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I, Telepath

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"Ms. Winters, wait up!"  Garibaldi's voice interrupted my reverie and I heaved a sigh of resignation.  Would that man ever leave me alone?  It had been a long day, I was tired, my head ached, and I was looking forward to my dinner and some peace and quiet.  Don't get me wrong, I was quite satisfied with the day and glad to be back at work.  I was still shaken from my "arranged" meeting with Mr. Morden last week, courtesy of Captain Sheridan, and I had been having nightmares ever since.  Last night was the first decent night's sleep I had had.

 

I paused and turned towards him patiently.  "May I help you, Mr. Garibaldi?"  I did my best to smile, though I didn't really feel like it.

 

Garibaldi didn't notice.  "Have you seen Commander Ivanova?"  He seemed distracted and more than a little disturbed about something.

 

"No, I've been in negotiations all day."  Lucrative ones, well worth the headache, I added silently.  "Is something the matter?"

 

"No, no... Just wondered if she'd crossed your path today."

 

I ignored the obvious lie.  "Wasn't she in C and C?"  The lovely Commander was there every day, right?

 

He ignored my question.  "If you see her, let me know, ok?  It's really important."

 

"I thought you just said nothing was the matter," I pointed out.  I gave him my sternest 'who do you think you're trying to fool?' look.

 

Again he ignored me.  "I'll be on duty all night, just call me if you see her, or she contacts you."  With that, he hurriedly walked away, speaking in hushed tones into his link.

 

I didn't bother to try and listen in, the background noise in the Zocalo at this hour was too much for me to hear, but I was curious.  Glancing around, I noted a greater number of security personnel than usual.  There was a least one at almost every establishment talking to both proprietors and customers, plus several more in strategic positions keeping an eye on who was entering and leaving the main bazaar area.  They didn't seem overtly belligerent, but were very alert and conspicuously armed, and there was a certain grimness underlying their surface determination.  That didn't look good.  Ivanova had made many enemies in the course of her duties on board this station – smugglers, pro-Earth Home Guard types, terrorists, desperate lurkers.  And now she was apparently missing – was someone trying to hurt her?

 

Starting to feel a little concerned, I stepped over to the kiosk closest to me, a seller of earrings and other trinkets, and pretended to look over its wares while getting as close to one of the security guards as I could without seeming suspicious.  He was also asking questions about Ivanova's whereabouts.  Even though it was difficult to filter out all of the other thoughts and emotions around me, what I could sense from him was anything but reassuring.  And gave me a new source of fear for Ivanova.  Without being able to read any details of the underlying reason, it was clear that Ivanova was his target, but the emotional coloring on his intent was adversarial, not solicitous.

 

Now I have long had a thing for that gorgeous dark-haired Russian, and since we have finally become friends I'm even more interested in anything concerning her.  It was obvious that something serious was going on, and if so I wanted to know about it, headache or not.  One of the traits that defined Ivanova and made her such a good officer was her loyalty – to Earth, to her crewmates, and to her friends.  I didn't know what could have happened to turn them against her, but I was determined to be no less loyal to her.  Peace, quiet, and dinner would have to wait.  With a certain degree of trepidation, I turned back to head towards blue sector where the station's officers and crew lived and worked.  There was a shift change due to start in another few minutes so there would be a lot of people going to and fro, and a lot of chatter.  Maybe I could hear something in passing.

 

Exiting the core shuttle into blue sector, the throbbing ache behind my eyes became a piercing pain.  People were more closely packed in these corridors than even the Zocalo and I wasn't used to crowds like this.  The effort to maintain and reinforce my mental shields was excruciating; I avoided such mobs for this very reason, but there was no help for that now.  There was a tension and underlying anxiety in the throng that was almost palpable.  I could sense it through my blocks as well as see it in the tense lines on the faces pushing intently by me.  No one seemed to question my presence at least, for which I was grateful.  I saw Lt. Corwin at a distance and I tried to move towards him, but this many people brushing by me in all directions was psychically disorienting and I lost sight of him in the brief time it took me to regain my bearings.

 

There was no mention of Ivanova by name, but there were quite a few mutters of a Psi-Cop on board the station.  That didn't surprise me much; they showed up whenever they pleased, and didn't usually extend me the courtesy of forewarning.  I had sent a report to the Corps' facility on Mars regarding my brush with Morden, but hadn't expected a response; certainly not a personal visit from a Psi-Cop.  But for whatever reason there was a Psi-Cop aboard, I just hoped that it wasn't Bester.  Even though I had discovered during my recent experience with the rogue telepaths that I seemed to be impervious to their scans, I've seen enough of that little troll to last a lifetime.  And he always seemed to take extra pleasure in turning up unannounced.  Knowing how much Ivanova hated the Corps and especially Bester, I just hoped that she hadn't done anything rash.  But I wondered why, if security was looking for Ivanova so intently, that none of the station's crew mentioned her.  If something was going on with her, wouldn't they be aware of it? 

 

Finally, I couldn't take or learn more and I turned back towards my quarters and my belated dinner.

 

 

~.~

 

 

When I finally entered my quarters later, I heaved a big sigh of relief as the door slid closed behind me.  Silence at last.  I had taken a round-about way back, checking out the casino and Earhart's for any sign of Susan or any more dropped tidbits of information.  Nothing.  And no sign of the Psi-Cop either.  That could either be bad or worse, depending; I felt nervous and jumpy just knowing one was around.  I closed my eyes for a moment and stretched my neck.  Calling for the lights to come on low, I loosened the collar of my Corps uniform and removed my gloves, tossing them on the couch and moving towards the kitchen.  Abruptly, I stopped, sensing... something.  Noise?  Movement?  Something out of place?  Slowly I turned around, my mind alert.

 

She was standing very still to one side of the door, her piercing eyes boring into me, her uniform rumpled, and a haggard look on her face.  "Susan!"  I made no move towards her, judging from her rigid watchfulness that it would be unwelcome.  "Susan, half the station is looking for you.  What's going on?"

 

"Did that Psi-Cop talk to you?"  Her voice was strained and hoarse.

 

"No.  I heard there was one here, but the only person I've talked to is Garibaldi.  He wanted to know if I'd seen you today."  She relaxed slightly but perceptibly at that, and I took a cautious step closer.  "Susan, what's wrong?" I asked softly.

 

"Stupid bitch illegally scanned me," she spat out bitterly.  Hmm, not good.  The Commander's invectives were ordinarily far more creative than mere profanity.

 

"And that was wrong," I said, keeping my voice low and calm, not wanting to increase her agitation.  No Psi talent was necessary to assess her mental state; she looked tense enough to explode.  "What did you do?"

 

"I gave her a devil of a headache," she said cryptically.  Her shoulders relaxed just a little bit more.  "I've managed to stay a couple of steps ahead of them all day, but I don't know how much longer I'll be able to keep that up."

 

Relieved that it apparently wasn't Bester, I gave a slight chuckle.  "Well at least you didn't kill her."

 

"No I didn't.  But it would be a hell of a lot easier if I had."  She sagged against the wall, her exhaustion plainly evident.

 

Murder would be easier?  Definitely not good.  Still, I took another step closer.  "What do you mean?"

 

She sighed, almost in resignation.  "I've been listening in on the security com channels whenever I got the chance, and she's already contacted the Corps about me."

 

I was confused and must have looked it.  "Why would she do that?  Surely you didn't do anything that bad."

 

Susan quirked a slight grin at me.  "One of the things that I like about you Talia is that you're so straightforward and unsuspicious."  She dropped her eyes to the floor and continued in a lower voice.  "We all have secrets of one sort or another.  In scanning me, she discovered mine."  She raised a hand to rub the back of her neck.  "Can't you guess it, Talia?  Why would I distrust telepaths so much and go to such great lengths to avoid them?"

 

"Your mother..."

 

"My mother touched my mind many, many times, yes."  Susan looked back up at me guardedly.  "But sometimes, just sometimes... I would be the one to touch her mind," she finished softly.

 

I was momentarily startled, and then suddenly a dozen puzzle pieces about this frequently enigmatic and always frustrating woman clicked into place.  "You're a latent telepath," I said in wonder, daring yet another step towards her.  How did I miss that?  It was so obvious in retrospect.

 

Susan nodded.  "Probably not even a P-1.  I don't have any ability to scan anyone, all I get is flashes of strong emotion on rare occasions... but it's still enough for them to destroy me just as they did her."

 

"Oh god, Susan.  I'm so sorry."  In a sudden mental flash I saw the situation through her eyes, and realized that accidental discovery by another telepath must have been the single greatest fear of her life.  And that made the friendship between us, however tentative at first, all the more precious.  Now her worst nightmare had roared to life and had her in its teeth.  She leaned her head back against the wall and closed her eyes, the last of her energy draining away.  "What are you going to do?" I asked.  I covered the remaining distance to her and placed a hand on her arm, pleased when she didn't flinch at my touch.  Always before, she had recoiled from me when I'd casually touched her.  And now I know why.  The thought unexpectedly hurt.  She didn't answer at first, so I boldly leaned against her and slipped an arm across her in a sort of hug.

 

She took a deep breath.  "First thing is to get out of Earth Alliance controlled space.  After that...  I don't know."

 

"What can I do to help?"

 

"Nothing.  I don't want you mixed up in this.  I probably shouldn't even have come here, but I...  I just wanted..." she swallowed hard, "to say goodbye.  And to... apologize... for not telling you about this before."  She took another deep breath.  "I hope that... you'll forgive me."

 

"There's nothing to forgive," I said firmly.  "I understand why you had to keep this a secret."  Becoming really bold now, since she didn't seem to mind the physical contact, I rested my head against her shoulder and gave her a gentle squeeze.  "You have to let me help you."

 

"No."  Unhesitating.  "They'll hurt you in retaliation, to make an example of you."

 

"Susan, they've already hurt me by going after you.  I can't stand by this time.  I won't."  I raised my head and checked her protest by placing two fingers over her lips.  "Listen to me...  What they did to Jason, those rogue telepaths, that monster they created to kill Taro, and who almost killed me...  No Susan, I'm not standing by yet again while they hurt someone else that I care about.  You can't ask me to."

 

She reached up a hand to grasp my fingers, but instead of pulling them away as I expected her to, she kissed them.  My heart thudded hopefully in my chest and I wanted desperately to lower my blocks to get some sense of what she was feeling, but refrained.  She slipped her other arm around me to pull me against her fully, then released my fingers and drew my head forward to rest against hers.  I almost cried it felt so good.  We stood like that, eyes closed, breathing the same air, just taking comfort from one another, for what seemed like a long, long time.

 

Finally she shifted reluctantly.  "I've got to get going," she said softly.  "I don't want them to track me here."

 

"No, they won't think to look here, the crew all know how you feel about telepaths.  Even Garibaldi hasn't figured out yet that we're friends.  You're exhausted and you need rest," here her stomach growled audibly so without skipping a beat, I added, "and some dinner."

 

She chuckled in embarrassment, the first sign of real humor since I arrived.  "I guess I just got overruled."

 

"Yes, you did," I whispered, suddenly loath to let go.

 

She loosened her hold on me and cupped my cheek to look at me directly for a long moment.  Those steel blue eyes, normally so piercing, softened and gazed into mine with warmth and affection.  A line that I'd heard once echoed through my mind.  "Eyes too expressive to be blue, too lovely to be grey."  Exactly.  Without breaking her gaze and with agonizing slowness, she leaned in to kiss me lightly on the lips.  "Thank you," she whispered.

 

Despite the distressing circumstances, I was so giddy with relief and momentary happiness that I almost giggled.

 

 

~.~

 

 

Later, after a light meal, we sat together on the couch.  I wasn't going bring up anything further at this point about the situation, figuring that morning would be soon enough.  After some initial resistance, she was cuddled against me and relaxed enough now to be drowsing lightly.  My arms were around her shoulders and even though I was very tired, I fought the waves of sleepiness and forced myself to stay awake, memorizing the feel of her against me.  Who knew what could happen tomorrow?

 

My mind drifted back to dinner.  "I understand why you can't, and I agree with your reasons, but it sure would make things a lot easier if you could just join the Corps," I had said wistfully.

 

"No way, Talia."  As adamant and unyielding as only Commander Susan Ivanova could be.  "I will not let them take me."

 

"Alive" had hung unspoken in the air at the end of the sentence, but I heard it just the same.  And shuddered at the implication.  A sharp pain shot through my chest even now, remembering, and I suddenly found it difficult to breathe.

 

Susan stirred in my arms. "S'matter?" she asked sleepily.  "Something wrong?"

 

Maybe I had tightened my hold on her, or maybe I had unconsciously projected my emotions to her, I didn't know.  "Shh, go back to sleep," I stroked her dark hair, "everything's all right."  For the moment anyway, I thought, and felt the pain again.

 

Or maybe she was a stronger telepath than she gave herself credit for.  "No, something's bothering you."  She wriggled into a more upright position facing me.  I did not take my arms from around her shoulders.

 

"I'm just afraid," I said softly. "What they might do if..."  I fought to get the words out while sternly blinking back tears.  "I couldn't bear to lose you."

 

She looked at me sadly.  "I can't go with the Corps, Talia.  I just can't."

 

"I know," I stroked her cheek with the back of my fingers, noting how soft her skin was.  "I wasn't seriously suggesting it.  I was just...  I don't know.  Wishing it could all be different, I guess."

 

"I wish that too."  She looked overwhelmed suddenly, because even if they did nothing more to her at this point, Psi-Corps had already destroyed her life.  To wake up one morning as the second in command of a massive space station full of a quarter million beings, then in an instant becoming a fugitive, without having done a single thing to deserve it.  Reduced from a Commander Ivanova who was widely respected, to a nameless "blip" whose life was expendable.  All for something that she didn't have any control over, never wanted, and couldn't really use.

