it was" they had just done to him, he had obeyed.

   They had left him standing long enough for most of the moisture to evaporate from his skin. Then, a piece of cloth—clothing—had been thrust into his hands. Turning it over a couple of times he had determined that it was a one-piece coverall of some kind.

   "Put it on."

   The command through the leash’s telepathic link could not be disobeyed. He had struggled to get his legs into the garment and pull it up over his nakedness. He had slid his arms into the sleeves and was reaching to find the front closures when he had encountered other hands reaching across his body and closing the fasteners for him.

   "Thank you," he had said.

    It had been an almost involuntary response and just hearing his own voice had startled him. He couldn’t remember the last time he had spoken aloud, had used words. It had been long ago.

   Sometimes when they had used the leash and collar on him, he had been forced to speak. He had fought them, refusing to articulate the words they forced from his vocal chords. His speech had been slurred and unacceptable. Eventually they had given up. Other times there had been a confusing sensation as though he were seeing through someone else’s eyes. It had been very hard to maintain his sense of balance when that had happened. It had happened more often lately. When it did he had to struggle just to stay upright, to stay on his feet. He thought, but was not sure that it was something the person holding the leash could and did control. It had happened too often to simply be an accident.

   As he had finished obeying their latest order—pulling on the coverall, he had felt again that horrendously confusing double vision. It had made it so hard to follow their orders, and they had forced orders into his head. He had fought to keep himself standing, walking, moving to the left…no, right. He had failed. He had been aware of his body pitching forward. He had known that he was falling, but had not moved to break his own fall. He could not. He had not been ordered to do so. He had hit hard and had heard voices arguing somewhere far away. Actually they could have been right beside him. Through the hood it had been impossible to tell.

   "What do you think you’re playing at?" one voice had asked.

   "Nothing," had answered a second voice.

   "Well, stop it," the first one had insisted. "You mess him up and Bester will have both of our hides on a drying rack. He has to look pretty for the official negotiated ‘tea party’ this afternoon."

   "I didn’t hurt him any. He hurt himself." The owner of the second voice had replied. "Not my fault if he can’t walk."

   "Gentlemen, is there a problem?" The collared-and-leashed prisoner had cringed and prayed that the owner of that voice would not turn his attention to him. "There are," the voice had lisped, "a number of ways we can deal with problems. You will not like any of them."

   "No, sir, Mr. Bester. No problem." The first and second voices had insisted in unison, and the conversation had either been over or taken to another level—a telepathic one. He had heard no more of their discussion; not that any of it had made any sense to him anyway. "Tea party, drying rack, Mr. Bester"—they had been words without referents, more things he did not understand. He could not remember.

   He had lain for a long time on the hard surface where he had fallen. He had had no idea how much time had past; only that it had been long enough for cramps to form in his arms and legs. He had, almost miraculously, fallen asleep. Sleep had become his only solace, his only hiding place.

   He had been awakened by a new presence on the other end of the leash. It had ordered him to stand, and he ‘had’ tried, but had been unable, to do so. A boot or something equally hard had kicked him in the small of his back. Once, twice, three times he had been kicked. It hadn’t changed anything. He hadn’t been trying to be uncooperative. He had honestly ‘not’ been able to get up. It had been a physical fact, not a choice he had made not to obey them.

   Finally, as if realizing—perhaps because of the telepathic enhancement of the leash—that the prisoner was not being deliberately obstructive, others had been called in to help. They had dragged him to his feet and half-carried him a short distance to what he had thought was a chair or bench. They had placed him on it and left him there. His arms and legs had tingled with the excruciating pains of returning circulation. His legs had trembled with involuntary spasms as sensation returned.

   He had heard others come and go in the room. Again, he had had no idea where he was. Hands, not unkind but businesslike, had fastened a wide metal band around his waist and heavy cold manacles around his wrists. He had remembered…thought that he remembered…that the two would be chained together. They were.

   Shackles had come next. The same hands or similar ones had circled his ankles with more wide metal bands. He had felt his ankles pulled together as a short length of something, probably chain, had been fastened between them. Walking before had been painful and difficult, now it would be nearly impossible. He would be able to shuffle forward only a few inches at a time.

   "Why?" He had wondered. "Why after all this time are they doing all this to me again?" Again? Somehow amid the rags and tatters of memories they had left him, he had known that someone had done this to him before. It wasn’t all gone—just most of it.

   Large hands had helped him rise and had guided him as he shuffled across the floor and then a rougher surface to yet another unknown destination. He had been grateful for the support of those hands though he had sensed that the one holding the leash was frustrated with their slow progress. He had done the best that he could. There had been no more falls, at least, not even when they had insisted that he climb a long sloping ramp of some kind.

   At the top of the ramp they had seated him in a chair and attached both the manacles and shackles he wore to it. A door had closed. He had been left alone in a small metal room with the person holding the other end of his leash.

   "Now, tell me what you remember." the lisping voice had instructed speaking both aloud and within his head. "Tell me all of it!" It hadn’t been over. Not yet.

   There had been questions. Many of them had made no sense at all. He had not known the answers. He did not think he had ever known them. He could not remember. He had wanted to be left in peace. He had wanted to die.

   There had been drugs. He had felt at least two injections of will-breaking chemicals. There had been threats. There had been demands. He hadn’t fought back. He hadn’t hidden anything. He had been stripped, again, mentally. He had been raped. All that he ever was or had ever been was spread out and violated. He had tried to pass out. Bester wouldn’t let him.

   Time had had no meaning in that room. He had had no way of measuring it except in fluttering heartbeats and moments of excruciating pain. Just once he had thought he might escape: his heartbeat had become irregular, his vision had blurred, and from somewhere he had heard a softly accented voice saying words he thought were prayers. Though he hadn’t been able to understand the words, they had been somehow comforting. They had seemed to offer surcease. He ‘had’ been dying. Sometimes death is an escape. But they were not done with him. He had not been allowed to slip away.

   "Not yet," the lisping voice in his head had coaxed.

   "Later," it had promised, "but not just yet."

   There had been vibrations. He had felt them through the chair and deck. On a level below conscious thought he had known that he was on a ship and that it was underway. Now the vibrations had ceased. Now the ship had landed; now it was still.

   The frustrated holder of his leash had dropped it. It had fallen to the floor and he had sat absolutely still. Until the next person took charge of him, he was not allowed to move. He had learned that, finally.

   They had laid so many traps for him, let him almost escape, oh, so many times. At first he had bolted the moment they had released the control device. Running without thinking he had been easily caught. Later, he had become more careful, waiting and watching until he thought he was alone. He never really had been. They had waited ‘til he thought he was clear, ‘til he thought he had summoned help, ‘til he thought that he was free, and then, they had pounced. The punishments they had imposed for those transgressions had been truly horrible. As if, just being back in their hands hadn’t been punishment enough. Now, when the leash was dropped he froze, like a statue carved from ice. He had finally learned. He would do ‘anything’ to keep their pain out of his head.

   The shackles on his ankles and manacles on his wrists had been released from the chair. Two sets of large hands had taken hold of his arms, had picked him up, and had set him on his feet. He had heard other feet, not quite marching but walking in unison, and then another one of them had picked up the rope-like leash. He had been ordered to walk and he had tried.

   Fortunately, he had not really had to walk very far. He had panicked when it was obvious that they expected him to descend the steep ramp he had had to climb before. The voice in his head had assured him that it ‘could’ be done. Two, he thought they were the same ones who had held his arms before, had come up beside him and gripped him firmly between them, one on either side. They had not wanted him to fall. For some reason, now, it was important. He had picked that up through the link created by the leash. It hadn’t happened often, but when it did he had been sure whatever the ‘other’ was thinking about was ‘extremely’ important to him or her.

   At the foot of the ramp, they had stopped. He had had no idea what was coming next. If it was going to be a firing squad, he prayed that it would be a real one and not another ploy in the arduous and seemingly eternal process of breaking him.

   He was tired. He had no idea what else they could possibly want from him. He had very little left.

   He felt and heard hands unclasping the strap that held the leather hood on his head. It was pulled up quickly and, where there had been only darkness, there was light. It was incredibly bright, searing his optic nerves, almost doubling him over in pain. Only the hands on his arms kept him from collapsing.

   "Close your eyes," the leash holder thought to him, "and keep them closed. It will get better with time." He had obeyed.

   As he stood supported on either side, tears streaming down his face from his light-assaulted eyes, he felt the chain being removed from between his shackles and gratefully spread his feet somewhat further apart, gaining a more natural stance and finding his own balance point. The hands that had held him let him go. Then the shackles themselves were removed, and the manacles and that damned metal belt.

   "Forward." He obeyed the unspoken one-word command.

   He realized that there was a wall of some kind being formed around him. He walked. Whenever he faltered he felt himself supported either physically with a hand reaching out, touching him gingerly, or mentally with some tiny modicum of strength. Not enough strength to do anything heroic, just enough to enable him to take the next step. He realized that they were creating an illusion, a false vision of his physical condition, but he was still grateful for the hands and the borrowed strength. Without it he would have been finished, crawling where now he walked. The person with the leash went on before him. There were no options. He had no choice. He followed blindly.

   When they stopped, he tried again to open his eyes and see what was going on.

   "Do not. You will damage them. The drugs make it worse." Again he obeyed.

   He felt warmth on his head and his hands, all over his body.

   "Sunlight?" he guessed. It had been years since he had been on a world with a sun whose rays could make one feel warm and alive. Keeping his eyes tightly shut, he tilted his head up just for a moment. He sensed rather than heard the disapproval of his keeper. Immediately he lowered his eyes.

   Words were spoken. He was unable to hear most of them. The speakers were too far away and a light, cool breeze filled the air, whipping away some of the words and replacing them with a myriad of noises. He heard the rustling of paper as documents were exchanged, material rubbing against material as people stirred, the metallic clink of vehicle doors opening and closing, and the squeak of wheels badly in need of oiling as something heavy was transported past him. After all the days and nights of silence broken only by his own heartbeat, all these quiet sounds were almost as overwhelming for his ears as the light had been for his eyes. As he listened he found himself trying to put together the sounds he was hearing, trying to solve a puzzle to which way too many pieces were missing. It was hopeless.

   He stood docile enjoying the sensation of sunshine and breeze. It had been a very long time. He remembered a beach and a girl with red hair. As quickly as the memory had arisen, he quashed it. "Oh, please, don’t let them take that one away, too."

   "That one you can keep, Captain," his leash-holder responded and dropped the end of it onto the ground. By so simple an act he was held pinioned in place. Feet walked away from him. He was alone with the sun and the wind.

   Other feet approached him.

   "John, we can go now." He heard the words, spoken in rich tones and with a unique accent, but they were meaningless to him. He did not respond. He could not.

   "It’s all right." The same voice lied to him. Soft hands that had never done hard work reached out and touched his arm tentatively. He did not move. He smelled cologne heavy with musk and spices. It was somehow vaguely familiar. The scented figure before him shifted. He had no way of knowing why it did so. He did not know who it was. By purest chance, Londo Mollari made contact with the innocent looking rope that descended from John Sheridan’s encircled neck. John heard just the end of Londo’s thought, "What have they done to you?"

   Londo was not a telepath. He was not asking a question expecting a response, but there was no way the man on the leash could know that. He tried to form an answer, to explain about the things that had been done to him. Fortunately for Londo’s sake, the ambassador’s own thoughts were so jumbled and disorganized that the litany of things that had indeed been done to the captain passed unnoticed in the cacophony.

   The prisoner was not so lucky. The images Londo was projecting were loud, violent, and without rational sequence. In many cases they were painful and very black. What John received through the leash was raw uncensored emotion: pain, fear, and guilt. He had been bombarded with plenty of all three before. He flinched away from the ambassador.

   Slowly, somewhat more carefully, the link was established again. The ambassador’s thoughts were, if anything, more chaotic. As messages from the leash fought for precedence in his brain, John began to tremble. He could not handle this kind of overload. Indeed, this final destruction of his mind by those trying to help might have been exactly what his tormentors had hoped for and bargained on. Then one clear thought broke through: the person on the other end of the leash sincerely and deeply wished to get both of them aboard the ship before them and out of this place. Indistinctly through Londo’s eyes, he saw the shuttle. The Babylon Five emblem was emblazoned on its side. There was no recognition of either the ship or the insignia. He was, as far as he knew, simply being placed on another ship and taken somewhere else where the questions would begin all over again.

   "Come on. Come on," Londo kept repeating to himself all the while smiling for the benefit of the I.S.N. floating cameras. Fortunately, the mental image that went with the repeated phrase was strong enough to allow the collared man to move forward. He hadn’t fully realized until now just how much the telepaths, who had surrounded him before, had supported him. He staggered. The perfumed figure had brought its arm around behind him urging him forward now earnestly with body and with mind.

   "Great Maker! What a thing to do to a sentient, to another member of the same species!"

    The leash made him fully aware of all of this unusual person’s tumultuous thoughts. There were no walls or blocks as there had been with the "others." There was, also, no control over those thoughts. Suddenly, devastatingly, he was enveloped in images of chaos and destruction he thought he should have recognized and might have once a long time ago. Now, they were only so much random violence and death. Great ships exploded. One in particular he knew he should have been able to name. He could not. A planet was bombarded without pity. Men, women, and children died. Huge black shapes crossed the sky. They hovered, threatening total annihilation, and moved on. A continent-sized island disappeared in a massive nuclear explosion.

   Inside of his own head, the prisoner screamed and could not stop screaming. It was too much. His body collapsed at the foot of the boarding ramp. Quite probably so did what little had been left of his mind.

   Londo, by virtue of the unwilling link created by the leash, heard the scream and wondered as to its cause. He was, he thought, getting another one of his really bad headaches.

    

    

    

 

Chapter 3 ~ Fighting for Life

    

    

    

   ‘Babylon 5 Shuttle, Hyperspace

   En route to Babylon Five’

   Delenn, Zack, Londo, and, most of all, Stephen had spent the next few hours fighting to keep John Sheridan alive. He had gone into cardiac arrest on them twice and even the autonomic functions of his body had tried to shut down.

   They were not in Med Lab. They did not have twenty-three centuries of medical equipment at their disposal. But, they did have brains, common sense, and Stephen Franklin—the finest doctor anywhere in Zack’s opinion.

   Stephen immediately took charge. He assigned roles and priorities.

   Number one they had to keep John’s heart beating. Number two they had to insure that he was getting oxygen into his lungs and that he continued to breathe. Number three they needed to ascertain if there was any significant internal or external bleeding. Then they could worry about the small stuff like broken bones, concussion, and malnutrition later. If they made it past that point, and the Captain ever regained consciousness, then they could worry about what he did and did not remember. Mental trauma could be more serious than physical trauma but if they couldn’t keep his heart beating it wasn’t going to matter much.

   Delenn became the designated heart monitor. Her job was to take John’s pulse and to let the doctor know the minute it deviated in the slightest. Holding John’s hand and wrist gently, she felt for the small movement of the artery there that telegraphed his heartbeat. She began counting the beats and the slow careful seconds. As requested she notified Stephen of any and all changes no matter how small.

   Londo was sent to assemble all medical equipment on board the shuttle and to find acceptable substitutes for some items that the doctor knew would ‘not’ be included in the standard kit. One thing he had requested Londo to find was a very sharp knife, not more than three inches long. He hoped he wasn’t going to need it, but just in case he wanted one handy. Clean linens and sponges would be needed, too, once they got that far, if they got that far.

   Zack was left in charge of the ship, all aspects of its operation. No one else could be spared to help him. In addition, Stephen had requested that Zack establish a constantly open channel to Dr. Hobbs in the Med Lab on Babylon Five.

   Stephen had brought a med kit of his own with him but now he wondered what he had been thinking. He had expected injuries, but not for John’s entire body to simply shut down on them. He didn’t even know why John’s heart kept trying to stop. He did not understand what the Psi Cops could have done to him that would have produced such an effect. He had drawn blood, made spectroscopic recordings of its contents, and forwarded them to Dr. Hobbs, but she was thus far as mystified as he was.

   When Londo returned having gathered up all the requested supplies, Stephen drafted him to help get the captain undressed and out of that obnoxious collar and leash. Londo agreed to help, but was curiously unwilling to touch the rope-like thing. Pushing the leash out of the way with his surgically gloved hand, Stephen reached for the fasteners on the front of John’s coverall. Before going any further, he had second thoughts.

   "Delenn, we’re going to need water, a lot of it and as hot as the machine will synthesize it. Would you take care of that for me?" he asked.

   "Is it going to be that bad, Stephen?" she asked in return, not bothering to respond to his initial evasive maneuver. He had wanted her out of the cabin.

   "Yeah, I think so. I haven’t looked yet, but I know how long they had him. I think it’s going to be as bad as I’ve ever seen, and the worst cases of torture I saw during the Dilgar War made me throw up on the spot." He wasn’t being polite. He was being honest.

   Delenn felt blood drain from her cheeks, but she did not want to leave.

   "If you really need water, Londo can get it." She squared her shoulders. "I ‘need’ to be here. I need to be here ‘for John.’"

   Stephen shrugged. He didn’t have the time nor was he willing to waste the energy to make her leave if she chose not to do so.

   "Londo, we’ll need at least three liters as warm as you can get it and as quickly." Franklin raised his eyebrows at the Centauri ambassador, who, while he didn’t enjoy being anyone’s errand boy, thought it was going to be preferable to what was going to happen in the shuttle’s cabin. He left to get the water.

   "If you’re staying," Stephen emphasized the last word, "give me a hand. And if you have to throw up, do it outside this room. Okay?"

   Delenn nodded. Between them they opened the fasteners on John’s coverall and Stephen carefully peeled it back. In places it had adhered to his body. Delenn brought the knuckles of one hand up to her mouth, but she did not cry out nor did she throw up.

   "I’m going to lift his shoulders," Stephen told her. "Push the material off of them and down as far as you can." As if by intuition, he added, "And don’t touch that leash thing." He looked at it in disgust. Reaching around behind John’s shoulders he followed his own advice and propped the captain up to the best of his ability assiduously avoiding both the collar and leash.

   Delenn pushed the coverall off of John’s shoulders and partway down his arms. She bit her lip, but she did not stop. His chest and shoulders were a bloody mess. At some point parallel lines had been drawn across his chest with a very sharp knife or knives. The cuts were not deep, but neither had they healed. She wondered what could have made such incisions and whether they had been done all at once or one at a time. She closed her eyes and shivered.

   There were burn marks, too. Most, but not all, appeared to be electrical burns from electrodes that had been attached to his chest and neck, sides and shoulders. Each one began as a small reddish brown circle—the point at which a small suction cup had held a metal electrode in contact with his skin—and widened out into an angry red explosion of destroyed cells. The smallest ones were the size of a Centauri ducat. The largest one was the size of a dinner plate. She had no idea how much electricity they had passed through his body to create such a huge burn. She only wondered that they hadn’t electrocuted him in the process. The other burn marks she could see seemed to be from superheated wires. She did not know whether the wires had been heated first and then applied to the tender skin along the sides of his rib cage or whether they had been wrapped around his body and then slowly heated. Knowing the reputation of some of those who had mistreated him, she suspected the latter.

   Tears were streaming down her face, but she seemed totally unaware of them. As Stephen Franklin watched she reached out with just one finger and traced a line of sores that ran from John’s neck down across his torso. Neither one of them had any idea what had caused such devastation. The sores and most of the cuts were infected, red and inflamed. Some of them had scabbed over, but were obviously equally infected. Full of pus and blood, they had needed medical attention ‘yesterday.’

   Stephen realized that he was furious. No one deserved the kind of treatment John had been subjected to, not even the worst criminal in the galaxy. Minimal humanitarian first aid, even just simple hygiene, would have alleviated much of the pain his friend had been enduring. Of course, the interrogators’ goal hadn’t been to alleviate his pain. Their goal had been to prolong it and to exacerbate it whenever possible. That they had done very effectively. Dr. Franklin decided right then that he would find a way to locate and bring to justice those who had perpetrated such crimes against other human beings.

   Stephen swallowed hard, knowing that they still had to get the coverall the rest of the way off. He knew it needed to be done, but he really didn’t want to do it. He especially didn’t want to do it with the help of Ambassador Delenn.

   "Delenn," he began getting her attention by gently touching her arm. "This is bad. The next part is going to be worse. Will you, please, let one of the men help me?"

   She looked at him. Moreover, she looked through him, and she found no deceit or insincerity in what he was saying. Soundlessly, she nodded her head and rose from the gray metal deck where she had been kneeling beside John. Stephen did not watch her. He did not think he could bear to see the expression on her face. She was acquiescing to his request, but she was not pleased about it.

   Her face was covered with tears and her hands were wet with them. She had not believed herself capable of producing so many. She had had to brushed them away to keep her vision clear as she helped Dr. Franklin.

   A tear, just one, fell from Delenn’s cheek and landed on the exposed end of the long rope-like leash near her foot. It writhed. Delenn blinked her eyes, not sure whether or not to believe that such a preposterous thing had occurred.

   "Stephen, It moved!" she exclaimed.

   "What?" Stephen asked.

   "That thing…that thing that is attached around his neck. When I went to get up, it moved." She didn’t sound quite sure she believed it herself. She bent over to inspect it more closely. Reaching out, she touched it with one finger. It moved again. This time Stephen saw it, too.

   "Get Londo, right now," the doctor insisted. "This thing comes off of John before we do another thing." As Delenn darted into the companionway to find Ambassador Mollari, Stephen reached out with one of his own fingers. Cautiously, he touched the very end of the leash. Nothing happened.

   "What the…?" He could not imagine why it had reacted for Delenn, but would not do so for him. "Maybe it’s prejudiced against Minbari," he thought sarcastically, and then he retracted that thought even in his own mind. There had to be a reason, a difference. Delenn had been crying. Her face and hands had been damp—okay, wet—with her tears. Dr. Franklin could not cry on demand, though sometimes he thought it would be a handy talent. Being a doctor he knew that the composition of tears and blood are in some ways remarkably the same. He touched just the edge of one of John’s wounds and brought away a small crimson stain on the end of his index finger. Leaning over, he touched it to the leash. The leash writhed and instead of moving away from the doctor, moved toward him. He backed up hurriedly and grabbed for his medical scanner. "What is this thing?" he wondered.

   The scanner registered John’s vital signs, dehydration, malnutrition, vitamin and mineral deficiencies, concussion, and…it registered a second life form. Whatever kind of creature the leash and collar were, it was alive.

   "A parasite? A symbiotic entity?" His mind raced through possibilities. Its reaction to the captain’s blood decided his tentative diagnosis. He deemed it a parasite and quite probably a deadly one.

   "Such nice little gifts Psi Corps gives away," he thought bitterly.

   Delenn and Londo returned at just that moment, bearing a large and awkward container of very warm water between them. He had forgotten that he had asked for that. Served him right for trying to out think the Minbari Ambassador.

   Stephen dipped one of the sponges Londo had found earlier into the warm water. Then he held it over the free end of the leash. Squeezing slowly he moistened it thoroughly. It lay unmoving. Water did not seem to phase it. It had to be something in the water—in the tears and the captain’s blood. Especially with the tears, salt was the most logical possibility.

   "I need salt, a little at first and then all that you can find."

   "Salt?" Londo looked at the doctor as if the man had just lost his mind, but he turned and stalked off in the direction of the galley. He returned with a small salt packet and informed them that the synthesizer was "…making another five pounds of the stuff."

   Stephen mixed the packet of salt with a little water from his med canteen. He knew that was pure water with no other contaminants to invalidate this test. When it was dissolved to his satisfaction, he dropped a single drop of it onto the end of the ‘thing.’ It writhed and twisted itself across the floor.

   The reaction to the new solution was much more violent than either of the two previous ones had been. Londo stared, his mouth falling open, for once speechless. Stephen was watching his chronometer timing the reaction. Only Delenn noticed what it was doing to John.

   "Stephen, it’s trying to kill him," her voice was filled with panic. Even as she spoke it became obvious that the creature had deliberately or inadvertently cut off John’s air supply. It was strangling him. Already his cheeks were taking on a bluish cast.

   "Londo," Stephen demanded, "Knife."

   "Knife?" Londo looked at the doctor in puzzlement.

   "Knife, Londo! The one I asked you to find. Where is it?"

   Somewhat reluctantly the Centauri ambassador reached into his vest pocket and drew out an extremely sharp, extremely small blade.

   "Be careful with it," Londo chided. "It’s a family heirloom." Stephen shook his head. He knew he would never, ever, if he lived to be two million years old, understand the Centauri.

   "Are you going to cut it off his throat?" Delenn asked not quite understanding what Stephen was about to attempt, but wanting him to hurry. John’s face was totally blue now and the collar part of the creature seemed determined to burrow into his flesh.

   "No. Getting air to the captain is more important," Stephen asserted.

   "I’m going to need a piece of tubing, not very long and as clean as possible." Looking at all of the infected places on John’s chest he almost chuckled at his own insistence on cleanliness. If the situation hadn’t been so desperate he might have even laughed. He did neither, but waited as precious second slipped away while Delenn found and rinsed out a small section of what looked like drinking straw.

   "This is going to be bloody, but I need your help."

   She nodded her understanding.

   With hand poised above John Sheridan’s trachea, Stephen pressed the small blade down making an incision that promptly whistled with escaping air from his friend’s lungs. Taking the straw from Delenn, he inserted it in the small hole. It was much longer than necessary, but better that than too short.

   "Come on, John. Breathe for me. Come on, John. Breathe." Stephen whispered encouragement as he packed the incision around the straw with clean cotton. And, John breathed. The straw had a tendency to flatten where the sides of the incision pressed against it, but that could be dealt with. The important thing was that the captain was no longer dying of strangulation. Color began to return to his cheeks despite the deeply indented mark around his neck made by the seemingly unstoppable creature grasping his throat so tightly.

   "Needle," Stephen requested, and Delenn passed him one from the shuttle’s medical kit. "How crude," she thought watching him sterilize it with a small amount of alcohol.

   "Thread." She passed him a spool of something known as ‘catgut’ that had been kept in the same section of the kit. She hoped it wasn’t really from a cat. She had liked John’s stories about cats. And then she was crying again, sitting with her back to the bulkhead and her arms wrapped around her knees. She knew what Stephen was going to do. What he had to do. He was going to sew up part of the incision he had made in John’s throat. He was going to push the needle in and pull it out dragging the nearly clear thread with it. She gagged.

   "Cotton." She scrambled forward to supply what he requested.

   "Can you dab the blood off of there, so I can see what I’m doing?" She found to her amazement that she could, if she didn’t think too hard about what it was that she was looking at.

   "Where do you want this salt?" Zack asked bringing several small containers filled to the brim with white crystals to the door.

   "Set it over there. Be careful. Whatever you do, don’t spill it." Stephen warned.

   "Okay." Zack gently set the containers down by the far bulkhead and turned to leave. "If you need Londo, he’s in the ‘head’ throwing up."

   Delenn looked up surprised. She hadn’t even realized that the Centauri ambassador had left. She wondered, in passing, if it was the incision that gotten to Londo or the closing up, the abuse to his toy weapon or the sight of blood pouring from the wound in John’s throat. She’d probably never know. Londo didn’t share his weaknesses with anyone, if possible. She decided to ignore Zack’s information about Londo’s whereabouts in the interest of interstellar relations.

   Stephen tied off the first tiny stitches with equally tiny knots. Then he repeated the process on the opposite side of the small straw. This time it did not bother her as much. This time she was willing and able to see what he was accomplishing that was helping John instead of only seeing the part that was hurting him.

   Surreptitiously, Stephen glanced at Delenn. He’d seen Londo leave. His face had been so green it could have been mistaken for improperly prepared flarn. He hadn’t been sure Delenn would stick it out either, but she had. She might never choose to become a med tech, but in a pinch she did a fine job. He tied the last knot, and gave her a small smile.

   "Now," he said, "Let’s get rid of this ‘thing.’"

    

    

    

 

Chapter 4 ~ The Gifts of Psi Corps

 

 

 

 

   Babylon 5 Shuttle, Hyperspace

   En route to Babylon Five

   Stephen Franklin wanted that ‘thing,’ off of John Sheridan’s neck.

   He wasn’t sure just what it was—a parasite, a telepathic link, a collar-and-leash; whatever it was he wanted it gone. Initially, like everyone else he had assumed it was an inanimate object, a tool used by Psi Corps to control prisoners. Londo had described using the rope-like leash to get John to move toward the ship, to follow instructions. It had made him feel uncomfortable, even just using it for such a short period of time. It had let him sense John’s thoughts.

   Only by accident had Franklin discovered that it was alive, if not thankfully sentient. He tried to imagine the threat such a creature would be if it had the ‘intent’ as well as ability to hurt someone. He was grateful he had never seen such a thing before, and he never wanted to see one again.

    In the medical supplies Londo Mollari had scrounged, Stephen found two very strong, very thin rods. He thought they might have been intended as splints for broken bones. He knew they would serve his purpose. Working carefully, he rolled John over onto his side. He had decided that the side of the captain’s neck gave him the best angle for what he had in mind. One at a time he positioned the metal rods, forcing them underneath the ‘collar’ portion of the creature. He knew what he was doing was creating new wounds. He knew he was hurting John, but they had to get the ‘thing’ off and now. Eventually he was happy with the placement of the rods. He had set them parallel to each other and at a ninety-degree angle from the ‘collar.’ A small section of the collar was exposed between them and held out away from John’s lacerated skin.

   Stephen took Londo’s stiletto and checked its edge. It was as sharp as it was ever going to be. He looked toward Delenn and Londo. Both of them were poised and ready. Londo had on heavy work gloves and was holding what looked like a small axe. His job was to pin down the leash end of the beast and, if necessary, sever it from the collar end. Delenn had a bucket of salt. It still wasn’t clear, in Stephen’s mind, exactly why he was so sure that salt was ultimately poisonous to this thing, but he believed it with a surety that would not be gainsaid.

   "Ready?" he asked. They nodded. "Here we go."

   He slashed down with the thin, razor-sharp knife. It passed easily through the first half of the tentacle-like strand that was stretched between the two parallel rods, and then seemed to hit rock. The blade did not break, but it bent.

   As they had anticipated, the leash end writhed in anguish or in search of someone to strike out at. They were not sure. Londo held it pinned to the deck, and Delenn poured salt down the length of it. Its spasms increased, but still Stephen couldn’t force the blade any further through the iron-like strand of ‘rope.’

   "Londo, when you used this thing to get John to the shuttle, did it accept your authority, your right to use it?" Stephen asked.

   "Yes. I would say so." Londo answered the doctor. "Why?"

   "I can’t cut through it. I’d almost say it’s creating some kind of molecular bond, changing its own structure on a cell by cell basis to keep me from severing it. I was wondering if it would accept your authority again? If it would release John, if you told it to do so?"

   The last thing Londo Mollari wanted to do was touch that living telepathic link again but, if it would allow them to free Sheridan from its influence, he would try. He peeled the heavy construction worker’s glove off of his right hand. Slowly he reached for what he still thought of as the ‘leash.’

   "We can only hope it will do so." Londo closed the fingers of his right hand around the rope-like being and a telepathic link was established between Londo and John. Londo marveled at how strangely quiet Sheridan’s mind was but then, of course, he was unconscious. Londo sensed the other presence in the void: it was totally alien. He shivered. It reminded him of nothing so much as the touch of the Shadows, the touch of Mr. Morden. He calmed his own thoughts.

   "Relax." He was not sure what good meditation techniques were going to do on semi-sentient beings, but he was willing to try anything.

   "Relax. Let go. Breathe in. Breathe out. Relax. Let go. Detach. Release."

   Londo was never sure afterward which command had worked, but one of them had. The collar opened of its own accord in the center front immediately under John’s chin and over the tracheotomy that Stephen had performed to save John’s life. With his left hand, the one still wearing the heavy, ugly glove, he seized the creature before it could reattach itself and dropped it into the vat of cooling water. Delenn promptly dumped in at least half of their salt. It writhed and splashed, and died.

   All three of them sat on the wet, salty deck beside John’s unconscious body. They looked at each other and the tension broke. They laughed. They looked ridiculous, but not that ridiculous. It was a reaction to everything they had been through.

   Delenn still wore the crew's flight suit and her hair fell in damp ringlets around her face. She had no idea where John’s Agamemnon baseball cap had gone. She’d need to find it. He’d want it back. Stephen and Londo were wet. They had been liberally soaked by the saline solution they had used to destroy Psi Corps’ ‘leash.’ For want of a better name for it, Stephen had dubbed it a "PC leash." When they were positively sure it was dead—he figured eight hours in a strong saline solution should accomplish that beyond the last shadow of a doubt—they would transfer it to a sealed receptacle for further study at another time.

   "Actually," Stephen thought, "if I knew for sure it was one of a kind, I’d jettison it into the nearest star." He shivered at the thought that more of those parasites probably existed and that they were in the hands of such unscrupulous people as Bester.

   "We’d better get back to business," Stephen asserted taking over control of the situation again.

   "Londo, see if Zack can help you haul that thing out of here and down to the galley or somewhere." The doctor motioned to the tub of salty water and parasite. "I don’t care where you put it, just don’t let anybody touch it."

   "I will see to it," Londo assured him. Wiping himself off halfheartedly, he disappeared in the direction of the control cabin to get Mr. Allan.

   Without being told Delenn had returned to her post monitoring John’s heartbeat. Stephen looked at her admiringly. She was truly dedicated to the task at hand. It helped, he thought, that she was in love with the patient.

   "Any change?" he asked.

   "It seems a little stronger, a little steadier," she replied. "There are not as many beats I am not quite sure about." She didn’t know how else to describe what she sensed by touch in his pulse.

   "That sounds like a good sign." Stephen smiled encouragingly. "Let me scrub up and we’ll take a look at John’s throat."

   Using concentrated solution from his med kit, Stephen sterilized his hands. He wasn’t sure what he was going to discover when he examined John’s throat, but that had to be his next priority. A drinking straw worked for a tracheotomy tube in a pinch, but he didn’t want to have to trust it any longer than absolutely necessary.

   He began with an external examination. The most recent damage was obviously from the metal rods he had used, and the worst was from the constriction of the creature they had just destroyed. That mark was still indented, red, and angry. He wondered if the creature had had the ability to sting or use poison. Some parts of the indentation had a purplish cast like a contact poison might make. Comparing the newest mark with some of the older ones told the doctor a story of repeated encounters between John and that creature or another like it. The older marks overlapped. Some of them had gone deep enough to draw blood. He suspected that it had been used as a ‘training device,’ as well as a ‘telepathic link’ and ‘control.’

   John’s throat was also circled with burns from what could only be a ‘paingiver.’ Checking his wrists he found matching burns there. "Definitely paingivers," Stephen thought. Of all the contributions the Narns had made to warfare, ‘paingivers’ were definitely the most infamous. They could restrain a prisoner. They could injure a prisoner. They could, if set for it, kill.

   Lastly, there were bruises on the captain’s throat that could only have been made by a five-fingered hand with an opposable thumb. A human or humanoid had tried to strangle him with his or her bare hands. Those marks were old probably dating from the time he had spent as ‘a guest’ of Earth Force on Mars.

   "So far, so good," Stephen assured Delenn.

   Now he needed to examine the throat internally. He got out a small scope and light that he could use to inspect the damage inside his friend’s body. He turned it on and verified that it was working.

   "Delenn," Stephen motioned her to change sides with him. "I need you to monitor his breathing as well as his pulse while I’m doing this. If he stops at any time, I need to know immediately. Can you handle that?"

   She nodded yes and moved quickly from one side of John’s body to the opposite. Stephen being right-handed preferred to work from that side, especially when he was doing something as potentially tricky as an internal scope exam.

   Stephen opened John’s mouth wide and inserted small rolls of cotton between his back teeth. They would keep John from biting down even by reflex on the delicate equipment and free up Stephen’s hands to maneuver it. Gently, trying to avoid touching the very back of the throat, the doctor inserted the scope into the captain’s larynx. Slowly and carefully, turning the scope so that he could see all sides of the air passageway, he lowered it until he came to the damaged section.

   John’s larynx and vocal chords were swollen and inflamed, but they did not show any signs of blood from that damage. He knew there’d be blood further down where he’d made his incision, but that had been necessary to keep the captain alive. There had been trauma here, but no lacerations to the delicate tissues, and miracle of miracles there was an open airway. He could see the small passageway quite clearly. It wasn’t large, maybe half to a quarter of its normal size, but definitely larger and more beneficial to John than the temporary tracheal tube he had inserted.

   Carefully, Stephen reached out with his free left hand and plugged the end of the drinking straw. Delenn looked at him as if he were crazy, and then realized to her surprise and delight that John was breathing, was able to breathe, without the aid of the tube. Stephen looked as pleased as she felt.

   "He’s going to have an awful case of laryngitis for a while, until the swelling goes down, but all in all it is much better than I’d dared to hope."

   "Thank you, Stephen," Delenn said simply. He looked at her quizzically. "For saving his life—what three times already today?" He nodded his understanding.

   "I think the next order of business is getting this out of here," Stephen said withdrawing the scope and indicating the drinking straw. "I’m going to need your help again, if you’re up to it." Delenn nodded and began laying out the needle, ‘catgut,’ and a supply of cotton.

   "What else will you need?" she asked.

   "Just something to sterilize the needle. There should be alcohol packs in the shuttle’s first aid kit."

   "It seems so strange," she said passing the small pre-moistened towel to the doctor, "that a substance that can do Minbari so much harm is apparently so helpful in some situations."

   "Well," Stephen made a face, "not all humans use alcohol solely for medicinal purposes and some of those who drink it get into problems with it—not in the same way Minbari do—but in a similar way. We have alcoholics: people who can never drink because of a reaction their systems have to it. If they start drinking, some of them can’t stop. But it is hard to beat alcohol for killing germs quickly and simply."

   "Should there be something for the pain?" Delenn wondered aloud.

   "No. In some ways a painkiller might help, but he’s unconscious right now and that’s the best natural anesthetic there is. There’s just so much we don’t know yet about what they’ve done to him. I don’t want to take the chance of adding another drug and possibly creating a synergy between them." Dr. Franklin looked at Delenn. He liked the ambassador, but she did have a gift for asking the hard questions.

   "If you say so. You are the doctor." Delenn had finished laying out everything the doctor had ordered or that she could think of that they might need. When she was done, she sat back and waited for Stephen’s instructions.

   "Whenever you’re ready, let’s do it." Stephen watched Delenn’s face. She nodded that she was ready and they began.

    

    

    

 

Chapter 5 ~ The Eye of the Storm

    

    

   ‘The mind of John Sheridan’

    Pain had become a hurricane that beat on his body with unstoppable force. He'd given up trying to escape it. Of course, it wasn't really a storm, but that was how he thought of it. He no longer fought to get away. Instead he tried to stay within the eye of the storm. He had found it the first time when the agony had become unbearable, when he had thought his body would simply collapse from the screaming intensity of his suffering. It was a calm center of respite for his soul in the midst of everything they were doing. If he could just stay centered in that place then they could not take anything more away from him.

    Physically he was broken. Hard as it was to accept, he knew it. If they hadn't wanted him still alive he'd have been dead long since. They had chosen not to let him die.

    He didn't remember when they had finally won, when he had lost control over that which was, had been his. He could not walk without aid. He could not keep food in his stomach. He could not even trust the report of his senses.

    All he had left was sleep and that elusive point of stillness that hid within the chaos of his mind. They had deprived him of sleep trying to break his body. They had kept him awake until he had forgotten what sleeping felt like. Then their tactics had changed and now for brief moments he was able to escape—maybe even dream. Though he thought of it more as an escape for his mind than as an escape for his body, in truth it was a breathing space for both. His reserves of strength had gotten weaker and weaker until one by one they had fallen away. He could no longer defend himself. He wasn't allowed to do so. That had been a portion of the breaking of his mind.

    John was not a telepath—never had been or would be one—but the first time one of them had stepped into his head he had instinctively known what was being done to him. It had been an immeasurably cold sensation, like someone driving an ice pick—cold, metallic, intrusive, sharp, and alien—into his thoughts. His ‘memory’ said he had screamed. He didn't think he had. He thought he had fought back.

    At first, in the beginning, they had been searching for specific things: information he had tried to withhold. Like burglars dumping dresser drawers on the floor, they had rummaged through his head despite his protests and frantic attempts to outwit them. On a conscious level he had been able sometimes to misdirect them for a short time. If he thought about a related thing long enough and hard enough, sometimes he could make it look like a possible answer to their question. They'd spend hours pursuing everything he knew or had ever known about that, preserving for a little while what he didn't want them to know and wasting their time and resources. It didn't happen often, but when it did he felt a certain sense of accomplishment. That feeling had given him away more than once.

    When they had gotten to his subconscious, he had been defenseless. It was all there—his hopes and dreams, his desires and fears. Once they found the fears he was finished. For what had felt like weeks there had not been a moment when his world had not been filled with abject terror. When one phobia had begun to wane from constant exposure, they had shifted to another and then later to another and if need be to another. He had thought, long ago, that he understood the Minbari concept of ‘terror.’ He had quickly learned that, in truth, he hadn't had a clue. He'd envied Marcus, in one of the non-screaming moments, the training he had had on Minbar in dealing with and using it.

    Sometime during this part of his interrogation President Clark himself had come to see him. Whether it was simply curiosity or something more sadistic in the man’s nature, Clark had wanted to see the ‘traitor.’ They had brought him out like a 'sideshow' exhibit to be gawked at and reviled.

   He had been dragged unresisting from his cell. Strong arms had carried him when his legs refused to work. They had dropped him on a cleaner floor. He had lain where they put him…unmoving, almost uncaring. He vaguely remembered that they had picked him up and propped him in a chair where he had slumped in the twilight world of his own internal horrors. He had stayed in that chair mouth hanging slackly open, unrestrained externally, but totally trapped—imprisoned with the demons in his own mind. A thin line of saliva had dripped down his chin while his body had twitched with convulsive spasms. His once-piercing eyes had been unfocused and mostly closed. Clark had not been impressed with this ‘thing’ that he had become.

    A picture of him could have been labeled: "Broken under interrogation," and it would have been accurate. It would have been true though he still had the center, the eye of the storm, and in it was the small part that was his ‘self.’ Sooner or later they’d come for that too. He knew they would.

   For a long time the interrogators had bounced back and forth between assaulting his conscious mind and his unconscious one, trying to use the latter to force still more information from the former. Some of what they got in that way was valuable—things he had not wanted to give up—and some of it was gibberish—‘died’ and ‘resurrected,’ indeed. Who did he think he was?

    Then there had come the day, when it had become obvious to those who held him that the only way to stop the Army of Light was going to be for Clark's forces to negotiate and give back John Sheridan. The order had come down from somewhere high above—give them only a 'shell'—and the attack on the center of his being had begun.

    It had been like the siege of a castle. They had marshaled their forces to surround and to torment him, and he had shored up his walls as best he could. He was not a telepath. He could not build barriers that could withstand a direct assault by someone who didn't care what, if anything, was left when they were done. They weren't after information. They weren't after conversion or a confession. They had only one goal now—to destroy him.

    It might be an oversimplification to just say that they ‘did’—destroy him, that is. They had weapons in their arsenal unlike any John Sheridan had ever seen or heard about before or since. They had used them. The most damning one was a simple creature from a world near the rim that allowed a total telepathic link to be established with anyone—even such a stolid mundane as the captain. The creature was useful for ‘training’ and other things too, but what it did best was ‘open’ people.

    They brought one into John's cell and let it get used to his body chemistry, draping it over the top of his body as he lay on the cold metal floor. He hadn't known what to think; it hadn't seemed alive. Why they would want to lay a rope across his chest made no sense to him, none at all. It had just been a thing until...they fastened it around his throat and then he knew he had screamed. The telepaths had laughed out loud. Mundanes always reacted that way.

    The creature—it didn't have a name—linked his mind to his captor's. It hadn't been a contest, not even a race. John was a prisoner, exhausted and weak, and the telepath on the other end was a P-Twelve, well rested and more than ready. The 'other' had been in his mind—totally—as quickly as a thought could travel across a synapse and had stayed for a very long time. It had hurt, like acid burning through his brain. And there was no escape, not now, not ever.

   They had used the link to do deep scans, finishing what they had begun. Raiding his thoughts, they had erased, at first selectively and later en masse, the memories and personality that had been John Sheridan.

   They were thieves. They were worse than thieves. They stole from him more than wealth or jewels. They stole: the glow of accomplishment he had felt on first being commissioned an Earth Force officer, his dad's smile of pride, and his mother's kiss.

   They’d taken all the memories they could find of his relationship with Delenn. Gone was the first time he had ever seen Delenn in the council chamber on Babylon Five, drawing back her hood, and her passion—the fire in her eyes—when she had offered Sebastian her life for his. They had captured his memories one by one, seized them, and removed whole passages from his life. He had lost her laughter—clear and chiming like a bell—and the taste of flarn and the look on Lennier’s face at that long-ago dinner when he’d fallen asleep ‘meditating’ between bites.

