Chapter 1: Wake Up
Susan Ivanova ran.
Tired, still-nauseous from the transition, she couldn't even begin to predict how far she would make it into the stronghold. She knew she made good time, better than ever before, because she could feel the resistance the wind created as it passed through her newly-cropped hair. Closing her eyes, concentrating, would make the sensation go away, but there was no time. There had never been any time.
With each step forward, the magnitude of her objective seemed to lessen, while the details of her progress became magnified. She supposed it was a result of her mind resting, strengthening itself, getting ready to cope with what she'd encounter at the destination point. But right now, her clearest sensation was the chafing of the black, leather pants she had resisted wearing for so long. Her concession to the ridiculous, form-fitting attire today had been a sign of solidarity, albeit a mostly useless one.
What did the dead care, how she dressed?
Still. Aside from saving the universe, she didn't know what else she could have done in their honor, considering she would probably soon be joining them in whatever space they now occupied. Given recent events, she didn't want to make any type of prediction about where that might be. If her God even existed, which universe had he chosen to reside in? And would she even notice if he appeared? Constructs abounded these days.
She increased her speed, and the world became a blur. Not long ago the placement and pattern of her footfalls would have mattered, but it still seemed a Vorlon's age since she'd had to worry about anything so mundane. Though these pants…
Enough. If she was going to die, she would die supporting those who had mentored her. Those who had taught her both the truth and its acceptance—taught her who she was. Besides, she couldn't very well die in her uniform. The moment she'd left the station without permission in the middle of a crises, she'd forfeited her right to wear it.
She pitied the Oracle. Pitied anyone who had believed in the prophecy. She supposed it was like the Centauri seers always said: you make our own future, the world is ever-changing. Except that this wasn't even her world, and it was prophecy that had brought her to it; though she shouldn't be here, neither of them should be here.
And yet, here they were.
Here on this dead-looking world she now ran across. She probably would never even know what it had been modeled after, although maybe it was nothing at all. She wished she didn't believe that it could be the stuff of dreams, but she had walked the Path and she had seen some of the places it led. As long as they existed, as long as people existed, escape was not an option. She could only hope to open their eyes.
Return, reboot, reload. These words had no meaning for her anymore.
She was going to delete herself from the system.
She didn't even pause when she hit the edge of the cliff. One moment she felt the ground, the next she didn't, and then she was falling and crying out and bitterly triumphant.
She closed her eyes to block out her surroundings, to ignore everything but the universe contained within her mind.
She didn't even feel it when she hit the ground.***
Chapter 1: Wake Up
"She's not ready yet."
"You've been saying that for months," she said. "How long do you think we have?"
"I'll tell you when the time is right," he replied. "After all this time, all these skills, how can you still lack patience?"
"I was already supposed to be there. What if I'm too late?"
"I won't let that happen."
Her sigh echoed across their connection. "I haven't doubted you so far, and I'm not about to start now. But, sir, why her? This is a lot of trouble for a P1."
"We've taken non-telepaths before. Don't be so exclusive."
"But this is different. He was a candidate for…"
"Wait. Are you saying-"
"Enough, Winter. Best not to speak of it. I'll contact you when-"
"Hold on," she interrupted. "Did you hear that?"
"Our comms' traffic. I think the signal's-" her voice warbled, melted, and then all was silence.***
Susan couldn't believe she was having a conversation with a Vorlon.
Or at least she felt surprised that Kosh had chosen to talk to her; she supposed that in order to call it a conversation she would have to be able to understand at least a single word of what he said.
"You are here," he informed her. The panel on his encounter suit lit up in time with his words, letting her know that she had at least heard the cadence of his utterance correctly.
"I don't understand," she said, past caring if the admission made her look stupid.
She ran a hand through her hair in frustration and stared at him. If she could just see inside his suit, maybe that would help. Maybe if she knew what he looked like, she could comprehend what he might want-
As she thought it, his encounter suit started to open, and she came to a sudden realization. This must be a dream.
"I'm going to wake up now," she told him.
"Good," he said, as the light began to blind her. "And so it begins."
Susan Ivanova sat up in bed. For a moment her walls appeared to shimmer and bend outwards, but blinking a few times to clear her vision seemed to fix the problem. If only she could fix the problem of it still being dark outside; sometimes she really didn't know why she had thought working on a space station was a good idea. These last few months, especially, had been difficult.
She'd liked Sinclair, liked serving under him. The period after he left had been a stressful time for her, not only because his departure meant she had to take on the responsibility for all of Babylon 5, but also because there was an act of leaving-in-the-night involved. She really hated it when the people she liked disappeared from her life without even saying good-bye. It didn't help as much as she had thought it would that she liked his replacement. With the luck she had, John Sheridan would be around just long enough for her to get used to him before he also disappeared.
And then there were her ongoing issues with the Psi-Corps, issues which had only worsened of late. One of her contacts had to be leaking information to someone, because the last batch of smuggled telepaths had yet to reach their destination. She still had some hope that it might not have been the Corps that intercepted them, but the more time that passed without her hearing anything, the more she worried.
There was something very bad about the Corps, and it wasn't something she had ever managed to put into words. It wasn't just that the organization had been responsible for her mother's death, wasn't just that if they knew about her, she would be forced to resign from Earthforce, wasn't just about how they treated their members—there was a darkness, a wrongness, about them she couldn't describe.
She got out of bed, pulling on a purple robe as she moved over to her terminal. She'd been monitoring the actions of the Corps for over ten years now. Unfortunately the search she'd set up last night to flag unusual activities had yielded nothing; sure, a lot of the restricted information she'd managed to pull up didn't paint the Corps in a flattering light, but that was hardly a revelation.
Sighing, she hacked into one of the restricted communications channels.
Sure enough, Alex was already waiting.
"How do you always get here before me?" Susan asked.
"I've always been faster than you at this type of thing. Maybe I can just hear different frequencies—see my way into networks."
"Right," Susan said. "Now you read minds and machines."
"Hey, just show me a signal, Nova, and I'll get you your information."
"Alright, Alex, how about telling me where my telepaths went then?"
"Bad news there, I'm afraid. It's a Corps issue."
"Damn it. How are they figuring out the drop points?"
"The Corps is made up of telepaths, remember? Occasionally they're bound to hear something."
Susan started to respond, but stopped as a darkness fell over the screen in front of her. She turned to see the source, but nothing had changed behind her, though she would have sworn she sensed movement just a moment earlier. Then again, her senses might simply be off this morning—she had just seen her empty, black screen darken. And to what? Darker black? All the lights were off.
"Nova?" Alex's voice issued from the blank screen. "Talk to me, Nova."
"I'm here. It's just…"
"Nothing." Susan shook her head. "I'm jumping at shadows. You ever do that?"
"Oh, once or twice. Mostly I run from them."
"You must have quite the past."
"Past, future, doesn't matter. They're all the same. I've got to go now. I'll contact you when we've got the next group ready for transport."
"Fine. I'm going to-" Susan began, but was interrupted.
"Who are you?" Susan asked, furious at hearing a new voice. How dare Alex violate the security of their channel? "Alex, you'd better have a-"
"Alex isn't here anymore."
"Did you hurt her? Because if you did, I will find you, and you will not enjoy meeting me."
"I hurt no one. I used this channel because it's the easiest method of communicating with you for the moment."
"Look, I really do not enjoy having my conversations forcibly interrupted by someone I don't know, especially when they are using an unauthorized method of communication to do so."
((Would you prefer I used this?))
"Get the hell out of my head!" Susan jumped out of her chair and turned in a circle, scanning the entire room in a single glance. The culprit must have line of sight.
((If you're going to look for me in your quarters, wouldn't light help?))
As the thought went through Susan's mind, she watched in numb fascination as the door to her quarters activated, apparently of its own volition, flooding light into the room and making it obvious that no visible intruder existed in the room.
Susan took a couple deep breaths to calm herself. "What do you want?" she asked through gritted teeth. As she spoke, the door closed itself, leaving her in darkness once again.
(((To tell you what you already know. All is not right with your world.))(
"You're right. I did know that. Now go fuck around in your own mind and leave mine the hell alone. And put Alex back on the line."
((You want to talk about Alex? Fine. Alex had a little Vorlon. Her skin was pale as snow. And everywhere that Alex went-))
"Wait!" Susan clasped her hands to her head, trying to block the voice out and make sense of it all at the same time. "What do you know about Alex? And what do you mean by-"
((You really should answer the door.))
Against her own better judgment, Susan found herself taking the advice. She moved in the direction of the door, suddenly terrified of what she might find outside…
…and then she woke up again.***
"Now, if you'll excuse me, I have ten things to do, all of them annoying."
Susan didn't watch as Ms. Winters left C&C. She had expected her today, had seen her arrival on the schedule and simply avoided her.
This new telepath's presence was one more example of how the Corps continued to extend their reach and encroach even further onto the station. Adding yet another commercial telepath to the station's pool seemed an act of menace, especially when the telepath in question was so determined. Whatever the regs. said about checking in with the second in command, most of the new telepaths usually just sent her a message through Babcom, which she could quickly access and then summarily delete. They didn't expect personal attention.
"Commander?" Lieutenant Corwin asked. "What should we do about the group of Centauri vessels waiting to dock?"
"Tell them to wait their turn," Susan snapped. She studied the console in front of her and tried to calm her thoughts. She needed to pull herself together and accept that this day just wasn't going to get any better. It had started with Garibaldi coming to her quarters this morning because she had overslept. Thankfully for her, Sheridan had been amused, not angry, at the lapse. It wasn't that she couldn't have handled his anger, but she was just as glad she didn't have to right now.
She had never felt so restless before. And Ms. Winter's intrusion had not helped her mental state. Something about that woman – about her tone – bothered her, and she could not place what was causing her this fixation on their encounter.
If she could just make it through another couple of hours, maybe a drink after work would make it all go away.
She turned back to Lieutenant Corwin. "If Londo tries to give you any more trouble about those ships, tell the ambassador that he can take it up with me."
"Yes, sir." Lieutenant Corwin moved to obey her orders with alacrity, and Susan knew she had regained control of the situation around her for a little while longer—or at least until the next crisis. Which, knowing Babylon 5, couldn't be very far away.***
It seemed like the man was talking to himself.
"I told you my information was good. I don't know why you had to risk sending someone into the room today." A pause. "Yes, I know you are all-powerful, but she still almost saw you. At least give me a chance to make a willing recruit out of her." Another pause. "Now, now. You'd miss me if I was gone. Shall I continue as planned?" A burst of static followed his words, and he briefly gained a flickering shadow. He patiently waited until the phenomenon was over.
"Good," he finally said. "I grow tired of waiting for the enemy to act first. It will be done tonight." He exited amidst a second burst of static, leaving an empty room behind him.***
After a cocktail and twenty minutes of doing nothing but observing the traffic in the bar, Susan almost felt relaxed. She had just ordered her second drink when Talia Winters entered the establishment, her appearance a reminder that Susan should never consider a public place a possible sanctuary. The woman in question didn't seem to notice anyone or anything else in the bar; she headed straight in Susan's direction, a not-unexpected, but still unappreciated course of action. Of course the person to whom Susan least wanted to speak would only be interested in interacting with her. It fit her day so well.
As Ms. Winters sat on the bar stool next to her, Susan felt the jaded part of herself soften just a little. This close, she could sense a certain amount of uncertainty hidden beneath all the confidence the telepath projected. Being here meant being far away from the Corps, and Susan supposed that it was difficult to be without your family, no matter how evil they might be. She also supposed that giving the woman next to her a bit of a break might net her a few extra points in the karma department.
Besides, maybe if she explained her reasons for hating the Corps, Ms. Winters might prove herself to be a reasonable and humane individual. Susan had been searching for quite some time for someone here on B5 who would be a good candidate for helping her smuggle rogue telepaths through the station. The woman beside her might prove herself to be exactly what Susan had been searching for.
So she explained her situation. Her history. The facts about her mother.
And was rewarded by responses that would be spoken only by a true Corps supporter. All that promise, wasted. It hardly encouraged her to engage in any further acts of altruism.
"Perhaps we can start again tomorrow," Ms. Winters said quickly as Susan stood.
"I very much doubt it," Susan said, barely turning to acknowledge the words. "Good night, Ms. Winters." Faster then she would have thought possible, the other woman was standing at her side.
"I know who you are, Nova," she whispered into Susan's ear. "I know the secrets that you keep."
"How do you know that name?" Susan asked her, just as quietly.
