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Shadows of the Past

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Captain Susan Ivanova, the person who was second to God aboard EAS Titans, was having one of her moods. The cause of her melancholy was just one small detail she noticed during her lunch with commander Santini. They were in the mess aboard Santini's ship Sylvania and still going over the long list of supplies Titans was going to need when she noticed some ensign kiss the telepath who served on Sylvania. The woman's haircut was vaguely similar to Talia's and Susan felt dull ache in her soul when she saw the loving bond the couple openly displayed. It lasted but a few seconds and then the man was on his way but it made Susan despise herself for being so jealous of him. That short scene reawakened the old wounds in her soul, even though it must have been at least a month since she last recalled Talia's name. The two of them never had a chance to build such a relationship. Fate tore them apart before they had a chance to resolve all the issues between them, their fragile, growing love shattered before Susan managed to deal with her own emotions. But the pain somehow never really went away for good and more misery was added to it later. So even though her ship was in top shape, so was her crew, there was a steady stream of shuttles transferring supplies from Sylvania to Titans and there was no problem in sight threatening to disrupt their planned mission, Susan's mood was far from a good one. She was fighting the urge to open a bottle of vodka and she was not sure she was going to win.
She was not fooling herself. She *knew* they never managed to develop their relationship enough to call themselves a couple. But Talia was the last person Susan allowed herself to love. And even though their first night together was also their last, even though Susan's need to shield her mind from Talia's led to nothing but a failed attempt at making love, even though the memory of the artificial persona that took over Talia's mind hurt so much... Susan Ivanova remained convinced that Talia was a woman she could have loved and who could have loved her back. Would she ever find someone like Talia again? Of course, Marcus used to be more than than willing to become that someone. But at that time Susan was still too hurting, too cautious, too tired and too occupied to let herself fall in love again - and now he too was as good as dead.
The sound that announced she had a visitor snapped her out of her thoughts. She took a split of a second to check everything was OK and then she let the computer unlock her door.
The woman who walked in was trouble. There was no telling what kind of trouble she was but the very fact that she walked into captain's quarter's unannounced and unaccompanied screamed trouble. She seemed polite, almost shy, only taking two hesitant steps inside before stopping. Wearing only tan shorts and a white blouse she was obviously unarmed, at about 5' 10" and 140 pounds she didn't seem threatening and her expression was both apologizing and intelligent. She wore no badge, no insignia, nothing. Probably in her forties, maybe late thirties. But Susan's senses somehow knew she was trouble.
"I'm really sorry for coming in like this but I'm in a kind of a difficult situation and you're my best chance of finding the help I really could use. I admit you'll soon have even more reasons to kick me out than you now think you do but could you please give me time to explain? It is a long story but I promise I'll make it worth your time."
The woman's melodious voice was apologetic and somewhat pleading but she seemed hopeful rather than desperate. However, something was missing and then the pieces clicked together. Her words, her body language and the very fact that she managed to sneak aboard at least two ships all fitted in with Susan's feeling that the woman was carefully keeping her thoughts to herself and somehow holding herself back. Susan half smiled, half sighed and asked away.
"You're a rogue telepath, aren't you?"
A short pause and then a nod.
"Yes. Technicalities aside, I'm an unregistered telepath. Officially I'm dead and my current ID is fake. However, I do not need your help to hide away from the Psi Corps. I'm afraid the situation we're in is much more unpleasant and complicated. But there are facts you should know before I go further into my current problem, captain."
It took Susan a second or two to reach a decision but then she motioned for the woman to get seated. At first she thought the stranger would turn out to be another rogue telepath who has heard a word about her involvement in some of the efforts to help them. And given the mood Susan was in, it was impossible for her to avoid recalling the first rogue she helped flee the Corps. The incident helped her get closer to Talia, although she wasn't very happy about it at the time. However, this rogue was seemingly unafraid of the Corps but at the same time hinting at serious troubles. So Susan simply accepted that this would be another cruel game of the sort the Universe was all to happy to arrange for her and she forced her voice to sound calm.
"I'm all ears, miss...?"
Her guest smiled a little and went ahead.
"You can call me Amanda, or Mrs Fletcher, though I was born, and officially died, as Amanda Hall. Both my parents were teeps and I grew up into a healthy, promising P8. I had a great job with one of the private deep space exploration companies. But one day we've found something. And we've been found. For the others it was just a promise of a xenoarchaeological goldmine. But it was the first time my future teacher touched my mind. And my eyes were opened to things you'd find difficult to imagine. The others had no way of knowing. But from that day on I had a new purpose in life. It's been years since and I've changed - I've *been* changed too - more than you'd guess. The trouble is, my teacher, whose legacy I still carry within my very body and mind, was a Shadow. The Shadows are gone, and so is my teacher, but I've been left behind."
Either Amanda was one hell of an actress or she was telling the truth. Being so close to a servant of the Shadows was setting off all kinds of alarms in Susan's mind but her life taught her a lot about self-control. Plus she knew that Amanda didn't as much as touch her mind. And she could tell that if that admission was true, and if the Corps ever learned that truth, Amanda would become one of the most hunted-for rogues. Susan knew enough about what Lyta had to go through and this could be even worse. And she knew all her help could turn out to be insufficient. She sighed.
"I see. Well, I do have some very good contacts on Minbar. I can arrange for them to help you and I can promise they'll not seek any kind of revenge. But I'll be honest with you. Their technology is *far* behind the Ancients. Yes, they do have some experience with the technology Vorlons gave them but you must know yourself how little that means. I'm sure they'll do their best to heal you. But I'm afraid you shouldn't get your hopes high."
Susan knew her words were filled with sadness. But she recognized another woman who's been toyed with by greater powers and then discarded. Amanda was marked for life, maybe even mutilated, and Susan knew even Minbari technology was unlikely to deal with it all. She knew about Lyta Alexander's experiences and Lyta was touched by the Vorlons. To be touched by the Shadows must be much worse, she realized. So Amanda's warm, happy and amused chuckle was a total surprise.
"You have no idea how grateful I am for that offer but... I'm sure you'll be surprised at first, but please trust me when I tell you I'm in no need of such healing. And knowing how much you've suffered during the Shadow war I'm amazed you're this generous to me. Truth is, I have no intention of losing my Shadow heritage. However, I'm telling you all this so you know who you're dealing with. And no matter how hard to believe my next statement might be, truth is I've been on the same side as you during the war."
Susan had to think. Hard. She *knew* how devious Shadows' agents were. She knew she could be doing a foolish thing. And she was all too aware of the risks the Shadows' technology Titans incorporated represented with one of their agents aboard. But Amanda's story *was* believable, and sharing it even though she didn't have to come out was a good sign too. Oh, Susan would not actually believe it, not without checking it, but the thing was it was worth checking out. Susan *knew* there were various factions within Vorlon society. The fight between two Vorlon ambassadors on Babylon 5 was proof enough. It was more than likely the Shadows were even more fractioned. And, given the way the war was ended, there probably must have been peace factions amongst both the Vorlons and the Shadows. So it was quite likely that at least some of the Shadows might have actually opposed the war. But the big question was - was this Amanda really a part of such a faction? Oh - and what kind of help she wanted now? Realizing she had no chance of answering the first question without at least a thorough background check Susan decided to hear out what Amanda came to ask for.
"Alright, Mrs Fletcher. Let us pretend I believe you. What kind of help you seek?"
"It is two things. The first should be easy. I have a part of an itinerary of a Psi Corps' black-ops ship that will be transporting a group of test subjects, four days from today. I would like to see you find and search that vessel and to arrest her crew. Human trafficking and illegal medical and telepathic experiments should give you a strong enough case. We would never be able to follow them to their destination unnoticed, not if they get a Black Omega escort and they are likely to have one. But you should be able to stop the transport and maybe find more leads. If you're wondering what's in it for me, I could claim nobler causes but I guess you'll find it easier to believe that hurting the efforts of those most likely to hunt me might be a sufficient incentive for me. And achieving this through your actions means there will be less questions asked. Or rather I'll be giving my answers to you, who's a person, not a governmental body, meaning I'll be safer in the long run. That enough for now?"
The story was believable and it would make Amanda a good guy, or a good gall, as the case may be. It might also be a good bait and there was bound to be a catch so Susan wanted to hear the rest.
"You're doing great, Mr Morden. You've shown me the carrot. Is there a stick too?"
There was a flash on anger and hurt at the mention of Morden's name but it disappeared from Amanda's face in a fraction of a second, to be replaced by a carefully neutral expression and voice.
"You'll get to see it soon enough. Now, I don't wish to use it, and I'd never admit I possess this stick if it weren't necessary for maximizing our chances of success. But the second part in itself is no stick. And because I'm quite sure you'll ignore my warning I'll at least do something to silence my conscience and ask you to be patient. Please, make up your mind on the first part of the plan before you hear about the second one. I don't want to push you into anything and you'll soon understand how difficult this matter is for me and how difficult it will be for you."
Susan kept studying the other woman's face for a few moments after she went silent. It was obvious she was holding back a lot. And something about her told Susan that Amanda was being very careful about keeping her telepathic abilities bottled up inside her mind. So it was not easy to judge her. But she felt different from Morden. So while trusting her was out of the question hearing her out was a different matter.
"Don't worry, Mrs Fletcher. I can make up my mind quick. Provided your information turns out to be correct, I'll do my best to arrest those responsible and help their victims. So get on with your story."
Amanda smiled, a knowing smile that told Susan the story was a lot longer than she would be told.
"I have in my possession a datacrystal my teacher gave me the day Shadow war ended. I would like to perform an experiment on one of the test subjects, using the data from this crystal."
Susan fought her anger, knowing Amanda was probably saying those words deliberately and she interrupted her with a voice as cold as ice.
"You're a smart woman, Mrs. Fletcher. I'm pretty sure you wouldn't actually propose that we use those people for your experiments. So how about you stopped dancing around the issue or trying to judge my reactions? What's on that crystal, what experiments are you talking about?"
Amanda sighed and it was obvious she resigned herself to answering the question, no matter the consequences.
"Reflection, surprise, terror... for the future."
Susan froze. She almost forgot those words but she *knew* them. The possibilities they promised ranged from nightmares to happiness. And it was obvious Amanda had at least a vague idea about the effect those words would have on Susan and she had to fight her urges to show her own emotions. It took Susan maybe a dozen heartbeats before she was able to speak again.
"Are you telling me Talia is on that ship? Is that crystal that mysterious recording Kosh had made years go?"
Amanda's expression was almost motherly for a moment, no matter the fact that she was not that much older than Susan. Her voice lost some of its detachment.
"Yes, Talia Winters, or at least her body, is aboard that ship. And as far as I know, my teacher obtained that recording from those Shadows who've maimed - killed, I guess you'd say - ambassador Kosh. You'll be free to examine it as thoroughly as you'll wish. But as far I can tell it is genuine. And Jason Ironheart paid me a visit because of it, the day the Shadow War ended, so I'm about as sure as I can be."
This was almost too much to process for Susan. She was not allowing herself to hold any hopes, knowing this could all be another cruel joke of the sort Universe loved to torture her with. But she could let herself be curious.
"So what *is* on that crystal?"
A fleeting shadow of uncertainty passed across Amanda's face.
"I'm not sure. You could describe it as a program of sorts and I believe it was created as a result of the incident you've mentioned. I hope it will neutralize the Control personality. But it is designed to run in a human brain. And most of it specifically in Talia's brain. So nobody can know what it will do until it is used for the purpose it was created for. I guess Lyta might be able to check it for traps and such but she's about the only being left in this Galaxy who could. Well, I have no idea what the Vorlon ship aboard Titans, the one in Bay 7, might be capable of, so that might be worth a try too. I could make a guess but you'd never trust me. Otherwise... Well, we could try keeping Talia hidden and locked up and give the data to some research team and wait a few years. Or we could take a leap of faith. But I'll have to leave that decision to you, captain."
Susan felt her unease rising again. She understood the woman did her homework and was trying to cram a lot of information into as few sentences as possible without seeming too impolite. But the understanding did little to quell Susan's annoyance and worries. Amanda knew too much and could easily be a Shadow agent. She didn't feel like one, she seemed genuinely helpful, but a part of Susan's mind felt Amanda knew too much to be innocent.
And although Susan was almost sure Kosh wouldn't have prepared that datacrystal to actually harm Talia and although Talia's brain was now a host to the Control personality anyway the crystal could've been tampered with. Too many things had to be checked, tested, verified... Susan suddenly realized she had much less time than she'd like. And there were still two big questions she needed answered soon. So she decided to put the rest of them aside till she could deal with them, together with her personal feelings towards Talia.
"Mrs Fletcher, suppose I'll agree to the outline of your plans. What'll be your next role in this?"
Amanda's shoulders gave only the slightest indication of relief and her voice remained carefully neutral.
"I will leave for now, and come aboard tomorrow as Mrs Amanda Bridgestone, a P2-rated psychologist temporarily assigned to your ship. I'm qualified for such a position, my fake papers are as good as the genuine stuff and you know how many people aboard still need this kind of help. I'll bring a nurse with me, he's in on my past and our situation, and he's not a teep. Actually, he's my husband. I'll be here to advise and to provide a counter-telepath backup against any bad guys. And once we've caught them and Talia's aboard Titans I can help you - provided you'll want me to - use that datacrystal. I know it sounds like I should not be needed, but you know they say that even the best plans do not survive..."
"...first contact with the enemy. I've seen it first-hand, Mrs Fletcher. OK, one last question. What kind of stick you talked about? I'm not pretending to blindly trust what you've told me today, and I do admit I don't like the prospect of working with you, but I haven't noticed any threats as such yet."
Susan's words obviously made Amanda hesitant to do or say anything. But after a few moments she made a show of slowly and nonthreateningly reaching into one of her pockets. She pulled out a datacrystal and set it onto the table in front of her before saying anything. Then she took a deep breath, her expression indicating she was about to say something Susan would not like hearing.
"That datacrystal needs two teeps to work. One is Talia but the other will have to join her for the process and be a part of it. And I have it on good authority that we will not need a new telepath for this, even if you'll forbid me to try. I'm not saying we shouldn't try to find some help but we don't have to. A part of the reason why I think this whole matter should be a success is that I know you could kick me out of this ship and tell me to never show my face around here again and you'd still be in a position to carry the plan out. I feel you knowing I'm at least a leeetle bit honest and not scanning you or brainwashing you might have earned me a tiny bit of your trust. But I know me knowing you know I'm not reading your mind makes me a far worse threat to you personally than you thought me to be. I don't have to spell it out, do I?"
