Genre, summary, spoilers: Babylon 5 slash f/f (I/W) NC-17; possible slight, vague spoilers for the latter seasons and prolly muddles up the 3rd season story line somewhat. This story is something of a sequel to GiÓ Cogli Angeli, Ivanova?, starting about one and a half years after that one. But I suppose you can read this without reading the other first, just as long as the happenings before and leading to the episode Divided Loyalties are familiar.

Legal yadda: Characters not mine. Don't intend to keep them. (though I might be tempted to keep Talia). Not for profit. Don't sue.

Other disclaimers: This story depicts graphic, consensual sex between two adult women. Humour, most certainly. I'm a hopeless romantic, after all (which also means a few mushy lines but I'll try to keep the sensitive chats to minimum). A mild angst alert on this one, tho -- after all, I wrote this listening to industrial garage music.

Thank you to Shadow for providing help with my fledging English, and to Andrea Thompson for Talia. Wanna marry me?



O b l i q u e
ę Penumbra 1999


On the last days of the year 2260 of God's grace, space was the enemy. What had been the final frontier was becoming the final battlefield; no longer was Babylon 5 the beacon, all alone in the night. It had become the eye of a storm that threatened to shatter the universe.

Thus, it was irony of cosmic proportions that Commander Susan Ivanova, formerly of Earth Alliance, now of the independent state of Babylon 5, was feeling lonely. The onus of responsibility lay heavily on her shoulders but she bore its weight gladly; if anything, the incessant hurry took her mind off the void inside her, the emptiness darker and more forbidding than the vastness of space had ever been. But now, as she sat on the launch deck of Launch Bay 11, she was intensely aware of the cold hollow of her soul. The vodka bottle chinked quietly against the metal alloy of the floor as she set it down, before bringing the small thimble of viscous poison to her lips.

It was hot inside the flight suit but she didn't mind. Its familiar scent, mixed with the heady odour of Starfury reactor coolant and ozonous exhaustion fumes, was a smell that used to bring a rush of adrenaline into her veins. But now, the feeling of the heightened state drowned in the smell and taste of raw alcohol in her mouth and nose and she let her head slump forward onto her updrawn knees, swallowing the bitter liquid and trying to enjoy the hot sting as it went down her throat.

Ridiculous, she berated herself in the thick stupour of her mind. Stupid, Susan... let it fucking go already. She's gone. But in the one sober part of her mind, Ivanova knew that Talia wouldn't be gone until the last memory of her would die.

Every night as she lay down to sleep, she said the exact same words to herself. She's gone. And every morning as she woke, she repeated them again. Work helped her forget but even amidst the chaos of the present, there were bound to be moments of quiet and those she dreaded above all. Bring on the Shadows and Vorlons and cranky ambassadors, she was all the more happy, as long as she didn't have to spend the hour of the wolf in Command & Control, alone, with only her memories to keep her company.

The bay was a veritable beehive as the left wing of Gamma squadron prepared to launch a war game against Beta. Ivanova herself had just returned from her portion of the practice, sorely disappointed that not even the excitement and endorphins of a battle, mock one or not, managed to drag her mind away from the sadness inside her. Not one of the numerous Maintenance personnel or pilots scampering into their Starfurys noticed her solitary form in the shadows and though her eyes were turned their way, Commander Ivanova didn't see them either.

In the second hour of her silent journey into the oblivion of intoxication, a tear slipped from her eye, meandered down her heated cheek before dropping on the floor, unseen. Another swig of vodka burned down her throat. God, I miss her.

 

 


 

"Korobov? Vladizlaus Ivanovich Korobov?"

Captain John Sheridan, the tall, headstrong captain of Babylon 5, smiled at his equally unruly Second in Command's disbelieving tone and leaned back in his chair, feeling the pull of tired muscles on his legs. He had been up for what seemed like days on end -- running a newly independent state was far from easy, especially as he now faced enemies both domestic and foreign. Although the Nightwatch problem was now solved, the full extent of Clark's power on the station was still unknown to him. "Not so loud, Commander," he said, lifting a warning eyebrow.

"Sorry, sir," Ivanova said absentmindedly and drummed her fingers against the table. Dize... well I'll be damned. "How did he contact us?"

Instead of a verbal answer, Sheridan dug out a data crystal from his pocket and gave it to Ivanova. "I found this in my morning coffee, just this morning," he said. Ivanova's eyebrows rose halfway to her hairline but before she could utter her obvious question, he lifted a hand. "Don't ask, Susan, because I don't know how it got there."

On the vid, Doctor V I Korobov, or Dize, was as she remembered him, slightly thinner perhaps. A muscular, dark-skinned man in his forties, he had lost the fight to his receding hairline when he had been 25. He had been one of the most eccentric though brilliant exogenetists in the Earth scientific society before Clark's rise into power. After that, he had disappeared, as if a black hole had swallowed him. Life had been way too busy for Ivanova to wonder about the whereabouts of the reticent man, despite the fact that he was an old friend. Ivanova had first met him when she had been just two years old and he just past his thirteenth birthday, living next door to them, recruited to be her babysitter. When she had entered EarthForce academy and he the scientific community, they had drifted apart, but he was still something of a distant big brother to her.

"Hello, Dushen'ka Moya," the man greeted the camera. The friendly use of the family nickname made Ivanova's chest constrict painfully. "I have dire news I unfortunately cannot relate here." He paused and glanced to his side. Distant rumbling, probably cluster bombs, echoed as background noise and Ivanova noted how scared and red-rimmed his eyes were. "Something of great importance to both you and to the resistance. Remember ╔tienne and come see me. Just you." The vid ended abruptly, the picture switching into static.

"╔tienne?" Sheridan queried in his inimitable, soft voice.