"Perhaps we should talk about it over there," Talia said, nodding at a table in the far corner of the bar.
"Fine," Susan said, and walked over to the table. She tried to keep a hold on her mind, tried to keep it from racing. Not only because she need to think, to plan, but also because she knew the woman beside her would be able to sense any, or perhaps all, of her disquiet. Listening to explanations would buy her time to figure out her best way out of this mess; she'd prefer to make this problem go away without a body count, but at the moment it seemed a difficult goal to achieve.
"Who are you? Really?" Susan asked as soon as they sat down.
"I didn't lie to you." Talia sat back and rested the side of her face against one gloved hand. "My name is Talia Winters. You just might know me better as a shorter version of my surname." She smiled. "When it comes to choosing aliases, some of us prefer to hide in plain sight."
For a moment Susan couldn't do much more than gape at the woman sitting so coolly across from her. She knew her. "Winter?" she asked.
"I knew you'd heard of me."
"Who hasn't? You completely fooled the Corps, back when the integrated underground network for telepaths still existed."
"That was years ago," Winter said. "I've been very busy since then."
"I'm sure you have, but…" Susan paused to study her and shook her head. "You saved so many people. And you deceived a couple of P12s."
Winter shrugged. "They weren't very smart ones."
"I…I don't know what to say," Susan said, unable to suppress a smile. "It's just…" She couldn't seem to keep her eyes off Winter, now that she had seen her. "Well, aren't you only a P5?"
Winter leaned forward. "I'm a lot of things. A P5 is only the beginning of what I am." She reached out and brushed a finger against Susan's EA badge. "Just as your identity as an Earthforce officer is hardly the sum of who you are."
"Yes." Susan's smile faded. "What do you mean, you know my secrets?"
"I know you've been smuggling telepaths."
"Is that it?" Susan asked. She felt relieved. She felt disappointed. All that build up, and the least of her secrets was revealed.
"I haven't even started. I know you recognize that something is wrong about the way telepaths interface with the rest of the world. I know you stay up late at night researching. You are right to ask the question."
"What question?" As she asked, Susan realized she already knew. At least about the question. The answer, that was another story.
"What is wrong with the Corps?" Winter sat back again in her chair, letting her words speak for themselves. She didn't need any more grand gestures as far as Susan was concerned; she had gotten her attention. Sadly, the demonstration wasn't over.
"It's always the telepaths who sense it through the Organization."
Susan wondered if she'd ever be able to draw breath again. "I'm sorry? I must-"
"You're not going to try and deny it," Winter interrupted, holding her gaze. "Not to me."
"What do you want?" Susan whispered. Whatever it was, it would probably ruin her life. "Why are you here?"
"To lead you to your answers." Winter reached out a hand across the table. "But first I have to show you the door."
As Winter uttered the last word, Susan realized what had been bothering her about the woman all day. Her notoriety was not all Susan had encountered of her before.
It was that voice.
"You." Susan said. She couldn't remember the last time she'd felt this cold. "You were the one in my head this morning." She didn't even know she'd been hoping for a particular type of response until she saw that, by her nod, Winter wasn't going to deny the accusation.
"Yes. An unfortunate, but unavoidable, course of action. You'll see-"
"I'll see nothing. You were in my mind. You think I'm ever going to trust you? Go anywhere with you? I'll skate across hell first."
"You just might, before this is through," Winter murmured. "Look, Nova-"
"Stop calling me that."
"You are in danger, Nova," she said, emphasizing the alias while holding Susan's glare. "The Corps-"
"Has ignored me for almost thirty years. It can ignore me for a few more." Susan stood and walked around the table until she could look down at Winter. "The only reason I'm going to let you walk away from this is because of all those telepaths you saved so long ago. But you'd better be gone by tomorrow—and do not let me catch you on this station again."
Susan forced herself to hold the other telepath's gaze and wait for a response. She knew what would really keep her awake for the next unending string of nights would be that this woman, this invader of her mind, had briefly garnered a certain amount of her trust; though she hadn't realized it until right now. Why else would she have shared about her mother? Why else would she have even talked to her?
She was a rotten judge of character. All there was to it.
Winter didn't back down from her glare. "Leave me aside for a moment. Don't you care that you were right? About the Corps? About all of it?"
"I've been right before," Susan said. "And I haven't needed anyone to hold my hand afterwards." She had no desire to glance over her shoulder as she walked away.***
When Susan stepped outside the bar, they were waiting.
"Gentleman," she said. "To what do I owe this pleasure?"
All the black-clad, badged telepaths turned to their leader as one.
"Commander Ivanova," Bester said. "Please don't feign ignorance as to our purpose here. Pretense doesn't suit you."
"Mr. Bester, I never feign ignorance about your purpose." She clasped her hands behind her back just in case they trembled. "How many more did you enslave today?"
"I save enslavement to the end of the week, Commander. Today I'm simply looking for information. Care to provide it willingly?"
"You're not getting it from me any other way." She took a couple steps forward, stopping just short of pushing her way through the group. "And I find myself disinclined to talk today. Now," she said, ignoring everyone but Bester, "do I call Security, or are you going to get out of my way?"
"I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but station security is unlikely to be available for some time. Earthgov sent a few ships to ensure that they secured your allegiance in their new war." He shook his head. "The politics of normals never cease to amaze me. You have everything and you fight over absolutely nothing."
"No, I'm telling you the truth. At what point have you ever seen peace between-"
"Not about that. About what's happening outside the station. If there was fighting, I'd be informed." She held up her hand. "You'll notice that my link has not activated throughout this entire conversation."
"Then I would suggest you try activating it yourself."
Susan didn't take her eyes off Bester as she attempted the action he had just suggested. "Ivanova to Security—Garibaldi, are you there?"
Crackling silence was the only response she received to her inquiry.
"You could keep trying," Bester said, "but I guarantee the result will be the same. Now, are you coming with us, or shall I scan you right here?"
"As opposed to my coming with you and you scanning me where no one can find me later? If you're going to perform an illegal action, I'd prefer to be able to report it."
"Commander, I'm a reasonable individual. I promise that if you come with me, quietly, no scan will be performed. Despite the fact that one has been authorized."
"You can't expect me to believe-"
"Don't insult both of us by protesting too much," he interrupted. "We both know that I'm authorized to scan all telepaths who aren't part of the Corps. You qualify; therefore, I am allowed to scan you. Now, if you wouldn't mind…?"
Numbly, Susan followed the other telepaths down the corridor.***
"She's not with you yet, is she?"
"No," Winter said. "It didn't go as well as planned."
"I'd say you're right on schedule—we'd expected some resistance. Wouldn't waste any time in trying again, though."
"Thanks. I'm so glad I have you keep me on track."
"Always glad to help. You like her, don't you? That's part of the reason you contacted her this morning. To provide her with an extra safeguard."
"Some safeguard. You realize we have a leak?"
"That's been obvious for some time. The boss has Monk looking into it. But you didn't answer my question."
"I find her…difficult," Winter said reluctantly.
"Uh-huh. You realize we all know how much you enjoy difficulty?" A pause. "Do you think she's the One?"
"That's not for me to say."
"Say it anyways."
"I think she's the one I need to rescue," Winter said. "So find me an exit point. I'll be in contact soon."
"I don't believe in luck. And I'm playing against the odds."
"It's a grand world, isn't it?"
"There's a truth." Winter terminated the connection. "Now if only I can convince her about a few more of them," she muttered, "we might be able to do something about it."***
Bester set a data crystal down on the table in front of Susan.
"This," he said, "is only a portion of the records we have on you and your involvement in the illegal transportation and relocation of rogue telepaths. You're very good," he continued, "I'm amazed none of your colleagues here on the station have caught on, considering that you used restricted channels for much of your communication. What types of firewalls did you employ?"
Susan said nothing.
"No matter," he said. "Let's not waste time on trivial matters. What we're really here about are your two lives." He tapped the data crystal against the tabletop. "By day, you're an officer in Earthforce. Rigid, disciplined, you uphold order—uphold the law. But by night…" he smiled grimly. "By night, you go by the alias Nova, and you do no end of damage to the telepathic community."
"I harm the Corps, not the community. Though I wouldn't expect you to be able to tell the difference."
Bester looked genuinely pained. "So much hatred directed towards us. And for what? You do a disservice to your fellow telepaths. You make them criminals, make them live on the run, when all they have to do to live fulfilling lives is rejoin their family."
"Who are you to decide who their families are?"
"I'm the man who's going to give you a second chance. Join us. Join the Corps, and we'll overlook your recent errors in judgment. We'll even keep your talent a secret, let you remain a member of Earthforce."
Susan blinked. This was hardly the offer she'd expected. "Why are you willing to offer me this deal?" she finally asked.
"We need you to help us with something," he said. "Someone is going to contact you, probably in the very near future. When he does, we need you to contact us."
"And who might this very important person be?"
"He goes by the name of Valen. And if he doesn't contact you, you'll need to seek him out. I very much doubt he'll refuse to speak to you."
Susan couldn't help laughing. "You want me to find you a centuries old Minbari leader? I'm telepathic, not a miracle worker. Although, again, not sure that you'd be able to tell the difference."
"You refuse to help us then?"
"Do I refuse to do the impossible? Yes. It's an added bonus that it means I can't help you. You do realize I'd put you out an airlock before I'd ever tell you anything you wanted to know?"
"I take it this means you also won't join the Corps?"
"I know that speaking isn't your primary method of communication, but I thought your ears worked better than this. You have been listening to our conversation, right? The answer, in case you missed it, is no. Nyet." She pushed her chair back from the table. "Now, since you promised you wouldn't scan me, I believe our discussion has come to an end. Can I go now?" She started to stand, but Bester reached out and gripped her hands in his gloved ones.
"I'm disappointed in you, Commander. I had hoped for better things. I do hate it when these conversations get messy."
"Hey, I'm getting tired of all these vague threats. If you're going to-"
"Enough," Bester said. "I-"
"What do you mean enough?" Susan asked. "I haven't even gotten started. If you really think-"
Bester looked to the telepath on his right. "Byron, silence her."
As Byron turned and concentrated on her, Susan felt her vocal folds stop vibrating. A moment later, sound stopped issuing from her mouth altogether.
"Better," Bester said. "I can hear my own thoughts again." He released her hands, but she couldn't quite seem to grasp exactly what that might allow her to do. Somehow taking away her ability to speak had also inhibited her ability to think clearly.
Without a verbal or visual cue, the telepath to Bester's left stepped forward and handed him a jar. It was darker than black, and Susan realized she had only seen that shade once before.
This morning, in her room.
Bester opened the jar and held it over her. "I'm sorry it had to be this way," he said. "But you're going to help us, whether you want to or not."
Something, something with very, very long legs started to crawl out of the jar. As if in a nightmare, Susan felt the tentacles hesitantly extend out to touch her skin. The second they made contact, they apparently felt their purpose; she barely drew one more breath before the entire creature – whatever it was- had crawled across her face and onto her neck. As it twined itself around her, she would have sworn she saw it looking at her, one huge eye in the middle of one small body mass, and then she did nothing but swear, yell, scream—but silently, for she still could not speak. But the pain, it was unspeakable anyways, drilling inwards, upwards, she could feel it all through both her body and her mind. She felt some other presence, something that produced thoughts in her brain that existed alongside her own, and then she passed out over the table.
Only to wake up, alone, in her own bed.***
Chapter 2: Set Me Free
Security personnel milled around outside the entrance to the largest of the loading docks. Some of them checked weapons, some monitored the communications channels, but almost all of them were involved in ignoring the heated argument occurring right in front of them.
"I told you to wait for me and my telepaths," Bester said. "We had an agreement."
"An agreement? That's what you call it when you order people to do something they never agreed to do?" Garibaldi asked. "Remind me to never sign on any of your dotted lines."
"Mr. Garibaldi, I must ask that you give me control of this site immediately."
"Nuts to that. Look, I know you like to throw your weight around here, and I know this situation involves one of your own. Now, maybe you're worried that I don't share your agenda. Maybe you're worried that I won't turn her over to you." Garibaldi's voice quickened in anger. "I might like her, might even have flirted with her with once or twice, but I will not let her threaten the security of this station. Don't think for one minute that I'm any less dedicated than yourself when it comes to the safety of my people."
Bester shook his head, his gaze never leaving the sealed doors in front of them. "I never doubted you intentions, Garibaldi. But your choice was the incorrect one." He walked up and laid his hand against the side of the wall. "By now your mundanes are already dead," he said, closing his eyes to block out the chaos that ensued behind him at his declaration.