Soldiers who let their fears take the upper hand often die young. Susan was not one of them so the sudden understanding didn't leave her paralyzed. But this was the stuff of some of her worst nightmares. Someone - this Amanda - somehow discovered the best kept secret of her life. Even *Talia* didn't know that Susan was a latent telepath; yet this woman came out of nowhere and knew. And she could ruin Susan's life and make the nightmares that troubled her since childhood become reality. She'd have to decide between joining the Psi Corps, or taking the drugs that killed her mother, or becoming a rogue telepath. She was still trying to deal with her shock when Amanda continued.
"Like I said, I would have never admitted I know if I didn't think you were the one best suited to help Talia. I'm still not sure why Jason ratted you out, I would never have noticed on my own. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that I had to put myself at your mercy. If you ever let a hint of my existence get to the Corps I make it onto a list of ten most hunted-for blips in this Galaxy. Not much of a help, I know, but the cynic in me thinks that at least you realize how I have to feel. But I think he just wanted you to use the crystal yourself. You knew Talia better than any other reasonable candidate did. You're the best friend she's found on Babylon 5, at least as far as I know. Whatever his reasons were, I guess the best thing we can do is roll with it."
Hearing the name of Jason Ironheart as the one responsible for Amanda knowing Susan's secret was a relief of sorts. The man, or rather the being who was not a mere human anymore, used to be Talia's friend. Years ago Susan even hoped that his mysterious parting gift to Talia, which somehow made her begin to develop telekinetic abilities, might help her defeat the Control personality. It didn't but there was no denying the fact that he was a friend and he might have recognized Susan's latent abilities. And providing Amanda's claim was true, meaning Jason believed her Shadow master or at least Amanda herself were on the good guys' side, his involvement – no doubt in preparation for leaving this Galaxy together with the Ancients – was a good sign.
Still, to blindly trust an agent of Shadows, even a self-proclaimed one, would be madness. And to ignore one who could ruin your whole life by goading PsiCorps into discovering your telepathic abilities would be madness too. So Susan just sighed, realizing her evening, and night too, would be far more tiring than she imagined half an hour ago. So she forced herself to make a sort of courteous and accepting nod towards Amanda.
"Nice, I see you came here all prepared. What's your plan for now, Mrs Fletcher?"
Susan noticed Amanda's shoulders drop a little, as if she relaxed a bit, and her voice betrayed her hope to appear friendly.
"It is getting late, I am sure you have a lot of work to do, there are many calls to be made, and I am sure you will need time to think. So how about I come aboard again tomorrow, this time visibly? Or do I have to use some plan B?"
Susan's reply was quick and none of her doubts made it into the tone of her voice.
"No, you don't have to. We've got fish to catch and not much time left."
Hearing this Amanda rose from her seat and her face lit up in a mischievous grin.
"I just hope your guards will not catch *me* leaving. I don't want to embarrass both them and myself. See you tomorrow, captain?"
"8:00 hours would be a good time, Mrs Fletcher, and I trust you'll find your way out."
Susan never really managed to deal with the hour of the wolf. The actual hour itself was nothing special but she disliked the moods that often came at such times in the night. She had two reliable methods of dealing with that but both had serious drawbacks. She could drown the unwelcome thoughts in alcohol. Or she could go to bed so exhausted she'd fall asleep the minute her face hit the pillow. But all too often she couldn't afford either method and this was another such day. Having to be able to think meant she, well, had to be able to think.
She made all the calls she had to, she began all the preparations she had to, she even managed to have Ulkesh's ship check the datacrystal Amanda gave her. But she still had plenty of time to think and she was so worked up she knew it would be a while before she fell asleep.
She was stuck with Amanda and she knew it. She couldn't afford to let her disappear. It didn't matter whether the woman was an ex-Shadow agent, a liar of some sort or plain crazy. Amanda knew too much. If she were lying about her past or crazy she was not that dangerous but Susan couldn't let her own secrets get out. And if she *was* who she claimed to be, which seemed far more likely, it was even more important to keep an eye on her.
Susan's memories of the Thirdspace incident were still strong. If it weren't for Lyta, left behind by Vorlons, the whole thing could have turned into a disaster. And Susan could only guess how many problems the Shadows left behind. So it was quite likely that Amanda was Lyta's counterpart, whether she was aware of it or not. Susan suspected that when the Shadow war ended, Vorlons and Shadows must have reached some kind of truce, so them leaving behind a couple of such telepaths seemed a plausible possibility. After all, the quickness with which the two opposing sides reached peace meant there must have been strong peace - or neutrality - factions within both races even before the final confrontation. A telepath who has served a peace-promoting Shadow could be a good candidate for the position Amanda seemed to fit. And Susan was pretty sure her contacts could soon help her obtain more info about her.
All the bits and pieces of information led to one more conclusion - Susan would probably really see Talia again. And the idea awakened many old memories and a lot of thought. Even the scenario where she would get her old Talia back led to all kinds of problems. An Earthforce officer can hardly maintain a relationship with a rogue telepath and it was more than likely Talia would have to go rogue if she wanted to remain alive. And if she would not get her old Talia back...
The whole affair threatened to be achingly bittersweet. To have the last love you've allowed yourself to find come within your reach again and to know you would not have an opportunity to seize this chance was a saddening thought. Susan wanted to save Talia, she wanted to give her an opportunity to live again. But she wanted to be a part of that new life and she knew how slim the chances of that were.
She couldn't even cry. After all the things she's been through, after having had to harden her soul against so many sorrows, Susan found herself unable to cry. A part of her wished to be less tough, less hardened, less jaded. She wished to curl up in her bed and cry and let tears wash away at least a part of her pain. It wouldn't be the first time she'd fall apart and cry. But as on guard as she was she was denied even this form of relief and when she finally fell asleep her dreams were haunted by visions of all the people she lost.
The next day and the one after it were hardly any better. Nothing really changed, though Titans was on her way now, deep in hyperspace, supposedly on the planned exercise mission but in addition to that getting ready to intercept the Psi-Corps' ship. Susan still didn't know what to do with her own feelings and she had to live with a probable ex-Shadow agent aboard her ship. Spending a few hours in the cockpit of a Thunderbolt helped Susan relax a little but it also added one more worry to an already long a list - the captain of Titans had to remain on the bridge instead of leading a group of fighters and shuttles. And Titans herself had to remain out of the sensor range of the Psi-Corps' vessel. This meant Susan had to depend on others to rescue Talia and that knowledge did little to comfort her. She knew her people were good, she had little trouble with putting her own life into their hands, but this was not about her own life but about Talia's. Susan knew her fears were irrational but that knowledge didn't make them any less real.
Having little chance of verifying Amanda's claims made Susan uneasy at first but the situation was changing. Lyta was still out of touch but Susan never really expected her to react this soon so she had other plans too. It took her contacts on Minbar two days to react but the result eased a lot of Susan's worries. There was a Minbari flyer aboard Titans for some time now and Durval, a Minbari telepath who has joined Anla'Shok, sat opposite her in her ready room.
"So, Durval, you've had the opportunity to check Mrs Bridgestone. What would you say about her?"
The Ranger waited a second or two before he replied.
"She appears to be who she claimed to be. She was even gracious enough to let me access some of her memories, although she kept most of them private. I don't think we should worry about the possibility of her fooling my scans. If she could deceive me this stealthily and effortlessly there would be nothing we could do to discover or stop her true plans. So, you could even say she is a good, helpful, free-spirited woman, although I would also add she is quite jaded and cold-blooded when necessary. And she honestly believes the being she met with was Jason Ironheart, she even let me examine her memories of that encounter. I do admit I've discovered one deception but I understand the reason for it. "
Susan was not sure she would. She was not sure whether she wanted Amanda to turn out to be a bad apple but she was sure she didn't like being deceived.
"What kind of deception are we talking about?"
This time the reply came without delay or hesitation.
"She was telling the truth when she said she grew up into a P8. But she neglected to mention this rating should no longer apply. She's somewhere in the middle of P11 now and she's the best trained human telepath I have ever met. You might have heard I am a combat-hardened veteran P12 but I would consider myself her equal, if not a bit weaker. Her apparent skill is on the level of gifted Minbari masters who have spent a century or more honing their skills. I'm good enough to prevent her posing a danger to us but not strong enough to overpower her. I have more raw power but she's better trained. Be warned, though. I might be underestimating her, considering she has been touched by Shadows. She might not know her true powers herself."
This was mixed news. Susan was glad to hear Durval should be able to neutralize Amanda but her really being an ex-Shadow agent, with abilities obviously improved by her Shadow master, was one of the most dangerous scenarios Susan planned for. She wasn't afraid of a violent confrontation. She feared being manipulated.
"Is there anything we should pay particular attention to?"
Durval's answer surprised her.
"Her husband. He remains a mystery to me. Mrs Bridgestone didn't reveal anything about him. The most I can sense from Mr Bridgestone himself are some emotions and feelings. No thoughts or other information. He seemingly firmly believes he is not a telepath, he reads as friendly as Mrs Bridgestone, but what he does should be next to impossible. Most likely he is a borderline P1 who doesn't know about his own abilities but has learned a thing or two from his wife, or he's a mundane who's been somehow taught to keep his thoughts private."
"Are you telling me he is shielding himself from your probes?"
"No, I have not performed any actual probes, that would have been too impolite. But non-telepaths sort of broadcast at least some of their thoughts. He does not, which is an extremely rare ability. And there were other signs too."
Now this was a surprise for Susan. She knew that even medium-rated telepaths had to actually shield themselves from other people's thoughts. And she knew that the fears resulting from this fact were the basis of much of the hatred and distrust between many mundanes and telepaths. An ability to keep all of one's thoughts to oneself would be something nearly every mundane would want and Susan never heard it could be done. Was he a latent teep like Susan was? But after thinking about the implications for a while Susan realized one more thing - she was becoming jealous.
Amanda seemed to have so many things Susan missed. It was even worse than with the telepath from Sylvania. Amanda was one more example of a relationship between a teep and a mundane. She was on the run but free from the Psi-Corps' rules. She had someone to confide in. She even seemed happy with what the Shadow war turned her into. She had so much more... Sure, she had to have oh so many problems too, but she had someone to share them with. She was incredibly lucky to have found a partner capable of accepting someone with her past and her problems. Susan scolded herself for the envious, longing ache she felt within her own soul. But something inside her rebelled against her own fears.
"Thank you, Durval. For now I want you to keep an eye on our two guests, both now and when the action breaks out. I'm sure neither of us wants to find out we've been deceived. There's one more matter I might ask for your help in, but I think I'll be able to find a different solution to it."
Anyone trying to competently command a big warship during a training exercise finds his or her free time uncomfortably limited. With the effort of secretly planning a real mission against armed and dangerous opponents added to this mix Susan didn't have much time to reflect on her own plans and emotions. She had to do her best to keep her own people alive, then she had all the kidnapped teeps to worry about, then a lot of other priorities and her own personal happiness ended up somewhere near the bottom of the list.
She wished it could have been otherwise. She had hoped to have enough time to deal with her own mind. But her first real opportunity to spend some time in thought came the last night before the action. It was late - she felt cursed with always having to deal with such things late at night - and she needed to distance herself from her vodka. So her steps led her to a room many people aboard called the Starfury balcony. The windows there reminded them of Starfury cockpits and Susan found herself standing there, staring into the swirls of hyperspace, and thinking.
She wanted to be the one to use that Vorlon datacrystal. She wanted to believe that it would remove the Control personality and bring back the old Talia. She did not want Amanda touching Talia's mind. She didn't want Durval absorbed by who knew what processes, possibly unable to monitor Amanda. Susan wanted to be a little bit selfish. She wanted to actually do something for herself, to fight for a chance to find happiness. She wanted...
She had no idea what she'd do next. Suppose she would actually bring the old Talia back... What could they do next? Smuggle Talia to Minbar aboard Durval's flyer? It wasn't like they could have a happily ever after, so what could they do? Would she have to rescue her old love only to have to send her away? Would she want to run away with Talia, and would Talia even be interested in her?
Her thoughts were interrupted by a newly familiar voice.
"Could I please have a few words with you? Or perhaps even intrude on your time for a little longer?"
Susan turned around to see Mr. Arthur Bridgestone, or Fletcher, or whatever his name was, standing in the doorway. The man's face was unremarkable, he was vaguely middle-aged, his clothing was bland. But Susan had good eyes and she was a good judge of character. All good captains have to be and she was better than most. And what she saw in the man's eyes during the last two days was intelligence, understanding and compassion. She sighed.
"Is this going to be one of those conversations I'd better suffer through, for my own good?"
The man's gentle laugh sounded amused and happy.
"That's up to you, captain. I'd say it could be, one could go as far as to tell you you'd better listen to me, but I hope I'm wise enough to understand you might not be in a mood to talk to me."
"Not really. Go ahead, fire away. The way things are, what you want to say would probably come back to bite me later anyway. So I'd rather deal with it now. I'm not as fragile as you might think."
Arthur half sighed, half nodded and replied.
"Yes, I know you can handle a lot. Doesn't make this any less unpleasant, though... Anyway, could I entertain you to a story first?"
This time it was Susan's turn to sigh.
"Mr Bridgestone, it is two past midnight and I've already met my share of mysterious strangers years ago. Could you give me the straight version instead?"
His evaluating gaze was easy to return and he obviously decided not to stretch Susan's patience.
"My wife did her homework and she knows a lot about you and Ms. Winters. She knows you were close friends, she even knows Talia was the first telepath to gain your trust, she understands how hurt you must have felt once Control took over. My wife is also incurably romantic; one might argue it is a defensive mechanism developed to counter the things the two of us went through but such analysis has no impact on the fact itself. She's glad she can offer her help and she knows she has to be really careful around here and tread with care. But I've had the time to dig deeper into our case and there are things I haven't told her yet. She knows I'm doing this but she trusts me enough to let it go. And I'm doing it because it is possible that if I told her the gloves might come off - and she's not the mere civilian P8 she used to be. She's *amazing* when she's in her righteous fury mode but no matter how adorable that can be it is something I'd prefer to avoid."
Susan was happy to hear Durval's assessment of Amanda's Psi rating was probably correct but she wasn't going to tell that to the man. Besides, she didn't like the notion of gloves coming off.
"Is this supposed to be some kind of threat?"
"On the contrary, captain. She would most likely take the gloves off to help you, which could easily lead to PsiCorps becoming aware of her. And truth be told, half a dozen P12-rated PsiCops on our trail is that something I'd prefer to avoid."
