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Finding the Words (the stranger in a strange land remix)

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The first thing a Ranger must learn —a Human ranger, that is—is Minbari. Catherine nodded when Jeff told her. It was kind of obvious to learn the language, at the very least. The Rangers been all-Minbari throughout a long history, and even if that was changing, that there were a surprising number of humans showing up to join, those humans were going to have to work closely with Minbari. They needed to be able to communicate.

"And, of course, the quickest way to learn a language is telepathically," Jeff said, apologetically.

"Well, obviously," Catherine said. Telepathic skills transfer was a hot-button issue on Earth, and more so on Mars and the colonies. It was far more efficient for some things than learning them the old-fashioned way … but you had to trust a telepath deep into your brain, far deeper than the surface scan that was all teeps were allowed in most circumstances. Before he could justify it, she stated the obvious. "The Shadows are moving now, so we don't have time to spend a year learning a language the hard way before we can even start our regular training."

"I know," Jeff said. "I'm not requiring the telepathic transfer for anyone, but …"

"But you'd like your fiancé to set a good example," Catherine said, nodding. "And you've been studying the Minbari for long enough that you don't need to have the language implanted, so you can't be the good example yourself."

"Yes," Jeff said, breathing out a sigh of relief.

Catherine shrugged. "I'm not thrilled about it, but you know what? I think I trust a Minbari telepath more than I would a PsiCorp teep. The Minbari may be weird, but their ethics are iron-clad."

"The Rangers only have one telepath, right now," Jeff said. "Her name's Daresh, and she's very good at her job. I think you'll like her."

And so, a few days later, Catherine sat down with Daresh and had not one but three languages settled down deep in her brain. Jeff had wanted to give her time to back out, if she chose, but Catherine would rather have gotten it out of the way. Once the decision had been made, it was frustrating not to be able to talk with people, and she wasn't in the habit of second-guessing herself. Adronato, the language of the Religious caste, Vik, the language of the Warrior caste, and—somewhat as an afterthought—Lenn'a, the language of the Worker caste.

When it was done, Catherine sat very still for a few minutes. The room spun around her, and she grasped the thing in front of her but could not think whether the word for it was 台 or sha'dra or table or …she closed her eyes and took a deep breath, forcing down the panic and confusion that her brain didn't think the same way it had a few minutes ago. And, in a very short time, things had settled, and she was herself again.

She looked across at Daresh, who was watching her with some concern. "It takes some thus," she said in Adronato, with what Catherine could now tell was an accent typical from the region around Tuzanor—an accent Catherine would probably share. "You will be fine, though you may wish to rest for the rest of the day. Or meditate, or pray. I have had warriors tell me that practicing with a denn-bok was very helpful; if you know a physical discipline such as that, you might try it. If the disorientation lasts more than a handful of hours, contact me, and I will see what I can do."

"Thank you, I'll let you know if I have any trouble," Catherine said, only realizing that it was in Adronato after the words were out of her mouth. "That sounded … weird."

Daresh tilted her head to the side. "Your brain knows the sounds, but your mouth is not yet practiced in making them. It will come."

"Is it done?" Jeff said, in Adronato accented so heavily that Catherine almost couldn't tell what he was saying. She turned to see him, standing in the door in Anla'shokk robes, and her vision blurs. For a moment, he looks Minbari, bone crest and all in a strange double vision, and then he is Human again—but the hair is strange and out of place, alien. Then she blinked, and he was her Jeff, the same as he'd always been, and she was thinking in English again.

"It is, Entil'Zha," Daresh said with a bow. "Anla'shok Sakai should not do anything which requires mental focus for the rest of the day, as her mind adapts."

"All right," Jeff said. "She doesn't have anything scheduled for the rest of the day, anyway."

