"Ubl'youdok!" Ivanova cursed and pushed her hair off her eyes. The long, dark strands were wet and in a state of complete disarray but it couldn't be helped. She was sweating hard, despite the below-freezing temperatures, from both exertion and fear. Her pursuers had found her, again -- and it wasn't just men with guns, it was telepaths. Someone kept on hammering on her mental block and sometimes, she could see black shapes behind the wall of sleet.
Turning back towards the wind, she picked up her pace. It was the dawn of a Sunday morning and Nevskiy Prospect was almost deserted; only a few early risers dotted the great main artery of the city. Almost five kilometres long and wide enough for a D-class shuttle to land, catering both to the mafiosi and to the poorest of the poor, the avenue was lined with historical buildings, most dating back to the 19th century and the previous Golden Era of Mother Russia. For Ivanova, this was her home turf, her street.
The wind was harsh. It stung, it was moist and it never let go. Ivanova ran, her footsteps quiet in the thin shroud of snow on the asphalt, past the Anichov palace and forward, crossing the Obvodny canal with barely a glance to her side. Her heart was hammering inside her ribcage and every breath she took was expelled with a wheeze, the coldness of the air making breathing a painful ordeal. She took a right turn to a small, covered alley and sank into the ground, not caring if her trousers got wet. Must go on, she told her legs but while spirit was willing, flesh gave in. On all fours, her chest heaving, she ground her teeth together so that she wouldn't eject her breakfast on the street.
"Commander Ivanova," a familiar voice said. Ivanova's hear sank.
"What are you...dolboy'eb doing here?" she hissed to Alfred Bester as she struggled on her feet. Her lungs still felt as if she had inhaled fire but still, she stood up straight, ignoring the pain. "My knuckles are itching, bad." To her, Psi-Cop Bester represented the collective ugly mug of the Psi-Corps and all she wanted to do was to smash it to bloody pulp.
"Oh, I assure you, Commander Ivanova," the small man said, stepping closer to her and smiling his most charming smile (which was very un-charming and very condescending), "I had nothing to do with your troubles."
"Right," she said, her voice heavily laced with irony. "So why are you here then? To see the Hermitage and do some shopping at Gostiny Dvor?"
"No. To thank you," Bester said and smiled even wider. The smile never reached his eyes that were two chips of ice above the inky blackness of his Psi-Corps mantle.
"Yes, you heard me right. Ah, such naivete," Bester said, turning his head up, towards the stone archway that shielded them from the sleet and from curious eyes. "The play of power is fierce right now, Commander Ivanova, and only the strong will survive. I'm strong so I intend to do just that, survive," he continued. "And as always, the enemy of my enemy is my friend. You have just helped me to get rid of an old thorn in my side."
"So...you played me." Ivanova's voice was deceptively calm.
"I prefer to consider this an occasion when opportunity met preparation. Not taking advantage of such a chance would have been sheer madness," Bester said and clasped his hands in front of him. "Yes. I used you, Commander Ivanova, just like I used Dr. Korobov."
The Commander blinked and leaned forward. "You have Dize?"
"Yes. In fact, it was I who helped him escape Mars."
"Out of pure goodwill, I'm sure," Ivanova said. Bester actually laughed at that and nodded.
"Of course. And when I found out that he's a friend of yours, there were two birds to be killed with one stone. And so I thank you, Commander," Bester said, bowing his head minutely, "for all the help you have given me. Here is a message from Korobov. Do not try to locate him -- I can assure you, you will not find him. He came to us on his own volition," he said and threw a data crystal to the Commander. Ivanova caught it deftly and put it in the pocket of her parka.
"So that's it? No party? Perhaps a Psi-Core medal?"
"Ah, Commander Ivanova...do not think bad of me," Bester said, the enigmatic smile back on his lips. "I might be the only friend you have back here, in the heart of the Alliance. In fact..." he said, trailing off as he peeked over Ivanova's shoulder, "to assure you of my good nature, I brought an old acquaintance to see you."
"Who...?" Ivanova began, just starting to turn towards where Bester was looking, when it hit her. It was a presence so familiar she could have recognised a thousand miles away, and now it was here...inside her head. Different, colder, yet the same. Her knees buckled and she was forced to take support from the nearby wall. Her. It's her, she told herself, over and over, and her heart felt as if it was slowly falling apart. Not again. Not this nightmare.
From the whiteness of the snowstorm emerged two dark figures, ducking into the shadows of the narrow passage. In and out of the feeble light they walked, their long mantles billowing into dark wings in the gusty wind. And then, the one in the front stepped back into the light.
"You are correct, Commander Ivanova," Bester said and nodded to Talia Winters, who acknowledged him with a raised eyebrow. "Any trouble?" he asked her.
"We disposed of them at the river."
Even the voice was the same, every syllable said in that low, throaty voice so familiar to Ivanova, bringing back memories, both of happiness and of bitter loneliness.
Next to Talia, Prozorov was fidgeting, trying to asses the situation. Apparently, 'Talia' was operative 985N's first name, or at least Ivanova, standing next to his superior officer, kept calling her that. But still, there were many parameters of the situation he didn't quite get and was furiously trying to deduct -- for example, why did Ivanova keep looking at 985N as if she were a ghost?
"Good. Remove the last one," Bester said. As Ivanova looked, the thing that was not Talia nodded, flashed a brief smile at her and turned towards Prozorov. Before Ivanova could utter a word, she had lifted her hand to the other Psi-Cop's forehead. Prozorov's head jerked back and he slumped to the ground, small trails of blood appearing from his nose.
"You are not Talia," Ivanova said, backing a step.
The thing that was not Talia turned and lifted an enquiring eyebrow at Bester. "Why is she here?" she asked, indicating Ivanova.
"I forgot to give her a Christmas present," Bester answered and snapped his fingers. "Oblique."
The thing-that-was-not-Talia's eyes widened. "No--" she had time to start, before a seizure took her speech. Doubling over as if in pain, the telepath groaned, holding her head. "No no no..." she chanted, her voice pitched high, almost to the breaking point. But before Ivanova could take a step at her direction, her instincts acting against what she knew, the woman suddenly stopped squirming and dropped to the ground, her body limp. Ivanova rushed to kneel next to her, her hand hovering over the contorted figure.
"What did you do to her, you bastard?!" Ivanova yelled at Bester. "Answer me!"