"Mmmm, it's Korobov, all right," Ivanova hummed, deep in thought. Sheridan cleared his throat and she looked up, into his inquisitive, tired eyes. "Ah, yes... Dize and I used to meet at the Senate Square, near the statue of Peter the Great." The Captain's look was still blank. "The statue was designed by ╔tienne Falconet," she clarified.

"I see. Do you have any idea what this news of his could be about?"

"No idea, sir," Ivanova sighed and snatched the data crystal from the slot. "But Dize's never been one to exaggerate."

"So I understand," Sheridan said, her brow deep in furrow as he thought. "What do you suggest we do about this?"

 

 


 

The new uniform's collar was slightly better than the old one's, but still, as soon as she entered her quarters, Ivanova yanked the jacket open and off her shoulders, draping it haphazardly over the backrest of her sofa. She poured herself a glass of orange juice and cursed her previous day's drinking bout. Hangovers were bad as is and if you were an untrained telepath, they were even worse. After almost inhaling half of the juice, Ivanova slumped to sit on the sofa, rubbing her temples. Goddamnit, Talia...

Her training was still poor. A secret long hidden, her telepathic abilities were still very much an uncharted territory that had been brought into the light almost a year and a half ago. The change was initiated by the station's then-resident Psi-Corps telepath, Talia Winters, with whom Ivanova had had an abrasive, vitriolic relationship ever since she had arrived on Babylon 5. Their relationship had slowly evolved from antagonistic to friendly and without any conscious knowledge of it, Ivanova had fallen for the tall, imperious telepath. To her utter amazement, Talia had returned the feelings and they had become lovers. Ivanova's skills had blossomed under Talia's tutelage; they had been exposed to the telepath because of love, and it was the love and trust Ivanova had for Talia that had given her the courage to speak about her secret. 'Tell no-one!' had been her mother's warning and she had wilfully disobeyed it, but she was sure mother would understand.

Ivanova's rugged journey into self-discovery had halted abruptly when, on one day of horror, a Psi-Corps personality program planted in Talia's brain erased the woman she loved, replacing her with a mock-Talia. The alternative personality had killed her Talia, the shadowed twin sister triggered into existence by the command of another telepath; the outer shell was the same but inside, what had been light was nothing but rot. Decaying. Evil. Petty. No remorse.

She remembered the hot, almost burning passion that had consumed them during the short weeks they had had together, when she had been reduced to a thing that wanted Talia, nothing more. Thus, the utter bitterness of the betrayal Talia's alter ego had set up had been even more wounding. The moment had caught them on the worst possible time: Ivanova's training had just begun, the extent of her full power still unknown, and their relationship had been at the stage when the first attraction grows into love.

The Talia you knew is dead.

The cold voice was still clear in her mind. The dead look in the blue-grey eyes she didn't recognise any more. The achingly familiar, beautiful features that sneered down at her. Rolling the juice glass against her hot forehead, feeling the condensation stick to her skin, Ivanova cursed her inability to let the memories go.

She had learned the basic blocking techniques and the art of narrow thought projection, so that she wasn't shouting her thoughts to every telepath within a ten-mile radius any more, but the fine-tuning was still missing. And during the months of her barren life, her existence after Talia, she hadn't had time or inclination to practice. Alcohol dulled her abilities and while it drowned the voices for the fleeting moment the intoxication lasted, the next day was always the worst. Every emotion around her, every touch, sent a jarring jolt through her glass-fragile mind and sometimes, on days like these, she was nothing but raw nerve endings, razed to the surface, screaming.

Swallowing the rest of her juice, Ivanova gathered herself and pushed the familiar if futile thoughts of longing to the back of her consciousness. She rose and with a heavy sigh, removed the rest of her clothes and headed for the shower.

The hot water felt good on her abused muscles and she lathered her skin generously, until the last vestiges of the grime and smells of flying washed off her. Her hand trailed down her stomach. She had lost weight recently because of the extra stress, the muscles and curves of ribs in clear relief against her skin. She stood under the cascading water what seemed like hours, her hands moving in mechanical patterns on her skin as her mind flew elsewhere. Finally, long after her fingertips had grown pink and ribbed, she got out.

The bed was too big and too empty, again, but she was too tired to notice. Morpheus took her away in mere seconds and she slept deeply, for once without dreams.

 

 

 


 

EAS Yevgeny Onegin looked like a ship that had been though more than a few rough patches, saved only by her crew's competence and a few favours from Lady Luck. Her hull was patched here and there and paint was peeling off near the side thrusters, but everything else about the ship spoke of loving care and the weapons array that hung below the ship's main hull looked like serious business. The airlock opened silently, with not a glitch, and Ivanova climbed through the circular opening. Inside, a young lieutenant was waiting for her and he snapped into attention when she was fully in the antechamber and stood up.

"Commander Ivanova," the man said, his hand painfully rigid on his brow. "I'm Lieutenant DeWeese, Onegin's pilot." Ivanova felt ancient next to him; his very pale blue eyes regarded her with youngish awe and with his slight build and acne-scarred face, he looked as if he had just passed puberty.

"At ease before you sprain something, Lieutenant," Ivanova smiled and after transferring her overnight bag under other arm, extended her hand. "So you're 'Madman of Io', then." The young man blushed, the delicate pink hue extending from the collar of his uniform to his hairline, as he shook Ivanova's hand gingerly.

Lieutenant (JG) DeWeese had been the first one to make the Io-Amalthea run in less than eight minutes in a customised Starfury, nearly crashing into Amalthea while at it. Unfortunately, the successful attempt had been unauthorised and as a punishment, he had been transferred to Babylon 5 to fly cargo ships. His hate for Earth bureaucracy was well known.

Ivanova couldn't help laughing at the irony. Here she was flying a ship, named after Pushkin's most famous novel, to help the man who was the most ardent hater of Tchaikovsky she knew; Dize's favourite musical punch bag had been the composer's opera after the Pushkin classic. The parallels between herself and the novel's heroine Tatyana, a victim of the wrong time and the wrong place syndrome, were painfully obvious.