   They had gone deeper and stripped away more: Anna and their wedding night, Anna-of-the-Shadows at Z'Ha'Dum, and the Shadows themselves—nightmares that moved, conquered, and destroyed—and the Great War. The invaders took everything in his head that wasn't nailed down...and much that might once have been until they pried it loose. A religious person might say they’d stolen his soul.

   He was left half-knowing that something was important, but unable to remember why. He was left able to say words he could not define and able to perform actions for which he had no name. He was lost, and the more he sought to find the center again, the more they took away...until, he could walk, talk, obey, and little more. It was gone. What he had been. What he had dreamed of being. Once, in a tiny flash, he thought he found the center again, but all that was there were some words he almost knew and one face and one name...nothing more. He had let it go...it was unimportant. Nothing was important, not any more.

 

 

 

 

Chapter 6 ~ Now I Lay Me…

 

 

 

   ‘Babylon 5 Shuttle, Hyperspace

   En route to Babylon Five’

   Stephen Franklin lay back in the copilot’s reclining seat trying to will his body to sleep. He had done all that he could do for now. They were still a little more than thirty-six hours out from Babylon Five, about halfway home. He remembered John Sheridan saying sardonically that Babylon Five was three days from every place by hyperspace, and it was: three days from Earth, three days from Minbar, three days from Centauri Prime, and three days from the Narn homeworld. At one point they had even debated, not in front of Delenn of course, whether or not that had been a Minbari requirement for the location of the station.

   John was still unconscious, but he was breathing regularly and they hadn’t had any more problems with his heart after they had removed the Psi Corps’ parasite. Bleeding, internal and external, seemed to be under control. His wounds had been washed out and most of his body wrapped in clean linen sheeting. They simply had not had enough bandages. An intravenous solution was putting fluids and nutrients, as well as antibiotics, into his system.

   John’s right hand was going to need extensive reconstructive surgery. It had been burned—third degree burns that had been left untreated—and several of the finger bones had been broken. In one case, Stephen thought the bone had been crushed. They had wrapped that hand separately in a sterile, gauze dressing after coating it with a regenerative salve that would help with the pain. Stephen wondered if the Psi Cops had realized that John was left-handed.

   Londo and Stephen between them had lifted John’s battered and abused body onto the narrow cabin bunk. Its thin mattress wouldn’t make him much more comfortable, but it couldn’t hurt. They had wrapped the warmest blankets the shuttle had to offer around him from the chest down. There was quite simply nothing else the doctor could do until they got him back to Med Lab at the station.

   Delenn had chosen to stay with John. She had curled up on the deck, the hard cabin floor beside him, cradling her head on her arms. Stephen doubted that she would sleep, but she was happy—as happy as she could be with John still unconscious, still so gravely injured—just being with him and listening to him breathe. She could have pulled down an adjacent bunk for herself. She had chosen not to do so.

   Zack was awake and manning the shuttle’s controls. He’d gotten some sleep earlier while Londo had monitored the comm channels and autopilot. Now Londo was draped across the navigator’s seat, snoring loudly and mumbling vague dream-driven imprecations at the Universe.

   It had been a hell of a day Stephen thought. "A hell of a two days." He hoped he didn’t have to live through another like it again anytime in the near future. He and Delenn and Londo had made a decent team. They had given each other moral support. They had each only thrown up once.

   John’s wounds had been horrendous, the worst he had ever seen from interrogation. He’s seen worse, of course, from exploding ship’s cores and from large explosions during the war, but this had been premeditated damage inflicted on one human being by another. He found it hard to believe even now.

   Insisting that Delenn absent herself when they removed the coveralls from John’s lower body had been one of the truly intelligent moves he had made since they left Earth. That was when he had thrown up. Until John came to, they wouldn’t know for sure but, based on the medical evidence, the captain had been raped, gang raped, or molested repeatedly by one sadistic son of a…. Franklin felt his intestines clench, again, at the memory of what they had found. At some point a stun stick or the equivalent had been used on the captain’s buttocks and thighs. The wire burns had continued below his waist, as had the line of sores. His genitals were a mass of burns and sores and lesions. His legs showed bruise marks from patterned beatings, more electrode marks, and deep welts that the doctor thought came from some sort of whip or leather thong. They, he and Londo, had cleaned him up, to the best of their ability, and covered the worst of the damage before allowing Delenn to return.

   What had finished Delenn had been John’s feet. She had watched on the viewscreen of the shuttle as he had walked out of the Psi Corps shuttle, down the ramp, and across the spaceport landing field. Looking at his poor feet, she had no idea how he had done it. Their bottoms were crosshatched with cuts at least a quarter of an inch deep and in many places deeper. At first she had thought that they had made him walk across a surface covered with shards of broken glass. But, as she had worked to clean off the dried blood and filth, the parallel pattern of the cuts had become obvious, as had the perpendicular lines that created the crosshatching. Someone had laid him down either on his back or his stomach. She had no idea which one would have been worse. They had secured him holding his feet immobile, and they had destroyed the bottoms of his feet, one thin bloody line at a time. For the first time she had doubted that ‘her’ John had survived. She had wondered if ‘anyone’ could survive such punishment.

   Stephen had been with Delenn while she was working on John’s feet. He had become aware first of her low almost silent sobbing and then of the extreme pallor of her face. He had thought she was going to faint. She hadn’t fainted, and when he had come around beside her, he too had seen the deliberate destruction that had been wrought on his friend’s soles. He had said a curse word, and she had turned her head away and been quietly sick.

   "We can fix it," Stephen had said holding her tightly around the shoulders. "It’ll take time but we can make it right, fix it back the way it used to be." He wasn’t thinking just of John’s feet, but of all the other damage his captors had done as well. "It’s just gonna take a lot of time." He had patted her very gently.

   Hiccuping—trying to breathe between sobs—she had stared at him with disbelieving eyes. They would try. She knew that, and the thought sustained her. Many of John’s injuries would get better with time. He would recuperate, but she didn’t believe that all of his wounds would ever heal. Stephen and the Med Lab team would close the cuts with sutures and medi-plast sprays. Regeneration packs should even be able to eliminate the scars given enough time, but nothing she knew of would ever erase the terrifying feeling of being destroyed little by little, piece by piece, and of being helpless to do anything about it. Looking at his feet, she knew that they had done that to him.

   She had wanted to be here. She had felt that she needed to be here. But, just now, she wasn’t so certain that she should have been. Later on, John would need her. Now he needed a miracle.

   Stephen had held her shoulders for a long while after she had thrown up. Then the two of them had finished cleansing the lacerations on John’s feet. Finally, at the doctor’s insistence, she had left and taken some time to ‘get herself together.’

   It was bad. Stephen kept telling himself it could have been worse. He refused to admit even to himself that it still might be. Until the captain regained consciousness, he had no way of knowing just how much other damage he was dealing with. Psychological damage could be the very worst. He knew…he believed…Delenn had broken down for just that reason. If the physical damage was this bad, how much worse was the mental damage bound to be.

   John was strong. He had been as healthy as anyone on the station going into this mess. They had taken that from him. He was a weak a kitten, now, and as unstable as a newborn calf. The jaundiced color of his skin bespoke a variety of possible illnesses and, at least, severe vitamin deficiencies. He was terribly thin. In addition to everything else they had done to him, he was malnourished and dehydrated. They had at some point starved him and used purgatives to make him ill. When they had fed him, they had given him very little, and his body had had to use his own muscle tissue to sustain itself, to keep him alive.

   He was strong-willed. Ivanova would have said the captain was ‘stubborn,’ and Michael had called him ‘pig-headed’ more than once. That could have been either a blessing or a curse. Strong-willed people were not easily subdued. They held onto their convictions in the face of all odds. But, they also did not bend. They did not, could not, give in to the necessity of the moment. They would not let themselves take an easier path. When they were broken, if they broke, it was like a mirror fracturing into tiny shards. One could attempt to reassemble the whole, but somehow it was never the same.

   "Ideally," Stephen thought, "a prisoner under interrogation should be like a stone, a rock in a flowing stream. Whatever the interrogator did should flow around or off without changing the stone, merely wetting the rock. But time had a way a wearing away even stones and rocks turned eventually to sand beneath pounding waves."

   He said a small prayer for John Sheridan and finally drifted off to sleep.

    

    

    

    

 

Chapter 7 ~ I Don’t Remember

    

    

   ‘Babylon 5 Shuttle, Hyperspace

   En route to Babylon Five’

    Hearing was the first sense to return when John regained consciousness. He became aware first of the distant hum and deep vibration of some kind of motor. A motor that big should be a ship’s engine. Though he strained his ears, that was the only sound he could perceive. He was probably on a ship of some kind. Vaguely he had a picture in his mind of the Babylon Five shuttle, a picture borrowed from another’s eyes. He hadn’t recognized it as anything special. He knew he had walked toward it. Then something had happened. He couldn’t remember. The world had gone away.

   They had destroyed his memories, but not his intelligence. He thought…he reasoned, but sometimes it took him a while. Once he had assembled all the pieces to what was puzzling him, things would come together logically. Finding the pieces had become the hard part.

   He remembered being on another ship before, not too long ago. He had been questioned there. He had been hurt. After they had landed, he had been taken off that ship. He hadn’t been able to see, but he had heard sounds. He had tried to piece the sounds together into some kind of coherent picture. He had wanted to know what was going on; he’d wanted to know what was happening.

   He remembered he had felt sunlight on his face and hands and a cool breeze blowing gently against his skin. He had decided that he must be outside somewhere. No one had bothered to explain to him what was happening, what was taking place. No one had consulted him, asked for his permission or opinion. Like a box or parcel he had changed hands…been given and received.

   Now he was in another ship and on his way to ‘wherever’ they were taking him. As long as he could hear a motor and feel the vibration he thought he should be safe. If they had left him alone this long, odds were they would stay away at least until they reached a stopping place. That he had learned over time. That had been true of most of his tormentors.

   There was an exception…the one he knew as the ‘lisping demon.’ That one really didn’t need the collar to step into his mind. He would use it anyway because he knew—had discovered—how much John hated it, how much it made his skin crawl. Unlike the others, the ‘demon’ would come at any time. It would invade his mind unannounced, in any situation, always hoping to gain an edge or catch him in a lie. There had been no lies in a very long time. He didn’t think he was capable of telling lies anymore. Whatever edge there was to be gained by harassing him when his body was on the point of sleep or while he was throwing up he would never know. It was just another dehumanizing tactic he felt sure, but it was unnerving, ‘and’ it always, always hurt.

   "There should be a special place in hell reserved for that one," he thought.

   When that distinctive lisping voice had first appeared, John had grasped at it as something he could use to identify at least one of his telepathic tormentors. It hadn’t taken long to learn that the lisp belonged to the worst of them. Some of them had shown him rare compassion. Some would offer him a long-needed lull from the pain. They would cease their ministrations and, occasionally, had allowed him a chance to sleep. With the telepath he feared most there was never peace and never sleep. Very, very seldom, there might be unconsciousness.

   The one with the lisp was the strongest and the cruelest. That one had the power to take over both his mind and his body, to control everything that he did or was. There had been times—he shuddered remembering—when his body had tried to scream, to throw up, to pass out, even to die, and the demon, as he thought of the man, would not let him.

   John’s thoughts had been dissected, pulled apart, deleted, erased. It was not enough for this one to know every thing, every ‘damn’ thing he had ever said or done. The demon had taken what he had wanted and then wantonly destroyed the rest. Sometimes with the calm precision of a surgeon the man would remove a name but leave a face or leave the first half of a memory, but not the last. Other times it was like being in the heart of a nuclear blast. Everything, absolutely everything would be gone with only vague shadows to mark its passing. John had come to dread both techniques: the first because it was so frustrating to almost know someone or something and the second because the more often it happened the bigger the holes in his mind had become until he felt he could fall into one and lose himself forever.

   John’s eyelids flickered tentatively before he let them open. It was time to take the next step back into the world. There was light in the room with him but it wasn't unbearably bright. He could see, not well, but he decided he ‘could’ see. He had been so long in total darkness that even normal light levels brought more pain. Someone, he could not remember who it had been, had told him that the drugs made it worse. Unless they’d given him more drugs while he was unconscious, the drugs he’d been given earlier should be wearing off.

    He was lying on some kind of bunk or bed. Something soft was under him and something warm over him. He hurt. When did he not hurt? But there was no new screaming center of pain. Something was wrong with his throat. Breathing felt wrong. It was hard to describe the feeling even to himself. It hurt to breathe, but not in his chest like it had after they had beaten him, after four or five of them had taken turns trying to kick him to death. He decided he could live with this new pain. It hurt but it was nothing compared to other awakenings. He tried to draw a deep breath and coughed.

    "Oh, God!" He had thought it hurt before. Now, it was worse, much worse.

    "John, are you all right?" Delenn was beside him within seconds.

    He looked up in fear at this unknown dark-haired figure dressed in a flight suit and a baseball cap. She had appeared as if from thin air. She had simply arisen from the floor, but he had no way of knowing that. Things that appeared from nowhere were not to be trusted. He struggled to keep himself from panicking. He struggled to keep from showing fear. They would only use his fears against him. They would only hurt him again and worse.

    John stared long and hard at her face. She was quite close, leaning over him now. He could see her plainly despite the pain in his eyes. She was beautiful, whoever she was. Long dark hair floated down toward his face. She reached up and tucked some of it under the baseball cap. He knew it was a baseball cap. He knew pieces of things... frustrating disjointed, disconnected pieces of things.

    Somehow, he knew that he should know who this person was. He knew she had been talking to him. There was no one else there. She'd called him by a name. She'd called him..."John." Maybe he was John. He didn't know. He only knew his head hurt and breathing hurt. He tried to swallow. That hurt, too.

    "Water?" He tried to speak. He tried.

    The sound he made bore no relation to the word he’d tried to say, and the pain in his throat redoubled at the effort. She saw the look of pain cross his face and mirrored it with her own. Whoever she was, she seemed to care about him, but he had no name to put with that hauntingly beautiful face. Still he knew...something. He caught and clung to a fragment of memory. He knew those eyes. From somewhere, long ago, he remembered those eyes filled with tears. He remembered her crying. He had held her in his arms and she had cried on his shoulder while a sky full of burning ships surrounded them. That made no sense. He shook his head. He wanted to remember more, but remembering hurt. Every time he had tried to remember, his tormentors had sent waves of pain through his head 'til he had felt like he was drowning in it. Until he could not breathe.

    Delenn reached out her hand touching his forehead checking for fever. Her hand felt soft and cool, but still he flinched away. He realized he had been staring at her. He had looked into her eyes…those beautiful green eyes. That wasn’t allowed ever. He lowered his eyes quickly and held his breath. His whole body went rigid waiting for the pain he knew would come.

   It didn’t come. He let his eyes come up, just a little. He let himself glance her way. It was the smallest of movements, but he had been punished for less. Still, he couldn’t help his reactions. He had to look at her again, even if it meant he’d be subjected to more beatings. She was holding his wrist and she seemed to be counting. He didn’t understand. He let himself breathe. There was something about her that said she didn’t belong here, that she didn’t belong in those clothes. He wasn’t sure where she did belong, but he knew that somehow this was wrong.

   She looked up from what she was doing turning her attention back to him, back to his face. He braced himself, holding his breath, waiting for the pain…the blazing white agony that he knew all too well. Again, there was ‘no’ pain in his head. She had not hurt him. He didn’t know why. There was, however, pain and sorrow painted across her face. She drew back her hand and he breathed again carefully.

    Reaching down, to someplace he could not see, she brought up a cup with a bent straw in it. She leaned over carefully and offered him the straw.

    "Try some of this. Stephen says it should be good for you." She held the cup closer and the straw to his lips. Tentatively he moved, just a few centimeters, and took the straw between his lips. Whatever was in the cup was cool, wet, and sweet. He took several sips and looked up at her again. She was smiling at him. He felt his heart jump and try to catch in his throat. He hadn’t seen anyone smile in a very long time, not since Clark’s visit and that smile hadn’t been anything you’d ever want to remember.

   He tried to smile back at her. Somehow smiling seemed permissible. The left side of his face felt wooden, stiff and sore. With one side functioning better than the other, a lopsided grin was the best he could do. Still, it made her heart skip a beat.

    "Oh, John!" she thought. She wanted to hold him to her...to hug him and kiss him...and make the pain go away. But he had shied away from just the touch of her hand. He would not look her in the eye. She breathed a small slightly petulant sigh.

    "Slowly," Stephen had said, "go slowly. He's going to need a lot of time." She would try, but it was so hard. When he looked at her, she could tell he was frightened. He had ‘no’ idea at all who she was. It felt as if the John she knew and loved was gone. Stephen had promised her that he wouldn't be gone forever, but those vacant, lost eyes just about broke her heart.

    She lowered the glass of orange juice. Orange juice had been his favorite.

    "Talking is going to be hard for a while. The doctor says you really should not try. Not yet. There was a 'thing' on your neck; it tried to strangle you. Stephen had to operate on your throat. So, you could get oxygen to your lungs. We killed it, the thing that was hurting you." She realized that she was saying far too much, far too fast, and that she was oversimplifying as if she were talking to a child.

    John nodded. Not only was he allowed to look at her. She was talking to him…not issuing order, not making demands, but talking to him. It was a novel feeling. He thought she was trying to answer questions she believed he might have about what had happened to him…about why he couldn’t talk.

   He nodded to her that he understood. He knew there had been a ‘thing’ on his neck. Oh, God, that he knew. It seemed to be gone now, and his throat hurt a lot—maybe from the operation she was talking about. He gathered it was something ‘Stephen’ had done to him. Who was ‘Stephen?’ Who for that matter was she? Maybe here and now he was allowed to ask questions.

   Delenn watched him carefully. He was attending to her voice and he seemed to be responding appropriately. Tentatively he raised one hand and pointed it toward her. She looked at him not comprehending.

    "What do you want?" she asked. Again the finger rose and pointed at her.

    "Who am I?" she guessed. "Is that what you want to know?"

   He was right. He was allowed to ask questions now. He’d need to be very circumspect, very careful about what he asked so that he did not give himself away. When and if he escaped this time, it had to be all the way. He couldn’t let them catch him again. He wasn’t sure he could survive another session like the last one—the one that had destroyed his feet.

   His captors were very methodical, whoever ‘they’ were. If you tried to run away, they destroyed your feet. If you refused to follow orders, they shattered your will. Like a perverse application of making the punishment fit the crime.

   They had laid traps for him, and he’d fallen into some of them. He had been so hungry he had dared to reach for food—for a blue-black Concord grape, just one, they had left on the tabletop in front of him, and they had broken the fingers he’d used to touch it.

   He’d have to be cautious, very cautious. She had responded to his question. Now, it was his turn again.

    He nodded 'yes' carefully. He really did want to know who she was.

    She took a deep breath. "I am Delenn." She looked at him willing him to remember…if not everything, at least a small part.

    He shook his head ‘no’ vehemently. Gone were his carefully thought out plans about being circumspect and not giving anything away. The miracle was that he been able to formulate them. He didn’t know who she was, but she was not Delenn. Delenn was ‘different.’ "Delenn was special." With the same hand he had used before, he motioned to his own head circling the back of it with his finger.

    She smiled again with understanding. "But, I am Delenn! This," she said removing his baseball cap and shaking down the larger mass of her silky hair, "was a disguise so that I could be here, so that I could see you sooner." Her gracefully arching bonecrest was revealed through her cascading hair.

    "Delenn." He tried to form the word. A piece of the puzzle fell into place, and he remembered:

   "Delenn…who loved him."

   "Delenn…who cared about him."

   "Delenn…with the delicately molded bonecrest."

   "Delenn…with the emerald green eyes."

   He was crying and he didn't know why. ‘This’ he had held on to. ‘This’ he had retained. ‘This’ they had trampled across and tried to destroy. When everything else was gone, ‘this’ he had refused to let them take...no matter how great the coercion, how intense the pain. He had kept her name, the picture of her face, and just ‘three words’ hidden in phrases of a language he couldn’t name any more and had never known all that well. He ‘knew’ he had spoken those words. He knew he had ‘meant’ them. He ‘knew’ he had heard them, and he knew he ‘believed’ them:

   "I love you."

   He made no sound, but his lips formed the words, and her heart read them joyfully. She wanted to hug him, to wrap her arms around him and kiss him. But she remembered how he had flinched away from just her touch on his forehead. So she settled for laying just one finger very gently on his lips.

   "I love you, too," she whispered. She laid her head tentatively on the side of the bunk near his good hand. She knew she should go get Stephen. She knew she should tell someone that he was awake…but she needed this moment for herself. She needed to savor in isolation the realization that not only did he live but, also, he knew who she was and he loved her.

   To her surprise she felt his hand move gently through her hair, caressing the dark mahogany strands and rubbing tenderly along the ridge of her bonecrest. When she looked up, he pulled his hand back quickly as if he had been caught doing something he ought not to have done.

   "It is all right, John." She had smiled at him. "I understand. I think that I even know why you did that. You are like me. You do not quite believe that something is ‘real’ until you reach out and touch it for yourself."

   He nodded and smiled sheepishly that same crooked smile she had seen before. She was ‘really’ Delenn, Delenn from his dreams. He’d almost forgotten she was a real woman.

   "Does your face hurt? I would not be at all surprised."

   He nodded that, "yes, it did."

   "Your teeth do you think? Or maybe your jaw?"

   He shrugged raising his shoulders ever so slightly. He really didn’t know. Right now it didn’t matter.

   She laughed at him, a musical sound. "You will have to do better than that for Stephen. He does not take such ‘wishy-washy’ answers."

   He tilted his head sideways trying to ask without words, "Who is Stephen?"

   There were so many questions he wanted to ask…so many things he did not understand. What he wanted most to ask, he still could not. He could not form the words, but it was important and he did want to know.

   "Who am I?" Not knowing haunted him.

 

 

 

Chapter 8 ~ Small Steps

 

 

   ‘Babylon 5 Shuttle, Hyperspace

   En route to Babylon Five’

    Six hours out from Babylon Five, Zack Allan finally woke Stephen. He really hated to do it. The doctor didn’t look precisely comfortable curled up in the reclining copilot’s seat, but he had obviously needed the rest. Sleeping around the clock twice was an accomplishment.

    "What? What's wrong?" Stephen sat straight up out of a deep sleep.

    "Nothing's wrong," Zack said complacently. "Just thought you might like to rejoin the living." He grinned at the doctor mischievously.

    "How long have I been out?" Stephen rubbed his eyes blearily. He knew he had slept a long time. His body had that heavy feeling that comes with long rest.

    "Almost thirty hours." Zack watched to see his reaction.

    "Thirty hours!" Stephen stared at him in amazement. "Why the...didn't you wake me?"

    "Was there anything you could have done that you haven't already done?" Zack asked.

    "Well, no, but...." Stephen let his voice trail off. He must have been exhausted to sleep so long. "How's everything going?" He nodded to the cabin. When he had laid down John was still unconscious and Delenn was watching over him. Rather like a brooding hen, she had fussed about getting him settled so that he could rest comfortably.

    "So far so good. Delenn came out once to say the captain had come to—that he was no longer unconscious—but by the time she’d finished checking his pulse and was ready to come get you, he was asleep. She said not to wake you. She seemed to think sleep was the best thing for both of you, and I sorta kinda had to agree with her."

    "Couldn't hurt John," Stephen agreed. "Did anyone check on the 'thing' in the tub?" He shivered remembering the parasite they had removed from his friend.

    "Yeah! It's just floating. Looks dead to me. I dumped some more of the salt in, like you said to. Nothing moved."

    "Good. We ought to get it into some kind of sealed container before we land." Zack sat up, yawned, and stretched. "Any coffee?"

    "In the galley. You know Londo's not a bad cook." Zack had a pilot’s appreciation for coffee. If you could make that well, in his book you could cook.

    "Londo cooking? Now I've heard everything." Stephen grinned at Zack.

    "If you want some of my coffee, a little more respect please." Londo chided the doctor. Carrying two large mugs of fragrant steaming liquid, he walked carefully into the control center. "I'm not sure it's 'coffee' but it's the best that I can do."

    "Thanks, Londo." Zack grabbed a mug and sniffed the contents appreciatively. "Smells good. Did you think to check the cabin as you walked by?"

    "With both hands full," Londo looked down his fine aristocratic nose at the pilot. "Who do you think I am ‘Superman?’"

    "Thanks, Mr. Ambassador." Stephen gratefully accepted the second cup of coffee. "Has anyone checked on John lately?" Stephen asked.

    "Not lately," Zack offered. "I looked in earlier…four, five hours ago. John seemed fine, and they were both sound asleep."

    "I'd better go and check him then." Stephen eased himself out of the copilot's seat. In truth he’d have gone to check things out even if Zack had said he’d looked in only moments before. The doctor jockeyed himself and the cup of hot coffee around Londo on his way out of the control center. "And, thank you for letting me sleep. I really must have needed it."

    "You’re welcome," said Zack to Stephen’s departing back.

    Stephen moved into the companionway without mishap. There he stopped and took another large sip from the mug. It wasn't like they hadn't all been under a lot of pressure lately. As negotiations for Sheridan’s release had come down the wire there had been more and more details to work out. Where would the exchange take place? What time? What date? Who was allowed to be present? Stephen Franklin knew that he shouldn't have been there. He knew he had broken the agreement by coming, but if he had followed the official accord to the letter of the law then John Sheridan would have been dead. No medical tech in the world could have done what he done in those first thirty-six hours: two cardiac resuscitations, a tracheotomy, and the removal of a parasite, a semi-sentient life form Psi Corps had perverted and employed as a telepathic link. That life form had tried to kill the captain, to strangle him to death.

   "It was no wonder," the doctor thought ruefully, "that I collapsed in a heap when it was over."

    Quietly Stephen opened the door to the shuttle's cabin. John and Delenn were both still asleep. She had fallen asleep sitting beside the bunk where they had laid John. Her head and shoulders were resting on the edge of it. One hand rested tenderly across the captain’s blanket wrapped body. John’s hand lay gently on the back of her sleeping head. His fingers were entwined in her dark hair and just one was touching her delicate bonecrest. It was a picture worth a thousand words. Stephen smiled with satisfaction. They looked peaceful and happy. He hated to wake them.

    He turned to leave the shuttle’s cabin, and Delenn stirred in her sleep. She had always been a light sleeper and events lately had encouraged her to be ever more alert. She sat up and blinked. Her big green eyes focused on the doctor.

    "Stephen?" she whispered not wanting to wake John.

    "Yes. Just checking on how the two of you were doing. Looks like you've got things well in hand." He gave her a smile and raised his mug. "Would you like some coffee? Londo made it. It's good!"

    "Sounds like an excellent idea. Could you bring me some here...or stay with him while I get some?" She rose stiffly to her feet. "That is not the most comfortable way to sleep." She chuckled softly at her own stubbornness. She had not wanted to leave John, to move away from his touch. So she had stayed and fallen asleep half on the deck and half on the bunk.

    "More hazardous to your health than sleeping on the horizontal?" Stephen asked. By his smile, she knew that he was teasing her.

    "I don't know about that, but my neck and back both hurt." She rubbed her neck trying to work out some of the tension still there.

    "I'll watch him for awhile," Stephen offered. "Go get some coffee. Walk around. Give yourself a break. If your back still hurts when you return, I can give you something for the pain."

    "Thank you, Stephen. That would be most appreciated." She smiled at him, and the doctor found himself smiling back and thinking. "No wonder John fell in love with her. That smile is positively devastating."

    "Not a problem. It'll give me a chance to get in a little time observing the captain personally. How has he been?" Stephen lowered an adjacent bunk and sat on its edge.

    "Mostly he's been quiet. A few times he's stirred and called out, but the words were unintelligible." She looked at the sleeping form stretched out on the bunk. John’s breathing barely moved the blankets, so deeply was he asleep. "I don't think he knows he's been rescued yet, Stephen, but he knows I'm here. He knows my name, and he knows I love him...that we love each other."

    Stephen wasn't sure about that, but if she chose to believe it who was he to tell her 'no.’

   The doctor smiled at her again. He wished he'd been awake when John had first regained consciousness. There were so many unanswered questions to deal with and tests he needed to run. There were things he wanted, needed, to know.

    "Go get some coffee and take your time. I'll be here for awhile." Stephen waved her out the door.

   John seemed to be resting peacefully. Stephen shook his head in amazement. He really had expected nightmares…full-scale, wide-screen Technicolor horror stories. He wasn’t sure if he was grateful that they hadn't had to deal with nightmares or worried because there hadn’t been any. He had expected his friend’s sleep to be filled with them. His med kit, the one he had brought with him, was full of drugs designed to deal with those so far non-existent problems. He had thought to bring stimulants in case John’s body was too depressed and depressants in case it was too stimulated. In fact, he'd brought the whole pharmacological cornucopia...and he'd needed none of it, yet.

    So far he had used soap and water, a portable defibrillation unit, some burn cream, sterile dressings, a needle and catgut for sutures, alcohol to kill germs, antibiotics to fight infection, and an IV with nutrient solution. "Oh, yes," he thought, "and a three-inch Centauri penknife and a four-inch plastic drinking straw."

    Stephen knew he was thinking more clearly now than he had been earlier. Rest had helped his body and his mind. Back in Geneva at the exchange, he had not been at his best. Even as a doctor he had been as surprised as Londo by John's total lack of responsiveness.

   When Psi Corps had first turned the captain over to them, John had been oblivious or apparently oblivious to everything around him. Stephen had watched from the shuttle control center. He had seen his friend flinch away from Londo’s touch and been forced to watch the trembling, shambling walk from just far enough away that he'd been frustrated, ready to scream. He had wanted to be there, for it to be his arm around John. When the captain had collapsed at the foot of the shuttle ramp, Stephen had been the first one at his side gathering him up into his arms, giving orders, and moving him swiftly inside the ship.

   Stephen Franklin had feared then and still feared that the John Sheridan they had known was gone...that what Earth Gov had returned to them was an effigy, a mere token. Yet Delenn said he recognized her. Maybe...just maybe. He let himself hope.

    Stephen sipped his coffee contemplating the captain's sleeping form. He remembered John telling him about the Minbari sleep-watching ritual. According to the ritual one’s true face was revealed when one slept. John looked younger in his sleep, but no less devastated. What had been worry lines had turned into deep furrows. Even at rest you could still see the pain. So much had been done to hurt him. How could it not show?

   There were many things the doctor wanted to know and tests he wanted to run. He could not run them now...without waking John, and that he did not want to do. Sleep, Stephen knew, provided a buffer for the mind. For now, sleep would do John more good than all of his poking and prodding. It could heal many things in inexplicable ways. He sipped his coffee, sat back on the bunk, and let the leader of the Army of Light sleep.

    As Stephen watched, John's eyelids flickered. He was dreaming or he was about to wake. Those nightmares might be beginning now. Stephen hoped not. Healing sleep would help John; nightmares could make things worse.

    Quietly, Stephen moved to John's side and lifted his wrist feeling for his pulse. It was racing as if from great exertion. Either this was a dream, in which case, it was a nightmare or John was awakening and was frightened beyond belief. Laying John's hand down gently, Stephen moved away.

    John’s fingers moved across the surface of the blanket searching silently for something, something that was not there. "He's looking for Delenn," Stephen realized. "Somehow, he knows she's gone."

    It's always hard to judge what another is thinking and never safe to assume that you are correct. Still, Stephen was willing to bet at that moment that the bond between John and Delenn might be the saving grace that would get them out of this mess, the one thing that would let them get their John Sheridan back again.

    Delenn returned as if by magic as Stephen was thinking about her. She looked much more awake. Her eyes shown. She smiled.

    "Has he missed me?" she asked.

    Stephen wondered how she knew. He nodded.

    "He's been searching for you?" He motioned to John's good hand. It was still moving slowly across the blanket. It would touch a spot and then move on, methodically quartering the area in its reach.

    Delenn smiled and slid down beside the bunk. Moving delicately, she took the searching fingers and held them between her small hands. The questing stopped. It was as if, somehow, John knew it was she. She took his pulse, as Stephen had, and looked at the doctor quizzically.

    "It is very fast. Are you sure he is not awake?"

    "No," answered Stephen. "I'm not sure of anything right now."

   He sat back chagrined, as most professionals are when they meet with the inexplicable in their chosen field. He had no idea how John knew it was Delenn, but the evidence of his own eyes said her touch was both calming and soothing the man.

    John's hazel eyes opened. He had been awake, or dreaming on the verge of awakening. His hand gripped Delenn’s more tightly, drawing hers against his chest. He tried to smile. It wasn't too successful, but it was a smile.

   John’s face hurt even more now than it had before, but he wanted to smile for Delenn. He was so grateful she was still here. He hoped and prayed this meant she wasn’t an illusion. His fingers closed around her hand and he drew it to him instinctively. He looked into her eyes. He remembered from before, this he was allowed to do.

    Stephen didn't know. He hadn't been there and Delenn had not told him how it had been when John had first regained consciousness. John had been so frightened and so cowed. Stephen hadn't seen the frantically lowered eyes, felt the muscles tensing waiting for pain, but somehow the doctor was aware that this was a major step. John, who would not look up from the ground when he’d been released on Earth, now looked deeply and lovingly at Delenn.

   As a step in John’s recovery that simple act of raising his eyes to look at Delenn was both infinitesimally small and incomprehensibly important. If the John they had known was ever going to emerge from the graceless mannequin Clark had deigned to return to them, then this was the first step...however small.

   "By such small steps," thought Stephen, "do we learn to walk."

    

   

 

Chapter 9 ~ Arrivals and Departures

 

 

 

   ‘Babylon 5 Shuttle

   Near Epsilon Three’

    "Ready for jump to normal space?" Zack queried the others in the control cabin. He looked around to be sure everyone was indeed belted in and prepared. Stephen and Londo were in position. They were suitably restrained in the two passenger seats immediately behind him. John was secured in a bunk in the shuttle’s cabin, and Delenn was in her required place in the copilot’s seat. By the letter of the law on this flight, she was the copilot.

    "Ready," said Dr. Franklin double-checking his personal restraints.

    "Ready." Delenn echoed from the copilot’s seat.

    "Ready. Can we get this over with?" Londo was sick of being cooped up in this small shuttle with four other beings. There was an Earth saying he almost remembered about ‘feces’ and ‘companions’ both ‘smelling after three days.’ Sometimes it almost made sense to him.

   Londo wanted to stretch his legs without having to say ‘excuse me.’ He wanted to sleep in his own bed. He wanted something to drink that, at least, looked interesting. Mostly he just wanted to be home, and home for now was Babylon Five.

    "Are you sure the captain is secured?" Zack asked Stephen.

    Stephen nodded. "Yeah, I gave him a mild sedative. He should sleep through this like a baby."

    "Okay, then let’s do it." Zack’s hands hovered over the controls.

    The Babylon Five jumpgate opened at the command of Lennier who was piloting the White Star that had escorted them all the way from Earth.

    Lennier’s voice was heard over the comm. "On my mark, jump."

    Zack waited tensely for the final command.

    "Jump!" He thumbed the control that sent them forward, through the swirling circle of light that was the jumpgate, in the lee of the much larger ship.

    They cleared the gate with ease. Before them was home—Babylon Five. It gleamed in the sunlight over Epsilon Three. By anyone standards it was beautiful.

    "Babylon Control to Shuttle One…." A voice paged them on the comm unit. "…You are cleared to dock in Bay Thirteen."

    "Roger that," Zack responded. "We have the ‘package.’ Request a medical team to meet us."

    "Already arranged. You will be met and escorted."

    "Thanks, Lieutenant." Zack had recognized young Mr. Corwin’s voice. "See you soon."

    They had chosen Bay Thirteen for a couple of reasons. First of all, it was seldom used since the Vorlons had gone beyond the rim, and it was relatively easy to keep it open for an unspecified arrival time. Humans didn’t like docking in Bay Thirteen as a rule. Some of them felt it was bad luck.

   Originally Bay Thirteen had been designated for the exclusive use of the Vorlon Ambassador Kosh, and his ship had been docked there whenever he was in residence on the station. Kosh’s presence had kept some people away, and his ship’s uncanny ability to protect itself when threatened had kept all but the most daring thieves at bay. Its tendency to sing to those it felt an affinity for had totally unnerved the maintenance crews and cargo handlers. No one would work there. At the insistence of the Vorlon government surveillance in that bay had been kept to a minimum and security to a maximum. It was one of the most secure areas on the station, bar none.

   Now that they had arranged for John’s release, Londo and the others had wanted to bring Captain Sheridan aboard Babylon Five with an absolute minimum of fanfare. They had known going into the negotiations that all might not be well with him when he was returned to them. Bay Thirteen had seemed the logical choice. There they could disembark without fanfare or news net floating cameras. Then maybe, just maybe, they could get him back into familiar surroundings without calling undo attention to his condition.

   Stephen found himself thinking about John’s condition as the shuttle maneuvered for position in the docking queue. They were cleared for a specific bay, but had to wait their turn. To not do so would have turned on a large sign…the larger-than-life-size, blinking kind…that said, "Look! Look! This is something important! Pay attention to this!" That would have had just the opposite effect from the one they were hoping for.

   The doctor believed that the choice they had made in bringing John back to the station was been the right one. There had been a great deal of discussion before a decision had been reached. Delenn had wanted them to take John directly to Minbar where her personal physicians could monitor his condition. Stephen appreciated the sophistication of Minbari medicine, but he had felt that, for John, Babylon Five would be better. Babylon Five was home. At least it had been for the last three years.

   As they jockeyed for position with the other ships waiting to dock, he noted that the majority of those ships bore the insignia of the Independent Traders. He wouldn’t have expected so many such ships to ever be at the station at the same time. Independent Traders usually worked individual areas of space. They returned to Babylon Five or some other base only when forced to do so to sell cargo or pick up fresh supplies. It was unusual to see two or three together let alone a dozen ships.

   "Shuttle One?" An unknown voice queried the waiting shuttle.

   "Shuttle One here." Zack responded.

   "Thought you might want to check out our cargo manifest. I’ll upload it soonest." The mysterious voice seemed to be enjoying some private joke.

   Warily Zack received and downloaded the list of cargo. Then he chuckled.

   It was not a list of goods for sale; it was a list of names. Near the top of that list were John’s parents, David and Nancy Sheridan. A little further down sandwiched between other names that could only be Rangers were John’s sister Liz, her husband and children. Last, but not least, came the name of G’Kar. The Narn had apparently been busy in their absence.

   "We’ll have to do business," Zack passed the list on to the others. "You can show us your wares as soon as we get docked and settled in."

   "That’s all that we ask," the trader replied. "Just a chance to do business."

    Zack signed off.

    Stephen had the list in his hands and was spluttering somewhat incomprehensibly. "But…how…but, why?"

    "I’d say that was fairly obvious, though I didn’t think the Narn had the tenacity or ability to pull it off." Londo chuckled and Delenn smiled.

    "Remind me to thank G’Kar and express our sincerest gratitude," Delenn added.

    "I still don’t see…." Stephen stared at the list of names.

    Delenn explained. "Once John was free, Clark still had something he could hold over the captain’s head, a bargaining chip of sorts. John’s father and mother were still on Earth in hiding—Garibaldi lied about having his father in custody—and his sister and her family were still on Proxima Three. G’Kar has stolen that advantage. If this manifest is accurate, they will ‘all’ soon be on Babylon Five."

    "Sneaky Narn," Londo said approvingly. "I didn’t think he could pull it off, but he did."

    "You knew about this?" Stephen turned on Londo.

    "Let us say," Londo smiled benevolently, "the possibility had been discussed. Actually we borrowed something from Earth’s literature—the concept of the ‘purloined letter.’ All of these have made the trip from wherever to Proxima Three, then to Earth, and finally to Babylon Five. All of them picked up ‘cargo.’ Only one ship picked up the members of Sheridan’s family…but it was one in many, and Clark’s forces had no way of knowing which one. They couldn’t stop them all; so, they had to let them go. Like I said, ‘Sneaky Narn.’" There was real admiration in the Centauri Ambassador’s voice.

   "I wonder how he got the Independent Traders to agree to help?" Londo mused. "It must have been expensive."

   Traders did nothing for free…and so many of them. He remembered belatedly the credit chit he had left with G’Kar to cover expenses. Realizing that he personally had probably paid for much of this armada, Londo started to frown but thought better of it. As pure entertainment it was worth whatever it had cost. He had paid more before, he was sure, and gotten less.

    "Delenn?" John’s raspy voice sounded softly from the cabin.

    "Coming." Immediately she was up and on her way. "Ambassador," she gestured to Londo, "will you take over please?"

    "With pleasure." Londo, too, was an accredited pilot. That was a detail he had neglected to mention to Clark’s forces during negotiations for Sheridan’s release. It might have given them justification to limit the exchange party even further. He never had felt more vulnerable nor more alone than during the last few moments before their party had landed at Earth Dome.

   It had been a spooky feeling landing on a voiceless beacon. He had stood behind Zack and Delenn willing the shuttle to touch down safely. Only afterwards had he realized how much he had actually perspired, helping them land.

   "Shuttle One," the comm channel came to life again. "You are number three in the docking queue. Please move into position."

   There was really nothing for Londo to do. Babylon Five’s computers would take over for the docking sequence very soon, but he watched the controls in front of him anyway. It was force of habit if nothing else. He had liked piloting his own ship before he had become too important to be allowed to do so. Rank hath its privileges and its drawbacks.

    Londo was startled from his daydreaming by a sudden explosion almost on top of them. The Independent Trader ship that had been number two in the docking queue was suddenly a mass of shrapnel and smoke. Within seconds so was the one before it and two others he could only see from the corner of his eye. The docking bay entrance of Babylon Five lit up as a ship already entering exploded as well.

    "Oh, my God!" Zack voiced all of their horror. "To the lifepods, NOW! All of you."

    Stephen and Londo ran. Grabbing Delenn, Londo pushed her on ahead of him as Zack and Stephen grabbed the captain. The ship only had two lifepods. It would be tight, but it would have to do.

    "John…." Delenn’s cry was the last thing Stephen heard as he activated the closing and ejecting sequence for the tiny, totally self-contained lifepod. Then they were away. He felt the kick of the jets that moved them out of the larger ship and almost immediately a much larger blast that sent them tumbling end-over-end.

    It had to have been some kind of limpet mine or bomb attached to the shuttle’s hull…something that would let them almost, but not quite escape. That sounded like Clark. It was the way he operated.

   "All those ships," Zack thought. "All those people gone because Clark wouldn’t let anyone escape his clutches."

   Zack fought to reach the few controls situated within the lifepod. They were, of course, nearly unreachable behind his back. There was no room to turn around, and he could only hope that air supplies would hold out until they could be picked up. Lifepods were meant for one or two individuals. This one felt like a poorly designed coffin for three.

   "The gyros must be scrambled," he thought, "or the tumbling would have stopped by now." Manually, he tried to stop the end-over-end motion. He couldn’t control it completely, but at least he managed to slow it down. He didn’t know how he had known the shuttle was going to blow. Call it pilot’s instinct. Watching all those other ships go up around him, somehow he had simply known.

    The cargo handlers on Earth had to have done this. They’d placed a bomb somewhere on the shuttle’s hull. He wondered if it had been timed or simply set to blow in proximity to Babylon Five or to other ships. Leave it to Clark to extract revenge. He’d tried hard to kill them. He’d nearly succeeded.

   In the other lifepod, Londo and Delenn had fared somewhat better than those with Zack. They had felt the blast of the shuttle exploding, but it had not sent them tumbling or spinning. The controls seemed to be in working order. All they could do now was wait. With so many explosions so close together, it might be a long time before a salvage ‘bot would find them.

   Delenn was worried about John, about how he would be without her there.

   Stephen was concerned about John, too. The man was conscious and had been reasonably cooperative, but it was clear to the doctor that he was operating on the very edge of panic. He didn’t understand, and all of this must seem like some new form of torment, a nightmare or bad dream. It was nearly impossible to move inside the lifepod, and the air supply, while adequate, was not generous.

    Stephen had decided that calling attention to the potential shortage of oxygen would not decrease their problems and might make them worse. If John remembered any of this from his Earth Force pilots’ training, then he was well aware of their situation. If he did not, it would do no good to give him more reason to panic.

   The mess Psi Corps had made of John’s mind was criminal. Stephen hadn’t seen much of the damage yet, but what he’d seen had been enough. If there were any justice in the universe, they would stand trial for what they had done to the captain, done to his friend.

   "Maybe that’s why they tried to blow us straight to hell," Stephen thought. Truthfully, he doubted that that was the motivation behind the bomb. The bombs looked more like Clark’s work…especially because they had all, apparently, been timed to blow…obviously in three days. Babylon Five was three days from everywhere. Whatever else Clark hated, he hated John Sheridan and Babylon Five, more.

