© Penumbra 1999
Well, isn't this embarrassing.
Her first thought was mild compared to the stream of curses that followed it, both in English and in Russian, along with several alien languages. Naturally, the foul language didn't help the splitting headache she felt quickly developing in her left temple, right under the spot that had taken the brunt of the impact against the rail. Pushing her upper body off the floor with her hands, she grimaced and tested the temple gingerly. Yeah. A sure bump. Shit.
"Commander! Are you OK?!"
"Yes, Lieutenant," Commander Susan Ivanova grunted to Lieutenant Corwin. "What the hell just happened?"
The young man's steps faltered and he offered a tentative hand to help his superior officer to stand up again. Ivanova brushed it aside and got on her own two feet, shaking her head to loosen the last shards of fogginess that clung to her brain. Eyeing the slender railing murderously that she had met with her skull, she turned towards the unusually messed up Command and Control and raised a questioning eyebrow.
"Um, well... it seems something just went snap in the station's power grid. Lost grav, lights, all, but just for...," reported Ensign Lovejoy, checking his display, "zero point four seconds. Cause unknown."
"Looks like somebody found the on-off switch," someone joked but the laughter died down quickly as Commander Ivanova traced her icy gaze across the room. She was just about to bark at the still stupefied C&C staff to get on with the problem solving when the lift door whooshed open and Dr Franklin rushed in. The breathless doctor did a quick scan of the room, ending with...
"Susan? Are you OK?"
She waved the doctor off, blinking to clear the fog in her head. "Yeah, just a small bump."
Running a scanner over the said spot, the doctor just grunted an ‘a-ha' and took a firm hold on the Commander's arm. "Concussion. MedLab for you."
The closing transporter tube door abruptly cut Ivanova's stream of protests.
Dr. Franklin fought the urge to roll his eyes. Passing the nerve scanner over Ivanova's temple, he let the station's Second in Command’s mutterings go unheard. Darting a look towards the scanner's output screen, he lifted an eyebrow. Everything was in order; the readings were normal for a mild concussion and one helluva headache except for...
"Susan, have you had any unusual pains lately?"
The Commander stopped her muttering and gave the doctor the fish eye. "Except for the ones in my ass, nothing. I'm healthy as a horse. Can I go now?"
"But look." Unperturbed, the good doctor pointed at the screen. "The level of free histamines in your blood system is up. So..." He dug to a drawer and handed over a small box. "Here's for the headache. You're going to have one of your sick days tomorrow."
"Hell, I can't do that! The Alkaian delegation arrives tomorrow and then there's this whole new mess with the power failures and..."
Steven waved a finger in front of his friend's nose, a gesture that Susan found irritatingly patronising. "You have a concussion. Don't play with your health... and b'sides, I'm willing to bet you haven't had a day off since this station went on-line."
"I --" Susan began but snapped her mouth shut, recognising the truth in the doctor's words. And the Alkaians are going to be a handful. Better let the more... tactful Captain handle them. "All right. I'll just --"
She was cut off again, this time not by her own train of thought. Instead, all went black for a second and the floor under her feet lurched violently, sending her sprawling to the floor. The lights flickered back on as the floor steadied. For the second time inside two Standard hours, Susan found herself in the horizontal position. Sighing loudly, she lifted a lazy eyelid, to reveal people staggering to their feet and numerous boots running back and forth from one beeping machine to another. And pandemonium ensues, she thought cheerily, not recognising the signs of danger as her pessimism evolved into hysterical irony.
"What the hell are these power breaks?" she could hear Franklin curse as he collected himself from the patient bed he had been thrown on.
"I don't know, but I'm going to find out right... ow ow!" Ivanova doubled over as a fiery bolt of pain shot through her head, though she was absolutely positive she hadn't hit the said member this time. "I guess I'll just head home and take a few of these pills," she ground out and straightened with some difficulty, still clutching her temples. Giving a staccato of orders to the C&C staff to get to the bottom of this, she nodded to the doctor and headed towards the MedLab exit.
The corridor outside was just as big a mess as the space inside. People of all races were piled in haphazard heaps, having landed like rag dolls at the station's heave. It was definitely serious; as for the cause, the Commander didn't have any idea. Her brow, deep in furrow, both from the still throbbing pain as well as from furious thinking, she helped a few Drazi elders up from the floor and passed them in no hurry, only to dash a few metres when she saw a figure she was so very familiar with.
The blonde telepath looked up, her gray eyes a bit dazed as she steadied herself with one gloved hand against the metal wall. A drop of blood flowed from her nose, leaving a bright crimson trail on the creamy skin before passing the upper lip. Talia Winters licked the red liquid off, and touched her nose with her other hand.
Susan swallowed reflexively. Even in this state of lovely disarray, her shining fair hair a bit tousled, the sight of the refined, elegant woman made Ivanova want to straighten out her uniform. As such, she smoothed down her hair and approached Talia hesitantly, offering an arm to steady her. The other black-gloved hand landed on it and a faint smile graced the telepath's lips.
That voice. Snap out of it. "Um, are you OK?"
Talia smiled a fraction wider. "Yes, just a headache and then this..." she said, indicating the chaos in the corridor.
Ivanova helped the telepath into the MedLab and onto a free patient bed. The doctor arrived soon after and pronounced Ms Winters' condition to be optimal, save for a nosebleed. But... "you definitely have a high level of free histamines in your blood. How odd," Franklin murmured and glanced towards Ivanova, still hovering nearby. "Didn't I tell you to go home?" the doctor admonished Ivanova. The Commander was behaving very oddly; it was as if she was actually worried about Talia's well-being though usually, it didn't take telepathic abilities to pick up the hostility the station’s Second in Command projected towards Ms Winters.
"Go on. I'm fine," Talia smiled and laid her hand on Ivanova’s arm momentarily. After a few seconds of hovering between the silliness of stubbornly staying and leaving the very enchanting presence of the blonde woman, Ivanova decided on the latter. Glancing towards the bed with its lone patient from the door, the Commander nibbled on her lower lip. Gorgeous, her mind supplied. Shut up, she told her audacious brain.
She let her head loll back against the sofa's back cushion and closed her eyes. Eternally grateful that the white tendrils of pain were no longer appearing inside her eyelids (a fact that owed much to two stiff shots of vodka than anything else) and the pain itself had receded into a faint buzz. Thankfully, the rest of the day had been without any more power outages; Ivanova had a faint hunch her head would react to a third pounding on one day rather negatively. And now, clad in her favourite satin pajamas and long robe after a regulation three-minute hot shower, she was finally having her quiet time.
