a field with corners left for the landless
My first coherent thought after I died was I am Talia.
I devoted considerable subsequent coherence to obscenity and tallying the number of people, including Susan, who had been right all along about the Corps. More time was devoted to realizing that I was not actually dead.
Navigation was my immediate issue. Normally, I just know what's going on inside my mind. I know better than many mundanes. But I was a ghost among my neurons, unconnected and discorporate. And I needed to know what was going on outside -- what my body was doing.
When I was a child, I was taught how to build a "safe place" inside my mind. As I grew older, I honed my control by creating the most beautiful, restful, serene landscape I could imagine. I used it all the time when I meditated as a teenager. I hadn't used the visualization consciously in years, though it frequently appeared in my dreams.
It took more effort than I thought it would to recreate my mental "body." I had to remember what I looked like, for one thing, and my mental pictures were oddly fuzzy. Finally, I managed to pick myself out: Tall. As blonde as I could go. Thin -- too damn thin, according to most of my ex-lovers and the medical professionals (mostly, of late, Dr. Franklin). Then I put myself in comfortable clothes, instead of the suits I always wore when I was working. I needed to be able to move freely without mental constraints around my clothing.
Then I made a door in the warm, dark space where I'd emerged, took hold of the cold metal knob with my ungloved hand, and opened it.
picking mushrooms at the edge of dread
It was wrenching to walk through that door.
The sculpted gardens and careful architecture I built had been thrown down, heaved into disarray and ruin. Trash and debris scattered over the landscape. Papers blew by on the wind like broken moths.
I walked past a heap of broken toys. On top was a doll I vaguely remembered, with her head tucked underneath her arm. My fingers twitched with the memory of how the plastic of her torso had felt when it was cut into thin strips.
It all reminded me of the way my room had looked after the first time I had had a major slip of my screens in gradeschool. Whenever a student had control problems -- as detected by teachers or other students -- the monitors tossed her room to demonstrate that her telepathic screens were inadequate. Her protections had been inadequate. The room was the proof and the shame and the lesson. I suppose it symbolized what someone could do to your mind if you let them.
When did they break through? How long had the sleeper lurked in my mind, waiting to toss my room?
where soundless images jerk and slide
The atmosphere was thick and oppressive, full of the thoughts of other people. I would turn a corner and meet a flickering ghost of a mind, slipping in past the sleeper's inadequate screens. In destroying me, she'd nearly destroyed herself. She had certainly destroyed most of our mind's defenses.
I saw Jason shudder by, and recognized the resignation in his long hands that I remembered from just before he discorporated. Even my memories were spilling out of the cracked vessel of my brain, wandering, lost and contextless in the wasteland.
Others were not so recognizable.
"I need," said one young man, staring through me. "I need everything. And nothing. I need a lover. I need a home. I need peanuts. Didn't they used to serve peanuts? Stupid Clark, I bet he banned the peanuts."
"So scared," an older woman said, clutching her head in her hands. "What are the Centauri doing? Will they come to Earth next? I want to die at home, not here in space. Must get home."
"I wish I'd bought that necklace," an old man muttered. "I'd look good in it. I know I would. So what if I'm old? I hate my son. I wish they'd stop making announcements. The speakers hurt my ears."
I searched for a while, desperate for a familiar face who wasn't clearly a memory, leaking through from the outside. I wished I could find an elevator -- it would have been a pleasure and a relief to see Mr. Garibaldi's grin at that point. At some point, though, I realized what it all meant: I was no longer on Babylon 5. I was en route to Mars, and the Psi Corps.
caught in the how, oblivious of why
I recognized the building, of course: it was a replica of my school dormitory.
I was careful when I climbed through the barbed wire and hoisted myself over the badly-built wall. Meanwhile, I noticed that while the edifice itself was accurate, the extensive plantings were absent.
The halls were pristine and deathly silent. Here, despite the appearances of the outdoor defenses, the ghosts did not invade.
I found my room and was surprised to find the door unlocked and even a little ajar.
"Hello, Talia," I said, opening the door.
She was sitting at that infernal desk in the obsessively neat room going through her unending online tutorials. My rear end hurt with the memory of the chair.
Adolescent Talia was gangly and awkward and clumsy, mousy-brown and sullen and skeletal. And surprised. Her mouth gaped. "Who are you?"
I strolled carefully into the room, looking around without ever completely taking my eyes off her. I noted that there were bars on the window, the bed was stripped, and that the bookcase had shifted aside to reveal a small hole in the wall behind. A small hole that was just large enough for Teen Talia to crawl out through. "Who do you think I am?" I inquired, mostly to buy myself a bit of time to complete my inspection.