"Merry Christmas, Commander," the Psi-Cop just said before turning and disappearing into the shadows.
She couldn't help it, she just couldn't; tears welled into Ivanova's eyes. The last time she recalled feeling this unhinged was when the evil personality had taken over Talia. From C&C, she had watched her shuttle depart, taking away the only true love she had felt for...she didn't even know for how long. The image of the opening jumpgate had blurred in her eyes and so she had missed the spectacle of the dark maw of hyperspace swallowing the remnants of Talia.
"Oh Talia," Ivanova breathed and sat to the ground, taking Talia's head into her lap. The telepath was alive, her breathing steady if shallow. "What have they done to you?"
An eyelid fluttered open, revealing a bloodshot grey eye. "Susan?" the voice said, quiet through the whispering wind.
Ivanova's heart jumped. She brushed a strand of golden hair behind Talia's ear and smiled a small, tentative smile. "Yeah. Is it you?"
"It's me," Talia whispered, faintly, before the eye closed again.
There was peace on Talia's face now, the severe lines on her brow smoothing into lightness. The answer had been as vague as the question, but Ivanova understood: her Talia was back. Back. Before, the thing that was not Talia had been cool, her face looking as if it wasn't capable of a happy smile, but now...it was light again, where there had been darkness. And so it was in Ivanova's soul as well, hope blossoming in all the colours of the rainbow. She gently probed Talia's mind, there was no more coldness, just mental scars that ran deeper than Ivanova dared to look.
"Oh love, I do so hope it's you again," the Commander murmured and pulled the slender figure to herself. Talia had lost weight, her face was sharply planed, her skin almost translucent in its sickliness. The body in her arms felt so fragile and Ivanova clutched it to her gently, trying to keep her warm in the moist coldness.
It was her Talia. Had to be. Now that she had the courage to lower her blocks, if only momentarily, Ivanova felt the connection, a faint ghost of the strength and intensity it once had held, but it was there.
"All right, let's get out of this hellhole," Ivanova said out loud and, cradling the telepath's lanky body in her arms as best as she could, she stood up. Her muscles were screaming in agony because of the earlier exhausting exercise, but she locked her knees, refusing to bow to the limitations of flesh now. A blast of stinging sleet hit her when she exited the alley but she just bowed her head and started to plod through the snow.
For Dmitri Maksimovich Donskoy, the weather was only mildly chilly -- but then again, he had grown up in Vladivostok that was, according to him, the arsehole of known world. So, he was very comfortable inside his long, padded coat and woollen mittens and cap, watching his breath form small white clouds in the air, momentarily, before the wind swept the fragile shapes away. On weekends, few people ever took the early train and so, he and his luggage trolley were quite underused at the moment.
A figure emerged from the snowstorm and Dmitri straightened. Whoever the early riser was, he was carrying something heavy and so, Dmitri tugged at his porter's insignia and took a step forward to help the newcomer who was visibly staggering under his burden.
"Sir, can I help you with..." he started and then the figure stepped inside the station lights' sphere. It was a woman, her hair a wild mane in the wind, and she was carrying another woman. Dmitri's step faltered and he blinked.
"Help me," the newcomer said, in perfect Russian. There was fire to her eyes, and desperation, but most clearly she was just tired to the bone, obviously having carried the other woman a long way before reaching the train station.
"Is there something wrong with her?"
"No, she's fine. She's just feeling a bit unwell."
"All right," Dmitri said, still dubious, but the exact nature of his clients' luggage was really none of his business. He took the prone woman into his arms and only then did he notice the small, silver emblem on the breast of her long, black coat. His head snapped up, his eyes boring into Ivanova. "She's a telepath...a Psi-Cop!"
Ivanova almost laughed at the mix of apprehension and naked fear in his voice. "Used to be," she corrected. He patted the scared man on the shoulder. "C'mon."
Reluctant as he was, Dmitri carried the telepath as ordered. Carefully, as if she were made of glass, trying very hard not to think about all the horror stories he had heard of the men in black. And women, he added, risking a quick glance at the bundle he was holding.
Talia's hand was cold and clammy while her forehead was slightly hot. Ivanova clasped the unconscious woman's hands between hers, trying to bring some warmth into them. Talia was reclining against her chest, her silky hair brushing Ivanova's cheek whenever the train took an abrupt turn or dive into a valley. The Carpathian landscape speeding past them was hostile and cold, dotted with craggy trees bearing their snow load with bowed backs. Inside the train carriage, it was warm and the lights were low.
She couldn't believe, she just couldn't. She had to touch Talia occasionally, trace the familiar curve of a delicate cheekbone with her fingers, feel that golden, silky hair slide on her skin, just to assure herself that it was Talia she was holding, not a ghost in a particularly vivid nightmare. She valiantly resisted the urge to fold the woman into her arms and squeeze the bejeezus out of her.
Ivanova's head snapped around, her eyes shifting from the snowy landscape to Talia. Eyes closed, the telepath was smiling. ~~Talia?~~ Ivanova's telepathic voice was full of trepidation.
~~Where are we?~~
~~In a train, heading towards EarthDome.~~ Ivanova told Talia, placing her lips gently on her forehead. ~~How are you?~~
~~I've been better.~~
That got a smile even out of Ivanova. It was her Talia. She felt like pinching herself but she dared not, because if this was a dream, she didn't want to wake up.
~~Weak. Spent. There's something...missing.~~ Talia continued and her brow drew together slightly as she seemed to do an inventory on herself. ~~The alternative personality. It's gone.~~ And at that, her eyes flew open, revealing two startled, round grey orbs.
~Gone? What do you mean gone?~~
~~It's not there any more...and I can now see where it used to be, but its home in my head is empty. Where it lived, there are just...bad memories now.~~
The last words held a hint of pain in them and a short burst of images flooded Ivanova's mind before she could tack her mental blocks into place. The flashes of past made her feel sick and she exhaled deeply against Talia's forehead, hot tears welling into her eyes. Pain, oppression and remorseless violence -- that was what Talia's existence had been. Not life, just death.
She had seen images of fates so painful her blood curled in her veins at the mere thought. Months of killing and torture...medical experiments and tests, interspersed with more killing. The alternative personality had been cold and detached, like the mechanical will of an android designed and destined to murder. She had seen Talia's gloved hands, her hands in the images, reach out and impart such pain that she was not even aware human beings were capable of surviving.