   Only then did Stephen remember John’s parents, his sister and her family, G’Kar and all those Rangers. He closed his eyes and swallowed hard. If there were justice in the universe, Clark would die slowly, very slowly preferably by asphyxiation. He would even offer to help…gladly wrapping his own hands around the man’s throat.

   Stephen heard the scrape of grapples against the side of the pod.

   "Anyone there?" a voice inquired. Now that they were grappled, a comm link was in place.

   "Three of us," Zack replied. "We need to go to Bay Thirteen."

   "Bay Thirteen, aye." Though there was no sense of motion, he knew they were now being pushed and pulled toward the station. It was not quite the homecoming they had planned.

    

    

    

Chapter 10 ~ In the Midst of Life…

 

 

 

   Babylon 5, Docking Bay Thirteen

   ‘Bots searched the vacuum around Babylon Five still hoping to find signs of life. They had found a few in the beginning. Now, there were none.

   Four activated lifepods had been retrieved…only four. In all seventeen ships had been destroyed: the Babylon Five shuttle and sixteen Independent Trader ships.

   In Bay Thirteen the medical team had been ready and waiting. They had expected a shuttle, not lifepods, but they had done an admirable job in any case. Two Bakiri, a humanoid female of unknown origins, and a Narn child had survived in two lifepods. Thanks to Zack’s intuition and quick thinking the five from the shuttle had survived, too.

   John did not seem to be any worse for the incident though, as building new memories went, it hadn’t been too beneficial. All he did not need was another image of death and destruction. Actually, he had seen little, less than the rest of them. Unless someone explained it to him, Stephen didn’t think it would make very much sense.

   Delenn had been so glad to see John that she had wrapped her arms around him. It was an unthinking gesture. It had frightened the captain, but he had let her do it. It had hurt, but there had been no new pain in his head. Either it was something she could not do, John had decided, or something she chose not to do to him. In either case he had been grateful.

   Enclosed in that tiny space with the two men, John had thought once again that he was going to die. He knew he had endured being put into tiny spaces where there had been no room to move. Sometimes he had been restrained, braceleted with metal cuffs, secured with metal chains; sometimes, just enclosed so tightly that even when he tried to move there had been nowhere to go. He had wanted to throw up, but he hadn’t let himself do it, not after the first time. They had left him trapped, entombed with the mess. It had felt like days and days; it had been a long time.

   In the lifepod, he could neither sit nor stand and any movement at all caused his body new pain. He had always been alone before. He decided that that was the big difference. Never before had there been someone with him nor had he had to endure this sense of unsettling motion. His stomach rebelled again. He knew he was going to vomit. Hands were in front of him, holding a vacuum bag over his mouth. He was sick, but at least this time he wouldn’t have to lie in it. Moving the bag expertly away, Zack twisted it shut. "All he had had was orange juice," Stephen thought, "and now, he doesn’t have that."

   John had kept his eyes down before in the presence of the Zack and Stephen, but in the lifepod there had been times he had cautiously peered at them, not directly, but it was a start. He seemed to be trying, somewhat desperately, to put pieces together. He seemed, Stephen thought, to want to understand.

   John had volunteered no conversation, but when they asked him direct questions he had responded with simple body language. No ‘Pulitzers’ to any of them for their dialogue, but Stephen had used it as a means to an end. By keeping them reacting and talking, however stiltedly, he knew they were getting adequate oxygen.

   The ‘PC parasite,’ the leash-like creature was gone. It had become rubble and atoms with the rest of the shuttle. John’s "Agamemnon" baseball cap and Stephen’s medical log were gone, too. They had saved only what was irreplaceable, their lives. Though Delenn might have argued that they would live again in other bodies before they met at the end of time in "the place where no shadows fall," Stephen was satisfied to be alive.

   Stephen had decided to try treating John’s loss of memory much as one would treat an ordinary case of amnesia. On Babylon Five, Stephen hoped, there would be familiar sights and sounds. Environment wasn’t everything in bringing back lost memories, but he had felt that the support it would offer outweighed the risks. There were always risks on Babylon Five. The place was a natural magnet for them. "Some days moreso than others," he thought.

   Doctor Franklin shook his head sadly. The dead were still being collected. It looked like the fatality total would be well over five hundred. Most were from the Independent ships, which always traveled with families on board. A few were from Babylon Five—maintenance workers and cargo handlers who had simply been unlucky this day. They had been working in the docking bays when all hell had broken loose.

   Gray Fifteen had been converted and was being used as a temporary morgue. Stephen sincerely hoped it would be both large enough and secure enough for the job. The dead didn’t bother others, but there were always those who would bother the dead. Graverobbers might not be the technical term, but it explained exactly how he felt about them, especially the Pak’ma’ra.

   Stephen didn’t want to have to tell John that his family was gone. He knew at some point, someone would have to, but he didn’t want to be the one. And G’Kar…who had meant so well and tried so hard…the Narn homeworld would have to be notified. A delegation would need to come and take his body home.

    The med team in Bay Thirteen cleared the five of them to enter the station. They had had a gurney ready for John. Now, it was God knows where pressed into more immediate service.

   The news nets were waiting outside the Bay door—not one or two, but all of them. This was news, big news: exploding ships, death and destruction sold newspapers and vid services—the equivalent for the interstellar age. The last thing Zack or Stephen wanted was to make the I.S.N. headlines. How they were going to avoid it was open for debate.

   Stephen Franklin had an inspiration.

   "Hand me that pressure bandage." It was not a request it was an order. Med techs jumped to obey. He was, after all, the Chief Medical Officer on the station. He was their boss. It didn’t pay to argue with the boss.

   Delenn watched fascinated as he wrapped the large pressure bandage around John Sheridan’s head obscuring much of his face and, if not totally hiding his identity, making him an unlikely candidate to give an interview. What I.S.N. didn’t know wouldn’t hurt them and, hopefully, wouldn’t hurt John either.

   "Delenn, I’m going to need you and Londo to go out there first and give the news hounds something they can call a story." He looked sincerely sorry to have to force them into this position, but it was the best ‘out’ for John that he could think of at this time. "While they’re busy with the two of you, we’ll take John out—quiet and slow. Unless they’re really paying attention, we’ll just pass through them like the breeze."

   She squared her shoulders wishing she were wearing something that wasn’t a flight suit. She didn’t feel properly dressed. Anyone from Earth seeing the broadcast would surely know that they had not ‘played by the rules.’ Then again—thinking of all the dead, of all those exploding ships—neither had Psi Corps or Earth Gov.

   Londo gave his hair only a moment’s thought. It would look as it would look, and there was nothing to be done about it now. He would, he decided, rather appear in public with somewhat flattened hair, than appear on a slab in the improvised morgue.

   "Great Maker," he wished, "Let this be quickly done." He wanted a drink and he wanted one badly. His days needed to stop going from bad to worse.

   "Ready?" Stephen queried. Somehow in his head he heard echoes of Zack asking the same thing as they had prepared to jump out of hyperspace.

   Everyone nodded, everyone except John who stood unresisting but totally confused by the flurry of activity and the myriad of people and sounds surrounding him.

   "Here we go." Stephen motioned to the med techs to open the bay doors. Londo was the first one out, stepping confidently forward then waiting politely, ever the gentleman, for Delenn.

   Bright lights glared and microphones were pushed forward. Floating vid cameras jockeyed for better angles to catch their tired faces. Questions arose in a wall of sound that beat against the two of them. They tried to smile and look diplomatic.

   Londo began a long-winded tale about how the Great Maker had protected them all when it had seemed as though the entire sky was exploding around them. He called, in his best authoritarian voice, for an investigation into the cause of so many detonations so close to the station. He demanded a full investigation.

   Listening to him, Stephen grinned and hoped he hadn’t created a monster. Between them Zack and Stephen lifted John into a basket carry, the kind of thing used on patients when stretchers were not available. He relied on a soft voice and a standard expression:

   "Coming through." That was all he said, and the crowd parted for them. Their attention was locked on Londo and Delenn; they never saw the real story carried out of the bay, quietly walking through them. Just as they were approaching the back of the throng of reporters, Delenn managed the ultimate attention-getting device. She fainted.

   Stephen would have liked to go back and make sure that she was all right, but he had another job to do and that had to come first right now. He and Zack didn’t stop…down corridors, into a lift…all the way to Med Lab, then into an isolation cubicle. Swiftly Stephen motioned the med tech there to lower the lights and blank the view ports.

   "No visitors…under any circumstances. Quarantine procedures in effect for all but the command staff and Ambassadors Delenn and Mollari." Stephen smiled grimly. "Anyone who wants to get in here can undergo a complete body scan, an enema, a purgative, and a six-hour wait." His staff nodded.

   "That," he said to himself, "should discourage the reporters." And it would give them time to move John again, if it became necessary, if things got too hot for him here.

   They laid John carefully on the waiting bed in the isolation lab. One of the med techs had adjusted it so that he was reclining, but not flat on his back. The mattress was soft. The sheets were clean and so white they hurt his eyes even under the dimmed lights. The air smelled not fresh, but right somehow.

   John looked carefully at the two men not bringing his head up and using just the corner of his eye. They hadn’t beaten or harmed him. There had been no more white-hot bolts of agony forced into his mind. He was thankful for ‘the things’ that hadn’t happened. What ‘was’ happening, he was still trying to understand.

   They had manhandled him and hurt him a little in their mad rush through…‘places.’ He had not recognized anything until they’d gotten to the lift. The sensation of movement and the noise it made as the doors opened and shut, somehow that was, had been familiar. Right now John Sheridan was tired. He hoped they’d let him sleep.

   Stephen smiled at him. John realized these people smiled a lot. He wished he knew why they were so happy. He wished he understood.

   Gentle hands removed the superfluous pressure bandage from his head. Then they encouraged him to lay back on the cool clean sheets. The dressing on his right hand had oozed yellowish goo—part burn salve and part pus from the previously untreated wound. Those same hands removed the soiled dressing, cleansed the burn, and rewrapped it carefully. John was thankful for the ministrations of those hands, but he had not looked up. Later he could never say who had done that for him. The obedience training the Psi Cops had put him through had taken effect thoroughly. In Stephen’s opinion, it had taken too well.

   Watching John, Stephen thought again how much he wanted his friend to look him in the eye, how much he wanted him to look up and meet his gaze. Much as he had always hated John’s attitude towards being a patient, he longed now to hear his ‘pain-in-the-ass’ complaints. Those who had damaged the captain so badly deserved to be brought to justice. "If there is a heaven and hell," Stephen told himself, "I know where they are going…every last damned one of them."

   With John settled in the Iso Lab, Stephen knew he had other things to do. Backing toward the door, he spoke aloud to John, not expecting a response, but valuing the opportunity to attempt communication.

   "I’ll be back in a little while." Stephen spoke as though to a child. "Try to get some sleep while I’m gone."

   John brought his eyes up to about the level of Stephen’s chest. Still not making eye contact, he nodded slightly, acknowledging the doctor’s words.

   "That is an improvement," Stephen thought, "from the totally cowed unresponsiveness of three days ago. Small steps. He had to keep reminding himself. It was all a matter of small steps"

   Stephen Franklin backed out of the room as a med tech reappeared with an intravenous hook-up. John needed nutritive fluids and antibiotics. An IV was the fastest most efficient way to get those into his system.

   "Put it in his left arm," Stephen instructed her. "Don’t restrain him unless you absolutely have to. He’s been through way too much to take kindly to restraints, and keep an eye on him. It would be best if one of you could be in here all the time. I know that’s not practical, but try. He’s not…." Stephen searched for words. "…He’s not the captain you knew right now. He’s going to need a lot of ‘special handling.’ "

   "T.L.C. per the doctor’s orders." The tiny female med tech grinned at him.

   "Tender Loving Care," Stephen translated in his head. "That might do it. That just might do it. That was, after all, what Delenn had used on the shuttle."

   "T.L.C., it is! Do you want me to put it in writing."

   She nodded ‘no’ and turned back to her patient.

   John was already asleep.

    

    

    

Chapter 11 ~ History Lessons

 

 

 

   Babylon 5, Med Lab One

    John Sheridan awoke in an isolation unit in Babylon Five’s Med Lab. Not that he had any idea where he was. Not that he knew any of that. He only knew he had arrived somewhere. He knew he had been frightened. Something bad had happened and the world had gotten mixed up—gone crazy. He had felt incredibly dizzy. There had been no down or up. It hadn’t made any sense at all.

   He remembered he’d been confined again in a tiny space but, instead of being alone there, he had had company. There had been two other men with him. One of them he had thought he knew—a black man he did not trust at all. The other one had been a total stranger—tall, with friendly eyes, who took up too much room. John remembered a feeling of vertigo. He remembered that he’d thrown up.

   He had so many questions and way too many fears. Maybe ‘today’ he’d be able to talk. Maybe Delenn would come. He thought he was allowed to talk to her. About the others he wasn’t so sure.

   The doctor, the one he didn’t trust who always seemed to be in charge, had been there during parts of his interrogation. He remembered being afraid of the man…because his face would change whenever he looked away. It would melt and shift even while he watched. That made even less sense than his thoughts usually did. He shook his head. Some days nothing made very much sense.

   The lights in the room with him were bright enough to see by and dim enough to not hurt his still light-sensitive eyes. After all the pitch black cells he’d been in, he was grateful for small favors.

   His right hand was wrapped in a cocoon of bandages. It still hurt like hell, and his left one was connected to a tube that ran from a bag hanging over his bed. There had been a lot of those. They had always said it was ‘nutrition,’ but mostly he knew, had always known, it had been other things—drugs he guessed and maybe toxins.

   The mattress was soft under him and blankets warm above. He thought he’d close his eyes for just a few more minutes. He really couldn’t think of anything on his calendar that he had to do today.

   His eyelids flew open wide at that thought. Whoever he was, whoever he had been, he had been a busy person. He had lived by a schedule of events that did not, apparently, leave him very much time for catching up on his sleep. It was another small discovery. He cherished every one. Of all the things Psi Corps had taken from him, the loss of his knowledge of self hurt the most.

    "Who am I?" was the one question he wanted answered the most. Above all others, it haunted him. It haunted him not knowing, and the answer when it came needed to be more than one or two words.

    Right now, even that would wait. He was still so very tired. Eyelids sank over weary eyes, and he drifted back off to sleep.

---------------

    "Sh…." Stephen warned those following him. "He’s still asleep."

    Londo and Delenn, garbed in blue and white scrubs, paused tentatively at the door to the Iso Lab. Stephen motioned them inside, then firmly closed the door.

    "You can take off the monkey suits now," he offered gesturing to the functional but ugly scrubs. "You’ll have to put them back on before you leave. For now, no one gets in here without wearing them. I can’t legally exclude the press once he’s officially conscious, but I can certainly make their life difficult before letting them in here."

    Londo smirked at Stephen. "Planning to make them pay their way with a slight ‘entertainment’ fee?" He shrugged out of the loose fitting garment.

    "If that’s what it takes sure. Mostly I just want to make it difficult enough and uncomfortable enough that they won’t all try to come storming in here at the same time." Stephen figured that if anyone deserved peace and quiet, it was John Sheridan. He thought that John was starting to trust them, but—like he’d told Delenn—it was going to take time, lots and lots of time.

    Delenn didn’t speak but moved forward to stand beside the bed. John was curled up on his side sleeping like a young child. Slowly, she peeled off the isolation room scrubs and dropped them in a delicate heap on the bedside chair. Monitors blinked from their posts around the head of the bed. She knew they were monitoring blood pressure, heartbeat, and brain wave activity to name only a few of their functions.

    "Is he any better?" she asked quietly. Her voice was scarcely more than a whisper. Her eyes were misty with tears. She had watched him sleep before. He’d never looked so vulnerable, so young, so…. She searched for a word and settle on ‘lost.’

    "I think so, Delenn," Stephen responded. "He has reacted a few times when I’ve spoken directly to him, not with words but with body language. It’s not much, but it’s a start."

    Delenn had hated being away from John, but for those first few hours it was the best thing she could do for him. It had worked. They had successfully kept the wolves at bay. The press knew John had come aboard the station, but they didn’t know where he’d been taken. They’d laid siege to his quarters and to C. & C. hoping to catch a photo or get an interview. So far no one had enlightened the press as to John’s true condition. The medical staff was sworn to secrecy regarding his whereabouts, and, if there were a leak, it wouldn’t come from them.

    "Can I stay here, Stephen?" Delenn looked at him pleadingly. "I did faint back there in the docking bay. Isn’t that grounds for keeping me here for observation?"

    "I suppose it could be, for a day or two, but are you sure you want to spend all your time here?"

   Delenn was the Minbari ambassador. There were things her aide could take care of for her, but ultimately most of her duties she would need to handle personally.

    "Yes." It had been a one word answer, but more eloquent than an essay on life and love. She knew—she thought she knew—why John had held onto her love as his touchstone through his ordeal. She had held onto his love in much the same way when others had said he was dead at Z’Ha’Dum. She felt she owed it to him to help, if she could, as he began the process of trying to find out who and what he was, of trying to reclaim his life.

    Valen had said that the only time a Minbari might "honorably" lie was to protect the honor of another. She had lied back in the docking bay and afterwards to the press. She had protected John’s honor to the best of her ability. Now she wanted to take it the next step, to help him regain his own honor and find what his tormentors had stolen from him.

    Londo walked around to the far side of John’s bed. "Is he any better?" he asked looking down on the sleeping form. "He still looks…so much in pain. Can’t you do anything about that?" He stared at Stephen willing him to take care of the problem, right now.

    "We are continuing to monitor his condition. When and as medical intervention is called for, we are supplying it." Stephen wasn’t precisely ruffled by Londo’s demands, but he didn’t like having his medical judgement second-guessed. "He continues to make progress. It’s just going to take time."

    "Stephen," Delenn asked seriously, "Do we have the kind of time that this is going to take?" She thought of the Army of Light, poised now just outside Mars’ space waiting for orders. She thought, also, of the Mars’ Resistance ready and waiting to take back their homes, to assert their rights. All those elements had been coordinated, were coming together to end Clark’s reign. Clark and the others who had held John so cruelly and so long were about to fall.

    "I wish I knew." Stephen shook his head. "I honestly wish I knew."

    Just then John opened his eyes. If he was surprised to find the three of them hovering over him, then he did not let it show on his face. There were so many self-preservation skills he had learned that would need to be unlearned before he would be back to normal. Stephen knew he was surprised, possibly even panicky, based on the hard data, the readouts on the monitors over the head of his bed. None of it showed on John’s face.

    "Ah, Captain, how are you feeling?" Londo inquired.

    John didn’t answer. He wasn’t sure he was the one being addressed. Londo looked slightly put out at the rebuff.

    Delenn moved closer to the head of the bed. She lowered her voice and bent close to John’s ear. "How are you?" she asked in the softest of whispers.

    John swallowed. He wanted to answer her. He wasn’t sure he could. She watched the pain that the simple act of swallowing had cost him slide across his face.

   "O…kay." If a voice could sound rusty from disuse then his did

    "I’ve been better," he thought, "but right now, I’m okay." All he’d managed to vocalize had been the ‘okay.’ For now, that would do.

    "Can I get you anything?" She asked another question. Again she used the very quiet voice and close proximity.

    "Water." That word did not ever seem to come out clearly, but she understood the intent of the mangled pieces he managed to say.

    "Here." Stephen handed her a pitcher and cup the med tech had left beside the bed for John’s use. Carefully she poured about half a glass. With Stephen’s help they raised the captain up, and Londo slid an extra pillow in place behind his head.

    "Don’t try to drink too much too fast," Londo warned. He felt and saw John shuddered.

    "Small sips," John was remembering. "We don’t want a repeat of last night. Now do we?" He had taken small sips as ordered and still nearly thrown up anyway. Somewhere, along about then, he’d made a decision to thwart them any way he could. He had stopped trying to eat and drink. It had simply hurt too much.

   He had a memory of making that choice, of consciously deciding to do just that. He had chosen to stop eating and drinking. He’d been trying to starve himself to death. They hadn’t allowed that. He had been immobilized and force-fed. It had hurt when the needle went into his vein, when the fluid had first flowed through the hollow needle into his arm, and especially when the vein had collapsed and the liquid had infiltrated his entire hand and wrist. Intravenous nutrition had taken the place of solid food. He had eaten nothing in so very long. His stomach had shut down. Fluids had been pumped into his veins. They hadn’t let him get away with letting himself die, but he had a memory—an almost whole one—of trying to defy them.

    More than once he had tried to die. He wondered fleetingly what kind of man he was to have had such a death wish.

   "…Then you will die…." He heard, remembered a musical voice accompanied by alien chiming sounds, recalling another piece of memory, another memory of his defiance.

   "Then I die," he had responded, "But I won’t go down easily and I won’t go down alone." He had been wrong or the frame of reference had been very different. He would almost surely have died alone in one of the black holes where he had been imprisoned, and it was a ‘given’ in any situation that he never did things the easy way.

   "Who are you?" It was a question asked by that same musical voice long ago. It was a question he very much wished he could answer. No time like the present to try to find out.

   He looked deeply into Delenn’s eyes. He swallowed and waited for the pain to pass. Then quietly, carefully, he enunciated his question.

   "Who…am…I?"

   She looked at him in wonderment, tears clouding her beautiful green eyes. Suddenly things fell into place. Suddenly his confusions began to make sense. He had remembered her—her name, her face, and their love. He had chosen to save that, but was that honestly all he had salvaged of his memory, of his past?

   Had those who had broken him even gone so far as to take his name from him and destroy his identity? It was no wonder that he had been unresponsive when they had called him John, or captain for that matter. He hadn’t known they were talking to him. He honestly hadn’t known.

   "Begin at the beginning," Stephen coached her. "Take it in small steps."

   "You are John," she started with the most basic step. "John Sheridan. Captain John J. Sheridan."

   He nodded. He had almost worked out the ‘John’ part for himself. She’d called him John and so had others. ‘John Sheridan’ sounded right somehow. ‘Captain Sheridan, John J. Sheridan,’ sounded pompous in his own head, like a Civil War general or a name carved on a statute in a town park. It did however explain all the times people had referred to him as ‘Captain.’ He realized suddenly that even the last of his captors had called him that. They had all known who he was, but no one would tell him.

   Delenn continued. "You are the commander and military governor of Babylon Five. You are the leader of the Army of Light." She watched his eyes widen. He really hadn’t known. She still wasn’t sure he had referents for most of those, but at least he now had the titles.

   "And…you?"

   She wasn’t sure if his question was who she was in general or who she was in relationship to him. She decided to stay with the simple and the obvious.

   "I love you," she began. "I’m your fiancée. We are engaged to be married." She blushed prettily trying to explain what should have been, by all rights, obvious to the man.

   John reached out for her left hand and, grasping it, pulled it to him. On it there was a small engagement ring—an opal he thought looking at the stone set in the thin silver band. They hadn’t thought that it was important for him to forget what opals looked like.

   He remembered a phrase that went with that opal ring. "…’Til I can get you a better one from Earth," he had said, and she had refused a better one in favor of his Zocalo-purchased gift of love. He felt tears welling up in his eyes. Nothing was wrong, and everything was wrong. There was so damned much he didn’t remember…or, sort of, remembered like the ‘Zocalo.’

   He looked up at her again. "I am Delenn of the House of Mir. I was religious caste Minbari. Now, I am different—part Minbari and part human. I am the Minbari ambassador to Babylon Five and your co-leader in the Army of Light. I was ‘Satai’ of the Gray Council. Now, I am Entil’zha of the Anla’shok whom you call the Rangers."

   John looked at her in bewilderment. Very little of that had made sense. She was Delenn, that he knew, and he knew that he loved her. The rest of it was just words. He shook his head ‘no’ and she nodded her understanding. He was not rejecting what she was, simply indicating that it made no sense to him.

   "I am Minbari. I come from the planet Minbar. Like you are human and come from Earth." She groaned inwardly at how much work this was going to be. "On Minbar there are three castes—three groups—each with a different job. The worker caste builds…."

   Londo looked at Delenn with some surprise. He was tuning out the basic information she was expounding now and trying to digest what she had said before. He had known many things about Delenn, but not everything she had just told John. He had never known that she was ‘Satai.’ That she had been a part of their ruling body the Gray Council made her very important, very powerful indeed.

   "…The warrior caste fights and defends our worlds, and the religious caste studies and prays. I am of the religious caste. I have studied all my life. I believe in the prophecies of Valen. He was a leader long ago. Do you recognize his name?"

   Stephen watched John’s reaction, or rather lack thereof, to the prophetic name. Apparently he had lost that, too, the memory of Babylon Four and of Jeffrey Sinclair’s sacrifice. Jeffrey Sinclair had gone back in time. He had become Valen, a thousand years in the past. He was the original Minbari not born of Minbari. The name did not seem to mean anything to John.

   "The prophecy of Valen said that a Great War was coming. They said that the only way to defeat the enemy that was arising was to unite with the other half of our souls. We, the Minbari, discovered the other half of our souls were the humans—your people. Minbari do not kill Minbari. To prevent our killing the other half of our souls, we surrendered. Many still do not understand why we did that, threw away our victory in the Earth-Minbari War. You were a hero during that war. Do you remember any of that, John?"

   Again, John shook his head. There were bits and pieces, unattached to any frame of reference. He had carried a photograph of a girl with red hair in his chest pocket. He had touched it for luck. He had done something ‘dishonorable.’ But it hadn’t felt wrong to him at the time. Somehow it still didn’t, whatever it had been.

   There had been a huge explosion. He had wished that he was dead, but he had not died…instead someone else had. A Minbari, at least it had been a male with a bonecrest, had been there too. The Minbari had died. He, the man with the insubstantial face, and a Narn had been captured and beaten. He had been hurt and hurt badly. All of them had. The plan had been to torture them and to execute them. The leader of his captors back then, it had been a very long time ago, had wanted to present them to the ‘Gray Council’ first—for their perusal and disposition.

   Delenn had something about the ‘Gray Council.’ He blinked at her, wondering.

   The Minbari war leader—if he’d ever known his name, it was now gone—had offered the Council the option of questioning him, them, at their leisure. The gray-clad figures hadn’t cared. He had been dragged away. He was not sure why they hadn’t killed him, but obviously he was not dead yet. He remembered only one word from that event. That word, in a language he really didn’t know, in Adronato, meant ‘the future.’ That word was "Isil-zha."

   Delenn continued unaware of the memories she was stirring.

   "My people called you ‘Starkiller.’ You destroyed a great Minbari ship called the "Black Star." After that war it was very hard for my people to accept you." She took a deep breath. "Your people—Earth Force—sent you here, to Babylon Five, as an insult to mine. But you were a better man than the leaders who sent you had anticipated. You have been a good and strong leader."

   She paused. Did he really need to know, right now, that under his governance Babylon Five had seceded from the Earth Alliance? That he was the leader of a rebellion? If he was going to have to face the news network reporters, he had better know.

   "You have always been very brave and very noble. When the President and the government on your home planet did bad things, you refused to support them. You are the leader of a rebellion, John." She spoke with pride in her voice. "You are a man of honor and a man of courage. You refused to let innocent people be harmed. For that you have paid a great price."

   "Those who hurt you…." She almost stopped watching his face cloud with remembered pain. "…They were the ones without honor and courage. They set a trap for you. They baited it with a lie: they said they had captured your father, a good and honorable man like you. They never had your father, John. It was an evil, cruel hoax. They sent the message telling you your father had been taken with someone they thought you would trust. You did."

   "Garibaldi?" It was just one word—spoken with pain and loathing. Some memories he thought the lisping demon had left deliberately. His betrayal by his friend, by Michael Garibaldi, seemed to be one of those.

   "Yes, Garibaldi." She looked at him quizzically and wondered how he could have known. "The Resistance on Mars…some of the people who have helped us…observed your capture, but could do nothing to prevent it. That is how we knew where to start looking for you, when you disappeared."

   John grimaced. He didn’t know anything anymore about the Resistance, except…he knew he had betrayed them. Psi Corps had found those memories, taken them, and used them. Then they had erased them, leaving only the guilt of knowing he had sent brave people to their deaths. Now, another small piece of guilt was added to that heap. They had been the link to helping the others find him. They had helped him. All he had done was let them down.

   Stephen laid a gentle hand on Delenn’s shoulder. "I think that’s enough, more than enough, ‘history lesson’ for today." She smiled back over her shoulder at the doctor and squeezed John’s fingers where he continued to hold her hand.

   "I hurt."

   John’s face was thin and drawn. Everything was an effort and far too many things hurt. Delenn turned to look at Stephen.

   "Can you not give him something for the pain?"

   It was essentially the same question Londo had asked earlier. The Centauri ambassador was glad that she had said something, too. Watching John’s face he had known the man was in considerable discomfort. He did not understand Stephen’s reluctance to treat the pain.

   "I’m using local anesthetics for specific injuries. Right now, I’m trying to avoid systemic drugs." Delenn looked at him as if to say, ‘So what?’

   Stephen tried again. He didn’t want to explain all of John’s injuries to her. He had lost count of the number of stitches he’d had to take internally, let alone all the external ones. He’d had two choices: knock John out entirely and keep him unconscious for a very long time, or do what they could little by little with ‘locals’ and less effective pain relievers. Because of John’s mental state and the nature of the injuries, Stephen had decided on the latter course of action.

   "He’s been badly hurt in many ways. Not all of them are obvious. A general painkiller can mask symptoms. Obviously, also, he’s still very confused. A ‘general’ could make him even more disoriented than he is now. It could react with the drugs Bester injected into his system. I know it’s been almost four days…." He met her protest before it was fully formed. "…But the very last of the drugs were injected just before he was turned over to us and they appear to be very long lasting."

   "So for the sake of some injuries, he must endure this pain?" Her voice made it a question and Stephen nodded his head ‘yes.’

   She leaned down and whispered ever so quietly in his ear, "My darling, I will never let them hurt you again." She did not know that there was anything she could have done to keep this from happening. She did know, that she meant what she said. It would never happen again. They would never do anything—anything, even close to this—to him again, not if it was within her power to stop it.

   She felt the grip on her fingers loosen as her ‘pupil’ gently drifted back to sleep. She looked at Stephen who nodded. It was time for them to leave.

   "What he does mostly is sleep." Stephen understood her concern for John. It hurt having someone you loved damaged so badly. "Right now that’s the best medicine. Lots and lots of sleep."

   "There is still so much he does not know." She laid his hand gently down on the crisp, white sheet. "Will he ‘ever’ remember?"

   "I don’t know," Stephen sighed. "I honestly don’t know."

   Donning the ugly scrubs they left, almost silently.

 

    

 

Chapter 12 ~ Invasion

    

    

   Babylon 5, Med Lab One

   John was getting better. At least he had thought he was…that had been before Stephen had decided he could try solid food.

   It hadn’t been an overnight thing. Gradually they had replaced water and juices with soups and broths, which had given way to jello and warm cereal, and finally to things that looked and felt more like food to him.

    His stomach had not taken kindly to going back to work. At first it had rejected everything the doctor and John had tried. Finally a very weak broth had managed to stay down, then the same broth with noodles and fine slivers of meat. He had sat up and eaten that. It had felt right. It had stayed down. It had tasted like real food.

    Now he was in agony. All those stitches Stephen had talked about had not been imaginary. They had been very real. Now, so was the pain. He wanted to yell. He wanted to hit something or somebody. A small, quiet, part of him still wanted to stop fighting; it wanted to die.

    Those he cared the most about, those he loved and worked with were just beginning to realize the extent of his injuries and, while no one had advertised this one, somehow word had gotten around. The Rangers—‘his Rangers,’ Delenn told him—had made it their particular duty to protect him and to ensure his privacy. He wasn’t sure he was happy about that. Since they had undertaken to protect him, they had never left him alone. They might go away for a few minutes, but they were never gone for long. Protection and privacy didn’t seem to mix.

   Within the Iso Lab, the Rangers saw to it, no one else bothered him. They were ever present, but they didn’t intrude. He was usually glad that they didn’t. He valued the time he had to himself now, valued that limited privacy, time to think. Sometimes it felt a little lonely, but healing required a lot of rest. By himself, he slept and rested and read. He had so much to catch up on, so many pieces of his life to try to reassemble.

   Stephen and Delenn, and in truth many others, had told him repeatedly what a horrible patient, what a demanding, unreasonable curmudgeon he had been, used to be. Based on the frequency of the repetitions of that comment, he realized he must have been a total bear…‘before.’

   It was hard to realize that there had been a ‘before,’ and that, with some luck, there would be an ‘afterwards.’ He suspected, and Stephen had reassured him, that there would quite probably always be gaps—pieces ‘in between’ the ‘before’ and ‘after’—that he would never remember. Not ever. Not at all.

   He found himself wondering if the person he had been before had ever, ever imagined how comforting just being here in Med Lab could be. Lying on a bed—on something clean and warm—was a luxury he had gone without for a long time. Being clean, being able to make choices, simply being cared for—those were parts of life he’d given up as lost. Getting them back, even gradually was a miraculous gift.

   In Med Lab things were usually quiet, and things were, under Stephen’s direction, impeccably clean. People, here, seemed to care about him. They had spoken to him. They had called him by name.

   Things had hurt, yes. That was part of the healing, part of the getting better, Delenn had said. So far, she’d been right about a great many things. He had to believe her. She had been his link to life.

   Now—suddenly, incomprehensibly—things hurt again. They hurt a lot. John found himself curling with the pain. He was in agony. Hands grasping his abdomen, he sought desperately to find relief. There was none. He could not make spastic muscles relent. His eyes filled with tears, as yet, unshed.

   Waves of nausea like a rip tide traveled through his system. They beat upon his grim resolve not to lose control. They threatened to break over him and leave him retching helplessly.

   He knew it was his body trying to come back to life. He knew that basic functions had been stopped for far too long. Things that never should have happened to anyone had happened to him. Now, somehow, his body was trying to return to the way things should have been. The cost of that transition was sheer agony.

   There was a button here, a call button. Someone had showed him where. He couldn’t find it, didn’t know where it was. He just wanted the pain to stop. He wanted someone to make it go away.

   "A surcease of agony, an ending, a finale…." His mind played with words. The thoughts in his head were not good ones. Offered a charged P.P.G., he thought he would have used it…to make the pain stop, to escape from it, to make it go away. What had happened had been bad enough. To have to endure this, too, was inhumane.

   John had been raped. He knew it. Some parts of him hadn’t worked right since.

   There were fancier words for it, more clinically correct, like ‘forcibly penetrated’ and ‘sodomized.’ There were cruder ones, too, heard more often. Words like ‘fucked’ or ‘reamed and pounded.’

   That experience was one of the things Psi Corps had chosen to let him remember. At least, he thought it had been a conscious decision on their part. He remembered it now, all of it, entirely too clearly.

   There had been one session, early on, after his capture when he was still on Mars. He was new then to his captivity. He had still tried to fight back. It had done no good. They had beaten him, unmercifully, until he could not stand alone. He had been nearly unconscious—from drugs or from being beaten—and they had tied him to a bench, a thing of wood and metal. He couldn’t escape. He couldn’t defend. All he could do was endure. It had hurt more than he had believed anything ever could.

   His arms had been pulled roughly up over his head and fastened somehow to the far end of the heavy bench. His legs had been swept out from under him and he’d fallen hard onto the smooth wooden surface. Before he could regain his balance, his ankles had been captured and secured to the metal legs of the bench. He’d struggled. It had done no good, only pulling the knotted ropes tighter. With the clarity of afterthought he knew, now, his struggles had excited them.

   They’d stripped away his shirt and pants leaving him with just his shorts. Then, they’d taken those, too, with one hard pull, ripping material, laughing at his shock. He didn’t think he had been so stupid that he hadn’t known what was coming. But perhaps up until that point, some small part of him had dared to hope. Hope had died quickly in that small, dark room.

   There had been hands on him poking and prodding, efficient and cruel—skin touching skin. He had tried to writhe away. It hadn’t been allowed. He had cried out as hands found sensitive spots. It hurt and it didn’t hurt. It was frightening. It was strange. There had been more hands on him, touching him, exploring…like a thorough body search. Then it had hurt. Pinching, probing, twisting, squeezing, they had attacked his most vulnerable parts. Oh, my God, how it had hurt. He quivered with terror, with remembered pain.

   It had all been new to John—totally, horribly, horrifyingly new. If he had known how or what to do, he might have saved himself some soul-wrenching pain. He hadn’t known when to ‘try’ to relax. He couldn’t read the subtle cues that might have warned him what was coming, ‘what’ was coming and ‘when.’

   Large well-manicured hands had held him down, trapped him against the well-used hardwood bench. Call it foreknowledge. Call it a sixth sense. He had cried out. It had done no good. They had known exactly what they were doing. Nothing he had said or done had changed a thing.

   He had tried to reason with them. There had been no justification for them doing this to him. He had tried to tell them; it must be a mistake. Mostly they’d ignored him. One had even laughed. When reason failed, he had tried pleading. When pleading failed, he knew…he knew that he had begged. They had let him talk, but they hadn’t listened. All his words had fallen on deaf ears.

   It had begun.

   There had been a cold dribbling, something between…along the line that led to…. "Oh, God, no!"

   There had been a quick surge of terror. Hands had gripped him, raising him, spreading him. A swift finger’s penetration, preparing him for things to come. It might have been intended as a mercy, like the thin stream of lubricant, but his reaction had been panic-stricken on the edge of hysteria. They were putting something in him. He had wanted them to stop.

   He had cried out in a strangled voice, "No! No, no, no, no, ‘don’t.’ Please, ‘don’t.’ "

   John had heard the panic in his own voice, the desperation in his words. Gathering his strength and courage, he had resolved that he would endure stoically whatever was to come. He would not whimper like a child. He was an adult, a grown man. He would not beg. He wouldn’t give them the satisfaction. They would not make him beg again. He was an ‘officer and a gentleman.’

   He had drawn a deep breath; he had himself under control, but he had never felt so vulnerable, never been so afraid.

   Strong hands—they had felt huge—had gripped his hips and held him. They had been like twin vices. He was allowed no freedom of movement—no choice about this at all.

   Then there had been something else—something large, hot and hard, making the finger’s earlier invasion insignificantly small—a pressure—pushing on him, forcing the ‘something’ in. It had been large, impossibly large for what this son of a…was trying to do with it. He had known what ‘it’ was, but he hadn’t admitted to himself that this could happen, that ‘this’ could happen to ‘him.’ Pain had become the focus, the center of his universe.

   There is a first time for everything; this had been a ‘first’ for John. The intruder was inside him. His body had shaken with unvoiced sobs. He had felt it, all of it. The invasion of his body had been complete.

   ‘Complete?’ Not hardly. It had only just begun.

   Pulling back, adjusting the angle subtly, forward it had come again. Fear and hysteria had taken over his world. His tense muscles had contracted, constricted involuntarily. More than pressure, more than pain, then there had been agony.

   John had screamed. He had felt the ripping, tearing progress the ‘thing’ had made worrying its way inside, going a little further each time, destroying as it went. It had stopped, for just a moment, and he had dared to breathe. Fast as a snake and tenacious as a dog, it had leapt forward again bringing new agony, terror, and a frightening revelation. Not only was it hot and large, he discovered it was long.

   The harder he fought to keep the thing out, the harder it thrust to enter him. It had always been a one-sided contest, one that he had known he could never win. He didn’t win. Not then…. Not ever….

   His tormentors had tired of playing, after a while—a very long while—and had finished what they’d started. They’d been given a job to do, and they’d done it thoroughly, pausing only when he had lost consciousness, and truthfully, by the evidence of his body, not always stopping even then.

   They had used him, taking him brutally, forcing him open again and again. There had been no stopping it. They had laughed when he had screamed and begged, chortled with glee when he had bled. There had been no other lubrication but spent semen and his own blood.

   There had been at least four of them, maybe as many as six or seven. He’d lost count, impossible as that might seem. He’d lost count somewhere after ten. At least ten times, more than ten times, John knew that he’d been taken. He had screamed and screamed, begged and pleaded, howled, shrieked, and screamed again. Then, his voice had broken and all he could do was sob. It hadn’t matter. Nothing had stopped it. Not eloquence. Not tears. He had ‘prayed’ for it to end.

   There had been no compassion. They’d allowed him no respite. They’d taken ‘their pleasure’ at his expense. As bills go, it had proved to be a very costly debt. They had, John thought, thoroughly ‘pounded’ him. He believed that was the term they’d used for it, the one he remembered from his cadet days…when gang rape had been a titillating legend, not a terrifying reality.

    John had regained consciousness hours later—still tied to that damned bench, still bleeding, still in pain.

   He had thrown up helplessly, uncontrollably. That had happened first. Then he had begun to shiver—not from the cold, though the room was cool, and not from fear, he was past that for now. It was a reaction, an expression of shock and his body’s inability to accept what had been done to him. But his mind knew. Yes, it knew. Great spasms had shaken him and he had cried out with the unchecked pain. Lightning stabs of white-hot agony were renewed with every tremor. He had been so humiliated. He had been so ashamed.

   The quiet one who had, over time, hurt him the most had come back then. He was one of those who had raped him so viciously that very first time. John never knew who the tall man was. He had never learned his name, but he had learned to fear him. He had learned that lesson quickly and well.

   The officer—he wore the uniform of Clark’s elite corps—had circled John several times, standing at first before him and then moving around behind. John had cried out, a scarcely human sound, when the man had touched him there. He had been ordered, then, to be silent. No more ludicrous order was ever given. As if he could stop the pain, could stop his body from crying out.

   He had been touched again and he knew he had whimpered. Born of pain and fear, it had come—a low desperate sound.

   The man had hit him. He had slapped John hard across his too-pale face, leaving a red mark that had stung and had bled where an Earth Force class ring had cut into his flesh opening a deep gash in his ashen cheek.

   The ‘officer and gentleman’ had gagged him with a wad of cloth. Then, the bastard had started in again.

   Beads of sweat covered John’s face mingling with tracks of tears. It had never stopped hurting. The terror and the man had never gone away. Day or night, it didn’t matter. Asleep or awake mattered less. Sometimes he had been totally restrained, utterly unable to move. Other times he had been held only by force of will and threat.

   John had lost track of how many times the man had violated him. It was always the same—the silent circling, the cold-eyed inspection, the horrible humiliation, and the pain—and it was always horrifyingly different. No two times, exactly the same. This one liked to think up new ways to try to break him. At what he did, he was very good. There were always new sources of pain. John thought, the man must lie awake at night inventing new ways to defile him, new ways of ravishing and destroying his soul.

   John had known then that they were going to kill him. You didn’t do something like this to someone and let the person ‘walk away.’ There were never live witnesses to this kind of punishment, only grim pieces of evidence compiled painstakingly by forensic specialists. He had expected each and every day to be his last.

   Finally, he had been so completely broken, Clark had decided he’d be safe to bring to Earth. The tall one had traveled on the transport with him. He had taught John some new ‘uses’ for a stun stick. They had handed what was left of him over to Psi Corps. He had been unable to walk, talk, speak, or think. Then Psi Corps had taught him yet ‘another’ definition of rape.

   When the captain had been released, finally, after all those days, Stephen had been appalled. There had been so much damage. The overwhelmed doctor hadn’t known where to begin. He had started treating the worst of John’s physical injuries. The others may have been technically worse—but, this one was a killer, a blow to who and what he was.

   There had been operations. Stephen said there would need to be more. He’d been promised he’d be ‘as good as new.’ No way, in hell, had he believed it.

   Stephen had had to remove a section of his colon because it had been so badly infected. Left untreated far too long, it had become a mass of ulcerous flesh damaged beyond repair. There had been stitches, hundreds of stitches—stitches inside and stitches out. It had been slow tedious repair work; suture after suture secured with gentle care, tied with determination, and always there had been more places to suture, more gaping insidious wounds. That was one of the reasons Stephen didn’t want him heavily sedated. If any of those wounds reopened, they needed to know about it immediately, if not sooner.

   John gritted his teeth. Maybe one of the wounds had reopened. That might be what had happened. It might be.

   Stephen had said rape wasn’t about sex. He had assured John that what happened hadn’t made him less of a man. He’d said that rape ‘was’ about control, about power. The rending, tearing penetration was only a means to an end. It was about being able to do ‘anything’ to someone and about having the victim be unable to make it stop, to make the torment end.

   John had been there. Powerless, he had been used. Helpless, he had endured. Intellectually, what Stephen said had made sense. Physically, his body knew better…rejecting the assurances of his mind.

   John didn’t think he could ever make love to a woman, any woman, let alone his beloved Delenn. He could not help remembering how much it had hurt, how terrified he had been. The memory of that pain made him shrink away from any thoughts of sex…or lust…or love…or, even, simple human contact. He just wanted to be left alone. He didn’t want even to be touched.