"OK, I understand you want to keep a low profile. But what are the facts you want to share with me so I'll know your own wife could do something stupid once she finds them out? Or are these facts something that you think might make me do something stupid? I'm sure you know this sounds strange, so..."
The man smiled again, in a friendly but self-satisfied way.
"Well, one could say I'm a wizard when it comes to computers. And while teeps can keep their conspiracies entirely inside their minds the same is impossible with the bulk of their research data. They do not have perfect memories, captain. Their choice is either to use mundane computers or to find themselves unable to retain and use those research data. And this is where they become vulnerable to someone like me."
The meaning behind his words was obvious and Susan decided to cut to the chase.
"And you stole what?"
"I guess about eighty percent of research data relating to Talia Winters, including all the reports created by Control between the time they created her and about two months ago. So yes, I do know how intimately close you two became."
He was simply stating facts. Susan saw no hints of him baiting her into something. What she saw was compassion and understanding on a face that seemed unworthy of it. It seemed as if his bland features were a part of some disguise and his true self only became visible when he let it to and for a moment Susan felt as if she understood why and how he and Amanda might fit together as a couple. But this was no time to ponder that. Something about him told Susan that what she just heard was just the first half and he was waiting for her reaction.
"I see. Go on, give me the rest."
"The rest would be a story in itself. In short, Ms Winters reported her contact with Jason Ironheart, then she exhibited gradually increasing telepathic and telekinetic abilities, and in addition to this uniqueness ensuring her survival, the chance those abilities could be hereditary or at least accessible to research was considered too good to pass. She is now a mother of two, a two year old girl and a boy who's ten months now. Both are somewhere in Europe, probably Switzerland or southern France, in care of the PsiCorps. Both were conceived artificially, to guarantee controlled conditions, and sperm donors were P12s Ramon Tapia and Joshua Dawson. Predicting their telepathic abilities this soon is a nearly pointless exercise but it is hoped that the boy might become a stable teek while girl has about twenty percent estimated probability of surviving the onset of puberty. My personal guess gives her much better chances but twenty percent is what the PsiCorps study says. The only known forces in this Galaxy who might be able to help the girl are Lyta Alexander, who has gone off the radar, or my wife. Ms Winters, who is considered basically a test subject, and who is now rated P7, remains ignorant of their fate. I hope you can see how some parts of the whole story could touch some of my wife's soft spots. And I sure hope I haven't overestimated your own resilience, Captain."
Her often rough life made Susan a little jaded; long years of war and strife taught her to control her feelings. But being able to control them was definitely not the same as not having them at all. She knew Talia's fate was better than being dead would have been but the difference seemed way too small. Susan never really hated Control, she soon realized the implanted personality was just another victim of the PsiCorps and she knew how ruthless and cold the PsiCorps machinery could be; she has had to deal with it too many times in recent years. She even knew most PsiCorps members had nothing to do with this and they too were victims of the system rather than some evil bastards. But still... This was about Talia. This was personal. Personal pain, personal anger, personal fear. They killed her love's personality and then abused her still living body and treated even the personality they'd replaced Talia with like a lab rat and when their experiments nearly doomed Talia's first child they went ahead and tried again.
Susan did what she had to do. She put her emotions aside, she locked her feelings into isolated parts of her soul where their influence couldn't endanger her people and the ship and the mission. But she also knew she wouldn't be able to do that forever. She would have to deal with it all slowly but soon enough so the pressure wouldn't break her. If she could manage that.
"Thanks for the information, although we'll have to cross other bridges before we get to this one. But I can see your wife could get, shall we say, emotional once she hears this. So I'd appreciate if you could prepare her for this. God knows we don't need anybody to snap during that mission."
But in the privacy of her mind Susan knew the one who might snap could also be her.
"Alpha leader to Titans. Target detected and identified, appears to be alone, fourteen minutes behind planned schedule, course and speed match estimated flight path. We'll hit the burn in thirty seconds from now."
Susan was no longer thinking about her own feelings or recalling old memories. Her brain was in battle mode, functioning as a tactical computer. The message came tightbeamed and Titans was hiding deep in hyperspace, deeper than any older Earthforce vessels could dare to go. It was extremely unlikely that someone could notice it. But she couldn't reply; the chance that her reply could be noticed by someone near her target was too high. She could abort the mission and risk giving away Titan's presence and position - or she could remain silent and let her people continue. A quick analysis of positions and speeds of all known vessels was inconclusive. The delay was most likely innocent but there could be a dozen Black Omega Starfuries nearby. Fletchers' estimates said there was about sixty percent probability of some escort being there even this close to busy lanes and Susan's instincts told her her target was not alone. Well, she planned for that. She let the seconds go by and her mind soon imagined her pilots accelerating hard.
She was playing a dangerous game. The enemy had stealth fighters and pilots who could detect her people without having to use mundane sensors. Her own people didn't know the whole plan, because she couldn't be sure the enemy wouldn't read their minds. And the list of her advantages was uncomfortably short. She had Titans, a ship which could smash nearly anything that dared to attack - but she had to hold back so she wouldn't scare her prey or make her escorts remove most evidence by destroying her before Titans could close in. She would be arriving into the fray before the enemy could get any reinforcements but there was more than enough time for several fighter duels before she could help. She hoped she had the element of surprise - but she knew how many people have been wrong making such an assumption. She could expect the escorts some distance away because their stealth was not sufficient at medium to close range - but they could be between her people and their target and her pilots weren't hiding anymore. She had plenty of combat experience - but so could her enemy.
"Drop tanks away, unmanned shuttle on rendezvous course and broadcasting, decoys away, still no bandits or bogeys."
Vincent Lewis II, the ship she preferred to think of simply as target, had telepaths aboard. That meant she couldn't risk sending a boarding team there at first. So she had to send drones, similar to recorders used aboard Babylon 5. Flight-capable, remote-controlled, tamper-proof, armed, expendable devices the boarding team could use to recon their target and administer Sleepers to all telepaths aboard. It was the most failure-prone part of her plan because there was the possibility that target's crew would refuse this. But Susan hoped her orders and her fighters, together with her reputation, would make the teeps scared enough to comply.
And even those unguided drop tanks, which should soon bracket the target before continuing into the depths of hyperspace, had more than one role in her plan.
"We're in position, keeping safe distance, warning shots fired. Target is preparing for inspection."
There was no room for joy in Susan's mind. She had to *think*, to command. She longed to be out there, piloting a Starfury, but she knew those days were past. She was the captain, she had her duties.
"Recorders aboard target vessel, her captain surrendered and agrees to cooperate. We're closing in, target is accelerating as per instructions. No real protests against Sleepers, they're busted and obviously know it. Nobody aboard seems suicidal."
The tension eased off a little and Susan found a little time to watch some of the video feeds. She saw cargo holds filled with thousands of tons of supplies and that confirmed this was no small operation. But then she saw the first images of those test subjects, most as prisoners and some in cryosleep. With every new one she hoped the face she would see would be Talia. Her gaze kept flicking between tactical situation, clocks and those video feeds. And then she saw her. She seemed tired, drugged, afraid. It was not the Talia she remembered. She was a sad, confused, broken woman. The sight filled Susan's mind with a painful mixture of happiness and sadness. She noticed it was almost time to change the target's course and was glad to see it ready to do so. She watched more videos as they came but her mind kept going back to those few seconds during which she saw Talia again.
Talia was alive. Susan didn't know if she could be healed, she wasn't sure there was a chance for them to have a future together, but the simple fact that Talia was alive gave her new hope. She lived under a curse for years. Too many people around her died. The Universe took way more than it gave her. She lived afraid of becoming an old, fat, depressed and bitter woman. But Talia was alive and suddenly so was Susan's hope that the Universe was not as cruel as she feared it to be.
She was, however, still concentrated on her job, so the emotions rising in her soul were being kept in check. Her brain was working at full speed. She was imagining herself in command of those assumed escorts, trying to guess their positions and actions. She did this a hundred times before, back when she was planning this mission, and now she saw nothing that would invalidate her plan. If those escort were out there, if they began in one of the positions she'd expect them in, and if they were good, they'd soon be repositioned to attack. Her message would likely reveal Titans' presence and the direction she was coming from but it was time to shake the game.
"Ivanova to Alpha Leader, I'm sending updated rendezvous coordinates. Head there at Vincent Lewis' top acceleration."
She watched her tactical plot change and said a few more sentences to several of her people, she felt Titans go to maximum acceleration, but her brain was focused on her efforts to guess and manipulate her enemies' actions. Her new orders sent her pilots onto a course that would be nearly suicidal for most Earthforce groups. She was betting on her opponents not having expected a Warlock-class ship and having to react to her people suddenly flying deeper into hyperspace. Even those drop tanks were there to make those assumed Black Omegas think her fighters came alone and would be flying along a predictable route. She believed the Omegas would now have to change plans and chase after her people - they *had* to realize there must be a Warlock-class or a Minbari ship coming the other way, because otherwise no sane Earthforce fighter pilot would do what her group suddenly did. She wanted to force her enemies to act and to act under pressure. She wanted the fight to break out with the odds in her favor and she fought the urge to order her pilots to fire some missiles away in the direction her instinct told her the attack will come from. She knew Black Omegas tend to depend on their telepathic abilities to remain stealthy and that her pilots had no chance of confirming her suspicions at those distances. Trained teeps in hyperspace had little use for mundane sensors. But she could have two of her pilots launch some missiles and maybe the enemy would make a mistake, especially since some of those Omegas might be green or lower-psi-rated pilots. Earthforce were not the only ones who suffered many losses during recent conflicts. The same could be said of Psi Corps and their blackops sections... And the areas they could be in were getting smaller with every second if they were about to attack...
"Ivanova to Alpha Leader, choose Thunderbolts to launch two missiles in lock-on-after-launch mode. I know they'll be aiming at a big empty patch of hyperspace but don't let that bother you. I'm sending you..."
Susan saw icons of six bandits pop up on her plot and she heard Ensign Braun interrupt her. The bandits' position was somewhat uncertain but they were in one of the two places she was about to order her pilots to fire at.
"Captain, we are receiving tactical data from Alpha Six. Seems Mrs Bridgestone noticed a telepathic signal from those Omegas and located them."
Susan was almost sure Amanda, who was flying in WSO's seat on Alpha Six, would not be able to intercept such a signal. It was unlikely that those Omegas would let one slip, considering how focused on stealth those guys tend to be. They would simply ignore those aboard Vincent Lewis. So she cast a quick glance at Durval, wordlessly asking him to confirm her theory, and he nodded. Amanda was probably using the same technique the Omegas had to use to detect her own fighters. And she managed to confirm Susan's suspicions still in time for it to be of use. Her pilots wouldn't have to split their fire and they could fire a full salvo.
One lost Starfury against two downed and four surrendered Black Omegas was a damn good score, even taking into account her people had a dozen fighters against six Omegas and fired the first shots. The shuttle carrying Hendricks was rushing ahead of the rest of the group and last time she heard he had a fifty-fifty chance of making it to medlab. Susan knew how dangerous experienced teeps could be in hyperspace, especially when piloting stealth fighters, so the result was something of a pleasant surprise.
But she also knew that the whole show was still in the beginning. The now ending mission was the snowball that set off an avalanche. Her first reports were already pulling people out of their beds. Twenty-seven people, all but two of them telepaths, were victims of illegal medical experiments. Thirty six more have been kidnapped. She had forty-three suspects, two of them P12-rated teeps. It was easy to imagine all the various factions rushing to deal with this situation. Vincent Lewis was still fifteen minutes away and Susan already had a pile of messages, reports and other documents to go through. And one of those documents nearly made her cry in anguish.
Her people took DNA scans of both the test subjects and the crew and she was already receiving their files. Including Talia's - but it was wrong. The name was Talia Summers, a P1 so weak she was not even a part of Psi Corps proper. She was a redhead who looked like Talia but Susan could spot some differences, although those could be due to her recent life. She was "Expendable", according to documents Vincent Lewis handed over. Kidnapped because she came from a backwater colony and she lost her family during the war so not many people would be looking for her. Susan had to fight a rising tide of despair for a few moments but her brain didn't stop working and she reached for her link.
"Mr Bridgestone, could you see me in person? I'd like to ask for your expertise regarding your incoming patients."
She knew her guess was correct the moment she saw the smile on his lips. There was a man proud of a job well done, with just a touch of mischief.
"I trust you're the one responsible for Talia's file, aren't you?"
"You don't like it? A bit cheeky, I know, but I was very careful making Talia Winters dead. And I've also changed the records Earthside, and Miss Summers is Talia's distant relative, so anyone poking into it will have to dig really deep to find anything suspicious. For example, nobody knows Talia's true DNA signature; humans don't remember such things, it is always just a record in some database. The guys on Vincent Lewis are just couriers who don't know her. Talia Winters got lost between the cracks."
Susan didn't know what to think. This was a chance for Talia to live a somewhat normal life but it could go horribly wrong. Sure, all the other forgeries the man created were so good Susan was never able to prove them as such but she knew she was no cop and till now she hasn't had time for more thorough checks anyway. And mister Arthur Bridgestone had an amused aura as if this was a matter of little consequence.
"I can have Talia safely out of PsiCorps' reach ten minutes after she sets foot aboard Titans. Durval's flyer is ready. I know, they'd be looking for her, but she'd be safe. What if I refuse to take the risk you're obviously planning for?"
"I will have planned in vain, I'm used to that. But you could say it is my job only to help others rediscover dreams that the world has stolen from them. I don't have to force those dreams down their throats. And I do admit my plans sometimes fail. *You* have to decide, captain."
Susan studied him for a moment. Her instincts were telling her she could trust those words. But they were also telling her there was more to him than he has been willing to admit.
"I know, but excuse me when I find it difficult to trust a man who will not admit who he really is. Having to deal with your wife being a Shadow-agent is enough in itself. You being even more mysterious is not helping. I *know* you're hiding something."
Returning his judging gaze was easy and waiting for it to end didn't take long. And it all clicked together when he reached with his right hand and his bare index finger drew a glowing sigil into the air. A technomage. Hell of an unorthodox one, if for nothing else then for marrying someone like Amanda, but nonetheless a technomage. And from what she's heard technomages had a long history of opposing Shadow influences, which was a relief. And a technomage could pull a stunt like the one he just described.
"I see. Well, you guys do have being mysterious in your job description. But how safe is your plan? You know how I feel about Talia. Would you risk your wife's life with such a plan?"
"I already have."