 

I felt a sudden desperate need to touch her mind, to comfort her, and pour out all of my feelings for her that I had tried so hard to keep hidden.  But limited telepath or not, she hadn't indicated that she would welcome any mental contact and I felt that the trust between us was still fragile.  I could not, would not, risk breaking that trust and alienating her at this point, so I satisfied myself by kissing her deeply.  I tried to get as close physically as I could not get mentally, surprised at her responding fervor and the immediate heat that sparked between us.  I'm not sure how we eventually made it to the bed; we left a trail of clothing behind us, impediments to the urgency of skin crying out for skin.

 

But I misjudged her.  I sensed only a momentary hesitation from her when the escalating passion finally overcame my blocks.  As much as I tried, the walls in my mind finally fell away and I flooded her with all of the intensity of my longing and desire.  She wavered for only a second before responding in kind.  As our bodies joined, so did our minds.  I was surprised at the strength of her thoughts in mine, and so completely and so joyously did our minds merge that I half expected that we would remain merged forever.  Not even with Jason had I experienced a joining so profound, so intimate.

 

We floated for an eternity, each in the other, in a silent universe of burnished quicksilver seas, glittering waves, and radiant faceted skies… every reflection an infinity, every sliver of light another world of possibilities.  The steel blue of her eyes were polished mirrors containing uncountable images of us, not as individuals, but as a startling metamorphosis in which we were both present and recognizable, but subsumed by this new entity that we had become.  For those ecstatic moments we were a unity, a fusion of souls.

 

Once alone in my own mind again and trying to catch my breath, I gazed at her in amazement.

 

Her eyes were as wide as mine.  "God Talia, I never knew it could be like that."  Her voice was hushed with awe.

 

I spoke in the same whisper.  "I didn't know either.  I've never felt anything like that before.  I've never even heard of anything like that before."

 

"How did we do it?"

 

Recovering myself, I gave her a rakish grin.  "More importantly, how do we do it again?"  Her face relaxed into a delighted smile at that; a smile that erased all the lines and worries for the moment, and made her look youthful and carefree, and more beautiful than ever.  Though it might be only for this one night, I wanted to hold onto her and this feeling for as long as possible.  I leaned into her, and capturing her mouth again, projected my passion and desire into her mind.  She answered with more confidence this time, and I don't think that our minds or bodies disengaged from each other for the rest of the night.  Even when we finally slept we were wrapped around one another both mentally and physically.

 

 

~.~

 

 

I sat at my small table, nursing a cup of tea, worrying about the day.  Susan's parting kiss still tingled on my lips and her mental caress lingered in my mind.  The echo of our euphoric joining last night was fading fast in the harsh light of day.

 

I went over her last words repeatedly.  "I don't know what's going to happen today, Talia, or how things will go down, so I want you to remember three things, ok?  Number one, no matter what I appear to be doing, trust me.  All I want is to get off this station without anyone getting hurt.  Number two, if things start moving fast and getting dangerous, I want you to get out of the way and stay out of the way."  I had started to protest, but she shushed me.  "Listen, I don't need the distraction of worrying about you or whether you'll get hurt.  Just do it.  Promise me."  Reluctantly, I nodded agreement.  "Number three, no matter what happens..." her voice wavered and dropped down to a whisper as she cupped my face in her hands, "No matter what happens to me, never forget that I love you."  There were tears in her eyes as she kissed me gently.  Then without another word, she was gone.

 

I love you too, Susan.  Blinking tears out of my own eyes, I pushed my tea aside and headed for the shower.  I also had things to do.

 

I was strolling through the Zocalo, vainly trying to think up a plausible excuse to visit Captain Sheridan's office (not that I wasn't still mad at him for the Morden thing, mind you) when Garibaldi caught up with me.

 

"Ms. Winters, there you are," he said.  "The Captain wants to see you in his office, if you're free."

 

Well that was easy.  "Certainly, Mr. Garibaldi.  Lead the way."  I tried to think up a natural sounding question to ask about why the Captain might want me, but nothing came to me, so I just followed him in silence.  Like yesterday, he didn't seem to notice, but I could sense that he was strongly conflicted about something.  I let the silence go until we stepped off the lift on the command level.  "Is there something bothering you, Mr. Garibaldi?  You seem a little distracted this morning."

 

"Hmm?  Oh, uh... nothing.  I mean, it's a busy station you know, stuff happening all the time... got a lot on my mind."

 

Still lying to me.  I was tempted to call him on it, but we were just then arriving at the Captain's office.

 

"Ah, Ms. Winters.  Please come in."  The Captain's voice sounded cheerful enough, but there was a hollow ring to it.

 

On entering, I groaned inwardly; the Psi-Cop was here.  But ignoring her for the moment, I kept my manner as pleasant as possible.  "Good morning, Captain Sheridan.  What can I do for you?"

 

He cleared his throat.  "Um, yes... I'd like to introduce agent... um, Ms. Ufiu."  He stumbled slightly over the name, making it sound somewhat like a sneeze.

 

It would have been humorous under different circumstances.  "It's a pleasure to meet you."  The Psi-Cop was several inches shorter than I, medium build, with mousy brown hair, eyes of indeterminate color, and somewhat irregular features.  As expected she didn't respond to my greeting; Psi-Cops were not chosen for their social graces.

 

With typical arrogance, the Psi-Cop jumped right in.  "It has come to the attention of the Corps, Ms. Winters, that the second in command of this station, one Commander Susan Ivanova, is in fact a rogue telepath.  How is that you have failed to discover this and report it?"

 

Her nasal, atonal voice grated on my nerves, but I responded smoothly.  "Are you suggesting, Ms. Ufiu, that I should have scanned the Commander?  That, as you are well aware," here I couldn't resist a little dig, "is illegal without her permission, so of course I would never even consider doing such a thing."  Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the Captain's mouth twitch as if suppressing a smile, and I gave her my blandest expression. "At a minimum I would lose all of my clients once it became known that I was conducting illegal scans, at worst I could lose my commercial telepath license and be heavily fined."

 

She was clearly dissatisfied with that response, but made no further comment, instead aiming a casual probing scan at me.  But she met with nothing and discovered nothing as it flickered through my mind unimpeded, and once again I silently thanked Jason for his gifts.  She was momentary surprised, but recovered quickly.  "You will assist me in finding her.  There is a blood hound unit on the way, but it will take them too long to get here, and we must ensure that she does not make it off the station."  She looked me up and down disdainfully.  "Since you are so concerned with your reputation," she made it sound like a dirty word, "you will accompany the chief of security and keep me apprised of his efforts and results."  She shot Garibaldi a hard look.  "And I expect results.  Not like the bumbling around you and your team did yesterday.  Understood?"

 

Garibaldi nodded curtly, turned on his heel, and left.  With a quick glance at the Captain, who refused to meet my eye, I followed him.

 

I had to hurry to catch up to his long strides.  "Mr. Garibaldi," I grabbed his sleeve to force him to turn and look at me.  "Tell me what is going on," I demanded.  He looked at me suspiciously, as if trying to determine whose side I was on.  I consciously softened my voice.  "Please, Michael, I know you don't agree with what's going on.  I'm not the Commander's enemy or yours, believe me."

 

Finally he sighed and rubbed a hand over his short-cropped hair.  "I know, Talia.  It's just that this stupid Psi-Cop shows up early yesterday morning and starts scanning everyone left, right, and center.  She still won't tell anyone who or what she was originally looking for, if anything.  I wouldn't put it past Psi-Corps to just want to shake things up a bit, you know?  And now this business about Ivanova... It's like she's after a scalp or another notch on her badge or something."

 

"I want to help, Michael.  I don't want anyone to get hurt, but Ivanova... she shouldn't be forced into the Corps."

 

He still looked a little suspicious.  "What about all that 'Corps is Mother, Corps is Father' stuff?"

 

I hesitated for a second, suddenly very tired of being judged by the Corps' actions, then spoke carefully.  "I've seen enough since I've been on this station to know that the Corps doesn't always have the right answer, and isn't always the right solution."  I looked up at him frankly.  "The Corps would kill her spirit and everything about her that makes her a good officer and friend.  I don't want that to happen to her."  I didn't want to reveal too much about our friendship, but I had to convince him that I was on Susan's side too.

 

It worked, and he looked relieved.  "All right then.  But if we're going to get her out of their clutches, we have to find her before that Psi-Cop does."

 

"Would she go to Dr. Franklin for help?" I asked circumspectly.  An oblique reference, but I couldn't risk being more direct in referring to the underground railroad of telepaths that the good doctor had been running through the station.

 

"Maybe, maybe not.  But I don't dare ask him if she has."

 

I understood what he meant.  Susan hadn't volunteered any information this morning about what she was planning, and I hadn't dared ask.  Not knowing cut both ways: the less we knew the better for her, but that also made it harder for us to help her.

 

The day unfolded like a strange game of hide-and-seek.  Garibaldi and I started out in security, running a trace on her indenticard.  "We've already got an alert in the system if Ivanova tries to use her link, but I wanted to give her a little time to use her identicard and credit accounts," said Garibaldi.

 

"Wouldn't she know not to use them?"  I was skeptical that Susan would make such an obvious mistake.

 

Garibaldi nodded.  "Yes.  She knows how to bypass this station's programming and systems as well as I do, maybe even better, but everyone slips up sooner or later.  There's probably not much chance we'll catch her at it, but it's worth a try."  He keyed a final sequence into the security computer and stood with a grunt. "Come on. Let's hope that she does make some kind of mistake, because I suspect that's the only way we're going to find her."

 

We walked the entire length of the station and back it seemed, checking with every contact Garibaldi had.  I tried my best to keep my mental blocks down, leaving my mind open to as much of what was going on around me as possible, hoping to catch a stray word or image that would give us some idea of her whereabouts.  I consoled myself with the thought that I wasn't actually scanning anyone this way.

 

Oddly, even when I was reasonably certain that she wasn't anywhere near me, I thought I felt her presence.  Like our union of the night before, it wasn't something that I was aware could happen.  Several times as we passed through brown sector and Down Below, I got a stronger, sharper perception of her; a kind of pointed drive shaded with fierce purpose aiming towards... something.  But as soon as I focused on it, it would disappear before I could narrow it down, and there never seemed to be anyone nearby when it happened.

 

A little after mid-day Garibaldi's link chirped.  "Garibaldi.  Go," he barked into it.

 

"Sir, we received a signal from Ivanova's link."

 

"Where?"

 

"Green sector.  Near the alien quarters."

 

Garibaldi looked at me. "The Ambassadorial wing?"  I shrugged my shoulders to indicate that I had no ideas.  "All right, we're heading down there now," He said into his link.  "Keep this quiet until I link back in."

 

"Alien quarters?  She wouldn't go to Ambasador Kosh, would she?" I asked.

 

"Hell, I don't know," grumbled Garibaldi.  "Damn sneaky Russians.  Now I remember why I've always been glad we're on the same side."

 

I chuckled out loud at that, trying to imagine the always honest and blunt Ivanova as 'sneaky.'  Garibaldi just glared at me and stalked off.  "Perhaps it's just because she's always planning several steps ahead," I said to his retreating back.  He didn't answer, and I hurried to catch up to him.  "Doesn't it require security clearance to get into green sector?"

 

"Yes, and her clearance has been yanked, but she could have come through the alien sector, or hacked her way in."

 

"Still," I mused, lengthening my stride to keep up with his rapid pace, "she knows better than to use her link."  Garibaldi grimaced and didn't answer me.

 

The corridors in green sector were empty as we expected.  It was the middle of the afternoon by station time, and most of the Ambassadors were probably doing business in their offices or in negotiations.  Garibaldi slowed his pace as we neared the alien sector atmosphere locks.  It was as deserted as the rest of the sector had been; there weren't even any lurkers down here.

 

Entering the atmosphere lock, Garibaldi reached into the niche to pull out a rebreather mask... and found a link.  "What do you want to bet this is Ivanova's?" he asked, disgustedly.  He tapped his own link.  "Security."

 

"Go ahead, chief."

 

"I found a link.  When I activate it, tell me whose code it is."  He tapped it and it beeped.

 

The response was immediate.  "It's Ivanova's, Chief."

 

"Thanks.  I'll let you know if we find anything else."  He put the rebreather away and activated the door back into green sector.  "Wild goose chase.  If I know Ivanova, this was programmed and left here hours ago."

 

"Mr. Garibaldi?"  Ambassador Delenn's voice sounded from down the corridor to our right.

 

Garibaldi looked up at her through narrowed eyes.  "Yes, Ambassador?"

 

"It has been brought to my attention that Commander Ivanova needs to leave Babylon 5," Delenn said, in her warmly accented voice.  "And that it needs to be under conditions of, shall we say... great rapidity and much secrecy?"

 

Garibaldi and I glanced at one another, wondering how much the Ambassador knew about the situation, and how she could be sure that approaching us wouldn't betray Ivanova.  It was certainly possible that she had amazing inside sources of information, or had she been talking to Ivanova in person?  Instead of Kosh, might Ivanova have sought out Delenn?  Susan would undoubtedly realize that Garibaldi must be on her side too, or I wouldn't be helping him.  It was amazingly convenient if you thought about it, that her link drew us straight to someone who had both independent means to help and the willingness to do so.

 

"She has been of great personal help to me in the past, and she would perhaps trust an outsider more than one of you," Delenn continued.  "I do not wish her to come to harm and would be most happy to assist in any way possible."  She inclined her head with gracious formality.