For the next week, she spoke Adronato almost exclusively, training her mouth to produce phonemes that were new to her, and speaking with Minbari whenever she could. She spoke Vik with the few Warrior-caste Rangers who had remained, and learned quite quickly why the Lenn'a that Daresh had given her was so limited: non-Workers might understand it but should not, under most circumstances, speak it. By the end of the week, the last of the aftershocks of Daresh's perspective were long-gone, and the languages sat quite comfortably in her brain. Training began, and linguistics was forgotten.

She did, occasionally, dream of what Jeff would look like with a Minbari bone crest, a relic of that first few minutes of confusion. But she never remembered it for long after she woke up, and after all, she saw more Minbari than Humans these days.


The flash of black fire from the Shadow vessel masked the stomach-dropping lurch and Catherine's hybrid fighter whined, pained. She poured all the power of her remaining engine into escaping that jagged hole into nothing, and when she saw the stars again, her little fighter's computer and astrogation systems gave her conflicting readings. The systems were not programmed to calculate the year from the star patterns; all it could tell was that they were slightly wrong, and Catherine had guessed why.

They hadn't been given those time stabilizers for nothing. But still. It was insane, like a plot out of bad science fiction. She wasn't convinced that time travel was even a possibility—it was far more reasonable to think that she'd somehow been thrown far away through normal space, and that her computer had been damaged in a way that wasn't showing up on the diagnostics. The ships that had found her looked vaguely Minbari, but that was no proof at all. Congruent evolution was as true for starships as it was for biological. Form usually followed function.

Language was the first thing that convinced her, really and truly, that she had travelled back in time.

When the door to her cell opened and a warrior-caste Minbari stepped in, asking her questions in a language she couldn't understand, that shook her. It sounded like Vik, a little, but in the same way that English and German sounded a little alike. She recognized some of the sounds, and the occasional word sounded familiar, but … every Minbari knew what Humans looked like; even if they didn't have anybody on board who spoke English, surely they would all have known she was far more likely to understand Vik or Adronato than whatever the hell the Minbari was speaking.

The Minbari was growing frustrated, Catherine could tell, from the way her voice kept rising.

"I am Catherine Sakai of the Anla'Shok," Catherine said. "I don't understand what you're saying. Do you speak Vik? Or Adronato?"

The Minbari narrowed her eyes, studying Catherine suspiciously. She turned on her heel, coat swinging out behind her, and stalked from the room.

"Guess not," Catherine said, and sat back to wait. She'd never met a Minbari who didn't speak both Vik and Adronato (and understand Lenn'a, even if they weren't Worker caste), no matter what their caste or native tongue. Minbari culture and language changed at a glacial pace, if at all. If she had travelled in time, how far had she gone? And forward, or back?

It did not take long for the Minbari to return, this time accompanied by another of her caste. The woman sat down, with the man standing at her shoulder. The woman spoke.

"You speak Fek?" the man translated into Vik, though the way he shaped his vowels made it hard to understand him.

"I do," Catherine said, in Vik. Fek, whatever the hell they called it. She was careful to keep her eyes on the woman in charge, and not the translator. "I am Catherine Sinclair of the Anla'Shok. Who are you?"

This was passed along. "She is Alyt Kayinn, of the Fourth Fane of the Fire Wings. What were you doing out in the dark between stars in such a small ship?"

Catherine hesitated. They didn't seem to recognize the Anla'Shok, hadn't even reacted to the name. If she had travelled in time, would they even know what the Shadows were yet? "I was attacked by dark ships out of deep space."

The translator gave her a look before repeating her words. Alyt Kayinn snorted and said something about the Religious caste. "Typical Religious obfuscation of perfectly obvious things everyone knows," the translator said.

"I had not thought any clan of the Religious Caste would be open enough to work with outsiders, at least not enough for them to pick up Religious accents and ways of speaking," was the Alyt's next contribution through the translator. "You sound like a Tuzanorian."

"I learned Vik and Adronato and Lenn'a from a Tuzanorian," Catherine said.

"Lenn'a?" The translator replied, before passing her words on. "Trash'al why would you do that?"