"Oh love," she exhaled and squeezed her eyes shut tight, her tears running down her cheeks and mingling with Talia's. "What did they do to you?"
"I was...efficient," Talia answered, the first words she had spoken since their departure. Her voice was rough from exertion and emotion, fragile in its overriding tone of self-loath.
"It wasn't you."
"It was me. My body was there and so were I," Talia said and turned her head to the side, her cheek rubbing against Ivanova's chest. The dark olive green of Ivanova's parka was made darker still by Talia's tears. "But I was weak, I could only watch as it did all this. So much pain..." She trailed off and a small sob racked her body. Ivanova wrapped her arms around her and held on tight.
~~Shhh, my love...it's all right now.~~ she told Talia and placed her lips on the sweet silk of her hair. ~~Try to get some rest.~~
"What is it, Leonard? I'm trying to get some paperwork done," the mediator snapped, clearly miffed at the interruption.
"I apologise, sir," Leonard Karimanzira said and inclined his head a fraction. "These gentlemen are here to see you," he continued and stepped to the side, allowing two men inside. The mediator paled visibly and half-rose from his chair.
"Bu- I haven't done anything! Nothing!"
"The Consortium has zero tolerance policy," the enforcer said and walked around the mediator's desk, grabbing his collar. "Twelve members of our elite troops are dead and your quarry got away. That is enough 'doing nothing' from you."
"No, I can explain! Please-" the mediator started but the enforcer twisted his collar, effectively cutting his diatribe.
The now former mediator was escorted out of the room by the enforcer and his silent aide. When the door closed behind them, Leonard Karimanzira allowed the long-pending smile finally appear on his face. Clasping his hands behind him, he went around the large wooden desk and sat in the mediator's plush chair. The leather creaked slightly under him, its scent faint but unmistakably bestial in origin.
I think I'm going to like this job. Better call Alfred and say thanks.
~~Are you sure you can manage this?~~
"Yes, Susan. I'm sure," Talia replied out loud, her words terse. She was having the mother of all telepathic headaches and it took all her strength to keep her mental walls up so that she didn't bombard Ivanova with the pain. For the hovering Commander's benefit, she smiled a wan smile before straightening to her full height.
"Let's go then."
The plan was simple enough: while EarthForce security personnel at the train station might be paranoid enough to stop and question Ivanova's business there, none of them would surely be courageous enough to bother a Psi-Cop. So, Talia was donning her ink-black outfit and full insignia again. Squaring her shoulders, she forced her sense of weakness and nausea to the background and assumed her coldest, most hostile look. The hammering pain in her head helped a lot in achieving just the right effect; the unsaid 'Mess with me and I'll stir-fry your brains' was clearly written over her tall form.
For Ivanova, seeing the woman she still loved -- had not stopped loving, would not stop to love in this life -- in the all-black entrapment of the uniform was a sight that carried a lot of weight. Before she had met Talia, the Psi-Corps insignia had identified the people that had driven her mother to suicide; now, it signified the people that had, again, hurt the only person that made her life worth living. The letter psi was a potent sign of power, and the target of great loathe for Ivanova, and now Talia was carrying the markings of the enemy, again. It's just for show, she reminded herself and suppressed a shiver.
~~After we get out of here, we need to find Sergeant Alighieri. But I think I have an idea where he could be.~~
~~All right. Follow my lead.~~ Talia flashed one last smile to Ivanova before the command mask fell on her face and she stepped off the train.
The crowd parted before Talia easily enough, and at the weapons check, one sharp look at the guard supervising the detectors was enough: he backed away and almost tripped over in his haste to let them through. Ivanova could feel the gazes, ranging from curious to outright hostile, on her back and she sought comfort in the close proximity of Talia's mind. It was a gentle touch in her soul and that feeling, light as a feather, was why she believed Talia to be the woman she loved, instead of another scheme conjured up by the alternative personality. The telepathic touch was something that could not be faked.
A taxi shuttle dropped them off in Deep Six and ran off so fast it could've been chased by a pack of wolves. It took Ivanova three tries to remember the exact location of Kow-Tow's hideout but finally, after wading through what seemed like endless miles of rubbish-strewn alleys and passages they found the SunBlock 9000 commercial screen that was lighting up the whole street. Going around the building, they spotted the back door Ivanova and Alighieri had used a few days ago. Surprisingly enough, it was unlocked.
~~I don't like this one bit.~~ Talia said and laid her hand on Ivanova's arm.
~~Me neither. Remember, I'll do the talking.~~
The hall was pitch dark and the effect of the distant echo, coupled with the claustrophobic feeling of not being able to see, was more than unnerving. When they had got a few steps inside the door, a generator roared to life somewhere near them, making both women jump, and the overhead lights hissed to life. The light grew quickly to the lifeless, toneless white illumination typical of high-power fluorescent tubes.
"Don't move a muscle," a disembodied voice ordered. A few of the members of Kow-Tow's ragtag bunch appeared, their PPGs and other weapons aimed squarely at them.
"It's just me," Ivanova called out, extending her arms.
"Yeah, you and a walking mind washer."
Ivanova whirled, a smile forming on her face. "Virgil! Aren't I glad to see you!"
True, it was the sergeant, holding his PPG in a rock-steady hand, its business end pointed directly at Talia's midsection. The aim didn't waver a hair as he walked slowly forward, to stand a few feet away from Ivanova. His eyes were darting from the Commander to the woman in black next to her.
"Yeah, me. Are you OK, Susan?"
"Healthy as a horse," Ivanova replied, getting a bit impatient. "Virgil, would you mind putting that thing down," she said, indicating the PPG. The aim didn't shift.
"With freak-of-nature there? No way. What in the name of sweet fucking Jesus are you doing with a Psi-Cop anyway?!" There was barely controlled anger in Alighieri's voice and he jerked the gun towards Talia, who wisely chose to remain very still.
"Relax," Ivanova said and put her hand on Alighieri's that was squeezing the PPG with white knuckles. "It's okay. Trust me, Virgil."
Talia swallowed her heart that has been hammering in her throat for the past fifteen seconds and decided to take the initiative. Stepping deftly around the gun hand that thankfully didn't follow her, she came to stand next to the big, rough-voiced man and removed a glove. Slowly, her every move deliberate. The man watched her with keen, unblinking eyes that held extreme apprehension (she was used to that) and a hint of fear (which was a bit surprising).