Last night it had been decided, with certain reluctance on Sheridan's part, that the message was important enough to warrant an investigation. Since Korobov had specified he would see only Ivanova, the commander had argued that it was imperative she go personally. Sheridan had agreed, but only if she take someone to guard her back. Grumbling, Ivanova had acquiesced and so she had been granted the use of Onegin, a recent capture from Earth Alliance. She still had all the necessary pass codes and identification intact and as far as Clark's government knew, she was out chasing Mars Resistance refugee transports on the Outer Rim.

The only problem was that while Korobov had been absolutely clear of the importance of Ivanova's involvement, he had not stated a location where to meet him. Ever the paranoid, the commander had thought and put her brain powers to use. The landscape behind Korobov in the vid had obviously been Martian; Mount Olympus stood in clear detail against the orange-reddish sky. But as to his absolute location in the colony, Ivanova would have to trust her instincts and some good luck.

"Would you like to have the two-credit tour now or later, Commander?"

"Now, please. As soon as the rest of my entourage boards, I want to get going," Ivanova said and glanced at her chrono.

It was a quick tour. The ship consisted of a claustrophobic, messy bridge, three officers' quarters next to the crew bunks and the mess hall. The reactor chamber and thrusters claimed nearly a third of the ship. Normal crew compliment was twenty-one, but now there was just five others besides Ivanova and DeWeese, the minimum crew needed to fly the vessel. Ivanova dropped her bag into the captain's quarters that were about the size of her bathroom on the station, before heading back towards the airlock to meet her babysitters.

Commander Sergeant Major Ettone 'Virgil' Alighieri was so unlike his famous ancestor that it was almost hilarious. Though a great fan of Dante and an amateur painter, his outer appearance suggested his hobbies to be more along the lines of fist fighting and inventing handy ways to assassinate people. "Morning, Virgil," Ivanova greeted the big man and after shaking hands with him, she once again reminded herself not to do that. The man had a grip strong enough to crush bones. Flexing her stinging hand discreetly, the commander eyed the rest of his squad of silent men and women streaming in through the airlock on the floor, counting. One, two, three... eight. You're a dead man, John.

"Commander," the Sergeant said, his voice hoarse and pained. An ugly scar ran down his left cheek and meandered down his veiny, treetrunk-thick neck before disappearing into the collar of his straining black t-shirt. The pale scar was a memento from the Earth-Minbari war, when his troop carrier had been hit near Io. Shrapnel had grazed his vocal chords and as always, when the man spoke, Ivanova felt the need to clear her throat. "So good to see you again."

"Well, let's not remember the last time we had the pleasure of working together," Ivanova smiled dryly and gestured him to follow her. The last time, an unfortunate heap of bad coincidences on a covert mission on Mars, had resulted in two dead Commandos and a few new additions to the burly sergeant's vast collection of scars. "Mission briefing is at oh-nine hundred hours in the mess hall, so you and your people have ample time to settle in. Meanwhile," Ivanova said as they paused at the entrance to the crew quarters, "I'll see if we can get this tug-o-bolts going. When you get your gear unloaded, strap in."

"Aye, ma'am," Alighieri said, winked and saluted smartly before disappearing inside to join his squad. Maybe I can just take Virgil and dump the rest of his squad at Triton for some shore leave, Ivanova mused idly as she ducked through the low door of the bridge.

There was one drawback to middle-sized spaceships. They often had designers that had little experience in being cooped up inside spacefaring vessels: in ships like Onegin that seemed to perpetually hover in a state of puberty, trying to decide whether to stay small and agile or to go for the bigger punch and bulk, you got the triumph-of-miniaturisation bridges. Too big to be called a cockpit and ridiculously small for Ivanova to call a true starship bridge, the place nevertheless had good view over the station from its curving front windows, and enough space to house four comfortable flying chairs next to various consoles. The pilot's chair was, unsurprisingly, manned by Lieutenant DeWeese while a woman introduced to Ivanova as Ensign Djojohadikusumo occupied the co-pilot's chair, conversing quietly with DeWeese as she ran through pre-flight checks.

Ivanova folded her frame into the captain's chair and stifled a yawn before switching on the ship's log. Covert mission or not, stolen ship or not, keeping a log was mandatory. "Commander Susan Ivanova, clearance code Omicron-258-dash-37D, assuming command of EAS Yevgeny Onegin on the present date. Safe word 'bubblegum'." The screen flashed approval on her code and voice recognition and recorded the given safe word.

"Incoming call from a Mr. Garibaldi, ma'am," Djojohadikusumo said. Her quiet voice with a charming, slightly lilting accent was the perfect complement of her small, slender frame. Ivanova nodded and flipped a switch in her console. The chief looked like he had fought against a horde of Narns.

"Michael, you look like hell."

"Morning to you too, Susan," he replied dryly and lifted an eyebrow over a blackened eye. As always, the gesture made him look slightly devilish. "An elusive Drazi, high on Hell Dust, disagreed with me last night."

"No kidding," Ivanova said. "Well, you go find the SOB and disagree with him back. Did you have something for me?"

"Nothing of the good doctor's recent activities, I'm afraid, but I'm sending you all I could dig up. Seems he has a wild streak."

"That he has," Ivanova smiled and leaned back in the surprisingly comfortable chair. The gel filling of the chair's padding moulded itself around her frame with a slightly sickening, slurping sound. Onegin still had the older models.

"Awright. Be careful out there and bring me a Martian margarita," Garibaldi said and gave her a mock salute.

"I'll bring you a whole bottle of tequila if this pulls through," Ivanova promised and switched the link off. The horizontal green lines of the data download meter next to her display multiplied steadily until Garibaldi's data dump was safely tucked into the ship's computer. "Mr. DeWeese?"