   He was supposed to meet with the press today. It was not something he’d looked forward to even before this onslaught of nausea and hopeless, tearing pain. The press was a ‘pain in the ass.’ He grimaced. It wasn’t funny, but—my God—it certainly fit. He’d read a lot of news stories lately. Much of what they’d printed about him had made him want to throw up.

   The last thing he wanted was to speak to the network representatives. He wasn’t sure he was ever going to want to see reporters again. On Mars and on Earth, when he had been imprisoned, there had been reporters…taking pictures, badgering him, spreading Earth Gov’s lies.

   The lie that he hated Earth had been their favorite. It wasn’t true, never had been true. That hadn’t stopped them from trumpeting it from every kiosk on the planet.

   The lie that he was under the influence of aliens had come in a close second. That one depended on what you meant by ‘under the influence.’

   "It contained, had contained," he thought, "a small grain of the truth."

   He had had alien advisors, actually alien friends. He’d met them again, been reintroduced to most of them. He could put faces with most of their names now. Some, like Kosh, were still vacuous images to which he could not put faces, but mostly his memories of them had come back slowly. All his memories seemed to be coming back slowly: all but the memory of pain. That had never gone away.

   He searched again with palsied fingers. That stupid call button had to be here somewhere. He couldn’t find it. He wanted to cry, to yell. He wanted to scream. It felt like he was being torn apart. He couldn’t take it. Not again.

   "Please, God, let Stephen come…Stephen or a nurse…I didn’t know it would hurt so much. I didn’t know. I didn’t know…." His eyes were squeezed shut but he heard the door open. "Thank you," he thought before realizing who it was.

   The Interstellar News Network had arrived.

   John thought he would pass out. The pain was just too great and the indignity of knowing what had caused it left him totally vulnerable. With wild, wide eyes, he surveyed the staring camera crew.

   It hadn’t been planned. It wasn’t premeditated, but it could not have worked more to his advantage. Had it been staged it would have looked false. As it was the reality was undeniable. In some ways, it couldn’t have gone better.

   I.S.N. and the other networks were sick of the hassles Babylon Five’s Chief Medical Officer had given them. The doctor had insisted on preventative shots for everything from typhoid fever to the Venusian flu and had made them wait until after the myriad of inoculations were proven effective. He had forced them into a six-hour pre-isolation, a special kind of quarantine. He had enforced rules on enemas and purgatives that they’d never heard of before, but he had insisted, claiming this was a special case.

   If Stephen Franklin could help it ‘no one’ was taking a germ or virus into the Iso Lab to make John any sicker than he already was. Actually, John wasn’t sick, so much as he was injured, damaged, rundown, and depleted. Much had been taken from him. Regaining that lost ground was a slow process at best.

   The reporters had been prepared to get their revenge. They knew they’d been forced to jump through hoops to get in here, and they were not pleased about it. Then the door had opened and there was John Sheridan, two weeks after his release, so obviously still in pain that their own feelings of persecution and their cynical doubts were swept away.

   Captain Sheridan was obviously still very much in need of medical help, obviously still vulnerable, just as Doctor Franklin had said. Yes, the doctor had probably been overly zealous in his protection of this patient but, looking at the man’s tortured form lying trembling on the bed, none of them were prepared to question Franklin’s judgment in the matter any longer. The fear was too obvious in John’s eyes.

   "Should we come back later?" one young female reporter squeaked, earning her vicious stares from her counterparts. They’d waited too long to be put off any longer.

   "No," Stephen said earnestly, "but, you could give us just a few minutes. If you don’t mind?" Seeing the deeply etched lines of agony, the pain-slitted eyes, and the constant shaking of John’s hand was enough, even for these hard-bitten correspondents.

   "We’ll wait just outside, if you don’t mind, Doctor." The spokesperson for the group made a decision for them all.

   "I think that’d be advisable." Stephen looked gratefully at the woman.

   They backed out the door feeling lucky, one and all, that perhaps they hadn’t been allowed to see the man sooner, that they’d never been ‘guests’ of Clark’s interrogation squad.

   Most of them remembered Captain Sheridan from happier days. He’d always had a boyish grin and usually a twinkle in his eye. He had been willing to stop and chat, give breaks to the press if he could. He was the kind of leader who had remembered your name—even if you weren’t on the prime time staff and didn’t command by-lines of your own on the nets.

   The tone of the articles they had been going to write miraculously changed in those first few seconds. No one wanted to admit that they might have been wrong, but more than one of them now had second thoughts.

   When Stephen reopened the door and the reporters were allowed to return, they were a quieter and considerably more sympathetic audience. Cameras floated unobtrusively. Mikes were pressed forward, but not to the limit of their cords. Voices raised questions, but the sting had been pulled from the scorpion. Genuine tears and obvious pain had been enough to move even the press from rampant foe to potential ally.

   Stephen thought John looked better now, but was still very white and very tired. Pain drained his now severely limited reserves quickly. Muscle relaxants and ‘locals’ had eased much of that pain, but the room kept trying to close in on him. Stephen knew it was claustrophobia. There were simply too many people crowded into one small room. He let John take his hand.

   Something that had been done to his friend had produced this rampaging, unreasoning panic…this claustrophobic fear. Possibilities sprang to mind; John hadn’t talked about it yet. Maybe, he never would. The captain’s eyes darted everywhere. His fear was palpable

   John clung tightly to Stephen’s hand, the first contact with the doctor he had initiated himself. Periodically he let his eyes glance at the doctor. Always those eyes carried the same unspoken plea.

   "Don’t let them hurt me. Please, don’t let them hurt me."

   Stephen let his other hand reach out and gently touch John’s shoulders. Even though he knew exactly whose hand it was, even though he saw it coming and held its mate in his own hand, he still flinched. He flinched as though he had been struck and quickly moved away.

   "It’ll be okay, John," Stephen reassured him. "It’ll be okay."

   John didn’t believe him. He didn’t believe much of anything anymore.

   Not words. Not promises. Not doctors. Not the press.

    

    

    

    

Chapter 13 ~ Escape!

 

 

 

   ‘Babylon 5, Med Lab One’

    The noise and lights were gone again. Finally it was over.

   John raised his face up off the pillow. He was alone, all alone. At least, he thought he was.

    He had almost forgotten what it felt like...to be alone. Whenever he had awakened before, someone had been there immediately. Usually someone had been in the room with him, standing beside his bed, waiting for his eyes to open or standing just outside the door, guarding the entrance.

    The last time had been the worst. He had been in so much pain and not only was he not alone, but the hand-held lights had been back—shining brightly into his eyes. They had opened floodgates, brought back memories of being helpless, of being ashamed. He had remembered being naked…being used…being in pain. He had wanted to cry out and to make them, all of them, go away. Remembered pain had echoed dully, reverberating inside his head.

    There had been sound recording devices pushing forward into his face, waiting to register every syllable of every word that he had said. Vid cameras had floated before him hoping to capture a chronicle of his every move. They had never used vid cameras before. He'd always figured there was a reason for that. He didn’t think they were too proud of what they’d done to him, the things they’d allowed to happen to him.

   His interrogators had never seemed too eager for anyone to have a record, especially a permanent record, of what it meant to be ‘detained’ and ‘questioned’ by them. Their ministrations had never matched the calm words on the archived vid reports.

   Once his captors had ‘made’ him make a vid-taped message. It had been read ‘word-for-word’ off a data pad. It had said that he was being well treated. It had said that he was being well fed. That had been right after they'd broken his fingers…for the reprehensible crime of reaching for a grape, for something to eat after three days surviving without food.

   "Well fed and well treated," that had been a joke. He had been held incommunicado, held without food, without water, without hope…that was closer to the truth. Vid cameras would have recorded all the unspeakable things they'd allowed to happen. They hadn’t wanted that…especially on tape.

   Some times the press had taken still pictures. He didn’t understand why they’d wanted photographs. "Before and after shots," he thought, "maybe." He had recognized the digital-type cameras they had used.

   As time went by, he remembered more and more things and found that he wished to remember less and less. He wished that he did not remember all the myriad things that had hurt him, all the faces that had stared at him, all the compromises he had had to make just to stay alive.

    When he had awakened in the Med Lab a little while ago, he had been in agony. Then there had been too many people, too many lights. All he had wanted to do was hide. All he had been able to do was cower away from them, eyes sometimes wide with fear and sometimes narrow with pain.

   Had the reporters been patient, he might have been able to work out in his own mind why they were there. He was given no time. There had been questions, so many questions, and they had wanted them all answered at the same time, responded to at once.

    His head still hurt from the noise of it...a cacophony of demands splitting the air. He had thought that he was past all of that—the solid walls of questions. He had dared to hope he was.

   There had been just enough days of peace that he'd let himself begin to relax, begin to believe it was all right; he was free. He had thought that those around him really were trying to help him, had hoped that maybe he had been rescued, had truly been released. Now he knew. He hadn't been. Now he knew. It had been illusion. It was ‘all’ going to begin again.

    It had begun again many times. He wasn't even surprised.

    His feet ached. His back hurt. There was no feeling now in his lower body. From chest to knees he was blessedly numb. He could neither stand nor sit well. All he could do comfortably was lie on his side and, when the medications wore off, even that hurt. He didn’t let himself contemplate what it would be like when the painkiller wore off and the numbness passed. For a miracle his brain was clear. He could reason and he could plan.

    It was time to get out of here—time to take advantage of this lapse on his captors' part. He didn’t know why, but he was alone. They had left him an opening; he didn't mean to waste it.

    He forced himself to sit up keeping most of his weight on his left side. If he didn't try to sit flat, it still hurt, but it was doable. He needed clothing, something to wear that would blend in with the other people, and he needed a way to navigate, to get around on his own.

    Hospital gowns didn't attract attention in Med Lab, but he didn't plan to stay here. On a hook behind the door to his room was a coverall—a one piece, gray garment like those worn by maintenance and construction workers throughout the universe. It wasn’t fashionable, but it would do.

    He placed his bare feet gingerly on the cold gray tile floor. It actually felt good, sort of soothing. Then he shifted weight from the bed to his feet. He thought, for a minute, he would faint. The pain was so intense. He didn't. It was excruciating, but bearable. He took a step forward holding on for dear life to the side of the bed, to the railing there.

    Something—scar tissue, scabbed over lacerations—gave way. He felt soft wetness beneath his left foot. Looking down he saw a bloody print where his foot had been. He'd need shoes or someway to move around without walking. Slowly but steadily, using furniture and guts, he moved in the direction of his goal. Grasping the coverall, he pulled it toward him and lowered his body into the nearest chair. It had seemed so easy to just think about leaving. In reality, it was going—he realized—to hurt like hell.

    He slid his feet into the legs of the coverall, trying hard not to stain it. If he wanted to fit in, large bloodstains wouldn't do. He pushed himself up off the chair with a groan and pulled it over his back. He vaguely remembered he'd done this before not too long ago, only then he hadn't been able to see. It had been harder, but not much harder.

    He checked again looking cautiously around. There was still no sign of the medical staff, of those he now believed had been instructed to detain him, to keep him a prisoner confined in this place. He took a deep breath, so far, so good.

    There were no shoes. He didn't know what had become of the ones he had worn earlier. He wouldn't have understood if someone had told him that they were now rubble, floating—with, oh so many, other thing—in the silent vacuum outside the station. No shoes, but under the bed were what looked like paper slippers. Better than nothing, he thought, and slid them on his feet. Both feet were bleeding now, and he was leaving a clear trail of his movements. He'd need better shoes soon, as soon as he could manage.

    He knew that he had to get away. He had to go now, before the questions started again, before the pain got any worse, and before they finished what they'd started—destroying his mind, destroying him. He'd never understood why they wanted to do that to him, or maybe he had once long ago...and, now, it was just gone, all of it. Safety had been an illusion. He wondered how much else was.

    He was John. That much he was sure of again, and somehow they'd wanted him to think that he belonged here. He knew he belonged with Delenn, but was the Delenn he'd seen here real or something else, something they had wanted him to think was real. She could be something totally false that they’d embedded in his head when his brain wasn't working. She could be pure illusion. She could be partially real or totally real. He didn’t know. It made his head hurt to even try to sort out the possibilities.

   He didn't want to leave Delenn—real, or not—she had been a great comfort, but he had to get away. He had to go now.

    He started for the door, and he heard voices. Freezing in his tracks he quickly backed away. Back to the bed, he frantically thought. No. He wouldn't be trapped here. Pulling himself behind the door, he hefted the closest thing—a metal container meant to hold some kind of sterile dressing. He'd need two hands to do this, and he wasn't sure his right one would take the strain.

    He heard the buzz and hum as a code was entered into the Iso Lab lock, and Stephen's voice—he thought it was Stephen—berating someone for letting a ‘pack of wolves’ into the place. Wolves—it was a word for which he had only a partial referent—his mind supplied a picture of an angry looking dog. The doctor walked in alone, looked at the empty bed with open mouth and promptly let out a yell. John cut the yell short, bringing the metal can down hard on the back of the man's head.

    "Go, go now," he almost heard the musical chimes again in the back of his head. He fled out of the isolation room and through the medical facility moving hurriedly. Hurriedly, who was he kidding? At least, he was moving.

   Whoever Stephen had yelled at had fled from the doctor’s wrath. Apparently, no one had heard his outcry of surprise.

   There was no one in John’s way. He staggered across the smooth floor. Red marks painted clear trail markers for anyone who wanted to see. As escape attempts go, it was pretty pathetic. In his heart of hearts he knew that, but he still had to try. He couldn’t just stay.

    There was a chair meant for the use of those who could not stand Earth-normal gravity. Med Lab was the one place even low-gravity sentients had to come sometimes. John sank gratefully onto the padded seat. He yelped. It hurt him to sit flat, even on such a seat. The controls were set for right-handed use. Cautiously he reached across and swung the control unit to the left. It was very simple. Whoever had designed it had planned on it being used by beings with few communication skills. Labels were in the trade tongue: ‘up, down, left, right.

    Carefully, he pressed the ‘up’ control. The chair raised off the floor. He guided it with studied care out of Med Lab and away. He wasn't free yet, but he was on his own. He had found a way to move around without leaving a path marked for an idiot...and he knew, he had decided, they weren't going to take him back. Not ever, not alive.

    Two corners, three...there were few beings in the halls. No one accosted him. No one stood in his way.

    Two levels up, Zack Allan sat surveying security scanners. Aliens and humans moved around the station doing business, socializing, and making his life interesting...always, always interesting. It seemed like a normal day.

    Security cameras covered most public parts of the station...hallways, the Zocalo, meeting rooms....

    Zack stopped the incessant scanning of one hallway camera.

    "What the...?" he said aloud, making the tech on duty jump. "Monitor level three, camera sixty-two, continuously, as of now." As Zack watched, John piloted the small low-gravity unit down the hall and carefully around a corner.

    "Stephen?" Zack tried to contact the doctor in Med Lab. There was no response on the comm link.

    "Med Lab?" He tried again and got a med tech. "I need to speak to Dr. Franklin. I need to speak to him now."

    The med tech looked flustered. "He's here, but he's been hurt. We're not sure how badly."

    "What happened?" Zack was really getting concerned now.

    "Nobody knows, but it looks like the captain hit him with something and," the tech gulped, "ran away."

    Zack sighed and bit his lip. His instincts had been good…another interesting day.

    

    

    

Chapter 14 ~ The Garden

 

 

 

   ‘Babylon 5, The Zen Garden’

    He had folded himself as small as he knew how. Crouching within the ductwork used to recycle oxygen from the hydroponics portion of the Zen garden, John waited for the search to pass. They had been looking for him almost since the moment he had managed, finally, to leave the Med Lab. Security had been tight, tighter than he had believed.

    He had had guardians—Rangers—waiting outside his door, almost every moment since consciousness had returned. Delenn said they were good. She said they were there to help. He had wanted to believe her. He had honestly tried.

    Then things had gotten confusing. There had been pain again...way too much pain, and all he could remember had been wanting it to end. He had been hurt before, hurt so badly that he’d lost control. He wasn't going to let that happen—not again. If he could find no way to escape, then he’d find a way to finish things. If he had to die, so be it. He could take no more. His thoughts were laced with desperation. There had to be an end.

    The sounds of the searchers moved on and away from him. Though he didn’t know it, they’d found signs of his entry to the ducts, confirmed where he must be. John heaved a quiet sigh. He was close to the limit of his personal strength. He couldn't run fast and he couldn't run far, but they were never going to take him alive again. Of that he was absolutely, positively sure.

    His feet were bleeding and so were his knees. He had crawled so far inside the metal conduit that he was fairly sure their scanners and sensors could not detect him. Still he waited, breathing tiredly ‘til he was sure that they were gone.

    He had lowered his weight onto one hip. Sitting wasn't feasible and crawling hurt too much. Gradually he inched his way back toward the garden. Each section of conduit became another goal post; each air intake, another milestone. He had left marks...some marks...in the ductwork coming in. He knew he was making more working his way back out.

    Finally, he reached the grate he had unhooked to let himself in here. Frantically he pushed at it unwilling to be imprisoned here inside this metal tube. It gave with the second push, and the garden was before him.

    The garden was beautiful as long as he focused on the soothing patterns and on the green and growing things. When he raised his eyes to vista above, the hollow sphere that was the heart of the station, it was too confusing. He did and didn’t understand.

    The garden around him contained a multitude of plants—growing things of every description—flowers, bushes, and even trees. This was the pride and joy of hydroponics. This was what made the station work. Without this renewable resource...exchanging oxygen for carbon dioxide...such a large-scale operation would have been unthinkable.

    He shook his head in wonderment. How had he known that?

    Some of the plants he saw were grown for utilitarian purposes, for the food or medicines they could provide. Some were grown for their beauty, and all were grown for the life-giving oxygen they renewed.

    It must have been another piece of ‘useless’ information Psi Corps had decided not to erase. Actually, as he thought about it, he knew it was common knowledge, something everyone who traveled in space knew as a ‘given’ like people on Earth knew they breathed air.

    The ductwork entrance he had used was hidden behind an impressive flowering bush. He crouched now beneath that bush, huddled low to the ground. He knew he was near the entrance from Green Three.

   The color-coded levels on the station made sense to him. So, had the level numbers starting at one and progressing down. Med Lab had had easy access to many different colored sectors. He wasn’t sure why he had chosen green.

   He knew he had abandoned the gravity chair in a lift not far away. No one had seen him come here—no one he was aware of; secure cams were everywhere…all seeing and unseen.

    He loved the Zen garden instinctively. He could not have said for certain why. He’d discovered it was quiet here, and his soul craved quiet. He also discovered that he had some memories of this place. Apparently images of a Zen garden, the rocks and patterned lines in the sand, hadn’t been important enough to take away. Maybe, he thought, that was why he liked it here. Here he could touch, if need be, the reality that matched his memory.

    He knew he had met with Delenn in this garden and with another who had worn an ‘encounter suit. They had both been important in his life. He was only starting to remember how.

    The bush he’d chosen for cover was one of those on Babylon Five grown for its beauty. It was flowering now, covered with cascades of tiny white flowers. "Bridal veil spirea" he read on a tag wired inconspicuously to one of its multiple trunks. He didn't know about bridal veils, but the scent of it created associations, made him think of heaven and of angels with glowing wings. He'd seen one here once.

    John shook himself. "Where had that come from?" That couldn't be. Angels were fantasy. They were part of Earth’s mythology, creatures of faith. How could he have seen one? How, and why here? He was tired, so tired. He just needed to rest.

    The green grass grew all the way around the large bush. It felt soft and faintly moist under his hands. The air was filled with the sweet scent of the white spirea flowers. He could stay here and catch his breath, rest for just a while.

    Gently, he let his body lay down on the cool carpet of grass. It felt wonderful. It smelled like spring, fresh loam turned in the garden. There were gentle sounds like rain from a sprinkler somewhere. He closed his eyes. For just a minute, he could stay here. He'd be safe. It would be okay.

    He fell asleep curled up on his side, huddled behind the protective bush. He was near the Zen garden. He felt alone and safely hidden. Two secure cameras knew exactly where he was. One was floating and one was permanent. Zack was monitoring both...this was part of his job, in his opinion.

    Rangers were stationed at every garden entrance to insure John’s peace. People weren’t kept out, but they were guided away. Quiet voices suggested another path, offered to help in some other way. Few denizens of the station used the Zen garden much. John and Delenn had used it all the time. It had been their meeting place, an unchanging center in a chaotic universe. John had thought of it as his thinking place, a quiet and private space—for holding Delenn, for soothing tears, for gentle caresses. That he had sought it out automatically surprised Zack not at all.

    John slept the sleep of the exhausted. He dreamed the dreams of the damned. He fought monsters—Shadows, reporters, telepaths, inquisitors, and nameless, faceless things that devoured his soul. His body twitched with restrained movement. Eyelids quivered viewing nightmare scenes. He stirred and rolled onto his side. He bumped something and woke himself up.

    "Hello!" The voice was soft and gentle. She sat beside him watching him sleep, under a bush at the edge of the garden. Somehow her being here, watching while he slept, felt good—completely right.

    "Did you sleep well?"

    "I dreamed...." He looked at her with something approaching awe.

    What was she doing here? Was this real? Was this a fraud? Was this part of the nightmare? He reached out a tentative hand and experimentally touched hers. She was so beautiful. He was frightened that at his touch she'd fade away.

    Delenn let him stroke the back of her hand, sitting unmoving. Stephen had forewarned her. It would be better that way. If John would make the first move, if he'd do the reaching out, then she could work with him, help him find his way. John was ‘lost’ in Stephen's professional, medical opinion—not that that was a diagnosis one could write on someone's chart.

    So much had been taken from the captain. So much was being relearned. He was struggling like a drowning person not knowing which way to turn. He was asea in a world of people, things, and information. He was trying to take it all in, but much of it didn't make sense. He had needed a lifepod when their ship had exploded; he needed a rescue of a different kind now.

    Delenn had been his touchstone before. Stephen was banking that she could be again. John was frightened and he needed guidance. The question was would he accept it.

    Looking into the clear hazel eyes, framed with lines of pain that hadn't been there a year ago, Delenn drew a deep breath and moved her hand away. This, also, was on Stephen's recommendation. John had to want this. He had to be the one to initiate contact.

    Pulling her hand back, she had lowered her eyes.

    John read into her gesture what Psi Corps had taught him. He thought she was afraid of him, afraid of being hurt or punished. Immediately he wanted to reassure her. He wanted her to look at him. He needed to see her smile.

    "Delenn?" he reached out again. "Honey, it's all right." His hand closed on hers more firmly this time. She smiled a small secret smile. He had called her 'Honey.' Much as she'd complained about his use of the 'pet name,' the fact that he had used it apparently without thinking gave her hope, small persistent hope, for his recovery, for the future.

    "It's okay." When she raised her eyes, he had levered himself up to nearly sitting, and scootched himself painfully over to her side. His arm encircled her as if it had never been meant to do anything else. She let her chin come up. She let her eyes meet his: emerald and hazel…the windows to their souls.

    Softly, gently, more tentative than butterfly wings touching the dew...he kissed her on the lips. His left hand cupped her mouth. His eyes were uncertain, but it seemed so right.

    Zack didn't know whether to turn off the cams. This had the potential to be more than just a little embarrassing. Zack blanked the big floating camera's image off the main screen, but the left the small one on the console running...just in case. Just in case.

    Delenn knew what John did not. She knew about the cameras, the Rangers, the other safeguards. Stephen was waiting at full alert, in case John should collapse. She knew there was an audience. John didn't know that. Somehow, it didn't matter. She had wanted this too much.

    Two weeks ago, more than two weeks ago, when they had first gotten him back, she had wanted nothing more than to hug him...to hold him, to kiss him, to show him he was loved. It had been impossible. He had flinched from nearly all contact. He had withdrawn within himself forcing all of them away. Now, she thought she understood what Stephen had meant, about going slowly...she was overwhelmed, but she had to let John set the pace.

    He drew back from her smiling, the first genuine smile since her last night of sleep watching—before she had returned to Minbar—so very long ago. She smiled back and bowed her head again. It was automatic. His hand returned, raising her chin. He looked into her eyes.

    "I love you," he said. "I have loved you for so long. I don't remember a time without you. I know there must have been one, but most of that is gone."

    "I love you, too." Her quiet voice sent shivers up his spine. "You are the other half of my soul. I think you have always been with me." There were tears in her eyes. Just one escaped and made a path down her cheek.

    He reached out his finger and gently touched it.

    "Are you crying for you or for me?"

    "Neither. They are happy tears."

   Delenn prayed that he would understand.

   "I have waited so long for you to remember. I have been so afraid that you would not. It is so good to have you back. Welcome home, John."

    He tilted his head to one side, an odd gesture that reminded Delenn somehow of Kosh, and he smiled a fair imitation of his old teasing smile.

   "Thank you," he said quietly. "It's good to be back."

    She laughed and he joined her. Mirth was contagious. Laughing felt wonderful. John knew he hadn't laughed in far too long.

    A gentle breeze from somewhere, nowhere, disturbed the bush over their heads. Cascades of tiny white petals fell amid their happiness. "Bridal veil spirea," John remembered they were called. He looked at Delenn. Her soft brown hair was sprinkled with tiny petals of dazzling white. Taking her hand, he looked into her eyes—holding them—not letting her look away.

   "Will you marry me?" he asked.

    "Yes, John." No hesitation, Delenn’s response was swift and sincere.

    His heart skipped a beat. They had done this before. Somehow he knew it but, what the hell, why leave out the best part. He leaned forward wrapping both of his arms around her trembling body. Her arms tentatively returned his embrace, carefully, so carefully...afraid he would panic...afraid he would bolt again, try to flee. Their eyes and their lips met. This felt so very right. She closed her eyes and simply enjoyed being kissed. She didn't care who was watching. She didn't care who knew. She loved him. She would marry him. It would be all right.

    In a little while she’d help him find his own quarters. He was done with Med Lab, at least, for now. With luck he might even remember the way to his place by himself. Things were coming back to him. For that Babylon Five had been good. So many things had happened here—good things and bad. She wondered if he’d ever remember all of it…probably not. But things were getting better, John was getting better, and for now the Universe would just have to wait and understand.

    

    

 

 

Chapter 15 ~ Home

 

 

 

   ‘Babylon Five, Sheridan’s Quarters’

    Delenn sat quietly in the large chair near the foot of John’s bed. He was asleep now, as far as she could tell, resting quietly. He stirred whimpering in his sleep, and she sat up straighter, assuring herself that he was all right.

    It had been a busy day.

    She brought the knuckles of her right hand up and rested them under her chin. He was so beautiful when he was asleep—so young, so innocent. True, the face of her love had changed. Even she had to admit that. The ravages of his captivity had carved deep furrows and added gray hairs that were not there before. Such marks were there for anyone to read, but beneath them she still saw the same glowing spirit she had seen before. He had been damaged, not destroyed.

    Bringing him home, back to his quarters, has been her idea. Stephen had fought her, kicking and screaming, every step of the way. How could they monitor his condition there? How could they administer medications?

    In truth, she believed, Stephen had been afraid to let John out of his sight—not trusting anyone, not even her, to take good enough care of him now. Stephen had fought so very hard to keep John alive. It was as if, somehow, he felt ownership over his friend’s life. Stephen definitely needed to back off.

    John rolled over in his sleep. A swift shadow of pain crossed his face, like a cloud passing over the moon, but he did not wake. The pain pills Stephen had given her to add to his tea seemed to be working. He was restless, but he was sleeping—sleeping for a change in his own bed. Not that he’d recognized it. He hadn’t seemed aware of much after they’d gotten to his quarters.

    She looked around his bedroom. So many remembrances of Earth were hung from his walls and set out upon his shelves. Photographs and paintings—he loved landscapes and pictures of Earth taken from space—adorned most of the walls. A tiny china teacup with its matching saucer, a picture frame of old silver holding an aging photo of his parents, an Oriental lacquered box, and a bent and ravaged piece of metal from what had once been the "Black Star" rested side-by-side on a bedside shelf.

    She shivered remembering how she had felt the first time she had realized what that piece of metal was. Tonight, however, nothing bothered her. Not even the reminder of the "Black Star" could spoil this moment, her first totally alone with him since their return to the station.

    She and Zack had made a ‘deal.’ He had agreed to blank the security cameras in John’s quarters tonight and she had agreed to wear a ‘link’ like Ivanova and Zack did. If she needed help, she had promised, she would use the link. Zack had taken her at her word. There were no tapes being made tonight—no eyes in John’s bedroom tonight—no eyes but hers.

    She picked up the Oriental lacquered box wondering what was inside it. Carefully she lifted the lid. Within it was another box, and within that one another one. When she was finished there were a set of six boxes gradually getting smaller. "How curious?" she thought, "and how like John…boxes inside of boxes." Just when she thought she knew everything about the captain some new facet of the man would emerge to surprise and delight her: his love of early American History, his need to solve problems and investigate mysteries, and his willingness to place everyone and everything else before himself. If only, she found herself wishing, he had not been so very good at that last one.

--------------------

    Getting John to his quarters had been a hassle, moreso than she had envisioned when she had proposed it. Zack had left transportation waiting for them on Green Three, just outside the garden entrance. She had ‘found’ it there as promised—a small scooter designed for two.

    She had driven it carefully into the garden even though doing so was against all station rules. She had been given a special dispensation to do so. She had the consent of security and, even, of hydroponics. Whatever damage she did to the grass, they figured the aid it would bring to John was worth it.

    John had been so worried because she’d left him even for those few minutes. The sound of the scooter’s small engine when she had returned had sent him deeper into hiding behind the fragrant bush. His hazel eyes had been wide with emotions she could only imagine. He had been steeling himself for whatever was to come. He had been so tired, so terrified. When he had realized that the scooter was coming for him, that it was she, he had almost visibly let go. He had never questioned where she had gone or where the scooter had come from.

    Getting John up onto the scooter’s small plastic seat had required all of her Minbari strength and considerable determination. It had been easier said than done.

    John’s knees had been scraped raw from crawling in the ductwork. His feet—his poor feet—had only, just, begun to heal. He had damaged them again. Bloody and sore, they were back pretty much where they’d been the first time she cleaned them on the shuttle coming from Earth.

    When she had lifted John, he had held onto her desperately afraid that she would disappear or afraid that he would fall. She hadn’t known which, but the feel of his arms around her shoulders and neck had eased the burden his body had been. If he hadn’t lost so much weight on Mars, she’d never have been able to do it.

    Finally, she had gotten him onto the hard plastic seat. It had been a shock to see the pain just sitting there had cost him. She had watched his face blanch and heard him utter a deep, agonized groan. The numbness had been wearing off and sitting was always a trial for John now, even on soft surfaces. She had climbed on beside him, taking the controls again into her hands. Quickly she had steered them out into the passageway.

    She hadn’t waited for him to guide her, even though that had been part of the command staff’s quickly extemporized plan. She had guided them swiftly away from the gardens, into the Blue Sector, and to the captain’s quarters. They had met almost no one in the hallways; one startled Minbari—her aide—had ducked away. John had not seemed to recognize Lennier who had completed his assigned errands and had evacuated the captain’s rooms just in time. The Rangers she had known were clearing their way. She didn’t think tighter security had ever been maintained.

    "Rangers have many uses," she thought with a small smile.

    John might have been curious, but he was in too much pain to question where they were going? To question why?

    She had drawn to a stop outside of his door. He had watched her key in his personal code. There had been no recognition, no sign that he knew he was home. The door had opened with a quiet whoosh, and she’d guided the scooter in.

    John had stared. The room must have felt huge to him. It was a lot of room, a lot of space, when compared to the isolation cubicle in Med Lab. God knew how it compared to the other places he’d been kept since he had last been here.

    The door had shut quietly behind them. She had drawn an expectant breath. He hadn’t panicked. She had been afraid he would not be willing to be confined even by a door, the door to his own quarters. The last thing she had wanted was to trigger his fear.

    She had maneuvered her way into the sleeping chamber knowing that John could never walk that far. Angling carefully she had positioned the small scooter beside the bed, practically touching it. Pulling the quilt and sheets down, she had offered him her arm. He had pulled up, using her arm. She had known that it had hurt. She remembered the contorted faces he’d made and his nearly unvoiced whimpers as he had slid from the hardness of the seat to the softness of the bed. His almost silent cries had torn at her heart. She knew they had had to do it, but somehow that hadn’t helped. All she had seen was his pain.

    Then, he had been in his own bed. Even if he didn’t remember, his body should have. It should have felt ‘right.’

    He had fallen backwards against the pillows, exhausted and, she thought, too pale. Gently she had taken his pulse. It was fast but strong—so far, so good. He had held her hand then, wanting her to stay with him. She had held it for a minute, smiling into his eyes. He wasn’t able to match her smile, but she could see he had tried.

    She had left him then, just for a minute, long enough to get him something for the pain. She’d returned with a cup of tea—the very finest Minbari tea—laced with all the pain medication she had had with her. She had made sure the tea was warm, but not hot, so he would drink it down quickly. He had sipped it gratefully and descended into sleep.

    She loved him, she knew, more than life itself, and this was her gamble bringing him here. As Stephen had gambled that Babylon Five would be better for John than Minbar, so now she believed his own rooms, his own things, would be better for him than Med Lab.

    The captain’s rooms were clean. Lennier had seen to that. The air had been recycled on schedule. They did not have the air of disuse that rooms can have when the owner is gone away. There was food in the cupboards—soups and teas she’d known he liked, and the refrigeration unit was stocked with juices and heat-and-serve meals. There were even a few oranges in the bowl beside John’s bed.

    Dr. Franklin had had several long talks with Delenn, about John’s diet and nutritional needs. He needed in Stephen’s opinion at least four meals a day—small ones with lots of carbohydrates and proteins. Captain Sheridan had lost far too much weight and needed to gain much of it back—especially the muscle mass.

    Stephen had, also, talked to her as honestly as he could about what had happened to John during his captivity and about what it might mean. It had been essentially the same talk that he had had with John…the one about rape and about what being raped did and didn’t mean. She had been shocked, but not surprised. She had known, though she had hesitated to admit it even to herself, that Clark would have done whatever was in his power to break John.

    Delenn had been ‘Satai’ of the Gray council and, much as she looked innocent and John had always treated her as such, she knew exactly what rape entailed. She understood—or thought she did, when Stephen was done—what had been done to her love and how terrifyingly extensive the damage had been to his body and his mind.

    Rape had never been a common practice among Minbari of any caste. Even the warrior caste had rejected it as beneath their honor. It was a crime almost universally reviled. Such an act against another—even an enemy—was considered a form of immeasurable torment. As torture, it was rarely condoned, but it was not totally unheard of. Minbari knew what rape was. The thought of it made her ill.

    Stephen had told her that victims of such abuse—interrogation, torture, and/or rape—often, normally, became fearful of common things: darkness or bright light, strangers, certain sounds or objects associated with their experiences. Some became compulsive about trying to make their feelings of violation go away. Many had been known to spend hours trying to make themselves ‘clean.’ He hadn’t known how John would react but it was, in his opinion, a possibility that John would go through some similar rituals—showering for long periods of time, washing his hands again and again, or even changing clothing that was perfectly clean. Arguing, Stephen had told her, would do her no good. If it came to that point, she would simply have to let John shower and wash until he decided for himself that he felt ‘clean.’ She would need to be guided by him regarding light levels, and she would need to be very sensitive to his reactions to events, people, and things around him.

    Lennier had paid attention during Dr. Franklin’s lectures to Delenn. He had, also, thought for himself and taken actions accordingly. There would be no limit to the captain’s water supply when he was ready to shower, when and if he needed that release. Lennier had listened carefully. If John chose to try to ‘wash away’ what had happened to him on Mars or with the Psi Corps, there would be water, plentiful and hot. Lennier didn’t see how one could wash away a memory, but perhaps this was simply something else he needed to learn.

    John tossed and turned anxiously in his sleep, moving restlessly against the sheets. His body was beginning to perspire. His hands were beginning to shake.

    Immediately Delenn used the link. "Zack, get Stephen. Quickly, please."

    Stephen arrived with this ‘little black bag’ and an IV stand so quickly she knew he couldn’t have been far away. She raised her eyebrows at him and he admitted sheepishly. "I borrowed Ivanova’s quarters, just until we get this under control."

    Delenn nodded. "Thank you," she said. She nodded to John.

    "He is dreaming again. I do not think they are pleasant dreams."

    Stephen agreed with her. What the doctor could see of John’s body was tense and covered with a thin sheen of sweat. His hands were now tightly clenched into impotent fists and his teeth were gritted together, holding in God knew what…cries of terror, pain, panic, curse words. As they watched, John began to sob.

    "I knew they were coming," Stephen thought to himself, recognizing the beginnings of the nightmares he’d expected two weeks earlier. "Why, just for once, couldn’t I be wrong?"

    "Delenn, what have you given him so far?" Stephen’s deft fingers checked the captain’s pulse.

    "Everything you gave me," she replied. Stephen stared at her somewhat stunned. "Wasn’t I supposed to?"

    "Well, y-yes," he stumbled over the words, "but not all at once, and only when he was hurting."

    "He was in pain, Stephen, moreso than I have ever seen. I had to make it stop hurting him. I had to let him sleep."

    "Well, you definitely seem to have accomplished that. My best guess is that he’ll sleep for about three days." Stephen wasn’t angry so much as frustrated. "And have nightmares during most of that time. God save me from do-gooders," he thought.

    "Three days!" She sat down hard. "So long. There were only five or six pills. I gave him too many. Didn’t I?"

    "Yes, you most definitely did! Guess I should have explained it better…." His voice trailed off. "He’ll be okay, Delenn. He’ll be okay. Maybe this was the best thing right now, to just sleep away the memory of the pain."

    "Thank you, Stephen. You are being too generous. I should have listened more carefully. What can we do for him? How can we help him now?"

    "I’ll start an IV, keep antibiotics and nutrients going into his system. That will fight the infections all through his body and, God willing, keep him from losing any more weight. He won’t be regaining consciousness anytime soon, so we’ll dress his feet again—that is, if you’ll help."

    "Of course, I will." She would do anything right now.

    "His feet are definitely going to need work, and we can change the bandage on his hand, too. Maybe look at his knees, check his ribs. After that I’d say let him sleep." Stephen shook his head at her well-meaning, but obviously dangerous action.

    "I will give you something for his nightmares, and I’ll need to know if they get worse. You will need to use it as I show you. It is a liquid. We’ll add it to his IV with the antibiotics, and he ‘will’ get the medication just ‘once’ a day."

    Mollified, Delenn nodded and moved to the bathroom for water and towels. She was still worried but Stephen didn’t seem too upset, and thankfully he hadn’t suggested taking John back to Med Lab.

    Now that he was ‘home,’ she wanted him to stay here if at all possible.

    Returning with a small basin and towel, she set them down beside the doctor who was still taking scanner readings and recording them in his log. She reached out, gently lifting John’s hand from the rumpled blue quilt. His fingers closed over hers, instinctively holding on. She would attempt to do whatever Stephen needed her to do, but she also knew that she was ‘not’ going to let go.

    

    

Chapter 16 ~ A Short Walk

 

 

 

   ‘Babylon Five, Sheridan’s Quarters’

    John was asleep in his own bed, but he didn’t know it. His mind was far away, back on Mars…remembering. Fantasy, even nightmares, would have been preferable. He knew he was remembering reality.

-------------------

    Sitting on a hard bench, John Sheridan had waited between two guards for transport from one secure facility to another. They had moved him a lot…at least, it felt like they had…but when he woke up in a small dark room, it always felt like the same place. There was always a drain in the middle of the floor. Usually it didn’t work very well. It was the closest his ‘quarters’ on Mars had ever come to ‘facilities.’ He had hated it.

    A vehicle of some kind had pulled into the dome’s secured airlock. He had heard the motor shut down and the inner seal on the lock begin to release. The guards had pulled their rebreather masks over their faces and prepared to enter the lock. They had pulled him to his feet. He was going with them, but…he had struggled then…no one had bothered to offer him any of the necessary equipment for such a trip.

    Mars was cold—especially the night side of the planet. There were parkas and boots and gloves for the guards. He wore only what he’d been captured in, less his leather jacket. That had disappeared before he’d ever awakened in custody.

    Mars had a thin atmosphere, breathable with the use of a rebreather or air tank and mask. He had known it wasn’t quite a vacuum out there, but it came close. Unprotected lungs could form blood clots. Death in that form was slow and agonizing taking weeks, if not months, to finish the job. Disorientation, dizziness, bleeding from the face—especially the nose and mouth—and unconsciousness came quickly for those who tried to go out on the surface unprepared. There had been no choice. It had been decided. They were going out, and John apparently was going out unprepared and ‘unprotected.’ He had fought them.

    "Noooo!" He had struck out at them. It had done no good.

    "Shut up," one guard had ordered. "It’s not a long walk. If you behave, you’ll get there just fine."

    John remembered he had stared at the man in horror. "Walk?" His mind couldn’t comprehend it. "On the surface, without…without…." He had squeezed his eyes shut tightly, trying to will his body to not show any more fear. He had been here during the food riots. He had seen what people looked liked who had been forced out through the domes’ pressure seals. He had tried to calm his heart and breathing. It had almost worked.

    The seal on the big door had popped letting it slide open, and the men had walked him into the vehicle bay. A heavy orange crawler had been the only machine in the lock. It had looked old and rusty, so rusty that John hadn’t been sure if the vehicle was really painted orange or if it had simply become so covered with Martian dust and oxidation that it had taken on that coloration. Such crawlers were notoriously slow. John had cringed. If that was their means of transportation, he had known this was ‘not’ going to be a quick trip.

    One of the guards had climbed quickly up onto the crawler, speaking quietly to the driver. The other had removed the chain that fastened John’s manacles to the wide metal belt he wore. John had moved forward, expecting to be ordered to climb up into the huge machine.

    "Where do you think you’re going?" the guard had asked.

    John had looked at him uncomprehendingly, and the man had laughed cruelly. Pulling the captive around behind the vehicle he had reattached the short chain to the crawler’s rear support panel.

    "I told you before, it’s a short enough walk…if you behave."

    "Please, you can’t…. I won’t…." In horror John had realized that they knew exactly what they were doing. He had felt his body sagging against the metal side of the ponderous vehicle, his knees giving way as he tried to imagine a way he could survive such a journey.

    "Why don’t you just shoot me now?" It had been a rhetorical question. He had known it was. Shooting him wouldn’t have been entertaining enough.

    One of the guards had leered at him. "What, and waste ammo? The chief would have our head sure for that."

    "But I can’t…. I’ll be dead before…." John had stopped. He would be dead, and Mars would have killed him…not Clark, not Garibaldi, not Earth Force. Of course, they’d all be at fault, but legally—technically—it wouldn’t be on their conscience.

    He had thought of Delenn then knowing he would never see her again—nor hold her in his arms. He had blinked back his tears. His body had needed every drop of fluid in it. Mars was dry—dry and cold and unforgiving.

    The inner seal had closed and pressurized. The crew had climbed up into their seats in the crawler and his guards had taken stations on the running boards on both sides of the heavy machine. Rebreathers and air masks had been adjusted. The big outer seal had opened with a popping sound. He had heard the ‘air’ exit the bay with a diminishing ‘whoosh.’ The less dense air of the Martian surface had not carried sounds as well as the richer air inside the domes.

    He had tried to breathe gulping in huge quantities of what passed for air on Mars’ surface. There had been nothing there…or, at least, almost nothing. The engine of the big machine had started with a wheeze and clatter as gears shifted, and it had begun to roll out onto the reddish dust.

    John Sheridan couldn’t breathe. He couldn’t walk. He had fallen forward pulled off balanced by the lurching movement of the crawler. He had soiled himself in fear.

    Two of the guards had stepped down to his level, staring at him curiously as one might at a sick animal. He hadn’t cared. He had let himself be dragged forward by the manacles attached to his wrists. He’d stopped trying to fight them. He had panted desperately, trying to fill empty lungs. There was not enough oxygen in the air to sustain life. His vision had clouded with beads of darkness.

    He had looked up at the guards and pleaded one more time. "Please…. Can’t…. please." His voice had sounded incredibly far away and small.

    "Throw him in the boot," one of the crawler crew had suggested.

    "It’s not big enough."

    "Probably not, but it’s better than suffocating."

    "I suppose so…." The guard hadn’t been so sure it was a good idea, but Sheridan had looked really bad. Already his eyes had begun rolling back into his head and, to make matters worse, the prisoner had begun to smell.

    "Give me a hand," the guard had demanded. Together two of them had picked up Sheridan and dumped him onto the crawler’s surface. One had released his manacles from the chain while the other found and opened the small boot. It was a metal box. A little less than three feet square and about eighteen inches deep, it had been intended as temporary storage for tools and other supplies needed by the crawler crew. It was mostly empty. They had quickly thrown out the litter at the bottom of the box-like compartment and dumped Sheridan’s body into it. Only the rapid rise and fall of John’s chest had told them he was still alive.