"Hi, I'm Talia," she said and stuck out her hand. Alighieri stared at it as if it were the multi-tentacled, venom-oozing appendage of a previously unknown, hostile alien life form.
"Virgil, be courteous to the woman I love."
Alighieri's head snapped to the slightly smiling Ivanova, then to Talia's extended hand and, via her Psi-Corps insignia, back to Ivanova. "What?!"
"Virgil, meet Talia Winters, formerly of Babylon 5, now formerly of Psi-Corps. Talia, this is Commander Sergeant Major Alighieri, also known as Virgil."
Dumbfounded, Alighieri accepted the offered hand. Squeezing it gingerly, he let the PPG come down. He almost dropped it when Talia smiled at him. "Pleasure to meet you," the telepath said quietly.
Extracting his hand from Talia's firm grasp, Alighieri regained his talent of speech. "How do you know you're not putting the pinch on her brain?" he asked Talia, gesturing towards Ivanova with the PPG.
"This bothers you, then," Talia said and unhooked her Psi-Corps badge from her coat. She handed the silvery piece of metal to the sergeant who studied it all around. "Keep it. I won't be needing it anyway," the telepath said. "Besides, if this were a Corps' plan, we wouldn't be standing here chatting."
"No, I believe we would be dead," Ivanova added.
"Yes, you would be very dead by now," Talia confirmed and put her hands into the pockets of her overcoat, suddenly feeling very tired because of all the negative emotions floating around in the thick, tense atmosphere of the hall. Ivanova would have none of it, however; she took out one of Talia's hands and laced her fingers with it.
"Well then, young lady. You have some very serious explaining to do," Alighieri grated to Ivanova, who just smiled at him. "Start at the very beginning."
"All right," Ivanova said and steered the sergeant towards the end of the cavernous hall and the shadowed shape that was Onegin. "It started about three years ago..."
"How's she doing, Mr. DeWeese?"
"Well, the rather shady associates of our host fixed the busted fuel conduit. Did an excellent job, in fact," DeWeese said, folding his arms on his chest. "I'm quite surprised."
"Me, too," Ivanova said and sat in the captain's chair with a sigh.
"Long day, ma'am?"
"You could say that."
"Me and Jo-Jo can handle the take-off, you go take a nap. Ma'am," he added as an afterthought. "Please."
Ivanova lifted a wry eyebrow at the tinge of worry in DeWeese's voice but had to admit the man had a point. Her eyelids weighed a ton each and she was so tired her bones ached. "All right, lieutenant. Inform Kow-Tow of my most heartfelt gratitude and get this tug in the air," she said and rose.
"Aye, ma'am. The exit should be routine now. Outbound traffic is not monitored very closely anyway, so we should get to Mars with minimal trouble," DeWeese said and turned back to his controls.
Ivanova made a beeline for the exit, but when she put her hand in her trouser pocket, she touched the familiar shape of a data crystal. Diverting from her course and stepping down to the auxiliary tactical station, Ivanova dug out the crystal Bester had given her, twirling it in her fingers. She was still undecided whether she really wanted to see what it contained, but curiosity got the upper hand. Slipping the crystal into the appropriate slot, she sat down.
The screen flickered to life. It was Dize all right, looking much better than he had in the previous recording. In fact, he looked prosperous, even peaceful.
"Hello, Dushen'ka Moya," he began as before and smiled. "I believe I have some explaining to do.
"I have not deceived you with malicious intention, I assure you. You are still as dear to me as you have always been. But...these are volatile times we are living, Suzotchka, and desperate measures are sometimes called for.
"The man is insane. Clark, I mean, and this," he said, indicating the small, brightly lit office he was in, "was the lesser of two evils. If you are seeing this right now, I know that you have helped to cripple the bigger of them. Do not try to seek me out, I'm doing this of my own free will, as Étienne proves," he said, smiling a small, sad smile. "I'm sorry. I hope everything is OK with you. Godspeed, my friend."
The recording ended abruptly and Korobov's face was replaced by the Psi-Corps emblem. Ivanova stared at it for a long time, her eyes blazing. She felt used, betrayed, raped, by an old friend. Insane, Dize. You're insane to side with Psi-Corps, she thought and hit the console with her fist so hard the crystal jumped in the data slot.
"Commander?!" DeWeese said, the Commander's very emotional and, from what it sounded, coarse exclamation.
"I'm sorry, lieutenant," Ivanova apologised and took a deep, shuddering breath. The anger drained from her reluctantly. "Just some bad news."
"But we are still OK for go, ma'am?"
"Yes," Ivanova sighed. "I'll be in my quarters if you need me."
When she stepped into the captain's quarters, she saw that Talia had changed her uniform to a pair of olive green fatigues and a tank top she had found somewhere and was dozing on her bed. An irresistible smile rose on Ivanova's lips and she sat next to the reclining woman, brushing away loose strands hair that had fallen over her face. She traced the sharp shape of Talia's jaw and the round curve of her shoulder. On the creamy skin was a small, round scar that looked quite recent. Ivanova's brow drew together and she touched the white scar tissue. She found a similar one near Talia's elbow, and then one at her slender wrist.
"Hi yourself," Ivanova said, seeing two blue-grey eyes focused on her. Just that one syllable Talia had said, in her arresting smoky-throat voice, was enough to make Ivanova's heart miss a beat.
Talia's gaze flicked to the hand on her shoulder and the scar there. "I guess we need to talk."
"If you feel strong enough."
Talia nodded and sat up. Ivanova shifted so that her back was against the bulkhead as well, her shoulder touching Talia's. Even through her uniform, she could feel the heat the other woman radiated, as well as the uneasiness. She didn't need her telepathic abilities to sense the latter.
~~Hey, it's just me.~~ Ivanova told Talia and took her hand into her own. She didn't want to disturb the fragile silence.
~~That's what bothers me so much.~~ Talia replied and closed her eyes. ~~It just hurts so bad. I don't want you to see the person I was.~~
~~We don't have to do this now.~~
"Yes, we do," Talia said out loud, opening her eyes. They were clouded. "Susan, I'm a pusher."
