The Witches of Eriadne:
Interlude Four S - Part 1: Alternatives

by The Space Witches

John makes a shocking discovery.
John makes a shocking discovery.

Chapter 1

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I--
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

2nd May 2273 - morning

Captain Gideon sat back in his chair, watching the roiling redness of hyperspace, visible through the front viewscreen. The sight was endlessly fascinating, as it was always different. Patterns appeared and vanished. Whirls and swirls, lines and waves, disturbed the endless crimson depths. Sometimes, Gideon could find himself almost hypnotized by the beauty of it, and he had to drag his eyes away, focusing on whatever boring detail presented itself next on his datapad. Other than the view, traveling through long stretches of hyperspace was deadly dull, and the Captain often wished for something to happen to relieve the boredom. The Communications Officer's next words reminded him to be careful what he wished for.

"Captain, I'm picking up a distress signal in normal space. It's very faint, but..." she paused as she put her hand to her headset, concentrating on what she could hear, "Yes, it's definitely an Earthforce signal, but I can't be sure which ship it is. It doesn't make sense, as it seems to be coming from us."

Gideon stood, moving to the front of the bridge to look over Lieutenant Siddhartha's shoulder. "What do you mean, us?"

Siddhartha shook her head. "The signal seems to be coming from the Excalibur. I know it must be a mistake, but that's what it sounds like."

Gideon raised his eyebrows and pursed his lips. "Well, we'd better find out who's using our call sign." He turned his head to look over at the helm. "Bring the jump engines back on line, Lieutenant."

Jackson nodded and replied with a crisp, "Yes, Sir." A few seconds later, she confirmed, "Jump Engines on line, ready to jump."

Gideon straightened from his examination of the incoming signal. "Jump." He hated mysteries. Mainly because he was too damn curious, [OK, nosy,] to ever leave one alone. He just had to find out what was going on. That innate curiosity had got him into trouble on more than one occasion, but he never seemed to learn. The Captain smiled to himself, as he remembered his wife calling him 'the elephant child', and warning him that one day he'd get his nose bitten by a crocodile. That, Deborah had told him, was how the elephant had gotten its long nose: sticking it into things where it didn't belong.

She'd gone on to make some rather unflattering comments about how his ears might also be compared to an elephant's, but Gideon pushed that thought away, lingering on the memory of how he'd punished her afterwards. He returned to his seat and put the datapad on his lap, before anyone could see the affect those thoughts had on him.

A hole had appeared in the redness ahead, like a great dark maw, into which the Excalibur plunged. Blackness surrounded them, as they dropped back into normal space, and Gideon asked, "Do you have a location on that distress signal yet, Lieutenant?"

Siddhartha shook her head, her long, black braids bouncing on her shoulders. "Can't seem to pin it down, Sir. It's coming from all around us."

Gideon frowned and stood again, his arousal gone as quickly as it had arrived. He glanced over at the helm station and over his second officer's shoulder, to check their location. Sector 14. Gideon sighed. It figured. This sector of space had often produced weird effects and events in the past, and ships were warned to avoid it if they could. It was just his luck that the Excalibur should receive a distress signal from this area. It wouldn't surprise him if a fire-breathing dragon with a broken wing, or the great God Booji, with a bucket stuck on its head, were calling for help.

The Captain turned to the sensor station, glad that Ankaren, his senior sensor operator, was on duty. "Can you add anything to help us, Ankaren? Anything on sensors?"

The Brakiri started to shake his head, then froze, listening carefully, while moving his long, white fingers in apparently random patterns over the controls in front of him. Gideon tried to wait patiently, well aware that Ankaren was concentrating. After a few seconds, the Brakiri smiled and said, "I'm getting something now. I've never come across anything like it before."

Gideon sighed again. Why didn't that surprise him? This was Sector 14 after all. He leaned forward to examine the sensor screen, saying quietly, "Why does the universe always pick on me?"

Ankaren smiled. As a civilian employee of the ISA and after the years he'd spent serving on the Excalibur, he felt comfortable with a less formal approach to his Captain. "It's personal, Captain. They really are out to get you."

Gideon chuckled quietly. "Seems that way." He straightened to look out of the viewscreen, knowing that it was useless. Nothing would be visible that the sensors couldn't pick up. He was wrong. The blackness of space showed the expected scattered points of light, but right in front of them, those points were moving.

"Uh, Ankaren..." Gideon tapped the Brakiri on the shoulder, gesturing him to look up at the screen. He heard Ankaren's sudden intake of breath, and they both watched, fascinated, as the stars in front of the Excalibur slid sideways, creating a black void in the center of the view.

"They shouldn't do that, should they?" Gideon glared at the stars, trying to force them back to their proper positions by willpower alone. The stars kept on moving, ignoring the irritated Captain's glare.

Ankaren shook his head. "No, they shouldn't. Do you think you could order them to stop? They're messing up my board."

Gideon laughed. "They'd probably pay as much attention to me as my wife does. What the hell is going on out there, Ankaren?" He turned back to Siddhartha, who was still listening intently to whatever was coming in over her headset. "Anything new, Lieutenant?"

Siddhartha shook her head again. "More of the same, Captain. It's definitely an automatic distress signal. Our systems are set to generate a signal identical to this if we're under attack, have ejected the life-pods, and all systems are on automatic. Whoever it is, they're in trouble." The young Lieutenant looked up at her Captain, her large, brown eyes showing her distress at what she was hearing.

Gideon smiled to try and reassure her. "It's OK, Sangeetha. We'll find them, whoever they are." He turned back to the viewscreen, watching the stars slide sideways. The black void in the center continued to grow, as the minutes passed.

Silence settled over the bridge, until Ankaren said quietly, "I've got it now. I think it's a rift. An inter-dimensional tear. Somehow, space seems to be ripping itself apart, to allow two different universes to touch. That's just a theory, Captain. I don't know for sure but I think that on the other side of that rift..." the Brakiri paused, examining his instruments closely, before resuming, "on the other side is some other version of our own universe. It's similar, but not identical. Just how similar, I'm not sure."

Gideon looked down at the Brakiri, his astonishment clear. "Is it dangerous? Should we get the hell out of here? What are the chances of us getting pulled in?"

Ankaren shook his head. "We're perfectly safe at this distance." He paused, then added, "I think." Gideon didn't find that late addition very reassuring, and was about to tell the Brakiri so, when Ankaren continued, "If anything, we're being pushed back."

A quick glance over at Jackson on helm confirmed this. She turned and nodded to the Captain. "I'm having to use forward thrusters to hold us in position. We're being pushed away from the..." she paused, choosing her words carefully, "rift, but only very slowly. Nothing to worry about as yet."

Gideon nodded his acknowledgment and turned back to look at the viewscreen. The hole now filled nearly half the screen. Gideon knew that it was just an optical effect caused by the inter-dimensional rip, but it was still spooky to see stars moving around like that.

Suddenly, warning alarms sounded all around the bridge. "Collision warning. Collision warning. Collision warn..." The computer generated voice cut off sharply, as Lieutenant Siddhartha hit a control, and Jackson activated rear thrusters on full, pulling the ship back sharply. Gideon smiled at the fast response of his crew to the alert, pleased that they hadn't waited for his order, but had acted as necessary to protect to the ship. He said to Jackson, "Pull us back two thousand klicks, then hold station." Turning to Ankaren, he asked, "Is there something coming through?"

The Brakiri nodded. "From what I can tell, it's a ship of some kind."

Siddhartha added, "It's still sending a distress call, Captain, and it's still pretending to be us."

Gideon looked back to the viewscreen in time to get the shock of his life. The black void split vertically, outlined by edges of white fire, and a ship surged through, the gap closing abruptly behind it. He recognized the ship immediately, and yelled, "Battle stations, all hands to battle stations!" He saw that a dozen or more smaller vessels were in pursuit, all attacking the large ship in the center.

Running back to his chair, Gideon yelled further orders. "Forward guns, fire on the smaller targets. Protect the large ship. Launch fighters."

For the next few minutes, Gideon gave crisp commands in every direction, getting his guns and fighters to form a protective wall of fire around the large ship in the center of the viewscreen. The battle was vicious but short. The smaller ships, unlike anything Gideon had ever seen before, packed a punch out of all proportion to their size, and managed to score a few powerful hits on the Excalibur, before the last of them was destroyed. The Captain called for damage reports to go to Jackson, then stood and walked back to the sensor station.

"Is there anyone alive over there? Or did we just fight to protect an empty hull?" Gideon looked down at Ankaren, his eyes pleading for the answer he wanted.

"Three life signs, Captain. One strong, two weak. All life pods are missing, so we can assume she was abandoned before she came through the rift."

Gideon sighed in relief, and allowed himself to look up again at the image in the viewscreen ahead of him. The sight nearly broke his heart. Lying dead in space, vulnerable, holed in dozens of places, battle scarred and barely intact, the Excalibur filled the screen. He had no idea how she had gotten there, or how it was possible that another Excalibur could exist. Maybe Ankaren was right. Maybe the two universes were very similar indeed. All Gideon knew for sure was that this was his ship, and she was badly hurt.

Rationally, he knew that he should have waited to find out what was going on before defending her. He should have identified her attackers, and ensured they were enemies, before destroying them. But that had been impossible. As soon as he had realized what was coming through the rift at them, every instinct had demanded that he defend his battle weary ship.

Gideon took a deep breath and gave orders for what was needed next. First, he called his First Officer and instructed him to start assembling a rescue party. He hated to disturb John when he was off duty, but...Pushing that thought aside, Gideon sat back in his chair, to receive Jackson's summary of the damage his own ship had taken. Nothing too serious, fortunately, and no injuries worse than bumps and bruises. Repairs were already underway to both ship and crew.

Ankaren continued to scan the other Excalibur, finally informing the Captain that the other ship was damaged beyond repair. "It's a miracle she's held together this long, Captain. Her engines are burned out, her guns are all out of action, she's badly holed, and her fuel supply is going critical. I estimate that she'll self-destruct in less than two hours." In answer to Gideon's unasked question, he added, "She's beyond help, Captain. There's no way we could do enough repairs in time to stop it."

Gideon nodded and stood. "OK, I'm going down to the landing bay. If you need me I'll be with Commander Matheson." He left the bridge at a run.

John Matheson had been in his quarters, playing with his son, when battle stations had sounded. Quickly passing Dasha to his partner, Lily, he had kissed them both before leaving quickly. He may have been off duty, but if there was a battle going on, he knew he might be needed on the bridge, even out of uniform, as he was right then.

Matheson had just climbed off the bullet car when the battle had ended, and he'd received his Captain's order to put together a rescue party. He turned around, got the next bullet car and ordered it to the landing bay, getting details of what was going on as he traveled, including the startling news that another Excalibur had just arrived in their universe. The XO called the necessary crew on his commlink. Within minutes of arriving in the landing bay, he had his team assembled. Three medics, one for each of the life signs reported by Ankaren, two engineers, three Marines, a pilot, and himself in the center seat. That would fill one shuttle perfectly. Matheson didn't want to take a second shuttle over if he didn't have to. No sense putting more lives at risk than necessary.

His team was just suiting up, when the Captain arrived. Matheson walked to meet him, holding his helmet under his arm. Gideon spoke quietly, so the other members of the team, still busy getting into their suits, couldn't hear him.

"It's a mess over there, John. Most of the ship is open to space. As far as we can tell, just a few of the crew quarters, the bridge and Medbay still have atmosphere. Landing bay is totally screwed, so you're going to have to get the shuttle as close to an airlock as you can, then jet over. It might be easier to go in through one of the holes. I'll leave the decision up to you. Just go in, get the survivors out, and bring back any information you can get on who and what they are." Matheson nodded and was turning to go back to his team, when he felt Gideon's hand on his arm. "John?"

Matheson turned back and looked quizzically at his Captain.

"I hate to ask you to do this. I should take the team across myself, but..." Gideon ran out of words, staring at the floor.

John placed his hand over Gideon's, where it still rested on his arm. "It's OK, I understand." He smiled, trying to ease the Captain's unease. "Anyway, I need the experience of leading boarding parties. They'll never let me become a Captain, if you keep doing everything around here."

Gideon looked up at his XO, his tentative smile indicating his thanks, then he nodded and turned away abruptly, leaving the landing bay. John sighed softly, knowing the reason for his Captain's distress. Ever since the incident when the Cerberus had left Gideon behind, when he'd thought he was going to die, alone in space, the Captain had something of a phobia about going out into space. Wearing an EVA suit wasn't a problem, but actually stepping out of an airlock, into the cold, black void of space, was more than Gideon could easily do. He'd managed to overcome it enough to pass his fitness tests after the incident, but memories of that event still haunted him.

Matheson turned back to his team and called them to order, hustling them up the ramp and into the shuttle.

Staring at the closed door to the bridge, Matheson frowned. This was going to be tricky. Their instruments showed there was atmosphere on the other side of the door, but this side was open to vacuum. If they opened the door, they'd kill the sole remaining person on the other side, unless that person wore an EVA suit, as did Matheson, the engineer, and the medic, who had accompanied him. Turning to the engineer, Matheson asked, "Riley, can you rig an emergency airlock at the far end of the corridor and re-pressurize this section?" The young human engineer nodded, and moved away to start work. Matheson turned next to the medic, Svenson. "Any change?"

Svenson inspected her scanner closely. "No. Whoever it is, they're still unconscious, but alive. From what I can tell from here, he or she is stable, but we need to get in there to be sure." The young blonde looked up at Matheson through the visor of her helmet, asking, "What do you think we'll find, Commander? I mean, this appears to be a duplicate of the Excalibur. Do you think we'll find someone we know?"

John shrugged, exaggerating the motion, so it could be seen through the thick suit he wore. "I haven't a clue, Corporal. No way to tell."

That wasn't strictly true. John could have telepathically scanned the bridge from where he stood, and compared the mental signature he detected with those he knew from his own Excalibur. But that would have broken the rules telepaths now worked under. They would be able to obtain the same information as soon as they got the door open, and it would breach the privacy of the person on the bridge. As always, John stuck to the rules.

He did share the Corporal's curiosity, though. On arrival on board this Excalibur, it had been apparent that it was identical to their own ship in every way but one: the crew was missing. A quick inspection had shown that all the life-pods had been ejected, and Matheson assumed this had been done when it had become apparent that the ship could not survive. He had split his team into four groups, sending a medic after each of the other two life-signs, and one of the engineers down to the engine room, with a Marine to accompany each of them. Matheson had taken the remaining crew with him to the bridge, leaving the pilot on board the shuttle, with orders to keep the engines on stand-by, ready to run at the slightest sign of problems.

"OK, Sir. We're re-pressurizing now." John turned to watch as Riley opened one of the emergency air valves that the Excalibur had on every corridor, for just this eventuality. Within minutes, they had an atmosphere and could remove their helmets. Riley moved to the door of the bridge and opened the emergency access panel at the side. The door opened slowly, onto a scene of chaos.

The bridge was badly damaged, panels open, wiring exposed, and burn marks on the walls showing where fires had raged. John gave quick instructions to Riley to start accessing the computer records, then moved with Svenson to the figure sitting slumped at the helm. It was a man, wearing a black uniform identical to the one John usually wore. His head was slumped to his chest and his hair fell forward, concealing his face. Matheson could see that the brown hair was laced with gray, and by Earthforce standards, it was well overdue for a cut.

Svenson moved in front of the still figure, scanning as she went, then gently lifted the man's head and gasped. It took all John's self-discipline not to do the same. The face that was exposed, as the man's head fell back, was instantly recognizable. It was Matthew Gideon.