So far only a few of them had actually come in here after her.
Winter knew there were more of them outside. Probably at least a dozen more, though she hoped Corps members would only make a belated appearance. Usually she and Warlock would have used the more accessible entrance, but they planned on having living cargo tonight. At least if said cargo was willing.
She concentrated again and found her number. Five. Five inside with them. A total she could certainly handle.
"Go," she told Warlock. "Secure a vehicle. I've got this."
"I don't think your presence will help our chances of convincing her, but we're going to need
a way out. Find one."
"As you wish." He conjured an orb and studied it for a few moments. "You realize you've got real company outside, yes?"
"Goddamn it." She hadn't figured them into her calculations. "So much for my coming back here in one piece." The knowledge changed no part of their divide-and-conquer scheme. Coming back here with no way out condemned not only her, but Nova as well.
"What are you going to do?"
Winter checked her weapon before putting it back into the holster she had strapped to her leg. Her slicked-back hair still gleamed in the dim light. "Run," she said, taking off across the great expanse of empty, metal flooring.
She heard a yell as the first of the men spotted her and she immediately dove for the floor, pulse blasts missing her as she rolled back to her feet. As she stood, she pulled her gun, hitting two of the men as she ran up the wall, heading for the protection of the cargo shelving. They wouldn't be as willing to shoot indiscriminately when it might involve hitting expense cargo.
"Hold," one of the men called. "We've treed her. No need to ruin the goods."
"We didn't do anything to her," another one commented. "She ran up the fragging wall."
"I don't care if she sprouted wings," the first man returned. "Surround her, grab her, and let's be done with it." He turned back in Winter's direction. "Do you hear that, you mind-reading bitch? Why don't you put the gun down and come out now, before you get yourself hurt?"
((I think you missed the point of my little demonstration.))
As Winter sent the thought into the minds of the three who had started to surround her, she looked at the bolts securing the shelf she stood on. They shot out from the wall, leaving gaping holes in their wake, and the shelf started to fall. She rode the arc for a second or two, waiting to jump until the men started firing blindly as the contents of the shelf came down upon them. About halfway to the ground, she purposefully slowed her fall, twisting her body in one delicate motion to turn and fire upon the one, last security guard who had managed to remove himself from the trajectory of her previous act of violence. He wasn't so lucky when it came to this one—a single shot and he crumpled to the ground.
She looked around at the carnage and nodded in satisfaction. Now if only she could find a duct or something.
She had no desire to try and face what waited outside.
Bester moved away from the wall as Garibaldi and his security team rushed the docking bay. He did not follow them; there was no point.
She had already found a way out.
He motioned to Byron and Lauren and they followed him without hesitation; they already knew his destination. From the central corridor they could take anyone—could go anywhere. Their prey had yet to put them at a disadvantage, which was hardly surprising.
Even with the mutation in her code, she was only human after all.
Winter waited impatiently for the core shuttle. Crawling through the ventilation system might have kept her from getting jammed back there, but it was hardly an effective method for traveling across the entire sector. Even knowing that, she hated being out in the open like this. Too many people, too much environment to have to try and control if something went wrong.
The five minutes she had to wait before the next tram arrived seemed to take forever; she had never been so relieved to hear the reduced-gravity warnings that heralded its arrival. When the doors opened she didn't hesitate to step inside, though she did use the cover of motion and announcements and general chaos to briefly open her mind and sample the thoughts around her, hopping outward from mind to mind until she reached…
She felt her connection freeze for a second, her brain unwilling to process the image.
They were coming. They would be here in a matter of seconds. The fact that they progressed in a linear fashion indicated that they weren't entirely sure of her location or, at the very least, of the car number in which she now hid. She held herself very still and slowly, carefully, started fortifying her mental blocks.
She knew the second that Bester appeared that her efforts had been a waste of time. One glance at the shuttle and his head immediately swiveled in the direction of her car. Her stomach seemed to drop below her body as the shuttle started to move out of the station, movement and hope – fleeting, bright hope – making her momentarily dizzy.
Then he smiled at her.
His two associates seemed to get his message without ever seeing his face. Looking pleased, they dropped back and covered the exits while Bester started moving towards the platform at a light jog.
When he reached the edge, he leapt at Winter's car, and she knew he would make it, could see the calculations he made, the adjustments, could almost feel the differences in the gravity around her. He had her—
—until the car sped up. Then he had nothing, emptiness, he had missed by millimeters, and he was falling, falling outwards, here on this side, there on that side, then gone, disappearing into the distance.
Winter finally managed to jerk her gaze away from him, still reeling from the astonishment and looking for the source of her unbelievable good fortune.
He wasn't hard to find, her guardian angel. Sedate and immobile, making the most of the his encounter-suited shielding, he stood in the middle of the receding platform. She felt no surprise to observe that his silent presence seemed to make most of the people surrounding him distinctly nervous. For her, he was the only being of interest there; the other telepaths were nowhere to be seen. She gathered the tattered remnants of her strength and sent to him.
((You helped me.))
((Yes. For the future.))
((Thank you. I don't know why you decided to interfere-))
((She is a path. You are the door. Now go. Leave this place.))
Winter lost sight of him then, even in mind's-eye. Her gratitude had been, and still remained, unfeigned, but she couldn't help a rueful smile.
Cryptic as ever, and bossy to boot. One day he'd cause her to blow a few circuits.
For now, she'd take the most transparent of his orders and get the hell out of here.
The door chime sounded twice before Susan even processed the sound properly. She'd felt sluggish since waking up in her quarters, alone and apparently unmolested. She wondered if whoever wanted inside was real or merely a figment of her apparently overactive imagination. Against her better judgment, she got out of bed and moved in the direction of the summons. As she activated the door, she suddenly felt terrified of what she might find outside…
…as well she should be. Couldn't this woman take 'no' for an answer?
"Ms. Winters," Susan said. "It's late, and I've had a particularly trying day. If we could discuss whatever it is that leads you to my quarters in the middle of the night at a later time, I would be-"
"Dead. They're coming for you. Bester is coming for you."
The look, the tone—Susan realized that everything she thought she had been dreaming, everything she might still be dreaming, felt real enough in this moment to convince her of the existence of a threat. She didn't like the woman in front of her, but she liked Bester even less, and she could deal with lesser threats later.
"I don't suppose you have a feasible escape plan?" Susan asked.
"Plan, yes. Feasible?" Winter started down the hall, pleased when Susan followed her without need of further convincing or coercion. She didn't have much more energy to expend. "Unlikely. Even if you can use some of your access codes, this is going to fall into the realm of near-impossible. The transport tubes have been shut down for security reasons."
"Let me guess," Susan said. "You're a reason."
Winter glanced back at her. "I'm not the only one."
"No, I suppose not. Though if the tubes are your only problem, then it's not much of a problem at all."
"Hacking the tubes has become something of a contest between Garibaldi and myself."
"Do you ever win?"
Susan smiled as they reached the tube. "Well, I certainly don't like to lose."
"That's not an answer."
"Quiet. I'm working here." The door slid open a moment later, and Susan felt the triumph of her accomplishment fade as soon as she stepped inside. "That was the easy part," she informed Winter. "After we change levels, we'll need to move quickly and-"
"I believe I can provide assistance for that task," a familiar voice said behind her.
She turned, not trusting her ears until her eyes confirmed his identity. "Lennier? What are you doing here?"
"That is a long story for a later time. All I can say now is that I am here to help."
Winter laughed as she took in the form of his aid. "Where in Valen's name did you get those, Monk?"
"I liberated them from Mr. Garibaldi's quarters. I've been working on them for him."
Susan thought that the machines on either side of him stretched the bounds of her credulity. Sure, Garibaldi liked motorcycles, and she might even be willing to believe them to be an interest of Lennier's as well, but how the hell had he managed to walk two bikes here with such apparent ease?
"I'll take one of those," Winter told him. She took the bike on his right and walked it into transport tube. "I'd hate to think that our exit from here might be any less conspicuous than our entrance."
Lennier carefully maneuvered the other bike into the tube beside her. "I heard about your adventure on the core shuttle and thought you might want to avoid repeating the experience. Perhaps you have a better idea?"
"Not really." She made room for Susan. "But we'd better be ready to really move when this tube opens on the next level."
"We're not really going to ride these through the station?" Susan asked, as the door slid closed in front of her.
"Why not?" Winter asked.
"Well, for starters, we'll just be the largest, most obvious, moving targets in the history of Babylon 5 security chases."
"We will also be the fastest," Lennier said. "And if we are going to make it through the central corridor, speed is a necessity. Blue Sector is a very crowded place right now—security personnel are everywhere."
"Fine," Susan sighed. At least if they moved quickly, there might be fewer casualties. She needed to get out of here, needed to get away from the Corps, but she'd rather not destroy the station doing it. "Which one is mine?"
"You're with me," Winter said. At Susan's doubtful look, she hastened to continue, "I've been trained to operate this vehicle, and I assure you it's large enough for the both of us." Angling the front of the bike towards the door, she swung a leg up to straddle the seat.
Susan made a noise that sounded suspiciously like a snort as she moved to sit behind her. "You'll have to tell me sometime what part of Corps training covers motorcycle operation."
"Soon, you'll hear all about everything," Winter said. "For now, just slide up and hold on to me."
The number of times she had acted against her own better judgment today was really beginning to worry her, but in this, Susan didn't have much choice. She tried not to think about what she was doing as she slid her front up against Winter's back and wrapped her arms tightly around the other woman's midsection. As she adjusted herself and pressed in closer, her legs molded themselves to the back of Winter's black-clad thighs and the smell of leather permeated her senses. She looked down, then back up, taking in Winter's outfit in its entirety for the first time.
"Comfortable?" Winter asked.
"Close enough," Susan replied. "But I do have one question that needs asking."
"What is it?" Winter and Lennier started up their bikes at the same time as the tube slowed, stopped, and the doors began to open.
Susan tightened her grip even more, her hands digging into Winter's stomach. "What the hell are you wearing?" She thought she heard Lennier laugh as they shot out into the corridor, people scattering and shouting all around them as they attempted to get out of the way.
Winter leaned into the turn, hard, and Susan did her best to move with her and not upset them. They'd taken the corridor at a dangerously fast pace; she still couldn't believe they had yet to hit someone.
She watched Lennier accelerate out of the turn, half a bike-length ahead of them. He made it look so easy, weaving around people, ducking pulse blasts, all the while speaking into a communications device he had revealed about half-way through their pell-mell rush through Blue Sector. He seemed comfortable, confident—almost enjoying himself. She had to wonder if the world had gone crazy while she slept last night. Except that if it had, she had gone right along with it, because here she was, hair streaming out behind her, the means of her escape still in front of her, hoping to avoid both the Corps and Garibaldi's security team.
They were approaching the cargo bays when she heard Winter swear under her breath.
"Shit," she said, increasing their speed until they drew up alongside Lennier. "Company," she yelled over to him.
He nodded, said something else into his comm. and put on even more speed.
"What's wrong?" Susan asked, her lips right at Winter's ear.
"Ahead of us," was all Winter would say before she lowered her head and matched Lennier's acceleration.
Susan allowed her gaze to scan the area in front of them. Nothing seemed particularly threatening. There were personnel to avoid, a few who had weapons drawn, but nothing they hadn't already…
She tilted her head to get a better look at a person off the left side of the bike. He stood in one place, not looking in their direction, the only person in the corridor who didn't seem to notice them. He was shaking. As they passed him by, he started to shake even harder.
Careful of her balance, Susan turned slightly on the bike to look behind them. As she watched, his shaking turned to outright vibration, and then Bester stood behind them. Before Susan could even vocalize her surprise, he was following them, and following them fast.
"How the…?" she finally choked out.
"How is not important at the moment," Winter yelled over her shoulder. "What matters right now is keeping your mind together. Run something through your head. Start the chant I taught you." She shuddered and the bike swerved. "Now."
For a moment Susan wondered what she could possibly be talking about, but then Winter started the chant aloud, and she joined in as if she had always known her cue.
"Alex had a little Vorlon-" Winter began.
"-her skin was pale as snow-" Susan continued, joining her.
They finished together, and it took Susan another minute to realize that when they did, they did not do so aloud.
((-and everywhere that Alex went, the Vorlon was sure to go!))
Lennier interrupted their concentration a few repetitions later. "The threat is gone," he said, edging his bike nearer to them. "He was unable to keep up with us, though he will most likely be back soon."