    Someone, John never knew who it was, had cracked open the valve on a small cylinder of oxygen and tossed it into the tight compartment with him. Then the heavy door to the compartment had been dropped carelessly. There had been pressure on his shoulder and upper back. He had heard a snapping sound, felt another wave of pain, and lost consciousness.

    When he had come to shortly thereafter, the pain and smell had combined to make him nauseous. He had thrown up. His stomach had been mostly empty for a long time. There had been very little inside to bring up. What little there was had reeked fouling his meager air supply still more. Dry heaves had followed. His body had continued to revolt against the pain, smell, and rolling motion of the crawler. Thankfully it hadn’t made his confined space any worse.

   His left shoulder had hurt. Lancing pain had shot through his chest and arm whenever the vehicle’s movements put pressure on that side. He had felt sure that something had broken—his collarbone, his shoulder—when the heavy lid had been forced down.

   It had been pitch dark in the small compartment. Gradually, he had begun to sort out sounds, noises in his environment: the growl and wheeze of the asthmatic motor, the crashing of misaligned gears, the hiss of…escaping air. The metal box he had found himself in was not airtight. He had been afraid, hurt, trapped, and helpless. He had realized then that, if this trip took long enough, he’d be just as dead in this reeking coffin as he would have been if they had dragged him all the way.

   John had considered trying to attract the attention of the guards, begging for mercy. Mercy had been in short supply on Mars lately. He hadn’t believed they would show any more compassion than they already had. Fighting down his fear, he had forced himself to breathe slowly to conserve the little air he had left. He had had no way to stop the air leaking from the compartment. He had had no way to replenish it when it was gone. Still, he had known that he couldn’t afford to let himself panic.

   There had been a black time—a hole in his mind—a period he hadn’t remembered at all. He had simply ‘not been there’ mentally for an indeterminate length of time. When he had begun to remember again, his fists had been bloody from pounding on the metal walls and lid of the boot. His voice had been hoarse from screaming imprecations at the universe. Somewhere in his fear, in the darkness and solitude, he had simply, totally, lost control.

   Noises had gotten louder. The engine had stopped, and he had been released. The heavy lid to the boot had been raised, and large hands had pulled his contorted body out. He hadn’t been able to stand. They had dropped him on the dusty, grease-spotted floor. He had lain there in the maintenance bay of a large airlock whimpering and bleeding from his mouth, nose, and ears.

   A med tech had looked him over carelessly and slapped a stimulant patch onto his upper arm. He hadn’t felt any better, but he had been able to get up stiffly and walk after that. He’d walked to a small room with a drain in the center of the floor. They had shoved him in and closed the door. He had screamed. He didn’t remember stopping.

   Outside that door, someone had laughed. There had been a great many small rooms after that—closets, cages, and coffin-like boxes. If they knew he was afraid of something, they had used it as a way to hurt him. It had gone on for so very long. It hadn’t ever stopped.

--------------------

   John cried out in his sleep, and Delenn brought her hand carefully down over his. She let her fingers gently caress the back of his hand, and he whimpered softly and shifted on the bed trying, she thought, to find more comfortable position.

   "Shhh! It will be all right, my love."

   Delenn continued whispering calming, soothing words, until he drifted back into deeper sleep. She patted his good hand gently, and eased herself back into the bedside chair. She realized she was getting quite good at sleeping while sitting in this chair.

   She shivered remembering a conversation she’d had with Stephen about the interrogation chair that John had been forced to sleep in. John had, apparently, become good at sleeping sitting up in such a chair.

   The doctor had told her the marks on John’s wrists and ankles when he had been released to them had been caused by shackles and manacles used to hold ‘her love’ bound, nearly immobile. He had lived imprisoned like that—day and night, waking and sleeping—for a very long time. Delenn shook her head. It was hard to believe, but she knew it had really happened.

   She knew things had happened to John that she would never know about because he wouldn’t remember or simply because he would be unable to share them with her. Compared to what he had gone through, sleeping in the upholstered chair in John’s bedroom was insignificant. Actually, she didn’t mind sleeping like this; at least she knew he was safe. Here and now she had a choice. He had had none.

   She squeezed his hand tenderly and let it rest again on the deep blue quilt. Closing her eyes, she listened to his soft snoring and let herself fall back to sleep.

    

    

 

 

Chapter 17 ~ Gaining Ground…

 

 

 

   ‘Babylon Five, Sheridan’s Quarters’

    John awoke with a clearer head, more rested than he had been in a long time. He ran the fingers of his left hand slowly over the somewhat old-fashioned quilt that covered his lower body. It felt ‘right.’ He had no other words to describe it. It just felt right.

    "Good morning, sleepy head." Minbari Ambassador Delenn smiled at him as she moved quietly through the doorway connecting his bedroom to the rest of his quarters.

    He smiled back at her. He had gotten over being shocked or surprised to find her in his quarters taking care of him. In the very beginning, he had been too ill, too tired, and too much 'in need’ of the support she offered to even worry about her being there. Later, it had bothered him—sometimes a little, sometimes a lot.

   He knew she loved him but it was hard to accept that she loved him this much. He had ‘lost’ so much. There were so many things he still couldn’t remember, but he knew, somehow, it was ‘wrong’ for the Minbari ambassador to be exclusively at his beck and call, washing his dishes and cooking his meals. It was nice, but it wasn’t Delenn. It wasn’t what she should be doing.

   Delenn was an important person. She was the love of his life, but she was also the Minbari ambassador to Babylon Five and leader of the Anla’shok, the Rangers. She had jobs to do, responsibilities, and people depending on her. He worried about all the things she was not doing when she was with him.

   John felt like a burden, and it was not a comfortable feeling. Not that she had ever made him feel like one; she had become very good at making him feel comfortable and secure, and he was becoming all too easily used to letting her do it. He knew that she had been neglecting her ambassadorial duties, but he decided he didn’t care. He enjoyed her company too much.

    "Morning," he replied. The word still carried a soft rasp when he spoke. Stephen had told him that, with time, he should, hopefully, regain his normal speaking voice, but for now, he would have to get used to sounding just a little different. It sounded beautiful to Delenn. It was soft and low, and his words reminded her of a soothing honey-like liquid, poured slowly over….

   "Oh, my," she thought. She gathered her thoughts together quickly. He was not nearly well enough for her to be contemplating such ideas. She blushed just a little at her own thoughts.

    She smiled down at John. "Are you ready for some breakfast?"

    He looked at her, not completely sure. Some meals Stephen had ordered for him during his stay in Med Lab had been more successful than others. Some things he had tried to eat had refused to go down, and others had come back up quickly. A large part of him could have cared less about food, but he knew he needed to eat. He knew he had to try. He shook his head ‘yes,’ and smiling she ducked back out into the other part of his quarters.

    Returning she carried a large tray with two mugs, bowls, spoons, and a generous helping of…

    "Oatmeal?" He looked at her wrinkling his forehead, and reaching slowly for the steaming dish. "This has got to be Stephen’s idea."

    "Well, actually it was his idea, but I added some touches of my own."

    John shrugged knowing that until he was fully recovered he was going to be subjected to a great many of Stephen’s ‘good ideas.’ He hadn’t eaten oatmeal since he was a ‘kid,’ and he wasn’t entirely sure he’d ever liked it.

    Delenn ducked out again and returned with a smaller tray. On that tray were a small container of milk, a sugar bowl, a squeeze bottle of honey, and a container of ‘brown lumps.’ "For your oatmeal," she said passing him the smaller tray.

    John contemplated both the oatmeal and the tray of condiments in silence for a moment. Then, he began to grin just a little sheepishly. Delenn turned and retreated toward the kitchen area. She still needed to bring in his juice and coffee and her tea.

    "You’ve been talking to my mom." His grin got wider as she had the grace to truly blush this time. She felt the color rising up the back of her neck and a slow tear start to slip down her cheek. She was thankful that her back had been turned when he had made the connection. "No one here knows about raisins and honey in oatmeal."

    "Actually, it was your dad." She didn’t stop. She couldn’t. She wasn’t ready to have this conversation just yet. When he was better they would tell him. Not yet.

    She walked calmly into the kitchen area and started to pick up the carafe of hot coffee. Her hand was shaking so badly that she set it back down. How in God’s name was she ever going to tell John that his parents were dead? She couldn’t lie to him—not about this—but neither was she going to volunteer the information unless asked directly.

    Picking up a small towel from the counter, she moistened it with cool water and silently bathed her eyes. She checked them twice in the black-mirror of his gleaming wall-mounted cabinets, and decided she would do. She carefully picked up the carafe again and carried it into the bedroom.

    "I make you way too much work," John said talking, like a much younger version of himself, around a mouthful of oatmeal and raisins.

    "I do not mind." She scooted back to the kitchen and made the final trip with her tea and his orange juice.

    He took the tall glass of juice from her and sipped it appreciatively. "You have no idea how much you miss things like this." He didn’t stop eating or enjoying his food, but she sensed him becoming more introspective. He had come a long way in the last month, but there were still many hurdles to cross.

    She sank into the chair beside his bed, pulling her feet up under her and breathing the warm, sweet scent of her tea.

    "Are you sure you don’t want some?" John offered. "It really is, errr…tastes… better than it looks."

    "I am sure," she smiled at him. "Enjoy!"

    He ate his helping and much of what had been set aside for her as well. That made her smile. He needed to eat to regain his strength, and it was good to see him actually enjoying something, even something as simple as ‘oatmeal.’ It was not a food she had recognized but, in having Lennier run a check on the chemical/nutritional composition of the substance, she had discovered that it should be very good for John.

    His father and mother had sent her a note, a short message, when they had learned that the negotiations for his release had been finalized. Both of them had been worried about John. His father had suggested that they try oatmeal with ‘honey and raisins,’ if and when his son was reluctant to eat. David Sheridan had known as well as anyone else the difficulties a long incarceration like their son had survived could entail. Both he and his wife had tried to offer suggestions to help reacclimatize John to freedom.

    His mother had suggested music and had even sent a few data crystals with some of her favorite songs and instrumental pieces on them with the message. It was music John had heard as a child. There had always been music in the Sheridan household, and his mother had firmly believed that it would bring him much needed peace now. Delenn had set the data crystals aside in John’s top dresser drawer, not wanting to lose them, and promptly forgotten them in the hectic preparations for his release. She had found them just the other day while putting some things away, but was unsure how he would react to them at this time. His mother had been positive that the familiar songs, words and rhythms would comfort him. Delenn wished that she were as sure.

    "That was wonderful. Thank you." John grinned at her, swiping quickly at his chin with a napkin and pushing the emptied bowl away. "I’d forgotten how good that tastes."

    Delenn looked up drawn back from her musings by his appreciation.

    "You’re welcome."

    She moved forward to take away the large tray. "Would you like to keep the coffee?"

    He nodded ‘yes,’ and she carefully moved the carafe and mug to his bedside stand.

    "John, do you like music?" she asked curiously following up on her previous line of thought. She maneuvered the tray of dirty dishes out of his sleeping space.

    "Yeah, some music, most music." He hadn’t really thought about it, but when he did he realized that he did, indeed, enjoy listening to music. "I’m what you’d call eclectic…I like lots of different music. It depends on the song, I guess. Why do you ask?"

    "I was given some music crystals. I thought I might play one for you later." She had managed to avoid eye contact during the entire conversation and was breathing a little easier.

    "Thank you. I’d like that." John lay back against his pillows. He was full and reasonably comfortable. Things were going better. Some things he knew were just going to take time.

   He heard her working in his small kitchen area—running water, opening and closing the refrigeration unit. There was nothing he could do to help her and nothing he ‘needed’ to do right now. He lay back against the pillows and sighed.

   A small sky-blue china cup and saucer drew his eyes. It rested on a shelf beside some of his other ‘souvenirs.’ He remembered ‘now’ that his sister Liz had given him the cup and saucer, delicate bone china in a Wedgewood design. She had told him it was to help him remember ‘not’ to be a ‘bull in a china shop’ in his dealings with other people. He smiled at the memory. Lizzy knew him so well. She always had, and the tiny teacup had helped him deal with his tendency to act without thinking. Well, most of the time. He found himself wishing he’d chosen to heed her advice before charging off to Mars. He really did need to think twice about things he said and did.

    He wished he could talk to Liz. His memories of her were only good ones. He knew that somehow she’d always known how he was feeling, and that she had been the one person who could usually make him feel better even when ‘things’ didn’t get any better. She’d been his confidant when Anna died, the one person he could really talk to, and even that had been difficult. Now, when he had lost so much and was getting it back so slowly, he found himself longing to see her.

    "Delenn?" John queried her through the open doorway. "Could you get Proxima Three for me on the Stellar Com? I’d like…I think…that is, I want to talk to Liz."

    Something broke in the kitchen. A crash of glass was followed by a word in Minbari that John assumed was a curse word. If it wasn’t the tone was sufficient to convert it to one instantly.

    "Delenn? Are you okay?"

    "Yes, John. I am fine, just give me a few minutes to pick up some ‘pieces of things,’ and I will be at your disposal."

    Sweeping together shards from the now fragmented juice glass, Delenn found her self wondering yet again how she was ever going to tell John that they were gone, that he no longer had a family. She took several deep breaths to calm her breathing and, depositing most of glass into the recycling unit, removed one small shard and ran it carefully up the outside of her thumb. A thin trail of blood followed the same line. She closed her eyes for just a moment and walked toward John’s sleeping space.

    "John, can you help me, please? I seem to have cut myself on a piece of the glass."

    John looked at her with startled eyes.

   "You’re bleeding." It was such a statement of the obvious that Delenn nearly laughed at him, but instead schooled her face to remain calm.

   "I am aware that I am bleeding." She looked at him, willing this act on her part to move the conversation away from Liz and the rest of his family. "I need to no longer be bleeding. Can you help me get a bandage on it, please?"

   "I…sure, I can. Hang on." John levered himself into a sitting position and pulled her down onto the bed beside him. Carefully he looked over the thin cut. Just seeing blood on her hand made him feel ill. He closed his eyes. He didn’t ever want to see blood again anywhere, but she needed him.

   "It needs to be washed out with warm water and soap. Then, if you’ll bring me a dry cloth, we’ll see how deep it is. If it’s too deep you’ll need to go to Med Lab, but if it’s a scratch, I can bandage it for you." He looked at her wondering how she could have cut herself in such a place, in such a way, by accident. He didn’t think it was going to be deep.

   Obediently Delenn went to the sink in his private bathroom and washed the cut with soap and water. Toweling it lightly dry, she returned with another dry towel, some gauze, and a small tube of first aid ointment.

   Carefully John turned her hand to the light so that he could see the cut. It was shallow, but already it had begun to bleed again. Without thinking he raised it to his lips. It wasn’t quite a kiss, but he held it there for a long moment and then looked into her eyes.

   "I don’t know what’s wrong, Delenn, but you don’t have to hurt yourself to change the topic. When you’re ready, I know, you’ll talk to me about whatever it is that is bothering you." John continued to look into her eyes not letting her look away. "All of you—Stephen, Susan, Zack, even Londo and Vir—have worked to keep me away from the comm channels and the war news. You forget to turn on the vid or you let me sleep through the reports on I.S.N. You discourage me from using the Stellar Com or Babcom, and somehow even the hard copies of Universe Today that make it in here are at least a week old and sometimes missing pages. If the news is bad, it’s bad. I’ll hear it eventually. I understand you want to protect me, but please…please, don’t hurt yourself to do it."

   She looked at him ruefully. She must be losing her touch… still, now he was worried about the war and not about his sister, so she hadn’t really lost this round, just somehow bypassed it.

   "I will be more ‘careful’ in the future," she promised him. "And I really do need your help, I had no idea it would hurt so much or be so difficult deal with by myself. And…John, tomorrow I will ask Stephen if you can start watching the current news reports."

   John smiled at her, carefully spread a light film of the scented medicinal cream over the cut, and wrapped in with the white gauze securing the ends carefully. When he was done he leaned over her and placed a light kiss on her cheek.

   "I do love you."

 

 

 

Chapter 18 ~ …And Losing It

 

 

 

   ‘Babylon Five, Sheridan’s Quarters’

   The soft sounds of jazz filled John’s quarters. It was evening now and he was half-sitting and half-lying on the couch, letting his body drink in the sounds and smiling gently to himself.

   "This," he found himself thinking, "is music."

   It had been a long day. He had had physical therapy sessions of one kind or another most of the morning. In the afternoon, he’d met with Londo and some of the other ambassadors. Many of them were concerned about the conditions of the cease-fire that had accompanied his release and the current status of Babylon Five. He had been more of an observer than a participant in that meeting, but it had still been draining. So much had been ‘given away’ to get him back. Listening while the Centauri ambassador repeated, seemingly endlessly, the facts of the situation, he had sympathized with the League ambassadors.

   Earth had officially accepted the independence of Babylon Five and released its ‘leader,’ and Babylon Five and the League of Nonaligned Worlds had been forced to back down on almost all other issues. Tariffs were now in effect that would raise the cost of doing business on the station considerably. Earth’s colony worlds were again subjugated. Without representative government on those worlds it was only a matter of time before revolts would begin again, but for now they were ‘back in the fold,’ back under President Clark’s thumb.

   There would be no new elections on Earth. Night Watch and the Ministry of Internal Security were both still powers to be dealt with, and all indications were that infiltration of Babylon Five by agents from both had already begun.

   John sighed. "Where was Michael when you needed him? He’d be able to stop infiltrators before they...." He stopped himself in mid-thought. Michael Garibaldi was gone, defected to the other side months ago. He felt a twinge of pain remembering his friend and started to bury the feeling. With a deep breath, he forced himself to stop. He couldn’t bury those feelings. He couldn’t. His defenses were negligible, but he had acquired hard-learned skills that would allow him to accept the pain and acknowledge the sorrow that went with it. Stephen had spent hours teaching him relaxation and meditation techniques.

   "You change what you can, accept what you cannot change, and go on from today." He leaned his head back on the couch and closed his eyes tight for just a minute. It was hard remembering, accepting, and moving on. He took several calming breaths and reopened his eyes. The music still played softly making a perfect background for his introspection.

   Delenn was sitting across from him. A pile of reports was balanced precariously on her lap and a thin stylus was poised to make notes on her personal data pad. She often sat like that in the evenings, working on her paperwork, keeping him company. Lennier, thoughtfully, kept her supplied with lots of reports and decisions, so she didn’t get bored.

   John doubted that she was ever bored. She always took such an active interest in everything around her. Right now, she looked, he thought, absolutely beautiful. The music changed and became a slow, waltz type melody.

   The gentle, buoyant repetition of the song brought a small smile to John’s face. Suddenly, he wanted to dance. He thought his feet would be up to the challenge. He hadn’t danced in a long time. He didn’t remember the last time. Probably he’d danced at some official function, but now, just now, he wanted to do it here in his quarters with the lady he loved.

   "Delenn?" He caught her attention. "Will you dance with me?"

   "Dance? I’m not sure I know how…." She looked a little surprised and a little uncomfortable but, for his sake, she’d try anything. At least, she’d try it once.

   "It’s not hard. I’ll show you. You listen to the music and then just move in time to it." John pushed himself up off the couch and offered her his hand.

   "But, your feet?"

   "They’ll be okay," he reassured her.

   How could she refuse? Delenn placed her papers in her now-deserted chair, and rose to join him. The music was interesting, and she could almost feel the rhythm as John wrapped his arm around her waist, indicating that she should put her one hand on his shoulder. He held her other hand gently and just moved, almost imperceptibly in time to the music.

   It was finished all too quickly and John ordered the computer to ‘replay the last selection.’ He wasn’t ready to let go of her yet. He wasn’t ready for it to stop.

   As the song started again, he drew her closer and began to step slowly and carefully moving her with him in the easiest possible motions. Her skin felt warm under his hands, and looking down he detected a blush in her cheeks.

   "You don’t mind that I restarted it. Do you?" He was suddenly afraid he might have somehow offended her.

   "Not at all, my love." She was definitely blushing. "The music is beautiful, and I think I could easily get used to ‘dancing’ with you."

   John smiled at her. He had no idea what he’d done to deserve the love of this wonderful, independent, totally frustrating lady, but he knew he was never going to give her up for anything. He slowly drew her even closer until she instinctively rested her head on his left shoulder. It hurt just a little, but it also felt much too good to do anything about.

   "My God, I love her," he thought.

   "My folks used to dance together just like this. When we were kids, Liz and I would sneak downstairs when we heard their favorite song and watch them. They moved so perfectly together, like two halves of a whole." John’s voice trailed off remembering long-ago evenings watching over the baluster as his father, the diplomat, elegantly dipped and twirled his mother. They had never looked like quite the same people when they were dancing.

   "I miss them so much, Delenn." There was deep longing in his voice, and Delenn knew that it was time.

   "John, can we sit down for a minute." Realizing that the music was about to change again, he readily agreed beckoning her to sit beside him on the couch. She did, but first she picked up the silver-framed photograph of his parents and brought it with her. She set it carefully on the table before them.

   "You look a lot like your mother, John. Did you know that?"

   "Yeah." He laughed. "Liz used to tease me that I got all the ‘good looks’ in the family, but actually she looks a lot like mom too. I hope you’ll get to meet her one day."

   Delenn nearly choked. She nearly stopped, but she couldn’t.

   "John," she began her voice soft and as gentle as she could make it, "your memory is coming back, and that is a good thing, but—if I understand Stephen correctly—there are still some large gaps."

   John nodded agreement.

   "Do you remember anything of our trip here on the shuttle? Do you remember when we arrived?" She looked so serious that he tried to answer the question truthfully.

   "Not everything. Not a lot, honestly. There was a lot of pain. I was frightened and desperate." His voice became even quieter. Delenn knew he was ‘far away,’ back on the shuttle believing again that he was still a prisoner. When he spoke again, she had to concentrate to hear his words. "I’ve never told anyone, not even Stephen, but…I was ready to do anything…to make it end. If they had let me, Delenn, I would have taken my own life."

   "Thankfully, you did not." She leaned against him, cradling the photograph against her. "We were able to get you released in time."

   "I know." His face had lost its animation. Sadness clouded his eyes. "You got me out in time, but I don’t ever want to go through that again. I couldn’t take it. I thought I was so strong, so damned invincible. I was a ‘fool.’" The last was spoken so softly she had to lean very close to him to hear the words.

   "John." She grasped his shoulders willing him to look at her. "They used you. That is not something to be ashamed of. Those who hurt you, they are the ones who should be ashamed. They had no honor, none at all, and President Clark was the worst one of all. He lied and cheated us all. John, he let his people bargain with Londo. He even signed the negotiated pact himself, but he didn’t live up to what he promised. He ‘never’ meant for you to be free."

   John pulled back, staring at her hard. "What are you saying?"

   "There was a bomb, John. The cargo handlers on Earth must have attached it to the shuttle we used to bring you home. It exploded just outside the station, just before we were to dock. If Zack hadn’t been such a good pilot…. If our luck hadn’t held, none of us would be alive today."

   "There was an explosion." John was remembering. Delenn watched him putting the pieces together for himself. "I was, we were, in a lifepod. Stephen kept talking. I was sick."

   "There were a lot of bombs, John…and a lot of ships destroyed."

   She stumbled over her words for just a minute, and John looked at her confused, but trying to follow her logical progression.

   "G’Kar didn’t want Earth to still have a hold over you, once we got you out of their hands." She took a deep breath. "He made arrangements for your parents and your sister and her family to be transported here to Babylon Five."

   John didn’t smile. The look in her eyes was enough to warn him that this was not good news. She had picked the silver frame up again, and he saw her grip it so tightly that her knuckles became white.

   "Oh, God, no!" He braced himself mentally and literally. He drew his knees up in front of him wrapping his arms around them, making himself a smaller target for the blow he could sense coming.

   "G’Kar hired sixteen Independent Trader ships to make the trip to Proxima Three, Mars, Earth, and then Babylon 5. Most of them did business as usual, but followed his requested flight plan. One of them picked up Liz and her family on Proxima Three, G’Kar on Mars, and your parents on Earth."

   "Londo says that G’Kar was wise in using so many ships. Clark’s people could never be sure which one was picking up your family. I suppose that it never occurred to G’Kar that the man would simply order ‘all’ the ships blown up. There were seventeen bombs and seventeen ships destroyed that day—sixteen Independent Trader ships and the shuttle we were on. All of them exploded within minutes of each other. Similar bombs—limpet mines, maybe—were apparently attached to their outer hulls. The explosions happened so quickly; there was nothing anyone could do. Over five hundred people were killed."

   Delenn watched tears gather in John’s eyes. He was putting the pieces together only too quickly.

   "Survivors?"

   "Only four lifepods were recovered: the two we were in from the shuttle and two from the Trader ships. The five of us—Londo, Zack, Stephen, you, and I—survived. Two Bakiri, a Narn child, and a female engineer from Beta Four were the only others."

   She set the framed picture carefully back on the table in front of the couch and wrapped both arms around John’s trembling shoulders drawing him close to her. Of all the losses he had accepted, this one was going to hurt the most.

   "They are gone, John, all of them—your mother and father, Liz and Daniel, the children, and poor G’Kar. He meant well, and he tried so hard."

   Now, Delenn found herself teary-eyed as well.

   "Gone." One word spoke a world of grief. He had let her wrap her arms around him. Now he began to sob. It was a pitiful sound that tore at her.

   "Hang on, my love." She patted his shuddering shoulders drawing him close to her. "Hang on, please. It is what they would have wanted…for you to go forward and remember them with happiness."

   The pain was like a knife bypassing lesser organs to strike directly into his heart.

   "Nooooo!"

   The harder he cried, the tighter she held him. Finally he had cried himself out. His breathing was still ragged, but control was returning. With that control came anger and determination. If he could help it none of them were going to have died in vain.

    

    

    

 

Chapter 19 ~ Pressure

 

 

 

   ‘Babylon Five, Blue Sector’

    The short section of blue sector corridor that led from John's quarters to the lifts was seldom busy. Today was no exception. There was no one in sight as Delenn walked it with him. John welcomed her company. He didn't like crowds, especially crowds of strangers, but he found that, now, totally empty places were frightening as well.

    Walking about this part of the station was getting easier. Stephen had warned him not to try to do too much all at once, and he had been careful. He didn't go too fast and he didn't go too far, but he was beginning to maneuver on his own again. His goal for today was to get up to C&C—Command and Control. He hadn’t been there in a long time. He wanted to look out through the huge port at Epsilon Three and watch the slowly spinning stars, to listen to the everyday chatter of the command crew.

   The indirect lighting in the passageway flickered, and John hesitated. He shook himself. He hated being so afraid of inconsequential things. He preferred, given a choice, dealing with his fears by himself, but Delenn’s company was always welcome. She had been through so much with him. He didn’t know what he would have done without her.

   John smiled remembering 'dancing' with her in his arms just a few nights before. That was the night she had told him about the horrendous explosions that had killed his parents and so many others. It had shaken him to the core, but she had stayed with him, let him cry himself out. He was going to have to deal with his grief, and that would take time, but he was going to be okay…somehow. He knew that now.

   Delenn watched him. He was getting better. He no longer seemed so totally lost, so helpless, so dependent. In fact, she thought he was finally beginning to regain some of the confidence and composure he'd lost. Accepting all those deaths had been hard, but it had allowed him to return, in his own mind apparently, to adult status.

    Delenn moved a step or two behind John. She had learned, as he recuperated, not to lead. When she did he would work to stay up with her, never admitting when he was getting tired, when he needed to rest. If she followed, then he would set his own pace and, if necessary, take short rest breaks.

    John sighed. "She's leading from the rear again," he thought. It wasn't so much that she pushed him, just that she was someone never completely comfortable following. Lennier had told him that Minbari females always lead. It had something to do with ancient history. Apparently the males were expected to protect the females’ back. John didn't quite understand it, but he was willing to admit that each race had such unique anachronisms.

    Delenn noticed a change in the passageway lighting, too. The indirect illumination flickered again, tentatively resumed normal operation, and then suddenly dimmed and failed. Almost instantaneously red emergency lights came on. She reached out and grabbed John before he could falter and fall…or panic.

    "Pressure leak in Blue Sector." A computerized voice spoke over the hallway comm system. "Pressure doors will lower in twenty seconds. Twenty, nineteen, eighteen...."

    Delenn's face betrayed her surprise. Pressure leaks happened from time to time. Tiny, almost microscopic, meteorites bombarded the station constantly, and occasionally one of their less miniscule cousins would create a hole large enough to warrant pressure-leak security. She hoped that was all that had happened now.

    Babylon Five was a space station, five miles of spinning metal subject to all the problems any such 'space' habitat encountered. Unfortunately, Babylon Five was also susceptible to the machinations of Night Watch and other nefarious forces from Earth. She could only hope this ‘accident’ was natural and not the work of saboteurs.

    John wasn't surprised. He was shocked. As soon as she looked at him she realized, even in the ruddy emergency lighting, that all color had drained from his face and that, unless she was able to sit him down quickly, he would undoubtedly fall down. For John, Babylon five was home. It was security, and suddenly that security had been, was being, ripped away.

    "Thirteen, twelve, eleven..."

    Delenn looked both ways. The distances to his quarters and the lifts were almost equal. Moving almost without thought, she pushed him forward towards the waiting lifts. The doors of one lift were just opening, and someone was beginning to exit.

    "Hold that lift!" She offered no explanations and allowed no discussion.

    "Six, five, four…"

    "Look out!" Delenn called warning the other person of their precipitous arrival. "Lift doors, closed. Now!"

    Vir stared at the captain and his bride-to-be.

   "NOW!" John was more emphatic than Delenn had been, and Vir promptly pressed the appropriate buttons just as a pressure seal dropped in front of the lift door, just as power failed completely and they were left in the dark again.

    "Are you…are you all right?" Vir spoke hesitantly. "Can I help you?" He could not see them, but he reached out a hand toward where he knew they had to be.

    "Ouch! We’ll live," John assured Vir, "but I think I am going to need some help getting up."

   Delenn had already begun pulling herself onto her feet. "What’s wrong, John?" she asked.

   "I think, I may have broken my collar bone or something in my shoulder again." John sounded rueful. After having been laid up so long, he really did not want to have to return to Med Lab with yet another injury.

   "Maybe," Vir ventured, "you should just stay down there, until the lights come back on. Moving around might make it...w-worse."

   "I’ll be all right." John sounded petulant. "Delenn, give me a hand up, please."

   Dim emergency lighting finally came on, lighting the lift minimally. All three of them breathed more easily. Vir helped Delenn support the captain as he scrambled back onto his feet.

   "Lift descending to next pressurized level." A computerized voice warned. At this point there were no choices of destination. The system was merely set up to get them to a ‘safe’ level.

   "Sheridan to C&C." John activated his link. He had begun wearing it again as soon as he had ‘missed’ it and realized that it was something he should be wearing whenever he was outside his quarters.

   "C&C here, Captain," came the response.

   "What’s going on?"

   "We have an atmospheric loss in several blue levels. Looks like we took a small hit from something. Things should be back to normal in an hour or two. Maintenance has ‘bots working on it already."

   "Good. Sheridan, out." He broke the connection. The three in the elevator breathed a sigh of mutual relief. Nothing unusual was going on. It was rare, but things like this did happen.

   "So," Vir ventured, "we just wait. Or we could exit at the next available level and find…." He didn’t seem sure what he wanted to find.

   Delenn finished for him, "…a place for all of us to rest comfortably."

   Vir smiled thankfully. He was still somewhat in awe of her proficiency with words and ‘humans.’ Every time he thought he knew exactly what they were going to do, they surprised him by doing something else instead. He had tried to discuss with Londo the danger of staying on Babylon Five after Captain Sheridan was returned to the station. It only made sense to Vir that the captain’s presence made the station a target for the Earth Alliance.

   Vir had had a dream, one of those prophetic ones he feared. He had seen fire and smoke in the corridors of the station, seen great ships—Earth Alliance ships and others, dark like the Shadow ships—attacking from all sides. It had frightened him. He had tried to discuss it with Londo, but been put off.

   "Yes…yes, Vir." Londo had consoled him. "At some point, I feel sure that reprehensible politician will send his ships to attack us. It hasn’t happened yet, and I refuse to waste time worrying about it before it happens."

   Vir remembered looking at Londo with wide-eyed surprise. "You know," he had gulped, "…you know that they’ll attack."

   "It is what I would do. In fact, if they were Centauri we’d be under attack already. I never have understood why waiting before attacking is so important to humans." Londo had straightened his jacket, inspected his hair in the nearest mirror and left the ambassadorial suite. He hadn’t told his aide where he was going. He never told Vir where he was going anymore.

   Vir had picked up a few things scattered carelessly around the room, set the security codes on the door, and left. It had occurred to him that someone from Earth might be able to explain things to him, so he was looking for Commander Ivanova or even Mister Allen or Lieutenant Corwin.

   "You may now exit." The lift had stopped, and the computerized voice broke into Vir’s reverie. "Level Blue, Thirteen."

   "After you." Vir stepped back politely making way for Delenn and Captain Sheridan.

   "Thank you," Delenn acknowledged the courtesy automatically and John nodded his thanks as well.

   "Who do we know on Blue Thirteen?"

   John thought for a second. He really had no idea and doubted that he would have ever known. They were pretty far down into ‘crew country,’ and B5 was big enough that you never knew everyone working for you.

   "We could just try ringing door chimes. Someone must be home."

   The two of them looked at Vir. That was actually ‘not’ a bad idea.

   They progressed down the corridor, Vir taking the left side and Delenn the right, until one of their insistent chimes was met with a response.

   "Yes, who is it?" The sleepy voice obviously belonged to Lieutenant David Corwin.

   "Lieutenant, may we take advantage of your hospitality?" Vir’s words didn’t answer the question, but they did encourage the young officer to open his quarters to them. He stepped back more than a little surprised as John, Delenn, and Vir entered.

   "Ambassador? Captain?" Obviously, he had no idea why they were there.

   "There was an atmospheric problem in the corridor near Captain Sheridan’s quarters," Delenn began. "It was a pressure leak, I believe. We had to evacuate quickly and the lift brought us to your level. I hope you do not mind the imposition."

   The young lieutenant looked from the Minbari ambassador to the man who was leaning heavily on the doorframe to his quarters. Captain Sheridan was very nearly a legend on the station.

   "He really needs to sit down and rest." Delenn offered by way of explanation.

   "Of course, of course. Come in. Sit down. It usually…I mean, I just…I wasn’t expecting anyone. I was asleep."

   "Thank you." Gracefully Delenn guided John to the small couch near the door.

    Lights flickered in Corwin’s quarters, and John looked up at her with troubled eyes. Delenn didn’t like this, didn’t like this at all. She was fairly certain now that despite what C&C had told John something more serious was going on.

   "Pressure leak in Blue Sector." A computerized voice spoke over the Babcom terminal beside Corwin’s door. "Pressure doors on this level will lower in twenty seconds. Please remain inside your quarters until informed it is safe to depart. Twenty, nineteen, eighteen...."

   John lowered his head to his hands. He could almost hear the hiss of escaping air. He didn’t think it was real. He thought it was inside his head, but he wasn’t sure. He couldn’t be. He drew his knees up wrapping his arms tightly around them. All it needed was the ache in his shoulder, and that was there too. He was back on Mars. They were going to kill him, to let him die of asphyxiation.

   Delenn was immediately beside him. Her arms encircled him, and he did not push her away, but neither did he seem aware that she was holding him.

   "Mister Cotto," she addressed Vir. "Would you please contact Doctor Franklin at Med Lab One? Inform him of our situation, and request his instructions and/or recommendations for dealing with this situation."

   "Of course." Vir turned to Lieutenant Corwin. "May I use your computer terminal?" he asked.

   There was no way David Corwin was going to say ‘no.’

   It was surprising to find so many important and influential people in his quarters.

   "Do whatever you need to do," he offered. Looking down he realized that he was still dressed only in loose-fitting blue pajama bottoms and his feet were bare. "If you’ll excuse me for just a minute." He left them, ducking back into his sleeping space, to take care of those little details.

   Babcom miraculously was still working, and Vir was able to reach Dr. Franklin quickly. Franklin’s expression was serious as he listened to Vir and Delenn alternately telling him what had happened and how his friend had reacted.

   "As far as I can tell," Stephen assured them, "he’s in no real danger. It’s probably a flashback to something that happened to him during his captivity. Do you have any sedatives with you, any of his sleeping medications?"

   Delenn had to shake her head ‘no.’

   "We were only going up to C&C for a few moments. I could not see any reason to take his medications with us."

   She looked toward Corwin’s couch where John still huddled apparently oblivious to those around him. She lowered her voice so he would not hear her. "He was doing fine before the first pressure alert and all right in the lift, but this third ‘emergency’ has triggered something."

   "What’s changed?" Stephen waited while she mentally retraced their steps.

   "He fell." She looked into the doctor’s eyes. "When we were hurrying to get out of the corridor and into the lift, he fell and hurt his shoulder again."

   "The same one I had to break again and set?"

   Delenn nodded.

   "I can’t prove it, Delenn, but I’d bet money that he thinks he is back wherever that shoulder was first injured. Without ‘meds’ you’re going to have to talk him through it. Maybe the lieutenant has some sleeping pills you could use—one or two only, if he does—or he might have some natural sedatives on hand. Warm milk might help, cheese, turkey."

   Delenn looked for just a moment as if she doubted Stephen’s sanity. "Milk, cheese, meat from a bird?"

   "They’re natural sedatives. Compounds within those foods—most dairy products actually—will break down into chemicals the human body will use to help it relax, even sleep."

   "If you say so." Breaking the connection, she turned from the monitor to the young lieutenant who was just reappearing dressed in his uniform and looking somewhat more awake. "Do you have any milk…or turkey…or dairy products?" she asked hopefully.

   David Corwin shook his head ‘yes.’ Now, he was feeding them.

   "There’s milk in the ‘‘fridge’ and some cottage cheese, I think. Why?"

   "Doctor Franklin says the captain needs a sedative. We cannot send to the pharmacy for one just now. He suggested those as substitutes, unless you have some sleeping pills?"

   "Sorry, I don’t use ‘em." Stepping over to the small stove and refrigeration unit in his quarters, Corwin pulled out a carton part full of milk and an almost new one of cottage cheese. "Will these help?"

    "They should. Thank you." Taking the cottage cheese and offered spoon, she knelt on the couch beside John.

    "John." She called his name softly. "John, I have something for you to eat."

    "Can’t eat. I’ll throw up." He responded. He had spoken to her without looking at her, but at least he had responded. "I’ll throw up again." The last word ‘again’ was very, very quietly said.

    "Yes, you can." Determinedly, she spooned a small mouthful of cottage cheese and brought it to his lips. "Eat."

    For just a moment Corwin and Vir thought the captain was going to defy her, but then the mouth opened and he ate.

    "More," she insisted. Vir continued to watch while Corwin searched for a clean mug in which he could warm some of the milk.

    John had eaten perhaps five tablespoons of cottage cheese when Corwin returned with the mug of warmed milk. John didn’t look so good.

    "Captain, are you all right?" The lieutenant thought he knew what the too pale face presaged. He grabbed the closest trash receptacle, a small can that sat next to his desk.

    He was almost in time. Captain Sheridan threw up. He had warned Delenn that he was going to, and she hadn’t believed him. Now, they had a mess to clean up.

    "Hang on, sir." David took charge. These were his quarters after all. "Help me get him into the shower," he ordered, and Vir complied.

    The two of them picked the captain up and carried him bodily into Corwin’s small bathroom. While Vir helped John out of his soiled uniform, David started the sonic shower at a gentle level. Lieutenants, even lieutenants who served in C&C, didn’t rate real water showers. Between them, Vir and Corwin gently pushed the filthy, frightened man into the shower cubicle. Vir felt sure John’s screams must have been heard in the furthest corners of the station. Delenn was there instantly.

    "John, it is all right." Fully dressed she entered the shower with him and wrapped her arms around him. Unable to hold his weight, she let the two of them slide slowly down the gray metal side of the shower. Gently she patted his quivering shoulders and ran her hands down his back. "It will be okay. You are safe."

    The screams gave way to sobs, as wrenching but less nerve-racking to listen to than the screams. Gradually, he sank down onto the floor of the small cubicle letting her comfort him. She motioned the others away. Reluctantly, they went.

    "Talk to me." She made her voice stern, but not unkind. "This cannot go on. Talk to me, John. What are you remembering? What is wrong?"

    He still didn’t look at her, but the sobs changed laboriously to ragged breaths and he began finally to talk.

    "They were going to kill me… let me die… there is no air… I can’t… they won’t let me… oh, God, I don’t want to die, not like this…." He wasn’t quite coherent, but the words did come.

   John raised his eyes finally. She still didn’t know where he thought he was, but the story was coming out slowly. She listened intently.

   "You can’t... I need… I’ll die without air… without a ‘breather…."

   She didn’t know for sure whom the captain thought he was speaking to, but she didn’t want him to stop. It was horrible to listen to his pain but, oh, so much better than having him keep it all inside. She let her hands move softly over his too tense muscles. Gradually John became aware of her presence, but he didn’t stop. The story continued. He focused on her face. Tears made wandering tracks down his pale cheeks as he went on.

   "They wanted me to walk. I couldn’t. They chained me to a crawler… broke the dome’s pressure seal… I heard it pop, the ‘whooshing’ sound… I couldn’t breathe… I couldn’t walk… they dragged me… I lost control… I couldn’t help it."

   Empathy and understanding chased each other across Delenn’s face. These had to be memories from his time on Mars. Her fingers continued to seek out taunt muscles physically forcing him to relax.

   "They got scared I’d die on them, I guess. Two of them put me in a metal box, part of the crawler. I could hear the air escaping… and the smell… and the fear. I was so afraid, so nauseous. I threw up… and threw up… and I couldn’t breathe. I hurt. I hurt everywhere. They hurt me. The box, it felt like a coffin. I didn’t fit. They made me fit… broke my shoulder… it hurt… it hurts so much."

    "I know it hurts, John. You’re safe now. You hurt your shoulder when you fell into the lift. You are on Babylon Five. You are with friends. No one here wants to hurt you."

   No wonder he was claustrophobic. No wonder he had panic attacks.

    Her words or the gentle tone she used, finally, got through. She felt him relax under her gently massaging hands. Releasing emotions with the words, she believed he was regaining control. He needed reassurance and, perhaps, some guidance but the worst seemed to be past.

    "You need to get cleaned up," she stated unequivocally. "Do you want to do it by yourself, or do you want some help?"

    "I…I can do it." His voice was still unsure, but he wanted to try. He knew where he was now. This wasn’t Mars. He ‘was’ among friends.

    "Good," she smiled at him. "I will be right out here, and I think, just this once, we will be wasteful and leave the door ajar. Agreed?"

    He shook his head ‘yes,’ and reached for Corwin’s bottle of shower gel.

    

    

    

 

Chapter 20 ~ Rebuilding

    

    

    

   'Babylon Five, Command and Control'

    "Captain on deck."

    Commander Susan Ivanova turned and smiled. John stood just inside the doorway to C&C. He looked, she thought, just a trifle unsure of his status here. He was officially still the military governor and leader of the station, but he had been unable or unwilling to reassume most of the duties those titles entailed since his return. He wanted to be here. Susan could tell, but it was like he didn't trust himself with the responsibilities of his position.

    Susan noted that Delenn stood just behind John. The lady ambassador waited in case she was needed, but this was really Susan's domain. Granted, Delenn had more experience dealing with John's headaches and accommodating his limitations. Still, there was little for her to do in the command center and such visits were often boring for her. The commander knew Delenn would not be staying today and that was all right with her. She liked having John back on the bridge, even if he still wasn't ready for command yet. She had 'held the fort' and done a damned good job of it too while he had been gone, but she had missed him incredibly.

    "About time you got here to relieve me," Susan teased him with mock sternness and was rewarded with one of those wonderful smiles. She knew fully well that he wasn't ready yet to relieve anyone, but it was still great to have him back where, to her way of thinking, he belonged.

    "Not today, Commander." Approaching, John gave her a heartfelt, one-armed hug. He had broken his shoulder again, but fortunately was able to get around without the crutches now. "How's it going?"

    "Not bad! The dockers' guild is threatening to go on strike, Earth has increased the tariffs again, I.S.N. is showing nothing but reruns of reruns, and no new intoxicating substances have been introduced to the station in the last seven-and-a-half hours. All in all, not a bad day, though I really could have used a new intoxicant." She grinned at him.

    "To keep the wolves at bay?" he teased her in turn, then became serious. "Sounds normal. How's the docking queue?" Docking had been seriously impeded by the multiple explosions, some of which occurred within the bays themselves, on the day John had returned. It was no wonder if the dockers wanted more money or safety guarantees. Too bad in both cases. There was no more money to be had and nobody—John winced—got safety guarantees anymore.

    "It's improving. The waits are decreasing. We got two more bays open last night. Damage repair has been slow, but steady." She sighed. "I've been letting the Starfury pilots 'practice' their maneuvering and targeting skills taking out some of the scattered debris around the station. We think that's what caused the pressure problems the other day."