Susan heard no pressure in his voice. Patience and understanding, yes. But no pressure, arrogance or recklessness. And his words made her think about her own fears. Was she being overprotective? She would never make Talia's life hundred percent safe. Not even among Rangers. Was she trying to compensate for something? Trying to shield Talia from any harm? She had to admit to herself she could never manage that. She *wanted* safety but she knew neither Talia nor she herself could ever be entirely safe.
“Only those whose lives are brief can imagine that love is eternal. You should embrace that remarkable illusion. It may be the greatest gift your race has ever received.”
Lorien's words flashed through Susan's mind, uninvited but unstoppable. It was a long time since she allowed herself to be this hopeful but she felt something inside her mind snap and suddenly she was willing to wish for her own happiness. She felt some of the years she spent building protective walls around herself fade away. She never lacked the courage to fight for other people's lives and happiness. Shouldn't she show similar courage and fight for her own happiness again? Her expression tightened. Yes, she would.
Susan took a deep breath and walked into Durval's temporary office. The knowledge that Talia was waiting in there should have prepared her for the sight but it did not. It really was Talia, she was obviously miserable and Susan felt tension in her ribcage as she fought the urge to run over to her and... do something. Something to help.
She didn't have to. Her people knew their jobs and Talia was neither wounded nor insane. And after spending three hours waiting for Sleepers to safely kick in they knew what to expect; their recorders and scanners checked just about every cubic inch of Vincent Lewis. There was no emergency to deal with, she didn't have to take any rushed action, there was nothing that would justify putting this talk off. She has made all the calls and took care of all necessary paperwork before any teep from Vincent Lewis set foot aboard Titans. She talked to all the important prisoners long before she asked to see Talia. And she couldn't do anything stupid, no matter what certain parts of her mind wanted to - and them not being able to agree on what to do was no help at all. She had to talk to Talia.
"So... Who am I talking to?"
Talia's voice when she answered was tired and Susan noticed the faint traces that Sleepers left in it.
"Hello, captain. I'm sorry but I'm still the personality you've known as Control. Well, actually I'm far from being the same personality but I've began as her."
Those claims seemed entirely plausible, considering how different Talia's behavior was from when they've last met. Susan was not sure that Control was actually sorry but at least she was polite and sensible.
"OK, the same question but a different meaning: *who* are you?"
"Talia Winters, a P7-rated telekinetic, a member of PsiCorps and until recently a test subject of a black-project team I know next to nothing about. I've suffered a personality rewrite you know about but first the need to make me capable of acting as a spy and later the hesitation to damage whatever Jason did to me meant I was not dumbed down and I still have much of my old memories. I do admit I'm not as fanatical as I used to be. But I'm still more loyal to the Corps than I guess you'd wish me to be, captain. I've heard a few things, even in my quarantine. There's a war coming our way and we telepaths need ways of surviving it. I do admit some of the things we do are questionable. Heck, I do admit I hate some of the things *I* have been through. But I understand why we do them. I'm even grateful you've rescued us and I do want to see certain teeps in a courtroom. But I do not intend to go rogue and run somewhere to hide. There's too many mundanes who wish us all dead. I might not like PsiCorps and I want it to change but we need it. I'll do my best to turn it into something even you might find acceptable. Is that honest enough for you? Go ahead, ask the man I'm telling the truth, I'm under Sleepers but I can tell he's a teep."
Susan cast a quick glance at Durval. Talia couldn't know he wasn't actively probing her but he didn't have to to be able to confirm her honesty. And he nodded in affirmation.
Which meant Susan had a lot to think about and her plan to use Kosh's datacrystal was suddenly a lot more questionable. This was not the Control she remembered. But it was not her old Talia either. It seemed that the new personality has matured and not knowing what kind of info she has had access to meant it was difficult to judge her views of PsiCorps. Susan even had to admit the new personality seemed similar to the Talia she first met and that was both chilling and endearing. And all this, and seeing Talia again, and still remembering the old times, and that couple from Sylvania, and a jumble of other influences all made it impossible not to ask one question. Susan knew she shouldn't. She knew it was improper. She knew Talia needed time to recover. She knew how laughable it could make her in Talia's eyes. She even knew she would probably never like this new personality, because she'd always know she replaced her old Talia. But she still had to ask.
"I see. I also admit you've surprised me - in a good way. And I can imagine how you're feeling now. So there's only one more question I'd like to ask now and you don't have to answer. It took me some time to deal with your parting words, if you know what I mean. What do *you* think of it all now?"
There was a flicker of guilt and pain on Talia's face and she had to take a deep breath before she answered.
"I'm... I'm sorry for what has happened. I know there was nothing I could have done about what I did to you, and now I know you know that too, but I'm still sorry for it. I know how much my words must have hurt. I now know a lot more about you and Babylon 5 and about how those who've created me changed their opinions. And while I know the following will not help much there's no reason to deny my feelings here, so I can admit I'm really glad I have this opportunity to apologize. Funny, to apologize for what gave me life. But I do know what it cost. So I'm sorry for what has happened. I still have many of my old self's memories and I admit that I've become envious of her. You've made her happier that I ever was. So you could say I'm sorry for both of us."
There was a few seconds' pause but then she continued, in somewhat bitter tone.
"Life's a bitch. Look at me talking about teeps and mundanes getting ready to fight it out, while we could have been one more proof we don't have to. You know, there are days it all makes me want to cry, and days it makes me want to go into a rage. Feeling like both the victim *and* the guilty party sucks. But I can never undo what I did. The best I can hope for is your forgiveness."
Susan never expected the new Talia's words could be both so welcome and so painful. She always suspected she wouldn't actually blame Talia for her seeming betrayal, because she soon realized there were others behind it all. But she never expected this new personality to be so mature, open, honest and humble. This was not the cold and cruel automaton she remembered. So she found herself answering in a very gentle tone.
"And you have it, Talia. You didn't have to ask for it and you have all my forgiveness you might need."
It was almost amazing to watch the change those few words caused. The sadness that Talia radiated was half gone. Her fingers seemed a lot less nervous. And her flitting, scared eyes lit up with joy. That familiar hint of a smile, and Talia's brightening eyes suddenly gazing into Susan's, were so similar to the old Talia that it shook Susan to the core.
It hit her with a shocking realization. This was Talia. The new personality lived in the same brain as the one she used to know as Talia. It was even born in a brain that it shared with the at the time still living old Talia so she had to be quite similar to her. This was almost the same as if she'd been wounded in a car crash that was not her fault. Only she wasn't missing a limb or bearing scars. The marks she bore were inside her mind. This was Talia's mind, although maimed, burned, deformed and pained - but it was Talia. She was not an enemy somebody implanted into her love's brain. She was her old love, changed, crippled, experimented on and abandoned by powerful and cruel telepaths. The stretch of silence during which these thoughts flashed through Susan's mind must have been only a few seconds long but it changed so much. She had so much to say, so much to think about and so little time. And she couldn't spend too much time with Talia this soon, not without risking someone becoming suspicious. Talia was supposed to be an old friend's relative, not the old friend herself. Susan recalled her old words, summoned her acting abilities, put on a smile as reassuring as she could manage and hoped Talia would understand the message.
"Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm in the middle of fifteen things, all of them annoying. But this time I'm actually very thankful for you coming by."
Seeing the understanding in Talia's eyes, knowing the memory or their first encounter was still there and noticing Talia recognized that this time she was actually sorry to leave made Susan feel like she made a step towards healing the gap between them. It was obvious Talia was shocked at how friendly Susan seemed to be and the shock left her speechless for a moment. So Susan pushed on.
"Do you think I would be welcome if I dropped by sometime later? It will not be before midnight, I'm afraid, but I'll try. Talia?"
The relatively good mood Susan was in shattered about half a minute after she stepped into her shower. She feared stims, having seen their effect on Stephen Franklin, but first a cup of brutally strong tea and then hot water did a similar job and helped her shake off exhaustion. She was going to get out of the shower in a minute or two, looking forward to seeing Talia again, and her thoughts finally turned to her private plans. She didn't have to think about the official procedure for this whole case. She had time to plan how she'd get her old love back. That's when it all hit her again.
She couldn't do it.
She couldn't kill the new personality. Otherwise she would be no better than those who have killed the old Talia. Was this Amanda's plan? To lure her into evil? Probably not, she realized. Amanda must have expected this, she knew a lot more about how these things worked. So it was probably one of the reasons she insisted Susan was the one who'd have to make a decision and Amanda was simply keeping her distance.
Just one day ago Susan thought that that datacrystal could give her her old love back. But the realization that the Talia she's met a dozen hours ago was no artificial construct but a living woman shattered those dreams. Sure, she didn't know what the program on that crystal would do. But could she risk it? She could deal with failure, she already lost Talia, so not getting her back was something she could live with. But could she deal with having had to kill another personality to get Talia back?
There had to be some reason for the crystal to exist. Beings like Kosh or Jason Ironheart rarely play cruel jokes of this kind on people. But it couldn't simply write the old Talia back into her body's brain, because believing that would mean believing that both those beings were willing to kill the new Talia. Kosh might, but Jason used to be more than a friend to Talia.
And there was nobody in her crew to talk to. Susan couldn't risk anybody knowing anything about this. She knew she could at least keep some of her thoughts private or notice a teep probing her mind; her latent talent was a blessing in this regard. But all her crewmembers were mundanes. It was possible that a teep could learn their secrets even without wanting to; simply thinking about it with a strong teep nearby could spell disaster. Fletchers were out of the question. Durval was, well, a Minbari warrior and therefore probably ill-suited to deal with delicate matters involving human psyches. Who else was there? Talia?
Well, at least some of the people aboard now knew Talia was supposedly a relative of their captain's old friend. It was perfectly OK for the captain to visit her.
Amanda snuggled a little closer to her husband and draped an arm across his stomach.
"You're lucky you're a treasure, and double-lucky I've been taught self-control. Damn, you're triple-lucky it was actually the best thing to do."
"I'm also lucky that you can tell I'm genuinely sorry for having had to keep some of it secret, am I not?"
This reply was rewarded with a playful slap on his thigh.
"Bad boy, abusing the fact that I'm a teep. You were right, though. I could have betrayed myself if I knew it all sooner. We do not want PsiCops hunting us. But do you realize what this could mean for our plans?"
With a childish smile on his lips he kissed the tip of her nose.
"Yes, I do. I would have told you sooner, and risked you flaunting your power, if I thought keeping it secret could threaten our goal. But the personality you can see in those documents is actually perfectly suited for what we're hoping for. The process can, at least I hope it can, work even without a total rollback to the old personality. My instincts tell me they'll fuse into one, although I have to admit I've learned to not second guess Ancients with any sort of confidence."
"But we don't know for sure. You know I've never as much as touched her mind. And you know I must keep my distance, otherwise I could ruin the whole point of this effort. What if there's something hiding in there, deceiving us?"
This time he actually chuckled before replying.
"I'm sure that this time, Susan will discover it soon enough, that is if there *is* something hiding in there."
"You have a dirty mind, you know that? Though I like your way of thinking - they do make a great couple and a mindmeld of that kind could show any hidden programming. And you're probably right that they both seem strong enough for their new roles. But I still feel like we're toying with things we do not fully understand."
"That's called being alive, honey. We can only hope for the best."
"Susan, you don't have to shield me from whatever it is. So what bad news you're bringing?"
Talia's voice was patient and understanding and Susan was surprised by how direct she was. The question came almost the moment she walked into Talia's cabin, replacing any welcoming words. The smile she saw on Talia's face when she recognized Susan evaporated the second Talia noticed Susan's mood. So Susan just stood there, not sure what to say, and her silence prompted Talia to stand up, take a few steps towards Susan, and continue.
"Captain, I may be on Sleepers but I know you quite well. OK, my old self did, but you know what I mean. Something's happened and you're trying to hide it. And I can tell it is bad news for me. Well, just give it to me. I don't want you to - no, that's not a good choice of words. Thing is, I'd hate myself even more if I made you suffer because of me again. So what is it?"
Susan gestured for Talia to stop for a sec. She closed her eyes, took a few deep breaths and then forced her fists to stop clenching. She opened her eyes again and looked directly into Talia's.
"I need someone to talk to, and strange as this sounds you're the only one I can think of. And I'm not bringing just bad news. It is just that some things are very hard for me to deal with. And some of it will be very hard for you to deal with, I'm afraid. Could we please take this slowly? I'll explain it all but..."
There was a little flinch in Talia's movements, as if she had to suppress an impulse to move closer to Susan, but then she stepped back a little and let Susan take a seat. There was only one chair in the cabin Talia was put into so she seated herself on her bed.
"Is it about some of the experiments they've performed on me? I wasn't told everything about..."
Talia's voice trailed off. It was obvious that Susan's nervousness was contagious and Talia realized that and stopped herself to let Susan think.
"I don't know where to begin. Will you be patient with me? I'm still trying to process it all and you're the only one here I can talk to."
Talia's cocked head made it obvious she had no idea what was coming and her surprise at earning Susan's trust was equally obvious. She nodded in silence, as if not wanting to disrupt Susan's thoughts.
"First about you. Your files, including those in PsiCorps' archives, have been tampered with. A man I've met a few days ago, a computer wizard by his own words and the guy who gave us your flight plan, created a new identity for you. He killed Talia Winters and made you her moderately-distant relative. She's Talia Summers, a P1 who'll be free to go as soon as we take her statements and a doc clears her. She's not even a member of the Corps. Damn, I've run this past Garibaldi and he hasn't noticed anything suspicious - he even took this as another confirmation of your death. I'm sure he'll poke into it and he has a knack for digging out truths so I better confess before he figures it out on his own but him not being immediately suspicious is a miracle of sorts. So you'd be free to do whatever you think you should be doing. The ones who experimented on you – and some of them are still somewhere out there - should think you're dead. None of them should have the resources Garibaldi has now. That's the good news."
Susan paused for a while and fought to keep the courage to do what she wanted to do next.
"The sort-of-bad news is this."
And she reached into a pocket and tossed the Vorlon datacrystal to Talia.
"A datacrystal? What's on it?"
The question elicited a bitter chuckle.
"You want the answer I was given?"
"Well... Yes."
"Reflection. Surprise. Terror. For the future."
It was Talia's turn to pale.
"I... I nearly forgot about that. So what's wrong with me? What have they found? What have they prepared for me?"
"There's nothing wrong with you Talia. Well, by that I meant that this is not about any terminal illness or mental defect or such. And I don't think they had some sinister plans with you. But the chances are this could bring the... the old you back. Seems that Jason himself confirmed the crystal is no fake and he wanted me to have it."
Talia's reply was sad and resigned.
"I see. And you're thinking about using it."