"At your word, captain."

"All right," Ivanova grunted and tightened her safety harness to almost painfully tight -- a reflex brought on by years and years of flying Starfurys and other small craft. "Ahead two thirds, around the starboard side towards the jump gate. Nice and easy, Lieutenant."

"Ahead two thirds," DeWeese confirmed and checked his displays. "We have clearance from Babylon Control. Fire up the aft thrusters, Jo-Jo."

"Aft thrusters," Ensign Djojohadikusumo murmured and the ship's engines roared from idle to half a life, making the deck under Ivanova's feet tremble. The chair's padding ate away the shakes, however, so she was quite comfortable in her small cocoon, the front windows offering a panoramic view on the station's exterior.

The Onegin was docked at a maintenance bots' service cradle, hidden inconspicuously behind the forward solar panel array. The main docking bay was just too open and too crowded to offer any kind of secrecy (it was designed that way, in fact), so alternatives had been sought. Though the route to the ship has been difficult, requiring a small detour through the methane-breathers' section, Ivanova didn't mind. The more her paranoia was appeased, the better. So, with a relatively safe mind, she watched the station's surface dip down as they detached from the airlock cradle.

DeWeese was good, no question. Ivanova idly admired his truncated Aulio manoeuvre as he flipped the ship around and rode with the residual gravitometric waves the station's rotation generated. The gleaming paneling of Babylon 5's hull whipped past them in a blur and in five seconds, they were hurled from the gravity well towards the stars and the jump gate beacon. Ivanova caught one last glimpse of the station, closest to what she had in the line of home, floating peacefully in the forever night, before it was behind them and the jump gate flared to life. They dove into the orange-hued funnel and for a brief second, the bridge shone with the warm light, until the darkness of hyperspace swallowed the Onegin.

"Interior lights on," DeWeese said and the disconcerting reddish glow of hyperspace was replaced by a slightly cheerier light. Ivanova breathed out slowly and released her harness, massaging her left shoulder where the straps had bit into it. The harness had been a pointless precaution really; no ship built this side of the century's cusp did the rodeo horse imitation upon entering hyperspace any more.

"Engine status nominal," DeWeese announced. "Jo-Jo, check the pressure in plasma injector #27."

"It's the same creaky valve, sir," Djojohadikusumo said, her dark brows scrunching over large, mellow brown eyes as her hands flew over her status panel. "I'll tell Michi to take a look at it as soon as possible."

"All ahead. Set course for Io jumpgate," the commander said and rose. Her neck popped audibly as she twisted her head to the side and grimacing, she headed for the door. It was almost half past eight so she had ample time to have breakfast before the briefing. "You have the conn, Lieutenant DeWeese."

 

 


 

It was day four of their journey and she was sure she was going to go mad. The space that had been her stoic if silent friend for so many years, was no longer silent and no longer friendly. In every shadow and concentration of the hyperspace storm Ivanova saw a Shadow ship, and the red swirls followed her into her sleep.

The nightmares were worse than ever. There was little to do on the ship besides sleeping and eating, and while Sergeant Alighieri's troops had kept busy by shining their guns and playing cards, Ivanova had convinced DeWeese that she wasn't high ranking enough to be coddled and needed to do her share. So, at the moment, Ivanova was sitting in the pilot's chair, twiddling her thumbs; hyperspace flight was always like that. Next to her, Chief Warrant Officer Michiru Pin, the ship's engineer, fidgeted and gave her covert looks, trying very hard not to screw up while sitting next to someone with such glittering epaulets. But Ivanova didn't see his uneasiness; instead, her eyes were trained towards the nervous St. Elmo's fires outside, though she saw none of it. She was far too preoccupied with the voices in her head, or more precisely, lack thereof.

It was amazing. She couldn't hear anyone. Well, there was of course Pin sitting next to her who practically reeked of nervousness and youthful, almost reverent respect, and the faint echoes of the mellow, bored mental states of the rest of the ship's crew compliment, but besides that there was just...

 

'The threshold', Talia had called it. It had taken her a long time to filter out the extraneous noise, the voices, and the emotions, until all that remained was a faint whisper, a song that had no beginning and no end and Ivanova felt that it needed neither.

"What is it?" she asked, eyes closed and voice dreamy. She felt like swaying to the music.

"I don't know, exactly," Talia's smoky alto replied. "Everyone hears it differently and calls it different names. For me, it's..." She trailed off and Ivanova could hear the faint rustle of clothing as the woman settled into a more comfortable position on the sofa. A slight whiff of Talia's inimitable scent, bergamot and wild apples and something far more intangible, reached Ivanova's nose and she inhaled the sweet air. The song in her ears seemed to gather force as she breathed in Talia.

"Yes?"

"The poetic version is that it's the voice of the universe," the blonde telepath murmured and tried to put into words thoughts whose complexity was far beyond the limits of the spoken language. "It's the carrier wave. The threshold of what we can telepathically hear of the inanimate and the non-intelligent matter, what spills over it."

"Mmm," Ivanova hummed and still without opening her eyes, she wrapped her arms around Talia, gently. And as she brushed her hands through the silken, fair hair, she could hear it sing to her. Feel the strands of spun gold, hear them in colours, taste their voice, see their scent. Feel their love, as tangible as the woman in her arms and the soft cushions underneath them, and the suddenly so warm space beyond the Duranium walls. "Beautiful," she said, the word hopelessly inadequate.

"Yes, it is," Talia said and Ivanova could hear the smile in her voice.

 

The lullaby existed even in hyperspace, in the violently curved place outside of the space-time continuum. Closing her weary eyes, the commander shut out the warrant officer's scattered thoughts on plasma injector valves and his occasional bout of homesickness and focused on the song, trying, in vain as usual, to grasp its source and reason.