    "Could be." John sounded non-committal. "No signs of sabotage?"

    "None that we could detect." Both were serious now. "How are the wedding plans going?"

    "Very well, thank you. Mind if I just enjoy the view?" John turned to the huge, circular glass port. He could get as good a 'view' from the observation dome, but the view from C&C was special. The hint of power and promise of adventure always beckoned when he watched the universe from here.

    "Of course not. Can I get you anything?" He waved her away and walked slowly but steadily to the command console. Delenn followed trying 'not' to hover.

    Susan moved away from the large observation port, motioning Lieutenant Jenkins to transfer command functions to the secondary console. She was willing to give John the 'best seat in the house,’ but she knew that he was not yet ready to take command in a crisis and on B5 crises happened entirely too regularly. Just now, things were quiet, but quiet never lasted. Susan sighed.

    Epsilon Three shown like a ruddy marble looming large against the darkness of space and every inch of sky was filled with stars. Both Susan and Delenn smiled as John drew in a deep breath.

    "I missed this so much," John whispered more to himself than to anyone else. Both Delenn and Susan answered.

    "I know." The two women looked at each other. They both loved him not quite in the same way but equally sincerely. To Susan he was the mentor, friend, and brother-substitute she had needed so badly after the Earth-Minbari war. She had served under other commanding officers but none of them held her loyalty as he did. To Delenn he was the 'best friend' she had ever had, the one and only love of her life, and the other half of her soul. Their love was a promise for the future. Together they had defied the Shadows. Together they would fulfil prophecy. Delenn smiled at Susan. Both understood.

    "I will be back in a little while," Delenn assured John excusing herself. "Will you be all right?"

    "Of course." John smiled at her and over her head at Susan. "C&C provides the very best babysitting services."

    Delenn frowned at him.

    "I'll be fine. Go. Susan will take good care of me."

    Delenn gave his hand a quick squeeze and headed back for the door. In the command center she knew he'd be happy and safe for the short time it would take her to finish her business and return.

    "Have we heard anything from Draal?" she heard him ask Susan as she quietly stepped out of the busy command center.

    "No, why?" Susan sounded not upset but leery of the question. Delenn wondered why, but filed the observation for future consideration. Right now she had an appointment with Lyta Alexander, the station's official telepath.

---------------

   

    Lyta was waiting for the Minbari ambassador when she arrived. The door to the telepath's quarters opened at the first chime and a soft voice invited her visitor to enter. A cup of sweet-scented herbal tea sat on the small table before the gently smiling redhead who rose effortlessly to greet Delenn.

    "Ambassador Delenn, you are prompt." Lyta smiled. "Thank you, by the way, for making an appointment. So many people feel my time is just 'available.'"

    Delenn nodded in understanding. "One does not have to be an ambassador long to realize that most people assume their time is more important than yours. It happens to many of us. May I sit down?"

    Lyta nodded to the chair facing hers and, after getting a cup of tea for her guest, settled herself back into her seat. She had decided to let Delenn begin this, even though she thought she knew exactly where this was going to go.

    "Miss Alexander, I have a very large favor to ask of you?"

--------------

    "NOOOOOOO! Absolutely, positively NOT!"

    Delenn did not think she had 'ever' seen John so upset or so adamant.

    "There is 'No' way in Hell I am going to let anyone mess around with my mind again." The pain in his eyes was almost too much for Delenn's resolve. "Been there, done that...not again. No thanks!"

    They were back in the captain's quarters and Delenn was grateful that she hadn't brought this up earlier.

    "John," she tried using her most reasonable voice, "Lyta is a friend. She only wants to help you...to help us."

    "She's a 'God-damned' telepath and I've had my brains picked over by them enough to last me a lifetime. Delenn, please, don't ask me to do this."

    'Please,' Delenn had heard him say it. It was the first chink in the armor—the first indication that he didn't feel this decision was entirely his and his alone. He wasn't crying. His control was better than that now, but he was shaking with...anger or fear. She wasn't sure which.

    "Lyta is the key, John." Delenn did not relent as he began pacing furiously across the carpeted floor. "She is the one and only person who can walk through what happened with you and...." Delenn struggled to find just the right word. "...Help you sort out the real from the imaginary."

    John eyes were framed with wrinkles and the corners of his mouth were turned down sullenly. He didn't doubt that Lyta could do it. He doubted that he could stand to have it done. There were times now, moments, when he almost felt like himself again. Mars had been 'difficult.' What Earth Force had done to him there had left scars, but what Psi Corps had done after that had been worse—much worse. He didn't want to remember. He just wanted to forget. He wanted to start making new, better memories.

    Delenn looked deeply into his eyes. She could see the pain and the fear. He didn't want to do this. He really didn't want to. It had hurt him. She knew that already, and she knew that he didn't want to be hurt again.

    "I will be there, my love, every step of the way. Let me help you. Let her help you."

    "Was this Stephen's idea?" John stopped pacing. He sank dejectedly into the comforting depths of his couch.

    "No," Delenn shook her head. "He is more concerned about scheduling the surgery for your hand. I told him after the wedding. This...this is my idea. I went to Miss Alexander. She did not come to me."

    Calmly she settled herself beside him.

    "You do not have to do this, John, but I would like you to try. Please."

    He drew a deep and shuddering breath.

    "Let me sleep on it, Delenn. I can't...I can't give you an answer right now. Not an answer you'd want to hear."

    "I can wait."

   

----------

    Deep in the maintenance section of Gray Sector two men worked over a small greenish box with legs. It was a 'bot intended for station repairs. From the outside it looked rather like a cross between a mechanical spider and a lobster. Grasping claws extended from the front and a large tail-like rudder could be retracted forward to offer additional stabilization for large jobs. Eight arms poked through the metal skin of the machine. Four of them currently carried built-in tools.

    The two men were roughly dressed with ragged coats pulled over normal day-to-day business clothing. They didn't want to attract attention passing through the less savory sectors of the station. One wore the remains of a military haircut slowly growing out. The other was nearly bald. They didn't speak as they replaced the 'bots cover and cautiously welded it back in place. On the inside this little machine differed greatly from its counterparts--the innermost compartment stuffed with explosives. It was a 'disaster' waiting to happen.

    The taller of the two men gave the little 'bot an almost friendly pat. It was going to make their job much easier—much, much easier. He rubbed his recently shaved head. It itched. He'd never let them talk him into that again.

    "If only," he thought, "the additional circuits don't mess up the poor little 'blighters' brain too badly." He was an odd man--quiet with his mates who seemed to like 'bots more than people.

    

 

 

Chapter 21 ~ A Glimmer of Hope

    

    

    

   'Babylon Five, Command and Control'

    Lieutenant David Corwin peered intently at the glowing video display before him. He was watching and guiding a group of ten maintenance 'bots continuing the long, slow pick up of assorted debris in the area surrounding Babylon Five.

    Most of the larger, salvageable pieces from the shuttle and Independent Trader ships had already been claimed and either placed in stationary orbit around Epsilon Three or brought aboard the space station. Now, the 'bots were down to picking up little stuff—the incidental pieces that had made up the lives of individuals: pieces of clothing, photographs and pictures, children's toys, dishes, bric-a-brac and knickknacks—personal effects. Anything that vacuum couldn't destroy was still out there, and the little 'bots were collecting the floating objects, pushing and pulling them into larger net-like containers. Eventually those nets would be pulled back to the station by larger 'bots.

    Corwin drew a deep breath and sighed. He was having to work at maintaining firm control over 'bot four which for some reason kept wanting to drift off to the side while the others were doing what they were supposed to do. It was tedious work and disheartening. The 'bots had already collected two holds full of the stuff and were working on the third one already. Somehow this collection of personal belongings hurt David more than any of the rest of it had. All these pieces had once been part of someone's life.

    Watching things come back to the station and the techs try to put it all together for return to families and next-of-kin, he wondered if they'd find any of G'Kar's things to return to Narn or anything that had belonged to the captain's parents. He didn't know whether to hope that they would or that they would not. He couldn't decide which would be worse: being presented with reminders or never finding any.

    Commander Susan Ivanova was now well into her second shift of the day. She had been watching the command console and the view out the main port. Turning slightly she raised one eyebrow at the young lieutenant's sigh. Corwin didn't notice. He was intent on the glowing green screen and what he was doing.

    "Lieutenant," she asked, "everything all right?"

    "Yes, commander. Everything's okay. They've just almost got another net filled." He marked the coordinates of the net on his console for pickup.

    "There's a lot of that stuff out there," Susan answered. "A whole lot of it." Susan found herself hoping against hope that clearing away the debris would make it easier to set aside the memory of a sky filled with exploding ships. She'd been on duty, standing right here, when the world had gone to hell that day. It still haunted her dreams. "At least getting it cleaned up will make navigating around here a little easier," she commented to herself.

    Corwin looked up at her quickly, surprised by the somewhat crass practicality of her last comment. If nothing else, the commander was practical. She had turned back toward the main view port, the huge circle of glass through which one could see the stars, the twin pylons that formed the end of the station, and Epsilon Three. Corwin returned his attention to his console, silently cursing 'bot four which was off doing its own little dance again. The little 'bot had been giving him 'grief' all week.

    "Blankity-blank 'bots"

    Commander Ivanova either didn't notice or chose to ignore the frustrated officer's almost expletive.

    "Epsilon Three," she murmured quietly. Her mouth quirked just slightly at the corners. She knew a secret about Epsilon Three, one that very, very few people knew. It wasn't hers to share, not yet. But, it did rate a smile. If the rest of the command staff thought she was grinning at Corwin, so be it. She didn't care.

    The third planet in the Epsilon system looked like a reddish brown marble hanging in the sky. Sunlight gleamed brightly from pure white bits and pieces of cloud tatter that swirled over it, water vapor that must have escaped from deep underground. Crevasses marred the planet's surface leading to a strange world inhabited only by Draal, Zathrus in his many incarnations, and the Great Machine. Susan had used the Great Machine once, just once when it was really necessary. She didn't think she'd ever want to do it again. Truthfully, she didn't think she'd ever want to go back to Epsilon Three again, at least not underground to those huge chasms. She wondered how those who were already there were doing, and forced her attention back to the main console. Giving her head a noticeable shake she shifted her heavy, dark hair from front to back.

    Her hair irritated her especially when she didn't have time to take proper care of it. This had been another 'ponytail' morning. She had very nearly overslept. She never seemed to get enough sleep anymore. Maybe it was the dreams.

    "Maybe," she let herself fantasize. "Maybe soon John will be able to take back over part of the day-to-day operation of the station." She loved him, but she was getting very tired of double and triple shifts. She smiled ruefully contemplating all the overtime pay Babylon Five would owe her when and if they ever became financially solvent again. She could be a rich woman.

    Turning to the young officer currently supervising the docking queue Susan asked, "Lieutenant Jenkins, how's the traffic look?"

    "Docking bays are backed up a little, not too bad, maybe two hours wait at this point," Kate Jenkins replied.

    "That's better than it was," Susan commented.

    "Much better," the younger woman agreed.

    "Anything scheduled to come through the jumpgate?"

    "Not for at least another six hours." The reply came back.

    Susan decided that was reasonable. She might even be able to get some lunch today and possibly some sleep tonight. Sleep came hard on Babylon Five, but it came.

--------------

    In the captain's quarters, Delenn watched John playing with his food. He pushed the bits and pieces of ham, broccoli, and whatever the white stuff was around on his plate. Once in a great, great while he made a move to put some of it in his mouth.

    "You are not hungry?" Delenn asked quietly. She didn't want to upset him, but she knew he needed to eat. She worried that perhaps the dish had been improperly prepared. It had been on Stephen's list of acceptable nutritional meals.

    "No," John responded shaking his head negatively. He looked down at the ham. He'd eaten just one bite and the saltiness of it had brought back the unwelcome memory of 'corned beef.' How could he explain to her? Did he want to? "I just don't feel like eating, Delenn, not right now. I just don't."

    "I could fix you something else." This was a generous offer, especially considering that both of them knew that Lennier did the vast majority of the cooking, bringing pre-prepared meals to the captain's quarters for her to reheat when needed.

    "I'm sure you could, and it would be wonderful but I'm not hungry right now." There was a worry line between his eyebrows and she was reasonably sure that the problem was 'not' with Lennier's cooking.

    "You are sure?"

    "I'm sure, Delenn." He really wanted to let it drop, but he knew he wasn't going to get out if it that easily. If only he'd been able to eat something, she'd have gone away reasonably contented and left him in peace until morning. Then he could have thrown up unobtrusively in his own bathroom and tried to sleep. Tonight he just couldn't eat. Tonight he was going to have to try to explain.

    "It's been a rough few days." He hesitated. "I'm just.... I've tried.... I'm not getting back into things. It's not the way I want it to be. Things that happened keep...getting in the way."

    John brought his haggard hazel eyes up and looked deeply into Delenn's darker green ones. He was hoping for some understanding on her part, understanding of feelings and emotions he really didn't understand himself.

    It had been incredibly difficult coming back to his 'old life,’ coming back to the station, back to what people expected him to do and to be. He'd been away a long time...almost three months in real time and subjectively much longer in his own mind. So much seemed to have changed. He knew that most of the changes were perceived and not real. Life with its problems and joys went on as it always had, but somehow he didn't fit in.

    On any space station there is no morning or evening, no sunset or sunrise, but in the name of normalcy the conventions of a standard day are maintained. Babylon Five was no exception. People not on duty slept through the night hours and ate at mealtimes. Some snacked in between.

    John couldn't do it. Eating wasn't something his stomach always wanted to do anymore...and sleeping wasn't something he did often either. He had made a choice 'not' to take the medication Stephen had provided to help him sleep. It left him groggy and not feeling like himself when he took it. When he didn't take it, he'd sleep maybe two hours at a time and then he'd be awake again. Last night had been no exception. There had been just one horrible, screaming nightmare that had left his skin clammy with sweat and sent him panting into the shower to scrub and scrub and scrub that which would not be scrubbed away.

    Mostly John's dreams weren't the big, screaming nightmares anymore. Now he would awaken to unknown terrors: things that frightened him but he couldn't say why, things that made him incredibly unhappy. Those dreams brought back memories of the worst times in his life--Anna's death on the Icarus, the first man he'd ever killed during the food riots on Mars, demonic black Shadows that appeared and disappeared seemingly at will, the sting of a tranquilizer patch and Michael turning his face away. Sometimes when he awoke, he was cowering and trembling. He felt nothing but afraid, terrified like a small child knowing there's something under the bed, something you can't see and can't touch, something you can't make go away. Even when people turn on all the lights and show you it isn't there, when the lights go away again and the darkness comes back, it's back. It isn't gone. You haven't gotten rid of it.

    Delenn still would stay with him every night, if he let her. He'd tried to get past that now. He knew if she stayed with him, she'd make him take the sleeping pills and force him to eat. If he threw up, she'd tell Stephen, and besides she had things she needed to do. Much as he loved her, he couldn't have her there all the time. They weren't married yet. Soon, but not yet.

    He knew he could lean on her: she would cover for him when there were things he could not do. She could, if he let her, handle most of the business of the station but she would not pretend for him. She would not tell the lie that everything was all right, that his problems were behind him, something he'd overcome. She had called his bluff on that one several times already. He felt sure she'd continue to do so after the wedding. She would not let him end a discussion by simply saying that he was 'fine.' They both knew better. There were problems, many problems...little problems, big problems, his problems... once they were married, their problems.

    He loved her more than he would ever have believed possible—more than sunshine on a beach, more than music on a quiet night, and more than stars in the sky. He knew...he knew that she loved him in return, but these night terrors took so much out of him they left him alienated, exhausted, overtired, lost, and often out of control. He didn't want to feel any of those things. He didn't want to be afraid any more. He was sick of it. He'd done that.

    "Been there, done that," he thought. Yes, he had. He didn't want to do that any more. Maybe it would get better with time. He really didn't want to continue feeling like a victim. It didn't matter what he 'wanted,' what mattered was what was. He had to live in the real world. That world contained demons he still had to face and fears he was going to have to conquer. He only wished he knew how.

    "John?" Delenn asked again. He'd almost forgotten she was there. "Is there anything I can do?" She sat with her hands folded demurely in her lap trying desperately to remember all the things Doctor Franklin had suggested. John wouldn't listen to Stephen at all. If they were lucky, he would listen to her. Maybe, he'd let her help.

    "No, Delenn," The reply was quiet, so soft that she almost couldn't hear it. "There's nothing anybody can do, except me. It's going to take time."

    Delenn almost jumped. John's words echoed Stephen's so closely that she couldn't help wondering if he had somehow listened in on her latest conversation with the doctor.

    "John, are you sure? Are you absolutely sure we cannot let Lyta help?" To Delenn allowing Miss Alexander to assist him only made sense. Physically he was much better. She believed that firmly. The largest problems now were in his mind. He often seemed unsure where the line was between reality and illusion.

    He looked at her and she knew he was not going to cooperate. His eyes narrowed, his eyebrows drew down, and his mouth became one hard firm line.

    "NO!" He was adamant. "I will do this myself. I will."

    "But Lyta's a friend. Please, John, let her try."

    It was late, and he really didn't want to fight with Delenn. John drew a slow breath and let it out. For Delenn, it was painful even to hear him breathe. He was fighting so hard within himself.

    "Delenn, you know that there are some things that in small doses can be very good, very helpful, but in large doses are toxins, poisonous. Do you know those kinds of things, Delenn?"

    She nodded her head. She wasn't sure exactly which 'things' he was talking about but she was well aware that there were compounds and medications that in small doses were beneficial to an individual and in larger ones could be detrimental to that same individual.

    "Delenn, I know telepaths can help. I understand on a purely intellectual level that Lyta could possibly, probably, help me. This isn't about Lyta or telepaths really. This is about me."

    His hands had balled into fists, but she knew he wasn't about to hit anyone or anything. He was searching for words, fighting his own emotions.

    "I have been used by so many telepaths. So many people have been in my mind and I didn't want them there. They didn't just scan me; they moved in and took over. I didn't want to do the things they forced me to do. Delenn, I betrayed everyone and everything we fought for. I was helpless. I couldn't stop myself. I didn't want them to hurt me anymore." There was a long pause. " They did things to me. I couldn't stop them. There are holes in my mind, places I can't go, places that are too painful to go. They did that. There was no choice and there was no stopping it."

    His voice trembled. He would not look at her. His anger gave way to sadness. He had lost so much.

    "It was like being raped again only worse. Bester, that black-hearted son of a.... Psi Corps, the telepaths took over my body and my mind."

    He felt Delenn's silk-covered arms surround him and let himself lean into her warmth. He felt so cold. He almost always felt cold now. There was no medical reason for it. "Just another gift from the Psi Corps," he thought.

    "I know Lyta is a friend. I know she would only be trying to help. Delenn, I cannot open myself willingly to this. I can not. There has got to be another way. There has got to be."

    His arms came around her as his voice trailed off to nothingness. Delenn wasn't sure if he was trying to convince her or himself.

    "John," Delenn asked in her most reasonable voice. "Could I at least let her come talk to you?"

    His face softened even more. He wasn't angry now, just sad and tired. He desperately wanted a magic wand he could wave and make everything the same as it had been before. He didn't have a magic wand, but for Delenn he would do anything in his power.

    "Yes, you can let her come talk to me. Yes, I will listen to her, but Delenn I can't let her into my mind. I can't." He turned away from her knowing how much he had just given away and praying it would be all right. He repeated the last words so quietly only he heard them. "I can't."

---------------

    Far away, almost as far away as one could be from the captain's quarters and still physically be on Babylon Five, on the opposite side of the giant hub that was the station, in quarters that were in a different sector and several levels down, Lyta felt something. It wasn't precisely a thought, and at first she wasn't sure exactly where it had come from, but then she knew...inside...she knew that it was Sheridan. She squared her shoulders, sat up straight on the edge of her neatly-made bed, and contemplated what was going to happen.

    Somehow Lyta realized Delenn had broken through that rock hard, impenetrable shield John had been left with when Psi Corps was done with him. The young woman was instantly aware of the tiny breach. It was not a lot--just a faint glimmer of light in the infinite darkness that was all she'd been able to detected there before.

    "Now...maybe...." the red-haired telepath thought, "I'll be able to help. If he'll let me."

    Lyta settled herself more comfortably on her narrow bed and contemplated what the coming day might bring. It was, according to the chronometer on the bedside shelf, nearly midnight. It had been a long day, but tomorrow should be better...in many, many ways.

    

 

 

Chapter 22 ~ Forever and Always

    

    

   "Observation Dome, Babylon Five"

    Susan Ivanova looked down at the wedding invitation in her hand. She didn't know why she'd brought it with her. It wasn't like she needed a ticket to get in.

    "You are cordially invited to the wedding of Ambassador Delenn of Minbar and Captain John J. Sheridan." The words were written in elegant script on fine vellum paper, a gift from Lennier and Vir.

    The observation dome was nearly filled with humans and aliens. Stars shown brilliantly against the darkness of space. Security was present but not obnoxious and the commander made it a point to give each officer she spotted a small nod of recognition. It looked like Mr. Allan was doing his job thoroughly and well.

    A hush fell over the room. The assembled guests quieted in expectation. Susan spotted her friend waiting almost patiently near the front of the room. The captain looked good—for a fleeting moment she envied Delenn.

    John looked up and for just a moment held his breath. This day had been so very long in coming. He had wanted this moment to happen so badly.

    Surely every man at this point has reasons to hold his bride-to-be dear, but he suspected very few had as many reasons, or as varied, as he. "Soul-mates," she had said they were, "old souls with knowledge of each other from other lifetimes." Perhaps they were. He only knew she was his reason for existing. He had had it proven to him beyond any shadow of a doubt. When he had lost everything else, Delenn had still been with him: the one face, the one voice that had let him hold on to his sanity. When he had wanted only death, she had brought him back to life. He knew everything would not go smoothly. He still had a long way to go returning to who and what he had been, but this he needed to do--for Delenn and for himself.

    His eyes searched the room for her. It was time, and she was always on time. He found her near the back of the room standing silently and elegantly, like a queen surveying her court. She was so close and yet still so very far away. She looked like an angel all in white. The hood of her cape replaced the traditional veil.

    Music played. He thought it did, though afterwards he could never say what song or when it began or ended. Friends and well-wishers parted as she moved quietly and with perfect confidence to his side. He took her hand in his and smiled.

    Delenn gazed up at him. He wore a simple suit of dark cloth with a single white rose in his lapel. He looked so tall, so strong, so handsome, and his smile was one of those wonderful ones she had not seen in far, far too long. It lit up every feature of his face.

    Within his eyes she discovered all the love the universe can hold. It was waiting there, just for her. She blushed. Her cheeks, her ears, it felt as if her entire body glowed with the knowledge of his love for her. She grinned at him surreptitiously. She, too, had waited long for this day.

    Together they turned and faced Brother Theo. She held John's hand...or was it that he held Delenn's. In truth, they held each other, standing together lest they fall. Words as old as both of their heritages and as new as the alliance they'd just begun filled the starlit dome.

    "Dearly beloved...." The old monk's melodious voice rolled gently across the assembled guests.

    Tears formed in John's eyes. He had done this before. The memories were faint, but he remembered. He knew he had loved Anna. He had married her and it had been a blessing, but that was in the past. This was "special." This was different. This was Delenn. She was the other half of his soul, his touchstone, the light of his life. When all other hopes had deserted him, she had been there helping him to go on, to fight when all had seemed lost.

    "Do you take...?" Theo's voice asked solemnly. Delenn smiled at her husband-to-be...and responded.

    "Forever and always, I take thee John to be my husband, my love, my life. Our joining may have been foretold in prophecy, but this I know—this was meant to be. You are the one who brings joy to my heart and fulfillment to my life. You are the other half of my soul. There shall be no other but you." She laid aside the one long-stemmed white rose she had carried with her to this place and took his hands between both of hers. "As close as this and closer, shall we be. Now and forever, until we come to that place where no shadows fall."

    John's voice broke. It always did when heavy with emotion. She smiled at him as he replied. "Forever and always, and much, much longer."

    "Do you take...?" Now it was his turn.

    "Prophecy may have brought us together, but who and what you are made me love you. I cannot begin to tell you how much. I cannot imagine my life without you. You are the other half of my soul. Forever and always, I take thee Delenn as my wife, the center of my universe, my reason for being. There shall be no other but you." As she had done before him, he gently enfolded her hands within his larger ones. "As close as this and closer, shall we be. Now and forever, 'til death do us part and there too I pledge thee my love."

    Delenn realized in that second that he had altered the words. They were different but still sounded wholly right. "Forever and always and much, much longer," she replied smiling back into his eyes.

    Standing facing each other, they placed their right hands, palms forward, against each other's heart. "So shall it be, now and forever."

    Brother Theo grinned at them both and solemnly intoned, "Amen."

    In a far corner of the large dome, a small group of 'pilgrims' in black capes and breather masks hugged each other. The motion caught Susan's eye. Nothing special about them except...one of them seemed to be crying.

    "You may now kiss the bride."

    The room filled with thunderous applause as John did just that, and when Susan glanced back the pilgrims were gone. She dismissed them from her thoughts. For just a moment she'd thought that maybe Stephen.... Susan shook her head. He was a romantic, but even he would never breach security that completely. She'd kill him if he did.

    She moved forward to congratulate the bride and groom.

    "Susan!" John gathered her into a huge hug. She didn't think she'd ever seen him look happier. Mindful of his still healing left shoulder she returned his hug and smile.

    "Mazel tov!"

    Moving from John to Delenn wasn't difficult. John simply hadn't let go of his new wife yet. Susan shifted her hug from one half of the couple to the other.

    "May you have a wonderful life together."

    "Thank you." Delenn's words were soft and her eyes filled with joy. "Thank you for everything."

    Susan knew Delenn thanks went far beyond her good wishes. As ranking officer many, indeed most, of John's duties had fallen to Susan during his absence and his recovery. Without her hard work, there would have been little for John to return to. She was a friend and more.

    Drawing back into a corner of the room, the commander watched her captain and his bride as they were surrounded by a crowd of jovial well-wishers.

    Lyta Alexander moved silently out of the dome. She'd add her good tidings later, the next time she and John met to ‘talk.’

----------

   

    "Are the charges in place?"

    "Yeah," the short-haired man answered swinging his eyes cautiously from place to place. This part of Down-Below seemed to be deserted. The station's population was largely glued to the big Babcom screens watching the 'traitor' marry the 'freak.' Still, it never hurt to be cautious. The Ministry of Security didn't pay him to be careless. He'd left the remains of his now-deceased 'bot-loving compatriot several levels down. No one had seen. No one had followed him. He pulled his coat more closely around his thin body. It was cold down here.

    "What time are they set for?" The second figure stayed well back in the darkness. A fedora hat was pulled down over his eyes, and his fingers played an unending rhythm on the bulkhead beside him.

    "Four a.m. Most of the station should be asleep then. Security will be changing shifts, and the computer systems will be doing automatic backups."

    "The hour of the wolf," Michael Garibaldi thought remembering someone telling him about Susan's long-ago recitation on the subject. "That should do it?" he said stoically. Just the profile of his face was visible under the sloping hat. "I'll inform our 'friends' waiting in hyperspace. In a few hours, it'll be over."

    They smiled grimly at each other and walked away in opposite directions. The fuse had been lit. Now, they just had to wait for the 'Boom!'

    

    

 

 

Chapter 23 ~ The Hour of the Wolves

    

    

    

   'Babylon Five, Command and Control'

    David Corwin stretched and ran long fingers carelessly through his short brown hair. He stifled a yawn. Double shifts were 'the pits.' The maintenance 'bots he was shepherding had gathered four more nets of debris today and were starting on a fifth. Two of those 'nets' had already been retrieved and deposited in one of the holding bays. They'd accomplished quite a bit in—he looked at the computerized display before him—fourteen hours.

    Corwin frowned at the video console before him. The rebellious fourth 'bot was still acting up. He tapped the controls attempting to bring it back into sync with its counterparts.

    The little 'bot began to move as directed and then seemed to freeze up. The controls showed the minimal movement Corwin had initiated brought to an abrupt halt, and then 'bot four simply disappeared from his screen.

    The lieutenant rubbed his eyes. He must be getting really tired. He'd never had a 'bot do that before.

    "Uh! Commander?" Corwin turned to Susan Ivanova whose eyes looked as tired as he felt. "I...I have a little problem with one of the 'bots."

    The commander turned and looked down at him. She was a good two meters above him on the command deck. "What's the problem, lieutenant?"

    "It...it disappeared."

    "It what?" She nearly laughed at him. "Poor Corwin," she caught herself thinking, "why do these things always happen to him?" It must be fate she decided. "If it's bad, it happens on my shift. If it's weird, it happens to Corwin."

    "Explain, lieutenant."

    "It's been a little 'off,' so I've been monitoring it pretty closely...and one minute it was there and the next it was...." Corwin never got to finish his explanation. He was cut off by a priority override from the command console.

    "Commander, I have jump points opening all around the station. Sectors six, seven, nine, five." Lieutenant Jenkins reported tersely.

    Suddenly Corwin's missing 'bot no longer mattered at all.

    "My God! They're right on top of us. What the hell are they trying to do?" No sooner were the words out of her mouth than Susan Ivanova knew. The Earth Force attack they had feared for so long had begun.

    "Red alert." The orders were automatic. She'd been waiting for this for a long time. Inside her own head she heard echoes of John Sheridan giving the exact same orders more than once before. She shook her head to clear it. Tired or not, she was the one in the command seat this time.

    "Defense grid on-line. They get the first shot, boys and girls, but only the first one. As soon as we are attacked, if we are attacked, return fire. I repeat, if attacked, return fire."

    "Alpha and Zeta squadrons prepare to launch. Beta squadron move to intercept."

    "Oh, my God! Oh, my God!" Lieutenant Jenkins, the petite female at the control console, kept repeating herself. Mentally Kate Jenkins was counting ships as they appeared from the swirling matrixes of the jump points. She didn't think they were ever going to stop coming.

    The arriving ships were ugly, nasty looking--black with arrays of sensor spines like Shadow ships. Babylon Five's automatic recognition systems were confused: the rotating center section and basic destroyer outline identified them as Earth Force ships, the overlay of organic technology and long pointed spines indicated Shadow vessels. In any case, they were 'the enemy.'

    "Ready or not," Susan caught herself thinking, as if it was a children's game, "Here they come." In C&C, the world stuttered to a stop. She would not cast the first stone. Babylon Five would not, could not, fire the first shot. They didn't have to...the black destroyers brought all weapons to bear on the station.

    "Their weapons systems are hot. I've got an energy spike." Lieutenant Jenkins swallowed hard. She couldn't throw up. Not now. "Missiles away. Energy weapons phasing. We are under attack."

    "Damn! Defense grid fire. Delta and Zeta squadrons launch. Launch everything we’ve got." Susan keyed an already active and waiting communications link. A channel opened instantaneously.

    "White Star fleet, we need you. NOW!" As the first explosion rocked the station and the defense grid began returning fire, Ivanova put the call through from the main console. This was the long agreed upon plan for dealing with this invasion when it came. They'd all known it was coming. It had only been a question of when.

    Behind the first set of jump points a secondary set arose.

    Through that second set of jump points came the White Stars, the pride of the Army of Light. The Earth Force ships weren't interested in the White Stars. The Earth Force ships weren't interested in Starfuries that had been on duty outside the station and constantly buzzed about them. The Earth Force ships were interested only in their primary target, and their primary target was Babylon Five.

----------

    In Lyta's quarters the first shock of the bombardment knocked her few treasured trinkets and her chronometer from the bedside shelves. The telepath herself was thrown unceremoniously from her bed onto the hard rug-covered deck. Her eyes opened very wide. They were black—solid black, unrelieved by other colors—as black as the dark spaces between stars. She reached quickly for her robe.

----------

    In John's quarters John and Delenn stopped kissing. His hands moved automatically to protect her, to keep her from being flung about. As he reached to steady himself against the bulkhead, two white roses, books, papers, a fist-size piece of the 'Black Star,' and a set of red-lacquered Chinese boxes cascaded to the floor. A delicate blue Wedgewood cup and saucer hung poised on the edge of the shelf for a long moment and followed the others fragmenting as it hit. John activated his link, attempting to establish communications with C&C.

    "Sheridan to C&C. What the... is going on?"

----------

    In the green Ambassadorial sector of the station, Narn funeral dirges for G'Kar that had been going on day and night for so very many days were halted abruptly as the world swayed around the mourners. Eyes looked up in fear and uncertainty. Grim determination fought with stoic resolve across many of the still tear-streaked alien faces. G'Kar had been one of their 'great ones.' This time had been set aside to honor him, but now they needed to reenter the world and deal with what was going on around them. What would be, would be. When it was done, they would mourn.

----------

    In Londo Mollari's quarters, the Centauri ambassador hung on tightly to the swaying brocade draperies that surrounded his bed wishing he hadn't drunk quite so much at the wedding reception and trying to remember exactly what it was that he had been drinking. He had not been this drunk in a very long time.

----------

    In C&C Susan ordered the heavy blast doors that covered the view port shut. "Better safe than sorry," she thought as they closed with a leaden clang.

    She assured herself that the command center was cleared of unnecessary personnel. Red alert had already sounded. The Starfury squadrons that had been on patrol were already moving to intercept and, by her orders, additional Starfuries blossomed from launch bay doors. She'd already given the necessary commands including, "Fire at will."

    The commander watched the battle through the screens of the main console. The pounding rhythm of the defense grids heavy weapons fire vibrated through the command deck on which she stood as did the shocks from the few enemy missiles that got through. She felt the station rock under a particularly heavy explosion and instinctively made adjustments to the board before her.

    "Damage?" she queried those monitoring communications and on-station systems behind her. The lives of everyone on the station—a quarter-million beings—were her responsibility right now.

    "Brown sector, gray sector, green sector have been hit, reports are inconclusive at this time. Some areas aren't reporting at all." The young blonde lieutenant's voice was firm but obviously frightened.

    "Let me know as soon as we know more."

    She turned her full attention back to the main console. She did not understand why Earth Force was attacking now. She just didn't, and then she did.

    "Bastards could have at least given them one night in peace," she thought.

    She was angry, but she was under control. She thought she understood the timing of the attack—an attempt to catch them with their literal and figurative 'pants down,’ but why were they trying to 'destroy’ the station? Certainly overrunning its defenses and taking control made more sense, but that was not what Clark's forces were doing.

    It had become quickly evident almost from the first reports that the Earth Force destroyers were less interested in capturing the station than in destroying it and those aboard it. They were targeting things like the main fusion reactor, the defense grid, and most frightening of all—life support. Hydroponics had already taken two hard hits of weapon's fire from the black ships. Hydroponics was almost sacrosanct. You didn't attack that. It was a vessel's or a station's air supply. Without air nothing could live. They'd all be dead in space. The pounding fire of the defense grid continued.

----------

    In the corridors of Babylon Five, there was mayhem.

    A figure in an old brown fedora hat slouched in a corner of a red-sector corridor near the Zocalo. By his reckoning the station really 'owned' its name right about now. There was no better word for the noise surrounding him than 'babble.'

    Two Centauri argued with each other while trying to carry a collection of brightly colored, fluid-filled bottles from one corner of the station to another.

    A hysterical mother cried out for her child.

    Bakiri pushed their way between stunned Drazi, and a frustrated warrior-caste Minbari pounded his leather-and-metal clad fist on the custom's console.

    Overhead one of the omnipresent signs read "Welcome to Babylon Five." That was a laugh.

    Station personnel, mostly security, continued to make an effort to direct the frightened and unruly crowd to secure shelter areas. It wasn't working. These people didn't want to go to the shelters. They didn't want to be reasonable. All these people wanted to do was leave.

    Michael Garibaldi pulled the fedora even further down over his dark eyes. He'd caught a glimpse of Zack moving towards the docking bays. The security chief was headed away from him, but why be stupid. He moved a short distance down the corridor. There was no sense drawing unnecessary attention to himself. Observers were rare. The crowd was in constant motion. It behooved him to be 'in motion' too. He stole a surreptitious glance at his watch—three thirty, Earth standard time.

    "Soon," he muttered to himself. "Soon." He stepped back into one of the cargo bays used by customs and slid an illegal identi-card into the scanner. No one knew Babylon Five security like he did. No one.

----------

    "Delenn, I've got to go to C&C."

    "Why? What can you do there?"

    "I've got to go."

    "What can you do that Susan is not already doing?"

    "I can BE there!"

    He looked so desperate that Delenn relinquished her grip on his arm. She didn't want him to go—not now, not tonight. She knew it would be more dangerous for him there and she wanted him where he would be safe, but she also realized that she could not always protect him from dangers...and this was his station. This was their home.

    "Go." She whispered quietly letting her hand fall to her side.

    

 

 

Chapter 24 ~ Finesse

    

    

    

   'Babylon Five, Command and Control’

    Lyta Alexander waited for Captain Sheridan in the corridor immediately outside Command and Control. Instinctively she had known he was going to need her help. Whether or not he’d accept that help was another thing.

    Her eyes were haggard from lack of sleep, but she was determined. Working with the captain to recover his shattered memories had not been easy. She didn’t expect this would be either. She could help. She knew she could. Delenn believed she could. The telepath had been only slightly surprised by the Babcom message from the Minbari ambassador that had sent her struggling into her clothes and up to the command levels of the station.

   No part of the next few hours was going to be easy, but—God willing—with a little luck they’d all get through it. God willing, John would let her help.

   John Sheridan rounded the corridor corner immediately to Lyta’s left. She turned half facing him and raised her gloved hand in greeting.

   "Delenn called me," she began.

   "Why am I not surprised?" John shook his head ruefully. "Well, as long as you’re here, you might as well come along."

   He reached the sealed glass door to the command deck and came up short. He knew he’d have to punch in his personal access code to be admitted. This was not a drill. And, he shook his head in aggravation, he no longer knew what his ‘personal’ code was.

   "Shit!" he thought, "Of all times to not be able to remember."

   He faced the metal and plastic keypad grimacing with frustration. There were still so many things he couldn’t remember…so many things he’d prefer to forget.

   Lyta reached around his right side. "May I?" she asked, her hand hesitating over the keys.

   "Sure. Do it. Whatever." John knew he shouldn’t take his frustration out on Lyta, but—damn it—if he couldn’t remember, how could she?

   Her gloved fingers moved swiftly. As he watched his mind registered the numbers. She was right. He knew that was his code. But he hadn’t known until he saw her skillfully and carefully punch the numbers into the waiting pad.

   "How had she known that? How, for that matter, had he known it was right watching her?" he wondered silently to himself. Until she was in the middle of doing it, he hadn’t even known the first number. How and where had he kept such information? "Instinct," he thought reaching for Lyta’s elbow. "It must have been instinct—to keep that number sequence—through everything. Thank God for instinct."

   Lyta smiled up at him. "Instinct," she agreed aloud, "and the fact that it was just random numbers. They don’t take away everything when they do a mind-wipe, just the vital things. A random set of numbers wouldn’t have seemed important. Still you did well hiding them among so many others—formulas for something?" She looked at him quizzically.

   "Oh, yes." His face softened just a bit. "Vectors, trajectories, quadratic equations—anything I could find to keep my mind busy…to keep them away from the Resistance and the White Stars…to keep the station safe."

   "They wanted my personal codes badly. I tried to make myself forget them. I turned them into square roots, Babcom codes, historical references…dates, times…." John’s voice trailed off. "I guess they never did get those. Maybe…." He spoke softly, "maybe I was stronger than I thought I was."

   Lyta nodded agreement. He really had no idea how strong he was, how strong he had been.

   Quickly the captain guided the dainty telepath through the heavy glass and steel reinforced door to C and C as it swung open. The whoosh of air reminded both of them that the command deck had been sealed for a reason. The station was losing atmosphere. It had been damaged. Lyta hoped that the station’s civilian population had been intelligent enough to seek out the available shelters. They would be safest there.

   Just inside the heavy portal, Lyta found herself abruptly abandoned as the deck beneath their feet lurched sickeningly. Babylon Five ‘rocked’ physically and metaphorically.

   John Sheridan moved swiftly onto the command deck. There was nothing tentative or timid in his actions or tone of voice. The station, his station, was under attack and this was not a random attack by an unknown enemy. This was the promised, and foreseen, strike from Earth. As Delenn had told him and as, truthfully, he had known before she ever told him, President Clark had never planned for Babylon Five to be independent or for him to survive. If the dictator of Earth couldn’t kill him one way, the man had been sure to try another.

    Commander Susan Ivanova raised her harried eyes from the tactical display before her for a tenth of a second and sounded, as she had so many times before, "Captain on deck."

    Command and Control came to attention. Somehow in that split second Susan had known John wasn’t here this time as an observer. The ‘man in charge’ was back, and there was fire in his eyes.

    "Status?" Sheridan demanded tersely moving to replace her at the main console. "As you were," he added noting the ramrod-stiff posture of those awaiting his orders.

   The other members of the command staff exchanged hopeful nods before turning swiftly back to monitors and screens. Following the flow of battle and dealing with it was part of their job. They, the men and women who formed the C&C cadre, were good at it. Susan would have said they were ‘the best.’

    "Twenty-three ships—apparently Omega-class and larger, enhanced with Shadow technology—are on attack vectors. Seventeen have opened fire so far. The remaining six are hanging back. Multiple squadrons of Starfuries have been launched from the Earth Force ships, and there are some indications that breaching pods have been launched as well." Lieutenant Jenkins reported calmly. She’d done this before.

    "White Stars?" Sheridan asked surveying the moving icons on the tactical display before him.

    "They were in hyperspace awaiting orders to defend the station when and as needed." Susan looked John in the eye. "I called them in as soon as the Earth Alliance ships were identified and fired on the station. We gave them the first shot."

   "…More than they deserved," she added under her breath."

    "Defense grid?"

    "On-line and targeting main ships. So far they’ve attacked the residential and maintenance sections of the station more than the docking bays or weapons systems." She sounded faintly puzzled and John shared her concern. These were not ‘usual’ tactics for Earth Force. Normally the ‘business concerns’ on Earth would have lobbied for minimal damage to their ‘assets’ on Babylon Five and won.

    "Damage?" The captain’s mouth formed a grim line as he surveyed the situation. It could be worse, but not much.

    "Reports are just coming in...." Susan shook her head. "It’s largely random, but hydroponics has taken several major hits and so have the ambassadorial quarters, especially the alien sector."

    "The alien sector, that figures with Clark’s anti-alien campaign...but hydroponics? That’s crazy."

    "I know," Susan looked wearily at the tactical display. The White Stars seemed to be holding their own. "Is your wife… is Delenn all right?" she finally thought to ask.

    "She’s fine." John almost smiled. Delenn ‘was’ his wife now. "One more blessing, one more potential weakness to deal with," he thought. "I left her in my quarters, so at least I don’t have to worry about her being in danger for now."

    Lyta stood in the background. John Sheridan was doing well—much better than she had dared to hope from Delenn’s hasty plea. She might not be needed here after all. What John had thought to himself about ‘instinct’ was true in the main. She hadn’t intended to eavesdrop, but the captain’s thoughts had been so clear and so strong they had been impossible to ignore.

    The captain turned to Jenkins, the communications’ officer. "Put me on audio to the White Stars and everything of ours out there."

    "Aye, sir." The young woman punched in the appropriate codes.

    "Sheridan to White Star fleet. Target engines and weapons systems only on attacking destroyers. If a ship does not join the battle do ‘not,’ I repeat do ‘not,’ engage." The commander nodded approvingly understanding that John’s purpose was threefold. First, he was informing everyone out there that he was back and in command. Second, he was clearly defining rules of engagement: you don’t shoot at us, we don’t shoot at you. And, third, he was purposefully limiting the targeting of the White Stars to areas of the destroyers that would not be life threatening to their crews. Clark might not fight fair, but John Sheridan did.

    Lyta, also, nodded her approval. Whatever aftereffects of Clark’s treatment of the captain she was going to have to deal with, at least, she wouldn’t have to deal with someone bent only on revenge.

   A chorus of ‘ayes’ echoed quietly over the comm link as White Star captains responded to Sheridan’s orders. Blood would be spilled out there. Clark’s forces had already begun the bloodletting, but Sheridan had drawn the line as to how much of it would be on his, on their hands.

    "Sheridan to Starfury squadrons. You are to defend the life support and civilian/residential areas of the station to the best of your ability. There are a quarter-million beings depending on you. It is ‘imperative’ that the breaching pods the enemy has launched do not get through. Do ‘not,’ again I repeat, do ‘not’ attack or target destroyers or any non-combatant vessels."

    "Yes, sir." Many voices responded as one. John almost smiled, but not quite. The timely appearance of the White Star fleet had helped to even the odds, but it would still be a battle for survival. Through the deck plates under his feet he could feel the pounding of the defense grid. The room smelled of ozone and faintly of smoke.