"And we'll be subjected to another shredding." Winter pressed her lips together, her expression grim. "I can't interrupt him again."
"Then I suggest we leave before he returns," Lennier said.
"Does Warlock have the door open yet?"
Lennier nodded, his focus once again directed in front of them. "He's waiting for us in Bay 9."
Susan waited until after they took the next turn before she asked the question that had been worrying her. "How will we get the outer doors open? I don't have the power to override a security lockdown."
Lennier turned and offered her a gentle smile. "Don't worry. We just happen to know someone else who does."
Susan would never forget the look on Garibaldi's face when she blew past him.
He said her name, just her name, once. "Ivanova?" Four syllables of confusion, hurt, and betrayal, before his attention moved from her to the man who stood by his side.
A moment ago that man had been Zack, his PPG half raised and a look of disbelief on his face. But now his whole body shook and his face had started to twist beyond recognition. For a split-second it was clear what was happening, Mr. Bester's features transparently superimposed on Mr. Allan's face, and then Lennier shot him.
"No! Zack!" Susan yelled, twisting in her seat. She came damn close to overturning the motorcycle and she heard Winter's displeased growl, but dimly, as though from very far away. She watched as Zack looked down at his chest, his own PPG falling to the ground as he crumpled, saved from the same impact as his weapon only because Garibaldi caught him and lowered him the rest of the way to the floor.
"Zack!" Garibaldi said tightly, visibly trying to hold himself together. "Hold on, Zack." He activated his link. "Garibaldi here. We need Dr. Benjamin down here in Bay 9-"
And then Susan could hear no more, because they were heading up the ramp into a waiting transport ship, Winter and Lennier skidding sideways as they tried to come to a stop once they were inside.
"Having a pilot up here with me right now would be most appreciated," a voice called back from the front of the ship. "I cannot both fly and manage the level of tech our escape will require."
"I understand," Lennier called back. "I will be there as soon as-"
"Like hell, you will," Susan said. "This is an Earthforce vessel, and I'm tired of taking a backseat. It's my turn to drive."
"With all respect, Commander," Lennier said, "do you even know where we are going?" When the only response he received was a withering glare, he hopped off his bike and headed towards the front of the ship.
Susan remained standing astride her motorcycle for moment, undecided.
"You could always follow them," Winter said, the amusement in her voice both obvious and surprising. She turned and shot Susan a glance over her shoulder. "They'll probably need all the help they can get."
"Don't read my emotions," Susan said as she swung herself off the bike and stalked away from the woman who had turned her life upside down.
Upon reaching the others, she realized that things were likely to turn right-side up anytime soon.
"If I take off now," Lennier said, "will you have enough time to prepare?"
The man sitting next to him appeared to be meditating. He didn't open his eyes when he finally addressed the question. "Doesn't matter either way. We'd better go."
"Warlock! The more information you provide, the more I am able to plan for possible outcomes."
Warlock sighed in frustration and turned towards Lennier. Susan caught a glimpse of bright blue amidst all the motion, and realized he had opened his eyes. She found herself arrested by his face, by the fact that he appeared human but was hairless everywhere: nothing on the top of his head, no eyebrows, no beard. Perhaps it was this lack, the absence of a contrasting color or texture, that made his eyes seem to stand out so much—though she felt fairly certain the explanation could run deeper. Her suspicions were confirmed by his next comment.
"I'm trying to connect with my tech," Warlock said, "at the same time as our friends out there are attempting to deactivate it. The multitasking involved in this endeavor requires a certain amount of my attention. So, if you don't mind…?"
"As you wish." Lennier returned his concentration the panel in front of him, his fingers skimming across controls in a pattern Susan could appreciate.
A moment later, they started to move.
"A bit cramped up here," Winter commented as she joined them. She looked more tired than she had when Susan last saw her. "Feel any better, Lock?"
"Yes," Warlock said, his eyes closed once again. "They're no longer interfering with my connection. Your work, I expect."
"I can be useful from time to time."
"I hate to interrupt our first streak of good news," Susan said, "but we're almost at the outer doors, and they're still closed."
"Not a problem," Warlock said.
"Even when we do get outside, they'll launch fighters. Activate the defense grid. And we're not exactly rolling in weapons here."
"Also, not a problem." Warlock kept his eyes closed, but raised a single finger and waved it in her direction. "However it would help if you could indicate the most likely locations for a launch."
Susan didn't even have to think about it. "Well, Zeta Squadron is a sure pick, and they always launch from-"
"Stop," Warlock said. He tapped the panel in front of him without looking. "Indicate the locations on the monitoring screen in front of me. I'm a bit busy at the moment." As their ship raced towards the unopened bay in front of him, his brow creased in concentration.
"What's he doing?" Susan asked as she followed his instructions. She felt glad to have something besides their upcoming impact on which to focus.
"Wait," Winter said. "Watch."
The exact moment when it happened couldn't be properly captured—the doors were there, then gone, no visible in-between. Only the aftermath of an explosion proved that Warlock had taken the trouble to make any effort at all.
"Do you need me to-" Winter began.
"No," Lennier interrupted. "I can easily maneuver us through the allocated space."
Susan studied their disaster as they passed through it. Knowing that no one had been hurt in this latest round of damage, she could only wish for one thing: that she had been allowed to rise to the challenge that Lennier was now navigating.
She tried to ignore the feeling. "I'm glad to see that we'll at least complete step one in whatever program this group is running."
"We told you we had someone who could override the lockdown," Winter said.
"He didn't override it," Susan said, "he destroyed it."
Warlock finally opened his eyes again. "Close enough," he said, looking at the screen in front of him where Susan had made her notes. "Now, about your station's defense systems…"
They were past the worst of it when Susan started screaming.
"Quiet her," Warlock said to Winter. He turned to Lennier. "Do you need-"
"Those still following us are few. Take care of her."
Warlock nodded and moved to help Winter support Susan as they moved her back to the main portion of the transport. Susan's whole body shook, and Winter grunted as teeth bit into the hand she had used to cover her charge's mouth.
"That's not exactly what I had in mind when I told you to quiet her," Warlock said disapprovingly.
"I won't enter her mind again without permission."
Susan finally managed to catch her breath. "You won't enter my mind again at all if I still have a choice in the matter."
"How's the pain?" Winter asked her.
"Not quite as bad as a minute ago," Susan said. She wondered if she could manage to keep from vomiting for very much longer. She lifted a trembling hand to rub her forehead. "What's wrong with me?"
Winter looked to Warlock, and Susan realized that they had both expected this to happen to her.
"You've been kept," he said. "I had hoped it wouldn't activate this soon, but I should have been prepared for the most inconvenient timing imaginable."
"Kept?" Susan scowled up at him as they lowered her to the floor. "I hope this is not some reference to my personal life. I would resent the implication-"
"Relax," Winter said. "He could care less where you've made your bed. The only one-eyed creature he's worried about is the one that's wrapped around your neck. Its tentacles are burrowing deeper into your neural pathways as we speak."
"Seen anything dark, creepy, and skittering lately?" Warlock asked her.
Susan stared at him. "Shit."
He took that as confirmation. "Keeper," he said to Winter. "I can get it, but you have to hold her mind."
Winter immediately crouched next to Susan and put a hand to either side of her head. However, when their eyes met, she hesitated in going any further.
"You understand what I have to do?" she asked Susan.
"I will block you."
"If you block her," Warlock said, "I will kill you."
"Then you will have gone to a lot of work for nothing," Susan informed him.
He conjured an orb and held it out towards her, the bluish-grey of its edges hovering a few millimeters above his hand. "Do you see that?" he asked her, nodding toward the purple-black creature reflected in the interior of the orb. The creature clung to Susan's neck, the black eye in its center staring out at them, emotionless and unblinking. "I need to remove it from you. In order to do that, I must perform a partial flaying. I can do this without killing you, but only if you do not fight me."
"It's my job to make sure you don't do that," Winter said, brushing some of Susan's hair behind her ear. Her voice had gentled to match the delicate quality of her touch. "I need to calm your mind, hold you still."
"You're being inside my head is hardly likely to have a calming effect."
Using two fingers, Winter tilted Susan's chin up, ensuring they were eye-to-eye. "I've already been inside your mind once. I already know you're a telepath. We don't have much time, so I need an answer: is keeping me out worth your life?"
Susan held the other woman's gaze, hoping she would back down. She didn't.
"I should warn you," Warlock said, "the pain you are already feeling will worsen as the creature continues to extend itself into your brain. I really should remove it sooner rather than later."
"Alright," Susan said quietly. She closed her eyes, unable to look at Winter as she gave her permission. "Do it as quickly as possible."
She felt it when Winter's mind surged against her own, her invasion barely slowed by the mental blocks Susan still had in place.
"I'm inside," Winter murmured. "Give me another second or two, Lock, and then you should be able to proceed."
Susan's hands clenched and tried to find some sort of purchase on the floor. She could feel a blanket descending on her mind, dampening not only her thoughts, but also the few of Winter's she had just seen, the ones which had scattered through Susan's mind as Winter collided with Susan's blocks during her entrance.
Susan hadn't realized that her new colleague blamed herself for this necessity, but even as the thought faded from her mind, she knew it didn't lie.
She tried to grab onto her next thought, hold it, but all her efforts netted her was an empty expanse of black silence.
((She stood up, alone, in her mind. Darkness still surrounded her, but now it was broken by a number of tiny, bright pin-pricks.
Stars. Sky. Night. The realizations came, almost without thought, and she knew it must be the case that her mind still belonged to another. Speaking of which…
She turned, looking for her captor. There. In front of the shining twist of blue that extended out from the platform on which Susan stood.
Winter's dress matched the color of that blue ribbon, and Susan knew she would be indistinguishable from that upwards, winding stretch of energy, the entrance of which she guarded, had it not been for her fall of white-blonde hair, a shining contrast to that which surrounded her, a halo in this dark place.
"I'm going to show you a path," Winter said. "Follow me."
Dimly, distantly, Susan thought she felt a pressing sort of pain, but it was not so severe as to interfere with her ability to join Winter on the edge of the platform.))
Warlock worked methodically, despite knowing he had very little time in which to accomplish this removal. He had already enveloped the left side of Nova's body in the energy from his tech, shrinking the sphere of its influence to include only the portion of her that had been kept. Slowly, slowly, he manipulated small tendrils of power, wrapping them around the limbs of the creature and beginning to pry the cords out from underneath her skin. Her body twitched as blood began to flow, but Winter's grip held and the precision of the removal remained uncompromised.
((The minute that Winter stepped out onto the path, she vanished, and Susan cried out. Her worry lasted only until she looked downward and saw a pulsing in the blue energy at the edge of her feet. Somehow, the pattern seemed to be beckoning her, and she accepted the invitation.
One step, two, and then she slipped downwards. Energy and blue light swirled up around her – through her – and she didn't think she had ever felt this alive. She heard laughter all around her, the sound magnified by a current that appeared to run in every direction at the same time. Up ahead of her, she could see Winter again, the edges of her form blurry from the eddies of power that slipped around her.
"Good," she said, smiling at Susan. "You made the connection." She turned and slid herself into a darker pool of blue. "Now, come on!"
Susan barely had time to register what Winter wanted her to do before the other woman had zipped up the light-path; one twist and a corkscrew and she was out of sight again. Susan hurried to catch up, focusing her mind and easing into the nearest dark-blue pool. The gentle glow of energy flared into a warmth, and then she felt the pull and the vibration of being on the move. Up she went, the path cradling her, a flood that turned into climb. The view, it was incredible, stars and she couldn't even say what else passing by to either side of the glowing walls of blue.
She wanted to catch up with Winter and decided it would be a good time to test the limits of her control. Faster, she thought, and indeed, the energy around her responded in the manner she had hoped it would. She shot ahead, her speed only decreasing when she came upon her target. Winter sensed her approach and turned to smile at her.
"I knew you'd like it," Winter said. "We always do."
Susan opened her mouth to ask a question, but closed it quickly as she saw motion outside the path. Black-on-black, darker-than-dark—and she couldn't believe her own fear. When had this managed to enter her mind?
"Just focus on the path," Winter said, and Susan didn't like the sound of the concern in her voice. "Whatever you do, stay on the path."
Dark tendrils of energy wrapped around the bluish glow surrounding them. Susan tried not to watch, tried to focus straight ahead, hoped for a destination, but she couldn't help but notice that the darkness was making inroads. The different energies crackled as they came into contact with each other, the bright and dark out of phase with one another, fading as they entwined. Gaps started to appear in the wall around them.))