In the few seconds it took John to recover from the shock, nobody on the bridge moved. Everyone was too stunned to take in what they saw before them. Matheson pulled himself together and issued orders. "Riley, get that suit over here, then get on with it. The more data we can take back with us, the less likely you are to get your head bitten off by our Captain Gideon. Svenson, make sure this man's OK to be moved, then I'll help you get him into the suit."

The others leaped into action, leaving John a few moments to inspect the unconscious man in front of him. It was Gideon, but not the Gideon he had left on the other Excalibur half an hour earlier. This Gideon was thinner, and looked older. His hair was still thick, but the dark brown was interwoven with silver strands. The lines that marked his face from nose to mouth, and across the forehead, were worn more deeply than in the man John thought of as his friend and mentor. This man's life had left marks of pain on his face, which John didn't have to be a telepath to read. This Gideon had suffered.

Svenson reported that the man was fit to be moved, and John helped her ease the 'Captain' into the EVA suit, praying that he'd stay unconscious for the whole trip back. If this Gideon were anything like the man John knew so well, he wouldn't be very happy if he woke up to find himself out in space.

They had just got 'Gideon' sealed into his suit, when Riley reported that he'd finished. "It's a mess, Commander, but I've got everything that hadn't been erased in the battle. I haven't tried to read any of it yet, just downloaded everything onto our own crystals." He lifted a box of crystals he carried, to indicate where the data resided.

"Good. Let's get back quickly. We may have less than half an hour before this ship blows itself apart." Matheson checked with the other teams that they, too, were on their way back to the airlock where they had left the shuttle. The reports confirmed that two other survivors had been rescued, but the medics held little hope for their recovery. Both had been too badly injured

The engineer who had been down to the engine room confirmed Ankaren's readings and forecast. "I'd say she'll blow within the next hour, Commander. Nothing we can do about it."

Matheson ordered all his teams back to the shuttle. Riley placed 'Gideon's' body over his shoulder and carried him easily in a fireman's lift, leaving John free to think, as they made their way back to the airlock. What would his Captain and friend make of it all? How would he feel about meeting his double from another universe? John couldn't help but wonder what had happened to his own alter ego. Had he been among those who had abandoned ship? Somehow, John couldn't imagine it. He would never have left his Captain and friend to die alone, and couldn't believe that his parallel self would have done so, either.

Activating the long range communicator with a touch on the wrist panel of his suit, John called through to his own Excalibur. He reported that they had succeeded in their mission, and were bringing back three survivors, and as much data as they could recover. He received Gideon's terse acknowledgment, and wondered if he should have told his Captain about the identity of the man he was bringing back. John decided that piece of news could wait.

Gideon stood impatiently at the window overlooking the flight deck, watching the shuttle land. He'd been too curious about who and what the shuttle carried to stay on the bridge, and he had left Jackson in command, with orders to move the ship to a safe distance from the other Excalibur, as soon as the shuttle docked. Luke Raven stood next to him, with a team of medics behind, ready to start work on the badly injured survivors and get them to Medbay.

The shuttle touched down, and as the doors to the flight deck closed it off to space, the landing bay re-pressurized. Within seconds, the shuttle door opened and the ramp lowered, just as the doors between the landing bay and the main ship opened, to allow the medics to rush through.

Gideon held back, letting his people do their work, watching them stripping two of the survivors out of their suits, carefully. Two of the bodies were in a terrible mess. The medics who'd gone to the other ship had done their best to keep them alive and safe from further harm on their journey, but it was obvious even to Gideon that the survivors were in a bad way. He could see that both had lost limbs, and the suits they had worn dripped blood as soon as they were removed. The Captain turned away. He wasn't exactly squeamish, but the sight of people dying always affected him. He turned toward the stretcher on which the third survivor lay, and found his way blocked by his XO.

Matheson's hair was disheveled from the helmet he had worn, and it almost made Gideon smile to see John looking anything but perfectly groomed. John was normally almost unnaturally neat and tidy in his appearance.

"Captain, before you go over there, I should tell you..." John's words ran down into silence. His distress showed clearly on his usually calm face.

"Tell me what? This one can't be worse than the other two, can he? Or is it a she? Is that it, John? Why are you looking so worried? Is it someone I know?" For one terrible moment, Gideon wondered if an alternate version of his wife lay on the stretcher behind John. If somehow in that other universe, Deborah had been left to die on the ship, while the Gideon over there had abandoned her. Would that universe be similar enough to their own for Deborah to be on board?

Gideon pushed past Matheson, and stepped to the side of the stretcher. He heaved a sigh of relief when he saw that the shape of the person lying there was male. [Or at least, it's obviously not Deborah. The chest is too flat.] Gideon knew that his wife's breasts would have pushed the chest of the EVA suit upwards. So who was it? Who would John be so distressed about? An awful suspicion crept into Gideon's mind, a suspicion that was confirmed seconds later, when the medic carefully removed the helmet from the figure lying prone on the stretcher.

It was he, Captain Matthew Gideon. John had brought back another version of himself.

Matheson walked by the side of his Captain, as they followed the stretchers out of the landing bay, desperately battling his desire to read Gideon's mind. The Captain had put on his best poker face when he had seen who the survivor was, and had maintained it ever since. John had stripped out of his EVA suit hurriedly, and rushed to leave with Gideon, wanting to stay with him, to be at his side, to help him deal with the shock of seeing himself like that.

It took all John's willpower not to do a light scan of his Captain's mind. It would have been so easy to check, to see how deeply distressed Gideon really was. Somehow, John restrained himself. As they rode the bullet car to Medbay, John reported to his Captain, telling him how they had recovered what data they could, how all the life-pods had been ejected and how it appeared that the other 'Gideon' had given the order to evacuate. He had then stayed behind, to die with his ship.

Matheson watched as Gideon nodded. He knew that in those circumstances, that was exactly what Gideon would have done. Again, John wondered where the other 'Matheson' had been. Surely, there would have been one. John couldn't conceive of a universe where he didn't serve alongside Gideon.

Gideon stood in Medbay, staring down at the unconscious man, trying to get his head around what this all meant. Luke had just told him that the other two survivors didn't match any of the current crew of the Excalibur, or anyone who'd previously served on her. It appeared that Gideon himself was the only person duplicated on both ships. He was aware that John stood staunchly by his side, ready to provide any help and support he needed, but right now what Gideon needed most was time to think. As usual, the universe wasn't kind enough to let him have what he wanted. The Captain's commlink beeped.

"Gideon. Go."

Ankaren's voice came over the link. "She's beginning to break apart, Captain. We're recording everything but you asked to be notified."

"On my way." Gideon turned to look for Raven, finding him working on one of the injured survivors. The Captain swallowed hard, as he saw that Raven's hands were red with blood. Maybe this wasn't the best time to interrupt. He turned to one of the nurses, who was removing the EVA suit from the other 'Gideon'. "Can you ask Dr. Raven to keep me advised of the patients' progress? I'll be on the bridge."

The nurse acknowledged his order, glancing down at the man on the stretcher, then back up at her Captain, raising one eyebrow in query.

Gideon shrugged his shoulders, saying, "Don't ask me. I don't know who he is. Handsome devil, though, isn't he?" The nurse laughed and went back to removing the suit. Gideon strode out of Medbay, his XO on his heels.

As they rode the bullet car to the bridge, he asked Matheson a few more questions about the state of the other ship, then sat back and shook his head. "This is just too weird, John. It seems we stumbled across a rift between two universes, just in time for the double of our own ship to nearly collide with us. Did our presence make that rift possible? Just how different is this other universe? Similar enough so that I existed over there, and I was in command of the Excalibur. Different enough so that his Excalibur was being attacked by alien ships we've never seen before. Do you think the two universes were one, and split apart at some point? Some event that happened differently in our universe to theirs? I wonder what it was. Where did these two worlds diverge?"

Gideon took a deep breath, then confided his greatest fear. "And what if Ankaren is wrong? What if this isn't another universe, but our own. That man in Medbay looks older than me. Is it possible that this is a future version of me? Have I just seen my own future? And if so, where are the rest of you? What happened to you all? If this is the future, John, then I hope to God that you're all safe."

Matheson shook his head, having no answers to his Captain's questions. "I don't know, Captain."

As the bullet car arrived at the bridge, Gideon stood, saying, "Two things are for sure. One, I have one hell of a lot of questions for that guy sleeping in Medbay. And two, we're staying right here in Sector 14, until I have some answers."

They ran to the bridge, arriving in time to see the last moments of the great ship in front of them. Gideon watched, as the 'Excalibur' broke apart. Internal blasts rocked her, ripping even more holes in her outer skin. Gideon tried to imagine the power of those explosions. To rip through the Vorlon made, plasteel crystalline alloy, ten meter thick hull, they must have been huge. First one, then another of the three great fins that protruded from the central core broke away, exploding and fragmenting as they went. Then the central core itself, the long narrow spine of the Excalibur, exploded violently, sending flames hundreds of meters long streaking out into space, flames that winked out instantly, as they were deprived of oxygen. Debris flew in every direction, at speeds that turned them into deadly missiles.

Gideon checked the helm, relieved when he saw that Jackson had taken them several thousand kilometers away from the wreck. The view he was watching on the screen must have been magnified many times. Then he stepped forward, to salute the dying ship. As he did so, he glanced around the bridge, and felt a lump in his throat. Every person there was standing, saluting in tribute to the great ship dying in front of them.

Gideon raised his own hand, and said a sad, silent farewell to a great lady.

2nd May 2273 – late evening

Having read a bedtime story to his four year old son, and kissed the sleeping child goodnight, Gideon walked back through the connecting doors to the bedroom he shared with his wife. He found her peering closely at her reflection in the full-length mirror. Moving close behind her, Gideon encircled Deborah's waist with one arm, while pulling back her hair with his other hand, and kissing her neck. He watched in the mirror as her eyes closed, and she smiled with pleasure at his touch. They had been married for three and a half years, but his wife still responded instantly to the Captain's caresses.

"What were you looking at?" Gideon tightened his grip around Deborah's waist, pulling her back until her butt rested against his groin.

"I think I have a pimple about to erupt on my nose."

Gideon laughed and kissed her neck again. "I love it when you get one of those. It reminds me that you're human. You're so goddamned beautiful that most of the time I feel you're way too good for me. But when you have a zit, I know that you're just a mere mortal like me, and maybe I can measure up to you in some way."

Deborah blew a raspberry and grinned at him in the mirror, where his reflection showed his chin resting on her shoulder. Gideon moved his hands from her waist to cup her breasts, starting to play with the top button of her shirt. Deborah moved her hands to rest over his, then caught his eyes in the mirror. Gideon could see that her eyes had darkened with desire, then saw that his own looked the same. He wondered whether there would ever come a day when they didn't excite each other, and he couldn't imagine it. Dropping his hand back to her waist, he whispered, "Unbutton your shirt," then watched as she did as he'd instructed.

When the shirt was undone, Gideon slipped it off her shoulders, then unclasped the black bra Deborah wore, removing it. He looked over her shoulder, to see her reflection in the mirror, now naked from the waist up. He put his arms back around her waist, and moved his right hand to massage her left breast, playing with the nipple, teasing it until it stiffened under his touch. Gideon looked at his wife's breasts as he played with them. They were no longer the perfect globes they had been when they'd first met. Breastfeeding Marcus, and the passage of the years, had taken their toll, but to him, Deborah still had the most beautiful breasts in the galaxy. With his left hand, he eased the button at the top of her jeans undone, then unzipped them. All the time, Deborah watched him in the mirror, licking her lips, her breathing accelerating as she watched.

Gideon eased the jeans down over his wife's hips, then pushed her panties down, dropping them to the floor, and gazed over her shoulder at her naked image in the mirror. He allowed his eyes to wander upwards, from her narrow feet and neat ankles, up the long, long, length of her legs, to the gentle swell of her hips and the nest of curls that seemed to call to him, to whisper, 'touch me, stroke me, fondle me.' Gideon resisted the temptation, resting his hands on his wife's hips, letting his eyes drift up past the oval of her navel, to the breasts he loved so much.

Onwards and upwards, he lingered on the view of her collarbones and her long, elegant neck, then moved his gaze to her firm chin, which could be so intimidating when set in determination, and her generous mouth that was curved into a smile. Deborah knew that he was drinking in the view of her naked body, and she loved every moment of his careful scrutiny. Moving his eyes past her high cheekbones, Gideon finally met her gaze, smiling back at her, losing himself in the depths of her golden brown eyes. He pressed his hips forward, so she could feel his arousal against her butt, then moved his left hand to rest on her belly.

Gideon couldn't help remembering how she had looked just a few months earlier, when she had lost so much weight in the aftermath of their experiences on Centauri Prime. Since that time, and their reconciliation, Deborah had regained the weight she had lost, and with his encouragement, a little more. Gideon realized that when he looked closely, her belly was no longer quite flat, but curved very gently upwards between her hips. He smiled to himself, remembering a time when that belly had curved out much further, the time when she had been carrying their son.

Suddenly, Gideon knew what he wanted more than anything. The sight of the man they had rescued had affected him deeply. He was desperately afraid that the man in Medbay represented his future, and he had spent the hours that had passed since seeing the man wondering what he could do to prevent that future happening. Gideon now knew what he needed to do to banish the prospect of a future in which he ended up alone, on an Excalibur doomed to destruction. He realized that this was something he'd wanted for a long time, but hadn't allowed himself to think about, too busy with the press of today to think much about tomorrow. But now, in the face of so much death and destruction, his need to create life had become overwhelming.

"Let's have another baby." Gideon caressed his wife's belly, longing to see it grow, to see it filled with a new life. "Let's have a little girl. A girl who can grow up to be as beautiful as her mother."

Deborah's eyes opened. Her head had been leaning back against his shoulder, her eyes closed, as she lost herself in the pleasure of his touch. Now she looked at him, seriously. "Do you really want that, Matthew?"

He nodded, looking into her eyes in the mirror. "I want a daughter. She'll have long, blonde hair and hazel eyes, and she'll be the most beautiful little girl in the galaxy. I want to spoil her, and buy her too many toys. I want to chase away boys who pay her too much attention. I want to walk her down the aisle and think that her new husband isn't good enough for her."

Deborah laughed and turned in his arms, placing her arms around his neck and kissing him softly. "Naima will get jealous. She's used to being the one you spoil."

Gideon quickly suppressed the guilt that threatened to wash over him at her words. He still didn't know whether Naima was his daughter, but he knew that didn't matter. What he wanted more than anything was to create another life with this woman, with his wife. He kissed Deborah gently and smiled. "She'll cope. I'll just have to spoil both of them. So is that a yes? Do you want to have another baby? I know after Marcus was born you said you didn't want any more, but this time I'll be with you every day. I'll rub your back and your feet, and I'll watch you grow and I'll get you whatever strange food you crave for, whatever time of day or night you want it. I'd even be willing to sit in one of those damned Brakiri birthing chairs again, if you want me to."

Deborah raised her hand to his lips, stopping the flow of words, smiling as she said, "You don't have to promise me anything, except to be with me, every day, for the rest of our lives."

Gideon pulled her tightly against him, crushing her against his chest and burying his head in her hair. After a few moments spent regaining control over his emotions, he pulled his head back and smiled at his wife. "Does that mean we should start practicing?"

Deborah grinned lasciviously. "Just practice. I'm due for another shot next month, so if I don't have it, I guess I'll be fertile about a month after that. Then you can start playing at being the great inseminator."

The Captain laughed aloud, and swept his wife up into his arms, then dropped her onto the bed and stood above her, grinning, as he pulled off his sweater. "Practice makes perfect."