She was bored out of her mind, as usual.
Sighing audibly, Ivanova lifted her head and did a few neck twists, hearing the satisfying pop as vertebrae aligned themselves.
The screen flickered to life, to reveal a news story about the advances made in genetic manipulation of cows, the picture showing rather... optimised animals that could scarcely be called cows anymore. The commentator praising the support the new Earth Alliance government was giving to modern sciences, to make its citizens happier.
"No such channel available," the computer announced pleasantly.
Her channel surfing resulted in more propaganda, two nature documents and one semi-historical movie set in the 20th century, to the years man almost annihilated itself. Another swig of vodka didn't help that much, and after surfing through the Minbari religious channel and a Centauri filming of a particularly bloody form of Narn sports, Susan sighed.
What brand the new stream of visual data was of, it took a while to register. It was one of the adult entertainment channels, usually reserved for visiting businessmen and such who stayed in expensive quarters and had their cheap, lonely fun at nights. Didn't know I get this one too...huh. Craning her neck, the Commander attempted to logically solve how the four naked participants managed to have sex in such awkward positions. She had almost all of the limbs and appendages figured out, except for one extra arm, when her door tweedled.
"Uh, fish tank! ... Enter."
As the screen transformed into a holographic replica of a fish tank, the door whooshed open. Even before the intruder could be seen, Ivanova knew who it was. The faint, pleasant scent of bergamot and spices reached her and her nostrils twitched. She could recognise that scent in her sleep.
"I hope I'm not interrupting, Commander Ivanova?" Talia Winters said, a tentative smile tugging at a corner of her mouth as she stepped through the door.
Raking a hand through her wild curls, the Commander rose and shook her head. "No, of course not. And it's Susan."
Ivanova turned away with the pretense of fussing with her robe, to try to hide her gentle blush. The way that smoky, gentle alto pronounced the two syllables, it was something that, well... clamping down tightly that particular avenue of thoughts, she gestured for the telepath to sit. Talia complied, after setting a bottle of white wine on the coffee table.
"I don't actually know why I brought that," she said, a bit breathlessly, indicating the bottle. "I've had the worst headache today. I was just..."
"... bored?" Ivanova hazarded; the smile on Talia's face showed her hunch was correct.
"Yes. The doctor gave me some pills I'm quite reluctant to take, along with two days off."
Slumping back to the sofa, the Commander hummed in agreement and let her head loll back. Turning it towards Talia there, she crooked an eyebrow. "Well, I've yet to meet a headache that could resist this stuff here," she said, gesturing towards the vodka. "Can I offer you a drink of that instead?"
"Please," Talia smiled and visibly relaxed against the backrest. Though they had certainly grown warmer towards one another in the past weeks, after finding out that talking about things tended to help, their relations couldn't still be called comfortable and friendly. Yes, they talked and sometimes drank together but that had been the extent of it. She could still feel something reserved radiate from Susan, something... not hostile, just unclear. Shielded behind clouds of vague thoughts and uncertainty. Talia had just lifted the small glass of the viscous, sharply scented liquid to her lips when the lights momentarily dimmed and after a few moments of flickering, assumed their original settings.
Ivanova's head snapped around at the loud clink of glass hitting the table. Talia had dropped her shot and was clutching her head with both hands, a look of anguish contorting her usually serene features into a mask of pain. "Stop... stop..." she was chanting slowly as she leaned forward, every muscle pulled taut as bowstrings. Almost knocking over the bottle, the Commander rushed to her, kneeling in front of the sofa. Another droplet of bright red blood had found its way down from Talia's nose.
Hissing her breath out slowly, Talia cracked open an eyelid. "The... pain. It's like someone tearing inside my head. But it comes, and then it goes away." She loosened the vice grip she had on her head and laid one black gloved hand on Susan's, which rested on her knee. The material of the Psi protection glove felt warm and soft, like it was part of Talia's skin. "Hurts," the telepath finished succinctly.
Ivanova's comm beeped. "Corwin, C&C. Another power fluctuation. We're on it."
"Let me know the minute you know anything. Ivanova out," the Commander replied, impressed of the man's anticipation.
"Aren't you supposed to be on vacation?"
The low whisper made the Commander smile and she patted at Talia's hand, still concerned of the ridges of pain on the telepath's forehead. "Station business doesn't know such a term." Hurdling over a mental barrier, she sat on the sofa and laid her hand on Talia's shoulder. "D'you want something for the pain?"
"No... it'll go away," Talia said and leaned into the touch. Taking a deep breath, the Commander gathered the telepath under her arm, feeling the slide of smooth silky hair on her neck as Talia rested her head on her shoulder. Wrapping another arm around the lithe figure, she rested her chin on Talia's head. With some alarm, she noted that the telepath was in the process of removing her gloves. Slowly, finger at a time, she loosened the left one before it came totally off. Setting it in her lap, she repeated her procedure on the right hand's glove. Finally, the hands were free of their coverings, her hand landing gently on Ivanova's thigh that twitched under the touch.
"Relax, Susan. I won't do anything. I... just need a minute here. Please?"
How could she refuse? Leaning back to a more comfortable pose, she breathed in the scent of Talia's hair. Cinnamon. And wild apples. The hand on her leg seemed to be charged with electricity.
"All the time you need."
The next day dawned as usual. Temperature in the regulation +18 degrees Celsius, no wind, artificial sun. Commander Ivanova punched her pillow back into shape and dropped her head back on to it, cursing at her inner clock that woke her even on her days off, at exactly 0528 hours. So, she had been staring at the dull gray of the bulkhead that was her ceiling for the past twenty minutes, to no avail. During those twenty minutes, she had thought of C&C nine times, of which two had nearly resulted in her getting up, jumping into uniform and heading towards the nearest transport tube. But she had resisted the urges valiantly, concentrating on the nonexistent pattern on the metal alloy.
Turning her head, she could see into the living area and the sofa that now held the graceful figure of Talia Winters, deep asleep. The telepath had fallen asleep right there, in Ivanova's embrace. The day had obviously been more than taxing on her as well so the Commander had gently extracted herself and settled the woman on the cushions. She had wondered momentarily whether she should carry Talia to her more comfortable bed or not but finally decided against it, lest she wake her in the process. Instead, she had stood there for a while, tracing the air above one strong cheekbone with her fingers before covering the sleeping woman in a blanket. The lines of pain had finally dissolved from Talia's face.
Her comlink chirped.
"Good morning, Commander. I know this is your day off, sorry to disturb you."