"A pusher," Talia repeated and drew her knees up, wrapping her arm around them. "A mind pusher. It is a side effect of psychokinesis. I can push people do things they do not necessarily want to do. I...the alternative personality once killed an informant by ordering him to take a pair of scissors and stick them into his eyes. Both eyes."
"C'mere," Ivanova rasped and drew Talia into her arms, smoothing the sleep-mussed silky hair. Those were the images she had seen in the train, the planted personality using Talia's body to its own end. All the while the real Talia had been tied and caged, seeing and feeling everything but completely helpless, unable to stop the carnage.
"The Core -- my mother, my father -- used me. They did tests," Talia continued, her voice deadly calm as she related the hell of her bound existence. "That's what all the scars are for. I was unique because I'm a telepath with telekinetic powers. Jason's gift," she said, a note of sadness in her voice on the last words. "Months of endless poking and probing and when they were finally done, they didn't know what to do with me.
"My Psi-tests were off the scale so I became a Psi-Cop. And an efficient one at that. The alternative personality was both skilled and without any sense of remorse or regret...the man that I -- it -- killed at the alley was one of my regular partners," she said, trailing off.
"Why did they let you go then?"
"It was becoming unstable," Talia said and let out an ironic, dry snort. "Their program was not perfect, it started to corrupt. It became power-hungry and even more violent as time passed. Apparently the original program wasn't designed to deal with self-pushing -- it was always pushing itself to new heights of mercilessness."
"So they decided to get rid of it."
"Yeah," Talia confirmed and adjusted her head on Ivanova's shoulder. "They used me one last time. They got rid of a potential threat to themselves and now you're indebted to Bester."
"Because he gave you back to me?" Ivanova asked and rested her cheek on Talia's head. "I don't care, I'll still blast a fist-sized hole into him the next time we meet. But you're with me again and that's all that matters."
Talia's voice was muffled as she spoke against the front of Ivanova's uniform. "Does that mean it was true what you said to Sergeant Alighieri?"
"What do you mean?"
"You told him I'm the woman you loved," Talia replied.
"You never stopped being the woman I love," Ivanova corrected her and gave the woman in her arms a gentle squeeze. The bed under them shook as Onegin's engines powered up. "C'mon, let's get you strapped in for the take-off. It's going to be a bumpy ride."
DeWeese shook his head. The universe was not making any sense.
Their departure from EarthDome had been surprisingly eventless, if you don't count the leisure swaggering yacht that had wandered on their trajectory just as they were about to clear the Earth's gravity well. A quick tuck and roll and a few curses had saved them from collision.
"Well, now I've seen everything," Ensign Djojohadikusumo said quietly, and DeWeese nodded in total agreement. "Polite Psi-Cops. That's like seeing an anorexic Centaur."
"Got that right, Jo-Jo," he said and checked his controls, all the while keeping an eye on the gleaming, elongated shape of the Psi-Corps troop transport that was moving steadily away from them, having deposited its surprising cargo. "I'm still not comfortable with this."
When the ominous black craft had first appeared on their screens and requested a docking permit, DeWeese's heart had been hammering in largish triple digits. And when Commander Ivanova had told him to yield and open the docking clamps to receive the transport, he was sure the Commander had gone insane. A short but loud battle of wills had ensued but it had ended as abruptly as it had begun, with the Commander stating firmly and none too gently that her orders were to be obeyed and if they weren't, she would personally escort DeWeese to the brig -- which, on a ship as small as Onegin, meant either the reactor chamber or the airlock.
What he didn't know was that Ivanova had been as nervous about the situation as he had. Her instincts were all against it and she would have blasted the transport to kingdom come, if she hadn't sensed Corporal Viracocha's presence on the ship.
The transport's commanding officer, a sneering tall woman, had met her at the airlock, her mind probes hammering into Ivanova's defences as soon as the door hissed open -- apparently she wasn't too keen on missions she didn't understand. Talia had joined her, having changed yet again back into uniform, and only a sharp word and a nudge from her had saved Ivanova's mental blocks. She had felt the echo of the mind nudge Talia had given to the Psi-Cop, who had promptly paled, her eyes widening in shock and fear. After that, both of the Psi-Cops manning the shuttle had been all but obsequious, clearly wanting to get away as soon as possible.
They had brought aboard the Onegin six members of the squad, all of them unconscious. PFC Zenawi wasn't with the delivery and Ivanova could only assume he hadn't survived the firefight on Mars Prime. Although the return of Alighieri's squad like this, without them having to take the extra trouble to search all of Mars for them, was something of a surprise -- I guess the favour I did for Bester was something important after all, Ivanova thought, her anger rising -- the death of even one person because of her was a personal loss that she felt deeply. Now the sedated men and women were stored in the crew quarters and mess hall; the bulky pods they were in were strapped to every possible surface to prevent them from being smashed around in the case of emergency manoeuvring. So, because of lack of room elsewhere, Talia was on the bridge as well, strapped into the auxiliary tactical station operator's chair.
"I'm not comfortable with her around her either," DeWeese whispered to Djojohadikusumo and gestured discreetly towards Talia.
"I don't bite, Mr. DeWeese."
DeWeese jerked at the unexpected voice and swiveled his chair around. "You're reading my mind?" he accused.
"No, I have good hearing," Talia replied truthfully, an edge in her voice. "Have a cup of coffee, it'll help you relax."
DeWeese looked into his kaf cup on the console. It was almost empty, but just as his gaze shifted into it, the dark liquid's surface started to rise, releasing a cloud of steam and the rich, thick scent of real coffee. DeWeese's jaw hit the floor.
"Talia, be nice," Ivanova admonished, but her smile ruined the effect.
"I'm sorry. It just irks me that people think I have nothing better to do than to dip into their thoughts."
"Um, point well taken, ma'am," DeWeese said and carefully sipped at the coffee. It was real coffee all right, not kaf. "Thanks for the drink."
"You're welcome," Talia said and flashed a brief smile at DeWeese.
"Right," he replied. He still wasn't comfortable with the telepath, though. But the coffee was good.
"The sedative isn't showing any signs of wearing off, but otherwise they've been stable," Alighieri said and rapped the transparent duraplastic covering PFC Stuart. The man inside the pod was pale and his brow was drawn into a frown.
Ivanova nodded and touched the large, engraved Psi-Corps emblem on the pod. "It's a bit unsettling that they have specialised containers for transporting people."