3rd May 2273 - morning

Gideon awoke slowly, trying to focus on his surroundings. Something wasn't right. He closed his eyes again for a moment, trying to figure out what was wrong. Oh. Right. He was supposed to be dead.

He remembered the attack, and sending his crew to the life-pods, then moving over to the helm, to get his ship as far away from the pods as he could, drawing the enemy with him, trying to give his crew their best chance at survival. It had seemed to be working, when the black of space had split open in front of the Excalibur. A rift, outlined in white fire, had appeared before him, and Gideon had pushed his ship as hard as she would go, toward that rift. He'd had no idea of what would happen when he hit it, but at that point he'd had nothing to lose.

One last shot from the enemy had sent him reeling forward in his seat, banging his head into the panel in front of him. That was Gideon's last memory. So where the hell was he now?

Opening his eyes again slowly, the Captain stared at the ceiling. It didn't hold any clues, so he slowly turned his neck, carefully testing for any aches and pains the movement produced. Nothing. No pain, no headache. The only sensation he felt was hunger, but he pushed that aside. Getting supplies had been difficult in recent months, so he was used to being hungry.

Gideon soon realized that he was lying on a bed, in a room off Medbay. His Medbay. But somehow all the damage had been repaired. How? Where had his ship found the resources to rebuild the equipment he could see through the transparent walls? And where were the burns that should have marked the walls? Gideon closed his eyes and shook his head, trying to clear it.

When he opened them again, he sat up on the bed, moving slowly and carefully, stopping for a moment when dizziness threatened to overpower him. Finally, he was sitting upright, with his legs hanging over the side of the bed, looking out at the main Medbay. There were only a few people out there, and they seemed occupied with patients on the far side of the room. No one was paying any attention to the Captain. This struck Gideon as a little strange, but he was grateful. Their inattention might give him the opportunity to pull himself together, before anyone discovered that their Captain had lost his memory.

That was the only explanation he could come up with. Somehow, his ship must have been saved, repaired and a new crew brought on board. Gideon certainly didn't recognize any of the people he could see. And wasn't one of them Minbari? Where the hell had she come from? The crew Gideon remembered had been totally human, so there must have been some passage of time and events to account for the changes. He just couldn't remember it.

The Captain didn't want anyone to find out about his problem. They might try to remove him from command, and he wasn't about to allow that. He had fought too long and hard to hold onto this ship, to allow a little amnesia to get in his way now. Deciding to go back to his quarters, to check his personal logs, Gideon carefully put one foot to the floor. A bare foot. Only then did he notice that someone had stripped him out of his uniform, and put him into Medbay pajamas. That really made him mad. How dare they take him out of uniform? He didn't care what had happened that he didn't remember. No one should take a Captain's uniform away from him. That was the deciding factor, he was going back to his quarters, going to get himself properly dressed, and he was going right now!

Moving stealthily and silently, Gideon slipped out of Medbay without being seen. The corridors outside threatened to overwhelm him. They were full of people, all moving purposefully. No one looked hurt, there was no sign of damage, and there were a number of different species represented in the hustle and bustle of movement. Not just Minbari, but Drazi and Brakiri, too. The Drazi were a real surprise. Last time he remembered, they were on the other side.

Gideon made his way to the bullet car, acknowledging salutes with a brisk nod in the direction of whoever was in front of him, ignoring the slightly bemused looks his attire created. [Never seen the Captain in pajamas before? Make the most of it, because you're never going to see it again!] Gideon collapsed onto the seat of the empty bullet car in relief, wondering what had happened in the time that was missing from his memories. He went to check the time and date on his commlink, and only then realized that it was missing. The bracelet had been removed from his wrist. Now he was getting really irritated.

What worried him most was that he hadn't seen a single familiar face in the corridors. None of those people had been on the crew he remembered. Gideon shook his head, telling himself to be patient. [Ha! And when did you last manage that?] He would find all the answers he needed in his quarters.

Disembarking from the bullet car, Gideon stopped dead in his tracks at what he saw in the next corridor. It was a Narn. Large as life and twice as spotted, the Narn nodded in salute as she walked past, with a murmured, "Captain."

Closing his mouth hurriedly, Gideon had to stop himself running after the Narn, asking her who she was, how she could be there, how many more of her race remained alive. As far as the Captain knew, the entire Narn species was extinct. They had been wiped out by the Centauri/Drakh alliance over a year before.

Gideon realized that he was standing in the middle of the corridor, creating a roadblock for the crew hurrying past, drawing some puzzled looks. This was not the time to try solving such mysteries. Not when he was barefoot and wearing pajamas. His questions could wait until he got back to his quarters.

The Captain shook his head and moved on, arriving at the door to his rooms with a sigh of relief that no one had stopped him and asked him anything. He couldn't be sure of giving a sensible answer in his current state, and he wanted to avoid everyone until he could fill in the blanks in his memory.

Gideon called the door open and stepped inside, closing his eyes as a wave of relief swept over him. His eyes flicked open in shock, at the sound of the voice that greeted him.

"Hello, darling. This is an unexpected pleasure. I didn't think you'd be back until this evening."

The tall blonde, who was looking at him from where she was seated in the chair behind his desk, was smiling in welcome. Gideon wondered who the hell she was and what she was doing in his quarters.

Demon looked up from her reading, and smiled at her husband. She'd been concentrating on the book in front of her and hadn't heard the door opening, only turning to look when she'd felt a presence in the room. The book was a draft of her first novel. Demon had finally given in to the constant nagging from Matthew and Luke Raven, and had sent her first draft to a publisher two months before, not expecting to hear anything more. She was the only person surprised by the enthusiastic response her writing had received, and now she was in the middle of making the changes that the editor had requested.

Once Demon focused on something, she wasn't easily distracted, which is why it took her a moment to realize that her husband hadn't entered the room. It was another man, and the fact that he was wearing Medbay pajamas and had bare feet was something of a giveaway as to his true identity.

The man's expression showed his surprise at seeing her there, and Demon suppressed a smile at his confusion. She knew who he was, even if she was a stranger to him. Matthew had told her about the man they had rescued from the other Excalibur. This was her husband's doppelganger. This man might be from an alternative universe, or he might be from the future of their own universe. His presence here could give her an opportunity to find out which.

Demon concentrated on projecting waves of calm, serenity and security, just as she would have done to a frightened child. One thing she could feel from this man as he stood staring at her. He wasn't just puzzled and confused. He was exhausted and deeply frightened. Demon could feel his fear, running like an undercurrent beneath his other emotions. It was a fear that he must have been living with for years, to be so deeply embedded in his consciousness.

It hurt her terribly to feel such fear, from a man who looked so like her husband. Was this really a future version of Matthew? It seemed unlikely, as he didn't recognize her. Unless Matthew had suffered some awful loss of memory in whatever time had passed, it was much more likely that somehow this man came from an alternative universe. A universe in which they had never met. Demon decided to act on that assumption, as she stood and slowly approached him.

"Hello. I know that this must be very confusing, but I can tell you who I am and why I'm here. Will you sit down while I explain?" Demon smiled gently, offering her hand to the stranger, to guide him toward the chair.

The man looked at her outstretched hand as if it were a vicious animal about to attack him, then he looked back to Demon's face. "What are you doing in my quarters? Who let you in?" His voice was identical to Matthew's. Well, he sounded just like Matthew when he was mad as hell about something, anyway.

Demon dropped her hand, but maintained her smile, strengthening her projection of safety and trust, as she said quietly, "No one let me in. I live here, with my husband and son. Please, let me show you." Perhaps it would be easier to explain to the stranger if she showed him how this universe differed from his own. Demon gestured toward the door that connected Matthew's old quarters, where she had been working, to the new rooms she had shared with her husband for over three years. She saw the stranger's surprise when he noticed the opening for the first time.

Demon led him through into her living room, and then walked to the kitchen area, very much aware of the man following her closely. She turned and smiled again, saying, "Would you like some coffee? I managed to get hold of some real coffee beans recently."

"Real coffee? You have real coffee?" Demon felt his amazement at her words and his longing to accept her offer. She smiled back.

"Yes. Let me make some for you. Why don't you sit down while I make it? It will only take a few minutes." She watched as he nodded and went to sit on the sofa, still watching her every move. The tall blonde could tell he was still suspicious of her, still confused and frightened, but her projections seemed to be taking effect, as he was gradually relaxing.

While getting cups from the cupboard and setting up the coffee filter, Demon linked to Angel, grateful that although their connection was weakened, they could still link within the ship. This was the only way she could get a message to her husband without the stranger knowing and becoming even more confused and afraid. Demon was desperate to reassure him, to make him feel more comfortable and less frightened. Somehow, some of her love for Matthew overflowed onto this man who looked so much like him, and who felt so much like him, in so many ways. It made the stranger's pain and confusion hard for her to bear. She wanted to ease his fear and suffering, to make him happier.

Through her link with her sister, Demon told Angel what had happened, and asked her to get a message to Matthew and Luke. [[Tell them not to worry. I'm quite safe. He's not violent, and if he tries anything, I can handle it. Just tell them to stay out, until I can find out more about him and where he comes from.]]

[[Demon, you shouldn't be doing this! How do you know he's not violent? He may look like Matt, but he isn't your husband. You don't know anything about him!]] Angel was obviously appalled at the risk she thought her sister was running.

Demon sent soothing feelings back through their link. She couldn't influence Angel's feelings as she could others, but at least she could try. [[I know he's not violent because I can feel it, silly. It's what I'm good at, remember?]]

Angel's response was swift. [[I've spoken to the Captain and he's on his way with a team of Marines. He says you're to keep the man occupied until he gets there, if you can, but don't take any risks. He says you're to get out if he acts oddly. Demon, I'm just so glad that Marcus is with Lily!]]

[[NO! Tell Matthew to stay out! This man is scared and confused, but he's calming down. I'm projecting quiet and security, and it's working. This could be the best chance we'll ever get to find out his story, and we need to know that story, Angel. I need to know it. I need to be sure that this isn't some future version of Matthew, who has been robbed of his memory of our son and me.]] Demon allowed some of her fears to seep through the link to her sister.

After a pause, Angel's response was much quieter. [[I just spoke to Matt again. I explained what you said, and he's not very happy about it, but he's agreed. He also said that he'll be right outside the door with G'Tan and two other Marines, and if you get any sign that the man is going to turn on you, you must yell for help and run. Promise me you'll do that, or I'll tell Matt to come in now.]]

Demon sent a mental smile to her sister. [[I promise. Tell Matthew I love him, and that I'll link to you if I need you. Now, I'd better give this man his coffee before he dies of thirst.]]

The man had been watching Demon carefully all the time she was linked to her sister, watching her hands closely, checking to make sure that nothing went into his cup other than the coffee. He may have relaxed a little, but he was still suspicious, and Demon could sense his impatience. He wanted an explanation for everything he didn't understand, and he wanted it now. For a moment, she almost smiled. It wasn't just in looks that this man resembled her husband. Patience had never been a strong point of Matthew's, either.

Carrying two cups of coffee, Demon moved back to the living area and put both down on the low table in front of the sofa. She gestured to the man to take whichever cup he preferred, then sat on the sofa next to him, but left a gap between them. She felt him tense as she sat, then he relaxed again as she leaned back, allowing her hands to rest in her lap where he could see them. After a moment's hesitation, the man leaned forward and took one of the cups. Demon slowly took the other, raised it to her lips and took a sip, swallowing visibly enough for him to see.

The man half smiled, realizing that she was trying to reassure him that it was safe to drink. She watched as he raised his cup and took his first drink. He held the coffee in his mouth for a long moment, and Demon wondered whether he was going to spit it out. Then his eyes closed, and she felt his pleasure. He was savoring the liquid, allowing his taste buds to fully experience all the subtleties of the flavor, inhaling the aroma and holding it, before finally allowing himself to swallow.

When he opened his eyes, he smiled at her, and the sadness of that smile almost broke Demon's heart. The thinness of his body, the shadows under his eyes, the lines across his forehead, and the gray streaks in his hair, did nothing to diminish this man's resemblance to her husband. Demon hoped that she would never see Matthew look so forlorn. She swallowed the lump in her throat and smiled, as she asked, "Is it good? I can add cream and sugar if you like."

The man shook his head, whispering, "It's perfect. I can't remember how long it's been since I last drank real coffee. It must have been before..." He paused, and Demon felt the wave of misery that swept over him. She longed to reach out and touch him, to try to take the pain away, but she kept her distance, only reinforcing her projections of calm and serenity as he continued, "Before the Drakh attacked Earth."

He shook his head and took another sip of his coffee, before looking at Demon intently, asking, "So who are you? You said you'd explain all this." He waved at her rooms and the connecting door to his old quarters.

Demon took a deep breath. "My name is Deborah Gideon. I'm married to Matthew Gideon, who is the Captain of this ship, the Inter-Stellar Alliance Star Ship, Excalibur. Who are you?"

Gideon paced the corridor outside his quarters, his face set into a frown that sent every crew member who came within ten paces scurrying for cover. G'Tan and two of his Marines stood watching him, impassively. The Captain was churning through all the options and possibilities in his mind, trying to tell himself that allowing Deborah to be alone with their 'visitor' was the best solution to the current problem.

His crew had spent the night working through the data crystals Riley had brought back from the other Excalibur, and reported their findings to Gideon as soon as he'd gone on duty that morning. The sum total of those findings was nil. The data Riley had been able to download was too damaged and fragmented to make any sense at all. Logs had been jumbled together, portions erased, numbers and words scrambled. It would take days, or even weeks, to decipher the resulting mess.

The result was to make the man who was currently alone with Gideon's wife their sole source of information about what had happened to the other Excalibur. In the short term, as far as Gideon knew, only he could tell them whether his universe differed from theirs, or whether he came from their own future. That difference was critical.

Intellectually, Gideon knew that his wife represented his best chance of getting cooperation from the visitor. She was an empath after all. Deborah could tell if the man was lying or telling the truth. She could create an atmosphere in which he would be more receptive to questions and respond more easily. The only problem was that Gideon hated the idea of her being alone with that man. After coming so close to losing Deborah the year before, the Captain was unwilling to do anything that put her at risk. The conflict between his brain and his heart was what drove Gideon back and forth along the corridor, glaring holes into the walls and any passing crew member.

The acquisition of a new target, in the person of Luke Raven, relieved some of the pressure on the corridor walls, which had come close to melt down under the intensity of the Captain's glower. Gideon spun on his heel and snapped at the doctor, "So how in hell did he get out? You were supposed to be keeping him in Medbay."

Raven replied, evenly, "I'm sorry. One of my nurses was checking on him when one of the other survivors went into arrest. He hurried to help the resuscitation team, and in his haste, left the door to the side room unlocked. And I'm afraid that the patient who arrested died a few moments ago. The other survivor is unlikely to live for more than another few hours."

Gideon closed his eyes and brought his temper under control. "Thank you, Doctor. I'm sure you and your people have done everything they can. Now, what can you tell me about the man who is in there with Deborah?"

Raven nodded an acknowledgment of what was the nearest he was going to get to an apology for the Captain's ill temper. "In every significant respect, he's you. There are some differences, of course. He's obviously endured a great deal of stress for a prolonged period, and he's suffering the effects of that on his general health. He's underweight, overstressed and exhausted. But at a genetic level, in every test we carried out on him, he's an exact match to you. Captain, this isn't just your identical twin brother. This is your clone."

"My clone? Is that possible? If he's a clone, does that make him younger than me? He looks older." Gideon tried to puzzle through the implications of Raven's words.