He was almost done. Blood ran freely down the side of Nova's head and neck, and Warlock knew he would have to find something to staunch it very soon. Thankfully for all of them, the creature had started to let go, something they almost always did when their lives were threatened and they were still young. Even at this tender age, the grip it had on Nova's mind was too great to forcibly sever the connections it had made in her brain.
What he could do – and had done – was to peel away every other limb it had extended within her. This process had hurt Nova's body, yes, but it had done even more damage to the Keeper. Young, scared, injured, it was starting to withdraw from her mind of its own violation, hoping that if it got out quickly it could run—could live.
Warlock had no intention of allowing this, but he still had to respect the creature's will to live, even if its first action if it succeeded would be to report their position back to its master. He hid the ball of energy he was holding for the killing blow and waited, hoping that this would be over in a matter of seconds. There was nothing else he could do now other than wait, which he hated. He knew that this was the most dangerous moment for Nova, as the creature unwound itself from her mind, trailing spite and snapped connections as it fled. Relying on others had never been his strong suit, but he had faith in Winter, faith that she could provide some small amount of comfort and support as Nova rode out the pain.
And the minute he had the chance, he'd loose the killing blow.
((The flickering of the path continued to worsen, and the strobe-light effect of the battle raging around them had started to cause Susan great pain.
"Almost there," Winter called back. "Stay with me."
Susan narrowed her focus to include only the woman in front of her and the most solid section of the path still carrying them. As her concentration deepened, it seemed to have an effect on their environment, the light-path brightening to an incredible, burnished blue. She heard a scream of pain, and it did not come from inside the path. Their speed increased, and a moment later they had reached their destination.
She sighed when she slipped from the path to the ground. She missed the comforting glow of the path already, but boy, did solid ground feel amazing to her right now. She glanced around at the crevassed terrain of the planet, surprised to realize that she knew where they stood.
"Why are we here?" she asked Winter.
Winter might have answered her question, but if she did her response was lost in the boom that shook not only the planet, but the entire universe around them.))
"Got it," Warlock said. "You alright?"
Susan heard Winter groan, but she couldn't seem to open her eyes. She hurt everywhere and it seemed like the left side of her body had been dipped in a warm, burning liquid.
"I'll be fine," Winter said, "but that was a lot closer than I would have preferred. I hadn't realized-" her breath caught. "Oh, shit, she's really bleeding."
"I know. Would you do the honors? I need to finish dissecting this, before any information it carries is beyond retrieval."
Winter shivered then, and Susan forced her eyes open, wondering if she could provide some type of aid. The sight that met her gaze wasn't pretty; Warlock sat on the floor, carefully directing streams of energy into what remained of the creature's lifeless body. He had conjured an orb around it and as he rotated it in different directions, Susan could see why: the precaution would save a lot of clean-up later.
"What is that thing?" she asked.
Winter stripped off her jacket and pressed it against Susan's wounds. "Shadow tech. We'll talk about it later."
Susan hissed in a breath as the pressure against her neck increased. She would have one very interesting exit wound when this was all over. Her eyes widened as the contents of Warlock's orb went up in flame.
"What little it carried is now mine," he said, wiping his hands down the front of his robe. "Not much in the way of information, but in this system all knowledge is worth having. I'd never interfaced with one of them before."
"I suppose I'll hear about that later as well." Susan struggled to sit up.
"Sounds about right," Warlock agreed.
"As thankful as I am that you just saved my life," Susan said, "I must admit that I'm beginning to tire of unfulfilled explanations."
"I…" Winter paused, listening, then helped Susan to her feet. "We're almost at the planet, so this really will have to wait."
Susan didn't know how they could already be at a planet; the only planet in the area close enough to be reached this quickly was…
"We're going to try and land on Epsilon 3?" she asked. "And here I thought you wanted to live. Anyone approaching Epsilon 3 will be-"
Explosions to either side of them rocked the transport.
"-shot down," she finished. She braced herself, but apparently no shots were going to follow the ones that had just taken down their pursuers.
"You're mostly correct," Winter said. "We're just the only exception to that rule."
Susan thought she would be surprised, if only she had the energy.
When they landed, she managed to exit the ship without accepting any of the helping hands offered, though she wondered if her pride was worth the extra effort. She might need to move quickly again soon and falling on her face would help no one.
Her pain notwithstanding, she couldn't help but be excited to finally get to walk around on Epsilon 3. She had been curious about the place ever since-
She felt her jaw drop.
-ever since Commander Sinclair had visited it last year. The same Commander Sinclair who stood in front of her now, smiling that gentle smile of his.
"Jeff?" she asked, wondering if this had been a dream all this time, after all.
"It's really me, Susan," he said. "Though I go by a different name these days."
"Valen," she said, a guess that was not a guess, another connection that drew this whole bizarre drama together. "I think I need to sit down."
"I think that sounds like a very good idea," Winter said, helping her to the ground and motioning for everyone else to join them.
Chapter 3: Rock is Dead
"What is all this?" Susan asked Sinclair. "I don't know why I'm here, I don't know what's going on—hell, I don't even know what to call you anymore. And generally-"
"You're one of those people who knows what's going on around them? Yes. And you still are, really. You just don't have all the facts."
"I'll say. I thought you were on Minbar."
"You thought correctly," Sinclair said. He gestured to his clothing, which consisted of an assortment of Minbari robes overlaid with a thick cloak. A broach lay partially hidden in the folds of the cloak, and Susan couldn't place where she had seen the delicately wrought silver figures that framed the green-colored stone that formed its center. "Minbar is where I received this attire and my new name."
"Valen," Susan said flatly.
Sinclair smiled again, and nodded. "To answer your earlier question," he said, "you may call me whatever you want."
Susan shifted uncomfortably. She wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt, she really did, but his equanimity coupled with the claims he was making unnerved her. "Did you take the name for political purposes?"
"You can't seriously believe that you are, what? A reincarnation of their great leader? You're not even Minbari."
Lennier spoke then. "My people believe that when we die, our souls are reborn into the next generation of Minbari. Much to our consternation, in recent years we had noticed that some of our souls did not seem to be returning and we were made less by their loss. During the Earth-Minbari war, we appeared to discover the reason why these souls had not been discovered among our own people—they were being born into yours."
"So you're saying that the Minbari believe that he is actually Valen?" Susan wondered when she'd wake up from this dream—and if she could somehow trigger the process.
"All of them? Even Delenn?"
"Enough of them." He exchanged an amused look with Sinclair. "And Delenn, most certainly."
"How did they figure this out?" Susan asked. "I mean, he lived so long ago…"
"It's a long story, probably best shared at a later time," Sinclair said. "We can't stay here much longer."
"We just wanted to ensure that you understood the connection," Lennier said, "and convince you that he is not, as you say, having 'delusions of grandeur'".
"I wouldn't mention 'delusions' if I were you, Monk," Winter said. The edges of a smile gave Susan an idea of how the comment was meant to be taken.
"Hey," Susan said, "at this point, if I am crazy, I'm just glad I've imagined myself some company."
"And if it were up to your imaginings," Warlock said, arching an eyebrow, "this is the best you could do? I suppose we should be flattered."
"You might try supposing-"
"I said you were right about many things," Sinclair interrupted. He caught the full force of Susan's glare for his efforts, but it hardly seemed to bother him any more than it had back when he was her commanding officer. "You've sensed that the universe around you is broken in some way you can't quite describe. You see it most clearly with the Corps-"
"But it's not just them," she said. "They were just the clearest sign of a telepath problem that has been ignored for too long. A problem that should be clear to anyone who even looks in that direction-"
"-and yet all the signs are being ignored?" Sinclair asked. At her nod, he continued, "It's not the only problem that's obvious once you've seen it. The Corps is just the most relevant sign for you, as it was for Winter and…others you'll soon meet. For Monk," he gestured towards the Minbari Susan had known for the past several years as Lennier, "it was the sudden failing of leadership – of rebirth – among the Minbari."
"What about you?" Susan asked, turning towards Warlock.
In response to her question, he conjured a murky orb in which she could see nothing. "My tech started casting shadows," he said as he stared into the nothing he held. It disappeared as suddenly as it had sprung into existence, leaving Susan with little more idea of what he meant than she would have had if he had said nothing at all.
"It's all connected," Sinclair said. "And it's all part of the same problem you're having—and right now you cannot see the whole story, even if we were to tell it to you."
"I'd settle for having one or two of my questions answered with more than a request for further patience," Susan said.
"Do you believe in fate, Susan?" Sinclair asked.
"No, I don't. And that's another question in response to my own, not an answer."
"True. But I ask that you allow me a few more." He moved towards her and put his hands on her shoulders. "Do you believe in me? Do you trust me?" He asked the question with the same quiet confidence he had always evidenced when he sought her opinion as her CO – and her friend – back on Babylon 5.
She looked up into his face and shook her head. "Even after all this, I'll be damned if I still do. Though it hardly seems fair to hold it against me, Jeff."
"I'm not holding it against you." He smiled at her. "It will just make the process easier." When he stepped back from her, the entire group around Susan rose as one and started walking down the corridor. "Come with us," Sinclair said to her. "And I'll show you the truth about the Corps and the world we live in. Come with us," he let out a breath as she nodded, before finishing his statement, "And I'll show you the Great Machine."
"Ah! I see you brought another conductor to our little drama." The Minbari smiled as he stepped from the metal confines of the machine that had captured Susan's attention the moment she walked in the room. Between the great metal frame, the wires, and all the attendant beeps and hums, she wondered how she even managed to pay attention to his words at all. In any other circumstances, his deep voice, softened by genuine curiosity, would have made any situation seem less dire, but she couldn't shake the unease that the first glimpse of the machine had awakened within her.
"Conductor?" she asked.
"The minute I plug you in," he said, nodding towards the person-shaped opening in the machine he had just vacated, "you'll be one. The amount of energy you'll be channeling, well it's-"
"No more than she can handle." A slim, red-headed woman stepped out from behind one of the silver arms of the machine. She was dressed in the same leather get-up as Winter—pants, jacket, the whole number. Susan had to wonder about the type of organization she was considering joining; whether the outfits came standard issue or were a new trend amongst telepaths that she had missed. Having worked with more than one rebel teep group, she thought not. Generally, the rogues liked to avoid attracting attention.
"I was certainly not going to voice doubt over her abilities." The Minbari sounded scandalized at the accusation. "I merely wanted to let her know that once plugged-in, she would experience a sudden surge in energy."
"Whatever. It's more accurate to say that you're disconnecting her, anyways. I don't know why you always feel the need to confuse the issue." She turned to Susan. "It's nice to finally put a person to your voice, Nova. I'm called Alex, though I'm sure you've already recognized my voice."
"Been doing that a lot today," Susan said, glancing at Winter.
"I'll bet," Alex replied. If she put any real sympathy behind the words, it was too subtle for Susan to be able to pick up on it.
"I know your real name too," Susan said. "All the vids of you during your brief tenure on B5 were locked, but I managed to pull your file. You're Lyta Alexander. You left the station after you scanned Kosh."
"I left a lot more than Babylon 5 after I scanned a Vorlon," Alex replied. She waved off Susan's questioning look. "You'll understand what I mean in a few minutes."
"Doc's not here?" Sinclair asked, finally breaking into the conversation.
"No, we left him back in White Star to prep for Nova's arrival," Alex said. "Oz thought that if there were any negative effects from the escape, she would have a harder time dealing with them unplugged."
"Who's Oz?" Susan asked, unnecessarily as it turned out, as the middle aged Minbari in front of her had already started to defend himself.
"She's doing just fine. But those wounds will seem worse once we shock her system."
"As if I'm not shocked now," Susan said. "I never thought I'd see a Minbari named for a character in a human children's story book."
"I like your books about wizards! That's the name I wanted, actually," Oz said. "Wizard." His tone became long-suffering. "But far be it from me, to encroach on the territory of another."
"Your voice encroaches on my territory," Warlock said, not even looking up from the newly-conjured orb he was studying.
"Well, nobody's perfect." Oz winked at Susan. "You're seeing the men behind the curtain. We're much more impressive when we're done up in our machines. It's almost…magical."
That did make Warlock look up from his project. "We're both charlatans, you and I. None of what we do is magic."
"A most pessimistic point of view."
"I would instead call it a most realistic point of view," Lennier's voice echoed from below the machine, and Susan started. She hadn't even noticed him move into the crawl space. "I still don't understand how you can remain so emotionally attached to this tech."