"Yeah," Alighieri grunted, rubbing his eyes. "Doesn't surprise me, though."
"Me neither," Ivanova said and suppressed a yawn. "I'll go catch a few winks and see you in the morning, okay?"
"All right. 'Night."
"Goodnight," Ivanova said and exited the mess hall.
The ship was gearing into the night shift so the lights were dimmed and the only sound was the one note song the plasma containment coils were singing in the aft. But Talia was still up, sitting on Ivanova's bed and reading a data pad. Her now shoulder-length hair was pulled back on a ponytail.
"Hi," Talia replied and smiled. The warmth of it made Ivanova's heart ache, in the best possible way. "You've been busy," Talia said, setting the pad on her lap and tapping it with her fingers.
"It's been a hectic year," Ivanova agreed and shook off her uniform jacket. Unbuttoning her cuffs, she wandered to sit in front of Talia. "How're you feeling?"
"Much better...the headache's gone. And the silence here," Talia said, gesturing out of the porthole into the red storm of hyperspace, "is very nice." She put the pad to the nightstand and took Ivanova's hand. "How are you then?"
"Never been happier," she whispered and leaned against Talia, her head resting lightly against her shoulder. Talia had confiscated one of Ivanova's white dress shirts and now the cotton held Talia's scent. Wild apples and a hint of cinnamon, crisp and sunny as a cold autumn day.
"I'm glad," Talia said, her voice a low murmur, and caught Ivanova's lips with hers. It was a light kiss but its effects were inflaming. A small spot of pure fire ignited inside Ivanova and the intimacy of the contact was almost tangible. The kiss spread its warmth all around her and all the emotion she had been bottling up inside her for the past eighteen months poured into the touch. Sheets and clothes rustled as Ivanova shifted and wrapped her arms around Talia's slender frame, not wanting the kiss to end.
When it finally did end, she was quite breathless. Talia smiled at her and cupped her cheek, lightly brushing Ivanova's cheek with her lips. The gentle touch made goose bumps rise on Ivanova's arms and she exhaled unsteadily. She wanted Talia, to be with her and near her and inside her, but...
~~Is this wise? You're still weak and...~~
"Please, Susan," Talia whispered, her voice thick with emotion and arousal. "I want you, I want to remember what it was like to have you near me. I need to touch you with my body as well. I have waited long enough."
"Do you have any idea what your presence is doing to me?" Talia asked, her breath hot on Ivanova's skin. For the Commander, the small cabin's temperature rose at least ten degrees at the hushed words and Talia's inflaming touch. "How much I need for you to make love to me?"
"Oh, love..." Ivanova closed her eyes and captured Talia's mouth again, harder this time, unleashing Talia's hair and entwining her hands into the fair silk. Ending the kiss almost violently, Talia shifted and slid down the bed, taking Ivanova with her, before attaching her mouth on the other woman's neck. Ivanova exhaled quietly as teeth raked sensitised skin, travelling along her jugular vein to her collarbone.
Her shirt was quickly unbuttoned and Talia's hands were on her bare back, making muscles tremble in their wake. Ivanova's concentration was in danger of flying entirely out of the window. Her breath coming in short, ragged pants, and when Talia's mouth found her nipple, she let out a pained, short moan. The feel of the woman under her and the joyful realisation of finally realising this was her Talia almost undid her, right then and there.
"Please...let me," she breathed and gently extracted Talia from her breath. Her skin ached from the loss but she wanted to feel more than just one isolated touch. Brushing her thumb over Talia's full lips, she sought the grey eyes, now blazing with pure, unbridled lust and need. Her hands trembled as she begun with the buttons of Talia's shirt, kissing every inch of flesh that was exposed from within the crisp cotton.
Talia's shirt found its way to the floor quickly, followed moments later by Ivanova's. Talia was soft and cool against her palms, her ribs clearly visible through the translucent skin. Nibbling along one rib, Ivanova grasped the slender waist forcefully, suddenly and irrationally afraid that if she didn't hold on to Talia, the dream she was living was going to end. Her breathing was nothing but erratic sobs.
"Hey...it's just me," Talia whispered, running her hand through Ivanova's dark, wild curls.
"I've missed you so," Ivanova simply said and took a deep, calming breath. Her cheek was against the soft swell of Talia's breast and she could feel the telepath's heart hammer inside her ribcage. "So much," she repeated and kissed a waiting nipple that puckered up immediately. Emboldened, Ivanova drew the hard pebble into her mouth, more feeling than hearing Talia's sudden intake of breath.
With gathering heat, she licked and sucked Talia's breasts, trailing wet kisses from one point of pleasure to the other, her nails digging into Talia's back. Gently, she bit down on one nipple and the bud throbbed between her teeth as Talia's back arched off the sheets. Ivanova was drunk with need, savouring the sheen of perspiration and arousal Talia's skin was exhaling on her, the mere proximity of the woman she had longed for so long, making her head spin. She let go of the nipple and rose, her hands starting on the buttons of Talia's trousers. She fumbled with the catch as she drank in the smouldering passion in the other woman's gaze, the small sounds of need she exhaled, the heat coiling in her own abdomen.
There were new scars on Talia stomach, thin white conduits of past pain marring the creamy, luminous skin. Momentarily, rage flashed in Ivanova's eyes, the muscles on her neck in clear relief in the darkness as her spirit ached for Talia's suffering.
~~Please.~~ Talia said. Her voice was desperate, thrumming, commanding, the thought transmitting her heightened state.
At the plea, Ivanova let the hate slip away, content just to feeling the slide of skin against hers, wanting nothing but to feel herself inside and around Talia. Shifting to the side, she kissed the navel on Talia's flat abdomen and slipped her fingers between the soft folds of Talia's labia, stroking gently. The other woman squirmed but Ivanova held on tightly, breathing hotly against Talia's stomach.
"I missed you so much," Ivanova repeated, her words a low hiss on Talia's quivering abdomen. "Missed how you feel. How you taste."
Kissing her way across Talia's mound, Ivanova breathed in deeply the dark, musky fragrance of her lover. Her skilful tongue traced every fold, making Talia writhe uncontrollably.
"How you respond," Ivanova continued and nuzzled into the softness, rubbing the bridge of her nose against the hard nub of Talia's clit.