Suddenly, the proximity alert blared to life and Ivanova jumped out of her meditation. Punching the annoying, whooping alert to silence, she had just verified that they had reached the Io gate twenty minutes in advance when DeWeese entered the bridge. "Normal space in two minutes. Strap yourself in, lieutenant," Ivanova barked and yanked her own harness into place.

The reddish yellow glow appeared in the middle of the hyperspace wasteland and Ivanova guided them through it with nary a bump, Onegin entering normal space smoothly and with a lazy starboard side glide to compensate for Jupiter's suddenly appearing gravity well. The commander had made the approach more times than she could remember, so she guided with one eye while transmitting the appropriate identification codes to Io control. Onegin's home port was, most conveniently, Proxima IV, so there was little danger of running into the ship's real crew's mates and superiors there.

"Approach vector 6/34... good, one of the auxiliary docking arms," Ivanova said, more to herself than to anyone else. Apparently they were deemed unimportant enough to warrant a remote docking bay, instead of the ones closer to and around the central, circular core of the Io station. It was just a relay station for them; refuelling and replacing the bad injector valve were the reasons for the pit stop.

It was as if the designer had glued a swarm of spiders into one clump and then multiplied the proportions with a factor of one billion. The Io jump station was a bustling space station that hovered over the big planet's satellite, a metallic, dark net over the golden, ice-streaked moon. Still the Sol system's main entry and exit point, the station lived on EarthForce and tourists travelling to and from the systems that belonged to the Alliance.

Executing a perfect Kube-McIntyre flip and approach glide, Ivanova guided Onegin to a graceful halt at one of the outer spindles of the net. The hiss of the docking clamp was drowned out by the exhale of the coolant system as she shut down the engine and the reactor blew out extraneous, spent cooling vapour. The ship logged on-line to the station's network and with a sinking heart, Ivanova noted that they were rather low in the fuel queue. Damn, Dize... of all times, why did you have to pick the Holiday season? War or no war, tourist business went on as usual, Christmas was the busiest time of year. Big liners got precedence over non-combatant EarthForce ships, so they would be stuck on the station for at least five hours.

"That was a very beautiful approach, ma'am," DeWeese smiled as they exited the bridge.

"Home turf," Ivanova explained succinctly. "I'll head out to the station with Sergeant Alighieri, you are in charge until I return."

"Yes, ma'am," DeWeese saluted and headed towards engineering. Ivanova watched his narrow, retreating back and smiled wanly. The man's enthusiasm was enchanting but, at the same time, sad in its naivete. Ignorance is bliss, Dize used to say. Damn if he wasn't right.

 

 


 

"Shit! What's she doing here?!" the operative hissed to his adjutant and grabbed her arm convulsively.

She turned towards him, her protest dying in her throat as she saw the sudden pallor of her cool though sometimes prone-to-hysterics boss. His narrow face had assumed a curious yellowish hue around his red, glowing cheeks that spoke of his ever-increasing substance abuse. But who could blame him? "Who, sir?"

"She," he said and transferred his hand from her sleeve to his ear, fingering the lobe nervously. Discreetly, he nodded towards a table near the other wall of the juke joint, where a big steroid reservoir of a man sat with a smaller figure. The latter patron was hidden inside a dark cloak that was equipped with a breathing regulator and vacuum gloves. As such, all the other patrons of the dingy establishment gave the table a wide berth.

"The robed person? Who's she?"

As usual, his mental projection was almost painful. She flinched as the image flashed into her mind but she knew to expect the pain. The first time when he had done it she had fainted from the pain and shock, but by now she was well-versed with his abrupt way of communicating, though still very uncomfortable about his special brand of psi talent. She could never tell if he was looking through her clothes or not, and she hadn't dared to ask.

As it was, his vision of the woman behind the robe's folds was familiar but she couldn't quite place it. "I know her from somewhere, that's for sure."

"It's Babylon 5's Second in Command, idiot," the operative whispered furiously. His pupils were the size of pinpricks. "Her picture was in subject K7's files, remember?"

The adjutant's eyes lit with sudden comprehension and she became as pale as her superior. "How did she know we're transferring specimen 9 today, via Io?" she asked, darting a glance at the travel cradle on the third chair around the table. Inside, the baby seemed to be fast asleep, suckling on her thumb. "If that is why she is here."

"Fuck!" the operative cursed and only barely stopped himself from slamming the table. That would only bring unwanted attention and the job was going to rocks as it was. "We have to contact the others."

 

 


 

Ivanova shifted uneasily on her seat. There was something terribly wrong but she couldn't put her mental finger on it. Pushing the faint nausea down, she adjusted the straw on her breath mask into the water mug. The outfit wasn't comfortable but it was effective; none dared to approach her because the breathing apparatus, as well as the rest of her clothes, screamed in metre high letters that she had an advanced case of the highly contagious Bhangar fever. The perfect disguise.

As a couple with a baby carriage exited, one of Alighieri's men came in, his gait very un-soldier-like and matching his scroungy outfit well. Sauntering closer to their table, he pretended to trip in his drunken state and as he stumbled, he slipped something to Alighieri.

"What is it?" Ivanova wheezed through her gear.

The bulky sergeant skimmed through the note and thrummed his fingers on the rickety, dirty table. "Scuttlebutt says the battle on Mars is gearing down. We should have no trouble."

"Excellent," Ivanova said and rubbed her temple. She had a nagging feeling that someone had almost scanned her but she wasn't quite sure. But there was a discord in the threshold's song, something that made cold fingers skitter over her spine, and that made exact sensing difficult. A glance at her chrono told her they had inhabited the low-end joints of the Io station for four hours now; as it was with Down Below on Babylon 5, there were places where no-one cared or asked intrusive questions. Here, in this small bar called 'Shanti's Head', they had been left alone, the other, rather disreputable looking patrons more interested in the various intoxicants and drinks they were nursing than of new faces. Io was a spaceport, after all. New faces were old news. "Let's head back towards Onegin."