"Spend a full cycle here, with my view." Oz's hands swept outwards, though the grandness of the gesture was somewhat ruined by the fact that all that surrounded their group and the machine was crumbling rock. "You couldn't fail to understand."
"I might understand how to operate it," Lennier responded. "But as for-"
"Enough," Sinclair said. "It's a necessary piece of equipment, and it's time to use it." He nodded at Oz, who moved back over to opening in the machine and started making adjustments.
"We'll find our stations," Alex said to Sinclair. "Does she need a stabilizer?"
"Are you kidding?" Oz asked, his smile huge as he stepped back to survey his work. "This is going to be fun! Her brainwaves were off the charts earlier today. In all my time as gatekeeper, I have yet to see anything like it."
"You took her for a ride didn't you?" Alex asked Winter, as the two of them walked to adjacent terminals to the left of the machine. She took Winter's silence as assent. "Yeah, I thought you wouldn't be able to resist. How did she do?"
The question seemed eager – too eager – and Susan heard everyone around her inhale sharply.
"She did fine," Winter said quietly. "Valen, I assume we are ready?"
Sinclair looked over at Susan. "Are you ready to see how far down this all goes?"
Susan found herself unable to do more than nod, but apparently he didn't expect anything more. He didn't lead, but walked with her over to where Oz waited. Once her integration into the machine began, he left her to give instructions to the others, all scattered at different stations throughout the room. She had no clue what any of them did, or, possibly more importantly, what any of the nodes, sensors, or clamps being put on her did either.
"Don't worry," Oz said when he caught sight of her frown. "The interfering signal's been weak all day. It should be an easy transition out."
"Out of where?" Susan asked. She wondered if something attached to her had started to pump her body full of drugs, because she suddenly felt herself at a distance from her surroundings, the effect similar to sleepiness, to dreaminess, but a whole lot more. She gasped as the world fell away from her and she found herself slipping into another bluish light-path, vaster and more far-reaching than anything she had ever conceived.
You're not in Kansas anymore, Dorothy," Oz said. His voice whispered and began to fade as she slipped into the light surrounding her. "Just follow the yellow brick road."
((For a long time she couldn't do more than follow. It was more terrifying – more exhilarating – than the trip she had taken before. Here she moved so quickly that she couldn't even experience her progress as more than the awareness that she must be moving. Else why did nothing around her ever look the same?
But then she looked up and saw the deepest of colors—the richest of tones. It spoke to her, and the sound was-
She forced herself upwards, willing the movement, willing her progress, even when it seemed her skeleton would rip from her skin. The path around her concussed, and for a moment her existence inverted, her consciousness tied up in the power surrounding her, her body a separate entity.
"A normal human mind should not be able to do this." She heard the words, felt them throughout the whole of her existence, before a force shoved her back inside her body. Too tired, too removed, to struggle any longer, she let the path carry her forwards. As she moved towards its destination, everything around her started to fade.
A normal human mind shouldn't be able to do this.
The single thought she could hold amidst a light cloud of fading blue.
A normal human mind shouldn't be able to do this.
A normal human mind shouldn't be able-
A normal human mind-
Susan Ivanova's universe went black.))
When she opened her eyes, the world seemed a blurry, new-made thing. As her vision cleared, she realized she was being carried across a bridge…and the ground was really, really far below them. She forced herself to take in the view; though she wasn't sure if she ever wanted to accept what surrounded her. Some type of ancient ruins had been built into the walls that edged the chasm the bridge crossed—and wedged every which way into the remnants of a forgotten civilization were cryo-storage units.
And she was pretty sure they were full. Which meant that unconscious people numbering somewhere in the millions surrounded her; and if the number of cords which snaked out of the units were any indication, they were not being left to rest peacefully.
Movement across the chasm caught her attention, and she realized that elevators moved up and down between the units. She watched as one slowed, then paused. A moment later one of the units went dark, and then something fell, silently, into the pit below them.
She felt a hand brushing her cheek and looked up into Jeff's sorrowful gaze.
"What is this place?" she asked, her voice an almost inaudible rasp.
"Welcome to the real world, old friend." His smile seemed to her as ancient as the ruins surrounding them. "Sleep now," he said. "We'll talk after you've been acclimated."
They stood side-by-side, staring down at the unconscious figure on the table in front of them. It had become a routine for them—meeting here once a day for the last week. Usually, they didn't speak; but today, the day before she was scheduled to be awakened, conversation seemed unavoidable.
"Did you learn anything about her, while you were in her mind?"
"I tried not to look around too much."
"You spent at least an hour in there, on the shuttle."
"Fine," she said, after a lengthy pause. "But basic information only, alright?
"I'd hardly expect you to betray any of your confidences."
"She performed a path exercise without being unplugged."
"Difficult, but not unheard of. You did the same."
"Jason Ironheart was far more connected than I will ever be. He helped me. He showed me the way."
"Ironheart was powerful, and losing him was the greatest setback our team has ever endured. But don't underestimate your connection."
"I don't. I just understand the limits of my abilities."
"I know you do. Thus, you should recognize that I was referring to more than your interface with the tech."
"Just as you should realize that, great leader or no, I will free-fall you the next time we plug in together if this conversation continues much longer."
"Then I shall look forward to having the chance to successfully evade your attack."
Winter eyed him, then laughed. "Are you ever going to wake up from that dream, Valen?"
He looked up from his contemplation of the woman lying on the table. "You can hardly blame me from holding onto the impossible," he said, and walked away before Winter could respond.
The moment Susan woke up, she tried to get out of bed. Her first glance around the room had allowed her to believe herself alone, but the minute she knocked over a tray of instruments she was quickly disabused of that first impression of solitude.
"Easy now," a voice said, as warm, brown hands covered her own. She caught a glimpse of a green lab coat in front of her, and guessed the speaker to be some type of doctor. However, she kept looking at their hands rather than looking upwards to confirm; the healthiness of his skin tone contrasted so markedly with her own. When had her hands grown so pasty and wasted? She found herself distracted enough by the sight to allow him to help her back into bed without protesting.
"What's wrong with me?" she asked, finally looking up at him. "When will I be able to get up and move around?"
"There's nothing wrong with you, exactly," he said. "You've just never used those muscles before. I've accelerated the growth, but I would recommend you not push your luck." He smiled at her, a smile that reached his eyes. "In other words: take it easy for a few days."
She wanted to argue with him, she really did; obeying doctors' orders had always struck her as a general waste of time. But after only a few seconds of standing her legs had turned to jelly—not to the mention the fact that ever since she'd taken that first step out of bed her whole body had been quivering worse than newly-made flarn. She decided it might be better for her health to satisfy her curiosity in a manner that did not involve movement.
"Who are you?" she asked.
"Out there or in here?"
Susan glanced towards the door. "Is there a difference?"
"Yes, though not in the way you're thinking." He took in her puzzled frown and sighed. "My handle is Doc—you can start there."
Mr. Garibaldi would have a field day, she thought. What's up, Doc? But thinking of Garibaldi, of Zack and what had happened, was too painful to voice; so she limited herself to continuing with the polite introductions. "Nice to meet you." Her hand skimmed across her neck and shoulder as she realized something else. "And thank you for healing my wounds."
"Just doing my job." He sat down in a chair beside her bed, his gaze accessing. "What do you want me call you?"
"You're not just going to call me 'Nova' like everyone else?"
"No. I understand that some of us had stronger ties to our old lives than others. I'll call you whatever you want to be called."
"It would be better for her if she adapted quickly," Sinclair said, joining their conversation as he walked in the door. "And taking on a different identity will help with the process."
Susan discovered she had finally reached her limit on the censored and the cryptic. She turned back to the doctor. "Call me Susan," she told him firmly.
"Well, then it's nice to meet you, Susan." He pretended not to notice Sinclair's disapproving look as he gathered some of the print-outs strewn across the room. "I'll leave you two to your conversation." His voice turned hard as he addressed Sinclair. "Mind you don't strain her though—being unplugged is bad enough without being mangled first."
"That mangling, as you put it, saved her life."
"Oh, I know that Lock did the best he could, and she's strong, but there are limits as to how much regeneration can occur at once. If you don't want to put her right back in a coma, give it a day or two before beginning training."
"Oh, I think I can promise that much," Sinclair said lightly. "It will take me that long to explain all of this to her satisfaction." He looked over at Susan. "Would you like me to begin?"
At her nod, the Doc walked out of the room, and Sinclair began to relate to her what seemed like more nightmare – more story – than her own new reality.
Susan sat alone in the small quarters they had provided for her. Doc had okayed the move, as long as she didn't make it on her own, after she had told him that she would prefer to have some privacy to process all her newly acquired information.
So, this was the real world. The real universe. This post-apocalyptic cliché.
She ran a hand through the spiky-fuzz that comprised her hair. When asked, Doc had said that he was doing his best to accelerate its growth, but her other systems still required aid—and functionality always came before form. She understood; in fact, she couldn't wait for whatever training they had planned so that she could once again have control over herself and her movements. All she knew for certain was that she felt glad that the black jumpsuit they had given her covered most of her body. It helped her forget.
Too bad the metal wall behind her, cold against her back, did not. White Star. A pretty name for a clunky ship that constituted her new home. Although she had to admit, she didn't know if she would ever consider herself to have a home again.
"So the Earth-Minbari war never happened?" Susan asked Sinclair. "Is that what you're telling me?"
"Not at all. It just didn't happen the way you and I have been taught to believe."
"Did one side actually win?"
"I suppose you could say there was a winning side. It just wasn't either of the races that started the conflict."
"I don't understand."
"And I apologize in advance for having to take that from you."
Before her earlier conversation with Sinclair, if asked, Susan would have said that she always preferred knowledge rather than ignorance. That she always preferred the truth.
Now, she wasn't so sure.
"The Minbari were stronger than us," Sinclair said. "They still are. You know it, and it's a fact that stays true whether you're in there or out here. So we decided to use technology to overcome them."
"But isn't their technology more advanced than ours too?"
"It should have been. But we'd recently acquired a new type of AI."
"Acquired from where?"
"I don't know. Over the years, we've pieced together most of the events from our fall, but no one's been able to discover the origin of our tech."
"Considering I just escaped from a machine and the universe it created, I can guess what happened next," Susan said. "Did the AI even engage with the Minbari before it subsumed us?"
"It wasn't just our AI that did this," Sinclair said. "The Minbari doomed themselves to the same fate. You see, when their system detected our AI's hack, they responded with one of their own. Then it became a war of the machines—we were all of us organics cut out of the loop."
"Whose AI won?"
"Neither. And that is our greatest hope."
"Our greatest hope is that they keep battling, with us caught in the middle? You told me the machine is using human bodies as a power source."
"No, our greatest hope is that we can help the Minbari tech, Vortex, to help annihilate our tech. You see, Shadowtech is the AI platform that chose to enslave us all. Vortex tried to stop it; they are still trying to stop it. Vortex wants to co-exist with organics, not dominate them. We're working with it to try and bring down the system."
"How are we working with it?"
Sinclair's communicator beeped. "I'm going to have to take this—we'll finish tomorrow. But as to your last question…you've heard of the Ancient Ones, yes?"
"Yes. G'Kar used to talk about them. Something about 'giants in a playground'. It never made much sense to me."
"Well, that's what the AI poses as in our simulated reality. They battle there as two ancient races. Their names correspond to the tech they evolved from. There are the Shadows, who you've probably never seen," he held her gaze, "and then there is the other race."
"The Vorlons," Susan said, stunned. "Kosh."
"Exactly," he said. "But enough today. We'll talk about telepaths – and the Corps – tomorrow."
She thumped her head back against the wall. It hadn't escaped her notice that Sinclair hadn't provided her with a reason for her particular removal from the system. The way everyone she passed here kept looking at her, going silent around her—something was up.
Her door beeped.
"Enter," she said without thinking. She then remembered that access to quarters in this ship required manual confirmation. Slowly and more stiffly than she would have preferred, she moved to the keypad by the door.
Winter stood outside. "I brought you some dinner," she said, holding up the tray. When Susan made no move to take it, Winter moved forwards a step or two. "May I come inside?"
Without a word, Susan stepped back to let her pass.
"Would you like it here?" Winter asked. She stood beside the desk; it and the cot made up the entirety of the furnishings in the room.
"Sure." Susan considered Winter closely as she put down the tray. "Is there enough in there to share?" she asked, ignoring the surprised look she received in response.
"If you're not very hungry."
They pulled the cot up to the desk and sat side-by-side on it, as if it were a bench. Susan knew she should eat, even if she didn't feel hungry, but the removal of the tray cover in no way helped her appetite.