"No! OK, I'm not going to lie and say it hasn't crossed my mind; a part of me wants to use it. But I'm not planning to. The crystal's yours."
Talia's brows arched in confusion.
"Why? I mean, of course I'm glad you're letting me live. But don't you want my old self back?"
Susan knew her reasons but she still flinched a little when it came to throwing her best chance away.
"Yes. I do want the old you back. I want her even more than I wanted her before, now that I'm a little wiser. But I'm not going to kill a living personality to possibly revive a dead one. Otherwise I'd be no better than those I've fought so many times before."
Listening to this was somehow too much for Talia. She stood up from her bed, grabbed a pillow and walked the three steps that separated her from Susan. Seating herself beside the chair, with her back towards it and her arm reaching up past her shoulder, she tried to intertwine Susan's fingers with her own, hoping Susan wouldn't pull away. She hoped Susan knowing she was full of Sleepers would lessen her fears of contact between them. She was not even sure if she was asking for support or offering it. And unable to look directly at Susan she spoke towards the floor in a faltering voice.
"I'm so sorry. I never asked to be created and even now, after you've rescued me, I'm still causing you pain. You know something? I've even tried to sort of restore my old self, back when I began to become sensible again. Surprised? They've mostly left me to deal with my mind on my own and they've even let some information about the outside world get to me. They've also let me realize I've been deceived and mindraped, because them no longer warping my mind and then letting it reassert itself into a more natural state meant better chances of me tapping whatever Jason left inside me. I'm not my old self and I know it, though."
Talia had to pause for a second but then she drew a deep breath and continued, not realizing her thoughts were drifting away.
"I'm so tired and jaded I can't even properly hate them anymore. I've been made to sort of kill myself, then I've failed at saving myself and now I'm stopping you from reviving my older and happier self. She saw you as her soulmate, her memories helped me survive the last few years without going insane and the cruel resulting paradox is that me becoming wiser in the process prevents you from reviving her. And you know what? I still believe we need the PsiCorps or a similar organization. I've seen proof of mundanes having engineered a virus that would have let them kill or enslave *all* telepaths. The Corps ruined my whole life but without it we might have all died. I've been through hell to do my tiny bit in making sure we would survive. You come here and wave the offer of being able to pretend I'm a P1 and live a happy life in front of me but I can't accept that. Damn, the datacrystal you gave me is an even greater temptation. I don't believe Jason would OK something that would hurt me. I want such a life so desperately that it hurts but I know I can't have it. I can't run away and hide when there's a war coming. I want both mundanes and teeps to survive it. I couldn't live that comfortable life even if you could turn me into my old self - I have no doubt she would join this war too. It's a shitty universe we live in, is it not?"
Susan didn't know what to say or do. She felt her closeness with Talia reviving and holding her hand made her feel like they could share their pain and help each other deal with it. She didn't see Talia's face but she was pretty sure there were tears on it. So she simply listened to Talia's words, the datacrystal she came in with becoming just one troubling fact in a sea of misery. A part of Susan's mind suspected that its depth was in part caused by Sleepers. The drug's effect on a teep could feel worse than suddenly becoming deaf and mute feels to a mundane. It disables their senses, isolates them from other people. Sometimes it affects their minds in other ways too, after a time it even drove her mother to suicide. But she could also see the logic behind those depressing words. It was quite likely that there *was* a war coming on between mundanes and telepaths. She knew the dividing line wouldn't be clear-cut, there would be mundanes on the telepaths' side and vice versa. But she saw that conflict looming on the horizon. And she could see how Talia, who has lived on nothing but the Corps' propaganda, might believe her place was inside the Corps.
But Susan also saw hope. She's seen many other telepaths understand the world was even more complicated than they thought. And Talia was smarter than most. She could be made to understand it again.
It only took that one word for Susan to go from feeling moved to being totally terrified. A moment ago both women were trying to open to the other. Susan was trying to regain at least a piece of closeness with the Talia she remembered, to put some sort of closure to what has happened between them all those years ago, to help a friend in need, to touch the old Talia she sensed inside the new personality, and Talia's usual psychic shields were down because of Sleepers - and she was holding Susan's hand. The hand which jerked away as if Talia was made of red-hot metal. It was because that one word was not spoken aloud and Susan's first reaction was to break their physical contact. Her mind unconsciously touched Talia's, in the same way she sometimes touched her mother's mind when she was a child. And the realization that she has made this mistake made Susan freeze in pure terror.
Talia, still seated on the pillow she placed next to Susan's chair, turned her head around and stared at Susan with shocked eyes.
"I was not imagining it, was I?"
No reply came.
"I'm really sorry, I don't know what happened. I thought I was on Sleepers and I do feel that way. Damn! Susan?!? Are you sure the Sleepers you have aboard are OK? It felt somehow strange and weak but it sure was a telepathic contact. You know I've never touched your mind without permission, I'm really sorry for this and believe me I didn't think it could happen now. But please, now we first have to make sure the other teeps aboard don't get out of control? Susan? Should I call the guards?"
This finally helped Susan snap out of it. Her voice was firm because years of command taught her how to keep it firm no matter what.
"No, I'll be OK. And you'd figure it out after a while so I'll be honest. The Sleepers are working just fine. This was my fault."
"Your fault?!? You've ordered I be given smaller doses? That's..."
It finally dawned on Talia that Susan's behavior was not corresponding with her theories. She stopped reacting and she began to think. Her tone changed from concerned and apologetic into surprised and caring.
"Wait. Are you suggesting *you* are a telepath?!?"
Susan forced herself to relax and she put her hand atop Talia's.
"Yes. Well, I'm not really a teep, but the rules say I am. I've known since childhood."
"I can't believe I've never noticed. Damn, I can't believe nobody ever noticed. How?"
"I'm so weak I would only count as a P1 because the scale doesn't go any lower. You're the first person - not counting my mother - that I've ever managed to touch like this. And she taught me to turn it off and hide it and not think about it."
"Then why did you..."
Talia saw Susan's finger reaching for her lips in a gesture asking her to stop talking. So she stopped, closed her eyes and savored the gentle touch that came split of a second later. It spoke volumes about trust and about their regrowing mutual bond. And she hoped it would last just a little longer. It did, because Susan needed a few moments to find her next words.
"You're so much like the Talia I've known and I've missed you for so long that I've let my guard down. You said you saw me as your soulmate but truth is I never realized I felt the same way about you until long after I've lost you. It was a subconscious thing, I was still searching for words and trying to explain... And I'm sorry."
Talia's eyes snapped open.
"Are you telling me you still have feelings for, well, me? Or at least my old me?"
Susan couldn't bear the thought of lying to the woman who showed her so much courage and honesty trying to lay all her cards into the open and apologizing for something that was hardly her fault. She saw Talia try oh so hard to earn back her friendship and prove she was willing to really open herself up. Susan couldn't repay that by a lie.
"I'm not sure. My heart and I are not talking to each other anymore. You were the last person I've let myself fall for and I've taken those feelings and put them somewhere safe where they couldn't hurt me again. I just hope that now that you know I'm a rogue teep you'll understand why falling for you was so difficult for me."
A thin, sad and ironic smile played itself across Talia's face.
"They've left their marks on both of us, haven't they?"
"Yes, they have. They weren't the only ones but they sure were no slackers. Heck, I'm so twisted that the most important advice a being older than the Earth itself gave me was that I should embrace love."
"And have you?"
"Well... You heard me, Talia. I wouldn't call myself embracing love. More like evading it so that nobody gets hurt again. Or at least not those around me or I. I've taken my feelings for you and pushed them deep into a walled-off section of my soul, and I've been doing my best not falling for anyone else ever again. Sorry."
"Well the good news is that I'll know where to search for those feelings of yours once I come knocking."
The little twitch that went through Susan's body told Talia her last comment hurt and she hurried to explain.
"Oh - I'm sorry for that. Susan, I keep forgetting that I'm not the Talia you remember. You see, my old memories are now, well, mine. So *I* remember being in love with you, even though I know it was not entirely me. Sometimes it gets kind of confusing and hearing you talk about it all... Sorry."
Seeing Talia this miserable reminded Susan of her resolution to fight for happiness, both Talia's and her own.
"Talia, you *are* the one I fell for. You've been hurt, changed, mindraped as you've put it, but you're way more similar to your old self than you're giving yourself credit for. Those memories are simply yours. I'm just having troubles dealing with what has happened to you. I keep telling myself we have to heal you and rediscover each other but the truth is a big part of me wanted to pull you into my arms and hold you and maybe even cry a little ever since you came aboard. Why do you think my telepathy kicked in? I'm not dead inside. I want to hold you and heal you and maybe something more again. I'm just afraid it will go wrong, as it always did. You are alive and I don't want to lose you again."
"Then stop being afraid, at least for a while, please?"
Talia rose from her position but she never let go of Susan's hand. In fact she reached down for the other one and then she tugged gently. Not strongly enough to pull Susan out of her chair but the signal was clear. And Talia's voice betrayed her emotions and her desperate efforts to put a little more optimism into her words.
"I'll be a good girl, I promise. I'm on Sleepers, you're a big strong soldier, we'll keep our clothes on and I'll keep my hands where it's decent. And maybe this is what we need. Maybe we need to stop keeping our distance from each other. No promises necessary? Just give us this chance? Susan? Please?"
The need that Susan saw in Talia's eyes was not sexual and she would have ran away if it was. It was a need of comfort, closeness, of reforging the bond that got broken years ago. Talia was not demanding. She was opening herself to Susan and asking her to accept the invitation.
Which she did.
Talia's warmth, the simple act of holding her breathing form in her arms, felt like breaking of ice on a spring morning. The old wounds inside Susan's soul were opening but the body pressed against her kept her alive. Time lost meaning and when their sobs and painfully clenched muscles and shivers eased off, Talia's quicker breathing slowed down to match Susan's. Neither of them really knew when they've moved onto the bed. Having the other this close, holding onto her, feeling her need to be there with you, was enough. And then, when Susan was finally able to speak coherently again and when she shared what she knew about Talia's children, it was Talia's turn to borrow the strength her heart needed to survive. But in the end, when Talia finally spooned into Susan's arms and their dazed and exhausted minds made them fall asleep in a familiar position, the seeds of hope in their souls were growing.
"Good morning, Miss Summers. What can I do for you?"
Amanda's look was perfect, down to her gloves. Her attire and the small badge left no room for doubts. Her voice was equally perfect, letting Talia know she would do her best to help. And Talia knew the woman was dealing with other rescue-es from Vincent Lewis too. Rumor was she was even a part of the mission team, although being only a P2 she had to have more guts than common sense. Come as it may, she was the only teep and shrink aboard Titans so it was not like Talia had a much of a choice in whose office to head for.
"Good morning, Mrs Bridgestone. I trust you've read my file if you know who I am?"
"Yes, I did. Now would you like to take a seat?"
Talia seated herself and fought to keep calm.
"I trust I can depend on your confidentiality, Mrs Bridgestone? And is it safe to speak here?"
"Of course."
"Thanks, and let's not waste your time. I'm not sure whether you have this on file but I've been conditioned to respond to certain visual stimuli. You could say I can be reprogrammed remotely. My controllers, if I may call them that, have used this technique when I served as their agent. And even though they might never get caught, I have in my possession a datacrystal which is likely to reverse what they did to me."
"I see. And you're thinking about using it. I guess you've realized this could be something of a suicide, a death of personality?"
The speed with which the shrink understood the situation gave Talia a pause but she continued, her determination to get this done pushing her forward.
"Yes. But the process is supposed to be very sophisticated, far beyond what's commonly available. And I have it on good authority that my current personality is nearly identical to my old self. You might even say a part of the first process returned a part of me back to my even older self, one much more naive about what being loyal to the Corps means and then pushed on to turn me into an unthinking tool. I was no violent criminal or such, the changes were far less severe than a common mindwipe is, so this new process should be similarly limited. I know it all sounds like I've gone funky in the head but could you give me the benefit of doubt?"
Amanda sighed and rose from her seat. Then she began to walk back and forth in the space behind her desk, as if she needed to be moving in order to think.
"I'm sorry to question your words but I could argue that fact is your mind has been toyed with, you have no close relatives and nobody aboard Titans ever served on your homeworld for more than a month. My conscience, if not legal reasons, tells me that blindly trusting your words would be irresponsible. How would you know your own perceptions of yourself are correct? Or are you telling me somebody aboard knew you? So let's do it this way: you promise we keep this on a theoretical level, at least for now, and I'll pretend we don't have to doubt you. Is it a deal?"
Talia thanked her lucky stars. She was afraid the shrink would poke into things she didn't want poked into or declare her crazy. Instead she turned out willing to listen to her story, as weird as it had to seem.
"There's not much more to tell. The question is, why am I thinking about doing it? I'm afraid a part of me is trying to atone for my past deeds. The process will, at least I think it will, somehow merge my new me and my old self. So it should not be a conventional suicide. There are many good reasons to undergo this procedure. It should return me to a more natural state, it should remove any remaining hidden commands and such, it should remove the occasional feeling that I'm not really myself and do not belong in this body... But I'm still afraid of it. And I'm afraid I'm so eager to do it because I feel guilty, which should not be a reason for doing something like this. What if this is just a more sophisticated way of running away from my responsibilities? I can't let you enter my mind fully but maybe you could scan my emotions while we talk and help me understand myself?"
Amanda stopped her walk and turned to face Talia.
"I'm afraid that we will have to do this without me as much as touching your mind, unless you'll be able to bring captain Ivanova here and convince her to allow it. For starters, some of the things in your file require certain clearances. However, one could say that I have more experience than you'd expect from someone in my position. Mind if I ask a few questions?"
"I expected you to."
"Good, let's get to it. How sure are you that what you're planning will work the way you've described it? Are you sure this will be a merge instead of something worse?"
"I'll admit I'm working on hope as much as on facts. But it was OK'd by the wisest and most powerful telepath I have ever met - and trust me, he was an exceptional man."
"OK, round two. Are you expecting any negative impact? Physical, mental, personal?"
This time it took Talia a little longer to give her thoughts form.
"I have an old friend who might feel horrified by the idea and she's about the only friend I have left. I've lost pretty much everything else during the war - family, friends, money, my personal belongings, everything. She was friends with my old self and I'm quite sure she'd be OK with this new me but she'd feel partially responsible for pushing me towards what she might consider a sort of suicide."
"Even though she would be OK with both your old self and the new one?"
"Yes. I'm hesitant to go into details but she's had a lot of bad experience with telepaths, so she's justifiably distrustful of such things."