The doctor shook his head. "I didn't mean a literal clone; just that he is totally identical to you. And that includes his age. Our analysis of the bone growth patterns shows that he's aged at exactly the same rate as you, Captain. This isn't some older version of you from the future. It's a different version of you from the present. Some other present, somewhere else. But Captain, that somewhere else must be very similar to the universe we know."

Gideon raised an eyebrow in query, encouraging the doctor to continue.

"When we compared his bone structure to yours, we found evidence of a broken ankle that must have taken place at almost exactly the same time that you broke your ankle, as a teenager. The treatment he's had on his teeth is almost identical to yours. The only variation is a small chip in the enamel of one of his molars, which appears to have happened within the last few months. We can trace his history pretty much exactly through his bones and organs, and from that I'd say that until around five years ago, this man led exactly the same life as you."

Gideon tried to absorb what the doctor was telling him. Their visitor hadn't come from the future, hadn't in some way been transported back in time. That in itself was a huge relief. Gideon no longer had to worry that something was going to happen to him, his family, his crew and his ship, which would result in the Excalibur's destruction and him losing everyone he loved. That knowledge alone was enough to lift a burden from his shoulders and calm his uneven temper.

It seemed that the visitor and Gideon had led much the same life to within the last five years. Then they had diverged. Had they come from the same universe, which had somehow split in two? Or had their universes always run in parallel, until some event, perhaps significant, perhaps not, had driven them apart? Gideon wanted answers.

He nodded his thanks to Raven and said quietly, "That's reassuring, Doctor. If he's pretty much the same as me, it's unlikely he'll harm Deborah in any way. I can only hope that whatever's happened to him since our lives diverged hasn't changed him so much that he'd hurt her." He gazed at the door to his quarters, longing for them to open, longing to see his wife, standing and smiling at him from that doorway.

Raven smiled sadly at him. "It's unlikely that he'd have changed that much. I think your worst fear should be that he'll fall head over heels in love with her. You did, after all."

Gideon laughed softly, "He'd better not try it." He took a deep breath and told himself to be patient. If Deborah needed help, she'd scream loud enough for him to hear, and if she couldn't scream, she'd link to Angel. Which reminded him. "Luke? Is Angel still in Medbay?" Raven nodded.

The Captain raised his commlink to his mouth and keyed Angel's call sign. As soon as she answered, he asked her to join him outside his quarters. [If I'm going to pace, I may as well have company. Compared to Angel, I have the patience of a saint.]

Gideon stared at the blonde woman sitting at the other end of the sofa in open-mouthed amazement. "Married? To Matthew Gideon? Are you saying that you're my wife?" He tried to take in what she had just told him. Was it possible that enough time had passed for him to have married this woman? If he had, how could he have forgotten her? She wasn't exactly forgettable.

The Captain ran his eyes over her long legs, tucked up underneath her as she sat, her narrow waist and full breasts, which stretched the material of her black sweater, up to the long neck, firm jaw and pale gold hair that cascaded around her shoulders. By anyone's standards she was a beautiful woman, although pale blondes weren't usually his type. That cool, aloof look had never appealed to him. Could he really have married this woman? He raised his eyes to meet hers, and saw that any warmth lacking from her demeanor was more than compensated for by the expression in her golden brown eyes.

The soft smile she gave him also warmed her face, as she said, "No, I don't think so. Unless you're from some time in the future, and have forgotten all about me and our son."

"Our son? We have a son?!"

The woman laughed softly. "I have a son, and my husband is his father, but I don't think that's you. There's a quick way we can tell. What date is it today, as far as you're concerned?"

Gideon frowned as he thought about her question, his mind reeling from the implications of what she had told him. Was she lying? Was this some trick to confuse him? Had he been taken prisoner and this whole thing was a charade designed to make him talk? But that didn't make sense. It was far too elaborate. He shook his head, unable to think of a reason why he shouldn't at least answer her question. "It's May 2273. I'm not sure of the exact date just now. It depends how long I was unconscious."

The blonde nodded. "It's the 3rd. I think from that we can deduce that you are not my husband." She smiled again. "Ankaren must have been right."

"Who the hell is Ankaren, and what was he right about?" Gideon was becoming annoyed and more confused by the minute. He wanted answers. The woman smiled at him again, and he felt some of his anger and uncertainty drain away. He wasn't sure why, but somehow he felt safe with her. Somehow, this woman's presence eased his fears. He felt more relaxed with her than he could remember feeling for years. Gideon wanted to trust her, but he didn't know why.

The woman smiled again and explained that Ankaren was the Brakiri sensor operator on this ship. Then she went on to explain Ankaren's theory about how the Captain came from another universe, a parallel universe, which had split away from her own relatively recently. She explained that his ship had self-destructed soon after arrival in her universe, but not before the Captain of this Excalibur, her husband, had sent over a team to rescue him and bring him back to this ship. Gideon listened carefully. The theory certainly explained the discrepancies he'd noticed since waking up. He found that despite his usual suspicious nature, he wanted to believe her story.

When she had finished explaining, Gideon sat, silently considering her words. If what she had told him was true, he was more alone than he had ever been in his life. He had no home, no ship, no friends, nothing familiar to him, nothing. Not that there was anything new about that. Gideon had been living like that for a long time. A wave of loneliness and loss swept over the Captain as he sat, watching the tall blonde at the other end of the sofa, but he kept his face impassive, not wanting her to know how deeply her words had affected him.

The woman's face was equally blank, although for a moment Gideon could have sworn he'd seen tears in her eyes. For him? Surely not. He watched as she took a deep breath and spoke softly. "Will you tell me about your world? We can try to work out how it differs from mine, and when the split happened. Assuming Ankaren's theory is correct, of course."

Gideon narrowed his eyes, suspicious of her motives. "Why do you want to know? Is this some kind of trick? Are you really an interrogator of some kind?"

She shook her head. "No, but I don't know how to prove that to you. I could tell you everything I know and answer every question you have, but it could all be a lie. But ask yourself, why should we have gone to all this trouble?" She waved her hand at the room and the connecting door to Gideon's old quarters. "There are drugs available in our universe which can get the truth from people. Do you have those in your universe, too?"

Gideon nodded. She was right. It would have been much easier to drug him and question him. The principle of Occam's razor said that one should always choose the simplest explanation. On that basis, it was likely that she was telling the truth, and he wanted to believe her, anyway. Would it do any harm to tell her something of his history? Nothing that wasn't public knowledge, of course. Just the facts that would be known to anyone who followed the news. Gideon found that he wanted to talk.

With a deep sigh, the Captain started telling her about his life. His childhood on Earth, living with his grandparents, and how he had joined Earthforce during the Minbari war. He skipped most of his career and told her about how the Drakh had seeded Earth with their plague and how he had been attached to the Excalibur, tasked with finding a cure to that plague. She nodded at intervals, confirming the similarity of his life to that of her husband.

[Husband? That means somewhere on this ship there's another version of me, who's Captain. If I were him, I'd be damned if I'd leave my wife unprotected, with a potentially dangerous stranger. Does he know I'm here? Haven't they worked out that I've got out of Medbay yet?] Gideon found himself feeling a degree of contempt for his alter in this universe, and the crew of this Excalibur. He continued with his story, still not sure why he felt so at ease with this woman, or why he was so willing to speak to her, but for the moment, it just felt good to talk.

Gideon told her about their attempts to find a cure for the plague, and how they had failed. "After four years of searching, we still had nothing better than a temporary screen. By then, millions were already dead, and Earth was in chaos. Then I had to go back to Earth and deliver on a promise I'd made right at the start."

That promise haunted Gideon. He had truly believed that he would never have to fulfill it, being confident at the point when he'd made the promise that he'd be able to find the cure in the allotted time. The Captain closed his eyes, as he remembered the commitment he'd given to the Drazi Ambassador all those years before. It had truly turned out to be a pact with the devil.

"We went back to Earth and spent the last year in orbit. Every time a ship tried to leave, we shot it down. No one escaped. For a year, we sat in their skies and watched them die."

The memory of that time still obsessed Gideon. The pain was still fresh, the memory still strong, of how his name had become associated with the extinction of the human race. They had blamed him for not saving them, and they had blamed him for killing them. For the few humans left alive in the galaxy, the name of Matthew Gideon lived in infamy alongside Hitler, Nero and Genghis Khan. But Matthew Gideon had surpassed all previous criminals against humanity. The others had only attempted genocide. He had succeeded.

For a little while, the pain threatened to choke him, and he fell silent while he regained control over his emotions. He dropped his head in his hands while he collected himself, then looked up at the tall blonde. This time there was no doubt. A tear trickled down her cheek. Gideon was sure that she was crying for the people he had murdered. Not for him. No one would waste a tear on the monster responsible for the deaths of ten billion people.

The woman swallowed, then found her voice, whispering, "What happened then? Was Sheridan still President of the ISA in your universe?"

Gideon nodded. "What was left of it, yes."

He went on to explain how during the year the Excalibur had spent in orbit above Earth, the Drakh and the Centauri had made their alliance public. "Toward the end of 2271, when nearly everyone on Earth was dead, the Drakh-Centauri alliance attacked Narn. It seems the Centauri had never lost their hatred of the Narn people. With Earth out of the picture, Earthforce in chaos and the ISA in disarray, there was no one to help the Narns. Sheridan sent the White Star fleet, but it arrived too late. With the help of the Drakh, the Centauri were able to do what they'd failed to do before. They wiped out the Narn race. They killed them all. Even those Narns who weren't on their home world when it was attacked were somehow hunted down and murdered. No one has seen a Narn for over a year now. We think they're all dead."

The Captain swallowed hard. His failure had allowed this to happen. If Earth had still been strong, the ISA could have prevented the destruction of the Narn home world. So he wasn't just responsible for the death of humanity. He also blamed himself for the death of every Narn. Dropping his head back into his hands, he went on.

"After that, the ISA really started to fall apart. The Drazi changed sides and joined the Drakh-Centauri Alliance. The Excalibur was recalled to Minbar. We'd totally failed in our mission, and I expected to be replaced as Captain, but Sheridan admitted that he didn't have anyone to put in my place. No one else wanted the job. So we joined the Minbari fleet, along with what remained of Earthforce. We started to fight the Drakh Alliance. As the most powerful ship in the fleet, we became the Drakh's favorite target. For the last year or so, we've run from one battle to the next. Most of my original crew died, and their replacements hated my ship and me nearly as much as the Drakh did. I was almost glad when they finally caught up with us and I knew we were going to lose."

Gideon felt a hand placed gently over his. He looked up to see that the woman was crying in earnest now. Tear tracks marked her cheeks and her eyes were red, but her face was still frozen into an expressionless mask. She squeezed his hand gently, asking, "What about the people? Your friends?"

The Captain gave a harsh laugh. "Friends? What friends? A monster like me doesn't have friends." Gideon felt a wave of sadness sweep over him, and he shook it away. It surprised him that he still felt so strongly. He thought he'd given up on grief a long time before.

"My Matthew has friends, here and elsewhere. I'm sure you must have known these people. Our universes are alike, at least until after Matthew... after you became Captain of the Excalibur. So what happened to people like John Matheson, Sarah Chambers, Max Eilerson, Dureena Nafeel, Galen, Alwyn and Elizabeth Lochley? Did these people exist in your universe?"

Each name was like a dagger in Gideon's heart, reviving the pain he'd felt at the death of every one of them. He didn't want to revive those memories, didn't want to relive those losses, but the warmth and concern in the woman's golden brown eyes drove him on. Gideon took a deep breath and told her what had happened to each of them.

"When we went back to Earth at the end of 2270, Sarah Chambers left the ship and went down to see what she could do to help. She knew that it was suicide, but she went anyway. After she'd lost her sister and niece, Sarah felt that she had nothing to live for. Her depression got worse, and she had another breakdown. She killed herself two months later." Another death that Gideon felt was his fault. The image of the tall, dark, and beautiful doctor was clear in his mind. He still missed her.

"Max Eilerson went back to Mars. He was still there, working for IPX, when the Drakh decided to take out most of what was left of the human race. Six months ago, they attacked Mars and bombed the domes. Max is still missing, presumed dead." The big xeno-archeologist had been a pain in the ass from the day that he'd joined the Excalibur, but Gideon had mourned his loss.

"Elizabeth..." It was hard to say her name. Gideon's relationship with Liz Lochley may have been over years before, but still it hurt to think of her. "Elizabeth was still in command of Babylon 5, when around the same time as the Drakh attacked Mars, the Centauri blew B5 out of the sky. She's dead. Just like all the others. All dead."

Gideon stared at the floor, unable to continue for a moment, as memories overwhelmed him. He hadn't allowed himself to think of these people, hadn't allowed himself time to grieve for them, to miss them, for many months. The pain of their loss was almost more than he could bear. But that still wasn't as bad as... No, he couldn't stand it. He couldn't let himself go there.

Looking up again, he asked, "So when do you think our universes split apart? How do they differ? Apart from the obvious." Gideon waved his hand at the room in which they sat.

The tall blonde frowned. It was the first time her face had changed since Gideon had started his story. Tearstains still marked her cheeks, but she ignored them as she said, "You mentioned Sarah having another breakdown. Did she have her first when the last of Dureena's people died?"

Gideon nodded. How in hell did she know that? It wasn't exactly public knowledge. The records showed that Sarah had taken leave of absence. For the first time, the Captain began to suspect that there might be something in this alternative universe theory.

The woman went on, "Did you get a replacement? A doctor called Luke Raven?"

Gideon nodded again. "He joined us at Deneb IV. Raven was supposed to stay with us for a couple of months until Sarah was fit for duty again, but..." He trailed off, staring at the floor. Gideon hadn't thought about Luke Raven for a long time. Something else to blame himself for.

"But what?" He looked up to see the woman looking at him, her expression quizzical.

Gideon sighed. "We went to a planet out toward the Rim. Galen had told us there were ruins there that could hold some clues. It turned out the planet wasn't quite as dead as we'd thought. We tried to get everyone up to the ship when they attacked, but we lost two shuttles on the way back. Luke Raven was on one of them." The Captain remembered the letter he'd written to Raven's sister, telling her of Luke's death. One of so many letters he'd written over the years. Too many.

A sharp intake of breath attracted Gideon's attention back to the woman. "Luke died?" She shook her head. "Not here. Here, he's still alive and in charge of our Medbay. Although I suspect that Matthew is giving him hell right now, about letting you get out, so it's possible that he wishes he were dead." She tried a weak smile, and Gideon found himself responding.

He smiled back as he said, "Then we know our universes split before then. And if Luke is alive, are all the others alive too? John, Dureena, Galen and the rest?"

The tall blonde smiled softly, and nodded. "Yes, they're all alive. At least, as far as I know. We haven't seen or heard from Galen in a while, but the others are safe and well."

Gideon had no idea why that made him feel happy, but somehow it did. Knowing that his friends were safe, at least in this reality, made their loss in his own universe easier to bear.

The woman seemed to sense his relief and asked quietly, "What about the others in your universe? What about John, and Dureena, Alwyn, and Galen?"

Gideon looked at her quizzically for a moment. "Alwyn? He was that Technomage on Regula IV, wasn't he? I never saw or heard of him again after that. Why do you ask about him?"

The woman shook her head. "It doesn't matter. Just tell me about the others."

The Captain shuddered. These memories were too painful, the wounds too recent. Before he could tell her, he needed reassurance. "Are you sure they're OK? Please, tell me John's OK." Gideon hated the pleading note that crept into his voice with those words, but the thought of being able to see John again, to find that his best friend was still alive, that he hadn't died so...

A wave of calm and serenity washed over him, as the woman rushed to reassure him. "John is fine. He's well and happy. He has loving partners and three beautiful children. He was promoted to Commander, and Matthew says he'll be a Captain soon. Please, believe me. You can meet him later, and he can tell you himself."