'Trash'al' was probably a swear word of some sort, though Catherine didn't know it. And she'd thought her months of Ranger training had given her a pretty good grasp on Minbari profanity. Kayinn made an irritated noise and the translator lowered his eyes and conveyed Catherine's words.

Kayinn raised an eyebrow. "Tuzies don't travel much, and offworlders are not permitted in the sacred city. They do not fight, not even to defend our people from the Shadows, and look down on those who do. So how did you, an alien, who flies a small craft with very interesting gun ports, know one long enough and well enough to learn Minbari languages from her?"

"I am Anla'shok," Catherine replied.

"And that is?"

Catherine had never been literally speechless before in her life, nor had she ever had hysterics, but after they day she had had, she was considering it. A long journey, followed by a battle, followed by almost dying of hypoxia before being rescued, followed by being so far displaced in time that a Minbari didn't know what the Anla'Shok were? And Tuzanorians who looked down on those who fought the Shadows, instead of taking pride in their service? She just wanted to be home, in her own bed, with Jeff, in a world that made sense.

They knew about the Shadows, though. Maybe Valen just hadn't started the Rangers yet? "We follow Valen and fight the Shadows."

"Who is Valen?"

Shadows, but no Valen? How long had the Minbari fought the Shadows for, anyway? Surely, Valen had to have been a major player from the get-go to rise to such prominence in status-conscious Minbari society.

All the bad old science fiction time-travel vids she'd ever watched flitted through her head. Had she already stepped on the butterfly that would prevent Valen's presence? By telling them about him, would she somehow change the timeline so he did not play the same role? Or would she give him the prestige such that he would be able to rise as meteorically as a Minbari ever could?

Or had she been thrown so far in the future that Valen and all his work had been long forgotten? She prayed not. It was just … depressing to contemplate an eternity spent fighting the Shadows every thousand years or so.

During the Minbari War, she had spent days—weeks—more worn than she was now. But she hadn't had to make galaxy-changing decisions with every word.

Catherine didn't remember much of the rest of the interview; she fell back on her Ranger training to say as little as possible.

Eventually, they gave her food and a bed and left her alone.

Catherine slept. How long, she didn't know, but her last thought before drifting off was to wonder if she could sleep long enough to reach her own time.


Catherine wasn't allowed into the fighter bays or any sensitive areas of the ship, so she mostly hung out in the pilot ready room for the next few days, playing games of chance to while away the hours and listening closely to her fellow pilots to try and pick up the language they were speaking. She recognized the odd word here and there just to begin with, and some of the grammar patterns seemed to be the same—whatever language they spoke was obviously some sort of cousin to Vik, or Fek as they called it. There were only a handful of people on the ship who spoke Fek, and they were mostly low-level mechanics and things like that, too busy to hang out and chat with an alien.

The other pilots were filled with a mix of indifference and wary curiosity. It wasn't that dissimilar from her time with the Rangers, but she'd interacted with enough non-Anla'Shok to find it surprising to find a Warrior-caste ship with such a lack of xenophobia. "Why aren't you trying to go home?" one of them asked her, a young man named Nerell. At least, Catherine was pretty sure that was what he had said.

Nerell, like most of the crew, did not speak Vik or Adronato. Catherine sorted through the words she had picked up in their language, trying to figure out how to answer the question. It would have been easier if she had a believable explanation in any language. "Lost," she said at last, casting the nonagonal dice, and frowning at the result.

Nerell and his friends chatted idly about navigation—probably about how she might find her way home? If only it were that simple—as the game went on. Someone whose name she hadn't caught asked her another question, and she had to ask her to repeat it. It was something about why she wasn't doing anything to try and find her way back home.

"Gone," Catherine replied. If it had been merely a navigational problem, she could have solved it easily. Being the captain-owner of an independent survey ship required excellent navigation skills in both realspace and hyperspace. She knew nothing about travelling through time except that she had done it, and the Great Machine which had held open the rift did not exist yet. The Vorlons might know, but she didn't trust them and they would have no reason to believe her, much less send her through time.