 

Garibaldi hesitated, not knowing what to say to her, but that sense of Susan that I had been experiencing all day grew suddenly more acute again and I knew what answer to give.  "Ambassador, I'm certain that Commander Ivanova would appreciate anything that you could do for her."  I decided to go on the assumption that Delenn pretty much knew the entire story.  "We know that she will not willingly go with the Psi-Corps and we have to find a way to get her off the station and out of their reach."

 

Delenn looked at me contemplatively for a moment.  "I think that I can arrange that.  Give me one hour, perhaps two.  Do you have any way of contacting her at the moment?"

 

"No, but I'm sure that she's been watching us," I said.  Garibaldi looked at me oddly, but... I knew what I knew.  I just didn't know how to explain how I knew.

 

Delenn gave me a shrewd look.  "Then I will go find Lennier and make the necessary arrangements."

 

I felt at once a sense of relief and a sense of foreboding.  Surely it couldn't be that easy...

 

 

~.~

 

 

It was well into evening, and we still hadn't heard from Delenn, so Garibaldi and I decided to head to the casino to get something to eat.  We were about half-way through a silent meal, when his link chirped.  "Garibaldi.  Go."  I looked up hopefully.

 

"Chief, we've got a situation down here in the Bay 1 departure waiting area," came Zack Allen's voice.

 

We exchanged a look.  "What's going on?"

 

"It's that Psi-Cop, Chief.  She's been down here for a while harassing people, mostly just little stuff, but now she's actually trying to detain a few."

 

Garibaldi rolled his eyes.  "Who?"

 

"It's a group of Russians from one of the outer colonies that came in to see Rabbi Mirov for some Jewish thing.  She seems to think that Ivanova might have been helped or hidden or something by one of these guys."  Zack snorted in disgust.  "Mostly older folks... nothing to connect them to Ivanova that I can see."

 

"Fine, I'll be right there.  Just try to keep a lid on things, Zack.  Garibaldi, out."  He looked at me and sighed.  "Do you want to stay here and finish, or come with me?"

 

"If that Psi-Cop is down there, I'm definitely going with you."

 

The departure waiting area was chaos as usual.  Still trying to keep my mind as open as possible, I stuck close to Garibaldi to guide me through the crush until we found Zack.  Rabbi Mirov was already there, arguing in his mild rabbinical way with Ms. Ufiu.  "All right," barked Garibaldi.  "What's going on here?"

 

"Chief Garibaldi, I want all these people put in holding cells," demanded Ufiu immediately.  "They know something about Ivanova.  Those two," she pointed to an elderly couple, "had her clearly in their minds."  The man and woman looked at one another bewilderedly.

 

"Please, Miss, if I could just explain..." Rabbi Mirov tried again.

 

Garibaldi cut them all off while I went to stand by the elderly couple.  "Ms. Ufiu, would you please explain why you're still illegally scanning people and what exactly you're accusing them of?"

 

Ufiu ignored the first part of his question.  "They were thinking about Ivanova..."

 

Garibaldi cut her off.  "So what?  That's not a damn crime!"  He had been keeping a tight lid on his emotions all day, for which I was grateful, but now the sharp flare of his temper stabbed through me before I could bring my blocks all the way back up and I winced.  "The Stoyanovs don't speak English as you might have noticed, so a week ago when they arrived, Ivanova helped them deal with security about their identification – which I took care of personally – then she saw them to their accommodations."

 

"But..."

 

Rabbi Mirov interjected here.  "Commander Ivanova helped show them the station.  So much she knows!  And then of course she recites the Ma'ariv so well, and..."

 

Garibaldi placed a hand on the Rabbi's shoulder, silencing him.  "Quite frankly, Ms. Ufiu, I don't see that there's anything here at all except a distraction."

 

Ufiu was really fuming now, but in this public a place and with me watching, she didn't dare do anything.  I helped the elderly couple find a seat now that the focus was momentarily off of them.  Rabbi Mirov joined me with a glance over at the Psi-Cop, still arguing with Garibaldi, and spoke to me softly.  He had a deep, subtly accented voice that for some reason reminded me of Ivanova's, even though she spoke with virtually no accent at all.  "I am worried about the Commander.  She has trouble, yes?"  I nodded.  "Then I wish to help.  She has been a good friend to an old man like me."  Distracted momentarily, I was surprised at that.  I knew she was Jewish, but didn't think that she was all that religious.  The Rabbi rambled on without my needing to answer.  "Few here understand Russian, so when I get homesick, dear Susan comes and speaks Russian to me and talks of St. Petersburg."

 

He continued on, but I let his words slide over me and his voice fade into the background as I felt once again that tingle of 'intentness' – for lack of a better word – that I had come to associate with Susan.  I was visually scanning the crowd apprehensively, when something touched my mind so lightly, so very faintly...  I stood to get a better view of the people in and around the seating area where we had settled out of the main flow of traffic.  My movement unfortunately caught the attention of Ufiu.

 

"You are sensing something," she barked at me.  "What?  Share it."

 

I made no move to answer her, either mentally or physically, as I scrutinized the area, trying to find the author of that touch.

 

Ufiu then directed her attention to the mass of people and I felt her sharp edged mental probe.  Suddenly, she started to move towards one side of the holding area, as if in pursuit.  I moved with her, mentally slapping myself now, for possibly having given Ivanova away.  What was I thinking, damn it?  We pushed through the crowd in tandem and as we reached the middle of the main aisle, a figure in station maintenance coveralls bolted from a cluster of people to our right and sped through a side door that lead to an auxiliary bay where cargo and fresh supplies for docking starliners were stored.

 

As soon as the figure had separated from the crowd, Ufiu had pulled out a PPG.  As she raised the weapon, I made a desperate grab without thinking, and jerked her arm up so that she couldn't fire into the surrounding people.  She turned on me with a snarl, wrenched her arm from my grasp, and then whipped the butt end of the PPG around to strike me across the face.  I cried out in pain and fell to my knees, but I had distracted her just long enough for Garibaldi to run over and grab the weapon.

 

"An undeclared PPG too?  Aren't you just a barrel of tricks."  He reached down to help me to my feet and handed the PPG off to Zack Allen who had also run over.  Allen quickly pulled the power cap and made sure that it couldn't be fired.  "You know you have to tell us before you bring a weapon on board this station.  Damn it, lady, there’s too fraggin' many people in here to go waving a gun around indiscriminately."  He and Allen stalked off, Garibaldi angrier than I think I've ever seen him, but the pain in my face served as a sort of mental block, and I didn't feel it this time.

 

Ufiu turned on me furiously.  "Who the hell's side are you on, Ms Winters?  I had a clear shot at her."

 

"No, you didn't," I hissed back, too angry myself to be afraid of her anymore.  "You had a clear shot at a room full of innocent bystanders."

 

"I could report you for this.  Betraying the Corps and letting a blip get away."

 

"I could report you too," I retorted.  "Breaking station weapons regs, breaking Corps rules and Earth Alliance law regarding illegal scans, and recklessly endangering a lot of innocent people."  We were face to face now almost shouting at one another.

 

Before she could reply, we were interrupted by a muffled explosion on the other side of the door.  "She's fused the door mechanism," reported one of the security men. 

 

Garibaldi came back over.  "The Captain's on his way down.  You," he said forcefully to Ufiu and pointed a short distance away, "stand here by this officer and don't move, don't speak and don't scan, or I'll have you tied up in a holding cell so fast your head will spin."

 

She spun on her heel and stalked the few paces off to where the officer was standing.  Garibaldi turned to me and placed a hand on my shoulder, taking a good look at my face.  "Are you all right, Talia?" he asked quietly.  "I can get Dr. Franklin down here if you need."

 

"No, I'll be ok."  I touched my cheekbone gingerly, reaction now setting in and leaving me a little shaken up.

 

"It's going to make a hell of a bruise," Garabadi said.  "But thanks for what you did, that was quick thinking, you probably saved a lot of people."  He tipped my chin up to look at my cheek closer.  "I still think you should let me call Dr. Franklin down."

 

I smiled as best I could, though it hurt.  "Really, Michael, I'm fine."

 

At this point Captain Sheridan arrived.  "Status, Mr. Garibaldi," he said sharply.  He glanced over the still fuming Ufiu as Garibaldi started to explain.

 

Ufiu broke in.  "Captain, I really must protest any delay..."

 

She didn't get to finish her sentence before the Captain cut her off.  "As I understand things, you are directly responsible for this delay," he pointed out.  "So I don't want to hear any complaints."

 

The chief engineer approached right then and reported to the Captain.  "Sir?  This is going to take longer than we initially thought.  Parts of the bulkhead are melted as well, and we'll have to burn through."

 

"How the devil did she manage that?" asked Sheridan, in exasperation.

 

"I don't know, sir.  There was some industrial equipment being stored in there, welding tanks and the like; maybe she rigged something.  She sure knew exactly where the energy blast would do the most damage."

 

Sheridan shook his head in disgust, "All right, do the best you can and keep me posted.  You," he turned back to Ufiu, "are off this case as of now.  We will handle Ivanova in our own time and in our own way and you are to do absolutely nothing.  Do I make myself clear?"

 

Ufiu looked obstinate, but wasn't in a position to object at the moment.  "I don't trust her," I muttered to Garibaldi.  "She's still got something up her sleeve."  He nodded agreement.

 

The Captain turned to me.  "Ms. Winters, stick around please, and let me know if she starts scanning anyone," he ordered abruptly.  He grabbed Garibaldi's arm and they walked off in further discussion with the chief engineer.

 

I did my best to both keep a mind's eye on her and pointedly ignore her at the same time, sitting down in a seat that had been hastily vacated when Ufiu had pulled her weapon.  We watched as a maintenance crew bustled up to the fused door, rolling in several carts of tools and some heavy equipment.  I almost relished the tedium that quickly set in; it had been a very long day and Ufiu's antics had interrupted my dinner.  At least I can get off my aching feet for a moment.

 

After a half hour or so of watching their futile efforts – I privately wondered if they weren't perhaps taking longer than necessary on purpose – I felt a light touch on my shoulder and found a young crewman at my side.

 

"Ma'am, the Ambassador," she gestured over her shoulder, "would like to speak to you in private for a moment."

 

I looked over and saw Delenn standing off to one side.  "Thank you," I told the young woman gravely, "please tell her that I'll be right over."  She left and I turned to Ufiu.

 

"What would the Minbari Ambassador want with you?" she asked scathingly.

 

"I have been working with the Ambassador extensively on important negotiations with the Narn Regime," I said smoothly.  "She probably just wants to confirm some details of our next session."  Ufiu looked at me suspiciously, but I merely raised an eyebrow at her, then turned and walked away.  Another sharp-edged mental probe, not so casual this time, glanced through me harmlessly as I went.  Ha.

 

Once we were out of sight in the central corridor, Delenn started in without preamble.  "I am sorry that it took longer than expected, but everything has now been prepared," she said softly.  "I have just spoken to Lennier.  He was able to contact Ivanova briefly about our plans.  We have arranged to send her into Minbari space, using my personal flyer to get her off of Babylon 5.  But I do not know how she will be able to get to it, if we cannot get her out of here."

 

Garibaldi came up in time hear Delenn's comment and spoke before I had a chance to.  "If Ivanova knew about your plan, then what’s she doing down here in Bay 1?  Isn't your flyer in Bay 12, Ambassador?" he asked.  Delenn nodded.  "But that's clear around the other side of the ring," he continued thoughtfully.  Then he snapped his fingers with a snort.

 

"What?" Delenn asked.

 

He gave her a rueful grin.  "We're all out here playing checkers while she's playing chess.  Ivanova doesn't do things randomly or without some plan, so if she came down here knowing that she needed to get to Bay 12, then she already has some idea of how to get there.  I'll bet all of this was just a feint while she's doing something else."

 

I was still pondering the implications when Delenn, more nimble witted than I, said, "So then the best thing for us to do is go to Bay 12 and trust that she's already on the way."

 

"Exactly.  So now I'm going to try and stay away from that Psi-Cop; I suggest you two do the same.  And whatever you do, make sure Ivanova gets off B5."  With that he walked briskly away.

 

Delenn and I turned as one and headed to Bay 12.

 

And yet I still had a troubling sense of foreboding...

 

 

~.~

 

 

When Delenn and I slipped into Bay 12, there were no lights on and everything was still.  I prayed fervently that we were right and that Susan was either here or at least on her way.  This was one of the smaller bays, berthing a few small private vessels, most belonging to the various Ambassadors that were assigned to Babylon 5.  We kept to the wall and circled around to the far side of Delenn's flyer.  The bay was empty as far as we could tell, not even a maintenance crew in evidence.  Of course it was pretty late by this time, just past 2100 hours.

 

We reached Delenn's ship.  No Ivanova.  The emptiness of the bay was a relief to me after the long day, and I wanted nothing more than to give my head a rest, but I stepped out into the center anyway and opened my mind, searching.  Delenn stayed next to her ship, her mind surprisingly quiet.  It made hardly a ripple over the surface of the silence, but using her subtle mental presence as a sort of anchor, I sent my mind wandering through the assorted vessels.  After long minutes – or was it an hour?  I couldn't tell – I became aware of a faint banging noise.  Coming back to myself, I followed the sound over to an airlock portal off to one side.  Peering through the clear plexisteel window, I saw a figure in a jetpack equipped maintenance enviro-suit.  The powered exoskeleton had been removed and the suit stripped of all its tool attachments except for the spanner used to operate the twin airlock doors from the inside.