Talia's plea was breathless and with it came the images. Ivanova saw herself with Talia's eyes, felt the love and the tightly would coil of pleasure inside Talia that demanded attention.
With that, Ivanova pushed two fingers into Talia, her own arousal rising a significant notch when the slick walls around her fingers contracted.
~~You are perfect. Perfect, my Talia...~~
Ivanova wrapped her lips around the small bundle of nerves, sucking on it as her fingers probed inside, gently, languidly. Talia's hips arched and she let out a low, incomprehensible groan that rose in pitch. Her release was violent and sudden, her back lifting off the mattress as she screamed out Ivanova's name. Her full name. Ivanova dragged out every wave of the orgasm, stubbornly holding on to the thrashing woman under her. She felt Talia's climax as if it were her own, the blinding light of release almost painfully radiant in her.
When Talia's tremors finally ebbed away, she started to withdraw her fingers. A hand on hers stopped the retreat.
~~Please. Leave them.~~
~~Of course.~~ Ivanova smiled and moved the recline next to Talia, careful not to move her hand away from the wet warmth. With her other hand, she pulled the rumpled sheets around them -- the captain's quarters faced the outer hull and it was never completely warm.
It felt wonderful, just to be there and have Talia near her, taste the salty sweat on her hot skin and know she put it there. The woman in her arms was a curious mix of soft flesh and hard muscle, gentleness and violent need. Fire and ice. Talia's hand was drawing small, lazy circles on her lower back.
~~I still can't believe it.~~
Talia's telepathic laugh was bubbly and contagious. In her mind's eye, Ivanova imagined the accompanying radiant smile that surely graced her lover's full lips.
~~Well, better believe it, silly. I'm not going anywhere.~~
~~I'm so glad.~~ Ivanova replied and kissed the hollow of Talia's throat, licking away the perspiration there.
The forever night around the two lovers hummed in agreement.
Though in space the concept of day and night is a purely artificial one, it is usually adhered to, if only because it makes arranging sleep rhythms easier. Onegin followed Babylon 5 time that was, in effect, Earth Zulu (GMT) time.
Commander Ivanova woke at 0528 Zulu. Disoriented first, she jerked completely awake when she realised someone else was in the bed with her. It came to her soon enough who the owner of the two slender arms around her midsection were, and who exactly was spooned behind her. Laying a hand over Talia's, Ivanova greeted the new day and the cyberspace outside the porthole with a radiant if sleepy smile.
Extracting herself from the embrace quietly as not to disturb the still-sleeping other woman, Ivanova allowed herself a luxurious stretch that made her vertebrae pop audibly. A quick shower and a fresh uniform and she was ready for a new day.
"Good morning, Susan," Alighieri greeted her when she entered the mess hall. DeWeese who was sitting opposite the sergeant nodded and re-concentrated on wolfing down his protein-heavy breakfast sludge that resembled oatmeal in both consistency and visual appeal.
"Morning, Virgil. How's the kaf today?" Instead of a verbal answer, Alighieri grimaced and waggled his hand. "Usual? Ah well," the Commander sighed but poured herself a cup anyway. DeWeese gathered his flight charts from the table and excused himself. That left only Ivanova and Alighieri, both passing on breakfast and having just kaf.
"We should arrive on Babylon 5 within an hour," Alighieri started after a small silence. He startled Ivanova whose mind had wandered off to someplace far away.
"Good. Excellent. How're they doing?" she asked, gesturing towards the nearest Psi-Corps pod.
"Same as yesterday -- they're unconscious but stable," Alighieri answered and sipped his kaf while keeping an eye on the Commander. A slight, devilish smile rose on his lips. "Susan, did you know this ship's only soundproofing is between the reactor chamber and crew quarters?"
"Oh," Ivanova said neutrally, her dark brows drawing together. When Alighieri winked, she comprehended what he was saying and a delicate shade of crimson flushed her cheeks. "Oh. Right," she said tightly and tried to will down the blush. Alighieri's quarters were right next to the captain's cabin. "Sorry."
"It's all right," Alighieri smiled. "Just as long as you're all right."
"Yeah. I..." Ivanova began but her vocabulary failed her. She wrapped both hands around her kaf mug and tried very hard not to smile like a school girl with a crush. "It's like being given a second chance on life. I lost her once, gave her for dead."
"Well, if anyone can put a smile on that pessimistic Russian mug of yours, she's got my admiration."
"Har har," Ivanova said and gave Alighieri a dour glare. "Lot of issues, though."
"Yeah," the sergeant replied. Just that moment, Talia entered the mess hall, still dressed in the green fatigues and Ivanova's now completely wrinkled shirt. She paused at the pod nearest to the door, gave it a glance. All colour drained from her face and she bent closer to examine the person inside the pod. Even from across the room, Alighieri could see that the telepath's hands were shaking. "I bet."
"Talia? What's wrong?" Ivanova said, turning on her chair. She had sensed the emotional flinch without effort, which meant something was terribly wrong.
"Sergeant Alighieri, what is the name of this trooper?" Talia's voice was toneless.
"I believe that's Corporal Viracocha's pod. Why?"
"How is she?" Talia asked, dodging the question.
"Alive, but there's something wrong with her cardiovascular system. I'm guessing she's allergic to the sedative and that's causing the damage."
"No," Talia said, her face ashen as she straightened. "I did it to her."
"I did it to her," Talia repeated and crouched next to the pod, resting her forehead against the smooth plastic. "I interrogated her on Mars."
"And by 'interrogated' you mean..."
Talia's tone was still flat and calm but Ivanova could feel the roiling waves of remorse emanating from her. She crouched down behind Talia and wrapped her arms around her. "It wasn't you."
"I know it was the alternative personality, but still..."
"It's hard to actually meet and see the concrete results of one's actions, willing or otherwise," Alighieri said and joined them, crouching down to be able to meet Talia's eyes. His voice was full of sympathy. "I'm a soldier, Ms. Winters. An assassin. I know all about nightmares and remorse. I also know that time helps."
"I'm so ashamed," Talia said, her jaw muscles bunching visibly.
"That'll go away, too."
"If she doesn't wake up before we arrive on Babylon 5, will you give my apologies to her?"
"I will," Alighieri said and awkwardly tapped Talia on the knee. "Don't worry."