"What am I looking at?" she asked.
"The grey blocks are cut from the bricks of nutrient paste we always have on hand. It never goes bad, and it's surprisingly easy to manufacture. I can't vouch for the taste, but at least it does its job. Eat this for a week, and your muscles will thank you." Winter pointed to the small, red fruit. "And this is a rare treat. A couple months ago we found a small world the Minbari had once colonized—it had escaped the worst of the bombing. We took a few cuttings of some berry vines. Monk's been able to successfully transplant them to our small hydroponics garden. What you see here is from our first crop."
"I see." She studied the food a minute longer. "Thanks for explaining."
"No problem. Still want to share?"
Susan nodded, and the two of them began eating. Two paste blocks were all Susan could manage before nausea crept in. She leaned over and put her head between her knees. Hopefully, deep breaths would be enough to prevent vomiting; she knew she couldn't afford to lose calories right now.
She felt a tentative hand on her back. When she didn't protest, it started rubbing slow circles right below her neck.
"The first week is always the worst," Winter said quietly.
"It's all just words right now," Susan said. She couldn't believe how much easier it was to be honest when she had an excuse not to meet the other woman's eyes. "Even with this place, this food—I need something to make it real."
"Are you sure about that?"
"Fine. Try to stop me from entering your mind."
Susan did look up then. She also got up off the cot and moved across the room. "Why is your first response to every situation to try and jump into my mind? You know that even with my mental blocks up, I can't…" Her eyes widened. "What…I…" She closed her eyes and concentrated. When she opened them again, she was fighting overwhelming confusion. It was as close to feeling pure panic as she had come since reaching this place. "I don't have mental blocks. I can't even feel you."
"It's alright, Nova. I'm sorry, I didn't mean-"
"What did you do to me? Even for you, this type of invasion should be completely beyond acceptable."
"I didn't do anything. Like you, I can't do anything. We're not telepathic out here."
"What?" Susan whispered. "You mean what we are, what we do, it's all part of the machine?"
"I…" Winter looked away. "I shouldn't say anymore. Valen usually goes over all this with new recruits."
Susan wrapped her arms around herself and glared at her. "Explain it to me. Now."
"Look, I really am sorry," Winter began awkwardly, "but I shouldn't-"
"Winter, I just woke up to a new reality. I've been shot at, ripped up, mentally invaded. My body's weaker than it's been at any time since I went through puberty. I'm eating paste to survive, and almost no one on this damned ship will call me by my real name." She moved back over to where Winter sat and sank back down onto the cot. "And all of that, I could handle. But now you tell me I've lost part of my mind too."
"I thought you didn't even like that part."
"It wasn't my favorite part, but it was part of my identity. A part I received from my mother."
Winter sighed. "You're sort of right about that last part. It is genetic. It's just not…"
"We're anomalies. Anomalies created by the Vorlons."
"The Vorlons engineered telepaths?"
"Yes. They changed us. Made us able to better interface with the tech. We can go deeper than the normal human. Plugged in, we can jump from mind to mind. Unplug us, and we're even stronger."
"I thought we couldn't do anything out here."
"Right, pardon the terminology. Confusing as hell, I know. I mean, once we've been unplugged—so we know when we're plugged back in. An unplugged telepath who is re-introduced to the system can become a teek, among other things. We're able to exert a lot of control over our environment."
"That's why stable telekinetics are so rare then, generally? Only the unplugged are eligible for long-term admission?"
"Pretty much. Trying to force that type of connection on the unaware tends to interfere with their projected reality. It makes them unstable. The Shadows have tried—used the Corps for experiments. So far they've had very little success."
Susan smiled grimly. "The Shadows are responsible for the Corps? Seems appropriate."
"Doesn't it? Most of us telepaths sense it at some level. The darkness. The wrongness. Or at least we do as long as we don't progress too far into the Organization.
"What do they do with us?"
"Now? The Shadows recruit us. Used to be they'd hunt us down. They didn't approve of organics having any kind of control over their tech, even if it was unconscious. We could disrupt their signals, etc, etc. However, once they realized how much they could make the rest of humanity hate us, they decided to make use of us. Today they use us as bases for some of their mobile platforms."
Susan processed the new information for a minute. "We…hack…for them?" she finally tried.
"Sort of. You and I, we've always been able to read minds." Winter waved away Susan's objections. "We'll talk about your psi-level later. When we re-introduce you, after some training you should be able to jump from mind-to-mind and observe what others are seeing. If you're really good, you should be able to travel with multiple minds at once." At Susan's dubious look, Winter shrugged. "You'll see. We refer to it as going 'mind's eye'. It's pretty powerful stuff. But a Psi-Cop - a telepath who's been interfaced with a Shadow - they can not only dominate the minds of others, control them—they can literally take over the other person. They become them; the other consciousness is gone. And since we self-actualize, their form usually goes right along with the rest of them."
"Are they even human anymore? The Psi-Cops, I mean."
"Hard to say. Best we can tell, they're more code than anything else. So much Shadowtech has been injected into their minds, there's not room for much else. Certainly not emotions."
"We were in danger, when we were fleeing," Susan said. "That's why you had us focus our minds on that rhyme."
"Yes. They tried to D&D us—that's how we refer to their download and deletion protocol. Our focusing like that, it's a sort of firewall. It blocks the signal."
"But why would they bother to put that Keeper on me, if they were just going to delete me? Would they have used my shell to get close to Sinclair?"
"They would have tried, though they might have been in for a surprise." Winter's voice turned hard, "If they had managed to get into your mind, they probably wouldn't have deleted you. But that would have only been worse. Trust me on that. Whatever you are, you wouldn't have been ready to handle them."
Susan knew she must be gaping, but she couldn't help herself. This was closest anybody had come to telling her straight-out the reason for her presence here. "And what do you think I am?"
Winter shook her head. "No. I've already said more than I should. You want the rest, you talk to Valen tomorrow. This is his area of expertise."
"Fine," Susan said, her temper flaring. "I'd hate to put anyone else off their schedule."
Winter gathered up the tray without a word and stalked towards the door. She punched the keypad and took a few steps forward, then hesitated. She glanced over shoulder. "What do I think you are, really? I think you're a good addition to the team. That's all I know right now, and that's all I need to know."
"You do not customarily bring new recruits food," a voice said as Winter walked down the corridor outside Nova's room. "Is it because she might be different?"
Winter turned. "It's not really any of your business, but let's just say that I was there when her Keeper was removed, so I know it was not the gentlest of processes."
"You are aware that giving her special treatment will not help her integrate faster, yes?"
"Monk, I'm tired. Is there some deeper point you're trying to make?"
"You've been different since you talked to the Oracle. I know it is a…personal…experience, but I just wondered if you would mind-"
"I would mind." Winter rubbed her bare hands together. Even out here, she still sometimes felt self-conscious about her lack of gloves. "And you should know that."
Monk inclined his head. "I am sorry if my question offended."
"You didn't offend me, Monk. I don't think you're capable of offending me. Remember, I was part of the Corps."
"That was your old life. You are allowed to have higher expectations now."
"I would, but I hate being disappointed." She frowned and looked down the corridor. "And speaking of disappointment, aren't you keeping Pike waiting? I know he was looking forward to spending the evening with you."
"He told you that?"
"It's Pike. He told the whole room. I just happened to be there."
"I will go then," Monk said. The corners of his mouth hinted at an upward turn, and Winter found herself giving him a smile in response.
"Enjoy your evening," she said, watching him as he hurried down the hall.
The next morning Susan wasn't prepared for what she encountered when she stepped outside her quarters. She hadn't even had the energy to ask about her neighbors when Doc had dropped her off last night, but apparently today was the day for her education. In the doorway across from hers stood Alex. Although, perhaps 'stood' was not the appropriate verb considering the fact that one of her legs was wrapped around Warlock's waist. The two of them were so involved in each other, they didn't even notice Susan walk past; Susan tried to return the favor and ignore them, though Alex's low laughter and the warning beep of their door made it a harder task than she would have liked.
She had just made it to the end of the corridor, and was wondering whether or not she would be able to find the mess hall on her own, when Winter appeared.
"Morning, Nova," she said. "I'm here to lead you down for breakfast."
"You got here just in time," Susan said. "A couple minutes later and I would have embarked on the full tour. You might not have found me until dinner."
"If then. The layout of this place isn't particularly transparent. It's supposed to be a safeguard, if we're ever boarded. The machines expect logic—the idea is that inconsistency slows them down. Personally, I think it just makes it harder to run things around here."
Susan surprised herself by laughing. "Logic from the woman who thought the best plan of escape from Babylon 5 was a motorcycle chase?"
"That's me. Human inconsistency at it's finest."
"You're a true resistance fighter, then?"
"Ranger," Winter said. "We're called Rangers. It's a long story, I'll-"
"-tell me later," Susan finished. "How utterly unsurprising."
They entered one of the tubes that moved between decks and stood together silently as they dropped several levels.
"How are you doing?" Winter finally asked as they stepped out of the tube into a darkly lit corridor.
"Physically, fine. As for the rest…I still don't know. Is there anything else I should know about the crew? I got quite a surprise when I stepped out of my quarters this morning. It made me wonder what else I might not know about."
"You mean Alex and Lock? Yeah, they're not always the most discreet."
"I didn't even know they were a couple."
"They're not, really. They just spend the night together sometimes." Winter paused, then continued, her voice thoughtful. "The best I can tell, he lost someone he really cared for right before he came to us. Occasionally, when we're inside the system he let's his barriers slip, and I've seen-"
"I don't want to hear any information obtained that way!" Susan said. "Just tell me what any member of the crew who had been here a couple months would know."
"I was only going to say that I've seen her face. He's already told all of us that he joined our group to find the Shadow agent responsible for Isabelle's death and kill him. The rest doesn't take much of an intuitive leap." She put a hand on Susan's arm and stopped her. "I don't betray people's confidences," she said, not letting go until Susan nodded.
"Anything else I should know about?"
"Well, you already know Valen. Doc's a great guy, a trained xenobiologist. He knows everything about everything and doesn't mind questions. Oz pretty much stays inside the machine, so you won't be interacting with him much on the ship."
"Sounds like he pulled a hard duty."
"He volunteered to be gatekeeper. He's not afraid of the tech—I think he enjoys the connection. Not being a telepath, it's the best he's ever going to get without betraying us and going over to the other side." She laughed at the look on Susan's face. "Joke, Nova. Since you made one a minute ago, I thought you'd recognize it. My mistake."
Susan chose not to dignify the remark with a response. "Anything else I should know?"
Winter sighed. "The only other crew members are Monk, who you know, and Pike, who you don't. They're sort of...seeing each other. I mean, according to Pike, they definitely are. Monk's more reticent, but I don't think he'd mind me talking about it."
"And that's everyone?"
"That's everyone who's here right now."
"You realize I can see that dodge from a lightyear away?"
"I thought I'd make it easy on you, what with you just recently being separated from your telepathic abilities."
"Be honest with me," Susan said, turning to hold Winter's gaze. "Will you ever answer my questions without hedging, or is this what I have to look forward to for the rest of my time here?"
Winter stopped walking; when she spoke in response, her voice was steady. "As soon as I begin your training, you can ask me any question you want, and I'll respond as honestly as I'm able. I can't guarantee that my knowledge is complete, but I won't hold anything back." She held herself still, open to Susan's assessment of her. "No more dodges."
"I'll hold you to that." Susan offered her a small smile. "Though I hardly needed more reasons to want to move past the talking and into the training."
"Yeah, we'll see what you say after a few path-runs. You might decide the bribery wasn't so bad after all."
The mess hall wasn't so different from what Susan was used to--at least if she didn't look at the food too closely.
"I know it's terrible, isn't it?" She turned to find a man sitting down to her left. He had dark hair about the length her own had been before her transition, dark eyes, and a winning smile. She guessed he pretty well knew the effect of that smile.
"Excuse me?" she asked.
"I'm assuming your glum face is over what's on your plate. I might not get real food much," he said, helping himself to a few blocks of paste, "but what little I've had tells me that most of it is better than this."
"How is it that you've had so little experience with food?"
"Nova, meet Pike." Winter said. "He's natural born." She handed Susan a cup of water and sat across from them. "One of the happy few conceived outside the machine."
Susan found she didn't know quite what to say. "Congratulations?" she tried. Now that she looked at him, she realized that when he moved his head she didn't see the distinctive gleams of metal that indicated a tech interface. "I hadn't even thought to wonder..." She cleared her throat. "I mean, I hadn't realized people had been outside the machine long enough to..."