"It's perfectly OK, Captain," she replied, coughing the crankiness out of her voice, and sat up in the bed. Raking a hand through her hair, she fastened the link to the back of her hand. "Something I can do for you at this hour?"
"Unfortunately, the station's well-being seems to be at risk because of strange power fluctuations. I'm sure you're familiar with them."
You bet your sweet... "Yes, sir."
"Good. Meeting at 0600 hours at my office. Kaf's on me. Sheridan out."
Rolling out of the bed with new vigour, Ivanova headed towards the sofa, grabbing her uniform as she went. Tucking the black bundle under one arm, she bent over the still slumbering woman, the blonde hair spread like a halo on the pillow. She crouched down next to the sofa and shook Talia's shoulder gently. A soft gray eye appeared.
"Hey," Ivanova whispered. "I have a meeting I gotta go to, but stay as long as you want. I'll be back in a few hours, max."
"Okay," Talia whispered back, her voice still hoarse from sleep. Ivanova nodded and headed towards the shower, rolling her head around to loosen some very stiff muscles.
"... so as you can see, the fluctuations averaged about point six seconds, with energy levels fluctuating between, um..." The young engineering Ensign checked his notes. "48 percent and 113 percent, with idle level lowering about two percent on each disturbance."
Ivanova snapped out of her trance as the numbers sank in. "So, you're saying the overall power occasionally increased by 13 percent?"
"Momentarily, yes. The reactor's data, however, showed no such output fluctuations and..." the man trailed off again, raising an eyebrow at his data flimsy. "The emergency simulations show that the reactor is not capable of such output levels. No outside energy sources were detected."
"So, in other words, we have a station with a bad hiccup and nobody knows why." The calm, slightly ironic voice of Security Chief Garibaldi joined the conversation. The man himself was sitting in one of Sheridan's office's chairs, the one next to Ivanova's. Sheridan was sitting behind his big desk, hunched forward to better hear the Ensign, his entwined fingers twitching now and then.
"Yes, sir," the young man said. "And here comes the oddest thing."
Ivanova rolled her eyes and shot a cynical look towards Garibaldi, who answered with a gaze full of exasperated sarcasm. It seemed the station was a veritable odd phenomenon magnet these days. The Captain, having arrived here only a few months earlier, hadn't quite grasped that fact. Yet.
The Ensign exchanged the data crystal in the display console for another and the screen lept back to life, a graph showing the overall available power as respect to time. "Here." He pointed at a specific location on the jagged graph. "While the rest of the drops or slight rises mark either a battle or a reactor upgrade, respectively, this blip here is a quirky anomaly. The station's energy reserves increased by six point one percent four standard days ago... but with no increased input to the system. This is not an upgrade leap."
And then the shouting contest started. Everyone talked over one another, alternating between asking questions from the hapless Ensign who could provide few answers, and taking wild guesses at the reason. It went on for a while before Sheridan pounded his fist on the table. The voices died down and the Captain took a sip from his cup, grimacing at the now lukewarm kaf. The stuff wasn't exactly enjoyable hot and now... feels like I'm drinking tar with soy sauce, he cursed and coughed to clear his throat of the sludge.
"Let's calm down," he said, turning towards the young Ensign, still frozen standing next to the display. "Ensign Yamata, in your opinion, do the fluctuations pose a serious danger to the station?"
"Um, well, sir. Assuming they go on as before --" Irrationally, that is, Ivanova interjected in her mind. "-- no immediate danger. The reserves are depleted every time but no serious consequences should become apparent if the average power levels stay above seventy percent of the optimal. After that... non-vital systems will have to be shut down," he shrugged, snatching the date crystal from the slot.
"Good. Focus on the day of the initial power rise, co-ordinate your efforts with Mr Garibaldi's staff. Go through every record from that --"
The Captain was cut off by yet another power lurch, this one less violent than the ones on the previous day. Steadying her kaf cup in one hand, Ivanova steadied herself with the other hand against Sheridan's desk. The lights in the room flickered, the gravity control alert just outside the door springing to a wailing life. The alarm whooped loud but not loud enough for Susan not to hear the jarring noise reciprocated inside her head. Great. And just as my headache was behaving itself, she groaned inwardly and pinched the bridge of her nose. It didn't help much.
Yanking the front of his uniform jacket to order, Sheridan straightened in his chair. "I've about had it with these disruptions. Get to the bottom of this, Ensign Yamata. Dismissed."
"Yes, sir," the man said and exited hastily, grateful to be out of the room with enough glittering epaulets to make him jumpy. When the door closed after him, Sheridan exhaled loudly and shifted his gaze to Garibaldi. "Mr. Garibaldi, you will see that Engineering gets all the help they need. Also, I would suggest you do something to contain the possible rise of panic if these happenings continue."
"I'll inform Dr Franklin to stay alert at all times. For now, the gravity has just coughed a little bit but if the fluctuations get more severe..." Ivanova trailed off, lifting both eyebrows. Sheridan nodded solemnly, understanding the secondary effects of the disturbances. People tended to do stupid things if the floor under their feet was not reliable.
"Good. Unless something serious happens, we will re-convene here tomorrow, at the same hour, for an update on the investigation. Dismissed." As they sauntered towards the door, Sheridan laid a hand on Ivanova's shoulder. "Commander... if I'm not mistaken, you are on sick leave." His tone was gently admonishing.
"But I have to oversee the --" She was interrupted by a reproaching eyebrow quirk from the man. I think I'm going to like him, Ivanova though vaguely before smiling a small, resigned smile. "Yes, sir. I promise I won't set a foot into C&C before tomorrow."
For once, she wasn't in a hurry. Unbuttoning her uniform's stiff collar, the Commander yawned, sauntering slowly towards her quarters. Though her night's sleep had been sound, better than in ages, she still had accumulated tiredness from ever since the station opened. Rounding the last corner to her home corridor, Ivanova wondered if the telepath was still crashing on her couch.
The place was empty, the blanket and pillow Talia had used wrapped up in a neat bundle. Touching the white cotton of the pillow, Ivanova picked up a lone strand of golden, silky hair. Twirling it between two fingers, she shook her head, her mind busy wondering.
It hadn't been many weeks since the time all she would've given the telepath was cold shoulder and colder looks. But... something had changed. It had begun with gentle probing on Talia's part and for Ivanova, the biggest hurdle had been trying to see the woman, the person, behind the ominous badge she wore on her lapel. To be afraid of a signet, one lousy letter of the Greek alphabet, was silly, but it wasn't just the badge. It was what it represented.