"Mhmm... One more question: are you satisfied with your current self?"
Finding the answer to this one was even harder and Talia's voice grew more hesitant and uncertain.
"On the whole? Yes, although I'd like to get rid of the problems I've already described. And I'm trying to see my plan as an opportunity to heal, not a suicidal plan. You could say I'd feel satisfied if it wasn't for my past chasing me. And I have too many scars inside my soul."
"Good. My first advice would be to wait till you can talk to your friend and see if you can convince her to accept the procedure. You should also see professional help before you make the decision. If, though that's a big if, your theories turn out to be correct, you should gain more than you'll lose. Is this analysis sufficient or would you like me to schedule a proper appointment?"
Talia paused to think. The advice seemed sensible, given how little she could afford to explain. And she wouldn't go ahead with the plan till she's had a chance to explain it to Susan.
"No need for one, I think you have other patients who need you more than I do now."
"More than I'd wish for. However, since you're here, I'd like to ask for some favors. Do you have a minute?"
Talia had no idea what kind of favors Amanda might ask for. Not to mention that she was hardly in a position to grant any favors. But listening to Amanda seemed the polite thing to do.
"Yes, I do. I'm not sure I'll be of much help, though."
"You will. First thing is, I'd like to ask you to accept my apologies for certain deceptions I'm guilty of. It is my hope than once you see through them you'll know enough to understand them, so in a way I'm offering my apologies to some future you. Pardon me a little cliche, but I'm doing this for your own good."
The words alone made some alienation creep into Talia's attitude.
"Mrs Bridgestone, do I have to tell you how many times I've had to suffer something for my own good?"
Amanda's expression changed for a moment, as if she was looking into her own memories, but her voice remained as patient and friendly as before.
"I know, but the difference is I'm not doing anything to you. My own past was quite eventful and it gives me a unique perspective, Ms Summers, even though I'm not ready to reveal it to you yet. I'm trying to help you, to the best of my ability, even if it means not telling you certain things today. And I think it is better to admit that now and apologize rather than stay silent and wait for when you discover my deceptions on your own."
"I've rarely benefited from being deceived or kept in the dark."
"I can imagine. However, you don't have to accept those apologies. Maybe one day you'll remember them and that'll be enough for me."
"OK, I can live with that. Anything else?"
"Why, of course! I'd like to ask you to think about taking over my job. Not now, of course. But I'll be leaving my position soon and this ship could benefit from you taking it up. I'd do my best to make sure you'd become my successor and I'd be happy to do so."
Now this was downright suspicious and Talia felt her breathing quickening.
"Are you sure you're asking for a favor? Seems more like you're offering one. And I'm definitely not fit for the job, not until I get my own mind sorted out."
Amanda smiled. It was a wide, happy, amused smile.
"Yes, I know. Let's say I love to see happy ends, especially since I've seen too few of them lately. And because I'm pretty sure I could name your friend, because you two would make a great couple and because having her as your moral compass would be damn useful, *you* would be doing *me* a favor."
This was a surprise that left Talia speechless. She was sure she would have noticed Amanda scanning her and she was equally sure Susan would notice it too, now that she knew Susan was a teep. Heck, Amanda was just a P2, she couldn't have found out by reading her mind. OK, Susan spent the night in her cabin, but surely that wasn't enough for Amanda to know what she apparently knew. Or was it? Were rumors aboard this ship that fast?
"I guess half the crew know by now?"
"No, not really. I would go as far as to say none of them know. Most of them have no idea something is going on and maybe a handful are confused about some of your actions. But I have my sources and my methods. Captain Ivanova is not very fond of them - or of me, to be honest - but I'm sure she'll gladly share a word or two that will explain enough. Until next time?"
Susan was waking up. She's always had a hard time getting up and this morning was no different. But something was wrong. Something was missing.
She woke up with a start. She was in Talia's bed and the thing that was missing was Talia.
Talia was still missing. But there was a com pad in front of the door and she sighed in relief.
"Good morning, Susan. I didn't want to wake you up and there's something I need to think about and I need some help with that. You can find me in Medlab, visiting your psychologist, or grabbing us a bite to eat. Love, Talia."
Susan hurriedly put her shoes on, grabbed her link and bolted for the door. And once outside she broke into run. She made it to the lift in record time and it arrived exactly the moment she stopped in front of it.
The door opened to reveal Talia carrying a breakfast tray. The sight was so surprising and breathtaking that Susan simply stepped aside and let Talia out. She remained composed and calm towards the guard who accompanied Talia but the second the door closed and the lift was away her voice betrayed her tension.
"I thought you were in medlab!"
Talia's smile, already cheerful and innocent, widened a little. It was obvious that she was getting used to Sleepers and her mood has improved.
"I was. But it only took me about fifteen minutes. And now I'm bringing you breakfast. Where's the problem?"
"Well, to tell the truth... Mrs Bridgestone is sort of dangerous and I'm not sure I can trust her."
"Don't worry, she's so afraid of you that she plainly refused to scan me without your permission, even though I wanted just a surface scan, no deeper probes. I wasn't going to do anything that'd blow my cover. And I'd never let anyone find out about your secrets, Susan. Not that she could, being a P2."
Susan sighed. How much should she tell Talia? She waited till they were both back in Talia's cabin before she spoke up.
"Talia, Mrs Bridgestone is a rogue P11 and she's the one who gave me that Vorlon datacrystal. She knows who you really are, she even knows about me - Jason told her - and she used to be an agent of the Shadows so that P11 rating is not enough to describe her. She's probably the fourth most dangerous telepath you've ever met. The only ones who are more dangerous are Kosh, Jason and Lyta. Her husband is a technomage. She's almost certainly more dangerous than Bester himself."
Talia, watching Susan take the first bites of her breakfast, was in a jollier mood than ever in at least several months. The words had much less impact than Susan expected.
"And she's a world-class actress, I'll add. I never noticed anything suspicious. I'm amazed you have her on your ship, Susan. I know you have a soft spot for blips and I'm oh so glad you did this for me but you're risking too much."
"I had little choice in the matter. Damn, I've scalded my tongue! Anyway, I have to keep an eye on her till we figure out what to do about her, plus she's the one who told us about Vincent Lewis."
Talia's mood was still happy but she was visibly reining in her emotions and putting more thought into her words.
"I guess you've already had that Minbari teep check her?"
Susan simply nodded, her mouth full of sandwich, but after a few seconds she continued.
"Of course, she passed with flying colors. But she's been touched by the Shadows; she could still be hiding some nasty surprise and maybe not even know it."
Talia sighed.
"Mrs Amanda Bridgejekyll, a good girl who occasionally turns into a monster. Damn, it could be almost funny, if I didn't have something like that happen to me. Anything we could do to find out?"
"I don't think so. Lyta's about the only teep I could trust to be able to notice something like that and she's out of touch. The best we can do is be polite and stay on guard. Must suck to be her but this is something I can't help her with. And what about you, Talia? Is there something I could help with, now that I'm awake?"
Talia sighed and the cheery mood she arrived with faded even more. For a moment she seemed to be looking for an escape route but then her self-control won.
"Promise you'll think before you freak out?"
"I'm not going to like this, am I?"
Talia tried to project at least a little bit more assurance and she placed her hand atop Susan's.
"I hope you'll love the result. But no, you're not going to like it. Promise?"
"Okay, promise."
"I've been thinking about the datacrystal you gave me and I think it will work by merging my old self with my new me. Wait, this is not just wishful thinking, I do have logical arguments. First, Jason surely must've noticed Control in me in the first place and then he confirmed this mission go when I was already back to my senses. Second, it is unlikely that the process could simply copy any old personality into a body and brain that's constantly changing and noticeably different from the state it was in when the program was made. And the last one, the Vorlons are said to have been able to detach a part of themselves and rejoin it later, so they must know such techniques."
"So you want to give it a try."
Talia seemed hesitant for a moment and her voice lost some of its optimism.
"Yes, I'm thinking about it. Susan, I do know how scary it sounds and I do know it will not give me any absolution. But look at me. I would always know this body could be considered stolen. I'd be always wondering if there's some hidden programming in me that the Corps could activate."
She took a deep breath, and added one more reason.
"I'd always be wondering what would it be like, to have a chance to get closer to you again."
Susan had to hide behind her sandwich for a moment before she replied.
"Talia, I don't want you to risk this because of me. I'll rather fight my fears of your new you than make you kill yourself so I could have your old you back. And I'm not so dumb I'd forget I'm comparing you to my *memories* of you. I'd rather take my chances with someone who's alive. I think you are your old self, all we need is to heal you."
Some part of Talia wanted to back down, to enjoy the opportunities these words seemed to offer. The rest of her knew better.
"I know, and I can't tell you how happy knowing this makes me. But *I* do not feel truly alive. It often feels like I'm living a stolen life, afraid I'm some kind of clockwork personality. Sometimes, when it is all quiet, I can look into my own mind and almost see the scars and welds and wounds and walls and dark places that they've left in there. And I'm tired of such life. Reason tells me it could all be healed, given two or five years of therapy, but I don't want to wait that long and they'd probably *have* to make certain corrections telepathically anyway. I want to find out what they did to my children and I want them to have a mom, not a patient. Using that datacrystal might be marginally riskier but I'm willing to take that risk. Susan, you are the only thing that's stopping me from doing this as soon as possible. Yet I hope you'll understand why I want to do it and that you'll accept it. Just tell me what I have to do and I'll do it. You need time? You'll have it. But please, promise we'll work this out."
There was a growing sadness in Susan's voice, as if she was trying to accept a grim decision she didn't like.
"I don't know how much time I'll need, Talia. Could be a minute, could be a year, could be eternity. I don't know what that crystal will do and maybe I'll have no control over it. I'll have to take a leap of faith and God knows I've had too many of those end up badly. I've sent too many people to die because I had to and now you're asking me to possibly kill you when I don't have to. I'm not sure I can do it, or at least do it anytime soon."
"Susan, please, I do understand how you're feeling about this but I'm not asking you to kill me. I just want you to understand why I want to give this a try, and I hope you'll accept my choice. And I'm not saying I have to do it today."
Susan had to put the rest of her breakfast away. She would not be able to swallow even one more bite, and not because she was stuffed.
"Talia, I *would* be the one doing the killing. The crystal needs two joined minds to work - and I'm supposed to be the best candidate for this task. I *want* to help you but..."
Susan's voice faded away and Talia, until then sitting on her bed and pretending to nibble on dry toast, went pale. And even when the first shock faded Talia had to fight her urge to take Susan into her arms again. She sighed.
"Have I mentioned that the universe's a bitch?"
"Yes, you have. Sorry."
"I'm sorry too. Susan, I never thought you'd have to do something like that. I've assumed it would be sort of, well, automated. It used to be, back when they were controlling me. All I had to do was stare at a screen."
"No, it is not. I'd do just about anything to help you, I promise I'll help you find your children, I'll get Lyta - damn, I'd be willing to ask *Amanda* to save your little Lauren. But this... This doesn't feel like help."
The sudden end of this debate, caused by her link coming alive and her having to rush away, was something Susan welcomed.
Ensign Hendricks was in cryo. The report came in at the moment when Susan was finally ready to get off duty and it brought a fresh wave of sadness with it. The procedure was the only thing that could have been done to save him and it was damn unlikely he could be brought out of it anytime soon, which was almost as bad as being dead. So Susan set out for a stroll through her ship, hoping to clear her head before she'd meet Talia again.
With a little luck Hendricks would only lose a few years but it was far more likely it'd be decades before he'd be alive again. He faced the prospect of waking up in a time where most of his family and friends will be either dead or aged, and the world around him will have changed tremendously.
Susan knew of such cases. Most of those who have been taken out of cryo never really managed to fit into modern society. They remained the odd ones, strangers in a world that always remained somewhat alien to them. Sure, the care they were receiving was getting better every year, but some things are very difficult to overcome. Most of them ended up living their lives surrounded by caring and true friends who were, through no fault of their own, incapable of fully understanding them.
Kinda like Talia or Lyta, a tiny voice in her head said.
The thought was not welcome but it would not go away. It saw an opening in Susan's defenses and headed straight for it, leading her to the same conclusion that she's arrived at several times already. This is what Talia wants, it said again - to live some semblance of a normal life. She wants to live, not merely to be alive. She can't imagine the walls around her disappearing by themselves, even though some of them are her own work. She has to suspect her own mind, and those around her too. And what would be worse? To spend years battling your own inner demons, knowing sooner or later a teep will have to tweak something inside your mind anyway, or to get it over with?
Besides, the voice continued, you've already sent who knows how many people into deadly situations. Ordering people to do things which might get them killed is a part of your job. You do it not because you want them to die. You do it because both you and they believe that some things should be done, or at least attempted, even if it means risking death. You're willing to risk your own life and you still torture yourself with the memories of those you've sent to die. So why treat Talia's case differently?
Susan was never the one to shirk away from her responsibilities. And once again she realized that this matter was her responsibility even though she never asked for it. No judge would ever call her responsible for Talia's well-being, of course. But there's laws and there's morals...
Susan sighed. Her own honor seemed to conspire against her. Giving Talia the chance she asked for looked like the proper thing to do, even if it meant Susan might kill her new personality.
"...And it's up and away in the morning
With the wind to our backs we will sail
And the ship may well take ya..."
The music and those jolly singing voices penetrated through Susan's gloomy thoughts. Her steps took her near one of the launch bays and the music was coming from that direction. No-one was supposed to be inside. She quietened her steps, even paused for a while.
"...Our virtues to spoil or at least to curtail
But the trouble with the boisterous
Sailors who roister's
Their choice is to run or to end up in jail..."
The launch bay itself was empty as the Starfury that should have been there was the one they'd lost fighting Black Omegas. But there was the technomage in there, gazing at the stars outside - and beside him Susan saw a holographic musical ensemble in vaguely historic costumes.
"...And it's up and away in the morning
And though we may never come home
We'll think of it often
'Till the day that our lead-weighted coffins
Get tossed in the foam
And it's up and away in the morning..."
The holographic band finally acted as if they'd noticed Susan and their voices faded away. Then their image flickered and disappeared and the technomage turned to face Susan.
"I hope you'll pardon the old man his quirks, captain."
"You're no old man, Mr. Bridgestone."
"I'm a wizard of sorts, so I'd say that makes me an honorary old man, captain."
Susan fought the urge to give him some snappy answer. His expression and his voice were almost boyish, she could see the innocent joy hiding just beneath the surface – even though she could also see the intelligence it was mixed with.
"OK, I can believe you do like the song. What's the *other* reason for letting me hear it?"