Alighieri nodded and drained the last of his substitute beer. Once again, Ivanova was fascinated with his forearms. They were as thick as her thighs and sported veins the size of her pinky finger. A few discreet hand signals to the three members of his squad that were spread around the place, and he rose. "I go first."

The corridor, more a bazaar than anything else, was crowded. As opposed to Babylon's similar places, the clientele was overwhelmingly human and much more... desperate. Harsher. Keeping a sharp eye on the crowds milling around her, Ivanova pushed through the people in Alighieri's wake, carefully avoiding anyone sporting clothes that even remotely resembled uniforms.

As she rounded one corner, she almost collided with a pair of uniformed Psi-Corps telepaths, the black stripes on their badges indicating they were acting as teeps, or commercial telepaths. Her heart in her throat, Ivanova ducked her head and clenched her hand around her silicate knife, the only type of weapon that passed the scanners. The telepaths, however, didn't even notice her but continued on, discussing the details of an apparently difficult treaty. Letting out a breath she hadn't realised she was holding, Ivanova let go of the knife, her hands shaking, and rushed to catch up with Alighieri. And then all hell broke loose.

 

 


 

"Commander Ivanova! Are you OK?"

"Yeah, I'll be fine, Virgil," Ivanova ground out and squeezed her hand tighter around where the PPG blast had hit, on her upper thigh. "Just grazed me."

"All right," the sergeant said and turned in his crouch, after making sure Ivanova really was okay. PPG wounds didn't bleed, of course, because the blast was so hot the flesh was cauterised, but they tended to hurt like hell. He had intimate knowledge on the fact, and he suspected the commander wasn't new to that particular brand of pain either. But Alighieri's more immediate concern was that they were under attack and all he had was three silicate knives.

Across the hallway, behind an identical public communications console that he and Ivanova were using as cover, his corporal caught his attention. With hand signals, she relayed the information that there were only two attackers, hidden behind the next sharp bend of the corridor. They were obviously not professionals in the art of assassination, because they had opened fire all too soon and were now taking their frustration out on the consoles, blasting them with careless shots that made sparks rain all over them. Alighieri estimated they had less than a minute before the station's security would arrive and that was something he wanted to avoid at all costs, especially since PFC Moore was on the wrong side of the console, apparently unconscious and bleeding profusely.

He nodded to Corporal Viracocha and relayed his plan, as it was. She lifted an eyebrow but nevertheless, dug out her knife. Alighieri himself readied one of his blades and followed the shooters' pattern. It was another sign of their incompetence, the fact that they had one. As the last shot of the volley whizzed past him, he was already halfway up from his crouch and running towards the source of fire.

The man never saw it coming. The knife was on its way before his head was even halfway around the bend and it was thrown with such rage that when it hit him on one cheek, it penetrated into his cortex all the way to the hilt. He fell on the floor, his limbs twitching uncontrollably. The other attacker screamed thickly and released a staccato of shots but by then, Alighieri and his corporal had dragged Moore to safety behind the next console in the hallway, and the shots ricocheted off the walls far behind them.

One down, one to go, Alighieri counted but knew the other would be more cautious now. As Viracocha administered first aid to the worryingly pale and listless Moore, Alighieri peeked around the edge of the console. Just the gun was visible and the target area was so small that he'd never hit it. Shit.

Just as he was retreating his head back to think about the situation, the gun arm jerked suddenly and a hoarse gurgling scream echoed down the hallway. First it was just a thin spray of blood but then, the body of the second attacker followed it, slumping onto the deck. Around the corner one of his squad members came running, her knife dripping with blood.

"He's smiling with his throat now," she breathed and flicked off the excess blood. "I'll take Moore with Corporal Viracocha, sir, if you help the commander."

They avoided the station authorities by just the minimal of margins but luck was with them the rest of the way and they reached Onegin without any more incidents. Ivanova had to pull rank to get Alighieri to deposit her on the bridge, while the squad's medic attended to Moore. After requesting that she'd be kept updated on the PFC's status, Ivanova collapsed into the captain's chair and worked her jaw around to relieve the headache she felt developing.

"Lieutenant, are we ready to go?"

DeWeese rotated his chair towards the back of the bridge where the captain's station was. His gaze flickered to Ivanova's blackened trouser leg, where the blast had peeled off her skin. For a while, he thought he was going to be sick because of the smell of burning flesh, but he swallowed the nausea. "Five minutes, tops. Pin is finishing his last tests on the new injector valve," he said, his tone apologetic.

"All right. As soon as possible, if you please," Ivanova grunted and leaned back.

"Yes, ma'am. Io control is go, starting the pre-flight sequence," he said and the reactor pumps woke up into low murmur. That was as far as he could go on without the cooling system on-line; the pumps were up but no fuel could be released into the confinement chamber.

The nagging feeling was back. As the two pilots ran hurriedly through their checklists, Ivanova suddenly felt very weak and very alive at the same time. The adrenaline of the shock and the pain was wearing off and the dull pain in her leg was starting to pulse in white-hot waves. But what hurt her most was the strife in the usually so harmonious song. Something was near and that something was in pain. She opened her eyes and suddenly it hit her, her vision tunneling to the sight that the front windows gave.

The ship was small, unmarked and looked old, except for the engine cradles that seemed brand new, along with the engines. The small nameplate under the polyp of a cockpit on one side told the ship's name to be Augustinus, registered to a freeport in Titan. But it wasn't the ship, it was something inside it. Something so strong it was in pain, its telepathic scream so high she had overlooked it before, not heard it before. It was something beyond human but still human, and it held a memory of Dize.

Augustinus' four engines ignited to brilliant life and the docking clamps snapped off, sprinkling small, gleaming shards of ice into the black space.

"DeWeese," Ivanova said, her voice thick and slow in her own ears. "Follow that ship."