The coming darkness. Her past. Her mother. Sleepers. The cool talons of a mind probe, shifting through her brain. She knew all these and all of them she had associated with the tall, imperious blonde that had stepped on her bridge that one day so long ago. But... the person behind the cool facade had emerged. Out of desperation and out of confusion, of Jason Ironheart, and of her own mocking conscience. And so, she had decided to give it a try. Talia had understood the difficulties their tentative friendship would have to deal with, and so she never wore any of her official regalia when meeting her on her own time. So, she had become acquainted with Talia Winters, the woman, instead of Talia Winters, the Psi-Corps telepath.
Letting the lone hair fall back to the pillow, Ivanova started unbuttoning her uniform jacket and ventured towards the kitchen. Her attention was drawn to the bottle of wine, still unopened, that the telepath had brought last night. Next to it rested a data crystal.
"Hi," said the still a bit sleepy-looking recording of Talia. "Thank you for letting me borrow your sofa. Very comfortable," she continued in a wry tone, rubbing her neck. "Look, it's my day off too and, well, I have no idea what to do. If you want to get together later for, say, a vid or something, give me a call. I'll be at the gym."
The BabCom logo replaced the telepath's face. Ivanova plucked the crystal out of the slot and turned it in her fingers, smiling to herself. The official Ms Winters was miles away from this one. Deciding to forgo the doctor's warnings about not pushing herself, she grabbed her gym bag and headed out again. After all, it would be worse for her health to stay cooped up inside and go insane, she rationalised.
The EarthForce gym was located right next to the mess hall, and at this time of the day it was usually packed. So, other alternatives were to be sought.
One of the smaller places of exercises was located in Red 14. A dingy affair in gray metal and black imitation leather, shoved between a weapons maintenance shop and unmanned emergency station, the gym still had all the necessary equipment to render a man to a quivering blob of muscle. However, none of the three men present seemed to be the least bit interested in the weights at the moment. Instead, they were busy pretending to do the moves while ogling.
It seemed to be a tie between Lt. Commander Kahn, the commander of EarthForce's Internal Affairs at the station, and Talia Winters, the station's resident telepath and Psi-Corps member. The gazes were divided equally among the two, the shy, skittering looks lingering only momentarily.
Ensign Milliers of Maintenance corps, being a firm believer in the irony of life, could just curse his sordid karma. He couldn't decide which one of the women was the most intriguing, but both were sort of... scary in their own way. The Lt. Commander, a woman of improbable height, flawless musculature and imperious attitude, was in charge of the most feared people among the Earth military personnel on the station. And then, the gorgeous blonde doing stomach crunches, she was a telepath who usually donned one of the most feared insignias in this nook of the galaxy. Milliers sighed and turned towards the chin-up bar.
The door whooshed open and all heads turned towards the newcomer. A few postures deflated as Commander Susan Ivanova stepped through the opening -- What's with the high-ranked ice queens today, coming here in gaggles, the very frustrated Milliers thought -- but one figure perked up.
The Commander nodded courteously to Lt. Commander Kahn, who replied with a nod of her own and a grunt as she pressed the bar up just once more. Ivanova sauntered towards the other woman, slinging her gym bag over her shoulder. The women exchanged a few quiet words and Milliers almost fell off the bar when he heard Ms Winters chuckle in her unmistakable low, throaty alto.
"Well, you better go check the temperature in hell," Boltzmann of Security commented to Milliers, wiping his sweating face and neck with a small towel.
"How so?" grunted Milliers and lowered himself to the floor to let the other man do his set on the bar.
"Ah, c'mon," Boltzmann said and took a hold of the worn metal tube. "Everybody knows those two hate each other. Hell, Maria used to do Observation duty and she said the Commander refuses to even speak to blondie there. And now..." he indicated with a small nod towards the pair. "Go figure," he breathed and started on his chin-ups.
"Hey, don't push too hard. You're supposed to be healing yourself at home," Talia said, a light tone of laughter in her voice.
"Nothing like a good workout to get rid of those cobwebs in the attic," Commander Ivanova commented, taking a swing from her water bottle before setting back on the bench. "Three more."
Talia tried very hard not to stare at the drop of sweat that ran from Ivanova's wrist towards her shoulder, tracing the graceful curves of her musculature, before surrendering to be soaked up by the black EarthForce tank top the woman was wearing; ogling a tentative friend was far from politically correct. Instead, she focused on the far wall, counting in her mind the presses the Commander was doing.
"OK, I'm beat."
"Can I interest you in some lunch?" the telepath asked.
"Of course," Ivanova smiled to her, a flash of white teeth that for some reason made a small shiver hike up Talia's spine. "I just need a breather here."
"Take your time," the telepath said. "I'll head to the showers."
The Zocalo was its usual bustling self, filled to the brim with peoples of all races and species. It was the Hour of the Scampering, as the Vorlon ambassador had a habit of saying. Though being almost sure that the enigmatic Kosh had not meant the comment to be humorous, Commander Ivanova mused that it certainly was funny, and to the point. The barely organised chaos was the station's heart, intestinal tract and its badly mistreated liver, all rolled into one multi-coloured, noisy package. And they had ringside seats.
Venturing a quick glance towards the woman sitting next to her, she could see she was just as enraptured with the kaleidoscopic throngs of people going about their business just outside the restaurant's windows. The Commander's eyes lingered on the beautiful curve of the lips on the woman's face, before she caught herself and flicked her gaze back to the menu.
"Yeah," the Commander muttered, trying to decide between Su Mien shrimp and fried...something quite unpronounceable of Minbari origin. The restaurant's selection was wide, though leaning towards the mysterious.
"Is today a religious holiday for some species?"
"Excuse me?" Ivanova was sure she had misheard the telepath as her head rose from the menu. Talia's eyes were fixed towards the station's embarkation area and she added a discreet pointing finger.
"Whattahell...!" the Commander said and half-rose from her seat at the sight. It was as if a sudden waterfall of black cloth and dark blue padding had found its way to the market area. A thick stream of bald individuals of at least half a dozen races flowed in to the already crowded place, gesturing frantically towards the high ceiling of the place, spreading out at the foot of the stairs like a stream breaking into two dozen meandering brooks. "Mr Garibaldi, are you aware that the Zocalo is being invaded by alien monks?" Ivanova snapped into her comm, still half-standing.
"Yes, the Caparriel people," the man's tinny voice sighed from the link. "Arrived this morning, and since then they've been running across the station in one big excited bunch. I'll send someone to calm them down."