 

It was Susan, I was almost sure of it.  The "intentness" wasn't there exactly, but some inner faculty at the back of my mind tingled in recognition of my other half.  I held my breath the person in the suit operated the lock on the outer door and re-pressurized the chamber.  When the figure finally turned, I could see Susan's face through the shield.  She must have donned the suit almost immediately after fusing the door of the other bay and then exited into the vacuum of space and pulled herself around the exterior skin of the station to enter this bay from the outside.  I expelled my breath in relief as Delenn joined me.  We waited impatiently as Ivanova stripped her suit off in the airlock chamber.  By the time she finally worked the lock mechanism on the inner door, I was almost dancing in place with eagerness, and as soon as she stepped into the bay I slipped my arms around her waist and embraced her fiercely, nearly in tears.

 

With a slight chuckle, Susan folded her long arms around me and returned the hug.  "Shh, it's ok, baby."  She kissed me on the forehead and gave me a soft mental caress.

 

My momentary pleasure at her casual acceptance of mental contact with me evaporated as I started shivering and whispered, "I'm sorry.  I didn't mean to give you away like that."  Thinking of that moment when I grabbed Ufiu's arm to stop her from firing, I squeezed Susan as hard as I could.

 

She pulled back to lift my chin and look me in the eye, giving me a full smile that made her eyes twinkle.  "Sorry for what?  You played your part perfectly."  Her smile broadened at my confusion and she projected her warmth and humor into my mind as she kissed the tip of my nose.  "You did exactly what I needed you to do."

 

I looked at her in some shock.  "You mean you planned..."

 

"No, not planned exactly, more like... gambled on the probabilities."  She chuckled again.  "I knew you would be able to find me in a crowd, Garibaldi knew the Russians were innocent and wouldn't let her do anything to them, and even Psi-Cops can't sense through bulkheads, so she wouldn't question my disappearance until it was too late."  She shrugged, as if to add, "See?  Easy."

 

I shook my head.  "Garibaldi said that you were playing chess while we were playing checkers."

 

"Well... maybe a slightly more complex game of checkers."  Very gently she brushed my bruised cheek with one finger.  "Now, are you going to tell me how you got this?  I thought I told you to stay out of the way."

 

"It isn't important.  All that matters is that you're going to be safe."  I buried my face into her shoulder, oblivious to the pain of my bruise, and went back to gripping her as hard as I could.

 

Susan rested her head against mine and gently rocked me back and forth for a moment, before looking up at Delenm.  "Thank you for your help, Ambassador," she said quietly.  She reached a hand out to the Ambassador, who grasped it.

 

"It is my pleasure to help you, Commander."

 

"Call me Susan, please.  After all, I'm not a commander anymore."  A bolt of pain shot through her at that, which made me wince.  I had restored all my mental blocks, but I was so attuned to her, that wrapped around her as I was, I couldn't help but pick up what she was feeling.

 

"Very well, Susan."  Delenn smiled in acquiescence.  "My flyer is charged, Lennier has put several days' supplies on board, and the coordinates are already set."

 

Susan nodded.  "Where are you sending me?"

 

Delenn released Susan's hand.  "I know of a group of Humans and Minbari, watchers you might call them..."

 

"The Rangers."  Susan interrupted, smiling slightly at Delenn's look of surprise.  "I keep close tabs on everything that happens on my station, Ambassador.  I know more than you might think."

 

It was Delenn's turn to nod.  "They have a training base near the Rim just inside of Minbari controlled space."

 

Susan nodded again.  "Good choice.  I can work with them."  She glanced around.  "No matter what happens here, there's a darkness still gathering out there."

 

Delenn inclined her head again slightly.  "Yes, I thought that you would be a perfect fit for the Rangers."

 

Susan was silent for a long moment, hugging me closely.  So close that I could hear her heartbeat, and mine beat in unison with it.  Finally she sighed, her breath gusting gently past my ear.  "I've got to go, baby," she said softly, nuzzling my temple.

 

Completely ignoring Delenn's presence, I pulled Susan's mouth down to mine and desperately kissed her as deeply as I could, pouring everything I felt directly into her mind.  The universe faded out for a long moment as she mirrored my love and sorrow back fiercely, and then reluctantly pulled back.  She was just turning away when a sharp clang echoed through the bay.  "Someone's in here."  She pushed me and Delenn towards the ship and pulled her PPG out.

 

A PPG blast went over our heads as we all ducked behind the ship.  "It's the Psi-Cop," I hissed, sensing her Psi energy from across the bay.  "She must have had another weapon.  I knew she couldn't be trusted."  She had probably entered the bay while our attention was on the airlock.

 

Susan shot one blast off, then looked over her shoulder at Delenn.  "Get the ship's hatch open.  Then you two get ready to run.  She's not interested in you..."  Another blast of PPG fire caused Ivanova to duck and scramble after us.  We came around the corner of the Minbari vessel, right on Delenn's heels.  The Ambassador had the hatch open in a flash.  "Good," said Susan, shoving small Minbari gently but firmly away.  "You head that way."  She didn't wait to see Delenn run off in the direction indicated, but turned to me.  "Now Talia, you..."  Another blast came, this time much closer and from directly behind us, and was quickly followed by another which caught Susan a glancing blow on the left shoulder.

 

Quicker than Ufiu could have imagined was possible after being hit, Susan whirled around, and with her PPG still in her right hand, fired.  The Psi-Cop had crept out from behind one of the adjacent ships between us and the interior bay doors.  The blast hit Ufiu squarely in the chest and the Psi-Cop went down with a surprised look on her face.  I turned my face away quickly, squeezed my eyes tightly shut, and slammed into place every telepathic block that I could muster.  It's not an easy thing, mentally feeling someone die.  Susan followed up with another shot, and then collapsed herself, jarring me back to awareness.

 

"Oh my god, Susan!"  I caught her just before she hit the deck plates, blood streaming all over my hands and soaking my gloves.  PPG wounds bled profusely until the heat could cauterize the skin.  I eased her to the deck gently, checking for a pulse as Delenn came racing back over.  That woman could really move fast for a diplomat.  She must be strong too, because I'm not and yet we somehow managed to get the dead weight of Susan's unconscious and inert body up the ramp, through the hatch and onto the deck of the Minbari vessel.

 

Delenn checked Ivanova over quickly.  "The skin has cauterized now and stopped the bleeding.  With a little care, she will be all right.  We should launch the ship and..."

 

"You've got to be kidding!"  I interrupted forcefully.  "We can't just toss her in here and send her off into space in this condition!"

 

Delenn cocked her head at me for a moment, considering me with her wise eyes, then reached out and touched my bruised cheek softly, just as Susan had done.  "Are you sure that you truly wish to remain on Babylon 5, Talia?"  Her voice and mind were warmly gentle.

 

I just looked at her, stunned for a moment.  Then her meaning clicked.  I wanted to be wherever Susan was, ergo, I had to go wherever Susan went.  I had a good life here, but I didn't really care about the station, and I certainly no longer wanted to be part of the Psi-Corps.  The family that raised me had revealed itself to be an evil monster of which I was both ashamed and scared to death.  I would never have the courage to run and become a rogue on my own, but with Susan?  I would do anything to be with her.  Still...  "I don't know how to pilot this thing," I said, looking around the small cabin and feeling utterly helpless.

 

"It will take care of itself."  Delenn went and sat in what I assumed was the pilot's chair and punched a long sequence of commands into the array of lit crystal rods that comprised the instrument panel.  Then she spoke into the communications pickup.  "Babylon 5 Control, this is Ambassador Delenn of the Minbari requesting clearance to launch."

 

After a brief tense pause, the response came back, sounding like Corwin's voice.  "This is Babylon 5 Control.  You are cleared to exit Bay 12 on departure beacon alpha.  Please to not deviate from this signal or fire your thrusters until you have cleared the station.  Have a nice trip, Ambassador."  Corwin's voice was so calm and assured that you would have never thought his commanding officer was a fugitive lying in a pool of her own blood on the very ship that he had so casually cleared to leave.

 

Delenn pushed several more of the crystals in the array, then stood and beckoned me over.  "This will now go where it needs to go to exit the station.  When you reach space, press this crystal here, followed by this one."  She pointed to two, lit in difference colors.

 

I imitated her movements.  "The orange rod first, then the blue rod.  What will they do?"

 

"The first will set the jump gate sequence; the second will initiate a pre-programmed course to the coordinates of the base."  She placed her hand on my shoulder so I would turn to look at her directly.  "Do not worry about the situation that you leave behind here.  I will take care of everything," she gestured outside the ship to where Ufiu lay.  "Attacking an ambassador is a very serious offense and I do not think that Earth will want to risk a diplomatic incident by inquiring too closely or trying to pursue your disappearance."  She smiled her kind and yet mysterious smile at me.  "Take care of Susan, and good luck."

 

Without really thinking about the propriety of it, I hugged the Ambassador, surprised at how small her frame was.  She projected such a powerful persona that you expected her to be much larger, despite what your eyes told you.  "Thank you for everything, Delenn."

 

She accepted my embrace without hesitation, and returned it.  "Good bye, Talia.  It has been a pleasure working with you."  With that and another smile, she left the vessel, closing the hatch behind her.

 

I turned quickly after her.  "Wait!  How long..." But she was already gone.  Well, she had said 'several day's supplies' so I would have to hope the trip wouldn't take any longer than that.  I looked around, but saw no hint of them, nor any indication of a separate compartment.  The inner walls were smooth and I didn't see any seams or other markings that would indicate storage lockers either.  I'd have to worry about that later.

 

As soon as the hatch clicked shut, the little ship smoothly and soundlessly lifted off the deck and pivoted towards the launch ramp.  I sat at the pilot's console with my hands clasped tightly between my knees, trying to stop the shivering that had now returned.  I couldn't believe what was happening, and it was in a sort of dazed hypnotic state that I watched the interior walls of the station slide by slowly on the screen above the instrument panel.  When they had disappeared off the sides of the screen and I was left with nothing but the blackness of space, the console chimed musically.  I took this for the signal to push the crystals.  I did the first, which made a different musical chime, then paused and pushed the second which completed the odd sounding Minbari chord.

 

In stately silence, the little ship turned towards the jump gate and began moving forward, gathering speed as it went.  I dreamily watched the gate flare to life as we passed through, until a groan behind me reminded me that I couldn't shut down and relax just yet; I still had much to do.

 

 

~.~

 

 

 

At the sound, I turned and reached out for Susan's mind.  It was cold and dark for the most part, but I felt a brief warm spark of returning consciousness.  I knelt by her and stroked her forehead.  "Susan?  Come on, sweetheart, wake up for me, ok?"  The spark passed quickly however, and without responding, she slid back into full unconsciousness.

 

Might as get her comfortable while she won't feel it.  I pulled off my gloves, glad to be rid of the hateful things, and undid the front of the maintenance jumpsuit that she was still wearing so that I could pull the burnt sleeve away.  She was wearing some kind of pack, now heavily singed, but still intact, so I got that off too.  Rummaging through it, I found emergency ration bars, some water, a few clothes, and a first aid kit.  "Always prepared aren't you, Susan?"  I spoke to her as if she was conscious; her utter stillness was unnerving me.  Aside from the faint rise and fall of her chest indicating that she was still breathing, she was completely unresponsive.  You might have thought she was merely resting except for the unnatural pallor of her skin; it contrasted starkly with the blood spilled liberally over her.

 

"Let's get this wound cleaned up, ok?"  Using some of the water and one of the shirts from her pack, I washed most of the blood off, then covered the wound as best as I could with some bandage material from the first aid kit.  I stuffed the bloody shirt back in the pack with my gloves and the other clothes and then tucked it under her head, rearranging her limbs more comfortably.  "Susan?"  I spoke to her verbally and mentally, trying to get some answer.  She continued unresponsive, however, and in my frazzled state I shed a few tears.  "Please, Susan, I need you."  I thought I detected a little warmth in her mind at that, but I was so exhausted and quite frankly scared to death at this point, that I might have been imagining it.  Wanting something so desperately fires the imagination, especially under those conditions.

 

I dashed the tears aside; I had no time for that now.  I poked around the small cabin looking for any place that those supplies might be stowed until my stomach growled.  "You must really be out if that didn't wake you up."  I spoke to her with forced humor as I grabbed one of the emergency ration bars.  Taking some water too, I moved over to the pilot's chair and collapsed into it.  The bar had the flavor and consistency of cardboard, but I munched it anyway while sipping water and watching the shifting patterns of hyperspace on the view screen.

 

Sometime after I had finished, I jerked back awake as my head bobbed forward.  "Ouch.  You'd think they could have at least provided a comfortable bed," I grumbled, rubbing my sore neck.  I stood and stretched, then went and checked Susan.  Her breathing seemed a little stronger and her color better, but what did I know?  I could have imagined that too.  With a sigh I settled down onto the deck at her side and curled myself against her, using her good shoulder as a pillow.  I was asleep before I could say goodnight.

 

I have no idea how long I slept.  It must have been quite a while; I was sore and cold from lying on the hard deck for so long.  Though I was still scared, I felt refreshed and some of my natural optimism had returned.  But it was immediately dampened when I checked Susan.  Her face was flushed and she was burning up with fever.  With a sinking feeling, I did my best with a little more of the remaining water and another bandage to bathe her face and neck, hoping that it would bring her temperature down.  I don't think it helped much, but it did rouse her a little.

 

"Mama, gde ty? Ya poteryal i ne mogu naĭti tebya," she mumbled.  I caught the word "mama" but I couldn't understand what I assumed was Russian.  [1]

 

"Susan?"  I shook her good shoulder gently.  "Sweetheart, listen to me.  You have to wake up."  Finally her eyes fluttered open and she looked at me blankly for a moment.  She was fully conscious, but I could sense her confusion.