"Excuse me?" He wasn't sure if he had heard the commander right.

"That ship," she replied, pointing out.

"Yes, ma'am," he said, a bit puzzled, but it wasn't his task to question the Commander's orders. She had every right to be eccentric. Just that moment, the last of the red lights in his console flashed to blue and he hit the fuel release. The reactor chamber was flooded and he checked the plasma injector readings. "Fusion containment holding," the lieutenant informed engineering, quite unnecessarily -- if it hadn't held, they would have been reduced to particle dust by then.

The other ship had a few minutes' headway so despite some fancy flying tricks on DeWeese's part, it entered hyperspace even before they could get inside weapons range. As they passed the jumpgate to make the last, final leg of the journey to the red planet, the lieutenant noted that the mystery vessel's destination appeared to be the Mars jump gate as well.

 


"But we did get at least one of them," the operative said defensively, though even he himself saw the preposterousness of the argument.

"Yes, and alerted the rest to our existence," his boss grunted, his anger audible even through the bad connection. As usual, the visual showed nothing but a silhouette of him; while the operative sometimes felt the amount of dramatic cloak and dagger was a bit too much, at the moment the absurdness of it was the thing farthest from his mind. "You should have contacted me first."

"I just thought--" he began again, sweat beading on his upper lip, but was cut off by an impatient wave of a shadowed hand on the screen.

"You panicked, simple as that. And these 'business partners' of yours are, excuse me, were," he corrected and the operative could almost see his smile, "nothing but bumbling idiots. Be glad you got rid of them."

He really felt like a shot of dust right now and instinctively, his fingers found the small, oval box in his trouser pocket. His gaze flicked to his assistant but she was of no help. Her face was closed, sullen. He sighed and re-focused on his superior. "What now, sir?"

"Proceed as planned. Stall them near Mars if you have to, but I'll take care of this annoyance when they arrive here. Central out." The screen dimmed to matte black and the operative slumped, the last of his strength suddenly gone. If his assistant hadn't been there, he would have gone all the way and fallen to the floor, but while she was there, he couldn't crumble completely.

"I'll leave you to abuse whatever combination of toxic substances you currently favour and go check on the subject," the adjutant said curtly and left him alone, the dark currents of hyperspace throwing nervous shadows over his mottled skin. If he imagined hard enough, he could almost see the ship following them, hidden in the folds of this strange dimension they were travelling. He didn't have the energy right now to probe but he had sensed the flash of realisation and the fire that had sparked into life in the rogue Commander's mind. And besides, the mediator had promised to take care of it.

Two pinches of the strong crystal methyladum powder and hyperspace became a much happier place.

 


"Commander Ivanova. Well I'll be damned," the mediator murmured to himself as the twitching form of the operative flicked into nothingness. Turning the lamp so that it again pointed at his handsome mahogany desk's surface, he rotated his chair so that the rugged Martian landscape all but filled his vision. Mount Olympus was a little to the left of centre and as usual, his eyes traced its innumerable crags and roiling stone walls.

He sat there for a while, his mind quietly pondering the new turn of events. There had been some signs that suggested subject K7 had managed to dispatch a message after his escape and disappearance, but they had been vague at best. Though it was unsure if Commander Ivanova's presence on Io was a coincidence or because the project had been revealed, the operative's rash and unfortunate decision to try to eliminate her made the reason inconsequential; Ivanova had to be removed from the game -- quickly, before some other party got informed of her presence and would get interested in obtaining her themselves. And after that, a few loose ends would have to be tied.

"What do you make of this, Leonard?" the mediator asked of his personal assistant, who shrugged. The question, as always, had been a rhetorical one.

"Fine mess," Leonard Karimanzira grated and shifted his stance. Long and thin, he always looked as if he was dying of starvation and when he had shrugged, his loose clothes had flapped sadly along his tall frame. "Will you be needing me today any more, sir?"

"No, go on home," the mediator murmured, his thoughts far away. He waved a dismissing hand and the adjutant bowed, before exiting quietly.

Karimanzira's steps were unhurried, silent on the corridor's carpeting. A few familiar faces walked past him and he nodded in greeting and paused momentarily to exchange a few pleasant words with the admonisher's personal aide, who was his daily companion at the lunch hall. However, upon reaching his quarters at the far side of the Consortium's maze-like building, his eyes took on a new gleam.

Inserting his encryption key card of the day into the vid screen's slot, he made a call. After a few moments, a familiar face appeared on the screen. "What do you want?" the man in the ominous, black uniform asked, lifting a dismissing eyebrow at him.

"Alfred, why so sour?" Karimanzira smiled. "I've good news and even better news."

 


The medic gently pulled the eyelids over bloodshot eyes before decoupling PFC Moore from the heart rate monitor. Ivanova felt like punching someone to alleviate her sense of personal failure, but of course she couldn't. So, she made do with biting her lower lip to blood, trying to avoid looking at Virgil who was crouching next to his fallen squad member. PFC Moore's wounds had been too severe for him to recover; his heart had given out after an hour's battle. Ivanova retreated back to the bridge.

"One minute to Mars jumpgate," DeWeese announced quietly, not wishing to disturb the captain's obviously deep thoughts. To his surprise, the words seemed to register, for Ivanova's blue eyes, bright with razor-sharp intelligence and cool determination, turned to him, unblinking. He swallowed refexively. Though he knew the scrutiny he was under was not malicious, the commander was something of a living legend in the pilot circles -- her mere presence made DeWeese nervous.

"The other ship?"

Ivanova's voice was a quiet murmur. There were factors to this equation she was not entirely happy with, and others she was uncomfortably unfamiliar with.

"They have gained some headway," the lieutenant replied apologetically. "Our engines are no match for them."