"Will you sit down," an amused voice whispered next to the Commander and realising she was still stretched taut as a tightly drawn bow, Ivanova took a deep breath and sat down in very deliberate moves. Lifting an apologetic eyebrow at the humoured blonde sitting next to her, the Commander sighed and picked up her menu again.
"Sorry about that. I'm on leave, I know, but..."
"... old habits die hard and all that," Talia finished her sentence. "I understand, Susan," she continued and laid a gentle hand on her forearm. Ivanova fought the instinctive reaction of pulling away, with moderate success. The feel of the Psi gloves on her skin made little spiders crawl all over her back, that was for sure. Such a shame the telepath had to wear them all the time; they looked odd with her minimal gym clothing. With her current black wide-legged slacks and small white top, they looked extremely out of place.
The glover were really the thing that outwardly set the telepath apart from your ordinary Jane Spacewalker. While the Psi-Corps uniform and insignia were removed at the end of the day, you just couldn’t put a telepathic ability in the closet with them. Talia’s telepathic classification was P5 whick meant she was very sensitive to contact. So, the gloves served a twofold purpose: they protected her from undue headache and emotional feedback, and they acted as a barrier so that she was less prone to make accidental scans. Like a flaming beacon, they were a signal that said stand back!, a sign of her ability – or curse, depending on your point of view, Ivanova added. But the rest of her outfit is very nice, her little devil of a mind mused, in a voice that was half leer, half amazed. It was not often that one saw Talia in anything else but her mauve and black Psi-Corps uniform. And the top did fit her very amiabl--- aw put a lid on it, Ivanova groaned and decided on the fried meat of something.
The Caparriel monks fazed their way across the already bustling Zocalo, making the most awful racket. But fortunately, by the time Ivanova's grilled fillet of something and the telepath's skrill wok arrived, the noise was dying down. They ate in silence, both tired from the workout and respective headaches -- At this rate, our cycles are going to align pretty quickly, Ivanova thought wryly -- enchanted by the ever-changing vista of the life and forms of life that existed at the station.
"Oof. I'm stuffed," the Commander uttered after polishing off the meat, leaning back in her chair.
"What was it again that you had?" Talia asked, fishing the last skrill around the almost empty bowl with chopsticks. The slippery creature eluded the sticks for a while and the telepath's brow furrowed in concentration. Difficult food was fun and challenging, but elusive was just irritating. Finally she captured the prize and deposited it to her mouth, enjoying the sting of spices on her tongue.
"I don't know and I don't even want to know," Ivanova smiled and sipped her water. "But for mystery meat, it was surprisingly good."
"Yeah, but not here." The Commander leaned in, whispering conspiratorially. "The plum cake is supposed to be excellent but nobody knows what it actually contains."
"Ah," smiled the telepath, comprehending. "I'm not feeling that brazen. Sorbet is more along my line. By the way, what is that scent you are wearing today, Commander?"
The sudden question threw Ivanova off track, so much that she missed the formal address. Both of her dark eyebrows hitched towards her hairline as she turned towards Talia, quite speechless.
"It's, er, sandalwood." She used the oil to condition her hair. The dry, circulated air of the station threatened to frizz up her hair into an afro if she didn't.
"Oh, that's it. I've been trying to place the scent all day."
The tone was light, almost neutral, but the most brilliant of smiles Ivanova had seen for a while complemented it. The telepath didn't smile often, as per her reputation as a lady who had ice water in her veins and who was so chillingly merciless in her demeanour that most, if not all, who tried to mess with her wound up with their egos around their ankles.
"It's very nice on you," the telepath said offhand as she consumed that last of her drink. The Commander didn't know whether to blush or to say thank you so like a good officer should, she compromised, by muttering something unintelligible and requesting the check from their waiter of unspecified origin and bloodline.
The overall noise increased twofold as they stepped outside and Talia winced. Crowded places were always the worst for her; even now, she could hear the muttering of a thousand minds at the back of her head, the white noise seeping through the mental barrier she kept on her senses. As they paused at the door to let a chattering group of Drazi soldiers pass them, she concentrated on putting on an extra insulating cover on top of the barrier. Suddenly, the noises died down, collapsed under a new voice. A vibrating, sonorous baritone at first, it built from a distant rumble to a high-pitched wail as it tore through her head in a millisecond.
"Oh gods... no... again!" Talia groaned out loud and put her hands on her head, to create another dampening field. It helped little as the powerful voice reverberated inside the vast chambers of her soul, making her extremities curl in pain. Collapsing on the floor, she screamed in pain, just as the station's smooth rotation slowed down and jerked to the other direction, making the floor dip violently under her.
Ivanova had rotated half a turn towards Talia's anguished voice when she lost her balance. Groping blindly with one hand, the Commander found support from a ventilation grille in the wall. With the other, she found Talia's arm, just in time to save the woman from sliding down the now sharply tilted floor. And then the lights died down. Muttering through half of her commendable database of applicable curses, Ivanova twisted and squeezed tighter on Talia's arm, determined not to let go. The noise of metal protesting the abuse and terrified screams was deafening.
In reality, it lasted only a hair over five seconds but for Ivanova, it was more like two hours. She could hear the screams of pain from the other end of pitch dark Zocalo as people fell over one another, and she could hear the pained, anguished wail of the telepath next to her. The arm she held on twitched like it had been electrified and Ivanova's heart jumped into her throat. Oh, please Talia... hold on, she sent a prayer towards the telepath and gritted her teeth, ignoring the stress the position put on her limbs.
The lights flickered back on, unsure first but soon settling on their usual low, unobtrusive glow. With a few iterative lurches, the gravity settled back to normal and the floor rose to its normal position. In the other end of the Zocalo, the huddles of people rolled off one another and the voices rose to scared, angry protests.
"Hey," the Commander said, her voice hoarse and spent, as she crouched next to the tall telepath's prone form. She was contorted into a fetal position, the long, graceful limbs twitching.
"Hurts. Too strong," was all Talia managed between clenched teeth. Her forehead was beaded with sweat as she struggled to put something, anything, between her consciousness and the echoes of the broken wail inside her.
The Commander touched the filmy cheek of the blonde woman, looking around to find a medic. Security rushed to the scene, along with a few members of the medical corps who immediately set to sorting out the mess in the other end of the hall. Seeing that no help was forthcoming from there, Ivanova sighed and turning Talia on her back, she put her arms under her knees and arms and rose. Cradling the tall but light figure to her, the Commander started towards the nearest emergency stairwell, adrenaline and confusion bringing not undue haste to her steps.