"You have to be a teep. But I haven't gotten to Corps Headquarters yet," she said with a perplexed frown. "Where are you?" She stood and looked around, clearly inspecting her real-world surroundings.
"Subtle, real subtle," I said. "Do you think I would let you see me if I were concealing my contact with you?"
She refocused on me. "Wait," she said in a flat voice. "You're supposed to be dead."
I stopped and turned to face her. "Don't tell me you believed that old line about erasing personalities?"
"Personalities are erased all the time," she said suspiciously. "It's a punishment for psychopaths."
"When you erase everything someone has written on a piece of paper, then write on the same paper," I said, shifting myself a little closer, "you may write new information, but the imprint of the original writing is always there."
"But they told me I'd be the only one here!" she exclaimed with frustration, half-turning away from me.
She slammed backward, head cracking hard against the edge of the desk with a satisfying noise. I rubbed my knuckles and peered down at her. "That's not how minds work," I said, carefully setting one foot in the middle of the sleeper's chest. I pressed down on her with all my inconsiderable weight and reached out to fill my mind again.
because life is short and you too are thirsty
I was exhausted. My head throbbed constantly -- no pharmaceutical product I could get hold of would stop it -- and it nauseated me. Between that and my usual issues, I lost more weight and I was starting to worry. I couldn't afford to collapse now. But I also couldn't afford to let the sleeper wake up or get loose, so I was constantly working violence on my own mind. I was napping in two- or three-hour increments.
There was no reasoning with her. She called herself Control, and insisted that the only, the best thing to do was to return to Psi Corps. She refused to hear that they were probably going to kill her, since her usefulness was at an end. At best, they'd turn her into a mindless uterus on legs to breed more little teeps or, worse, experiment on her and breed her to Matthew, like they'd wanted to do a few months ago. None of this made any sort of impact. She chanted, "The Corps is Mother, the Corps is Father," whenever she was conscious, hoping I could hear her. Of course I could. I could hear everything in my head, including hints of other voices I was steadfastly ignoring.
I got off the ship to the Earth system as quickly as I dared, bought a ticket on a cruise ship to Proxima, and didn't use it. I "borrowed" some accounts that belonged to a sleazy jerk with fast hands who had retained my services for a business deal a year ago and bought myself a ticket to the Orion system.
Over the next three months, I saw a lot of Earth colonies. I kept moving, kept wishing desperately that I'd had more training in or exposure to doing the "on the run" thing better than this. I wished I could call Mr. Garibaldi. Or Susan. Or, really, anyone.
I watched the news. The Centauri had conquered Narn. So much for my idea of going to G'Kar, who struck me as the most reasonable and honorable of the ambassadors I could talk to. The Centauri were expanding. People were running scared. There were a lot of refugees who didn't want to call themselves refugees, because, of course, Earth was trying to believe in their non-aggression pact with the Cantauri. Fortunately, it all made it easier to get lost.
In between ships, I tried to get as much sleep as I could. I felt myself slipping, but Control was also wearing down. She chanted and fought less. She seemed more resigned. I didn't trust her a bit.
On Ceti Gamma II, I very nearly walked into the arms of a pair of Psi Cops. It scared the hell out of me. Had I nearly let Control waste my careful months of obfuscation? Or was I just exhausted?
I realized that I had to get somewhere safe for long enough to clean up my head, actually force myself to eat, and get some sleep. I stopped at my next destination long enough to cut my hair quite short -- the roots had grown out, so I was back to natural -- and obtain completely out of character clothing.
I spent several weeks watching the ships come in until I spotted a merchant vessel with a small crew that I thought I could influence and my desired port of call: Minbar. Then, mousy-brown and badly dressed, I stowed away.
It is only a door.
"You need only walk into the room," my Minbari host, Wyndan, told me, indicating the door. "We shall see that you do no harm. To yourself or others."
I had walked off the ship -- waving goodbye to my new friends, who would forget me in a little while -- into the capital city of Yedor, and immediately started to look around for somewhere to hunker down while I figured out what to do.
A bearded human in grey and black robes appeared in front of me from an alleyway. "Come with me if you want to live," he said in a grim British accent. Then he cracked a grin. "I've always wanted to say that."
"Who the hell are you?" I asked, wishing I had a weapon and knowing that even the tiny kick of a PPG would likely knock me down.
"Someone who knows more about you than you're likely to be comfortable with." He gestured down the alley. "Shall we?"
I sighed, glanced around at the Minbari on the street, who were ignoring us. "I suppose so. If you're Corps, there's not much chance I'll get away even if I did run for it." I stepped into the alley.
"I'm not with Psi Corps, if that helps at all," he said, following me. "I wish I could offer to let you scan me to be certain, but I can't do that."