The jumpgate alert flicked to blinking life and Ensign Djojohadikusumo tightened her chest strap. "All hands, brace for re-entry," she announced in her calm, rich voice and once again, the never-ending, disturbing storm morphed into the darkness of real-time space. The red, rugged sphere of Mars filled almost half of Ivanova's vision, looming in the right-hand side of the front windows. Deceptively calm, the planet hung in the night, casting an ochre glow that Ivanova found very cold. The targeting overhead display found the ship they were chasing almost immediately and a green, fluorescent square lit up over it in the window.

"The ship identified as Augustinus is assuming an approach vector towards Mars Prime... wait a second." The lieutenant trailed off and leaned in towards his display. The green square superimposed over the front view turned red. "It is turning and powering up weapons grid."

"Hostility alert, route power to weapons," Ivanova said, her voice deceptively calm as the amber lights of the alert lit up on the bridge walls. "Any clues as to what are her intentions?" she continued, indicating the rapidly growing red square.

"No apparent plan," the ensign replied, hands flying over the tactical console. "Attack vector is norm-- oh fuck!" she exclaimed suddenly, quite in deference to proper military conduct. "Two, no, I count four Berzerkers heading our way!"

"Evasive action," Ivanova barked and flipped open her own tactical display. "Impress me, Lieutenant DeWeese."

And he did. While Berzerker-type missiles were dangerous, they were old and thus not too intelligent. Ivanova grabbed her chair as Onegin lurched suddenly to left and at the same time, launched a decoy flare to the opposite direction. A dead man's spiral made everybody's teeth rattle, especially when the ship was buffeted by a blast when one of the missiles was lured to explode by the decoy. Onegin's gravitometric compensators whined in protest at the abuse and behind her, Ivanova heard a loud thump and a muffled curse as Ensign Allen, the ship's communications officer, fell off his chair as his magnetic boots were ripped off the deck.

"Watch the aft quarter, Jo-Jo," DeWeese ground out between clenched teeth as he pulled the ship up and tilted severely to right. Another of the Berzerkers shot past them, only metres away, its exhaustion fumes staining the window black.

"Blanketing aft," the ensign said and Ivanova more felt than heard the sudden drain on the ship's power as the rear guns speckled the surrounding space with rapid fire, with the intention of hitting the one Berzerker that was trying to sneak up on them from behind. After two volleys, the bright red dot that marked the missile winked out of existence. "Madman, check port. Aft clear."

"Checking port side. Releasing decoy swarm," DeWeese said and hit the thrusters, leaving the missile far behind them to explode harmlessly on the decoy flares. The last of the red dots vanished and Ivanova let out a breath she had inadvertently been holding.

"Status report, lieutenant."

"Sir-- ma'am," he stumbled and after releasing the controls to Djojohadikusumo, rotated his chair towards Ivanova and downloaded the automatically generated stats to a small, hand-held pad. "Damage report shows all systems optimal, except for...auxiliary thrusters 9 thru 12. A main fuel conduit was hit -- shrapnel or a missile splinter," he said, frowning. "Until it is fixed, we have limited manoeuvring capabilities."

"Promudobl'adsksya pizdopro'ebina!" Ivanova cursed and ripped open her harness. DeWeese flinched back at the harsh exclamation and for once, he was glad he didn't speak Russian. What the commander had said was surely not pleasant. "Inform CWO Pin to get on the case right away. I want to get on Mars Prime ASAP."

"Uh, yes, ma'am," DeWeese said, his head bobbing up and down.

"Excellent work, all of you. You have the conn, lieutenant," Ivanova said before exiting the bridge, missing the surprised and pleased looks the crew exchanged on her words.

 


The numbers were plain and clear on his official assignment sheet and wouldn't budge, even as he tried to smear them with his gloved hand. Operative 985N. He had worked with her before and as always, wasn't looking forward to it. The assignments tended to be of the most difficult kind, but that was not it. No, it was operative 985N that bothered him.

"Nice to meet you again, Prozorov," a low, throaty voice said behind him.

He turned at the words, trying very hard not to show his pain as her mental fingers sliced through his brain. Or are they her real fingers, who knows, he thought and forced on a smile.

"No, they're right here," 985N said and wiggled all ten digits before offering five of them, along with the accompanying hand, for him to shake. He did so and as a habit, tried to scan her. And as usual, his probe was met by a wall thicker than eternity. She chuckled at his vain attempt. "Not nice, Mikhail."

"I'm not nice," he retorted, his anger rising again. He was a P-11, for crying out loud, and her reported level was about half of that. But then again, she wasn't exactly a normal telepath. Prozorov had seen the extent of her particular brand of psi powers and even though he wasn't exactly a saint, what she had done and was capable of was something very scary. The first time he had seen her in action he had thrown up his lunch. She had replied by a low laugh and a snide comment about sneezing in Technicolor. Dragging his mind away from past deeds, he handed the assignment pad to her. "Simple mission this time."

As she browsed through the brief letter and accompanying thick file, he was once again struck by the conflicts of her character and her outer appearance. The woman was simply beautiful, in that rare, divinely perfect way that exuded intelligence and extreme coolness while being hot enough for him to feel the impact of her presence physically, in addition to the mental musings. If only she wasn't a remorseless, genocidal iceberg, he would have asked her out, but violence was something of a turn-off to him.

She sensed his thoughts and looked up from the file, brushing back her hair. Her smile was bright with a hint of devil in it, and he endured it stoically. This was a silent conversation they had already had a few times in the past.

"Our shuttle awaits us in hangar bay 4."

"Excellent," she smiled and tucked the papers under one arm. When her hand landed on his forearm, he flinched perceptively. The hand seemed to be charged with electricity and he could feel the humming, pent-up power trickle through her gloves and the stiff, black fabric of his uniform.

The black maw of the Psi-Corps shuttle hangar swallowed them quickly, the doors sliding shut behind them with ethereal silence.


On to part 2

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