Considering the circumstances, the MedLab was almost orderly. Sure, compared to a run of the mill weekday, it was absolute chaos but the number of patients didn't exceed the allowed number by much. Dr Franklin had taken precautions and assigned medical aid all over the station so that in case of a power fluctuation, the injuries could be dealt as much on the spot as possible. Surprisingly few serious accidents had happened; most had been along the lines of fractured limbs, sprained joints and... headaches.
Pausing at the medical display of a young Minbari by the name of Mil'ee, rushed here by her superior officer when she had collapsed in the middle of trade negotiations the last time the station had tried to learn cha-cha, he paused to think, tapping his cheek with a hypospray. The Minbari had been diagnosed with severe headache and alarmingly high rates of certain ingredients of their delicate nervous system, including a free toxin that was their equivalent of histamine. Another Minbari was next to her bed, this one an elderly gentleman who was, surprisingly, admitted for exact the same reason. Next to him lay a certified N'toth'ga telepath, his antennae eyes resting limply against his tall, smooth forehead. Something odd here. Can't quite put my finger on it...
Over the staccato of shouts he heard the station's First in Command's voice, as shrill and rough as it was. The breathless Commander Ivanova rushed in and made a beeline for him, her arms trembling under the weight of the now quite limp Ms Winters.
"What happened to her?" the doctor queried as he rushed to help her set Talia on a temporary patient bed. A quick run with the scanner told that the telepath was unconscious, her body reserves depleted dangerously.
"I don't know," Ivanova said and ran a shaky hand through her unruly hair. "A moment before the gravity flew out of the window, she just collapsed, holding her head."
"Well, her brain pattern certainly shows some recent and violent activity."
Ivanova looked around her as Franklin continued with his hurried examination. The figures on the beds caught her attention. She herself had processed the rather difficult N'toth'ga's arrival and knew Mil'ee from the time when she came here to help out the Minbari Ambassador, during a crisis in the human relations as the station's command had been abruptly transferred to Sheridan, better known to the Minbari as 'Starkiller'. And things went click in her head.
"Hmmm?" the doctor hummed, his brow furrowed in deep concentration as he tried to grasp a stray thought, lingering at the back of his mind.
"What's with all the telepaths here?"
"One human. Two Centauri. One Ntoth-whatshisface. Eight Minbari?"
The Chief's voice was his own unique mix of incredulous and doubtful.
"There is a Minbari telepath conference at the Proxima system and Babylon 5 is a relay station for them," Ambassador Delenn explained, entwining her hands carefully. Ivanova still had trouble bending her mental image over the Ambassador's new appearance. Minbari with hair. Yeah, right. And I'm a drag queen called Shagatita, had been her initial snort to Sheridan as he had broken in the news. Anyway...
"So, we have a bunch of telepaths with the worst psi-hangovers ever. It seems that... well, you tell 'em, doctor," the Second in Command leaned back and waved towards the doctor who was hunched over the conference table, rubbing his eyes.
"The people who have taken the most brain beating are the Minbari Mil'ee and, um, Ms Winters." That grabbed Garibaldi's attention and his brow furrowed into deep ridges. "Can you tell me anything of Mil'ee's particular collection of abilities?" the doctor continued, turning towards Delenn.
"I consulted her superior and he informed me that Mil'ee was an emotional telepath. In effect, she was unable to 'read minds', as the saying goes?" Delenn paused, lifting an inquiring eyebrow towards Sheridan who nodded. "Yes. So, she is very sensitive to emotions and fluctuations of the moods in the atmosphere but nothing more."
"That would put her up to only P3," Franklin protested.
"And Tal-, Ms Winters is P5," Garibaldi commented, rubbing his cheek with his hand. "According to the Ntoth-guy's papers, however, he's a rated P7 human relations telepath with some, um, telekinetic abilities," he said, consulting a flimsy.
"So, how come--"
"Proximity." Ivanova cut off Sheridan in the middle of his question. "I'm sorry, sir." He dismissed the apology with a wave and indicated her to continue. "But it's characteristic of P3's to be excessively emphatic but only to people in their close proximity. Also, a P5 is someone who is as strong as a P10 when in direct physical contact with the person to be scanned."
"I see," the Captain uttered, his warm eyes glittering with new thoughts. "So, as the bouts of telepathic headache seem to correlate with the power fluctuations, we can conclude that the two seem to be linked." A round of nods went around the table, solemn faces of both human and alien wrinkled in deep pondering. "Also, the proximity factor needs to be counted in. Ambassador, can you tell me where Mil'ee was when she collapsed?"
"She was at conference room 29B."
"That's two decks up the main walkway from the entrance area towards the Zocalo," Garibaldi rattled, his voice on autopilot.
"Zocalo, huh?" Franklin asked, his brain clicking to a conclusion.
"Yeah. Zocalo, Commander," the Security Chief smiled grimly to the doctor. "Something in the grub of that area, perhaps?" he joked.
"Apart from two dozen mildly toxic spices, nothing that could make one pass out in pain," Franklin replied in kind.
Ivanova followed the chatter impatiently. The day was getting to her. And this was supposed to be my day off... The emergency meeting had been called late in the evening and station business did precede an officer's vacation. Though, despite the heavy throbbing of her head that seemed to ebb back now and then, Ivanova felt a-okay.
"Well," Sheridan huffed and leaned back in his chair. Ivanova could see the man's expression change. His eyes seemed to sink in a bit deeper, bringing a flint-hard gloss to them. His brow rarely furrowed; instead, it just froze. That immobility and that steely look the Commander had begun to associate with the sharp mind turning its wheels inside the Captains' head. If there was one thing she respected most about the man, it was his infallible ability to make decisions. "Concentrate your efforts on that part of the station. Look for anything out of the ordinary, ask around, tear the place apart if you have to. This really can't continue like this."
"Yes, sir," replied Garibaldi. "May I borrow some extra help from the engineering section?"
"Yes. Discuss the details over with Lt. Commander Gaarder. And Commander---," he said, turning towards Ivanova, "I'm going to restrict access to the station, starting tomorrow 0800 hours. This place just isn't safe for travellers until we get to the bottom of this."
Owee. Hello, hell day in Observation Dome... "Yes, sir."
As the small meeting broke up, the doc rushed back to his patients, while the Ambassador circled round the table to exchange quiet words with the Captain. From the corner of her eye, Ivanova saw Delenn's unconscious gesture of placing her hand on his arm, and also that the Captain did nothing to shrug it off. He just smiled a small smile and went on with the conversation, leaning in towards the smaller figure.