Gideon couldn't help believing her. At least one universe had been kind to John. He just wished it could have been his own. Swallowing hard, to control his emotions, the Captain told the woman about the events that had taken place only three months before.

"We got a message from the Centauri. They said they wanted to negotiate a truce. President Sheridan wasn't sure he believed them, so he wanted a telepath to check it out. Most of the human telepaths were dead, so John volunteered. I didn't want him to go. I didn't trust the bastards, but he insisted that he wanted to do it. God knows John had done more than ten other men while he'd been under my command, but it was never enough. He always wanted to do more, to help more. So he went. Dureena insisted on going with him. They'd been... friendly for the previous couple of years, and she said she might be able to help, if things went wrong."

The Captain realized that he was shaking as he remembered what had happened, but couldn't stop. "Well, things went wrong. I was right not to want John to go, and Sheridan was right to be suspicious. It was a trap, and they captured John and Dureena. The bastards broadcast a show trial, saying that they'd captured two spies from the ISA." The way John had looked during that trial would never leave Gideon. It was obvious that he'd been tortured, and his eyes... Gideon would never forget the look of pain in John's eyes. He struggled to go on.

"Galen went to rescue them. I think he'd always had a soft spot for Dureena. I tried to tell him it was useless, but he said that a Technomage could get them out, even from the Drakh. He was wrong. They sent his broken staff to Sheridan."

Now Gideon was weeping openly. The days that had followed these events had been the hardest of his life. He had come nearer to suicide at that time than ever before. Gideon still wasn't sure why he'd stopped himself. Maybe some ludicrous sense of duty, and the knowledge that John wouldn't have approved.

"They executed John and Dureena. Publicly. Painfully. Slowly. And the bastards broadcast the execution on every news channel they controlled. I didn't want to watch, but I had to. It was my fault. It was all my fault." The images that he had seen then were seared into his mind, branded on his brain, creating a wound that would never heal. The tears were choking Gideon now, but he forced himself onward, knowing he had to finish his story. He had to get it all out, to tell the full extent of his guilt.

"After that, they never stopped chasing us. We'd escape from one battle, only to be caught in another. We were on our way back to Minbar, desperately in need of repairs, when they caught up with us again. They dropped out of hyperspace right behind us, and hit us with everything they'd got. This time, I knew we couldn't get away, we were too badly damaged. So I ordered my crew to the life pods. I got everyone off who could be moved, but I stayed behind to keep the ship going as long as I could. To give my crew some small chance of survival. I thought about abandoning ship with them, but decided to stay. I wanted to die. I just wanted to die."

Gideon dropped his head back into his hands and wept.

It took all of Demon's iron control not to break down and cry in sympathy with the man weeping in front of her. Instead, she leaned forward and gently took him into her arms, rocking him silently, sending waves of reassurance, as she might have done to her son if he were hurt or upset.

There was nothing more she could do, but her powers seemed feeble in comparison to the scale of the man's misery. Demon felt as if she was trying to put a Band-Aid on a gaping wound. It was hard not to drown in the depths of his despair, not to let his bottomless pit of grief engulf her. She could feel herself sliding into that pit with him, when her link with her sister came alive, reminding her that she had something to live for, people to love. Unlike this man, she was not alone.

[[Demon, are you OK?]] Angel's mental voice was full of love and concern.

Demon grabbed hold of the mental lifeline and sent a wave of love back through to her sister. [[Oh, Angel, thank you! You'll never know how glad I am to hear you, to feel you there. Is Matthew there, too?]]

Angel's concern was more evident as she replied. [[Yes, of course he is. Demon, what's wrong? You're upset, I can feel it. Has he hurt you? What's happened?]]

Demon sent soothing noises back to her anxious little sister. [[I'm fine, honestly. Oh but, Angel, this is hard. He's grief stricken! He's lived through such terrible things. I don't think I've ever felt such pain and anguish from anyone before. And it's harder because he looks so like Matthew and in many ways he feels like Matthew. I have to keep telling myself that this isn't Matthew, but it's hard...]] Demon trailed off, aware that the man she held was pulling away from her, gently. The waves of despair he'd been feeling were diminishing, as he regained control of himself.

Angel's voice came back through their link. [[Matthew wants to come in right now. Should he?]]

Demon sent back a firm negative. [[Give me a little more time, please. I know most of what's happened to him and to his universe, but I need a little more time. Ask Matthew to give me another hour, please. If I haven't come out by then, he can come in.]]

The man sat upright on the sofa, rubbing his hands over his face as Demon watched. She reached into her pocket and pulled out a handkerchief, passing it to him when he looked up. The sad smile he gave her nearly broke Demon's heart.

After a pause, Angel replied, [[Matt says OK, he'll wait one hour, but then he's coming in. Take care, Demon. Don't let that man drag you down with him.]]

Demon sent a mental kiss through the link. [[I'll be careful. And thank Matthew for me, and tell him I love him. I'll never be able to tell him just how much I love him, but tell him I'll try to show him later. I'll call you if I need you.]]

The man blew his nose noisily, then smiled sadly at Demon again. "Do you always carry one of these around, just in case you meet a Captain who needs to break down and cry all over you?" Demon could tell he was embarrassed and trying to make a joke of his grief. She could only admire him for trying. It was just what her Matthew would have done.

She shook her head and smiled back. "No, I carry it because I'm the mother of a four year old boy, who seems to be a dirt magnet. I use it to try and keep him clean, but it's a losing battle. I really need to carry a mop and bucket around for that job."

The man laughed, then looked embarrassed again, as his stomach let out a long, loud grumble. "Sorry about that. I mean sorry about the noise. Well, and know. Sorry."

Demon smiled again. "I think we'd better get some food inside you. I'm getting hungry myself, so why don't I make some sandwiches?" She rose and headed for the kitchen, with the man following closely, again watching her carefully.

"Well, only if you can spare the food, and if you're making something for yourself anyway." It was obvious that he was trying to be polite, because he was almost salivating as he saw what Demon was pulling out of her refrigerator.

"I can certainly spare it. Do you have any preferences?" She gestured at the breads, meats, cheeses, cookies and other things now spread across the kitchen counter. The man shook his head, unable to take his eyes off the food. Demon could feel his pangs of hunger, and her own stomach began to grumble loudly in sympathy. She laughed. "Hear that? I told you I was ready to eat. I'll make some more coffee, too."

Within a few minutes, they were sitting back on the sofa, with a small feast laid out on the table in front of them. Demon was irresistibly reminded of the day when she'd met her husband. He, too, had been ravenously hungry, and the first thing she had done was to feed him. Now she was doing the same for his double, and just like Matthew on that day, this man was almost inhaling the food in his haste to eat. She watched him in silence for a while, until he'd eaten several rounds of sandwiches, and drank his coffee. Demon then stood and went to a cupboard, from which she took a bottle and glass, bringing them back and placing them on the table.

"I suspect that you're enough like my Matthew to enjoy this." Demon poured a generous measure of single malt Scotch and pushed it across the table toward the man.

He picked it up and sniffed, then closed his eyes, savoring the aroma. He took a tiny sip, again holding the liquid in his mouth to get the full benefit of the flavor and the fumes he was inhaling. Then he swallowed, opened his eyes and smiled. "I haven't tasted good Scotch in years. Even longer than since I last tasted real coffee. Your universe must be a very different place to mine, if you still have such things. Tell me about it, please?"

Demon began her story by telling him of how the Excalibur had arrived at Eriadne, and how she and Matthew had met. She told the man about the Vorlon training center there, and how Luke had found the medical instruments that had allowed them to remove all traces of the plague from a subject. Then how, in the ruins on Eriadne, Max had discovered the clues they needed to make the viral screen permanent, and how Alwyn had helped Sarah perfect the screen.

She told him that the Excalibur had taken the cure back to Earth, that the ship and crew had then been reassigned to the ISA, working for President Sheridan on their new mission. How that mission was to find new species of sufficiently advanced cultures to bring into the ISA, to strengthen it and bring more planets under its protection.

The man continued eating silently as she talked, until all the food was gone, although she'd made enough for four hungry people. He sipped at the Scotch she had poured, and looked longingly at the bottle when his glass was empty, but poured himself another coffee instead.

When Demon stopped talking about the history of her universe, the man looked at her and almost whispered, "Tell me about my friends. Where are they all? What are they doing now?"

Demon smiled and carried on talking. "John is here on the Excalibur. He's partnered with my sister, Lily, and Luke Raven. They are very happy together, and they have three beautiful children who they all adore. I'm sure you'll get chance to meet them."

The smile the man gave her made Demon want to cry again. She pulled herself together and charged on, telling him how Sarah and Alwyn had got together, and how their son Jaysen was now two years old. Demon laughed softly at the look of pure astonishment on the man's face at this news. She reached out and lifted his chin, until his mouth closed again. "Jaysen is a real handful as far as I can make out. I suppose having Alwyn as a father made that inevitable."

Demon grinned and told the man about how she and Alwyn had met, and what the Technomage had done to her husband when Marcus was born. The description of Matthew in a Brakiri birthing chair actually made the man laugh.

"I'm glad I'm not married to you, if that's what happens to your husband!"

Demon laughed and carried on, telling him about how Max, Dureena and Ilas were out exploring for IPX, with their son Vya and their daughter Ilori. The man looked amazed at the idea of Max and Dureena getting together.

"But I'm glad for Dureena, that she's found people to look after her and love her. She was so damn tough and so incredibly vulnerable, both at the same time. In my universe, she and John were able to help each other, but this is better. Although she's way too good for Max. I hope she stops him being such an unbearably smug and complacent bastard."

"I think between Ilas and Dureena, Max has very little time or opportunity for complacency." Demon gave the man a wicked smile and he laughed again in response. The sound of his laughter touched Demon's heart. Again, it was so like Matthew's laugh, and she could feel his happiness for his friends in this universe.

"What about Liz Lochley? Is Babylon 5 still intact? Is she still in command?" The man looked curious but less intense than when asking about his other friends. Demon could only assume that his relationship with Lochley had cooled in his universe, too.

"Yes and no. B5 is still there, but General Lochley," Demon emphasized the title and watched as the man's eyes widened, "has been reassigned to Earthforce security." She decided he didn't need to know about Lochley being married to a Phys Ed teacher named Sandra. The poor man had taken enough shocks for one day.

"And Galen? What about him? Has he found anyone to care for him?" This time the man looked genuinely concerned.

Demon sighed. "No, not as far as I know. He was very fond of my other sister, Angel, but she didn't share his feelings, and they're just friends now. It's been months since we last saw him, so I really don't know what he's doing right now, but that's Galen. He's always been a mystery to us. And he doesn't really like me very much, so I guess he stays away to avoid conflict."

The man looked surprised, so Demon gave him a brief summary of Galen's aversion to everything Vorlon related, including herself. She wondered whether Galen's latest long absence was due to his discovery that she carried part of a Vorlon inside her. Well, she hadn't exactly been thrilled about that discovery herself, so she could hardly blame the Technomage for avoiding her. Demon looked up, suddenly aware that the silence had grown prolonged and that the man was studying her closely.

"And what about me? In this universe, I'm married to you, and we have a son. Am I happy? I must be the dumbest ass in creation, if I'm not," the man said.

Demon smiled. "I don't think either of you are dumb, or asses, and yes, Matthew is happy with his life. That does raise one issue though. I can't call you Matt or Matthew, as that will just confuse everyone. I'm ashamed to admit that I don't know if Matthew has a middle name. Do you?"

The man nodded. "Yes, but it won't help much. It's John. Two Johns are nearly as confusing as two Matts." He smiled.

Demon frowned, trying to think of an alternative. "How about Jack? Can we call you that? It sounds enough like Matt that you'll recognize it, and it's another version of John."

The man agreed. "Not that it's going to be easy to change my name at my age, but I guess your Matt gets first call on the name, as it's his universe, and I have no desire to go back to the place where I can call myself Matthew Gideon. Jack it is then. Jack Gideon." Jack frowned as he thought through what he had just said. "Matthew Gideon has had one hell of a better deal than I got. He's got a beautiful wife, a son, a job that I'd kill for and his friends around him. Where the hell did I go wrong? At what point did our lives part company?"

Demon could feel his mood darkening again, and she sent waves of reassurance at him. It didn't help. She could feel his anger and resentment building, as he thought about the differences between the universes. Demon hurried to divert him, to distract him from his brooding. "It must have been before Matthew arrived on Eriadne, as you never went there, and we never met. Matthew told me that the Excalibur came to Eriadne in response to the Rangers telling him they'd detected some strange power emissions coming from the planet. Did you ever get a message from the Rangers like that?"

Jack sat thinking for a moment, then nodded slowly. "Now that you mention it, yes. And it was while Luke Raven was on board, too. We were on our way to Eriadne, when Galen arrived with his lead on the planet out on the Rim. The planet where we lost Raven and nineteen other members of my crew." Demon watched as Jack rose to his feet and started pacing. The action was so reminiscent of Matthew that for a moment, Demon almost forgot that she wasn't watching her husband. She shook her head and concentrated as he talked, almost more to himself than to her.

"Galen told us to forget the F band emissions, that they weren't important. He told us that this planet he'd found held a much higher chance of finding a cure, and I believed him. I diverted us away from Eriadne and out to the Rim. It was months later before we were back near Eriadne and..." Jack came to an abrupt halt, staring at Demon as she sat on the sofa. She could feel his horror as he looked at her.

"And what? Did you go to Eriadne later?" Jack nodded slowly, his face filled with pain. "What did you find there? Tell me, I need to know." Demon was almost pleading. She knew that it wasn't good, whatever story this man had to tell her, but just as he had longed to know what had happened to his friends in this universe, Demon had to know what had happened to her counterpart, and her sisters, in his universe.

Jack's response was a grating whisper. "There was nothing there. I mean, the planet was there, but there was no sign of life, no energy readings, nothing. We went to the place where the Rangers had told us they'd detected the emissions, but all we found was an area that had been flattened by something. Something so powerful that it had turned the ground to glass. The only thing we knew of that was powerful enough to do that was our own main gun, but it wasn't us. Something else had been there, and it had destroyed everything."

Demon controlled herself, forcing back the grief she felt at the death of her family in that other place, telling herself that what was important was the here and now. Here her family was safe, well and happy. That was all that mattered. But some of Demon's shock and grief must have shown in her face, as Jack came to sit on the sofa beside her, and he took her hand, squeezing it gently.

"I'm sorry. There was nothing I could do. We got there too late."

Demon nodded and patted his hand, "I know. It's OK. It was just a bit of a shock. I wonder who...?" She stopped abruptly. The answer was all too obvious.

"Who? Who destroyed that place? It could have been anyone, I guess. Well, anyone with a weapon of that power, which actually eliminates most of the races I knew of in my galaxy." Jack looked at Demon, curiously.

The tall blonde gritted her teeth, biting back on her temper. It wasn't often that she allowed herself the luxury of anger, but this time she let herself go. "I think I know who. Who was it that stopped you going to Eriadne? Who hates everything Vorlon? Who could call on the power necessary for that kind of destruction? Oh, I think it's pretty damned obvious who was responsible, even if he didn't do the job personally."

Jack released Demon's hand, taken aback by her ferocity. "Galen? Are you saying Galen was responsible?" Demon nodded and watched as Jack brooded. He stood and started to pace again, silently going over everything they'd discussed. Finally, he stopped and stared down at Demon angrily. "I don't...I can't believe this. Galen was my friend, he saved my life more times than I can count. He gave his life trying to save John and Dureena! He wouldn't do something that would jeopardize the whole human race. For God's sake, Galen warned Sheridan about the Drakh in the first place! Without that warning, the Drakh would have killed humanity at their first attempt."