"Gone, Katrenn?" Nerell said, "Destroyed by Shadows?"

She thought. "Yes." At least, her chances of getting there had been destroyed by the Shadows. If she was in the last Shadow War when Valen had showed up, she was about a thousand years into her past. The Mongol Empire covered half of Earth, and Europe was either dying of the plague or fighting over Jerusalem. The planet was there, but the culture—that was something else. She knew just enough history to know that she did not want to live on medieval Earth. China would be cleaner and healthier than Europe—and she might be able to pass as a native—but the sexism she'd face anywhere on Earth in this period—no. Just, no. Besides, she was a pilot. If she could be happy on a planet's surface, she'd have chosen a career a lot easier than surveyor! Her home was gone. And there were still Shadows to fight.

"You fight with us?"

"When I can speak," Catherine said. Judging by the hilarity, she'd said something wrong, but they also took her point. (They laughed a great deal at her words, when she tried to speak—after a while, she'd figured out it was because her accent made her sound like some kind of backwater bumpkin.) The game continued, and conversation moved on, and Catherine was largely ignored.

The indifference allowed her to learn much about both the ship and the larger war—they consistently underestimated her ability to understand them or figure things out from context.

The Shadows were winning.

Catherine was used to grim news—the Shadows were very powerful, and had won many battles both overt and covert since she'd learned to see the signs, and the Minbari War had been a time of unrelenting bleakness.

This was the first time things had been dire with nothing she could do about it.


There was no telepath on the Khon'vah, no shortcut to linguistic proficiency. But immersion was the second-fastest way of learning a language, and she had that. Growing up bilingual gave her a gift for languages, and it wasn't like va'Drosh was that different from Vik. It didn't take long to be fluent enough in the combat terminology to be allowed to join a fighter wing—they were too short of pilots and ships to let her sit out when she wanted to fight.

There was a sort of familiarity to it. To her brief time in the Rangers, yes, but even more to the Minbari war. The pilot's camaraderie mixed with the grinding hopelessness of loss after loss. But she'd learned how to set aside her despair then, and she could do it again; she'd learned that nothing is completely beyond hope. And this time, she knew (or hoped she knew) that they would win in the end, whether she or any of her new friends lived or died.

She lost track of time. She could have kept track, looked up how long she'd been on the Khon'vah, but why bother? She had nothing else to do, nowhere else to go, no one to speak to besides her comrades in arms. Valen would show up, or he wouldn't, but either way she had no idea when he'd be here. And what, exactly, would that change for her, besides the knowledge that she hadn't stepped on the wrong butterfly? Would Valen be able to send her forward in time? No.

The irony struck her hard. Her aunt had tried to teach her zazen. Jeff had also tried to teach her serenity and focus in meditation. And her trainers in the Rangers had tried to teach her the Minbari version. Only now, when she would never see any of them again, did it truly sink in.

Valen came. When she heard, she did a celebratory dance around her fighter that left her wingmen bemused. The tide was turning! But she didn't expect anything more.

She certainly did not expect Alyt Kayinn to call for her and tell her that Valen—Valen, who appeared out of nowhere with the base that other ships of their clan are beginning to use as a staging depot, Valen who soothed the egos of the clan leaders and led a massed attack on the Shadow base on Kikau that sent the Shadows reeling, Valen who speaks with Vorlons, Valen who has been endorsed by the Sisters of Valeria and the Brothers of Shadrenn, Valen whose legend grows every day—Valen wished to see her.

She went, escorted by white-robed Religious caste, who spoke Adronato with halting tongues. It was not their first language, but it was the language that Valen was the most comfortable with, so they were learning it in his honor. Catherine nodded as they explained, and wondered if Vik was the Warrior-caste language that Valen spoke, and if that's how such a minor, backwards dialect became the standard one.