The technomage's expression became a lot more formal.
"It is a nice song to announce our farewell with. And we're planning to leave tonight so I wished to inform you in advance of the fact."
Hearing that made Susan pause for a moment. She was determined to tell Talia that she has changed her mind and she planned to use that Vorlon datacrystal as soon as the current mess got cleared. But she supposed the technomage would be there to assist if needed. Technomages were, after all, about the only faction in the Galaxy who could hope to show some understanding of Ancients' technology. He was not a friend, of course, but having him around meant less risk of some technology-related failure.
"Why? I mean, I'm not going to arrest you or anything, but why this soon?"
"You don't need us anymore. Earthside operations were hundred percent successful, the only two people who were likely to discover that the real Talia is alive are safely dead. All she has to do to remain safe is stay away from spotlights till she's ready to stand the heat, so to speak. I've been given to understand that you're friends with Ms Summers again, so whatever you do with that datacrystal is up to the two of you. We've pulled this one off without a failure. I don't want to push our luck. The two Metapol interns already aboard Titans are not very dangerous, the stronger one is a P7. But even though we've been lucky that two of the victims are mundanes – meaning the Psi Corps are being extra careful and it took them some time to find and get here investigators everybody could trust – we're expecting two real Psi Cops sometime tomorrow afternoon, possibly even sooner and I'd hate to have to fight them. And the probability they would notice there's something strange about Amanda and me is too high for my comfort. So we better leave before you have to explain an incident I'm not sure I'd like the result of to people like Bester."
Susan wasn't expecting him to be this cold-blooded. What he did to protect Talia was sensible, even restrained by common standards, but it was a thing a calculating operative would do. It let her know this was definitely not the first harsh decision he's had to make.
"Let me guess. You've tricked the telepath resistance into killing some black-ops teeps?"
"Now, I'm not not happy with purposefully leaking info that leads to a killing. I've never liked capital punishments either. But this is an imperfect universe, we have to work with what we've got. Both victims would have been killed or mindwiped within a week anyway, they knew too much - and the list of their crimes was quite long. Both sides would have wanted them dead. Two more dead bodies, with the words Remember Byron sprayed on on a nearby wall, will not draw attention to you. And we've never pushed anyone into those attacks, by the way - we've only passed on some info. The blips did the killing on their own initiative."
His words were sensible and he seemed sincere but they were another reminder of how harsh the universe often is, and the ease with which he dealt with it was somehow slightly irritating to Susan.
"Still feels like a Shadowy thing to do. Are you sure you're not going down the proverbial slippery slope?"
The man nodded before he answered and he seemed more sober than ever.
"Reasonably sure. As your Anla'Shok say, we walk in dark places no others will enter. You people from Babylon 5 know a hell of a lot about walking through dark places. Well, so do we, even though you've had it even worse. We walk and fight in darkness and shadows. We accept what it costs us. We often don't like the things we have to do. We have to put noticeable effort into keeping our humanity. But we will not fool ourselves into believing there's always a way that will let us play nice. Sometimes the best we can do is minimize the damage. You know how it is."
His words awoke both Susan's pragmatism and her idealism, as well as too many memories.
"I know it better than I'd wish to. Damn, I've said similar things myself. But I've seen too many people use such logic to justify all sorts of things."
The man nodded and then shrugged.
"Well, so have I. But the best I can do is tell you you have my blessing to hunt us down in case we ever go bad."
Seeing he was determined to leave and sensing he wouldn't stay without a fight she was unwilling to risk Susan decided to let him – and Amanda – go. There would be plenty of time to find and check the Shadow-touched telepath later, provided she wouldn't be doing her best to hide. Susan knew Amanda going into hiding would be the most likely result of forcing her to stay aboard Titans and she'd have to survive an encounter with two P12-rated Psi Cops first. The technomage's attitude indicated his willingness to join such a fight, meaning the two Psi Cops would probably be caught by surprise and Amanda was likely to survive. But such a duel would undoubtedly initiate an investigation that would threaten both Amanda and Talia, plus it would no doubt create other problems. All this knowledge and more flashed through Susan's mind and she decided to let him go.
"Glad to hear you're this confident, Mr. Bridgestone. How do you plan to leave us?"
"Nothing flashy, a run-of-the-mill shuttle I have on standby in hyperspace half an hour away from local jumpgate. It is a six-seater, so two passengers is perfectly reasonable."
Susan found Talia sitting cross-legged on her bed and reading something from a com pad. She seemed a little exhausted but her smile lit up the moment she recognized Susan.
"Hello Susan. You know I've been a bad girl today? I've managed to fool and deceive one poor defensele-"
Talia's mischievous smile suddenly faded and her happy words turned into a strangled, terrified gasp. Half a second later she fired off one long verbal burst.
"OhmygodSusanIwasn'ttalkingaboutyou! I'm not a hidden Control personality who has been deceiving you!" Talia seemed to calm down a little but she continued. "Well, technically I *am* what used to be the Control personality - but I've changed! And I'm being honest with you! Can I explain again?"
Susan sighed, letting patience and understanding show in her voice.
"Talia, I understand. I'm not going to pretend I feel no lingering doubts - but I trust you now. So what were you trying to say?"
Talia was obviously searching for words so Susan seated herself in the now-familiar chair. Talia's face was turning into a mixture of pride, joy, hesitation and shame.
"I was going to say I've fooled and deceived one poor defenseless Psi Cop intern. But then it occurred to me you might think I was going to say I've deceived one poor defenseless woman... And that you might think I was your enemy again. I sort of panicked..."
Susan rose up and moved to bed, seating herself so that her knees almost touched Talia's.
"I'm not scared. So what did you do to the poor Psi Cop? Is she alive?"
"Actually, she is a he. And yes, of course he is alive, and I'm amazed you can make jokes like that. He is Donald Jacobson, the P5 who took my statement today."
Talia finally managed to look into Susan's eyes again but her voice betrayed the inner struggle hidden beneath her jolly behavior.
"He's just a P5 and I've been trained, oh, I've been *created* to hide and deceive. So he believed my story. And I've been offered therapy, legal help, the whole package. They see me as an expendable P1 who's been kidnapped and knows next to nothing. So they're setting me free."
Hearing this flooded Susan with happiness but her logical self wanted to know more. So she simply listened to Talia as she continued.
"And I think I've felt Jason's touch again, or I guess some of his gift woke up today. I should not have been able to do it as perfectly as I did. I would fool a mere P5 but not a trained P12 Psi Cop he is likely to share his memories with. And I'm still on Sleepers, though I don't have to take them anymore. But I was perfect today. I could have believed myself! Donald seems a good man but I had no choice. So I lied to him. And now I feel horrible and happy at the same time. I'm not sure how much more I can take before I break apart."
Susan reached out and took Talia's hands into her own.
"You did what you did to protect yourself, to protect me and considering the situation we're in I think you are even protecting Mr Jacobson. Yes, you did the right thing. Ask yourself why you did it and you'll see you don't have to be afraid of who you are."
Talia's forehead rested on Susan's shoulder and her voice was tired.
"I know what you mean. But I'm still terrified of what might be lurking inside my mind. Please, don't give me any feel-good illusion, we both know the ugly truth. I shiver every time I catch myself doing something the old, fresh, fanatic Control me would do. Being a locked up test subject was sort of easy. I'm free now and I have no idea whether I'm just a wounded teep or a dangerous monster."
“Do you think Jason would be helping a monster run wild?”
Susan's question made Talia pause. Then her head rose; she looked directly into Susan's eyes and her voice was softer again.
“No. I don't think he would make such a big mistake. But my mind is still in a sorry state and even a small problem can have big consequences. I have to play this safe.”
“So what's your plan now?”
Talia drew a deep breath.
“I was thinking maybe you could help me move to Minbar.”
Susan's right eyebrow rose.
“Move to Minbar? What has happened?”
The sound that Talia made this time was half chuckle, half sigh.
“I'm still unpredictable, possibly dangerous. I want my babies back but I can't go searching for them now. This way I'll at least stop being a threat to the Interstellar Alliance.”
“You're one?”
Talia's forehead dropped back to Susan's shoulder.
“Susan, imagine what kind of damage an enemy agent, a telepath to boot, could cause if she got close to you. I've let this happen once and you all survived thanks to pure luck. I am not letting it happen again.”
The sadness in Talia's voice was growing with every word and Susan suddenly found her palms on Talia's shoulders, trying to comfort her.
“You're no enemy agent anymore, Talia. And what about the datacrystal?”
“I'm sorry, I can't wait for you to change your mind. I have to do something before it is too late.”
Susan spent a moment silently cursing herself for not telling Talia about her change of heart sooner.
“Talia... Look at me, please.”
Susan's voice was gentle, caring, loving. It was in stark contrast with Susan's appearance; a ship's captain, wearing a uniform, her hair in a tight ponytail, is not supposed to sound like that. It reminded Talia of things long past and Susan's palms were so close to her skin and Susan was trying to reach out to her... And for a split of a second Susan felt her mind connect with Talia's again and she saw a memory of herself. She was wearing a violet dressing gown, her hair was flowing free and she was smiling and looking directly into Talia's eyes and her voice... The experience surprised Susan and the telepathic connection broke but this time she didn't panic. She waited for Talia to raise her head once again and looked into her eyes.
“I've already changed my mind. I'm still scared, I'm afraid of losing you again, but if you want to use that datacrystal then I will help you.”
Susan saw Talia searching for words and not finding any. It was obvious that she was fighting a battle inside her mind and at least some of the words trying to find their way to her lips would try to refuse the offer – but no such words came out. And when she finally found some her voice was filled with emotions.
“Thank you.”
Talia closed her eyes for a few moments but her head remained motionless and then she opened them again.
There was no rush, no desperate need in the voice. It was filled with almost tangible trust and hope. It let Susan know she could set the time and pace and Talia would simply accept it.
“How about right now?”
“Are you sure?”
It was Susan's turn to close her eyes.
“Yes. I want to hold you in my arms again and... I want to help you. To help us.”
Susan opened her eyes again and continued.
“Are *you* ready?”
“I guess I'm as ready as I'll ever be.”
Susan took a deep breath.
“OK, grab the com pad and the datacrystal. I'll make myself comfortable, then you do the same and we'll begin.”
The bed was a simple one but Susan didn't mind. Sitting there, with a pillow behind her back and Talia's body in her arms, was a dream come true. Her chin was touching Talia's shoulder and she waited for their tension to flow away.
“I'm not sure how long this will take, Talia. I have to be touching your mind before we run the program on that crystal.”
“Take your time, Susan. I could get used to this.”
Talia's voice was almost innocent. It was not suggestive or demanding. It was simply an admission and it echoed Susan's feelings.
“So could I. You have no idea what it was like, to have you oh so close and to know that your mind joining mine could ruin my whole life. I'm not asking for your old you back. But I do want a healed you and I want to find my way to you again. I guess I never really got over losing you, Talia, even though I did my best to think otherwise. I want to stop being afraid of you.”
“I'm not blaming you for being afraid. I'm still asking myself – are my feelings true love, some unhealthy obsession, misplaced gratitude or a programmed emotion? I'm afraid of hurting you again. All I have is hope.”
Susan gently kissed Talia's neck. It was just a light touch of lips against skin, a fleeting moment, but it dispelled some of Talia's – and Susan's – fears.
“Hold onto it. I'm not saying we'll win. But we will give it our best, OK?”
Talia's left hand found Susan's and their fingers intertwined.
“I can't wait for this to be over. We are about to release a telepathic doomsday weapon upon the unsuspecting world and I'm still afraid we fucked up.”
Arthur Fletcher spared a few seconds to look at his wife and then he turned his attention back to piloting their shuttle.
“You know this is just your anxiety talking, love. Anyway, it is all out of our hands now and she's not the only doomsday teep in this Galaxy.”
Amanda flashed him a slightly nervous smile.
“And that's supposed to comfort me? Besides, I can tell you're still damn unhappy with deceiving, manipulating and using Susan and Talia.”
“Honey, if I had a penny for every single thing I did even though I was unhappy to...”
“ could open a museum, I know. And you're doing a great job shielding your thoughts. But I don't need telepathy to know how you feel, love, meaning I have to deal with both your emotions and mine.”
Arthur chuckled.
“I'm guilty as charged. The best excuse we have for what we're doing to them is that if we didn't use them, somebody else would. We are being pushed to do things we know the price of. They will have to pay that price and so will we. I hate this kind of stress. And knowing you...”
Amanda's smile turned into a satisfied one.
“Go ahead, finish those thoughts.”
“You're not reading them now.”
“Sure, I'm not. But I married a smart guy and I know him quite well.”
A minute went by before Arthur reached a conclusion.
“So... You were going to tell me that we need a break? We wait to see our devilish plan go off and then it is a month of you-and-me time? Because we've worked our asses off, our psyches are getting really worn out and we better let others deal with the fallout?”
“Bingo. You know I would never say it this harshly but yes, I'll let you watch the fireworks and then it is holiday time.”
Their eyes were closed, Susan's right palm was resting against the naked skin of Talia's stomach and Talia's left hand held it in place. Talia's breathing once again matched Susan's, the warmth of Susan's embrace was a comforting sensation and the familiar scent of Talia's hair filled Susan's senses and brought back old memories.
“I'm happy now, love. Any second thoughts?”
Talia's reply came a few seconds later.
“None that matter. Do you know you've never called me your love before?”
“Oh God, I'm afraid you're right. Sorry. But I'm a little wiser now, I hope. And trust me, I've spent a lot of time regretting that mistake. I'm not afraid of it anymore. Let me show you...”
For the first time in her adult life Susan let her guard down, dared to awaken her sleeping talent and tried to touch someone's mind. And despite all the lingering doubts she actually wanted to succeed. She wanted to touch Talia's mind, to join her, to deepen the closeness she already felt. But she was not a trained teep so she didn't know how to use her almost nonexistent talent. After a while she simply lost herself in the physical sensations and let her mind relax, trying to hope her desire to share her thoughts and emotions with Talia would find a way. She was absentmindedly nuzzling Talia's hair and then she felt the heat of her palm on their stomach. She was breathing in the same rhythm as Talia and she felt the happiness that comes within your love's embrace and they felt the joy of being together. They were aware of the com pad in Talia's hand but they simply enjoyed finally being together and sensing each others happiness. Susan's mind faltered, inexperienced and untrained, but Talia was ready to help with her own memories and skills and the brief divide between their minds was gone again. They saw the shadows inside their minds, the still fragile love, the scars they both bore. They flushed when they felt the heat of their desire, they tasted their own tears when they remembered their only night together and what came afterward. They saw each other through the eyes of their recent experience. They saw all the fears and feelings of inadequacy and guilty thoughts and shadows of past deeds and somehow managed to realize that all that was a part of being human and that even knowing each other's failings doesn't have to break their bond. They knew they were ready and their hand touched the com pad.