Demon shrugged. "I can't think of an alternative explanation. Who else would have the power to do what you described? From what I've heard, only the Shadows and the Vorlons had weapons that could do that, and they've all gone, which leaves..." Demon trailed off, unwilling to say more.

"Which leaves the Technomages." Jack paced some more before stopping again, glaring down at Demon. "If you're right, do you realize what that means?" Demon nodded, remaining silent as he continued. "It means that he not only destroyed your counterpart and her family in my universe, but he destroyed the only chance the human race had of survival." Jack laughed bitterly. "And I thought he was my friend. If this is true, he destroyed my life and the lives of everyone I cared for, and he killed every one of those ten billion people as surely as if he'd done it with his own hand."

Jack collapsed onto the sofa next to Demon and she could see that he was shaking. She could feel his anger, his bitterness, and his grief at what he had worked out. It was too much for him to cope with in his physically exhausted state. Jack's hands shook so badly that when he reached for the bottle of Scotch still sitting on the table, he couldn't get it open.

Demon's own grief and anger had calmed in the face of Jack's fury. She took a deep breath and put her hand over his on the bottle. "Here. I'll do it." Her own hands were shaking, but not as badly as his were, and she carefully poured a small measure into the glass, raised it to her lips, and swallowed it in a gulp. Demon screwed her face up at the taste. She'd never liked Scotch but she'd needed the jolt. She poured another, larger measure, then handed the glass to Jack, keeping her hand over his, to steady it as he drank.

He gulped the amber liquid down, then shuddered as it took effect. They sat in silence, while Demon pulled herself back under control, and she concentrated on projecting calm and security again. Jack sat back, leaning his head against the back of the sofa and closing his eyes. Demon could feel his exhaustion, physical and emotional.

"You're tired. Why don't you sleep for a while?"

Jack forced his eyes open and looked at her. "Where? Here?" He indicated the sofa.

Demon smiled and stood, holding her hand out to him. "No, somewhere a little more comfortable."

Jack reached out and took her hand, needing her help to haul himself to his feet. The combination of exhaustion and Scotch made him unsteady on his feet, so Demon supported him, as she led him through the connecting doors to his old quarters and through into Marcus' bedroom. Again, she was reminded of the day she had met her husband, when she had supported him as they'd walked to her rooms. Arriving in the bedroom, Demon gestured at the narrow bunk. Jack laughed ruefully, when he saw the bed linen. It was covered with pictures of White Star space ships.

Demon laughed too, when she saw what he was looking at. "My son wants to be a Ranger when he grows up. He's obsessed with everything to do with them, and this is his room. See?" She gestured at the poster on the far wall, which showed a Minbari Ranger, in full uniform, holding a Denn'bok.

Jack smiled sadly and shook his head, saying, "I really want to meet this son of yours, sometime. For a four year old, he seems to be quite a character."

Demon agreed. She could sense that Jack was struggling to stay on his feet, so she pulled back the quilt on the bed, and pushed him down, gently. Jack rolled onto the bed and Demon pulled the covers up to his chin. As she did so, she automatically leaned forward and kissed Jack's forehead, hardly aware of what she was doing until it was done. When she stood upright, Demon started to blush, and opened her mouth to apologize, but Jack spoke before she could.

"You do that to your son, don't you?" Demon nodded, embarrassed, but couldn't resist reaching out to brush a stray strand of hair away from his forehead. Jack caught her hand and pulled it to his mouth, kissing it gently, then letting it go. "I hope your husband knows how lucky he is."

Demon smiled sadly, whispering, "Yes, I think he does." She watched as Jack's eyes closed and she felt him drift into sleep. Then she turned and left the room quietly, waving the light off as she went.

Angel had her back to the door, blocking Gideon's way into his quarters. The expression on the Captain's face was enough to make Angel want to be pretty much anywhere else in the universe right then, but she'd promised her sister, so she stood fast.

"Captain, you said she could have an hour! That hour will be over in another ten minutes, so give Demon the time she asked for." She reached out and placed her hand on the Captain's chest as he moved closer, his face set into a thundering frown. Luke, G'Tan and the Marines watched impassively over Gideon's shoulder. Angel knew they wouldn't try to stop their Captain.

"Angel, move. I know you can stop me with your telekinesis, but don't try it. I'm going in there, and I'm going in now!" Gideon's words came out in a hiss that only Angel could hear.

She was saved from having to respond by the movement at her back, as the doors slid open. She turned hurriedly, to see her sister standing in the doorway, tears streaming down her face. Angel stepped quickly to one side, as Demon and Gideon rushed at each other. Anyone who got in between that pair at that moment was going to get squashed, and Angel liked her body just the way it was.

She watched as Demon flung herself into the Captain's arms, and he hugged her tightly to his chest, pulling her head down onto his shoulder, then stroking her hair as she wept. Angel could see Gideon's face, and if anything he looked even angrier than he had before.

"Where is the bastard? Did he hurt you? I'm going to kill..." Gideon's words were interrupted as Demon looked up and put her fingers over his mouth.

"Matthew, stop. He didn't hurt me, it's just..." Angel watched as Demon tried to pull herself together, but she could see her sister was struggling to speak coherently between sobs. "Oh Matthew, he's in such pain and he's just like you and I can't bear to feel you hurting like that...and...and..." The words came out in hiccups. Gideon pulled Demon's head back onto his shoulder, whispering to her as he hugged her.

Angel watched them, realizing that she had never seen her sister so openly distressed. Demon was always so self-controlled. She rarely let others see her when she was upset, hiding such feelings even from her sisters. It dawned on Angel that only Matthew usually saw this Demon. This Demon trusted her husband enough to show him her weakness and vulnerability, and she leaned on him for support, in a way that she had never done with anyone else. Angel finally saw the woman who Gideon loved, not just for her strength, but for her frailty, too.

She watched as the Captain held and soothed his wife, kissing her gently, wiping the tears away and telling her that it was OK, he was fine, it wasn't him who was hurting. The look of love on Gideon's face, as he smiled sadly at Demon, created an ache deep in Angel's chest. It reminded of her of what she had given up, when months earlier she had sent Matt back to Demon, telling him to make his wife happy. Angel knew how much Matt loved Demon, but this was the first time she'd seen that love so openly displayed. The look on Demon's face, as she gazed back at him, her eyes red from crying, her cheeks stained with tears, showed everyone who watched that Gideon's love for her was returned in full.

The ache in Angel's chest grew, as she longed for someone to look at her like that, to hold her in that way, to comfort her and kiss her when she needed support. She told herself that one day she would find someone. One day, someone would love her like that.

Gideon held his wife tightly against his chest, fighting down the anger he felt at the man who they had rescued, for having upset Deborah so badly. As she quieted, and her sobs diminished, he turned his head to look at G'Tan and said, "Stay here. I'm going to bring him out then I want you to escort him to the brig. He can cool his heels there, until I'm ready to question him."

Deborah spoke quickly, quietly, so that only he could hear. "Matthew, don't. Please. It isn't necessary. He's asleep now, and he's not dangerous at all. He's just you, but he's a very sad and wounded you. Don't send him to the brig, please. Leave him until he wakes up, then have him taken back to Medbay. You can hold him there securely, if you have to, can't you?"

Gideon paused, looking at his wife closely. She'd been careful not to undermine his authority, but he could see that this was important to her. He smiled and pulled a handkerchief from his pocket, handing it to her, as she wiped her nose on the back of her hand. "Blow your nose. You're as bad as Marcus."

Deborah sniffed, and her eyes filled with tears as she whispered, "I gave him my handkerchief. He needed it." She looked back into Gideon's eyes and the sadness he could see in her face nearly overwhelmed him.

Taking a deep breath, Gideon relaxed his hold on his wife and turned to the Marines. "OK, let's revise those orders a little. I'm going in. Wait here until I come out, and then I'll decide what to do next. Doctor, Angel, you're with me."

Still keeping one arm around Deborah's shoulders, Gideon steered her into his old quarters, with Angel and Raven following closely. As the doors closed behind them, Deborah whispered, "Let's go next door. He's asleep in Marcus' room, and I don't want to disturb him. He needs to rest."

Gideon bit down on an acerbic response, and quietly changed the voice coding on the door lock, to prevent it being opened from the inside. Then he led the others through the connecting door, into Deborah's rooms. Seating himself in the large armchair in the corner, Gideon pulled his wife down onto his lap, gesturing Angel and Raven to sit on the sofa as he did so. When he had got Deborah comfortably settled in his arms, he pushed her hair back from her face, and kissed her again, saying, "OK, now tell us all about him. Where did he come from?"

Deborah took a deep breath and shuffled herself slightly, until her butt was resting between Gideon's legs. His right arm was around her shoulders and his left hand held hers tightly. She tucked her head into his neck, then began to speak softly.

It took Deborah half an hour to summarize what she'd learned from their visitor, although none of them interrupted her. She spoke in a tightly controlled, low tone, her usually sultry voice sounding flat and monotonous. Gideon knew that she was struggling with her emotions and was rigidly controlling herself, to prevent a further flood of tears.

By the time she finished her story, Deborah was the only person in the room who wasn't crying. Angel had her head buried in Luke's shoulder, and Gideon could see the tears in the doctor's eyes as he held the young witch. The Captain's own eyes had filled several times as his wife spoke, and her description of how John and Dureena had died in that other universe had left Gideon with tears trickling down his face. He had released Deborah's hand only long enough to wipe his cheeks, then grasped it tightly again, as she'd continued her tale.

When Deborah stopped speaking, a silence grew and lengthened as they each thought over what they had learned. Gideon looked down at his wife, who still had her head tucked into his neck, and he lifted her chin so he could look at her. Her eyes were red again with unshed tears, and her lips swollen where she had bitten them in her attempt to maintain control over her emotions.

Gideon leaned forward and kissed her gently, whispering, "Thank you. I doubt if anyone else could have got him to talk so freely or tell so much. Have I told you how much I love you recently? Listening to that story makes me realize that I don't tell you that enough. The thought of never having met you, never having had you and Marcus with me, never..." Gideon ran out of words, unable to express just how important a part of his life his family had become.

Deborah smiled sadly, then clung to him again, burying her head in his shoulder as she lost control and sobbed, all the while sending waves of mixed pain and love. Gideon held her close, rocking her in his arms, taking as much comfort from her warm presence as he was giving.

After a few moments, Deborah collected herself enough to sit upright again, and they both turned their attention to Angel and Luke, who had wiped away their own tears and now waited for Gideon to speak.

"Well, it seems that he...I...he...isn't dangerous, at least. Except possibly to himself. God knows, if I'd gone through what he has, lost what he has, I don't know if I..." Gideon cut himself off, not allowing himself to finish the thought. He took a deep breath and started again. "Doctor, you've examined him?" Luke nodded. "What condition is he in? Does he need more treatment?"

Luke shook his head, saying, "Nothing immediate. He's exhausted, malnourished, and when he arrived, he had a slight concussion. We fixed that with a regenerator, and we were monitoring him when he went walkabout. I think that by feeding him and getting him to sleep, Demon has done exactly what he needed most. My recommendation would be that we leave him where he is until he wakes up, then we can take him back to Medbay for a final check up. After that he's all yours, Captain."

Gideon nodded, wondering what he was going to do with another version of himself running loose on his ship. He looked at his wife seriously, saying, "Deborah, there's one thing I have to be sure about. The last time we met someone who looked just like me, it was Lucas Buck, and we all know what he was." He looked apologetically at Angel, who flushed and turned away. "He was a prisoner within the Apocalypse Box, just waiting for a chance to get out and take over. Is there any chance at all that he might have succeeded with this other version of me? I have to be sure that this man isn't another Lucas Buck. How can we be sure of that?"

Deborah smiled up at him. "I can be sure. I can feel him, Matthew. His feelings, his passions, his sorrow, his guilt, all of it. He's much more like you than Lucas ever was. I'd know the difference. I knew the difference when Lucas took over your body. I could tell something was wrong, but I didn't know you well enough to know what it was. I know you much better now." She raised her hand and caressed his face. "This is a good man, Matthew, just like you."

Gideon kissed her gently, then smiled. "OK, I'll give him the benefit of the doubt. As long as this 'Jack' doesn't try to give any orders on my ship. There's only one Captain here."

Deborah smiled up at him and punched his arm gently, "As if any of us could ever forget who the real Captain is!" The love in her eyes made Gideon want to take her straight into their bedroom and make love to her, demonstrating over and over just how much he loved her.

Before he could act on the impulse, Gideon's commlink beeped. With a deep sigh, he raised it to his mouth and spoke. "Gideon. Go."

John's voice emerged. "Sorry to interrupt, Captain, but I think you'd better get back up here. Ankaren's picking up some strange readings. He thinks the rift might be opening again."

Gideon cursed softly. This was the last thing he needed. He wondered what was going to come through and try to bite his butt this time. "Five minutes. Tell Ankaren that if he keeps finding these anomalies, I'm going to dock his pay." He heard John's chuckle and the Brakiri sensor operator's laughter in the background, then the commlink went dead.

The Captain hugged his wife one last time, and kissed her thoroughly. He gently pushed her off his knee and stood, still with his arm around her shoulders. "OK, back to work. Luke, will you stay here with Deborah? I'd rather she wasn't alone when he wakes up." Gideon gestured toward the connecting door, making it clear who he was talking about. "Angel, thanks for coming down and thanks for not hitting me when I got mad." He grinned at his wife's sister, and she smiled back. "Maybe you should take a break. I know you've been on duty for a while now. Go get some rest."

Angel nodded. Gideon could see the dark rings under her eyes and knew she was exhausted. The raven-haired witch pulled herself to her feet wearily, and made her way over to her sister, hugging her briefly. "Call me if you need me." Angel headed for the door, turning briefly, to grin mischievously back at the others. "That is if you can wake me." She waved and left.

Gideon looked at Luke again and asked, "Luke, could you do us one more favor?" The doctor nodded and the Captain continued, "Could Lily keep Marcus for a while? I don't want him coming back here until this 'Jack' has gone."

Deborah started to protest, but Gideon quieted her. "I'm not worried that Jack will hurt him, but I am concerned that Marcus would be confused and frightened by him. He looks so much like me that it would be hard to explain to a four year old. Let's not give him more to deal with than he has to."

While Marcus appeared to have recovered from the knock to his confidence that his mother's breakdown the previous year had given him, Gideon didn't want to add to his son's emotional burdens. The little boy was developing into a strong empath. He might not be able to cope with the powerful emotions Jack would be broadcasting.

Deborah agreed, albeit reluctantly, and quickly confirmed that she had linked to Lily, who was happy to keep Marcus with her own children as long as necessary. Deborah smiled, as she said, "Lily says they're finger painting. She says she hopes I don't mind Marcus having purple fingers, as he seems to have become rather partial to that color. Knowing your son, it won't just be his fingers that get stained. We could have a mauve Marcus on our hands for a while." She closed her eyes and smiled again. "Marcus wants to know if he can paint his room purple. He really likes that color."

Gideon laughed. "Oh, so he's my son now, is he? I don't care what color he is when he comes back, or what color he wants his room, as long as he's happy." He hugged his wife one last time and left for the bridge. G'Tan was still outside with his Marines. Gideon told him to leave one Marine on guard until the Luke came out, then to escort him and the stranger to Medbay, ensuring their visitor was properly secured there.