"Apparently, it doesn't take very long," he informed her. "But yes, it's true." He tilted his head to one side and flashed her another smile. "I'm a real boy." His expression sobered. "Though it's not as exciting as you think."
"Yes, not having to undergo the disconnect process must be torture," Winter said.
At Susan's baleful look, he held up his hands. "Wait, yes, it's true. I've never had to deal with the tech. Which means," he stabbed another grey cube with his fork and lifted it for their inspection, "I've never had the chance to eat many decent meals. I've never gotten to walk around on Earth—not even a fake one. And I've never gotten to see one of the Ancient Ones." He eyed his fork thoughtfully. "You know, sometimes I think I would trade it all in for a glimpse of a Vorlon-"
"Don't even finish that thought," Doc said as he walked into the room. "There are few enough of us as it is, without you surrendering yourself back into the machines."
"You know he speaks only in jest," Lennier said, joining their table. "You're simply worried about losing your favorite research subject."
"Monk!" Pike turned to Susan. "Isn't it sweet, the way he defends my honor?"
"I-" Susan found herself briefly distracted as Alex and Warlock entered the room several paces apart from each other, as though they hadn't spent the morning together. "I suppose so?"
"Hey," Doc said. "I've done the same tests and blood-work on Pike as I've done on everyone else. The only difference in his treatment are the extra scanning procedures he allows me to perform. How else am I ever going to see a non-wired human brain?"
"He did scans twice last week alone," Pike informed the group. He glanced over at Lennier, his face studiously innocent. "Monk, I know how you always talk about the Minbari having a higher, purer, form of love, but I have to tell you," he gestured towards the doctor, "this man loves me solely for my mind."
"For who could resist such a temptation?" Warlock asked sarcastically.
Pike nudged Susan. "Now who's got a case of Pikal envy?"
Alex laughed. "As if he'd ever have cause to be envious." She shared an amused look with Winter, and Susan knew that if they'd been in the system right now, the two of them would be trading a series of thoughts that didn't bear repeating.
"Oh, are we talking about our relationships now?" Pike asked. "In that case-"
"It's probably time we moved on to more noteworthy topics," Sinclair finished for him. He stood outside the doorway and made no move to enter the room. "Are you ready?" he asked Susan.
"Yes," she said, immediately moving to join him. She wanted this over with.
"Winter, be on call," Sinclair said. "We'll need you later. You too, Alex."
The two telepaths looked at each other. "We hadn't expected any less," Winter finally said. "You'll let us know..."
"I will," he said firmly. He waited until he and Susan were part-way down the hallway before speaking again. "I'd like to thank you, Susan, for your patience. This has been a very trying time; it's taken longer than usual to give you all the information you need to know."
"Winter told me the truth about my telepathy last night," Susan said, hoping that he wouldn't make an issue of it.
"Good," he said. "That will save us a lot of time today."
How much more can he possibly have to say? Susan wondered as they continued down the over-long hallway to a destination still unknown to her.
"One consequence of spending so much time among the Minbari is that rebirth is a much easier concept to wrap your head around," Sinclair said.
Susan was still trying to wrap her head around the room in which she was sitting. A bunch of reclined, metal-framed chairs surrounded her; from the way they all interfaced to a central hub in the middle of the room, she felt certain this is where she would eventually re-enter the system. The fact that Oz lay in one of them, his eyes closed, but his brainwave patterns projected for anyone that wanted to look, only provided bonus confirmation.
"Are we speaking about your rebirth?" Susan asked Sinclair.
"In a manner of speaking. You see, I'm only part of the Minbari cycle."
"Is this a cycle that exists in or out of the machine?"
"We're fairly certain that the Minbari believed in the rebirth of souls long before their integration into the machine. All I know is that their pre-existing worldview helped them accept what I'm about to tell you in a way that is not common for humans."
"Jeff, you've convinced me that the world I grew up in is a construct. Getting me to believe that you're a reborn soul shouldn't be that much of a challenge anymore."
"I'm not the problem." He shifted back to lean against one of the reclining chairs, and for the first time Susan noticed the extra grey that peppered his hair out here, away from the machine. His eyes looked more tired than she remembered, too. In fact, the only thing that made her absolutely sure that man in front of her could not be an impostor was the unnatural aura of calm he projected. She'd never understood how he managed that.
"Am I the problem?" she asked.
He didn't answer her directly. "In the last battle with the Shadows, I - or at least some version of me - was the leader of the Minbari. But I was hardly the most important player in that conflict. You see-"
"Wait," Susan said. "That battle would have happened before the Earth-Minbari war. Wasn't that war what got us into this mess in the first place?"
"We've been in the machine a lot longer than ten years, Susan." He paused as she steadied herself. "I'm sorry, I thought you knew that."
"I did," she murmured. "I guess I just hadn't processed it."
"It's a lot, I know. Do you need a minute?"
"No. Go on."
"The AIs wanted to write themselves into our history, so that they could act without the need for constant secrecy. But they decided to re-evolve us in a way that would allow us to keep most of the preconceptions we had in our old 'real' world--they wanted to make sure we would accept their reality."
"But they hadn't counted on disagreeing on what to do with us."
"Yes. You see. Almost immediately after the Great Machine went live, the AIs began fighting. This led to a war between the Vorlons and the Shadows; a war in which those of us who were aware - mostly Minbari - sided with the Vorlons."
His laughter was bitter. "It goes down in Minbari history as a win. The Vorlons helped them, protected them enough that they managed to establish and maintain a base outside the machine. What's left out of that version of history is that we almost managed to escape the machine entirely. You see, there was another leader besides me. A human who had been born able to access the source code of the system. We call this human the One. We think the One even had the power to modify it, though that's strictly conjecture."
"Wasn't there an attempt made?"
"It never got that far. In order to modify the source code, you have to access the Core. It's the central processing unit for the entire machine."
"Why don't the Vorlons just access it and get us the hell out?"
"Because they don't have access. Neither of the creators of our prison can enter it. If either a Shadow or a Vorlon enters the Core, they will be wiped from the system. It means they can't access the source directly, they can only modify the edges. The Core was created that way on purpose, back when the system was built, to be unmodifiable by either side's AI. It was supposed to promote unity within the system."
Susan was starting to get excited. "But the consequence is that if a human - or a Minbari - is able to understand and use the source code, they can go into the Core and instigate a re-program of the system." She paused. "Why are we not locked out again?"
"We're their power source. I think they were worried about some type of power instability if we were completely cut off. I'm also not sure it occurred to them that we would ever be the type of threat that required a lock-out."
"So, why didn't the human get the job done?"
"Whatever your capabilities, if you die before you enter the Core..." Sinclair shook his head. "The Shadows recognized what were trying to do and surrounded all the access points. We never even made it inside."
"But now you think this person - this One - has been reborn."
Susan Ivanova wasn't slow. She realized he had been telling her all this for a reason. She'd recognized the fact that she had been receiving a lot of odd looks and even odder comments since she'd escaped from Babylon 5. But the conclusion she had to draw from everyone's behavior still didn't make any more sense. "And you think I'm the One?"
A voice spoke from behind her. "Well, apparently it's either you or me. I hope you don't mind if my vote is for you--I feel I might be missing a necessary genetic link."
For what she hoped would be the last time in a long time, Susan could identify the mystery speaker based off voice alone.
"Sheridan," she said, turning. She felt no surprise when a glimpse of her Captain's face proved her correct.
"Call me John, Susan," Sheridan said. "We're going to be seeing a lot of each other, all of it outside the chain of command."
Susan had put off thinking about the results of her escape. Mostly because she already knew the outcome. "I don't have my post anymore, do I?"
"There's a lot going on right now, so it's not official--but that's the only plausible outcome of your escape. At the very least, Bester's reported you as a rogue telepath to Earthforce."
"My greatest fear." Susan shook her head. "It all seems rather inconsequential right now."
"We must finish this quickly," Sinclair said. "John needs to get back to Babylon 5."
"They don't know you're unplugged?" Susan asked John.
"No. And Kosh doesn't want anyone to suspect, so my visits out here are brief by necessity."
"So Kosh thinks you're this One?" At his nod, she turned back to Sinclair. "If a Vorlon believes he's our guy, why are we even having this conversation?"
"The Oracle thinks otherwise," John said.
"Correction," Sinclair said. "The Oracle is unsure."
Susan wanted to ask a hundred questions about the identity of an entity who's opinion could trump a Vorlon's, but settled for simply questioning the uncertainty. "What happened? Did some stars get crossed?"
"No, telepaths got introduced," John said. "You got introduced."
"The introduction of telepaths resulted in certain unexpected instabilities in the system," Sinclair said. "They apparently even affected Oracle, a program which should have been immune to modifications. No one was surprised when Oracle's prophecy about the One's return coincided with the beginning of the Earth-Minbari war--the same war that had caused the system's initial creation. The same war we were pre-destined to have again from the moment we were plugged in to the machine. However, when the Oracle couldn't identify our target at the war's conclusion..."
"Hey, if there's been any evolution at all," John said. "Susan's it."
"I'm assuming you say that because of my telepathy," she said. "But if you're looking for a telepath, it's not like I'm a great pick. I'm only a P1."
"Your classification hardly defines who you are," Sinclair said. "But either way: my job is to find and train the One. So, for the time being, my job is to train both of you. I will not be your only instructor, of course. John has Kosh, who is teaching him system interface in way I will never understand." He turned to Susan. "Kosh has expressed an interest in training you, eventually. But both he and I thought you should begin with human telepaths, as you're capable of their type of interface. Once you've gone as deep as they can take you, training with a Vorlon can only get easier."
"I'm not going to say I understand," Susan said. "But let's start this anyways."
Sinclair walked over to the central hub as John helped her get set up in one of the metal chairs. It was cold and wretchedly uncomfortable; she couldn't imagine how much worse it would feel once she was hooked in.
"Do you have an alias?" she asked John, trying to distract herself.
"No, I didn't have one when I was pulled out, and Kosh told me not to create one. 'For the future,' he said."
"I envy you."
"I actually envy you. The reason why everyone on this crew is so insistent on using their aliases is that they are names separate from the system. Names they created in defiance of the machine. I would like to have that."
"My mother gave me this name," Susan said; but for the first time, she found herself relating a bit more to the crew's refusal to call her by her own preferred name. Even if they were being wrong-headed - what were they fighting for, if not for the right to name themselves? - she could understand the need for defiance.
Although, she found herself still wondering if that explanation truly fit. If they wanted to distance themselves from the names bestowed upon them in the machine, then why did so many of them have aliases that were so close to those very names? The telepaths in particular-
"I understand," John said. "But for them, your alias is further proof that-"
"We should be ready to fight," Sinclair interrupted. "And in that vein, do either of you mind if Monk comes in here to help me with the tech?"
"No," Susan said. "I suppose if we're done discussing how special we all are, we can let others back into the clubhouse."
"Right," John said, laughing. "Because they weren't having the same conversation out there. Who do you think their credits are on? You or me?"
"We do not possess credits," Lennier said as he walked in the room. "But you are correct about the placing of wagers."
"And?" John asked.
"I am not at liberty to discuss our different arrangements. Be assured that, whichever way this goes, we will support either of you."
"I feel so very comforted," Susan said. "Now, can we get this over with?"
"Give her all the basics," Sinclair ordered Lennier. "Human martial arts. Anla'shok training. All of it."
He moved to stand by Susan and helped ease her back into the chair until the metal implants on the side and back of her head were in line with the LED display she had been examining earlier.
"We're about to plug you in, and download what you're going to need to survive. To win. The connection does not always happen without pain," Sinclair warned, holding her gaze.
"I can handle it," she told him. She tried not to grimace as she felt the pinch of first one connection point, then two others. She felt as if her head was being pulled back, tight, into the chair. Then the pull became a push and she gasped and closed her eyes.
Only to open them a minute later in surprise. "You're giving me the knife skills of Droshala?" she asked, breathless. It was like being recharged, an unbelievable high.
Lennier shrugged. "Although it is not always apparent, the Drazi worship surprisingly effective gods."
Susan mentally ran through her new skill set. "Very effective."
"The Ivanova vote of confidence," John said. "And the best is yet to come."
"Show me," she ordered, closing her eyes to block out their amused smiles. She might not understand exactly who they wanted her to be - maybe even who she really was - but she knew that she wanted these skills. Knew that this fight, these people, had already become her own.