 

"Ty takaya krasivaya ... no ty ne moya matʹ."  [2]

 

I sighed.  "Susan, speak English please.  I don't understand Russian."  Her thoughts were still too confused to get more than the vaguest sense from the words.  She blinked at me some more then gradually sense and understanding started to return, I saw it in her eyes.  I wanted very much to touch her mind to help and encourage her, but given her instinctive antipathy towards telepathic contact, I didn't dare until she was more fully aware of her surroundings and me.  Our union, such as it was, was still too new.  She tried to move her head to look around, then winced as pain shot through her PPG burned shoulder.  "Here, lie still."  I pressed her back down.  "You should drink some water," I held the bottle to her lips and she sipped a little.

 

"Talia?"  Her voice was hoarse.  "What happened?  Where are we?"  She licked her lips and I gave her a little more water before answering.

 

"Do you remember getting shot by the Psi-Cop?"

 

She nodded hesitantly.  "Yes, but then it gets hazy."

 

"After you collapsed, Delenn and I put you aboard her vessel and now we're out in hyperspace somewhere."  I caressed her head softly, and risked a light mental stroke.

 

"What are you doing here then?"  She asked bluntly.  She started shivering from the fever and winced again at the pain that the motion caused.

 

I shrugged.  "I couldn't just send you off into space alone while you were unconscious and bleeding, could I?"

 

"Yes, you could have.  And you should have."  Adamantly.  "You shouldn't have come."

 

I admit to being more than a little stung by her reaction, I had assumed that she'd be glad to see me and happy that I had come.  "We're not going to argue about this right now, all right?  You're running a fever and need to rest."

 

"So that's why I feel like something that's been put through the waste reclamation reactor."  She gave a little groan.  "There should be slappers in the medkit."

 

"I saw some in there, but I didn't know which ones to give you."  A feeling of helplessness swept over me again.  I should know this. 

 

Susan gave a grunt.  "Green, fever.  Yellow, pain."

 

I pulled the packet out of the kit, and selected one each of green and yellow.  "Here you go," I said placing one on her neck and one on her good shoulder.  Then I tilted her head up for her and let her sip more water.  "We're almost out of water or I'd have you eat one of these emergency bars too."

 

She closed her eyes and lay back.  "No, I probably couldn't keep it down, the way I feel.  Didn't Delenn say there was stuff aboard?"

 

"Yes, but if it's here, I can't find it."

 

Susan raised her head gingerly and quickly glanced around before letting her head fall back.  "Wall behind you."  The drugs were starting to take effect already, her voice slurring slightly.  "Concave indentation... horizontal groove... press it."  She slipped back into unconsciousness.  I touched her mind lightly; no, it was just sleep this time, the warmth was still there.  I jumped up, eager to investigate and find more water.  She'd need both that and food the next time she awoke.

 

I stared at the wall she'd indicated, but for the life of me couldn't see anything.  The matte metallic finish looked completely flat and uniform to the eye.  I went over it a second time more carefully, this time using my bare finger tips to feel back and forth across it.  It took a very long time; I was unused to paying such close attention to my sense of touch, the Psi-dampening gloves that the law required me to wear so inhibited such explorations that I tended to forget to use it.  Finally I found a slight dimple with a faint hairline seam that was slightly above my eye level along one side.  Pressing my finger into it as she'd instructed, I almost jumped when a floor-to-ceiling panel was suddenly outlined and slid aside silently.  There were containers stacked inside, I grabbed the closest one and opened it.

 

Water.  Thank goodness.  I fiddled with the unfamiliar top until it opened, and drank deeply.  I hadn't had any since last night, wanting to save as much for Susan as I could.  I was hungry too, because I hadn't wanted to eat more of the dry ration bars without water, but pushed that aside for the moment and opened more of the containers.  There were a number of unidentifiable Minbari items, but then finally something familiar – a double handful of self-heating meal pouches.  I had never had one before, but understood that they were many degrees better than the ration bars.  I set them aside and rummaged some more.

 

The only other item of interest that I found was a long robe of some sort, brown with a curious green-stoned clasp.  I draped it gently over Susan as a blanket.  It was big enough to cover both of us, and a wide yawn reminded me that I was still very tired.  I felt the desperate pull of sleep but resisted, instead getting up, and once more with my fingers going over every surface that I could reach.

 

It was a long and tedious job and being unused to such exercise, it made my arms and shoulders ache.  I found another locker with what looked like tools, but they were no use at the moment.  Maybe Susan would know what to do with them.  Exploring further I found an odd little cubby that seemed to spring to life when the door opened.  A light came on and I heard a little trickle of water start.  I figured that it must be some kind of bathroom, so I stepped into it.  In choreographed unison the door slid shut and a bench like apparatus with a depression in the middle extended out from the wall to one side.  It looked like it was meant to be sat on, so divesting myself appropriately, I sat.  There was a short blast of warm water followed by another of air when I was done, and when I stood up, the seat slid invisibly back into the wall.  As it did, a small opening appeared in the opposite wall and the water trickle became louder.  I put my hands into the opening, and similar blasts of warm water and air cleaned my hands.  The door opened automatically as I turned, and shut behind me as I exited.  "Nice," I said.

 

My exploring at an end for a while at least, I munched another ration bar tiredly, and then gave in to my exhaustion and curled up with Susan under the robe.  The cold deck wouldn't be quite so cold now.  Susan must have sensed my presence, because she shifted slightly against me and murmured contentedly.  Once again, I was almost immediately asleep.

 

 

~.~

 

 

I was awakened this time by the beeping of some sort of alarm coming from the pilot's control panel.  A feeling like a lead weight settled in my stomach.  I was terrified at the thought of some ship-board emergency.  I didn't have the slightest clue how to handle anything, and Susan wasn't in any condition to.  I went and sat at the console and helplessly looked at the blinking crystal in the middle of the array.

 

Hesitantly, I pressed it down, not knowing what else to do.  The screen above the console changed abruptly from hyperspace to the face of a haughty looking Minbari male.  I gazed at him wide-eyed in shock as he spat a long string of incomprehensible Minbari at me.  There were rumors within the Corps that hyperspace enhanced one's Psi abilities, so I extended my mind.  But try as I might, I couldn't sense anything from him, emotion, intention, or otherwise.

 

I swallowed hard and hoped that he understood English.  "Hello, my name is Talia Winters.  We have come here in this ship with the permission of Ambassador Delenn and..."

 

He repeated her name at me questioningly, followed by another string of Minbari.

 

"I'm sorry, sir, I don't understand you.  Ambassador Delenn has sent us from Bablyon 5 to a Ranger base on the Rim..."  Before I could finish my sentence, the screen blinked back to its view of hyperspace.  Before I could decide whether or not to feel relieved, the little ship gave a sudden lurch and spun around under some external power.  As it did, I caught the barest glimpse along one side of the view screen of what I assumed was a Minbari ship.  A large one.

 

Really frightened now, I went and took up unsteady position between the hatch and Susan.  "Not that I'll be of any use protecting her," I said bitterly out loud.  It seemed to me that I had been drifting along through this entire mess from the beginning, carried along passively by the actions of others, when I wasn't actively making things worse.  I was tired of not ever knowing what to do or how to do it, and of always being dependent on others.  If I live through this, that's going to change.

 

Eventually, we seemed to stop and settled with a slight bump as if now resting on something.  I braced myself, my heart in my throat.  It seemed an interminable time before the hatch hissed opened.  The same Minbari as before walked up the ramp and poked his head through the opening.  I eyed him warily, keeping my mind open to anything that might give me a clue as to what he might do to us.

 

He was disdainful, that much I could see in his sneer at my pitiful defensive stance.  He glanced at Susan lying pale on the floor and looked behind him, barking out orders.  I heard movement outside as if in response.  He stepped into the cabin and towered over me threateningly.  I was so terrified that my knees could hardly hold me up, and the knots in my stomach had knots.  But before he could do anything to me, Susan, who I had thought was still unconscious, had lurched unsteadily to her feet and placed herself in front of me protectively.

 

I almost felt like laughing at the absurdity.  My beautiful knight in shining armor.  She could hardly stand and here she was trying to protect me.  I grabbed her around the waist before she could topple over, and pulled her good arm across my shoulders.  Strangely enough, I really did feel safer.  "Susan, you shouldn't be on your feet, you're too weak."

 

The Minbari glared at us and I felt a sudden mental surge of what I can only describe as 'bad intentions' coming from him.  I was about to warn Susan, but a voice made itself heard from outside the cabin.  Although the voice was calm, he jumped guiltily and stepped back away from us to admit another Minbari.  Delenn had always seemed ageless to me and I had found it difficult to judge their relative ages, but this one was obviously a very old man.  'Glare' – as I had named the first one to myself – seemed very deferential to him.  His shoulders were stooped and the wrinkles of his face were deep grooves.  His eyes were curiously colorless, and as he turned towards Glare speaking in the same mild tone, I realized from the odd tracking of his eyes that he was blind.

 

Whatever he said caused Glare to bow deeply, and shooting us another of his habitual expressions, he stomped heavily down the ramp.  The old man turned to us and I felt the sudden staggering force of his mind.  He was a telepath, and much like Delenn's force of personality, he seemed much larger than his frail body would indicate.

 

Susan hissed and shook her head.  "Get out, damn it!"  I looked at her, startled.  She was scowling at him through narrowed eyes.  "Stay out of my head!"

 

I turned back to the old man, feeling something like an apologetic mental shrug.  There was a telepathic buzzing sensation in the back of my mind and I hesitantly opened my thoughts to him.  Our communication was necessarily wordless as we didn't speak one another's language, but I understood that their intentions were non-threatening.  I shared with him my memories of the last conversation that I'd had with Delenn, hoping that even though he wouldn't understand the spoken words, he might understand the body language and emotional exchange.  I tried also to make him understand how seriously Susan was hurt and that she needed a doctor.  I'm not sure that he got either message; I couldn't seem to read him at all.  I could feel the mental 'hum' of his presence, but every time that I tried to reach out to grasp it, the sensation would slip tantalizingly out of my reach.

 

At that moment, two more Minbari showed up with what looked like a stretcher between them.  They gestured to Susan in silent command.

 

"No way!"  She immediately balked at the idea.

 

I felt a sudden telepathic flood of warmth from the old man, who I mentally named 'Eyes'.  "Susan, it's all right.  You're in no condition to walk out of here."  I wasn't very strong physically – something else that I was determined to change – and it was with some effort that I was supporting most of her body weight.  I placed a hand on her cheek and made her look at me.  "Please?  I'll stay with you, I promise."

 

With grudging reluctance, she sat on the stretcher and squawked testily when one of the carriers shoved her down into a reclining position.  I placed a hand on her good shoulder to placate her, giving her a light mental stroke to help calm her, and we started to move out and down the ramp, Eyes following slowly behind.

 

I glanced around quickly once we were out the hatch.  We were in some sort of cargo bay; Delenn's small vessel was dwarfed by some of the containers stowed here.  Glare was waiting at the bottom of the ramp and with a few sharp words directed the men carrying the stretcher to a nearby exit on one side of the bay.  They moved off obediently, but as I went to follow, he grabbed my arm and shoved me back.  At the direct contact, the hostility that I had picked up from him before was magnified, and I panicked.  "No!"  I protested loudly, struggling with him.  "I'm going with her."  The stretcher was almost to the bay door, and I jerked my arm away with as much strength as I could muster to try and follow.  He made a move, whether to grab me or strike me, I didn’t know, and I flailed at him on the verge of hysteria, but then a very sharp word from Eyes, who was just then starting slowly down the ramp, caused everyone in the bay to freeze, including Glare.  He said something more that made Glare back off and then mentally gestured for me to follow the stretcher.

 

"Thank you."  I tried to express that telepathically as well, but he didn't respond.  My fear abating slightly, I blinked back tears of relief and ran to catch up to Susan.  I didn't dare look back to see Glare's reaction, but focused on trying to make my legs keep working and control my shaking.  We exited the bay and started down a long broad corridor, and I gripped Susan's hand tightly.  After a number of turnings – I was completely lost very quickly – we reached a small room that looked like one of Garibaldi's holding cells.

 

They dumped the stretcher abruptly on the floor and left.  Susan let out a grunt of pain.  The door slid shut after them, and even though its action was silent, I imagined the clang of prison bars.  I tried once again to calm my breathing and racing heart, though not with much success.  Even being deep scanned by the Psi-Cops hadn't frightened me as much as that scene with Glare had.  How does Susan handle combat?  I wondered incredulously.

 

Illumination from some invisible source only dimly filled the room, but there wasn't much to illuminate anyway.  The room was barren, the walls completely blank and nearly black.  I ran a hand over the glass-like surface of the wall nearest to me and wondered what was going to jump out and bite me next.  At the thought, the door slid back open, making me start in terror and sending my heart pounding all over again.  It was one of the stretcher carriers; he unceremoniously dropped Susan's pack on the floor and left again.

 

I waited tensely, listening, letting the silence stretch out for a long while.  But there was nothing but my blood beating in my ears and the ragged sound of my breath.  Finally, I sagged in relief, fighting back tears again.  They were getting nearer and nearer to the surface the more that this situation spun out of my control.  Not that I've had much control from the beginning.  But Susan wouldn't cry, I reminded myself and therefore I wasn't going to either.  I turned back to check on her and found her once again unconscious.  I hoped that she hadn't done herself further damage by jumping to my defense like that.  She was awfully pale and her mind was once again cold and dark, like this apparent jail cell.