3rd May 2273 – late afternoon

Gideon woke with a start. For a moment, he was completely unable to remember where he was. The room looked familiar but strange. The shape of the room and the layout of the furniture were recognizable, but the decoration was odd. Why was there a large picture of a Minbari Ranger on the wall of his bedroom? The battered looking teddy bear on the bedside table was definitely out of place in the Captain's quarters. And who had chewed the poor bear's ear off like that?

Memories seeped back slowly. This wasn't his bedroom. Well, it was and it wasn't. In his universe, this had been his room, but here it belonged to his son. No, not his son. The other Matthew Gideon's son. The Matthew Gideon who had the life he wanted for himself. The happy life with friends and family around him, and with a mission he could believe in. Gideon found himself almost hating that other Matthew Gideon, for having so much that he lacked. The bastard even had his name! Gideon remembered agreeing to give up that name. He was now Jack. He must try to remember that. Not Matthew or Matt any more. Matt had been left behind in the hellhole that his universe had become. Or Matthew was right here, with his loving, beautiful wife and son. Either way, he was now Jack, and would have to build his life again.

Jack lay in the narrow bed, staring at the ceiling. Someone had painted it black then scattered stars across it, and over in the corner, a silver crescent moon hung from a wire. Shelves had been hung from the walls, and they were filled with toys and books. It was obvious that a well-loved child lived in this room. For a brief moment, Jack allowed himself the luxury of envy. He wished he could believe that someone might feel that way about him one day.

Letting out a snort of derision at his self-indulgence, Jack threw back the bed covers and swung his feet to the floor. Still bare. He still didn't have any shoes. He didn't even have clothes, since they'd taken away his uniform. He could honestly say that he didn't even own the clothes he stood up in. Starting from scratch barely covered the situation in which he found himself. Jack wasn't sure whether to laugh or cry, but he told himself that at least he felt better physically than he had in months.

For the first time he could remember in recent years, Jack wasn't hungry. He was still tired, and he knew that he could easily sleep for hours more, but at least he didn't feel drugged with exhaustion, as had so often been the case in the last few months. Jack stood and made his way to the full-length mirror. [At least that's the same,] he thought.

The image he saw there didn't impress him much. Strands of gray ran through his hair, which needed washing. Looking more closely, Jack realized that he had allowed it to grow far too long. The pale Medbay pajamas didn't exactly flatter him, either. They hung loose on his frame, making it clear that he was far too thin for his height. Leaning forward, Jack could see that the shadows under his eyes had faded, but the lines engraved on his face were still there and he needed a shave. He did not look his best.

Jack sighed. He couldn't do much about his appearance, but at least he could clean himself up. For a moment, he had a wild fantasy that maybe this Excalibur had showers with real water. His hopes were dashed, as he made his way into the bathroom and found the usual vibe shower there. With another sigh, Jack stripped off the pajamas and stepped into the shower.

A few minutes later, he emerged from the bathroom, carrying the pajamas. Jack looked into the mirror again, and shuddered. He looked even worse naked than he had when clothed. His long legs looked too thin, and he could see the outline of his ribs. Having said that, it could have been worse. He still had some muscle tone, and his stomach was still flat. With regular food and exercise, Jack decided he could soon get back into shape. At least in this universe, it seemed that getting decent food wouldn't be a problem.

Staring into the mirror, Jack lost himself for a moment, wondering what the future here could hold for him. He couldn't stay on this ship forever, depending on the charity of his counterpart. He'd have to make a new life for himself somewhere, somehow. The prospect of starting again, with no assets or friends, was daunting. Jack straightened, bracing his shoulders and glaring at his own reflection. He'd survived everything life had thrown at him so far, he could survive this, too.

Jack pulled on his pajamas, then padded out of the bedroom, finding the living room beyond empty. The door to the corridor didn't open as he approached it, and Jack half-smiled to himself. Someone had decided that he shouldn't be allowed to roam the ship. Well, about time, too. Maybe the Captain and crew of this ship weren't altogether incompetent after all.

He turned to the connecting doors, and they slid open as he approached. As Jack entered the living area beyond, the two people there looked up at him and smiled. They were sitting at a dining table, playing chess.

Jack walked across and looked down at the board. The tall blonde he had met earlier, [Deborah? Yes, she said her name was Deborah,] said quietly, "Did you sleep well? Can I get you something?"

Shaking his head, Jack asked, "Who's white?"

The man sitting across the board from Deborah sighed. "That would be me. And that's why there are so few white pieces left on the board. She's a demon chess player."

The woman laughed, and Jack tried not to stare at her opponent. This was all the proof he needed that Deborah had been telling him the truth. He recognized Luke Raven, the doctor who had been killed in his universe, all those years before. Jack found himself swallowing a lump in his throat, as he looked at the doctor. Still alive, looking happy and healthy. For the first time, Jack started to allow himself to believe that maybe some of his friends were safe and well here, too. Maybe John... He stopped himself abruptly. He wasn't going to let himself think about John and Dureena.

Jack leaned forward, asking, "Do you mind?" When Raven shook his head, Jack picked up the remaining white knight and moved it. "Check."

Deborah laughed again. "I was waiting for Luke to spot that one. You play just like Matthew." She studied the board for a moment, then nodded. "We're going to have to call this one a draw, Luke. Jack has put us into a stalemate."

Raven raised an eyebrow in surprise, then grinned up at Jack. "Thanks! That's the first time I've managed to hold her to a draw. She normally wipes the board with me." The doctor stood and held out his hand. "We may look familiar to each other, and I guess we know a fair amount about each other, but we've never met. Luke Raven."

Jack took his hand a shook it firmly, remembering to say, "Jack Gideon. It's a pleasure to meet you, Doc." He wondered whether Raven had any idea how much he meant that.

Raven smiled and released his hand. "If you feel up to it, I'd like to take you back to Medbay and check you over. Then I think the Captain would like to meet you. Demon has told us a lot, but I think he has some more questions."

"Demon?" Jack was confused.

Deborah laughed again, a low, sultry chuckle. "That's me. It's a nickname. Only Matthew calls me Deborah. To everyone else, I'm Demon."

Jack looked at her in surprise. "I don't think I've ever seen anyone who looks less demonic, but OK, I'll try to remember that." He turned back to Raven and said, "Doc, I'd be happy to come back to Medbay with you, but I'm getting pretty sick of walking around with no shoes on, wearing pajamas. Makes me feel a little silly."

Raven nodded and looked quizzically at Demon. "Do you have anything that Jack could change into?"

Demon nodded and gestured toward the other side of the room. "Come with me."

Jack followed her, into what was obviously the bedroom she shared with her husband. Jack looked enviously at the large double bed that had been installed there, wondering what it would be like to climb into that bed with this woman every night. His envy of Matthew Gideon flared again. [Lucky bastard!]

Demon had opened the wardrobe and was pushing clothes to one side, muttering to herself. After a few seconds, she pulled out a pair of black pants and a white shirt, and handed them to Jack. "Matthew has gained a little weight, and can't get into these any more, but I think they should fit you."

Jack took the clothes off her, as she turned back and started searching again. He ran his fingers over the shirt, realizing that it was silk--a material that had all but disappeared in his universe. The texture was soft, and Jack tried to remember what silk felt like against his skin. It had been too long, he couldn't remember. Demon turned again, this time holding briefs, socks and shoes.

"The underwear is new, and Matthew never wears these shoes. I'll sort out some other things for you later. We can't have you wearing the same shirt for days." She stopped, looking at him carefully. "What's the matter?"

Jack looked up at her, his arms filled with the clothes she had given him, unable to speak, unable to express the emotions he was feeling. Embarrassment, gratitude, humiliation, envy, and a sense of affection for this woman who was trying so hard to help him. The conflict between all those feelings left him speechless. He watched as her face crumpled and her eyes filled with tears. "Oh, please don't feel like that. They're just things. Unimportant things."

Demon took a step toward him, raising her hand to his face and running her fingers over the stubble on his chin. "Please, take what's freely given, in the spirit that it's given. I know how hard it is to accept gifts. For a long time, I wouldn't let anyone give me anything, but I learned eventually that I was depriving the people who loved me of great pleasure by refusing them. Give me the pleasure of giving, and just for once, allow yourself to take."

Jack stared at her in amazement. How could she know him so well? How could she know how hard it was for him to accept her gifts? How did she know what he was feeling? Then he mentally kicked himself. Of course she knew him. She was married to his counterpart in this universe. Shifting the clothes he still held to one arm, Jack took her hand from where it rested against his cheek and pulled it to his lips, kissing it gently and smiling.

"Thank you," was all that he could think of to say.

Demon smiled again and pulled her fingers out of his hand, moving them back to his cheek. Her smile changed into a grin, as she said, "There's a depilator in the bathroom cabinet. I'll leave you to it."

Jack watched Demon as she left, enjoying the view of her neat butt as she walked away from him. He almost laughed aloud as he realized what he was doing. It had been so long since he'd had the energy to appreciate a woman, he'd thought he'd forgotten how. Apparently not. Maybe he'd even find the strength to get horny again in this universe. Jack smiled to himself as he went into the bathroom, found the depilator and got rid of his stubble.

Once he was dressed, he walked back into the living area and found Luke and Demon waiting for him.

"OK, now I have my feet covered, I can face anything. Lead on, Doc. Take me to your leader."

Gideon watched, as Luke Raven brought the visitor into Medbay, steering him toward the side room where the Captain stood. The visitor, [Jack, that's what Deborah said to call him,] was looking around curiously, absorbing everything he saw. For a moment, Gideon wondered whether the story he had been told was all a lie. Perhaps this man was really a Drakh spy, genetically altered to appear just like him. Perhaps 'Jack' had been sent here to learn everything he could and return to the Drakh, telling them of any weaknesses he had found.

The Captain shook his head. That was stupid. The principle of Occam's razor said that one should always choose the simplest explanation. It would have been far easier for the Drakh to have sent someone else to spy on them, and Deborah would have detected a lie. No, the story this man had told them was the truth as he knew it.

It was disconcerting to see this near identical version of himself, and Gideon struggled with his discomfort with the situation. He had to work at not allowing his discomfort to transfer to the individual who caused it, turning it into resentment and dislike. The man couldn't help who he was or what had happened to him.

Gideon knew that if Galen had arrived on the Excalibur before he'd gone to Eriadne, offering him an alternative destination with a better promise of a lead on the cure, then he may well have diverted his ship. The Captain was just grateful that in his universe, Galen hadn't arrived until a couple of days later. The experience of having his body taken over by Lucas Buck wasn't something that Gideon had enjoyed, but his visit to Eriadne had resulted in so many more positive things, that the Captain was glad Galen had been too late to stop him.

Gideon was still struggling with the role Deborah thought Galen had played in that other universe. Was she right? Had the Galen in that place contacted his people and arranged for the attack on Eriadne? If Deborah and 'Jack' were correct in their assumptions, it raised some interesting questions about their own Galen. Was he, too, in touch with the Technomage council? Was he quite the outcast he had led them to believe? The Captain decided that the next time Galen turned up he would have some questions to answer. In the meantime, Gideon was willing to give his friend the benefit of the doubt.

The arrival of Luke and 'Jack' in the side room pulled Gideon from his thoughts. He held out his hand, and waited while Jack looked at it carefully, then lifted his own hand to shake it.

Gideon smiled. "At least we now know we're not matter and anti-matter. The explosion would have been felt back on Earth."

Jack grinned back. "It would have made a nice, new puzzle for the scientists. Yet another anomaly in Sector 14."

The fact that Jack shared his sense of humor made Gideon a little less uncomfortable. He laughed, then turned to Luke Raven, who had been watching them with a look of incredulity. "Got a problem, Doc?"

Luke shook his head. "It's spooky. You two sound exactly the same, and you look so similar that it gives me a sense of...I don't know," Luke struggled to find the right words. "It's like déjà vu. Something that's familiar, but you don't know why or how. Like I said, spooky. It reminds me of..." he paused, looking at Gideon, his face showing his discomfort. "Well, you know who it reminds me of."

Gideon nodded, then smiled ruefully. "Better get used to it, Doc. Do you need to do any more tests, or can I talk to him now?" He was very much aware that Jack was watching him closely, studying him.

"Let me just run a quick scan." Raven picked up a scanner from the bedside table and used it to examine Jack.

When he'd finished, he looked at Jack and said, "You're fine. We need to feed you up a bit, and you should get some more sleep soon, but otherwise, you're reasonably healthy. You can stay here tonight," he gestured at the bed in the side room, "unless the Captain decides that he wants to do something different with you?"

Both Luke and Jack turned to look at Gideon, both waiting for an answer to that question. It was a good one. What exactly did Gideon want to do with this man? Part of him would have liked to shove Jack straight back through the rift into his own universe. That would solve a lot of problems, but it could create more, not the least of which being that Deborah would kill him. Or at least get madder with him than Gideon ever wanted her to be. He knew she felt sorry for Jack, and she wanted to make sure he was taken care of. [It's damned inconvenient being married to an empath sometimes. Not that I'd change her, even if I could.]

Gideon sighed. "I'd prefer you to stay here, at least for the moment. I've got a few questions I want to ask you, then we can decide what happens next."

Jack nodded. "I have a few questions of my own, and I'd like to ask them in private, if I may. Do we need to trouble the doctor any further?"

Gideon was immediately suspicious, but decided to play along. "I don't think so. He says you're healthy enough, and I don't plan on falling apart right now, so I guess we can dispense with his services." The Captain turned to Luke and smiled. "Thanks for your help. You should have been off duty hours ago, so maybe you should go home to your family. Oh, and if Deborah hasn't already collected him, send Marcus home, will you? It sounds like it could take hours to scrub him clean."

Luke laughed and agreed, leaving the two men alone, each watching the other carefully.

Gideon gestured to the bed. "Want to sit down?"

Jack shook his head. "No. Do you?" They both stood, arms crossed in front of their chests, staring each other down.

Gideon sighed. "Are we going to play games? Or shall we try to pretend we're civilized, and that we can carry on a conversation without trying to prove to each other just how tough we are?"

Jack laughed. "Civilized isn't a word many people have used about me, but I guess we can try." He pulled a chair from one side of the bed and sat on it. Gideon took the other chair and drew it closer.

The two men looked at each other in silence for a while, before Gideon spoke again. "Luke was right. It is spooky." He took a deep breath and asked, "So what did you want to talk to me about, that you couldn't say in front of Dr. Raven?" Gideon had an uncomfortable idea that he knew the answer to that question. He was proven right when Jack replied.

"Do you still have the Box?"

[Damn it! There are times when I hate being right!]

Jack watched Gideon closely. How would he respond to that question? The Captain could put on as good a poker face as he could, so Jack didn't expect a lot. He wasn't disappointed.

Gideon's face was blank as he said, "Box? What Box?"

Jack laughed. "Nice bluff. Remind me never to play poker with you. You know what I'm talking about. If our lives were the same until five years ago, you had an Apocalypse Box, just like I did. You won it in a poker game, when you were a Lieutenant, and you used it to get an edge, to advance your career, to help you into the Captain's chair. Don't even try to deny it."

Gideon shrugged, his face still completely impassive. "I'm not denying anything. You're right. I won that Box, just like you did, and yes, I used it. But I don't have it any more. It's gone."

Jack took a sharp intake of breath. "Gone? How? If that thing had decided to move on, you wouldn't be alive now. How did you get rid of it?"

Memories of the Apocalypse Box haunted Jack. He'd consulted it regularly over the years, taking its advice, using the information it gave him, trusting it far more than he should have. There was one time though, one time when he hadn't believed it. The Box had told him not to trust Galen, but he'd ignored it. When Jack had been forced to choose between going to Eriadne or following Galen's advice, he'd consulted the Box. It had told him to go to Eriadne. It had told him that much pleasure awaited him there. Danger, pain and pleasure. But Jack had ignored it, and he'd trusted Galen. That trust had cost the lives of billions of people, human and Narn alike.