They felt the incomprehensible images attract attentions of something inside Talia's mind and they felt her switching into a trance-like state. They even panicked a little before they realized the Susan part of them was not being affected. And as the process continued they were becoming aware of Talia's mind becoming both more pliable and better capable of introspection. They found implanted constructs hiding in her subconsciousness, cleverly hidden and almost seamlessly integrated but now suddenly obvious and easy to remove. They suppressed their impulse to simply erase them and carefully inspected each one of them. Some were found wholly artificial and removed. Some turned out to be simply parts of Talia's own self, tweaked by outside influences; those they healed.
Next came the memories. Some of them became simply no longer hidden, some turned out to have been tampered with, some were revealed as implanted. And somewhere along the line they realized one thing – there was the old Talia hiding in those memories. She was no ghost, no hostile personality. She was Talia who saw both the world and herself a little differently, Talia who thought a little differently. Looking into themselves they realized that the part of them that was Talia could only be healed by merging her two sides into one. They knew their Talia part was both Talias at the same time.
More memories were coming and they recognized them as more than simply old facts. They were mostly situations and choices and they highlighted the differences between Talia's two selves. They drew their attentions to those differences. And reflecting on those differences and resolving them became one more step towards healing Talia. There were moments when one or both of Talia's sides would have been hesitant to accept some change or to accept some compromise as a beneficial one. But they felt Susan's love and her determination to help and her being a part of their joined minds turned possible conflict into a joint effort toward becoming one. They knew how vulnerable they were but they knew it was not Susan's nature to misuse such power. And when the really bad memories came, when they met all the nightmares, fears, surprises and pains they were ready enough and strong enough.
Minutes turned into hours and after a while they relaxed. All the damage seemed repaired, all memories corrected, all gaps gone and Talia seemed healed. Yet more memories were coming, some even arose from Susan's memory and the harmony they felt was comforting. Whatever was going on could have been sufficient even if the damage had been much worse or the helper less trusted. Now it was simply an opportunity to get to know each other on a level they never dreamed of before. It was also an opportunity to examine Talia's natural flaws and shortcomings and while they resisted the temptation to tweak anything the understanding they gained gave them a rare perspective. They learned where to focus their further efforts at improvement. And at long last it seemed the process was about to end. Somehow they knew that it could never be repeated, that the damage that made Talia susceptible to it was gone, but they also knew it was no longer needed.
The end was gentle and Talia's mind gradually switched back to normal. Yet they were hesitant to break their connection so they were still joined when another change came, this one as fast and unstoppable as an exploding bomb. It brought a sensation of a third eye opening. And they felt both shock and elation when they understood that the limits of Talia's powers and abilities were far beyond what she was used to.
Jason's gift did not spend the last few years nearly dormant. Talia's gradual change into a P7-rated teek was only a side effect. Whatever the gift was it spent that time changing her, modifying her, preparing ground for the possibility that a teep beyond P12 would be needed NOW. And something inside Talia saw that need and it saw she was ready.
The memory that somehow found its way from deep inside Talia's mind was of Kosh.
“Understanding is a three-edged sword.”
And they felt that that little glimpse of a greater understanding that was filling their thoughts was true.
Talia was the third edge. Lyta has been left behind by Vorlons. Amanda has been left behind by Shadows. And Talia has been left behind by Jason Ironheart - a human ascended into who knew what planes of existence – so she could represent younger races.
The threat represented by Psi Cops suddenly seemed much less severe. There was more to it than that Talia's newly awakened powers were something her whole body and mind have been prepared for. She also had memories some P12s shared with her back when she was still a trainee and now she had both the abilities and the knowledge. While she never expected to suddenly gain such powers they discovered she was at least partially ready to use them. And her Control past made her even better at hiding certain things than she used to be. She could pretend to be Talia Summers and stay safely hidden even if Bester himself showed up. And then she would be free to explore her new abilities, free to find and rescue her children.
Next they realized that this was no free ticket to happiness. They knew all too well what Lyta has had to go through. And they realized that Amanda's apologies must have been intended for this new Talia too. It became obvious that this must have been the outcome she has been hoping for and that she knew the burden she was saddling Talia with. Yes, she would be safe now – for a while. But there was still a telepath war on the horizon, the Interstellar Alliance was still in its infancy, the younger races were alone in the Galaxy... The three of them – Lyta, Amanda and Talia – could work 24/7 and it still might be not enough. And there was no telling how many of them would survive the coming years, because even their powers had their limits.
In the end they've simply accepted the situation and moved on. The Shadow War taught them that sometimes one has to fight for what one believes in. They were no strangers to such fights. And the most important thing this latest turn of events brought was that their chances of winning these fights went up, which was a welcome change.
It was time to separate. And time to fall asleep. Their clothes were soaked with sweat, exhaustion turned Susan's hand on Talia's stomach into nothing more than an embrace and a physical contact, Susan's back and neck were aching. The mental image of a shared shower inspired nothing but happy smiles and mutual reassurance that one day they'd want it to lead to more. Now, even the shower could wait till morning.
And after a few more moments of being one they became two again.
Waking up in someone else's bed never felt better, Susan decided. Two worn-out people sleeping in a narrow bed barely comfortable for one is usually far from perfect but that didn't matter. Susan and Talia spent the rest of the night with their minds almost joined and this closeness helped their sleeping bodies act as one.
However, making the best out of an uncomfortable situation doesn't turn the situation into a comfortable one. Especially if one only has had four hours of sleep. And when one is not a mornings person. The combination soon redirected Susan's thoughts.
"I feel like a klutz."
Hearing those words made Talia kiss Susan's shoulder.
"Good morning, love. And don't worry, even now I'm happier than I've been in years."
Susan pulled Talia's left hand towards her lips and placed several gentle kisses onto Talia's fingers.
"I'm not saying I am a klutz. But I feel like one. This is the third night you've spent in bed with me and look at us. And I want you so much it hurts but at the same time I'm actually glad nothing has happened. Damn, you know what I mean.'
Talia's hand drew Susan deeper into Talia's embrace.
"I do. And I'll wait for you. I can tell you're afraid of losing me again. And truth be told, I'm not exactly hundred percent sure I'll be able to deceive them all today. But I'll do my best to fool them and we can take our time afterwards. I've dreamed about this for years. I can wait a few more days or months, love."
Susan's voice was slightly angry and Talia could tell Susan was angry at herself.
"Thank you. It is just that I feel I should *seize* this opportunity but I'm afraid to do it because I'm afraid I'll lose you again. Oh, I do know you're past P12 now. But this is about feelings, not facts. I tell myself I can wait a few days but next moment I'm imagining the Psi Cops taking you away again. I hate being this fragile."
Talia landed a few kisses onto Susan's neck before answering.
"You're not. But a part of you is a pessimist and a proverbial Russian. I'm *sure* you would be able to overcome your fears, love. But I don't need you to. Save your energy for whatever else you might need it for today - you know we've strengthened your mental shields but we'll be facing P12s soon. Sure, we think they have no reason to suspect us but that could change. I love holding you in my arms and I would love to do more than that but I also want us to survive. I'll wait for when the time is right."
Suddenly, Susan laughed.
"You know, I just recalled something Garibaldi showed me once, a short vid from some friend of his. Some spacefighter ace from some ancient cartoon or something saying 'I'm a man who makes the impossible possible'. And you know what? I think that we can actually make the impossible possible, again, today."
Susan spoke the second the door of Talia's new office closed behind them.
"OK, no boom today. Boom tomorrow. There's always a boom tomorrow."
Talia smiled.
“You don't sound like you really believe it, Susan.”
Susan's expression was one of amused determination.
“I'm not eager to. But somebody has to have some damn perspective around here.”
Talia's smile remained in place.
“I don't believe this sentiment goes all the way to the bone.”
Susan took a seat and sighed.
“No, it does not. I'm trying real hard to not be the pessimist I used to be. And a part of me never was, otherwise I would have given up too many times in my life. But you know the old saying: hope for the best, prepare for the worst? We fooled them all today but all it would take is one screwup. I have to rein in our optimism. I'm still trying to guess how long before we can stop hiding."
"I think a year or two tops, probably much less. It won't take me that long to tell the Alliance everything useful and after that I'll no longer be perceived as a threat they have to react to. All the damage they think I could deal will have been done already. Not many people know about Jason's gift and those who do nowadays probably think he simply made me a teek and boosted my rating up to P7. A nice boost and the Corps would love to be able to do that but nothing game-breaking. Nobody understands how he did it even though they've been trying to work it out it for years. You think many people will try making me a lab rat again, considering the friends we have now?"
Susan wanted to reach across the table and take Talia's hands into her own but she knew doing that would be too risky. She sent Talia a smile instead, forced herself to relax a little and moved on to her next question.
"I'll kill anybody who tries to hurt you. So... You really are our new shrink. God knows we can use one but I'm still amazed they let *you* inherit the position. I'm actually a little afraid to take a look into who pulled what strings - but it all seems legitimate. I guess we can thank Michael, or maybe Delenn. So what are your plans for your new career?"
Talia put on her seductive face, somewhat in contrast to her joyful voice.
“I think I'll work hard to get into our brave captain's good graces because I think I'll fall in love with her.”
“You already are. Hey, I *know* you are, because I'm the captain here and I do know what you feel for me! You don't have to doubt your feelings anymore.”
Susan felt Talia's mind reach out and envelop her in a loving, comforting embrace. It was an invisible thing and anyone barging into the office would see both women seated opposite each other, divided by Talia's desk, but it was almost as pleasant as the real deal.
“I know, love. I guess I should have said I will be *seen* falling in love with our brave captain. I'll abuse my similarity to her old friend, I'll abuse my civilian status that makes it more than OK for her to fraternize with me, I'll even show a mild case of hero worship. I'll admire my savior, I'll bribe supply corps guys to get my hands on rare gifts, I'll pursue her until she either sends me away or succumbs to my womanly charms. Any idea how long that will take?"
Susan knew she was smiling and she knew the grin on her face would feel more comfortable on a teenage face. But she couldn't help it. The chance to enjoy all the romance, courtship and seduction, with all the comfort and sense of security that came with knowing both Talia's and her own feelings, was almost too good to be true. Her already learning mind took advantage of the connection Talia created and glyphed her giving Talia a quick but firm kiss.
“I'm yours already. But five or six weeks sounds like a reasonable timeframe. I'm sure the reward will be worth the wait and no matter what your new abilities are, I don't want to attract Bester anywhere near us. Can you wait that long?”
"So, would you like to come in for a drink?"
The question was so by-the-book and sort-of-hesitant it caught Talia by surprise. The whole dinner has been pure joy and knowing there were others watching the two of them together was almost enough to make Talia visibly beam with pride and happiness. Look, everybody, the captain is willing to be seen dining with me! And we're holding hands! Of course, they would never guess she never had to doubt Susan's love. They could hardly be expected to know that the true impulse behind this open display of affection was that both Susan and Talia were finally beginning to feel safe enough. The two months since Talia's recovery gave Garibaldi enough time to perfect their cover story and they gave Talia enough time to woo Susan. And walking Susan to her quarters made Talia forget most of her remaining worries and simply be a woman in love. Susan's question created a moment of confusion but then she realized Susan was still pretending, still playing her role and - at the same time - also considering offering more than just a drink.
"I'd love it, as long as it is not vodka."
Susan's amused reply sounded almost perfectly genuine.
“Don't worry, I do have have something more palatable for your sensitive civilian tastes."
The possible *other* explanation of that sentence sent a hungry ripple through Talia's body and she was delighted to feel the outburst of embarrassment, uncertainty, desire and determination that Susan flooded her with once she realized what Talia was thinking about.
“I can hardly wait to find out what that might be, Susan.”
Susan took Talia into her arms, kissed her and her voice went both playful and husky.
“So why don't you come in and find out?”
Susan's eyes were filled with tears but the emotions radiating from her left no room for doubt and Talia was content to rest her tired body on top of Susan's, enjoying the pressure of Susan's left hand holding her in place. Susan's voice was strained but happy.
“I feel like this was the first time I've made love, love. It's like I've just lost my virginity and I'm sorry you weren't my first and this is the happiest moment of my life...”
Susan's right hand made a valiant attempt to wipe her tears away.
“I've never felt this, this, this loved. We were one, yes, I felt both our bodies at once and you were a perfect lover, yes, but the first time all the barriers melted away... I have no idea how to describe it now! Is this how all teeps make love?”
Talia didn't even raise her head to look into Susan's eyes, unable go give up the sounds of Susan's heart, Susan's wet naked skin on her face and Susan's hand stroking her hair. But she replied using her voice, not her telepathy.
“It was *our* first time together and I don't care about the past. I love you and you love me and we're together. All I know is that I'd move heaven and hell to stay with you. I'm home now and I *know* we'll be okay in the morning and the next day and the next...”
Susan's short outburst of laughter was tense but happy.
“So it isn't always this intense? I don't recall noticing anything like this in your memories and I was totally surprised. I loved it but I'm also freaking out a little, I guess. Will I get used to it?”
This time Talia couldn't resist kissing Susan's lips.
“No, it is not always this intense. The physical sensations always meld during sex but you have to be making love if you want more. And only the luckiest teeps find a soulmate they're so in tune with that they can experience what we did. Are you complaining?”
Susan's eyes were looking directly into Talia's.
Susan was standing in front of a mirror, watching herself. She was no longer wearing her old uniform and years have been gentle on her but the sight of Babylon 5 exploding was too fresh a wound. And the recorder was still on.
“Babylon 5 was the last of the Babylon stations. There would never be another. It changed the future…and it changed us. It taught us that we have to create the future or others would do it for us. It showed us that we have to care for one another, because if we don't, who will? And that true strength sometimes comes from the most…unlikely places. Mostly though, I think it gave us hope, that there can always be new beginnings…even for people like us.”
But then her wife was behind her, embracing her and letting her kindness and love envelop her.
“Pause recording.”
And after a second or two more in that familiar embrace Susan sighed, smiled, turned and her hands rose up to adjust the brooch on Talia's dress.
“Don't worry, love. I loved the place but I knew this day would come. And it gave us the hope and the beginning we needed, didn't it? I'll cope. And Delenn is probably waiting for us already. Ready to go out?”