    "Better get maintenance to send someone up here to check for damage, too." John did smile this time as Susan wrinkled her nose. "Smells like something’s burning in the oven."

    "Yes, sir."

    Lyta leaned against the metal wall. The captain was right. There was a faint odor of something burning in the air, and he had been right—in her opinion—in the decisions he had made regarding the disposition of the Babylon Five’s defensive forces. Maybe he wasn’t going to need her as much as she and Delenn had believed.

----------

   

    Maintenance had its hands full. Ivanova’s damage reports had been correct as far as they had gone. The latest major strikes had been against the part of the station known to humans as the ‘alien sector.’ Conversely the residents of that part of the station called the human residential section the ‘alien sector.’ It was a term largely defined by the perspective of the individual. To maintenance it meant the portion of the green sector designated for methane breathers and those requiring even more differentiated atmospheres.

    In any case there were leaks...ranging from minor pinholes to the complete destruction of some bulkheads and seals. They were scattered randomly throughout the area reserved for methane breathers. Some of the methane-heavy atmosphere was escaping into space creating dangerous conditions for those lifeforms that required methane to sustain their own respiration. Within their own sector, they should have been in a safe environment. It was no longer safe. Worse, some of the methane was filtering into the oxygen-rich atmosphere of the remainder of the station.

    Maintenance crews in ‘breather masks’ and carrying what looked like enormous caulking guns were valiantly trying to prevent the two atmospheres from mixing. It was a loosing battle.

    "Oh, hell!" Bo, one of the maintenance workers, turned to his partner Mac. "Evacuate this deck and pray for no stray sparks."

    Mac had the unenviable job of informing C&C. "We’ve lost another one. Close levels green seventeen through nineteen. We’re evacuating all of our personnel. Ambassadors and other guests were requested to leave earlier. Shutting down all power to the area as soon as the last crew is out."

   There was a very real danger of explosion as methane and oxygen came together in a deadly and dangerous soup of gases.

    "Understood." Lieutenant Corwin replied. He noted in his log that the attempt to halt the methane leaks had dropped down another level. The young man said a silent prayer to the gods and/or goddesses of luck. The mixed atmosphere in those levels was too volatile to contemplate...one spark, just one could ignite…."

    An explosion—fueled by colliding atmospheres and ignited by the Great Maker knew what spark of static electricity—ripped through the outer hull of Babylon Five. The situation board said its point of origin was somewhere in green seventeen.

    In C&C, John struggled to keep his feet as the station bucked and swayed. Susan grasped quickly for the edge of the tactical display, and Lieutenant Corwin was thrown out of his seat and landed on his posterior on the hard metal deck plates.

    In a corridor on the way to Med Lab, Delenn was bounced unceremoniously from one wall to another. Catching herself, she managed to keep her feet, but only just.

    In the methane-breathers area there was total panic. Always at a disadvantage in an environment so basically hostile to their needs, the residents cried out in a myriad of voices and tongues. The luckiest ones hid behind still-sealed compartment doors. Those not so lucky were already dead or dying in the raging inferno that had been green seventeen.

    Mac reached out to Bo gripping his forearm. Fire warning sirens howled. That had been too close, way too close.

   Med Lab people arrived swiftly along with fire containment personnel and began dealing with those who had been hurt during the evacuation of green seventeen. There was nothing to be done for those trapped there…not until an atmosphere could be reestablished…not until the fire had burned itself out.

   Bo shivered and shook his head sadly moving down the corridor and beginning yet again to test for leaks between the levels. Before they had been fighting to keep the atmospheres from mixing. Now they were going to have to fight to keep the oxygen from fueling the fire already burning. Just another day’s work, but some days were definitely better than others.

    

 

 

Chapter 25 ~ …Ga’ng Aft’ Aglee

    

    

    

   'Babylon Five, Command and Control’

    Long, dark metal cooling fins from the station’s main reactor extended along the entire length of Babylon Five’s yellow sector. Sporadically lit by the explosions and laser fire from the battling vessels that surrounded the station, they stood out one moment sharply delineated and disappeared the next into deep shadow. Friend and foe contributed to the irregular illumination by which a small, slightly tipsy ‘bot made its way towards a curiously open service port. The yellow sector, unlike most of the station, didn’t rotate to create artificial gravity. That didn’t bother the small mechanical spider. It clung with tiny magnetized feet and crept unperturbed and unheeded to its goal. As soon as it disappeared through the dull metal service port, the port snapped shut.

   The little ‘bot clung to the unpainted metal bulkhead within the reactor core area. There was no gravity because gravity wasn’t needed in this sector. No one lived here. The yellow sector held the station’s primary fusion core. That core and eight Tokamac 790 high-energy general fusion reactors powered all aspects of the space station. The small mechanical spider worked its way carefully to the heavily shielded side of the primary reactor and settled down next to an omnipresent radiation warning sign to wait. Its job was almost done. Now all it had to do was wait.

   It waited.

---------------

   John Sheridan had been right when he told Lyta Alexander that he had left his wife safe in his quarters. He ‘had’ left her there, but she hadn’t stayed there. Delenn was never one to be anywhere but ‘in the thick of things.’ Events were unfolding quickly and Delenn always went where she thought she could be of the most help—even if she put herself in jeopardy to do so. Another time, John might have remembered her going into the quarantine area created for a doomed race, because she was needed, because it had to be done. This time he didn’t. He trusted her to stay put. She did not.

   Delenn’s first impulse had been to follow John to C&C. She didn’t do it. He needed to do this himself. There might or might not be a point in his battle with Earth when she and the Minbari fleet could again aid him, but this wasn’t it. If John needed to be in the middle of things and be in command, her second-guessing him would definitely ‘not’ help.

   Her second impulse had been to seek out Dr. Franklin and the medical staff to find out what she could do to help. She had been on her way to do just that when the massive explosion caused by ignition of the methane-oxygen gas mixture had nearly thrown her to the corridor floor. Almost immediately medical and other emergency personnel had flooded the corridor heading for the ‘alien sector.’

   Delenn had followed hoping that no one she knew or cared about had been hurt. Trying to stay close enough so that she could be of help and not so close as to be in their way, she moved with the emergency unit. She did not know what had exploded but she knew the station was in trouble.

---------------

   "Stabilizers, full thrust. On my command. Now!"

   John and the entire command staff now had a double battle to wage: one against the Earth Force ships and one to keep Babylon Five from falling out of orbit. The explosion in green seventeen had destabilized the station’s geocentric orbit severely.

   "Left stabilizers only. Prepare to fire. Null-gravity warnings to shelter areas, Med Lab, and emergency personnel—now!" It was a subtle battle. Right now the slight wobble in the station’s rotation seemed minor, but the entire command staff knew that it could quickly degenerate into a unstoppable tumble end-over-end until its descent into Epsilon Three’s atmosphere and flaming disintegration would be impossible to prevent. Stopping the five-mile long station from rotating would eliminate one of their problems—one of the variables in reasserting control of its orbit. However, it would create a myriad of other difficulties.

   "John, are you sure about this?" Ivanova didn’t mean to sound skeptical. She had backed him every step of the way up to this point.

   "Do you see another way, Susan?" he asked. She shook her head. She really didn't, but this might be a case of the cure being almost as bad as the disease. She thought of the hundreds of thousands of ‘loose’ items on the station that were about to become ‘free-form’ missiles as the station’s rotation slowed and stopped. She tucked the toes of her uniform shoes under the zero-gravity bar that ran along the lower edge of the command console, noting as she did so that John had already done the same.

   "Secure for zero gravity," Susan ordered through the Babcom emergency system. Around the bridge long-unused belts and restraints were pulled into play. She could only imagine the mayhem in other parts of the station as Stephen and the Med Lab staff struggled to get patients and equipment tied down.

   "Secured," she informed John as the systems board before her lit with acknowledgments from around the station.

   "On my mark," he repeated. "Now!"

   Stabilizer rockets fired again. The deck beneath his feet trembled with the conflicting stresses caused by the stabilizing thrusters and defense grid recoil. Cautiously and carefully, like a matronly lady getting out of a transport tube, the great station slowed and stuttered to a halt.

   A stylus and small sheaf of flimsies floated gently up off the lower console. Kate Jenkins grabbed for them and tucked them under one of the clips that lined the unit. On the far side of C&C an engineering tech threw-up quietly and tried desperately to contain the mess and his embarrassment.

   Lyta moved automatically to help. She slid from her spot by the door, using the waist high rail that surrounded the room. When she reached the still too-pale lieutenant j.g., she touched his shoulder reassuringly. His face was ashen under his naturally dark skin tones and he held his lips tightly clenched together. He was done for the day in her opinion.

   "Take him to Med Lab," Susan ordered noting the disturbance and, also, that two other junior staff were already cleaning up the mess. Lyta nodded. John obviously didn’t need her right now and this young man did. Lyta glanced towards John with one questioning eyebrow aimed at Susan and Susan answered her in kind with a shake of her head. If John needed help, Susan would be there. Lyta turned and maneuvered the still queasy and discomforted crewman off the command deck.

---------------

   Chief Security Officer Zack Allan cursed the clumsiness he felt wearing riot gear and heavy magnetic boots. He wanted, needed to run. There were places he and his men had to get to, and the cumbersome equipment made getting there quickly nigh on impossible.

   There was some civilian panic on board. In the shelters those who hadn’t bothered to strap in were floating helplessly and cursing in more languages than were believable. He wished that were his only problem. It wasn’t.

    The status link he wore had informed him that, so far, seven breaching pods had attached themselves to the station. Five had already burned their way through and the enemy was ‘attacking on the home front.’

    Plans for station defense had always assumed that such forces would move to take over communications, command and control, and the Starfury bays. President Clark’s forces hadn’t. They had, for the most part, cut through into residential and business sections of the station. Downbelow, in the brown sector, three separate breaching pods had broken through. One had done the same thing in the green sector and another had even attached itself to the blue sector —in the area designated for crew quarters. It just didn’t make sense, and it was forcing Zack to split his security squads into smaller and smaller teams.

    ‘Gropos,’ shock troops of the kind normally deployed in breaching pods, could do a lot of damage in a relatively short period of time, but Zack couldn’t worry about protecting property now. His first thought now had to be protecting the quarter million humans and aliens living on the station. Most should be in the shelters, but there were always those who refused to go—whether it was a drill or a real emergency. Military spouses were well known for ‘sticking-it-out’ in crew quarters and lurkers in Downbelow might not be the most upstanding beings in the galaxy, but they didn’t deserve to be slaughtered either. The pod breaches in Downbelow alone were tying up over half of his available personnel.

   Attacking the green sector almost made sense to the frustrated man. If this attack really was being aimed against the ‘alien’ elements on the station, then the green sector was a logical target with its ambassadorial quarters and alternate atmosphere areas. But, he shook his head again in disbelief. Why would they attach a pod to crew country in the blue sector? Most of those living there were definitively ‘out’…either defending the station in a Starfury or serving at an emergency post. The only ones in the blue sector now would be the few family members—husbands or wives—who had elected not to go to the shelters. Family members….

   Zack stopped dead in his tracks causing the burly sergeant behind him to crash into his back. "Oh, shit!" He punched his link to Command and Control.

   "C&C here." Lieutenant Jenkins responded.

   "Request information on current whereabouts of Captain Sheridan and Ambassador Delenn." Zack tried to keep the panic out of his voice. He had a bad feeling about this, a very bad feeling.

   "Captain is on the command deck. The Ambassador should be in the captain’s quarters," she replied.

   Whereupon John cut in, "Zack, is there a problem?"

   "Not that I know of yet, sir," Zack responded. "I just want to check something out we’ve had a breaching pod break through into the blue sector. Just wanted to know that the two of you were okay."

   Zack couldn’t see John shake his head. That made some sense John thought. Clark had proven to be tenacious in his attempts to destroy the captain of Babylon Five one way or another. A pod breaking through into crew country might mean another attempt on his life. They had had no way of knowing he’d be in command. The local rumor mill would have told Clark’s spies that he spent most of his time in his quarters. The only one in his quarters now was….

   "Delenn!"

   "On my way now, sir." Zack didn’t know what else to say. He broke the connection with a tap on his link. He didn’t want to raise the captain’s level of concern to a point where it would interfere with his ability to make command decisions, but in all likelihood Clark’s forces were right now moving to secure the captain’s quarters and attempt to take its residents hostage. Those ‘gropos’ had no way of knowing that John Sheridan wasn’t in his quarters, that the only ‘resident’ there now was Delenn.

   "Blue team, with me!" Zack took off at a slow jog, the best speed his zero-g boots would allow and the six members of blue team swung into line behind him.

---------------

   Lennier of the Third Fain of Chu’Domo struggled to deal with the absence of gravity. Though he had been trained on Minbar to deal with such an eventuality, it was not a common situation on Minbari cruisers or the newer White Stars. The Minbari gravity generators rarely failed and he was definitely out of practice.

   Gradually Lennier got his body oriented ‘properly,’ and batted down his now-floating robe that rippled around his legs. He thanked the powers of the universe that he had chosen to wear garments that did not inhibit his progress. He had to get to Ambassador Delenn and assure himself that she was indeed all right.

   The passageways in the green sector were filled with maintenance workers, medical personnel, and other emergency workers. Delenn’s aide felt out of place as he attempted to move against that flow of bodies and towards the blue sector where he knew Delenn and her new ‘husband’—he swallowed hard on that word—were spending the first night of their marriage. He had promised himself that he would stay away for at least the first three days of their ‘joining’ at all costs but, ‘now,’ with the station under attack, he simply had to find her. It was not a matter of choice. It was a matter of necessity.

   Lennier nearly stumbled into Delenn herself as she, somehow, gracefully floated across his path following an intersecting corridor. She was so intent on staying with the medical personnel she was attempting to assist that she scarcely noticed exactly where they were going. Catching his breath Lennier reached out and detained her. She spun to face him and realizing that it was indeed her friend and assistant, pulled him into a spontaneous hug. If it were possible for Minbari to blush, Lennier would have done so. It was embarrassing and also wonderful to have her be so demonstrative.

   "Are you all right?" he asked her pushing her back away from him so that he could look her over from tip to toe.

   "I am fine," she replied. "And you, Lennier, are you injured?"

   "I, too, am fine." He brought his eyes down not wanting to look at her as he asked the next question. "Is your ‘husband’ all right? I did not expect to find you down here, not tonight of all nights." Now it was Delenn’s turn to blush, something her half-human physiology managed easily.

   "John is fine. He is on the command deck and Lyta is with him." She noted the young Minbari’s unvoiced question. "It was ‘something he had to do.’ He will be fine."

   Lennier wasn’t sure if she was trying to convince herself or him. It saddened him to see her so worried about the captain, but there was nothing he could think of to do or say that would help the situation.

   "I am sure you are correct." Lennier attempted a Minbari bow and nearly capsized himself. Just one corner of Delenn’s mouth quirked upwards. Lennier was charming when he attempted to be the ‘perfect’ acolyte and follower. However, it would not do to laugh at him, and nothing about the danger in which they all found themselves was truly amusing.

   "Lennier, come with me," Delenn ordered moving off again to follow the medical personnel. "We will help where we can. It is all that any of us can do."

---------------

    Michael Garibaldi waited in a small alcove in the upper levels of the brown section. He carried in his worn jacket pocket the destruction of the station. It looked like a miniature communications device or computer. It was—sort of. The signal from the small brown plastic and metal box was set up to contact and control one small ‘bot that was, if his calculations were correct, already ready and waiting.

    The station had stopped spinning under his feet maybe five minutes before though he could still feel through every hard surface he touched the pounding fire of the defense grid batteries. He hadn’t expected Ivanova to have guts enough to stop the station’s rotation. Then again maybe she hadn’t had a choice. Maybe damage was severe enough that the station had stopped by itself. "Nah," he thought. He had felt, thought he had felt the stabilizing rockets when they fired. It had been done deliberately.

   He held himself in position with one hand and checked his watch. Twenty minutes. He could wait for twenty minutes no matter how ill zero gravity made him feel. It would all be over soon. He just hoped those idiots from Earth Force were on schedule. This was a to-the-second-timed mission. Get in, grab the ‘package,’ get out, and—if necessary—blow the place. That was the plan in a nutshell.

   He shook his head. He still wasn’t sure why Clark wanted John Sheridan back in custody so badly. Maybe the President of Earth Gov had finally cracked up completely. It really didn’t matter. He had a job to do and then Bester would be expecting him back on Mars.

   He glanced at his watch again—nineteen minutes. Any minute now he should hear them breaking through....

    

    

    

 

Chapter 26 ~ Situation Normal

    

    

    

   'Babylon Five, Blue Sector’

    "What the hell do you mean no one’s there?" The voice on the secure link sounded tinny and harsh.

    "Exactly what I said," Zack repeated with frustration. "We’ve reached the captain’s quarters and Ambassador Delenn is not here. I repeat Delenn is ‘not’ here."

   John Sheridan’s quarters were a shambles. However, it didn’t look like they had been ransacked. They were simply a mess. Anything that hadn’t been nailed or fastened down was suspended in mid-air. The refrigeration unit had been jarred open by one or more of the many blasts that had shaken the station, and globules of a wide variety of foods and liquids floated amidst the flotsam and jetsam of the man’s belonging.

   Zack leaned tiredly against the bulkhead just inside the door. The link beeped back to life. Zack thought he recognized John’s voice behind that of the communications officer. "Any indication where she went?"

   "Nah," Zack was, if anything, more reticent that usual. "Not in this mess. If she left a message, it’s not obvious."

   "...And we could spend forever looking for one," he thought to himself. "Guess we’ll just have to hope this means she’s elsewhere."

   Aloud he added, "I’ll have some of my people check the nearby shelters."

   "Roger that. C&C clear."

---------------

   Two levels below Zack’s team and moving toward them rapidly a group of heavily armored Earth Force ‘gropos’ efficiently and silently advanced through the empty corridors of blue sector. They were trained for zero-g maneuvers. Exiting their attack vehicle and moving through the corridors of Babylon Five was just another tactical situation for them. The group leader, a broad-shouldered staff sergeant, hesitated only momentarily at the juncture between levels and motioned for the group to continue its leapfrog progress. Zack’s intuition had been good. This team was indeed headed for John Sheridan’s quarters. Only Zack’s familiarity with the station accounted for the B5 contingent arriving first.

   "Ah, hell." The sergeant swore nearly silently, noting the active presence of Babylon Five forces in the corridor ahead of them. His voice on the link sounded more frustrated than angry. "We’ve got company. Looks like the ‘package’ has been warned or ‘transferred.’"

   His contact on the other end of the link growled back, "Warned? Moved? Any indication how or where?"

   "Negative."

   "Hold on.’ The gruff voice was muffled for a moment and then returned. "Check for possible secondary objective. Then, work your way to the brown sector and link up with the three units creating a distraction there. Apparently the ‘package’ took over command when our forces attacked. No one knows—at least, based on what we can pick up from station transmissions—where the bone-headed female is. She might still be at your primary goal, but it doesn’t sound like it. What a screwed up mess! Do the best that you can."

   "Roger that." The ‘gropos’ sergeant broke the connection from his end and waved his team out of the empty room. They had places to be and people to meet.

---------------

   Med Lab One was crowded to overflowing when Lyta Alexander and her space-sick charge arrived. There was no place to sit, even if it had been possible, and very few places left to stand. Turning her charge over to one of the med techs, Lyta headed back out into the adjoining corridor nearly running head-on into Delenn and Lennier who were escorting a pair of suspiciously green Bakiri. Bakiri apparently didn’t enjoy the zero gravity experience anymore than the young black man Lyta had just delivered.

   "Where’s John? Is he all right? I didn’t see him in…." Delenn’s first words to the telepath were spoken hurriedly and with evident fear. Her eyes swung instinctively to the isolation cubicle that had been John’s personal space for so very many days when he had first returned to the station. It was in use, but her husband was not there.

   "John’s fine. He’s in C&C, and he’s doing fine." Lyta wasn’t sure the beautiful Minbari believed her, but it was the truth. "Delenn, he didn’t need me. At least, he didn’t need me as much as we feared he might. I helped with some minor stuff—details he’d forgotten until he needed them, but what we’ve been doing…working through his memories of the last year…helped immeasurably. It’s all coming back." She smiled. "It was almost like seeing the old John again when he took command. Did you hear his speech?"

   "No, of course you didn’t," said Lyta realizing that the obviously exhausted Delenn along with the rest of the civilian population of the station had not heard the captain’s directives to the White Stars or the Starfury squadrons. "It was wonderful. He just picked up command where he left off all those months ago. I don’t know what he’s using for energy. There will probably be hell to pay later, but when I left he was in complete control. It was so good to see him taking charge, running the show."

   "He is safe then?" Delenn’s voice was soft. She might be officially responsible for the Minbari aboard Babylon Five and care deeply about many of the other residents, but John was the center of her world.

   "Safer than you or I, or anyone else on the station for that matter." Lyta smiled at the petite form in front of her. "He’s with Ivanova, Corwin, and Lieutenant Jenkins. They really will take good care of him, Delenn. He’s important to all of them, too."

   "I know. I just worry about him." Delenn let a small smile raise the corners of her mouth and shook her head ruefully as she turned back towards the mayhem that was Med Lab One. "Let’s see what we can do to help."

---------------

    Zack Allan’s team was pinned down. The ‘gropos’ had ambushed them in the corridor just outside the captain’s quarters. It had been a disaster. Recoil that scarcely mattered under normal gravity conditions had catapulted some of his best and fastest shots from the meager cover of the doorways and into the line of enemy fire. He’d watched them cut down. In the young security chief’s mind even one casualty was too many, and now four of ‘his people’ were out of commission. One he was sure was dead and another one was in a bad way. He was running out of options.

   He tapped the link on the back of his hand hoping against hope that it would work. It didn’t. It hadn’t worked the last three times he tried either but, what the hell, hadn’t hurt to try again. Again, all he heard was static. Either station communications were out completely or this link had simply had it. He grimaced. He really didn’t have a choice. There were no reinforcements coming, no cavalry about to break over the hill and save his sorry ass. No way in hell was he, or he and the two junior officers still standing, going to beat back a squad of veteran ‘gropos’. Besides, Corporal Washington needed help. He needed it now.

   "Coming out," Zack hollered in a frustrated voice. "Hold your fire."

   "Cease fire." He heard his counterpart’s order to his squadron.

   Zack slowly released his grip on the doorway stanchion to which he had been clinging. It had been lousy cover, but it was better than none. He let his body float cautiously into the middle of the passageway.

   "I need to get my wounded to…." Zack didn’t get any further. He heard the familiar whine of a P.P.G. powering up. "Ah, shit!" He wasn’t sure if he thought it or said it.

   The lanky head of Babylon Five security was floating undefended between Sheridan’s quarters and the invading Earth Force ‘gropos’. A bolt of phased plasma licked across the intervening space and scorched both the inside of his left arm and the left side of his body. The body armor over his uniform smoldered sullenly as he tumbled backwards slipping into unconsciousness. He never saw his two remaining junior officers try to defend him, and fortunately never watched them slip past agony into death.

   The Earth Force crew moved quickly. They had places to go and people to meet up with. Only a cursory check was made of the B5 personnel they were leaving behind them. Most were dead. One, Corporal Washington, was dying slowly and Zack was still alive, but gravely wounded.

   "Finish that one," the sergeant indicated the corporal with a motion of his head, "and bring this one with us. A little ‘insurance’ never hurts." Blood bubbled from Washington’s lips as the field knife was withdrawn. Two of the invaders guided Zack’s limp body to swing between them from a thin tether, and the unit continued on its revised path.

   In the corridor outside Sheridan’s quarters, tiny glistening orbs of red floated across to touch the blue stripe on the wall. That stripe marked this as B5 crew country. The bodies and the tiny red dots declared it a ‘killing ground.’

---------------

   Lyta, Lennier, and Delenn—in fact, all non-maintenance personnel—were refused entrance to the green sector. Maintenance workers continued to fight a losing battle with both oxygen and methane leaks. Another explosion was entirely possible at any time. It frustrated Delenn not to be able to help, but calmer voices of reason prevailed and Lyta and Lennier guided her towards the Zocalo shelter area. There they should be able to find a container of hot tea and a place to sit down, if only for a little while.

   Delenn’s normally pale skin was nearly white. She had had many ‘shocks’ to deal with in the last twenty-four hours. Too many things were ‘new.’ Too many things had gone wrong.

   Lennier, paying more attention than either of the ladies he accompanied, heard the sound of approaching gravity boots first. The sound wasn’t loud, but it was distinctive. Choosing to put safety before courtesy, he pushed and bullied the two of them into an alcove barely large enough to hold them. A piece of free-floating decorative panel provided a modicum of additional cover. He just hoped the forces he heard were B5 security and not looters or Earth Force invaders.

   Lennier fragile hopes were dashed when a squadron of ‘gropos’ with Zack Allan’s body in tow rounded the corner in front of their position.

   "Zack," Lyta couldn’t keep herself from crying out. At the same time she reached for him with her thoughts, but met only the fuzzy gray nothingness of unconsciousness. "Oh, Zack." The last was almost silently whispered, but her first word had been enough.

   "Who’s there?" The sergeant leading the ‘gropos’ demanded bluntly.

   Lennier took a deep breath and drew himself up carefully. He motioned for Delenn and Lyta to stay under cover and stepped out of the alcove.

   "J-just me." Lennier attempted a Minbari bow of respect that rather overbalanced his slender free-floating form. "I thought I recognized…." He gulped seeing the large charred area on Zack’s chest armor. "…I recognized Mr. Allan."

   "And who might you be?" The sergeant signaled two of his squad to check out this new-found individual.

   "I am Lennier of the Third Fain of Chu’Domo," he began. "… And aide to Minbari Ambassador Delenn." Again he attempted the impossible bow to the obvious amusement of the soldiers.

   "And what might you be doing here, Mister Lennier?"

   "Not Mister, just Lennier. We have…I have…." He realized his error the moment he made it. "I have been trying to help in whatever way I can."

   "We?" The sergeant’s eyebrows rose noticeably and the two ‘gropos’ who had moved to intercept Lennier nodded.

   "Yup, we." One of them offered grinning from ear to ear.

   First Delenn and then Lyta moved out into the open corridor. Delenn knew she should say something, but no words came. She was tired, very tired, and she wanted this day to be over with now. She wanted to be back in John’s arms. She wanted this ‘madness’ to be at an end.

   Lyta simply wanted to get to Zack. They weren’t lovers, but they were friends—close friends. Zack had been her first and it sometimes seemed only friend here. Everyone else used her when they needed her services and then ignored her.

   Being used and ignored was pretty typical treatment for telepaths, but Zack hadn’t been like that. When no one else on the station seemed to know or care that she existed, Zack had known and he had cared. He’d gone out of his way to help her. Hell, he’d even brought take-out pizza to share with her once or twice—not a ‘date,’ just a neighborly thing to do. Now he was floating unconscious tethered to two of the enemy.

   "May I?" Lyta motioned to Zack.

   "Yeah, why not?"

   They let her go to him. His breathing was shallow and he was alive. Looking at the charred marks and cauterized wounds where the P.P.G. blast had obviously passed between his body and arm, she thanked whatever powers there were in the universe that he had survived. If such a blast had hit him full in the chest, not even body armor would have saved him.

   "Zack?" She spoke his name quietly, testing with her psi ability to see how deeply unconscious her old friend might be.

   "He’s badly hurt." She spoke for Lennier and Delenn’s benefit as well as her own. It was a fact. "He needs medical attention right now."

   "May we take him to Med Lab?" Delenn asked hopefully. This was after all what she had been doing during most of the fight.

   The ‘gropos’ sergeant eyed the group before him. Allan, if that was his name, was in tough shape. Whether he’d survive being towed around with them was debatable. But, that hardly mattered anymore. He’d found one of the ‘prizes’ he’d been sent here to ‘acquire.’ It wasn’t quite as good as catching the gold ring—it wasn’t Sheridan—but, ‘hot diggity damn,’ he was looking straight into the eyes of the half-breed, bone-headed wife of the man.

   "Secure her. Bring him. Leave the stiff with the teep." He issued calm decisive orders and the squad was moving out again almost before Lyta realized they were going.

   "Wait," she pleaded turning herself to face their departing backs. "I need help."

   The sergeant turned one last time and decided that she probably did need help. He had no reason to bear her ill will—her or the ‘security grunt’ either. They were both just doing their jobs.

   "You," he spoke directly to Lennier, "help her. I don’t care if you go for help or help her carry him to your medical base…but, whatever you do, don’t follow us."

   Lennier nodded his understanding. He glanced at Delenn. She seemed very pale, much too pale, except where the tether cord bit into her wrists. There were red marks there already. He did not wish to leave Delenn. He was pledged to her service and her defense, but facing more than a dozen high-energy weapons he knew there was very little he could do to serve or defend her in these circumstances. And Zack and Lyta did need his help. Delenn brought her eyes up and nodded her agreement. He could do more by helping Zack and Lyta than he could by being held hostage with her.

   "Move it, ‘boney.’" A ‘gropos’ private shoved Lennier towards Lyta with the butt end of his weapon. His body tumbled helplessly until he bounced up hard against the metal corridor wall.

   "Move out!" He heard the sergeant’s gruff order.

   By the time Lennier got himself reoriented, they were gone. Zack was free. Lyta was free. In Valen’s name, he was free…but Delenn was gone. Lennier didn’t think he’d ever forgive himself. He didn’t know how he would tell Sheridan. He hung his head in abject despair and Lyta learned something she’d never known. She learned that even full Minbari can cry.

    

 

 

Chapter 27 ~ The Price of Peace

    

    

    

   'Babylon Five, Brown Sector’

    "Seven minutes…just seven minutes." Michael Garibaldi felt the cold clamminess of perspiration forming all over his body. Where the hell were those ‘imbeciles?’

    The bare metal deck below his feet vibrated with the almost continuous pounding of the station’s defense grid weapons. He could smell the subtle difference in the air that indicated fire—possibly more than one burning somewhere on this level. He’d always hated brown sector, always figured someday he end up dying down here in the depth of the station. Soon—he knew—unless he disarmed its countdown sequence the bomb that had been so carefully and secretively planted would explode taking this place with it. Brown sector as he’d known it would be gone; soon it would look like Dante’s inferno.

   The former security chief had managed to avoid most of the occupants of this portion of Downbelow. No one from station security or even maintenance knew he was there, and the few lurkers who had approached him either in hopes of an easy ‘pocket’ to practice their skill on or an outright ‘hand out’ were gone now. One who had been particularly persistent was dead; the corpse was tucked away amidst the putrid debris in an officially unused storeroom. The others had been relatively easy to frighten. Most had come only close enough to hear his growl of warning.

    Michael shook his head over the bull-headed obstinacy of the one man he had had to kill. The ragged creature had, somehow, gotten inside his guard. All lurkers were good at stealth. That was how they survived. This one had been a ‘grand master.’ The thief’s fingers had insisted on groping in the pockets of Michael’s heavy gabardine jacket. It had only been by pure luck that those exploring fingers had missed the detonation switch. Michael didn’t want to contemplate the possible ramifications, if the lurker had been a bit faster or if his own reflexes had been a bit slower. The switch he carried could detonate the bomb now or disarm it. If he did neither when its built-in timer reached zero it would explode anyway. He pulled his hat still lower over his damp forehead.

    "Six minutes. Where the hell are they?" He didn’t want to contemplate missing connections. He didn’t want to think about what would happen when time ran out or when he had to activate the firing mechanism he carried. If his ‘ride’ hadn’t picked him up by then, he’d go ‘down with the ship’—or should that be ‘up’ considering the spectacular result the subsequent explosion should have on the now much-battered space station. There were gaps now in the rhythm of its defensive weapons. One or more of the big batteries was either down or misfiring.

    Long ago, he had loved this place. For just a moment, the iron-hard control slipped. He remembered: Jeff and how much he missed him, Stephen and that stupid food plan, Kosh who seemed sometimes to walk through walls, Dodger and Lise and Talia—things that might have been, and Captain Sheridan—Jeff’s replacement—who didn’t know him but had put faith in him anyway. Then it was gone. His control was back and his face returned to the calmly efficient mask of unconcern, but he continued to perspire underneath that blasé facade. He hadn’t been this close to death in a long while. It did strange things to your mind.

---------------

    In C&C, John Sheridan watched the battle play out around him. He issued orders sparingly and let those most closely involved in the fighting do the jobs for which they had been trained. The Earth Force ships were pulling back, harassed by the Army of Light’s White Stars and B5’s Starfuries. Fighting had been brutal. Three Earth Force ships had hung back throughout the entire engagement and he was quietly proud that his orders had been carried out with regards to them. To the best of his knowledge not one weapon had been turned upon them.

    "Any word on Delenn?" The lull in the fighting allowed him the luxury of worrying about her once again.

    "Sorry, sir," Jenkins responded. "Nothing’s come through yet."

    John caught himself, not for the first time, running his hand impatiently through his hair. It was a habit he had had for years and Delenn had teased him about it frequently. Now, just catching himself doing it made him think of her. Hell of a wedding night he was giving her, Earth Force was giving them.

    "I’ve heard of shivery," he mumbled to himself, "but this is ridiculous."

    "As soon as you hear anything, let me know." He addressed Lieutenant Jenkins, but Ivanova responded.

    "Aye, sir."

    He suspected his command staff were as worried about his new bride as he was.

    "Captain." Jenkins looked up at him. "Message coming through on the ‘gold channel’ for you."

    "I’ll take it here." No way was he going to leave the command deck until this was completely over and done with. "Sheridan here," he responded to the image that appeared on the command deck monitor.

    "Captain Stevenson here of the Earth Force cruiser ‘Tempest.’" Cool, gray eyes looked at and almost through him, but John didn’t flinch. "One of my vessels will be leaving your station in three standard minutes. You will do nothing to prevent it from doing so."

    "Like hell we won’t," Susan Ivanova interjected.

    "I repeat, you will do nothing to stop our vessel from leaving. In fact, it would be in your personal very best interest to be sure that no one interferes with its departure." The Earth Force officer knew he would get what he wanted. He just had to be sure the renegade captain understood exactly where they stood.

   "Your—uh—‘wife’ will be on that ship, captain. It would be truly tragic if she were to be killed because of some misunderstanding." Ivanova thought John’s knees were going to buckle. The shock was that great.

   "She can’t be. You can’t…." The captain never got to finish his sentence. The connection was broken from the other end. Susan had never heard any commanding officer use as many curse words as she heard John use in the following ten seconds.

---------------

   The little ‘bot sat forlornly on the metal wall of Babylon Five’s main reactor. It was in a huge empty area that surrounded the power generating system. If it had had a digital display, the reading would have been just less than five minutes—four minutes and fifty-three seconds to be precise. It was a thing. It had no feelings. It simply sat and waited for time to elapse or a command to be given.

   Michael Garibaldi held the key—the device that could disarm or detonate the explosive device encased within the maintenance robot’s titanium shell. The little ‘bot didn’t care. Seconds ticked by soundlessly in the vacuum of the silent space. Time was running out. If the internal countdown reached zero, the ‘bot would fulfill its mission detonating a small but intense blast which would in turn unleash a larger one—the uncontrolled fury of a breached reactor core.

   Time passed. A circuit cleared—an unheard hum vibrated the small robot’s outer casing. Countdown was approaching the two-minute mark.

---------------

   "It’s ‘real’ simple." Stevenson’s face was replaced by Michael Garibaldi’s. He let the sarcasm in his voice come through ‘loud and clear.’ "You warn off all your ships. You move them away from the brown sector of the station. And you let us go."

   "Why you…?" John Sheridan was incoherent. He was so angry, so frustrated. He’d forgotten or was ignoring all the things Lyta had told him to do to maintain his control. There was only going to be one way to end this, and John couldn’t make himself do it. He couldn’t let them take her. He couldn’t let her go.

   Ivanova, realizing how brittle Sheridan’s control had become and almost as angry herself, opened fire with words. "Why should we?" she demanded. "Looks like an old-fashioned Mexican standoff to me. You may have Ambassador Delenn, that remains to be proven, but we’ve got you."

   "Correction." Michael found he hated repeating himself. "You’ve got nothing. We’ve got the captain’s wife. Would you really like to hear her scream? And, if you don’t allow us to withdraw from the station with her, we can and will blow the entire station sky high."

   Off the communication’s net, Lieutenant Jenkins quickly forwarded the threat to ‘Security.’ Unfortunately, there wasn’t a lot of ‘Security’ left.

   John’s face was ashen, paler than it had been since they’d first arranged for his release. He hissed at Susan, "Is he bluffing?"

   She shook her head silently ‘no,’ adding, "I don’t think so."

   "Michael." John sounded incredibly tired. "What do you want?"

   Silently, he cursed himself as soon as the words were out of his mouth. It was, of course, the old Shadow question. He could almost hear it echoing inside of his head.

   "John, glad you’re back with us. I thought we’d lost you there for a while." Garibaldi paused letting the insult sink in. "I want, we want exactly what I said—to leave unharmed and unmolested. No one is to follow us, and Delenn gets to live. Of course, she goes with us, too."

   "Michael, why?"

   "I need an answer, John. I need an answer now!"

   Ivanova watching the tense exchange from a slightly oblique angle realized in a burst of intuition and clarity that Michael was nearly as upset as the captain and moreover he was perspiring freely. His right hand was obscured inside the pocket of his jacket. Suddenly she knew. He had his finger on the proverbial ‘trigger.’

   John wasn’t going to like this, but there was no other way.

   "Earth Force vessel," she spoke decisively taking over command and assuming responsibility for a decision she knew even when he was at his very best John Sheridan could very probably never have made. "You are cleared for departure. Get your ‘sorry ass’ out of here, Michael, and God help you if I ‘ever’ see you again." She let the main console monitor fade to black.

   Anger, frustration, and shock were painted across Sheridan’s face. "You can’t," he began, then realized she already had. He hadn’t lost it, but it had been close. He glared at the commander for long seconds, then swung around and propelled himself away from her.

   "There was no choice." She didn’t like having to defend her intuition. She wasn’t much of a telepath, but sometimes she just ‘knew’ things. Right now, she ‘knew’ they would find a bomb or bombs. She didn’t know where it was but she was willing to bet money they had cut the final countdown ‘fine.’

   Fine didn’t come close to the truth. As the Earth Force ship bearing Michael, Delenn, and the remains of seven commando units moved to enter the jumpgate, the former security chief of Babylon Five thumbed the detonator switch lever to the disarm position. There were twenty-seven seconds left on the countdown clock.

   It took Babylon Five security and maintenance personnel working together just over thirty-five hours to locate the bomb, remove it from the little maintenance ‘bot, and dispose of it in one of the empty spaces in the Epsilon system, out beyond the station.

   It had been a close thing, a very close thing.

    

    

 

 

Chapter 28 ~ The Process Within

    

    

    

   'Babylon Five, Blue Sector’

    Commander Susan Ivanova, Lieutenant Commander David Corwin, and Lieutenant Kate Jenkins all sighed with relief as the last of the station’s navigational thrusters cut off exactly on schedule. The five-mile long bastion of peace in the galaxy that was Babylon Five began to rotate. It began slowly—more slowly than the braking maneuver that had stopped the bulk of the station from turning. However, they had more time now to allow for the civilian population to acclimatize itself to renewed gravity.

    Kate Jenkins almost thought she could hear a cheer from the Zocalo area as ‘up’ and ‘down’ began to become more than arbitrary terms. She knew it must be her imagination. Her feet settled to the metal command deck. It was again a floor.

   All of them could breathe easier now. Both rotation and orbit had been reestablished. It had been a close thing. Captain Sheridan had been right about placing the safety of the entire station above the convenience of gravity. A side effect of the maneuver had probably saved many lives as well. Keeping the station from rotating had limited the ‘target’ areas for the Earth Force cruisers. Those parts they could hit had taken quite a beating, but other—much larger—portions of the station had escaped relatively unscathed.

   "Rotation up to one-quarter normal," Corwin reported from the main console situation’s board in front of him. "Geo-synchronous orbit maintained."

    "Steady as she goes," Susan felt a little like a sailing captain from centuries long past giving the anachronous order. "Increase rotation by increments of ten until we reach ninety per cent of Earth normal."

    "Aye, commander," he replied. It felt good to have his feet back where they belonged, too.

---------------

    In Med Lab, Security Chief Zack Allan sighed with relief. He felt himself settle into the mattress under him. He winced with the pain returning gravity caused in his side and along his ribs, but smiled despite it. If gravity was coming back up, they must have done something right. Man, he hated being out of the ‘loop.’ Now, if they’d only let him out of this bed—he began fumbling with the safety straps that had secured him to the bed—he’d go ‘clean their clocks’ one and all. The med techs, however, had other ideas.

---------------

   Michael Garibaldi knew he’d done it again. He understood intellectually that it hadn’t been his own doing; he’d been used by Bester. That didn’t help.

   "What was that phrase that meant ‘I accuse myself’?" he thought.

   He knew he should be able to remember the words, but somehow he could not. Life had started going downhill a long time ago. It didn’t look like there was any uphill in sight. He was beaten. He knew it. If he were able, he’d do something crazy—find a gun, an open airlock, some of those toxins they’d used on John. He just wanted to die, but he wasn’t able…that wasn’t going to be allowed.

   Alfred Bester sat half-reclining in a well-padded chair behind a glassy desktop aboard the Earth Force cruiser "Tempest." Before him stood a frozen figure at attention and yet ‘moreso.’ Unless one were to look very carefully and note the subtle rising and falling of the chest or listen and hear the ragged sound of air passing between stilled lips, one wouldn’t have even known that Michael Garibaldi was still alive.

   Bester was talking to him, but Michael didn’t react. Michael couldn’t react.

   "You did well," the Psi Cop’s lisping voice proclaimed. "Very well. Maybe we can even arrange a decoration from Earth Force for this one."

   Michael didn’t move, didn’t flinch. Within him something had already died. He didn’t want a decoration from Earth Force. He didn’t want any of this. He was tired—of what he was, of what he had become, of the things they had made him do.

   "Of course," Bester continued, "it would have been better if you could have brought back both of them. Both of them would have been the ‘coup de grace.’ It would have spelled the absolute final end of the rebellion. But, you did well. Taking her may cripple Sheridan more than our ‘fearless leader’ would have us believe."
Alfred Bester steepled his fingers on the desktop before him. He did not have a lot of use for President Clark. The Earth Alliance President was a tool Mr. Bester intended to use, not the other way around. And, whereas Clark had been adamant about getting Captain Sheridan back, somehow it made sense to the telepath that taking Delenn away from John would do as much or more damage to the rebellion than would have been done by simply recapturing the renegade leader. Still Clark was the ‘boss’ and Bester assumed they would now be launching yet another plan to get Sheridan. But, they had Delenn.

   Delenn was unconscious at the moment in a cell far below him in the vast ship. She was guarded by twice the normal contingent of security personnel—male and female. She was alive. He could say that much. He doubted she’d be very comfortable when she woke up. Their handling of her had not been particularly gentle and he hadn’t meant for it to be. She had caused him not quite but almost as much trouble as John Sheridan himself.

   "How dare she? How dare she attempt to meld her D.N.A. with human D.N.A.? How dare she attempt to proclaim herself a ‘bridge between the races?’" Bexter fumed silently. He knew. He remembered how many humans had died in the Earth-Minbari war. The numbers had been staggering. He knew. He remembered. Many of those that had died, he had known by name. Many of those who had died had been civilians; many had been trying to surrender. Her people had slaughtered hundreds, thousands, hundreds of thousands. The Minbari had shown no mercy, and he meant to show no mercy. What the President did with her once he got her was President Clark’s problem…or rather when he got what was left of her.

   "You have been…" Mr. Bester began to speak again for Garibaldi’s benefit, "…Extremely useful, but I’m beginning to wonder if your usefulness is coming to an end."

   Michael didn’t flinch, he couldn’t, but a coldness grew around his heart and with it a small spark of hope. Maybe, just maybe, that ‘bastard’ was going to let him go. Maybe, just maybe, they’d release the hold long enough, let him get to a weapon. He didn’t even care whose weapon or what weapon. He just couldn’t live like this any more.

   "You know, of course," Bester went on, "that as soon as the last of our forces passed through the jumpgate we blew the station. Babylon Five is no more."

   Michael hadn’t known. Had he been standing under his own power, his knees would have given out and he would have collapsed at that news. A quarter-million living beings on his conscience and he’d thought one was enough.

   "You really did very well finding the people to plant the bomb. You really did very well seeing that those ‘lose ends’ were taken care of. However, you did fail to bring me Sheridan. For that, I fear, there must be a price."