Jack assumed that this Gideon had followed the Box's advice, and had gone to Eriadne because the Box told him to. What he'd found there could certainly be classed as pleasure. Jack thought back on the tall blonde who was married to his counterpart. Definitely pleasurable.

So if the Box had given Gideon such good advice, why would he have got rid of it? And how? Jack was desperate for the answers to those questions. If he could find the Box again, listen to it, take its advice, maybe it could help him put his life back together again. Maybe.

Gideon watched Jack closely. The man could put on a poker face as good as his own, but the Captain could sense his eagerness, his need to find the Box. That worried the hell out of Gideon. Knowing what had been in the Box, knowing how it had tried to take him over, take his body to use for its own, made Gideon shudder every time he thought about it. That Box had been inhabited by evil, and that evil went by the name of Lucas Buck.

It concerned him deeply that this Jack must have kept the Box with him, continuing to consult it, being influenced by that evil, perhaps right up to the end. Had the Box still been on the other Excalibur when it came through in this universe? The thought of that sent shivers down Gideon's spine. He'd never asked Deborah what had happened to his own Box. He didn't want to know, had never wanted to see the thing again after Lucas had escaped from its confinement.

The damage that Lucas had done during his escape from the Box could never be repaired. The memory of those times still gave Gideon bad dreams. He had nightmares in which Dureena's child talked to him, asking Gideon why he had allowed Lucas to kill him. It was all that damned Technomage's fault. Before he'd met Paedrig Gideon hadn't believed in ghosts, but now...

The Captain suppressed another shiver. Jack was waiting for an answer to his question, and Gideon decided that for once he'd tell the truth. It would be interesting to watch Jack's reaction.

"Have you ever heard the name Lucas Buck?" Jack shook his head. That was almost reassuring, if Gideon could believe him.

"No. Why? What has that to do with the Box?" Jack's words sounded innocent enough, and this confirmed what Deborah had told him. Perhaps Gideon could allow himself to believe that this other man wasn't Lucas Buck. Perhaps.

Gideon shook his head. "It doesn't matter. All that matters is that I got rid of that damned thing years ago. It was evil, and I was stupid enough to allow that evil to escape." Not that he'd had much say in the matter. If Gideon had his own way, Lucas would still be in that Box, and then what? How would their lives be different? What would have happened to Angel? Would he and Deborah ever have married? Gideon wasn't sure. The only thing he was sure about was that he wanted his life just the way it was, and that meant he didn't regret losing the Box for one damned moment. He continued, "Just think yourself lucky that the thing inside never came after you." This time he couldn't suppress his shiver at the memory of the time he'd been thrown out of his own body, into a limbo of nothingness.

He became aware that Jack was watching his reactions carefully, so quickly changed the subject to one he knew would divert Jack from his interest in the Box. "My sensor operator tells me that it's possible the rift between our universes may open again in the next couple of days. If it does, we may be able to send you home. Do you want to go?"

Jack's mouth fell open, and he looked as if he'd been sandbagged. Gideon decided that maybe he should invite Jack to play poker sometime. Jack wasn't as good at hiding his feelings as Gideon had expected. Still, given the provocation...

"Go home? You could send me back?" Jack choked the words out.

Gideon nodded. "Maybe. We're monitoring the area closely. We could prep a shuttle for you, have it on standby, so you could take it back through, if the rift opens."

A big part of Gideon wanted Jack to accept this offer. It would make life so much easier not to have two Matthew Gideons running around in this universe. And if Jack accepted the offer voluntarily, Deborah wouldn't be mad. Gideon watched as Jack thought it over, staring at the floor.

Eventually, Jack started talking. "I guess you'll understand how I feel better than anyone else. After all, we're pretty much the same person. Part of me feels I should go back. I feel like I have a duty to keep on fighting back there, and that I should do something, anything, to make up for the appalling mistakes I've made. Those mistakes cost billions of lives and I owe them--God knows I owe them--everything I can do to fight the enemy." He sighed deeply before he went on, "Then there's the part of me that is so goddamned tired of it all. The part that knows it's hopeless. They've won. The bastards have won, and there's nothing that one man, even Matthew Gideon, can do to change that."

Gideon watched in silence, as Jack talked it through. He knew that Jack was really talking to himself, trying to convince himself of the right course of action. He waited for the other man to reach a conclusion.

"There's nothing for me back there but pain and death. I have no idea what there is for me here, but it's got to be better than that. But if I stay, I don't know if I can live with myself." Jack looked up at Gideon. "What would you do?"

Gideon shook his head. "I don't know. I really don't know." He rose to his feet and looked down at the other man. "You don't have to decide right away. I'll order the shuttle prepped and you can decide when...and if... the time comes." Gideon sighed. "I still have a lot of questions I need to ask, but I'm tired and so are you. It's been a long day and there's nothing that can't wait until morning."

Frowning down at Jack, Gideon put the full weight of command into his next words. "Stay here until you're called for. I don't want you wandering around my ship, confusing the hell out of my crew. That's an order. I know you're not good at following orders, no better than I am, but you'll follow this one, or I'll move you to the brig right now. Take your pick."

Jack grinned back up him, his expression almost insolent, as he said, "Oh, I'll stay put this time. You don't have to make such a big deal about it. I'll be good. Well, as good as you'd be in my position."

Gideon snorted. "That's what worries me. Look, I'm not going to lock you in, as just like me, you'd see that as a challenge and find a way to break out. I'll take your word that you won't leave. Deal?"

Jack nodded, then stood and held out his hand. "You have my word."

The two men shook hands again and Gideon turned to leave, saying, "I'll see you in the morning."

Jack sat with his head in his hands, trying to absorb everything that had hit him that day, trying to decide on an answer to that other Captain's question. Should he stay? He'd have to build a life from nothing. He'd have no friends, no credits, no job and no home. Could he face that prospect? But could he face the alternative? The thought of going back to his own universe, going back to the battle that could only end in defeat, giving up any prospect of a future, no matter how hard, was deeply depressing.

His thoughts moved onto Galen. Was it possible? Could his friend have destroyed humanity's only hope of a cure? Had Galen done so, Jack could only assume that it had been done in ignorance. Perhaps in his universe, Galen's hatred of all things Vorlon had led him to act too hastily, destroying their works on Eriadne without looking carefully enough at how those works might be used. Jack could only hope that this was the explanation, but even so, he found it hard to forgive his friend for the appalling consequences that had arisen from his actions. If Demon was right.

Sitting upright in the chair, Jack told himself that he should sleep on it. Only then, did he notice the figure standing outside his room, looking in through the window from Medbay. Jack's stomach did a back flip when he recognized the man standing there. It was John Matheson. So it was all true. John was still alive in this universe.

Jack stared at the man, seeing that he was heavier than the John he remembered. He hadn't realized how much weight John had lost over the last couple of years, it had happened so gradually. The man looking at Jack also didn't have that sad, haunted look, an expression that had become fixed on John's face in recent months. This man looked pensive, even concerned, but fit and healthy. Jack shuddered as he remembered how his John had looked when he had last seen him. He pushed that image out of his mind and stood up, holding onto his chair for balance, as his legs seemed, for some unaccountable reason, to have turned to Jell-O.

John gestured at the door and tilted his head to one side, silently seeking permission to enter. Jack nodded, not moving, as he wasn't sure what would happen if he let go of the chair. Actually, he knew exactly what would happen. He'd end up in a crumpled heap on the floor.

The door slid open and John Matheson entered, nodding seriously at Jack as he came in. John opened his mouth to speak, then closed it again and half smiled. After a brief pause he said, "I was going to call you 'Captain', but I think that would confuse us both. Luke tells me that you've decided we should call you Jack. Is that correct?"

Jack nodded, swallowing hard. John's voice was exactly as he remembered it. He'd never expected to hear that voice again, and it brought a rush of pain and guilt so strong that his legs started to give way under him. John saw what was happening and stepped forward, supporting Jack's arm and helping him lower himself safely back into the chair. John smiled again, "They tell me that you've had a pretty rough time. I'm sure you'll feel stronger soon."

Fighting back tears, Jack finally found his own voice. "Thanks. I'll be fine." He hardly recognized the grating whisper that emerged from his own throat. [For God's sake, get a grip on yourself!] he thought.

John grabbed the chair that the other Gideon had used and pulled it across, sitting quickly, so Jack didn't have to look up at him. He smiled again. "The Captain said he thought you'd like to see me. If this isn't a good time..." he trailed off, leaving the question unspoken.

Jack shook his head. "There'll never be a better one." It surprised him that Gideon had bothered to send John to see him. Then again, it must have been pretty obvious to Gideon's wife that John's death had hurt him most, and it was John that he most desperately wished to see alive. Perhaps the hard-ass Captain wasn't such a hard-ass after all. Jack almost laughed. He guessed that meant that he wasn't such a hard-ass, either.

He took hold of his emotions and tried to return John's smile. "It's just a bit of a shock seeing you like this. I know they told me that you were alive here, but in my universe..." Jack ran out of words. How could you tell a man that his counterpart had been publicly tortured to death?

John smiled sadly. "I know. Demon told Luke, and he told me. Matthew said that he thought you might like to know something about my life here. He said it might help you to know how happy I am."

Jack swallowed a huge lump in his throat. Why the hell were these people being so kind to him? Didn't they know that he didn't deserve kindness? He didn't deserve anything good. Just as his John hadn't deserved what had happened to him. All he could croak out was. "Please. Tell me."

John smiled again and started to talk, telling Jack about his life on board the Excalibur. About his partners and how happy he was with them. The picture he created of his Fire-Lily made Jack smile, and he hoped that he'd get a chance to meet the red-headed temptress. It sounded as if she was exactly what John needed, to draw him out of his shell. Lily's passion and fire seemed to be balanced by Luke Raven's calm and serenity, qualities that Jack had noticed in Luke's counterpart in his own universe. The threesome seemed to be perfectly balanced and perfectly happy.

John went on to talk about his children, and his descriptions of some of their antics made Jack laugh out loud. Faylinn sounded like a real tomboy, while Naima was a little flirt, even though only two years old. John's account of Dasha brought a surge of mixed emotions to Jack's heart. The little boy sounded so much like his father. Serious, sober, loyal to his friends, but with an impish sense of humor that could surprise everyone.

Jack was very much aware that John continued to talk, as much to allow Jack to recover from shock, as to provide him with the information he so desperately desired. Yet again, the kindness of the people on this Excalibur surprised Jack. Demon, Luke, even Gideon, and now John. They had all gone out of their way to console him, to comfort him for his losses. But nothing could ever really heal the wounds created by his experiences.

When John finally ran out of words, Jack sat looking at him in silence for a while, then eventually whispered, "I'm sorry."

John raised an eyebrow in surprise. "For what? I don't think you've done anything to apologize for."

"Maybe not here, but there...I'm sorry, John. I should have stopped him. I should have done more, argued longer, locked him in his quarters and thrown away the key if I had to, but I should never have let him go. I can never tell him how sorry I am for having allowed him to go on that mission, but I can tell you. Somehow that helps. Somehow that makes me feel as if, in a way, I'm telling him. So I'm sorry. Oh God, I'm so sorry." The words flooded out of Jack in a surge of remorse, regret and bitter sorrow at the death of his friend and protégé. He dropped his head back into his hands and fought back the tears that threatened again. Hadn't he wept enough for one day? No need to make a fool of himself again.

The hand gently patting his shoulder made Jack look up into the sad eyes of his XO. No, not his XO, not his John, but this John. Another John, but close enough to the man Jack knew, for him to understand what Jack was thinking and feeling.

"You have to forgive yourself. You have to let it go. He would have told you that you have nothing to forgive yourself for, that what he did, he did of his own free will. But if you're like my Captain, you'll never accept that, you'll keep blaming yourself for something you couldn't change. So I'll do what that other John would have wanted to do, but can't. I forgive you. Now please, forgive yourself."

Jack shook his head. "I'm not sure I can."

John patted his shoulder again, saying softly, "I remember you once talked to me about forgiveness. I memorized your words, they meant so much to me. You said, 'It's easier not to want forgiveness or to expect it. Just keep trying to fix the mistake so we don't have to ask. But you end up trying so hard to atone for one set of mistakes, you overcompensate and make new ones, and then you can never break out of the cycle. You just keep going round and round. No way out. Nowhere to go.' Don't make that mistake. Break the cycle and forgive yourself."

Jack remembered that event with crystal clarity. The alien trapped inside the smoky globe had tried to forgive him then. Forgive him for surviving when everyone else on the Cerberus had died. Forgive him for winning the Box from that man, who had died moments later. But the alien's forgiveness hadn't been enough. It hadn't meant anything to Jack. John's forgiveness was another thing altogether.

As Jack looked up into the sincere and sad brown eyes gazing down at him, he found that he just might be able to absolve himself. Not today, not even soon, but someday, knowing that this John had forgiven him, Jack thought that he might just be able to let go of the grief and the guilt. Very slowly, giving the other man the opportunity to react, Jack raised his hand, then lowered it, to cover John's where it rested on his shoulder. Jack knew that telepaths avoided skin contact, as it made it difficult for them to block, so he gave John plenty of time to move his hand, if he wanted to. John smiled and left his hand where it was, gripping Jack's shoulder, gently.

Jack placed his hand over John's, wanting the telepath to feel what he was feeling, wanting him to know that his words were sincere. "Thank you." The words were barely a breath, but they didn't need to be more. Jack knew that John had heard and understood.

Both men were silent for a moment, too full of emotion to speak, then Jack cleared his throat noisily and moved his hand away. "If your Captain is the same as me, then I guess it's you I have to thank for bringing me back here. I bet he's as reluctant to get out into space as I am."

John laughed softly and moved back to his seat. "You could say that. Yes, I led the team that came over to your Excalibur. I wish we could have saved her, but she was too far gone. All we could do was bring you and the others back."

Jack lurched to his feet. "Others? What others? Everyone was supposed to have left! Oh God, please don't tell me that I screwed that up, too? Shit! I can't even evacuate a ship and die properly!"

John was on his feet, too, trying to calm the ranting man. "We brought back two others, just two. Everyone else had gone. The two we rescued were so badly hurt that they really shouldn't have been moved. I'm sure if they could have been got to the life-pods safely, they would have been." John paused, his face showing his sorrow at what he had to tell Jack next. "I'm sorry, but Luke has told me that both of them have died since we got them here. There was nothing we could do, even with the Vorlon tech medical instruments we have here."

Swallowing hard, Jack nodded. "I understand. Do you know who they were?"

He watched as John shook his head. "No. They don't bear any resemblance to anyone who has ever served on our Excalibur, and Luke couldn't match them to Earthforce records either."

Jack knew what he had to do. These crew members wouldn't have the chance of a fresh start, as he did. He couldn't write letters to their families, in his usual pathetic attempt to offer some comfort or reason for their loss, but he could at least make sure they were laid to rest with their own names. Nodding toward the door he said, "I promised your Captain I wouldn't leave here until I was called for. I'd like to keep that promise if I can, so will you take me to the mortuary? I can tell you who they are."

John nodded silently and led the way.

{Chapter 1} {Chapter 2}

The Witches of Eriadne: Interlude Four S

{Part 1: Alternatives}

{The Main Gate} {HomePage} {Wytches World} {We are Family} {A Little Artistic Licence} {No, we don't mean "A"riadne} {Our Home Is Our Castle} {The Witches' Diary} {Witches Familiars} {The Gateway} {Webrings]