Suddenly, the approach lights flashed to life and bathed the room in amber light. Alighieri shooed Ivanova away from the mess hall, promising to take care of Talia. The Commander rushed to the bridge, where DeWeese was doing his final checks before re-entry to normal space. Sitting into her chair, Ivanova had just time to tighten her harness before the gate's funnel flared into life.
Their exit was quiet, nary a bump, which was greatly due to DeWeese's excellent flying. The station rushed forward in their view, before they exited the gate's hemisphere and the four dimensions of the normal space-time continuum assumed their customary properties. Ivanova touched a button on her console.
"Babylon Control, this is Commander Ivanova of EAS Yevgeny Onegin, requesting permission to approach and dock."
"Babylon Control to EAS Yevgeny Onegin, take approach vector five-delta mark one, docking bay 23," Lieutenant Corwin's voice greeted them. "Welcome back, Onegin. I'll call in the welcoming committee."
"Acknowledging five-delta mark one," DeWeese said, his hands flying over his controls.
"Glad to be back, Lieutenant," Ivanova replied to Corwin before giving a notification of non-critical patients to MedLab and signing off. "Start approach on five-delta mark one. Nice and easy, Mr. DeWeese."
"Do you want plastic surgery for these?" Dr. Stephen Franklin, Babylon 5's chief medical officer, asked and brushed his gloved finger gently over a circular white spot on Talia's shoulder. The tissue was very smooth, with the shiny, lifeless surface of an electric burn.
"No, thank you. I'll keep them as mementoes."
That got a surprised look from the doctor. "You want to remember what happened to you? Are you sure that's healthy?"
"No, I don't want to remember what happened to me," Talia corrected, smiling faintly. "I want to remember the person I was, so that I can't ever become her again."
"Wasn't she -- it -- a program?"
"Yes, but so much more than that." Talia sighed and bit her lower lip. "She was an instance of my mind, with some things tweaked." A beat. "I have the theoretical potential to become her -- an event I would like to avoid."
Franklin digested the information with a small grunt and turned his eyes towards Commander Ivanova. She was having a loud argument with a hapless nurse who was vainly trying to get the Commander submit to a routine check on the PPG burn she got on Io. "Does she..."
"No, she doesn't know."
"Ah," Franklin said and flicked the scanner on again.
The scars on Talia's abdomen were different. They were short and thin, almost invisible against her pale, creamy skin. But what the scanner told was much more alarming than the mere presence of the scars, though the readings indicated the scars' origin.
"Ms. Winters...please explain the tests that made these scars," Franklin asked, re-checking his readings.
"Children." There was eternal sadness in Talia's voice and her eyes were focused somewhere behind Franklin, far away. "I'm unique, remember? Of course they would try to produce more of me. All died or are mad, except number nine."
Franklin's voice was soft, full of empathy. His hand around the scanner was white-knuckled and trembling. "Did you...did you see them?"
"No. I didn't even bear them. They just took the ova." She blinked and re-focused on the doctor. The small hairs on the nape of Franklin's neck rose at the cool detachment in the eyes of the woman on the bio bed. "Perhaps it's best that way."
"I'm sorry." The words felt so inadequate that he almost screamed.
"Please don't tell Susan. She...she's been though a lot. But she'll be the one to heal me." There was quiet faith in the telepath's voice. "Anything else out of order?"
Glad for the change of topic, Franklin pried his fingers from around the scanner and set it carefully on the equipment tray. "Well, you're slightly dehydrated and obviously in need of shore leave, but otherwise...you're a-okay, Ms. Winters."
"'A-okay'? That's your professional opinion?" Talia laughed, sitting up and brushing an errant strand of her hair behind an ear.
"Damn right, ma'am." Franklin smiled and helped Talia put on her shirt. "Now get out of here and take her with you," he said, indicating Ivanova, "before she tries her left hook my nurse."
"All right. Thank you," Talia said and pulled on her gloves.
Franklin's voice stopped her at the door and she turned, an eyebrow lifted in question. "Nice to have you back," the doctor said. Talia smiled and nodded in reply.
"Good to be back."
Ivanova hadn't visited the platform since Talia's departure. She wasn't exactly sure whether her avoidance had been a conscious decision or not, but most likely it had been something very mundane like lack of free time -- a fact that she had brought upon herself wilfully. Now, however, things were entirely different.
The scent of fertile soil hung richly in the warm, moist air of Babylon 5's agricultural sector. Rising from far below them, the moisture gathered here, nearer to the artificial sun lamps that dotted the station's axis directly above them. Ivanova felt her sweat mingle with the dew and pool in the hollow of her throat, occasionally taking a courageous plunge and meandering down her shoulder. But the sunshine felt so good, after the coldness of space and the freezing conditions they had had to suffer in St. Petersburg, that Ivanova endured the moisture willingly.
"What do you want to do tonight?"
The throaty, unobtrusive voice brought a smile to Ivanova's face, like everything else seemed to do her as well, as long as it was related to Talia. Reaching to her side, eyes still closed against the glare of the sun lamps, Ivanova sought out Talia's hand and entwined her fingers with it. The warm flesh she felt on her fingertips pulsated with life and the strength of their connection, with the power of the thread of fate that seemed to bind them together.
"Oh, I don't know...nothing too drastic. I'm on duty tomorrow."
"Does sex count as drastic?" There was a hint of devil in Talia's voice and, turning her head to the side, Ivanova opened her eyes. The same gleam of mischievousness that was in her voice glinted in the deep grey of Talia's eyes.
"That is issue is, I believe, negotiable."
"Excellent." Talia smiled and put on her sunglasses again.
In all truth to be told, Ivanova mused, she looked gorgeous. In the two weeks they had been at the station, Talia had gained back the flesh that had been missing over her ribs and now, in her white bikini, reclining lazily on the divan, she looked like herself again. Sensuous in her pose, her limber body relaxed and already sporting a mild tan. Irresistibly, a smile crept on Ivanova's face and she let out a disbelieving sigh.
"What is it?" Talia asked, peeking over her sunglasses.
"Oh, nothing," Ivanova said and squeezed the hand in hers. "I just can't...I don't have the words to say how much I love you."
"Susan. That was very sappy," Talia admonished her with a smile.
"Yeah. Don't I know that," Ivanova said and closed her eyes again.
In her, the song of the threshold was drowned by the quiet, sonorous song of
her soul, once again full of life, not alone anymore in the forever night.