"You up for one at Earhart's?"
"Oh yeah," Ivanova grunted to Garibaldi, massaging the bridge of her nose between thumb and forefinger. It still didn't help.
"The worst kind," the Commander said. "Nothing that two fingers of vodka wouldn't cure. C'mon."
Earhart's was the watering hole for EarthForce people on the station. Everyone from the greenest Private to the Captain himself could be spotted there, usually engaged in such recreational activities as playing cards, singing and nursing stiff drinks. This time, the highest concentration of ranks was at a corner table near the bar, as far away as possible from the Gamma squadron's jazz band that was butchering Coltraine on the small stage. A few glances were shot towards the table but none dared to linger, let alone approach. Multiple tabs on epaulets tended to have that effect.
"I still can't figure how you stand that stuff," the Chief of Security said and sipped at his ale. He had loosened his uniform collar and despite a long day, he seemed to be annoyingly cheery.
"Good for your taste buds," commented Ivanova and proceeded to throw the vodka shot down her throat. Her face contorted momentarily as the acrid liquid burned on her tongue. "Cleans all kinds of blocks in the pipes."
"Yeah, I can see that," Garibaldi commented, a heavy layer of sarcasm in his voice. He leaned back in his chair and turned a bit, to better see towards the bar. A group of pilots were commandeering the other end, laughing in voices that told realms of their level of intoxication. Inexpensive scotch flowed freely.
"Wish I were that young."
"Why on earth would you want to be young?" asked the Chief, turning towards his tablemate again. "Learn all that stuff the painful way, again. Be PFC again, scrubbing the john with your toothbrush, again..."
"Well, look at them," the Commander said, slumping back in her chair. Twirling the now empty shot glass in her hand, she sighed and gestured for the waiter to bring another. "No worries. Little responsibility except for their own skins. And, they get to fly... something I haven't done since the last Ice Age."
The Chief hummed, lifting a questioning eyebrow. "Vodka does bring your pessimism up front and plain, Susan."
"Hell, I'm Russian. My good looks are not the only thing I inherited," she grinned and downed the new shot in one gulp. The alcohol was definitely getting to her; she had had little to eat since lunch and now, she could feel the heat rise to her cheeks. But she knew her limits.
"Speaking of good looks..." Garibaldi said.
"Ah, I knew you had an ulterior motive."
"Yeah, well," the Chief coughed and rested his forearms on the small table, entwining his long fingers. He seemed unusually at loss of words and the silence dragged on. Ivanova's eyes twinkled. Aww, so cute. He's got a crush.
"Well?" the Commander prompted. "You want to have some girl talk, Michael?"
"Sort of," he replied, flashing one of his trademark lopsided grins. "See, there's this woman... and, well, I'm quite at loss on..." He trailed off, finding something extremely fascinating in his beer. "Well, on how to proceed with her."
"You?" asked Ivanova incredulously. "And here I thought you were the smooth fox on this station."
"She's not your ordinary, credit-a-dozen woman, y'know... she's something special. In many ways. Excels in stonewalling."
"And you're not going to tell me who she is?"
"Nope," he smiled and propped his chin on a fist. "I'm just going to bribe a few hints from you, that's all."
"Bribe? Now you're talking" said Ivanova and smiled a flashing, wide grin. The Chief was truly desperate and boy, was she going to milk this possibility to its bottom.
The night progressed on with a few more shots and heated conversation on the mysteries of the Universe and women. Lt. Commander Kahn came to exchange a few words with Garibaldi and the Commander noticed Lt. Corwin sitting close to them, his eyes skittering away every time she looked towards him. The level of noise and human concentration rose steadily and so did the atmosphere, especially when the Gamma squadron was replaced by a real blues band on the stage. It was nearing midnight when the Chief's comm chirped demandingly.
"Garibaldi," he grunted to the back of his hand and cajoled the last foams of his third beer into his mouth.
"Allen here. Sorry to bother you, but another ship of the Caparriel has arrived."
The Chief covered his eyes with his hand. "How many?"
"Uh, over one hundred of them, sir. Things are getting out of hand here."
"I'll be there in five. Garibaldi out," he sighed and lifted his eyes to Ivanova. A quirk of an eyebrow told the Commander all.
"S'okay. Have fun."
"Oh, I have no doubt of that," he grunted and headed towards the door, navigating his way through the throng with resigned swiftness. Ivanova leaned back in her chair and bit her lower lip, all the more sure that she would want to be Ensign Ivanova again. Everybody else's business went ahead of her private life, always. Not that I have a private life, per se, she corrected herself and scratched her neck. She could count her friends with the fingers of one hand and she hadn't been out on a date since... since the last Ice Age. Again. But... the friends I do have...
Putting down the shot glass with a determined chink, the Commander rose to her slightly wobbly feet and smoothed down the front of her uniform. Friends... well I'll be damned, she mused and with a small smile, headed towards the bar with a rather unusual request in mind.
She rather enjoyed the quiet of the place. Things had calmed down for the night and no more disruptions had spoiled her evening. The faint hum and clicking of machines around her was a constant background muzak, occasionally punctuated by the quiet voices of the doctors in the anteroom, and the equally quiet footsteps of nurses as they checked on their patients.
"How are you doing, Ms Winters?" asked the young nurse, approaching her with a small, unsure smile.
"Much better, thank you. The headache is almost gone."
"Excellent. I've got here an inhibitor for the telepathic headaches," he said, showing her a hypospray. It hissed quietly as it was pressed against her skin, leaving behind a tingling feeling. "You need a new shot every three days... and there's a visitor for you." The nurse exited as quietly as he had arrived and a moment later, the door retracted again, to reveal Commander Ivanova. She didn't step in but instead, leaned against the door.
"Hi," Talia replied, her voice almost a whisper. For the first time in hours, she felt the thought of the headache recede back, a smile rising onto her lips.
"Sorry about the hastily aborted lunch," the Commander began and stepped closer to the bed. The telepath could see the wrinkles of her uniform and the tired, heavy eyelids over the smooth brown eyes. The Commander was slightly drunk but not too much so.
"It's nothing. It wasn't exactly your fault," Talia said wryly.
"But I did promise you dessert."
Ivanova finally took her right hand from behind her back. It held a small standard issue cup, now filled with something white and cold-looking. She handed it to Talia who sat up in her bed and spooned some of the moist ice into her mouth. She aimed a radiant smile towards Ivanova, her straight, white teeth in stark contrast to the red of her lips. That smile and its echo in the soft gray eyes made a small butterfly spring into life in the Commander's stomach. She ducked her head and sat down on the edge of the bed.