   Just as he could not collapse, Michael could not cringe, but he wanted to. Bester’s prices were never easy to pay. Within his own mind, he became aware of the intrusive presence. Not the speaking voice, but bolts of white-hot agony that traveled along his synapses moving from one to the next and then the next until all he could do, all he could do was scream silently. Down one cheek ran a single tear, the only visible reaction to the price exacted.

   "When we get back to Earth," Bester continued, "I will see to it that there is an accommodation made for you. There are some of the very best facilities there for dealing with aberrations such as you have become." And Michael knew his tormentor was talking about a cell with padded walls and no hope at all.

   Bester pushed a button on the desktop before him and two security guards entered. When they left, they took Michael with them, not handling him roughly, but moving him as one might move a mechanical toy—step-by-step, inch-by-inch, through no volition of his own. Michael was in there somewhere, but he was buried very deep. It felt like the hole was getting deeper by the moment.

---------------

   Lyta Alexander flinched startled by the tones of the door chimes from the chaotic turmoil of John Sheridan’s mind to the relative calm of his quarters. She wasn’t expecting anyone. She wasn’t afraid anyone was coming. She was simply shocked at being drawn so unexpectedly from one to the other.

    John was sedated. Stephen had insisted upon that, but the conditions inside of his head were no less traumatic than they had been mere hours before in Command and Control. He’d been prepared for many things. He’d lived through many things, survived, gotten beyond them, but not this—not losing Delenn.

   Lyta felt a single tear of sympathy slide down her own cheek. This wasn’t easy for any of them. She raised her head and responded to a second insistent chiming of the door.

   "Come in." The door opened and Susan Ivanova stood just outside.

   "How is he?" she asked.

   "Better and worse," Lyta replied.

   "He was so good, so good up in C&C, so good during the battle." Susan’s voice was full of hope and full of fear. She wanted to understand why. A part of her did. A part of her was simply shaken, shaken almost as badly as John had been. She, after all, had given the order that had let them take Delenn away from him.

   No sooner had she given that order than John had collapsed to float senseless above the blue-black metal deck in C&C. She had dispatched Lieutenant Jenkins and one of the other command staff members to get him to Med Lab as soon as possible. Med Lab, of course, had been chaos and when nothing was immediately physically wrong with him, he’d been shunted to his own quarters.

   By the time they got him to his quarters, Lyta was there already waiting for him…watching for him…knowing instinctively what Delenn’s abduction would do to him.

   "How deep is the sedation?" Susan asked.

   "Deep," Lyta responded, "Franklin doesn’t want him coming out of it for at least twenty-four hours, but…his mind hasn’t stopped yet, Susan. He just keeps going over and over and over…."

   Lyta stopped. This was private. This was personal. This was as intensely personal as anything could ever be. And she couldn’t tell anyone. That John had trusted her enough to let her participate in the healing they’d been able to accomplish up to now was a miracle.

   She hung her head and just said to Susan, "I can’t. I can’t tell you. I’d be breaking John’s confidentiality. I can’t. But, it’s not good!"

   Susan nodded her head understanding and not understanding. This had been hard on all of them. It was hard getting John back so confused and so lost, hard trying to undo the damage that Psi Corps and his captivity had done. Susan knew that, in the time between Delenn convincing John to let Lyta help and the wedding, there had been many sessions and John had worked hard. Lyta had worked as hard or harder: to build bridges between the pieces that were still there, to rebuild others that had ‘disappeared,’ to make the connections that he needed to carry on his life.

   Now, it almost seemed that within one moment of time, with this one event, Clark’s forces had again ripped away everything that they had regained. John’s eyes when he had turned away from her in C&C had been vacant, haunted, empty…as if he did not know, could not remember what was happening, where he was. Then he had collapsed, and she’d sent him to Stephen.

   "I know." Susan forced a small ‘very false’ smile onto tired lips and tried not to let her Russian-pessimism color her next words. "All you can do, all any of us can do is try."

   She forced herself to turn away from John’s still form. She had been standing in the open doorway to his sleeping quarters staring vacantly into space.

   "I know you’ll help him, Lyta…and I understand that you can’t talk about it. I just wish there was some way, I could make it easier for you."

   Susan sighed. "At least let me make you some tea. He seems to be resting."

   "Seems to be," Lyta replied.

   "John keeps Minbari teaballs in his cupboard. I know he does for…." Susan started to say and then realized why John kept Minbari teaballs. She knew in that moment that Lyta would also know why John kept them. This was going to be difficult. Quietly she offered, "Would you like a cup of tea?"

   Lyta shook her head ‘yes.’ She’d allow herself a cup of tea, a chance to sit back and rest, and then she’d try again. She couldn’t alter the flow of John’s thoughts, but she could offer a calming presence amid the swirling darkness.

   Susan nodded and moved soberly into John’s tiny kitchen space. Making tea shouldn’t be such a solemn event, but somehow it had become a symbolic act—an act of remembering. She settled one cup of the steaming fragrant tea in Lyta’s cool hands and the other in her own. The two of them sat in companionable if uncomfortable silence, and time passed.

---------------

   He was alone in a very empty place—far vaster and more frightening than any other he could ever remember. A dark corridor opened before him. Faint light shown at the far end of that passageway, but it was not enough to illuminate the portion where he stood. He followed it. He had to go somewhere. He knew he did. He had to find someone. He had to find Delenn.

   The thought of Delenn created a sense of urgency. He raced toward the light, but it never got closer. He turned corners, stumbled over unseen obstacles. The air around him got hot. It burned his skin, made his eyes water. Around him the air became cold, frigid. His feet were heavy as though encased in ice. Breathing was difficult. There was no end to his torment. He fought to find an end, a way to Delenn.

   Somewhere in the back of his brain he knew he had been sedated. He knew someone, Stephen probably, had done it for his own good, but it didn’t feel like anything good. It kept him trapped in this world of shadows, in a corridor with no way out, no way of finding what he’d lost, what had been taken from him.

   He cried out. No one heard. He pounded on the hard, barren walls of the space confining him. Sometimes they were made of metal-alloy and plastic, the walls of Babylon Five. Sometimes they were hard, cold reddish stone and clay, the unforgiving walls of Mars. He was lost again. He hated it.

   He turned another corner. Now the corridor was lined with doors. If only he could open the right one, he knew that she’d be there. The doors were locked—all of them. He pounded on them ‘til his fists were bloodied. He threw himself against them, breaking them open, ramming them with a shoulder that mercifully didn’t hurt in this ‘other’ world. Still every time he rounded a corner, every time he opened a door, she was not there. He could not find her.

   A part of him died with each corner and each door. A part of him gave up.

   He remembered the Grylor, the beast that had attacked him in reality long, long ago and more recently in illusion on Babylon Five. That beast had tried to takes pieces of him with claws that grabbed and teeth that tore at the skin of his arms and back. He still bore scars from the real Grylor’s attack. Those scars had helped him to recreate that memory. Lyta—he remembered Lyta helping him to remember about those scars. Not that he’d particularly wanted to bring back ‘that’ memory. Still it was his memory. It had happened to him.

   He cried out again with a voice of anger and bitterness, frustration and fear. All he heard in his own head were meaningless sounds and imprecations raised against the Universe. He was so divorced from reality that he did not even realize the screaming voice was his.

   "This is hell!" he thought and heard Sebastian’s voice like an echo.

   "This is hell, Captain, and you are its chief damned soul."

   He fell, bruisingly onto the corridor floor, and lay on his back. From nowhere a blanket of organic membrane appeared and covered his body from throat to feet. He struggled against it to no effect. The ceiling opened and an automated surgical unit descended. Probes flashed even in the darkness and he heard the high-pitched squeal of miniature scalpels and saws. He’d been here before, too, and he hadn’t escaped. He had been tortured. He was being tortured. It was happening again.

   The membrane held his body, tightening until he could not breathe, until he could no longer struggle. Clamps secured his head, though he tried to prevent them thrashing wildly against all restraint. He felt a prick—and a lassitude that overwhelmed his defenses. He hurt. My God, did he hurt. There was nothing he could do to stop it.

   He stood on a precipice. No choice here either. There was no choice but death—death behind him, death above him, a yawning chasm and death below. He heard a voice—Kosh?

   "Jump now!" He jumped.

   If there was a bottom he did not find it. If there was pain he did not feel it. He was not in pain; he was simply numb. If he died, then he died. It could not hurt more than living.

    

    

 

Chapter 29 ~ Cabbages and Kings

    

    

    

   'Babylon Five, Conference Room, Blue Sector’

    "It’s a lot like what we went through after you were captured." Susan Ivanova was addressing the entire command staff, but had singled John out because he was the one who would not remember what that earlier time had been like. "They won’t negotiate with us—with any of those they consider renegades or rebels."

   John looked angry. He had fought, was fighting his way back to reality with the help of Lyta and Susan. He was dealing with what the Earth Alliance Forces had done to his station, his home. Repairs were still being made. Condolences had been extended to all the off-world casualties’ governments and family connections. He had even managed to be present at the Memorial Service for the fallen Babylon Five pilots and crew. But, what he really wanted was Delenn back and safe in his arms. He definitely did not understand why this couldn’t be accomplished.

   "They barely talked to me, and…" Susan gulped this wasn’t going to be easy for her to say or for John to hear, "…the only way Clark’s representative says the President would even consider looking at you was ‘in chains.’"

   Susan’s pent-up frustration showed in the high color in her cheeks. Oh, how she hated President Clark. She’d never particularly liked the man, but now he had given her more than ample reason to despise him.

   "But, but…there’s got to be a way." He didn’t know what it was, but he knew he had to find it. He began to feel again as he had during those first awful hours—lost and alone searching for an ‘impossibility’ amid chaos.

   Stephen Franklin kept a close eye on the captain. Without taking his pulse, the doctor knew it was fast and probably getting faster. John was definitely upset. Maybe including him in these meetings had been a mistake, but he didn’t know how they could have excluded him. Sheridan was making improvement again. However, his wife’s abduction had been a horrendous setback for the man. Much as he had faith in medical science, he knew that without Delenn’s reassuring and calming presence they might never see their captain totally recovered. Still, that wasn’t grounds to exclude him.

   John drew a deep breath. He tried to put on at least an outwardly calm appearance for Franklin’s benefit. He shuddered, just once, before beginning.

   "If this happened before, when I was captured, then you must have some idea how to deal with the situation." He looked around the table and waited for one of them to speak.

   "We did the best we could, John." Susan was the first one to break the silence. "It took us too long. If we had only known what you were going through. We knew they had you incarcerated, but none of us knew for sure about the interrogation or the extent to which they abused and tortured you."

   She stopped. She hadn’t said everything she wanted to, but she found she could no longer speak and meet his eyes. She and many others felt responsible for what had happened to him.

   Zack attempted to carry on.

   "I think what Susan’s trying to say, what we all feel, is that we can’t let Delenn go through what you did."

   "And you think sitting here and doing nothing is better?"

   "No, no, Captain," Londo leaned forward and raised his voice slightly. "We know what must be done. We have after all done this before. The unfortunate part is that last time we tried many, many variations before giving in to Earth’s demands. And in the end we had to give them everything they asked for at that very first meeting."

   "For the sake of diplomacy, we shall have to do a little bickering, but I can tell you now, based on experience, that the price for your wife’s release has been set—despite being couched in sarcasm. What President Clark wants, captain, is ‘you.’"

   John sat back. Not quite surprised; not quite shocked. He had always known that the President of Earth was a sadistic son of a bitch.

   "Is it a price I can pay?" John found himself wondering. He cleared his throat and addressed the assembled command staff and members of the Army of Light.

   "Then," John began in a very quiet voice. "...This isn’t about what Earth wants, but about whether or not I can meet President Clark’s price."

   The Bakiri and Drazi representatives had the grace to look away. They did not believe that they could have done so. Turning oneself over to a known enemy with no struggle was, indeed, a test of courage. They wouldn’t blame the captain if he couldn’t do it. In fact, they might feel a little bit better about themselves if he could not.

    "I seem to keep having to make this decision." John glanced ruefully around the large table and toward those standing around the walls of the station’s largest conference room. "To save a fleet of Earth transports, I had to choose to make my ship a target. For that I’ve been called ‘Starkiller’ and despised by the Minbari."

    Susan knew he was talking about the Earth-Minbari War and his daring maneuver that had destroyed a Minbari cruiser, the ‘Black Star.’

    "To save a city in the future from ‘destruction worse than death.’ I gambled with my life. I lost and, yet, I thought I’d won." No one around the table understood, except possibly Lennier. John didn’t think Delenn had told her aide about their experiences on Babylon Four, about his experiences ‘in the future.’ He hadn’t even told her all of them.

    "I’ve done as much for ‘the many,’ maybe it’s time I did it for ‘the One.’" John caught the expression in Lennier’s eyes and in Marcus’. They knew, if no one else did, the double meaning behind what he had just said.

    "Who will they talk to? Who will they negotiate seriously with?" he asked quietly.

   Lennier, standing patiently before one of the gigantic Babylon Five symbols bowed politely to no one in particular, but in John’s general direction. John had made his decision and simultaneously taken over the meeting. They were his—every living, breathing one of them. They would follow him anywhere. It was a little like a miracle.

   The young Minbari could almost hear Delenn’s voice reciting the ancient rites of their people: "Will you follow me into fire, into darkness, into death?" He had known for a long time that he would follow her. Now, he was discovering there was another he would follow as well—a man he had learned to call ‘Starkiller’ and then learned to call friend.

   "I will speak with them." Lennier spoke softly but let his voice carry across the room. Many of the things he had learned in temple were finally having a practical application. "I believe it would be appropriate, though I may not make them comfortable, because I am her friend as well as her aide."

   Londo began to break in, but Lennier would not let him. "Minbar could dispatch another to serve the same function, I am aware of that, but that ‘one’ would not know her as well as I." Lennier lowered his voice, but maintained his concentration, turning to John as he spoke. "I can think of only one other who would know her better, and we have already heard they will not speak with him."

   John looked steadily at the young assistant ambassador. "When he grows up, he’s going to be formidable," he caught himself thinking.

   "Thank you, Lennier," he said aloud.

   "If you do not object," Londo left a pause for what he considered the very real possibility of an objection, "I, also, will undertake this task. As I said before, there will need to be some diplomatic by-play, but we will not leave her with them any longer than we absolutely have to. Is that acceptable to you?" Londo wanted a direct response from John.

   "That is acceptable, ambassador, more than acceptable. You are to be commended for being willing to go knowingly into such a situation."

   "I will do what I must, captain. Will you be ready to do what you must?"

   "I’ll be ready." No one questioned him. No one dared.

   "With a little help from a friend," he thought. His eyes sought and found Lyta’s. "I’ll be ready," he repeated.

---------------

   Lyta awoke from a dream, a nightmare. At least, she thought it had been a dream. It was hard to be sure. Michael’s voice still echoes inside her mind. Michael had been talking to her—not the new brittle, hard-nosed Michael, but the original, unadulterated version. He had even seemed to smile, trying to reassure her.

   Michael, in her dream or whatever it was, had wanted her to know that Delenn was all right. They were holding her on Earth. Conditions weren’t the best, but there had been no interrogation sessions. They were feeding her and such abuse as she was suffering was largely verbal. As long as they didn’t try her for war crimes from the Earth-Minbari War, there really wasn’t much they could do to her except keep her in a cell.

   His one concern was that they had told her—actually arranged for her to find out ‘accidentally’—that the station had been destroyed, that John and everyone aboard Babylon Five was dead. Delenn had believed them. Hell, he’d believed them himself when they’d initially told him. He’d believed the lie until he’d found out about the attempted negotiations for Delenn’s release. Dead folks don’t negotiate too well.

   Lyta could still hear Michael’s quiet chuckle. It had come right before his ‘howls’ of agony. She didn’t know what they had done, were doing to him, but she knew beyond a shadow of a doubt Michael Garibaldi was in excruciating pain.

   She sat on the side of her bed, covers pulled up around her shoulders. She wasn’t sure what was real. He hadn’t broken his link with her. She wasn’t sure that he could, and if what they were doing to him was real and she could help him by staying linked neither would she.

   There was a brief respite and Michael’s voice was back. It came in short gasps as though he was panting and forcing the words out between exhalations.

   "I’ll be all right. Just let me go. He won’t kill me. I’m too useful. Just a little—negative reinforcement. I didn’t do what they wanted. I didn’t give them John. Not this time."

   This time when Michael tried to slip away, Lyta let him go. She had no proof that what she had experienced was the truth, but she had a definite feeling that Delenn wasn’t the only Babylon Five representative on Earth who needed rescuing.

---------------

   Londo Mollari, Lennier of the Third Fain of Chu’Domo, and Vir Cotto left the offices of the Third Secretary to the President of the Earth Alliance moving with grim determination. They had been stalled by bureaucratic red tape for over two weeks and Londo, for one, was through with it. His ebony fan of hair quivered with rage.

   At the portal that opened into President Clark’s personal office, armed guards—Clark’s elite force—moved to block their passage.

   "Gentlemen," Londo warned without raising his voice, "that would be most inadvisable."

   The guards chose to ignore his warning.

   Vir hissed in sympathetic pain as first one and then the other guard when down. Lennier closed his fighting pike with an audible ‘click,’ and the threesome entered the outer of office of President Clark’s domain.

   "Yes?" A gray haired human female sat behind the broad mahogany desk. There were piles of papers neatly stacked in a variety of baskets before her. Some were marked; others were blank. Vir could not imagine what it was all for.

   "Do you have an appointment?" she asked.

   "We are making an appointment," Londo informed her, "right now. Would you be so kind as to inform the President that we are here?"

   "I…he’s…this is most irregular."

   "I’m quite sure it is, my dear Lady. I do try to make my life and the lives of others around me as exciting as possible." Londo lowered his chin and beetled his somewhat large and definitely imposing eyebrows at her. "The President?"

   "One moment, please." She picked up an antique handset from the desk before her and spoke softly into it.

   "Privacy shield," Lennier thought, watching her lips and unable to detect any sound whatsoever. "Very well done, too."

   "The President’s secretary will see you," the woman informed them, motioning them through the large oak door to her left.

   "Secretary?" Londo expelled a long sigh. "I suppose we must play the game by his rules." He shrugged and motioned his two companions to precede him. Passing the large desk he leaned down and whispered something to the now blushing lady. He stroked her cheek with one finger and moved to join them.

   "Londo, how could you at a time like this?" Vir reprimanded the Centauri ambassador. He was one of a very small number of people allowed to do so. Being an ambassador’s aide had to have some privileges after all.

   "If I had not, she would have had a full squad of military personnel in here behind our backs the moment our backs were turned. Now," he smiled somewhat dreamily, "she has something else to occupy her thoughts."

   "You didn’t tell her…?" Vir had an image of just what Londo might have said to the obviously flustered female.

   "No, no, Vir. I only told her about, shall we say, the possibilities." Londo beamed happily. "The rest she will make up in her own mind…and my reputation shall increase." His chuckle disappeared when the next office contained no one except the aforementioned squad of Earth Force marines. "I must be losing my touch," he sighed.

   "Mr. Ambassador, gentlemen, if I may escort you back to your ‘official’ appointment." The officer in charge was polite, but firm.

   Londo went, not happily. This was not going to take as long as it had the last time. It was ‘not.’

---------------

   John and Lyta sat alone in a small isolation room adjacent to Med Lab One. Stephen was close enough so that, if they needed him, he could respond immediately. John had asked for Lyta’s help, and she was trying to help him. Unfortunately there was only so much that she could do. Captain Sheridan was not a trained telepath. In fact, he was as non-telepathic as anyone Lyta had ever encountered.

   "Captain, I’m going to try one more time. Unless Stephen approves an increase in the medication level, there’s nothing more we can do. You need to relax. I know this isn’t easy for you. You need to simply let go and trust me."

   She smiled at him encouragingly. "You know," she added, "if we succeed, I’m going to be putting a lot of trust in you, too."

   "I know." His voice was quiet. He wished he was more confident in what they were doing. Playing with his life was one thing. He was concerned about the others involved: Londo, Vir, Lennier, Lyta, and—of course—Delenn.

   He would get through this somehow.

   "Ready when you are," he informed her.

   As Lyta closed her eyes, the door to the isolation unit opened. She opened them quickly and turned to face Stephen Franklin. He had the largest smile on his face that she had ever seen, and for no apparent reason.

   ‘No apparent reason’ that is until the door cycled again and David Sheridan appeared over the doctor’s right shoulder.

   "Dad!" John’s voice broke. He wanted to know all the details, but first—first he just wanted to get to his father.

   "Johnny!" There was no need for other words. The older man reached out to the younger and both wept unashamedly. Lyta slid into the corner and made herself as small as possible. She wasn’t sure what was happening, but she’d been in John’s mind enough to know that he hadn’t anticipated this.

   "I thought…." John found he couldn’t say it.

   "I know what you thought, Johnny. We had to let you believe it. I’m sorry we hurt you son." As Sheridan Senior finished speaking the door cycled again and John’s mother appeared.

   "Mom!" The tears that had begun with his father’s appearance just kept falling. He tried desperately to hug them both at once, but found he didn’t have enough arms. His father released him and stepped back beside Lyta.

   "I don’t know everything that’s happened," David Sheridan told the smiling telepath, "but I do know you’ve helped John. Thank you." He reached to shake her hand, and she turned it into a hug.

   "I think," she whispered into his ear, "the two of you will do more to help him in the next five minutes than I’ve done in the last five weeks."

   The door kept cycling and new faces kept appearing. Liz, Dan, the children cycling through together, and finally G’Kar. John felt as if reality had suddenly remade itself—for the better. The room was crowded but he didn’t feel claustrophobic. This was the kind of crowd he’d always wanted to be in…a crowd of family and friends.

   G’Kar moving through the smiling, hugging mass of Sheridan’s family, sought and found Lyta. He wrapped the petite, redheaded telepath in a huge hug.

   "I have missed you," he couldn’t seem to find any other words.

   "And I you." She returned his hug enthusiastically and then drew back. "We thought you were dead—all of you." Somehow in the chaos of greetings her words carried across the room to Doctor Franklin who had the grace to look at least a little cowed.

   "It was part of the plan," the doctor began. "We wanted everyone safe here on Babylon Five, but we knew the most dangerous time was going to be when they returned you, " he motioned to John, "to the station."

   "I’d made arrangements with Drall before I ever left," G’Kar explained. "When it became obvious that all of our ships were going to converge here at the same time, I simply took ‘these’ with me down to the planet. It was one small shuttle slipping away amidst the mayhem of all those waiting ships. No one noticed us."

   "We should have only been there a few days," John’s mother tried to explain. "But then there were the explosions and you were not well. It seemed the safest place for us still was down there."

   Remembering how close the station had come to being blown up during the most recent attack, John couldn’t argue with that. "But why wasn’t I informed?"

   Lyta answered him. "For the same reason I wasn’t. I’d bet on it." She felt his attention focus on her. "It would only have taken one rogue telepath from any race or one Psi Cop working undercover to pick the information out of either of our minds, especially when I’m working with you, when my inner defenses are down."

   John nodded that almost made sense. "But the wedding. Oh, Mom, I wish you could have been there. She was so beautiful."

   Now it was John’s mother’s turn to blush.

   Stephen spoke up. "They were there, John. That was my doing. I thought Susan was going to skin me alive for it afterwards. No one suspected and we got them back down to the planet before…."

   "Before the ‘shit hit the fan’" John finished for him.

   "That’s one way of putting it."

   "I don’t know or care how you did it. I’m just eternally grateful." John wiped a tear of happiness from the corner of his eye. "Do they know about…?"

   "They know, John. One of the reasons they’re here now is to help us help you get ready for her release."

   Sheridan nodded, accepting the doctor’s statement at face value. Franklin was giving him a chance to say good-bye to those he loved. They’d also serve to create a ‘stir’ on the station that should take some pressure off of what he and Lyta were attempting. At least he hoped so. He had to be ready. Any day now the call would come and he would have to go. He’d have to really say good-bye.

   "It’s just so good to see you all. Thank you for coming, for trusting us—my friends—to take care of you. I love you, all of you."

   Dan, Lizzy’s husband, and his oldest nephew looked a tad taken aback by his last statement, but John found he didn’t care. He meant every word of it.

   He hadn’t started this ‘fight’ with Clark, but now finally he felt strong enough to ‘finish it.’

    

    

 

 

Chapter 30 ~ For Love

    

    

    

   'Earth, Geneva’

    Cold wind blew down from the snow-capped mountains surrounding the city of Geneva. It raised white caps on the city’s namesake lake, and swept across the adjacent launch-blackened landing field. Captain John J. Sheridan stepped determinedly off the Babylon Five shuttle and onto the hard, black pavement of that field. He stood back straight, eyes alert, and body tense. What he was about to do was perhaps the hardest thing he had ever done.

    John shivered, then shook his head to clear it. It had been mid-summer when Delenn was taken. Now it was fall and the lower hillsides surrounding the landing field at Earth Dome were splashed with vibrant autumn colors. Higher up the reds and golds of changing oak and maple leaves gave way to the darker more somber hues of unchanging pine and fir forests. The top of every peak surrounding the celestial blue lake was capped with new fallen snow. The air around him carried the chill of those first snows of winter. He shivered again, but it had nothing to do with air temperature. Anticipation was sometimes worse than actuality.

    Along the edges of the usually busy landing field a large and unfriendly crowd had gathered. It was comprised mostly of reporters and military personnel. This was, in the eyes of Earth Gov, a big day for Earth. John grimaced, then schooled his features into a quiescent mask. They would get only what he was required to deliver—himself. He straightened his shoulders and squared his Army of Light uniform tunic pulling the bottom hem taut. He had been a soldier too long not to stand at attention as he waited for what Londo would have called this ‘negotiated charade’ to play itself out.

    Across the field sat a Psi Corps shuttle like a large black bug squatting in a puddle of shadow. This time Psi Corps had been ready and waiting when the shuttle from Babylon Five arrived. John had wasted no time disembarking after his transport was on the ground. He wanted this over with quickly. As he watched several black-clad guards—tall and massive looking even at a distance—exited the black ship and took up stations at the bottom of its ramp.

   John held his breath. "Patience," he felt the small voice within himself thinking. "Wait. Don’t rush this."

    Then, just when he feared something had gone irrevocably wrong, down the ramp from the interior of the enemy craft came three more figures. Two members of Bester’s elite guard escorted a slightly swaying female. His heart leapt. It was Delenn. He let himself breathe again.

    Londo and G’Kar waiting just inside the Babylon Five shuttle drew deep breaths as well. With negotiations one was never sure of the final outcome until the very end. Londo said a brief prayer to the Great Maker and G’Kar invoked G’Quan’s name. So far, so good….

   Doctor Franklin, Babylon Five’s chief medical officer, and Lieutenant Jenkins, one of the female command staff who had become friendly with Ambassador Delenn in the months before the wedding, were more concerned with the immediate needs of their captain and his wife. They moved down their shuttle’s ramp to join John. He waved them away. He neither needed nor wanted their help—not now. This he had to do alone. It would be enough if they were there for Delenn.

    Taking another very deep breath, the leader of the Army of Light began the long, measured walk across the use-blackened tamarack of Earth Dome’s landing field.

   I.S.N. and other newsgroups had only been waiting for this moment. Miniature cameras floated around the man like buzzing gnats recording his every movement and change of expression. He fought back an impulse to swat a particularly intrusive cam that hovered just within his arm’s length on the edge of his peripheral vision.

    The last time John Sheridan had walked across this field, his eyes had been tightly closed and he had had no way of knowing where he was or what was going on. He had been the prisoner being ‘exchanged.’ Later he had seen tapes of that day—after he had begun to remember—after it didn’t hurt so much. It had been spring, and the warm sun had felt good on his skin. He remembered. He paused now about a third of the way across the field waiting for Psi Corps to fulfill its part of the bargain. It did.

   The thin metallic restraints were removed from his wife’s wrists and from her proudly arched throat. Were they paingivers? He couldn’t be sure at this distance. The tilt of her chin, however, told him that despite the slight instability she had exhibited earlier Earth Gov and the Psi Corps were indeed releasing the ambassador from Minbar, the woman he loved, the other half of his soul, and not a marionette. He smiled—sadly. He had always known that she was at least as strong as he was. Perhaps, he decided, she was stronger.

    Delenn began walking slowly, but unassisted, across the field towards him. John could feel her eyes on him before he could clearly read her facial expression. He moved forward again himself. The plan was for them to meet and pass in the center of the field. It seemed so strange like moving in a dream or like being a character in one of those sappy romantic vids where the hero and heroine run to each other in melodramatic slow motion.

   John and Delenn met very near the middle of the field and suddenly neither the crowd nor the news cameras mattered. The negotiated agreement hadn’t call for them to stop in midfield but they did, and I.S.N. for one didn’t complain. This was great programming and free, too. Wrapping his arms tightly around her, he hugged her to him. Their reunion was both wonderfully sweet and terrifyingly bitter.

    Delenn hugged her husband fiercely and buried her face in his chest. She was crying. He could tell, not because of tears on her cheeks—those somehow she was holding inside—but because of the shuddering sobs that racked her thin body. She had lost weight. He gentled his grip lest he hurt her. She felt like a will-o-wisp in his arms, so fragile, so delicate, and he loved her so much.

    It had been almost two months since their wedding day, almost two months since she had been taken from him. With one infinitely gentle finger, he raised her chin and looked into her eyes. They were green as the sea after a storm and deep as the emptiness of space itself. He kissed her then enfolding her in his arms as if he could somehow absorb her within his own being and take away the pain of their long separation.

    When the kiss ended he spoke just three words, "I love you." Tentative hands reached up touching his chest, his shoulders, and finally his face. It was almost as if she had to prove to herself that he was ‘really’ there. Once she satisfied herself that he was indeed real, she smiled at him and leaned forward for another kiss caressing his lips with her own.

    "Oh, John." She let her face bury itself against the black fabric of his uniform again. She had something to tell him that was only for his ears. He strained his ears to hear her soft syllables.

   "John, we are going to have a child." Her voice trembled.

   Then it was his turn to smile with joy—for her and for what was to be.

   "I know."

   She looked at him somewhat startled. His voice had deepened and it still had something of the soft burr his captivity had left him with, but there was no hesitation, no doubt. How could he have known? But he had and he was pleased. Of that there was no doubt at all. He had not questioned for even a second that her words were true or that the baby she carried was his child conceived the night of their marriage—the night they’d been pulled apart.

   It seemed to John as if he had almost always known that they would have a child one day. He had never told her about everything he had learned in his ‘future flashes’ when he been ‘unstuck’ in time. It seemed so long ago now. At first it had seemed too unreal and too embarrassing and then later it had seemed unnecessary. Delenn-of-the-future had told him that their ‘son’ was safe. Now he found himself rewarded for his long-held patience with the surety that this child was indeed his and would be a son. He wondered fleetingly if he should tell her to name him ‘David’ and then decided it wasn’t necessary. If it was meant to be, it would be. Now he just had to find the courage to walk away from her and fulfill his end of this ‘devil’s bargain.’

   "Delenn." He spoke her name like a prayer willing her to understand how much she was loved. "Stephen and Lieutenant Jenkins will take care of you. I…." His voice broke as he hesitated. "I have to go. I have to take care of something now."

   He released her then as Stephen and Kate Jenkins reached them, turning her gently to face the doctor and letting her go. There was something in John’s face that made Stephen Franklin shudder—determination, courage, and an expression of loss beyond the ken of the rest of the world. An author long ago had called it the look of a brave man going knowingly to his death. Stephen saluted John with his eyes and motioned the young lieutenant to escort Delenn back towards the Babylon Five shuttle.

   "Good luck!" Impulsively, Stephen held out his hand. John took it feeling the firmness in the doctor’s grip.

   "Thanks," he responded ending the handshake and resetting his sights on his goal—the ebony ship waiting for him to come aboard.

   Striding purposefully to Psi Corps’ shuttle, John Sheridan didn’t let himself flinch externally as Delenn cried out from behind him.

   "No! John! You can not!"

   He wasn’t sure if it would have been easier for her to not know, to not have figured out what was happening. This would never have been John’s first choice. He had no desire to die a martyr, but allowing Earth Gov to keep Delenn and use her hadn’t really been a choice either. Reaching the ominous black ship, he presented himself as payment in full for the safe return and release of his wife. Guards closed in around him blocking the news cameras’ access to the scene. Bands of black metal attached to a Gordian knot of chains were swiftly fitted to his wrists and ankles.

   "John…." He could still faintly hear her voice diminishing with distance and weakening as Stephen’s tranquilizer flooded her system. John turned and raised one hand, acknowledging Delenn’s pain and praying she would understand someday why he had had to do this.

   When he turned back to the black shuttle, the telepaths were ready for him. There was a gradual deadening of his senses as powerful psi cops moved around him and one, apparently a higher level telepath or leader among them, indicated that he should climb the shuttle’s ramp. It was all so very civilized in a sterile, soul-crushing way.

   "Oh, God!" He had come so far, dared so much. He prayed silently for the strength to do what had to be done: to put one foot in front of the other and walk up the sloping metal. Somehow he did it.

   At the top of the ramp two grinning guards with balled fists were waiting for him. They wasted no time clarifying his position. Looking up from the cold metal deck John realized that it could have been worse. A beating, no matter how badly it might hurt, he figured he could survive. There were other things they could have done that he wasn’t so sure about surviving. He still had nightmares and he broke into a cold sweat just thinking about the ‘leash’ that Psi Corps had used on him the last time he had been their captive.

   A black-booted foot connected with John’s newly healed shoulder. He gasped trying to catch his breath and curled trying to protect himself, knowing there was really no way to do so. It didn’t go on long. This was just the overture, not the symphony.

   Two black uniformed, stern-faced telepaths grasped his arms and pulled him back onto his feet. Blood dripped from his nose and from a jagged cut at the corner of his mouth. He could stand—not quite straight—but he could stand. They propelled him rapidly to the shuttle’s small cabin and thrust him inside.

   Alfred Bester was waiting for him.

   "Captain, how nice of you to join me." The lisping voice hadn’t changed. Neither had the sneer. The head of the Psi Cops reached confidently into his captive’s mind. It was so easy to simply take over when the prisoner was a mundane.

   John raised his eyes to meet Bester’s. This was the moment he’d been praying for, the one he and Lyta and the command staff had counted on occurring. It was the moment he had gambled his life on…and it looked like he had won. John’s eyes were no longer the hazel orbs they had been. Instead they glowed with a vital turquoise light that jumped like liquid fire from one man to the other.

   Mr. Bester didn’t scream. He may have tried. His mouth moved, but no sound came out of it.

   "Yes!" John heard Lyta’s chortle of victory as she stepped from his mind into that of her nemesis and overrode the lisping telepath’s will.

   Bester had expected to step into the restored but still damaged mind and memories of John Sheridan—for a telepath of his caliber a ‘walk in the park.’ Instead he had found within Sheridan’s mind a ‘surprise package’ in the form of Lyta Alexander—a very powerful, still-growing, Vorlon-enhanced telepath—who had no love for him or for his methods. Lyta had chosen to ‘piggy-back’ her abilities within his captive’s mind. It hadn’t been easy, but with John’s cooperation, it had been possible. She had learned much from the Vorlons about carrying others within oneself and, after all, John did have something of a predisposition for carrying pieces of Vorlons.

   Pale blue-green light pulsed and flowed from every opening in John’s head connecting him to the corresponding orifices in the psi cop’s body. From the outside, it was impossible to tell which one was controlling or attempting to control the other. The security staff monitoring Bester’s private quarters shivered believing this to be yet another tool their boss was using to destroy Captain Sheridan.

   Under Lyta’s influence, moving as though through deep water, Alfred Bester fetched the key to the restraints holding the captain captive…though it was a moot point at that moment which one of the two was captor or captive. Slipping it into the locks he released the black semi-organic loops and chains. They fell with a clatter to the metal deck—unneeded, unwanted. John rubbed his wrists furtively, striving to keep his own thoughts from disturbing Lyta at work.

   Swiftly the rebellion’s key telepath rummaged through Bester’s mind finding and using codes that would allow the two of them—Bester and Sheridan—to walk out of this room and back to the B5 shuttle. Bester reluctantly, helplessly gave Lyta everything she wanted.

   When the cabin door opened scant minutes later, Bester motioned John to precede him through it. They walked together moving naturally. Bester had none of the wooden gait that had marked John’s telepath-controlled locomotion. Lyta was good. She was very good.

   Bester’s surface thoughts were calm and shielded. Only if you did a deep scan or looked into his eyes could you see the hatred and seething anger. She was doing this…that ‘bitch’ was doing ‘this’…to him. John could almost hear the echo of Lyta’s laughter in his mind. This was her ‘payback’ for everything Bester had done to both of them.

    Down the ramp, past guards who did not understand but knew enough not to question their boss, they walked side by side. No words were spoken, but telepathic signals were exchanged. Bester writhed watching his own silent system used against him. Sheridan, wisely, kept his eyes lowered. It would not pay to have even one of Bester’s trained goons catch the gleam of triumph in his eyes.

    Across the landing field, all the way to the base of the Babylon Five shuttle, Bester and Sheridan strode purposefully forward. Incredibly, suddenly, they were there. They had made it. He was going to get away.

    Captain John J. Sheridan brought his eyes up and looked long and hard at the raging Psi Corps major standing beside him. Bester looked to be at ease, apparently untroubled by transpiring events. It was a surface image only.

   "Thank you, Mr. Bester. That was most kind of you." John felt Lyta take the last necessary code from Bester’s mind, the one that would let them launch unhindered, and knew that she was pulling back out of Bester’s consciousness and into his own. He let one hand come up and wipe away the small trickle of blood at the corner of his mouth. He glanced down at the sticky wetness on his hand. "I hope we never have to do ‘business’ again." John wasn’t sure if the words were his or Lyta’s. The look the psi cop gave him definitely concurred.

   John stepped back onto his shuttle’s ramp and Lyta released her control of Alfred Bester. At first Bester was tempted to follow Sheridan’s retreating form, then realizing that this shuttle was already primed and ready to launch, he backed away towards the middle of the field. Sitting down hard on the black pseudo-stone, he brought his good hand up to cradle his aching head.

   "My God, no wonder they hate it when I do this to them," he thought incredulously. His head hurt from the synaptic backlash when Lyta had pulled out of him and his muscles hurt from fighting her control of his body. His pride hurt worst of all.

   He looked up as the silver and blue shuttle rose unhurriedly and in a rush of superheated air was gone. Only then did he realize that he could have, should have tried to stop it. "Damn her," he thought. She had even figured out how to create post-control suggestions.

   High above him the tiny silver dot that was Sheridan’s ship disappeared. He could still try to stop them using the Earth defense grid, but somehow he couldn’t get up from the tamarack—not yet. He could almost feel her still inside his mind. Not yet—and then, with the shuttle’s jump to hyperspace, finally the intrusive presence was gone.

   Point, set, and match to Babylon Five.

    

    

 

Epilogue ~ Faith Manages

    

    

    

   ‘Babylon Five, One Year Later’

    David Sheridan proudly cradled his quilt-wrapped grandson and namesake in the crook of his right arm. The baby fussed for just a moment and David joggled it with the experience of long practice. The tiny, dark haired figure found it fingers and settled back into a peaceful slumber unaware of the partying and turmoil surrounding it.

   It would be years before they would know if his grandson would bear the symbolic Minbari headbone declaring his dual heritage, but that didn’t bother Sheridan. He’d been an ambassador for enough years to know that differences were to be appreciated, not despised. For now the little miracle in his arms was simply to be loved. Later, perhaps, he like his parents would have a ‘destiny’ in the ‘universe.’ For now, he just needed a warm place to rest, family to love and protect him, and nourishment ‘on demand.’

   Sheridan chuckled. He was quiet sure this ‘little one’ kept his daughter-in-law very busy. It was strange to think that Delenn hadn’t always been part of his family, strange to remember his foreboding when first confronted with his son’s marriage to the Minbari ambassador. Now, Delenn was as much a part of their lives—his and Nancy’s—as Liz or Dan or, even, Johnny.

    David remembered the triumphant return of the Babylon Five shuttle to the station. He had only had to watch the two of them—his son and Delenn—to realize how deeply in love they were. And she had been so vulnerable, so much in need of their support and comfort. How could they have rejected her? He knew they could not.

    Stephen Franklin appeared at David Sheridan’s shoulder bearing a tray with glasses of what looked to be champagne and tiny edible-looking sandwiches.

    "How’s the ‘munchkin?’" Stephen inquired. It wasn’t a professional question, just conversation.

    "Fine, just fine." Sheridan wasn’t about to relinquish his grandson to anyone. "Hell of a party." Somehow he balanced baby and the brim-full champagne glass Stephen deposited in his hand.

    "We don’t get to celebrate often enough," Stephen joined the aging diplomat leaning against the freshly painted wall of the station’s observation dome. "And, this is surely worth celebrating."

    Both men smiled. Delenn and John’s son had been born five months earlier and that had been a celebration for the Sheridans and for Babylon Five. This was a party for all of Earth, Mars, the colony worlds, and Babylon Five as well.

    Earth had been liberated…finally.

   President Clark had committed suicide. He hadn’t even waited for them to enter the executive compound. There were lots of rumors about how he’d done it, but none of them mattered. He was gone.

   The Senate had been reestablished and in its first official act had freed all the Earth Alliance protectorates including Babylon Five. Those who had fought in the more than year long campaign to destroy Clark’s empire were granted amnesty, and the new President of the Senate had promised to establish laws to prevent such abuse of personal power from ever happening again.

   It was a worthwhile goal. David Sheridan just hoped it would truly come to pass.

   John and Delenn were dancing, holding each other close in the midst of the rhythmically moving crowd. They held each other tightly. Her head was buried against his son’s chest. Crowds still bothered her as they sometimes still bothered John. David thought they made a perfect couple. They looked like they never wanted to let go. That wasn’t such a bad thing. He hoped life would be kind to them, kinder than it had been thus far.

   Nancy Sheridan approached her distracted husband from the right and deftly lifted young David from his arms. She didn’t say anything. She didn’t need to. They had been married a long time and enjoyed the companionship that comes with knowing each other well. David wrapped his arm around her shoulders and gave her a gentle kiss on the temple. The three of them—four if you counted the baby—watched the richly deserved party unfold before them.

   "It’s too bad Lyta isn’t here," Stephen finally offered.

   "Yes," replied Mrs. Sheridan. "Someone said she went back to Earth."

   "Yup, some…unfinished business, I believe."

   David Sheridan chuckled again almost silently. "Unfinished business, indeed," he thought knowing that no one could have kept her from going. He was only glad he’d been able to ‘smooth’ her way with some of his diplomatic contacts.

    Lyta was on a private crusade to undo the injustices perpetrated by the Psi Corps. He had faith she’d accomplish her goal. And, he knew there was a little personal business mixed among the ‘greater good.’ She meant to find Michael Garibaldi, if she did nothing else.

    She hadn’t known for sure what Bester and the Psi Cops had done to or with Michael, but she had known that they had used him and, she believed, if anyone could help him she could. That she had a ‘soft-spot’ for the man was undeniable. From the time he had reached into her mind, at least she believed he had done it deliberately, to let her know that Delenn was all right, she had promised herself she would not abandon him or let others abandon him either.

   David Sheridan had been only too glad to help. He remembered the long months he and his wife had been in hiding on Earth from Clark’s elite forces. He remembered trying to deal with the realization that his son had been captured and hurt by those ‘bastards.’ He was not a man given to invective, but he could think of no other adequate descriptors for them.

   Even when he and Nancy had been sheltering on Epsilon Three, he had worked to stay abreast of on-going events. The perversions of power Clark had allowed and encouraged were going to leave scars in this part of the galaxy for a long time to come.

   Susan and Marcus danced past them laughing joyously at some private joke.

   Lieutenant Commander Corwin was on duty in C & C and Kate Jenkins had volunteered to work with him. David had seen Susan and Marcus sneak out earlier taking an extra-large helping of goodies to those on duty there with them.

   G’Kar and Londo sat at a small table on the far side of the room. They were, by the looks of things, debating some issue at great length. The Centauri ambassador barely paused in their discussion to accept a glass of bravari from Vir.

   It looked like things were going well. David mused wondering whether he and Nancy should be making plans to return to Earth now. Life was returning to normal. The White Stars would no longer need to be an offensive force. The Rangers would be able to return to protecting and defending. The ‘universe’ would take care of its own.

   Lennier approached and claimed the ‘heir apparent’ to Babylon Five. He, too, had made a long strange journey from temple acolyte to ambassadorial aide, from renegade to negotiator, and finally to nursemaid. It would not have been his first choice of occupation, but he was happy to serve Delenn in whatever way she saw fit.

   Nancy Sheridan let her grandson go. Watching Lennier handle the child with reverence and calm assurance, she remembered how close the little one had come to not existing—how close his parents had come to being killed—and she raised a silent prayer to the powers that be in the galaxy. It was a prayer of thanksgiving.

   "Faith manages."

    

The End



 

*****

 

 

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