 

It was silly, but I suddenly felt so abandoned and alone that the tears I had been resisting welled up again and this time I couldn't stop them.  Dropping to my knees next to Susan, I cried against her chest for a long time.  It was an emotional release more than anything, the last two days – was only two days? so much had happened – weighed on me heavily.  I hadn't taken time to come to terms with the fear and loss, having been too preoccupied with the immediate present.  I was a rogue now, no longer a commercial telepath, no home, and no prospects other than the possibility of an early death at the hands of those who had always been my family.  Just another nameless blip with nothing except the clothes on my back, the only things I'd left Babylon 5 with.

 

Finally, I calmed down to the level of an occasional sniffle.  Susan stirred against me.  "Why are you crying?"  Her words were slightly slurred still, but she seemed coherent.

 

"Are you ok?" I asked, with a final sniff.  I placed a hand on her forehead noting that her fever was gone.  "How do you feel?"

 

"Horrible," she said, blunt as ever.  She sounded a little stronger though.  "You didn't answer my question.  They didn't hurt you, did they?"  She was definitely sharper.

 

"No they didn't hurt me, it's just reaction," I said, wiping my face dry.  "They dumped us in here with our stuff, but I don't have any idea what they plan to do with us."

 

Susan accepted this without comment, but presently said, "I'm thirsty.  Is there any water?"

 

I sat up and reached for the pack.  There was the water, the medkit, everything that we'd had laid out in Delenn's ship except for the robe.  Even the food I'd taken out was there.  I handed her one of the water containers.  Concentrate on the present, don't think about anything else.  "There's some food here, we should eat something too."  I was still famished, all I'd had in the last 48 hours were those ration bars, and very little the day before that when I was searching Babylon 5 with Garibaldi.  That seemed such a long time ago and so far away that it might have been another life in another universe.  I pushed that thought aside and popped the seal on one of the food pouches.

 

Susan sipped her water and only reluctantly let me feed her one bite at a time.  After a few bites, she refused more, giving me a hard look.  "Where's yours?"  I wrinkled my nose playfully at her with a smile and took a bite.  It was surprisingly good, especially after the ration bars, and I immediately felt better.  It was nothing like real cooking, but I wasn't complaining, and neither was my stomach.  We finished it off and more of the water too, and I set everything aside to cuddle up against Susan's side.

 

She slipped her good arm around my shoulders and gave me a squeeze.  "I'm sorry that what I said before hurt you," she murmured.  "I know you're scared, but I really am glad that you're here."  She kissed my hair and gave me a mental caress.

 

I felt a warm glow at that.  "I just feel so helpless," I said apologetically.  "I'm just a burden, when I'm not making things worse... like leading that Psi-Cop straight to you."

 

Susan snorted softly at me.  "That wasn't your fault, and anyway you've done at least one very important thing that I can see."  I looked up at her questioningly.  She smiled gently.  "You kept me alive, didn't you?  I consider that to be extremely important.  If you hadn't been here, the Minbari probably would have opened up Delenn's ship to find my dead body."

 

I didn't want to think about that possibility.  "Oh.  But I didn't really do..."  She cut me off with a kiss to the lips.  I thought of protesting as she deepened the kiss, but very soon just gave myself up to the sensation.  Her mind slipped into mine and just as before, we coalesced into a glorious Unity that was distinctly different than normal telepathic contact.  Our exhausted bodies were too drained and inert to do much else, and long after the kiss itself was ended we drifted in a profound silence of fused joy that seemed to stretch out forever, and that blocked out all awareness of our frightening and precarious situation.  Our shared dreams when we fell asleep were ones of bliss and union.

 

~.~

 

A mental nudge brought us back to awareness, still joined.  We looked up to see Eyes standing over us, his powerful Psi presence reverberating around us, but this time not seeming to penetrate or otherwise violate our mutual awareness.  We were in no way inclined to move, and merely watched as a small female Minbari approached us and began to examine our wounded shoulder.  With quick efficiency, she took from her pocket a small odd looking device and pulled away the bandage and what little remained of the shoulder and sleeve of the ruined jumpsuit.  She held the device over the marred skin and a bluish light radiated from it, shining down onto the wound.  We winced with the sensation; the wound's puckered surface painfully flexed and rippled under the rays.  It didn't last for long, however.  She switched it off and pulled out a different tool, which she pressed against the intact skin next to the wound.  It felt like a mild pin-prick and made a faint hissing sound.  We hoped that whatever she had injected into us was compatible with human physiology.  She stood and left the room.

 

We felt another mental poke and paused to examine the sensation.  It was definitely a push from the outside, but without any entry.  Eyes had easily entered our independent minds earlier, why was he not doing so now?  Other questions followed as we looked around with our joined abilities.  Everything seemed much clearer than it had been.  Our abilities didn't seem stronger per se, but what we did sense seemed sharper and more distinct.  Even Eyes.  He had merely been a hazy presence before, but now he had a well-defined shape and texture to our mental sight.

 

Exploring this new facet of our abilities, it seemed that we were viewing the world through a telepathic lens enabling us to focus down to an infinitesimal, almost atomic level.  Experimentally, we tried our limited telekinetic powers on one of the water containers.  It lifted effortlessly; our lucky penny had been much more difficult to manage.  Narrowing our mental vision to nearly the level of the water molecules, we excited their motion until the water became warm.  We saw the warmth too, our perception shifted to include any number of different properties of matter.  Amazing.  This was far more than Jason had given us, and yet, it was everything he had given.  The intricate lock and key that were Talia and Susan, joined into a new entity whose full potential we were starting to discover.

 

Eyes was getting impatient with our wonderment and gave us another mental push, slightly sharper this time.  Enthralled with our explorations, we shrugged off the annoying interference.  Eyes gave a surprised mental squawk at our action which startled us and jarred our attention.  Our Union abruptly dissolved in momentary confusion, and we were once more Talia and Susan.  Eyes looked visibly shaken and I looked at Susan wonderingly.  <What just happened?  What did we just do?> I asked telepathically.

 

Susan didn't answer immediately; she had a hand to her head.  "Ouch.  Whatever it is, can we not do it again?"

 

"Shh, I think we gave him a headache."  Susan grumbled something unintelligibly, which I ignored as the door slid open. Eyes projected his thoughts into my mind with a combination of irritation and amusement, but underneath that he was... pleased?  Satisfied?  I caught only the barest hint, and of course it slipped away as soon as I tried to examine the sensation. Something else was going on; I just couldn’t quite put my finger on it, and didn't have the opportunity. The stretcher carriers were back, and I had to concentrate on what Eyes was trying to communicate.

 

Susan muttered, "Not again."

 

"Hush, I think they're taking us somewhere else."

 

"Fine," Susan said forcefully.  "But this time I'm going under my own power."  She heaved herself to her feet with some effort and glared fiercely at the two Minbari.

 

I scrambled to my feet after her, ready to support her again if necessary, but she was steady enough on her feet now to not need any help.  Whatever that Minbari doctor had done was apparently quite effective.  The hapless stretcher carriers got the idea, and gestured for us to follow them.  I grabbed the pack hastily and followed Susan out the door.  I spared a glance for Eyes as I left the room.  I could swear the crafty old man had a smile on his face.  What's he up to?

 

 

~.~

 

 

The room where they left us looked like what I assume were standard crew quarters.  Susan was still glaring at everything (I'll admit to being secretly amused), but gave a sort of grunt of approval after looking at the Spartan room.  Our Minbari escorts produced folded clothing of some sort that they gave each of us.  Then they bowed deeply and left.

 

Looking around, I saw that the room was not large, but it was brightly lit, with smooth, almost featureless surfaces that reminded me of the interior of Delenn's ship.  Much more cheerful than our previous cell, it improved my mood immediately.  There was a narrow sort of bed along one wall, barely wide enough for the two of us it looked like, and opposite it there were a couple of chairs and a low table.  Susan poked her head into a doorway that was in between them.  "Bathroom.  Sonic showers only.  But at least everything is human style."  She glanced at me. "Odd, that.  How many Minbari cruisers set up for human habitation are there running around the galaxy?"

 

I shrugged my shoulders.  "You're asking me?"  I unfolded the clothing that I'd been given.  There was a dark brown long sleeve tunic with a turtle neck, a sleeveless fitted tan jerkin that had mysterious designs along the front edge in gold colored thread, soft long black pants and a wide belt with a buckle that had more mysterious designs.  "What sort of clothes are these?"

 

"Ranger uniforms most likely," said Susan.  "Looks similar to what I've seen the Rangers going through B5 wear."

 

"There are Rangers on Babylon 5?  I thought they were only in Minbari space."

 

"They're pretty low key.  They report to Delenn; I'm not sure of the true relationship, but she must be important to them, or we wouldn't be here.  Garibaldi's their liaison...  Even Captain Sheridan isn't aware of them yet."  Without ceremony, she proceeded to strip off her jump suit, flinching only slightly as she used her bad shoulder.  "Whatever that Minbari quack did must have been pretty effective, I can almost use this already.  Usually PPG wounds take forever to heal."

 

"Doesn't sound like she's much of a quack then," I pointed out, smiling.

 

She gave me one of her patented 'Ivanova' looks.  "Are you going to join me in the shower, such as it is, or what?"

 

"Gladly," I said fervently.  I'd been wearing the same clothes for three days, still covered in Susan's blood, and I figured at this point they'd need to be incinerated.  I stripped down and joined her in the bathroom.  It took a little longer than expected, but then, not all of our time was spent getting clean.  Who knew that sonic shower heads could be used so... creatively?

 

We didn't bother to dress afterwards, but wrapped ourselves in blankets off the bed and opened a couple more of the meal pouches.  Susan's grumpiness was gone, and we reveled in the sensation of being clean and apparently safe.  For the moment anyway.  We shared a little teasing banter and the odd kiss or two with our food, and I finally started to lose that awful tension that had been with me since leaving Babylon 5.  The lines of strain disappeared from Susan's face as she relaxed too, and I humored myself in imagining that everything outside these narrow walls didn't exist, and that this was a real life we were sharing.  Almost normal.  Not that we would probably ever be blessed with a normal existence again, I reminded myself, so I cherished the moment, determined to wring every drop of enjoyment out of it, wanting to burn it into my memory.

 

We were stretched out on the bed together resting, having again indulged one another at length with lips and fingers, and in the detached lassitude that had come over me, I started idly considering our altered perceptions while joined.  There was something decidedly different about our merging, not like a normal joining between telepaths at all.  I had never heard of such a thing before; certainly not with low level telepaths like us.  Susan was only a P1, although having been in intimate contact with her mind I felt that with training she could probably make P2, but still, I was only a P5... not nearly powerful enough for anything as advanced as that had felt.  I wanted to scan Susan's memories for a comparative "feel", but even though I had scanned her of necessity while she was unconscious, I still hesitated to suggest such a thing while she was awake.  However – "Susan, would you telepathically share some memories with me?"

 

"What do you want to know?  I'll tell you whatever it is."

 

"No, I need to feel, to sense through your abilities.  I want to contrast a few things with what we did."

 

Susan frowned.  "So you want to scan me?"

 

"In a way, but only for a specific memory, it's not much more really then me being in your mind while you remember something."  Susan frowned some more.  "Really Susan, you can trust me to not touch anything you don't want, you know that by now."  With a sharp pang, my insecurities spoke up, "Don't you?"

 

She must have felt it because she winced momentarily.  "Yes, of course I do."  Her face cleared and she kissed me apologetically.  "I'm sorry, that was a knee-jerk reaction.  I do trust you.  Old habits – instincts – die hard and I'm still adjusting."  She brushed an imaginary strand of hair from my face.  "I didn't mean to hurt you like that.  Now, what do you want to see?"

 

I smiled gratefully, relieved.  "I'd like to see your earliest telepathic experience.  Not your mother's touch, but the very first time that you touched her mind and knew that you were a telepath."  I reached out for Susan's mind gently, and there, replaying itself for me with remarkable clarity, was a scene from Susan's childhood.

 

It was in a large city square, with a large church to one side, very Russian looking, with brightly colored onion-shaped domes, so it was probably St. Petersburg where I knew she had been born. The square was thronged with an incredible crush of people, and there was no moving anywhere that the crowd wasn't going.  Little Susan, she must have about 6 or 7, was forcefully carried along with them.  "Mama!"  Young Susan cried.  "Mama, where are you?  I'm lost and I can't find you!"  I was startled to recognize the spoken Russian as the words Susan had said when she first regained consciousness.  It seemed like forever that she fought the crowd trying to find her mother, but finally a voice from behind called out, "Susatchka!  I have been looking all over for you!"  Susan turned and ran straight into her mother's arms.  "Mama!  I was so scared I'd never find you!"  And so great was her relief and joy that she projected it right into her mother's mind.  Surprised, Sophie Ivanov held her daughter out at arm's length for a moment, a look of sad resignation mingled with fear on her face.  "Tell no one, Susan.  Do you understand?  Tell no one."  "I promise, Mama.  I promise."

 

The memory broke and I was abruptly pushed out of Susan's mind as she struggled to rein in her sudden grief.

 

I held back, giving her time to find the control she desired.  But eventually – "That didn't feel like what I was looking for," I said apologetically.

 

Control firmly restored.  "What do you want to remember next?"

 

"You told me that you catch strong emotions sometimes, so how about the first time you felt something from someone other than your mother."

 

Susan agreeably pulled me into her memories again.  Older this time, away from home at a boarding school.  Another girl, looking about age 14 or so, was giggling with her over their study books.  A cute boy of about the same age walked by and although the girl pretended that she didn't notice him, Susan was suddenly filled with a strong rush of emotion, and briefly felt her friend's crush on him as though it were her own.