Valen waited for her in a dark room, lit from above in harsh light.

"I saw you flying." Valen had a deep voice, strained with some emotion she couldn't place. It reminded her of Jeff—if Jeff had been able to speak Adronato without an atrocious English accent. If Jeff weren't a thousand years away.

"I wanted to know—" She heard him moving in the dark. "I've seen that ship before. I thought the pilot must be...someone remarkable." It had been so long since she'd heard Jeff. Her brain must be playing tricks on her. Jeff had read Tennyson's Ulysses so many times in her presence she almost had it memorized—could she ask Valen to say it for her, and record it, so that she might have something familiar even here? She dismissed the wild thought with a shake of her head.

"Is something wrong?" he asked.

"I'm sorry," Catherine said, blinking. "You reminded me of someone I used to know."

Valen stepped into the light. He was a big man, and his voice was not his only resemblance to Jeff. A handsome crest unfurled in small wings above his ears, but his face could have passed for Jeff's in the right light. His robes were brown and grey, and he wore a green jewel, just like her own—it shouldn't surprise her, that Valen, the head of the Anla'Shok, should wear their emblem, but somehow it did. "Good," he murmured. "I was afraid the change took everything."

She didn't realize what was out of place for a moment, and then she stared because Valen was speaking English, modern English, how the hell—

"Oh, God, Cathy," Jeff said.

She stared at him, trying to see the man she knew in the thick Minbari crest and bare head. If it was a Shadow trick, did she want to know? But why would they bother? She was one pilot, one Ranger, among many—Jeff was the Entil'Zha. Surely, they would have counterfeited her to trap him, not the other way around.

"Delenn's device goes both ways," he said, "They knew me, Cathy, they knew me at the Line, because of this."

When she stepped closer, she could see that his isil'zha pin was the new kind, human and Minbari linked. There was a scratch on the jewel that she'd fingered a dozen times, before. A scar on his cheek she'd never seen. "How did you find me?"

"I saw you fall into the anomaly," he said, "You could have gone anywhere, any time, but I had to keep looking—" His hand twitched as if he was barely keeping himself from reaching out, and Catherine lunged at him. He met her halfway, and they embraced so tightly they had to pull back to kiss. His mouth hadn't changed at all.

When they came up for air, Catherine murmured, "I hope you didn't send yourself on a wild goose-chase through time just on the off chance you'd find me again." That would be flattering, but stupid. The odds of finding her were so slim, and the chances of him dying were so large, and she didn't want to think what his loss would do to the fledgling Rangers of their own day (and therefore their chance of beating the Shadows).

Jeff laughed, and she felt it rumble deep in his chest. "No. I love you, but no. Valen left a message for me—I left a message for myself across a thousand years. Strategic and technical knowledge a thousand years more advanced, a forward base when one was desperately needed, and the Vorlon's blessing to give prestige and help unite the Minbari. I had time, after you left, to get the Rangers in shape and in action. They'll be fine, and there are others to take over for me. But there's no one else here and now that can play the role Valen needs to play. An outsider and an insider all at once."

She felt herself tremble as she took it all in, but she said, "Good." Good that Jeff was here, and good that the war she had left in the future was left with a fighting chance. She felt a tension she had not known she carried leave her body, as her fear that she would change that future drained away.

He ran his fingers over her hair. "I missed this."

Catherine reached up to ghost her fingers over the ridge of bone, trying to settle in her mind that this—this was Jeff.

He took her hands between his, and looked at her. "Finding you … that was just … a hope."

And that was Jeff. The war and the mission first, that core of him that she could now see as threaded throughout Valen's teachings. She said in Adronato, "I'm glad you didn't do it just for me, Entil'Zha. They need you." And she meant it, but she slid her hands from between his and brought his palms up to her face, feeling them slide warm on her skin as his fingers slid into her hair, familiar. She tugged one hand by the wrist, and brought it down to kiss his palm. In English, she said, "And I'm so glad that you're here."