"I figured you to be the lime sorbet type."
"You're absolutely correct," Talia said, a bit dreamily, and scooped up a spoonful of the light dessert. A small sound purred in her throat as she consumed the delicacy. Another spoonful and she turned towards the Commander, lifting a perfect eyebrow.
"Would you like to have some?"
Smiling, Ivanova shook her head and concentrated on her trouser presses. Running a finger along the faint crease, she bit her lower lip as not to smile like a giggly teenager. "Vodka kills my appetite."
The telepath clicked her tongue and ate the last of the sorbet. "Busy day tomorrow?"
"You have no idea," Ivanova said and looked at her, resigned humour strong in her eyes. "No cause has been found to the power failures and the Captain's restricting incoming traffic to the station."
"So... you're probably busy till late tomorrow night?" Talia said and set the now empty sorbet cup to the nightstand, next to the call button.
"Probably, yeah. Why so?"
"Well, there's still the unopened wine I brought yesterday."
"Ah yes," Ivanova smiled and scooted a bit closer so that her thigh almost touched Talia's leg under the sheets. The telepath looked almost like an angel in the white hospital gown and sheets, her hair a silky halo around her features. "How about you, me, the bottle and a vid, as soon as I have a moment to spare? Assuming the station doesn't fall apart on us."
"It's a deal," Talia said and leaned forward, wrapping her arms around her legs and resting her chin on her knees. "You look tired. Go get some sleep. I'll be okay."
"Okay. Till tomorrow then."
"Tomorrow," the telepath smiled and Ivanova found herself reciprocating the expression automatically. There was something so warm yet fragile about that smile that it made her feel special. To be able to see this side of the usually cool and composed woman was something she still struggled to come to grips with.
The hallway was quiet. It was odd, Ivanova mused as she walked towards the transport tube, that even here, in the forever night of deep space, people still wished to adhere to normal daily rhythms. There were few species that didn't have the concept of night and day and thus, the lights were dimmed on the station as 'night' came. But there were a few nocturnal species on the station and then some that did not seem to sleep at all...
"Ambassador Kosh," the Commander said, having been shaken out of her deep thoughts at the sight of the man? woman? it? as she rounded a corner. The huge bulge of encounter suit and fabric paused and bowed to her before proceeding onward. Peeking around the corner, Ivanova saw that the ambassador entered MedLab. What in the name of peas and little fishie feet? The oddballs of the station seemed to have some weird agendas. Vorlons that go bump in the night... go figure, she thought and bit the inside of her mouth, thinking with a tired brain.
The tube deposited her on the Zocalo and she headed towards the nearest food stall to grab a bite. Chewing on her pita sandwich with rather good simulated tuna fish, the Commander loosened her collar and worked her jaw, feeling the last of the alcohol inside her vaporise. Now, she was just hungry, tired and more than a bit edgy. When she finally reached her quarters, she fell asleep on the sofa.
"Ambassador, you must wait. The Narn cargo --"
"A Narn cargo ship has precedence over me? Well, this certainly is the pinnacle of your career in diplomacy, Commander!" the Centauri Republic's Ambassador exclaimed over the comm. Londo in the morning. Great, Ivanova groaned in her mind.
"Yes. They arrived first, they get to dock first."
"I can't believe that you don't have any more room!"
"Yes, well, we were forced to shut down docking bays 24 thru 36 because of the power outages. You wouldn't want me to put your life at risk, now would you, Ambassador."
"No, of course not," his sarcastic reply told. "Fine. I will wait."
Thank god. "Babylon Control to Narn cargo cruiser T'ngor, prepare to dock immediately at bay 14."
The morning progressed as usual. Hassle, chaos and edgy, pompous ship captains demanding that their ships should get first priority. At lunch time, Ivanova turned towards the crew pit of C&C and stretched her neck, cringing at the snap, crackle and pop. "You have the comm, Mr Corwin," she announced and the man stepped up to replace her.
Sauntering around the roughly circular room, the Commander came to stand next to the Captain's station where Sheridan was busy scanning through the entry logs of the day the power ruptures started. There had been another serious one that morning and that had resulted in a metal walkway tearing off the wall and ripping down most of the power cables leading to docking bay 24 and onward. Things were getting out of hand.
"Any news on the situ, sir?"
"None," the Captain said and leaned back in his chair. "But I did get a formal protest from Ambassador Mollari, about your, and I quote, 'sluggish responses' to his requests."
"Oh, great," Ivanova groaned and lifted an eyebrow at the Captain. "What did he do, get his sphincter re-calibrated for maximum retention while he was at Centauri Prime?"
"That sounds about right, Commander," Sheridan chuckled and re-focused on his stack of flimsies. Ivanova caught the next transport tube down with two of her staff, all the while rubbing her tensed neck. The headache was back with a vengeance, but she suspected it had more to do with the capricious ambassador than anything else.
The corridor leading towards the mess hall was as crowded as ever. Dodging outbound groups of EarthForce people, the Commander turned the situation around in her head but so far, she hadn't found a good way to get the power back on-line for the incapacitated docking bays. As she came around the last corner, a new wave of voices rose at the other end. The crowd parted as a tight group of people from varying species rushed past, all clad in dark robes with heavy padding. So this is the Caparriel brothers and sisters... Ivanova mused, giving them a critical once-over. The alien faces were hard to decipher but the human ones were pregnant with religious rapture. All of the monks had a tattoo on their forehead; an approximation of a sine curve inside a circle, all in dark blue. Their chant was quite indecipherable, so when one small human man passed the Commander, she grabbed him by the shoulder.
"What's going on?"
The man's eyes turned towards her, gleaming with pleasure as they were, as if he wasn't quite sane. "He's close! So close... there," he said and pointed towards the fluorescent light in the ceiling. Ivanova's brows drew together.
"Who is where?"
The man looked at her better, a sliver of comprehension returning to his eyes. They were small and very green, the Commander noted, the tattoo on his forehead covered in small beads of perspiration. "The One, of course. Who else?"
"The... One?" Ivanova asked, tasting the oddness of the word on her tongue. The man had said it with reverie she wasn't capable of. "Where?"
"We cannot see the One but he is here. I can sense him. And he's
healing!" With this, the man tore himself away from the Commander and
rushed to his pals, who had stopped at the corner, gathering in one big lump to
discuss something. The Commander shook her head and joined the lunch queue.