 

"No that one doesn't feel right either."  I frowned in concentration.  "Maybe I'm looking at the wrong end of the time scale. What's the most recent telepathic experience that you had before the Psi-Cop scanned you?"

 

"That would be you then," Susan said with a sly twinkle.

 

I was shocked.  "I never touched your mind before that, Susan!"

 

"Yes you did, though you probably weren't aware of it."

 

Suddenly, I was in Susan's memories once again, standing on the deck in C&C and watching Jason from a slightly different angle as he became... whatever it was that he had become.  "In memory of love, I give you a gift, the only gift I have left to give."  From Susan's perspective I watched myself get hit by Jason's bolt of energy and raise my hands to my temples before collapsing.  Jeffrey Sinclair and Susan caught me before I hit the deck, and when she had touched me, she had felt the indescribable tingling warmth of Jason's Psi energy.  I had been an unconscious conduit, and it had radiated through me to bathe Susan in its power.

 

Gently guiding Susan's memory, I replayed the sensation several times over; I hadn’t been aware that he had affected her as well.  I delved deeper and deeper into the sensation and the underlying fabric of Susan's mind; this was it, I was certain, Jason's stamp was unmistakable.  Susan passively allowed me the control over her memories as I probed further and waited patiently for me to explain.  I was deeply touched by her willingness to submit to me that way; I knew how painfully difficult that was for her.

 

So Susan had felt Jason's energy, thinking that it was mine.  She had not gotten 'gifts' as I had, but was more subtly affected – she had been 'shaped' to me.  A perfect fit, down to the smallest detectable unit of Psi energy.  Jason himself may not have known what it was that he created.  I shared all of this with Susan in a single, excited telepathic burst.  She accepted it quietly and without immediate comment, preferring to turn it over in her mind at length before making judgment.

 

We lay together in silence, content to just mull it over.  Then something occurred to me, having also conducted scans for non-commercial purposes: to recover forgotten memories, or as I had once done for Garibaldi, to bring out unnoticed details.  "Your memories are so clear, Susan, even from childhood," I said.  "Most people's fade and become indistinct over time."

 

"I know, I have been cursed with an eidetic memory," she sighed.

 

"Is that like photographic?  I would think that it would be an amazing thing to have."

 

"I have perfect recall of almost everything that I've ever seen or heard, but it's a difficult thing to have because memories can overwhelm and confuse me easily.  I had to learn very early on how to focus my mind and concentrate intently to keep them from distracting and disorienting me."  She paused fractionally, her face distant.  "And also because when the memories don't fade, neither does the pain."

 

I sighed.  Here was another piece of the grand puzzle that was Susan and I realized all at once that I never wanted to run out of new pieces to find.  I cupped her face insistently in my hands.  "I want us to make so many good memories together that they balance out all the bad ones, ok?"  With every bit of Psi energy that I could muster, I flooded her mind with all of my love and joy at being with her, trying to compel her to believe.  <"And maybe someday we can overwhelm them all.">

 

For a long moment, Susan seemed to shunt it aside and I was afraid she would block me and turn away; I could sense her delicate balance teetering on an indefinite edge.  But finally she gave way before my mental onslaught and kissed me on the nose, saying, "I love you, Talia Winters."  There were tears in my eyes as I basked in her acceptance, not wanting it to end.  "But you're wrong," she continued.  I looked at her in confusion.  "Jason did give me a gift."  She stroked my still-bruised cheek softly.  "He gave me you, and blessed me with a more complete and joyful union than I ever dreamed was possible."

 

I ached from utter happiness.  I no longer cared about the Corps, Psi-Cops, being a rogue telepath or anything else that had happened.  The feeling bubbled up in me as if from some underground spring and chuckled through me like a sunlit and sparkling stream.  I projected every bit of it at Susan, and she channeled it and focused into a brightly mirrored pool that buoyed our combined intent and purpose as we spiraled around it.  It reminded me of nothing so much as a spinning pool of metallic mercury – a flawless surface of perfect reflection, perfect focus, perfect clarity – and suddenly I knew what it was that Susan brought to our Unity.  Mine might have been the twin abilities to see and to move, but she was the focus and clarity of vision, her concentration was the dexterity and control of motion.

 

A perfect fit.

 

The urge to join in that Unity had been growing stronger and harder to resist, and finally we succumbed to it.  We came together like a thunderclap.  I'm surprised that the whole Minbari cruiser didn't shake with the force of it.

 

 

~.~

 

 

When we woke in the morning – was morning even really a concept in space? – we finally tried on the clothing that the Minbari had given us.  Any worries we might have had about fit seemed to be unnecessary.  Mine anyway, fit like a glove.  The tunic was a soft knit material with a smooth finish and subtle striping, and was cut to give plenty of freedom of movement, as were the pants.  I was afraid the turtle neck would be too warm, but the material breathed well and it was perfectly comfortable.  The jerkin was slightly longer than a regular vest and had a suede-like surface; I ran my fingertips over it and the decorative designs along the front edge, enjoying their texture.  Susan's close focus on detail seemed to have bled over, giving my physical senses a boost, and I was finding my new explorations of touch and smell and taste to be very pleasurable.  I was usually so attuned to my telepathic senses that I mostly ignored the others, and even something as animal as making love was more an act of mind than body for me.  I was reveling particularly in touch, because with the obstruction of my Psi-dampening gloves now gone, it was like a whole new world had opened up to me.  Finally shaking off my musings, I put on the jerkin and the belt.  The outfit was very comfortable, and I stood taller in it and felt somehow braver, as if it were armor, and imbued with the Rangers' character that I could draw upon and embody.

 

I heard a wolf-whistle and looked up with a smile.  "Like them?"  Susan's appraisal and obvious approval almost made me blush.  The length of the tunic did not detract from my height, the belt emphasized my curves, and the various shades of brown set off the color of my hair.  I appraised Susan in turn and gave her a wink; she looked even more gorgeous than usual to me.  She was an inch or two taller than I and the Ranger uniform accentuated her strong athletic figure (which I had always admired and envied); the colors made the dark russet of her hair glow, and made the steel blue of her eyes stand out like beacons.

 

"Mmmhmm, they look really good on you, but we'll have to see if we can get you some new clothes as soon as we're settled in at the training base," Susan said.  She did a few stretches, testing the fit of her new outfit and the movement of her shoulder.  If the shoulder pained her at all, she gave no outward indication of it.

 

"No way," I replied.  "I like these and I'm keeping them."

 

Susan looked up at that.  "I don't think that the Rangers will let just anyone keep these.  They just happened to be what the Minbari had on hand for humans."

 

Well, here comes the argument, best to get it over with.  "I'm going to become a Ranger too."

 

And just as I had predicted to myself came the response.  "No way, Talia."  She shook her head.  "You're not strong enough..."

 

I interrupted her.  "Then I'll have to become strong enough."

 

"No."  She was adamant.  "I won't permit you to join the Rangers."

 

Permit me?  I raised my eyebrows at her, reminding myself to be patient, no matter how nettled at her attitude I might be.  "Susan, I am perfectly capable of making my own choices."

 

"But you don't understand how dangerous this is going to be," she objected.  "No."

 

I was tempted to remind her that she was no longer an Earth Force commander and no longer the boss of anyone other than herself, but I refrained.  "Susan, I do understand.  And I'd be lying if I said I wasn't terrified at the prospect.  But," and here I tried to speak as forcefully as she, "we are no longer two alone.  Whatever the fate, we share it."  I put up a hand to forestall her protest.  "I won't be left behind, Susan.  Where you go, I go.  But to do that, I need to be as much of a fighter as you are, otherwise I'll only be a hindrance that puts you at greater risk."

 

Susan looked at me silently, almost sadly, for a long moment.  "I don't care about my risk, Talia.  I just don't want you to get hurt," she said softly.

 

"I care about your risk, Susan," I replied just as softly.  I moved to stand closely in front of her and placed a hand just above her heart.  "I love you.  I don't ever want to be without you.  And I'm willing to do and to learn whatever I have to, in order to stay by your side, no matter what comes."

 

She wrapped warm fingers around my hand and leaned her forehead gently against mine to look me in the eyes at close range.  It was a tender gesture at odds with her habitual stern and commanding bearing.  "I'm just... scared for you," she whispered.

 

"I don't want to lose you either," I whispered back, speaking to what she meant rather than what she said.  I took a deep breath.  "And... I'm tired of feeling helpless, of being dependent on everyone else for everything. No!"  I spoke quickly, over her attempted protest, tears starting once more.  "Listen to me... I was so scared, I didn't know what to do for you, or if you were going to live or die, or even if I would, I didn't know how to operate the ship or what to do in an emergency... I couldn't even find the food and water, and it took you laying half dead on the deck to tell me.  And then Glare..."  I paused and hiccupped brokenly.  "I don't ever want to feel that weak and powerless again.  I won't!"  I finished with a fresh burst of tears.  I felt silly for crying, it didn't go with the uniform at all, and hadn't I already done enough of it?  But Susan just held me close and let me cry it out.  Finally when my sobs had quieted somewhat, I said with a sniff, "Do you know what I want most?"

 

"What's that?" Susan murmured against my hair.

 

"Rocking chairs."

 

Susan pulled back slightly.  "What?"

 

"Rocking chairs.  You and me, when we're a hundred years old, sitting in rocking chairs watching the sun go down somewhere peaceful and quiet."  She shook her head at me and smiled, wiping my tears dry with her fingers.  "Susan, if these... what did you call them?"

 

"Lennier called them 'Shadows' but no one really knows who or what they are."

 

"Well, if these Shadows are as bad as the Minbari seem to think, then the safest place for me is with you.  And our best odds of surviving are if I'm a Ranger and not an encumbrance."

 

Susan couldn't argue with that and didn't try.  She pulled me close again and held me for a long time.  I slipped my arms around her waist and tucked my head into her shoulder, and then just breathed in her warmth and the fresh scent of her as she stroked my hair.  I didn't pry into her thoughts, mostly concentrating on my physical senses once again, keeping just enough of a mental touch on her mind to know that there was heightened activity just below the surface, as if keeping a finger on her pulse.

 

Finally she said quietly, "All right.  If you're sure that this is what you want, I'll do my best to make sure you are as prepared as possible."  She kissed me lightly.  "Because I want those rocking chairs too."

 

Keeping one hand around her waist, I used the other to dry the last of my tears.  "I'm glad of that.  And anyway, I'm almost certain –” I stopped as a subtle tremor ran through the ship.  I gripped her tightly once again.  "What was that?"

 

"Relax," said Susan, giving me a comforting squeeze.  "We just dropped out of hyperspace, that's all.  Looks like we've gotten to where we're going."  She let go of me to start gathering together what little we still had and retraced our previous conversation.  "You were saying that you were almost certain... of what?"

 

"It's just that I keep having this feeling that their plans for us might not be quite the same as our plans for us."

 

She stopped what she was doing for a moment and looked up at me.  "What makes you say that?"

 

"Just something about the way Eyes was observing us.  It's really hard for me to read him, and yet I got a strong impression of... specific intention and expectation.  He has some purpose for us in mind, I'm sure."

 

Susan frowned for a moment, and then shrugged her shoulders.  "That may be true.  Now that I think about it, it was amazingly convenient that Delenn could get us off B5 on such short notice.  But I don't really care at this point.  I'm out of Psi-Corps' reach and this is the most useful place for me."  Slinging the pack over her shoulder and returning to my side, she gently touched the fading bruise on my cheek.  "And while I'm not the least bit happy about the danger you're in," she shushed me with a finger to my lips, "I am glad that you're with me.  'Milya shel s drugom tol'ko sto shagov,' as my father would say."

 

"What does that mean?"  I'll admit to being a little intrigued – all right, completely turned on – at hearing her speak Russian.

 

"A mile walked with a friend has only a hundred steps."  She kissed me again, which I very much desired, and I let my hands start to wander to all of my favorite spots on her athletic frame.  "In a strange sort of way, I'm almost glad that all of this happened.  Nothing like losing everything that you thought was important to teach you what really is.  I am alive and I have you.  Nothing else matters."

 

"Mmmm..." I let my lips wander along her jaw and down her throat, channeling desire directly into her mind. "Say something else in Russian."

 

Her hands and lips began their own wandering, and she murmured between nibbles, "Ya tebya lyublyu... Ty takaya krasivaya... i sladkaya..." [3]  Frustrated by the Ranger uniform, I finally managed to slip a hand under her tunic to caress bare skin, gasping from the sensual jolt as she mirrored my action. She had favorite spots too.

 

"Ya lyublyu prikosnoveniya vashih myslyeĭ.  Ty takaya myagkaya... takim nezhnym... moya lyubimaya." [4]

 

"You have to teach me to speak Russian," I gasped out when I could breathe. Susan didn't answer verbally, but coiled her mind tightly around mine as I entwined mine with hers.  But mindful of our need to leave, we resisted the urge to spiral into Unity, content to exercise the rapidly increasing command that we had over our abilities.

 

I basked in the encircling glow of her mind and the heat of her body.  Once again I had found bliss in the midst of a frightening and uncertain future.

 

 

~.~

 

 

EPILOG

(About four months later)

 

 

I gave a small grunt of pain as Susan's pike connected with my upper arm.  But having seen her sweep men twice her own size entirely off their feet, I knew it was a mere tap.  I also knew that holding back like that put her slightly off her stride, so I didn't wait for the sting to dissipate but powered through it and aimed low where she wouldn't expect it.  I was rewarded with a yelp of surprise as my pike impacted her thigh.  Without pause, I went for broke and whipped the other end of my pike around with all of my strength towards her opposite shoulder.

 

"Oh no you don't!"  With a grin, Susan blocked my shot, hitting my pike so hard that it stung my hands, making me drop it.

 

"Ow!"  I shook my hands exaggeratedly.  "You didn't have to hit it so hard, you know."

 

Susan raised her eyebrows at me humorously.  "So says the woman who just put a huge bruise on my leg."

 

I crinkled my nose at her with a cheeky grin.  "Hey, that's the first time I've ever scored a point against you, and I refuse to feel guilty for it."  I gave my hands one more shake.  "Besides, you deserved it for going too easy on me."

 

Susan laughed out loud at that.  "I wasn't holding back all that much, you really are getting better."  Tossing her pike aside, she took my hands in hers and massaged them gently.

 

I looked down shyly.  "You really think so?"  Although I know I've come far, sometimes I still need reminders that I'm not the same frightened and helpless person that I once was.

 

Susan tipped my chin up to look into my eyes, and gave me her most uncompromising 'what did I just say?' look.  "Absolutely," she said firmly.  "That combination shot probably would have worked against any of the other guys here; I'm just a little bit faster that's all."

 

Praise from Susan was a highly sought after and rarely bestowed commodity, and I felt a warm glow at the sincerity I felt emanating from her.  But one thing required contradiction.  "You are not merely a little bit faster, Susan!"  Susan smirked, but said nothing.  Once her shoulder had completely healed from the PPG wound, she had taken to the Minbari fighting pike like a fish to water.  She might not have been quite as strong as some of the others, but she was plenty strong enough, and she was lightning fast.  That and her ability to maintain iron-clad focus through any situation gave her the advantage over just about everybody.  I had listened often as the other trainees alternately swore and raved about her abilities, and plotted how they were going to try and distract her "the next time."

 

I, on the other hand, took forever to stop hitting myself in the head with it.  But Susan had patiently undertaken to tutor me herself, and it was finally paying off.  Did I say patiently?  She was a saint.  I drove myself too hard at this and everything else I needed to learn, trying to absorb too much all at once.  I felt like I needed to overcome a lifetime of weakness and dependence on the Corps in such a short time.  But she never criticized, always caught me when I fell, and when I cried in pain or exhaustion or frustration, she was there with a massage, or a cup of tea, or just a shoulder and gentle advice.  If I hadn't already loved her to the point of distraction, I'd have fallen for her all over again.

 

It's not as though she didn't have her own demons to deal with either.  More than once during that first month, I held her through the night when the dreams woke her.  All of the nightmares that she'd ever had about her fears of discovery and her mother's suicide returned to her ten-fold.  As much as her Russian pragmatism served her during the day, the subconscious mind has its own way of dealing with the traumas of life.

 

She was still holding my hands and gazing at me with that warm little smile that she reserved just for me.  On a sudden impulse, I slipped into her arms and wrapped her in a hug.  "Radost' moya." [5]

 

With a soundless chuckle, she returned it.  "If this is my reward, moyo solnishko, I'll have to let you win more often." [6]

 

I mentally gave her a mock frown.  <"You are so bad.">

 

She wrapped her mind around mine.  <"Are you complaining?">

 

I smiled but didn't answer and concentrated on burrowing deeper into her warmth.  She seemed content to do the same and we stood unmoving and unspeaking for long minutes, taking full advantage of our temporary solitude to indulge ourselves.  This underground complex is huge, built to house several thousand Rangers, but even though there are only a couple hundred or so spread through the entirety, privacy was strangely hard to come by.  At least we had our own quarters now, and didn't have to sleep in the communal barracks.  After only one sleepless night in those separate beds, we snuggled down together in Susan's despite its narrowness and our audience.  The few who snickered at us stopped once Susan whipped them a few times with her pike.

 

In the peace and quiet my mind started to drift over the last few months.  So many changes.  It had taken a lot of convincing to persuade Susan to learn to use her Psi abilities; she wanted nothing to do with being a telepath outside of our relationship.  Thirasek, the blind Minbari telepath that I had named Eyes, accompanied us down here, taking charge of our individual and combined mental training.  I didn't think that I had much more to learn for my Psi-rating, but I was wrong.  And our joined abilities?  Let's just say that no attacker from any of the Younger Races could stand against us mentally or physically.  I think we could manage a Psi-Cop even.  Not that I'm ready to test that theory, mind you.

 

We had finished our Ranger training a little over a month ago and had only recently returned after our first assignment, helping Narn refugees.  We mostly ferried supplies and protected refugee convoys while others of our cohort were actually on Narn itself helping people escape and working with the Narn resistance.  The primary utility of our joined abilities became evident in space; the concentration required was immense, but we could 'freeze' a ship's bridge crew for just long enough for their vessel to be disabled.  I was fervently glad of that because hyperspace does indeed increase one's range as we had discovered, and I really didn't want to feel that many minds die.  For that reason and many others, I was intensely relieved that Susan hadn't suggested that we join the fighting down on the planet.  When I asked her about it, she just shrugged and said we weren't ready yet despite our abilities and that we would probably have our share of combat soon enough without seeking it out.  Both reasons were true enough, but she knows that I hate fighting, and I know she wanted to spare me while we still had the choice.

 

Our solitude was, as usual, short lived and we were interrupted by one of the other Rangers.  "Everyone is to meet in the conference room."  He didn't even mentally comment on our embrace, being full of commingled fear and anticipation.

 

"What's going on?" asked Susan, releasing me.

 

"Sheridan did it," he replied tersely.  "The blockade of Zagros VII has been broken."  He turned and left, striding out as quickly as he had entered.

 

Susan and I looked at one another.  News indeed.  We had recently been studying an altercation between Ranger One and the Shadows in Sector 14 over their device that was disrupting the temporal rift, and now the Rangers presumably had another good look at those we would be fighting.  I suppressed a shiver while Susan picked up both pikes and retracted them, handing mine back to me.

 

The main conference room was crowded when we got there and we had to take up standing positions along one wall.  Sech Durhan was standing at the front waiting for everyone to arrive and quiet down.  He scanned the rows of faces, both human and Minbari, with imperturbable gravity.  "My friends," he said solemnly when everyone was settled.  "Look upon the face of the ancient enemy."  He stood to one side and activated the wall screen.

 

The screen filled with a view of the planet Zagros VII, bright flashes flared here and there, as the Rangers blew up the Centauri mines or were destroyed themselves.  The view spun slightly and a disturbance appeared, a rippling and warping of space, and out of it a Shadow vessel shimmered into existence like a vast spider out of a nightmare.  The whole room winced in unison at the shriek that it emitted, terrifying even at the low bandwidth of the recording.  The battle unfolded before us, the terrible destructive power of the Shadow vessel plainly evident.

 

Then came the point at which the White Star opened a jump point inside of the Markab jumpgate.  Even Susan shook her head in amazement at Sheridan's audacity.  There was dead silence in the room after the final explosion, as everyone reached the same stunned conclusion at the immense power required to destroy the spider-like ship.  I shared thoughts with Susan, and together we wondered what our telepathic abilities, individually or jointly, could possibly do against such a creature. 

 

There was nothing really for anyone to say for the time being, so the room emptied in silence as everyone filed out.  Susan and I followed, keeping the silence, still mentally sharing in wordless comfort.  A Minbari Ranger that we had never seen halted us in the corridor, bowing to us gravely.  "There is a visitor waiting for you in your quarters, if you will kindly attend him."  His voice sounded loud to me in the tense quiet, though he spoke barely above a whisper.

 

Susan, gazing at him curiously, did not reply, so I said, "Certainly.  Who is it?"

 

"He wishes to reveal that himself."  The man bowed again and turned to go.

 

"What's up with that?" Susan muttered.  We set off in the direction of our quarters, and I took her hand, linking our fingers together and giving them a gentle squeeze.  She returned the pressure with a smile, not needing to say anything further.

 

The lights were dim when we entered, leaving the tall cloaked and hooded figure in the center of the room mysteriously shadowed.  He neither moved nor spoke as we studied him.  Finally he growled, "Is this how you greet Entil'Za?"

 

Startled, I bowed in the Minbari way, as we'd been taught, but Susan didn't move.  "I know that voice," she said.  Then she took one step forward, a smile starting to form.  "Jeff?"

 

The stranger didn't keep us in further suspense, and with a hearty laugh, he tossed his hood back.  "I should have known I couldn't fool you, Susan."  Jeffery Sinclair stepped forward and placed one hand on her shoulder and held the other out to me.  "It's good to see you too, Talia."

 

The pang I felt at seeing his familiar face was as much pain as pleasure.  Familiar, but different... his face was much thinner, creased by new and deeper lines, and there was a freshly healed scar on one cheek.  And I could tell that his thoughts were shadowed as well, no longer the bright and energetic presence that I had known and worked with, but tempered by hardship and grief.  I hadn't thought about Babylon 5 for what seemed like forever, but I pushed the sudden regret of that that aside and took his hand with a smile.  "It's great to see you again.  We thought you were an Ambassador, not part of the Rangers."

 

He didn't answer, just looked at back and forth at us smiling warmly for a moment, and then pulled us both into a joint hug, which we gladly returned.  When he released us, he was more serious.  "I'm sorry about how you had to leave Babylon 5, Susan," he said quietly.

 

"Wasn't my choice, Jeff," she said warily, still a little defensive over the subject.

 

He held up a conciliatory hand.  "I understand.  But I'm glad you made it here."  He abruptly changed the subject.  "So what do you think of Sheridan's ship, the White Star?"

 

That peaked Susan's interest.  "Pretty impressive."  She had an appreciative gleam in her eyes that I recognized.

 

Sinclair nodded.  "Yes it is.  And it's only the first.  The Minbari are building a whole fleet of them."  He hesitated, looking at Susan seriously.  "The second one will be here shortly... and that's your next assignment."

 

Susan cocked an eyebrow at him, but said nothing.

 

He stood straighter, his thoughts and words taking on a more impartially authoritative shading.  "You will take command of White Star 2 and using this as your base, organize, train and eventually command that fleet."

 

Susan's eyes popped.  "Me?" she asked incredulously.  That was obviously not what she had been expecting.  I shared her surprise; after all, we had only been Rangers for a short time.

 

"There's no one I trust more," said Sinclair.  Even Susan's limited Psi abilities felt his honest sincerity.

 

Susan took a moment to think about it.  I made no effort to enter her thoughts, but I could tell that they were swirling around energetically.  As much as I would personally blanch as such an assignment, I knew that Susan would want to leap at it.  One of the ambitions that she'd had to leave behind her on Babylon 5 was to be the youngest starship Captain in Earth Force, and this would be light years beyond that.  Finally, standing at near attention, she simply said, "I won't let you down, Jeff."  She gazed up at him steadily.

 

"You haven't yet," Sinclair said with a satisfied smile.  "The operational crews will be Minbari, but the command crews will be Rangers.  We're set to start funneling as many people as we can gather with command potential here, as soon as you say the word."

 

Susan nodded her understanding.  "Then the word is given now.  You can bet that the Shadows will want to step up their operations, and maybe even retaliate directly, now that we've destroyed one of their ships.  We don't have any time to lose."

 

"I agree."  Sinclair nodded sharply, and turned to me with a warm smile.  "I haven't forgotten you, Talia."

 

"I go where Susan goes," I said resolutely.  I won't deny my fears over eventually being in the thick of things, but I had told Susan I'd stay by her side no matter what and there was no way I was going to break that promise, no matter how frightening the Shadows were.

 

He seemed to read my mind, giving me an approving little nod.  "Ultimately, this fleet will be comprised of more than just the White Stars.  Sheridan and Delenn will be working on bringing onboard as many of the other races as we can.  But while high level diplomacy will throw everyone in together, on a face-to-face level there will a lot of mediating to be done and your negotiating talents will be invaluable.  Inter-race command structures, rules of engagement, reciprocal aid and defense, and probably a million other minor problems will crop up in trying to integrate disparate and sometimes mutually hostile races.  We have some experience working with the Drazi on an informal basis, but we will have to work hard to expand that success."

 

I thought about it as he gave me the same serious look he'd given Susan, and she gave me a light mental touch of encouragement.  I intentionally echoed her words.  "I won't let you down, Jeff."

 

"I know I can count on you both."  Sinclair smiled and gathered us in again, not quite a hug as before, but closely.  "I've been keeping an eye on your progress, you know.  And I'm proud of both of you," he said softly.  He radiated satisfaction and affection, his mind brightening to a closer semblance of what I'd known before.  "I'm sorry that I can't stay and spend more time with you," honest regret there, "but I'm due back in Tuzanor very soon."

 

In silent agreement Susan and I leaned in the rest of the way and hugged him again.  He chuckled and returned the pressure briefly, then released us and was gone.

 

Susan and I stood looking at one another in silence for a long time, each in our own private thoughts.  Then she reached out and drew me close to stand right in front of her.  "Are you still sure this is where you want to be?"

 

"Absolutely," I said, looking her directly in the eye and projecting my determination into her mind.  "As long as I'm with you, nothing else matters."

 

She let a solemn twinkle show.  "I'm glad."  She kissed me lightly on the nose.  "I feel exactly the same way."

 

I embraced her tightly.  Yes, we had a long and dangerous road ahead.  But we would walk it together, and that's all that mattered.

 

~Finis~

 

[1] Mama, where are you?  I'm lost and I can't find you.

[2] You are so beautiful... but you are not my mother.

[3] I love you... you're so beautiful... and sweet...

[4] I love the touch of your mind.  You are so soft... so gentle...  my beloved.

[5] My joy.

[6] My sunshine (diminutive).