"Of course not," I said resignedly, allowing him to guide me through the surprising maze behind and between the soaring Minbari buildings. "And I suppose you can't tell me how you found me."
"We received a suggestion based on a tip produced by an insinuation that you might not be traveling to Mars, but had changed vectors," he said with a smile. He had a nice smile, an infectious smile. "I'm sure that doesn't help at all."
My face had moved into a smile all on its own, because I surely didn't have the energy for it. "No, it doesn't. Maybe it will in the impossible future of sleep and food."
"Oh, I don't think it's so impossible," he said, gesturing me through a door and pausing to glance behind us.
The small, comfortable room beyond the door contained a couple of Minbari. I could feel at once that they were telepaths. I fell into the chair indicated.
"I think we can help you, at least a bit, Ms. Winters," the human said. "Or, rather, my friends here can. If you think you can trust us."
I rubbed my face. "I don't have a choice. I have to. You're not Psi Corps -- Minbari telepaths won't work with them -- and frankly, I don't much care who you are and what you want right now, if you can guarantee me a full night's sleep that won't end with me on a cruiser to Mars."
He glanced at the pair, who nodded infinitesimally. One of them said something in, I assume, Minbari, and my guide nodded. "They can do that much," he said. "But the internal repairs--" he tapped his temple "--are up to you."
"That's fine," I said. The Minbari got up and gestured toward a hallway, so I rose to follow. My slow, sleepless brain churned for a moment, and I turned back to the already-departing human. "What's your name?"
"Marcus," he said, turning back and smiling again. "I'll be off-world for a while, but I'll be back to check in on you."
I laughed tiredly. "Hopefully by then, I'll be a little more conversational."
"I wish you good dreams, Ms. Winters," he said, bowing, and he left.
we are the half-destroyed instruments
that once held to a course
The Minbari have a room where normals can walk and interact with things from inside their minds and memories and subconscious.
"I am a fully-trained telepath," I said sharply. "I don't need assistance of this sort."
"I had no wish to imply that you needed such aid," Wyndan said, bowing an apology. "I merely meant to suggest that it might be a useful tool in your explorations. One that would conserve your energy and concentration for other battles."
I looked askance at him. "That's very thoughtful. But doesn't the room need to be monitored by telepaths who I might not want strolling through my manifested memories?"
He opened his hands in a shrug. "Does the engine perceive what occurs on the ship's bridge?"
I gave him my best cynical, disbelieving look and went back to reading.
After a few more days of sitting in what I'd come to think of as my "Quiet Room" -- no psychic noise intruded there, and presumably none of my noise got out -- I wondered if maybe it was worth giving the room a try. All my meditations and explorations had netted me awkward conversations with Control in which she gave me no useful information and a few glimpses of others lurking in the shadows. Maybe having a supporting structure would help me find out more about how and when this was done to me, and how to fix it.
Wyndan took my request in stride, as was his wont. I think Minbari must go home at night and break things. I refuse to believe that they're always so serenely accepting.
So it was less than a week later that I walked through the traditional misty doorway into my mind.
"Took you long enough," said Control, who was sitting on the ground looking like a bundle of sticks.
"What, you expected me to try this room?" I said. "I thought you weren't paying much attention to anything anymore."
"We're killing ourselves with all this," she said. "Why don't you just give the body back to me so I can go home?"
"Because I'd rather die on an alien planet than submit to whatever the Corps decided to do to me, as I've told you before." I walked past her.
She sprang to her feet. "The Corps is Mother! The Corps is Father!" she screamed at my back.
I looked over my shoulder. "Then Mother and Father are abusive bastards."
She backed up a step and opened her mouth to say something, but nothing came out.
I pounced on the unexpected opportunity. "Never thought of that, did you? Kids never do. They can't until they get out and discover that all their friends say, 'Gosh, your family is SO messed up.'" I rubbed my face. "You're not in their power any more. You're allowed to think that they might not know best."
Control turned away from me, leaning against the wall. "I... I can't believe you. They said you'd lie to yourself whenever you could."
"Would good parents really do horrible things to their children to shatter their minds, then program the hurt pieces to spy on themselves?" I watched her shoulders. "Dictatorships teach people to inform on neighbors and friends. The Corps taught us to inform on ourself."
"It's necessary," she mumbled. "To make sure nothing bad happens to the Corps."
"How could I do something bad to the Corps?" I asked carefully.
"You could," she muttered into the wall. "Anyone could."
"Anyone?" I said, feeling cold.
"It's up to me to make the Corps safe," she said, then turned a ghastly smile on me. "Controls make the Corps safe."
"Control," I said, "do you mean... that other people have Controls like you?"
"We are the secret guardians,"she said, still smiling, hugging herself.
"How many people have Controls?" I pursued. "How do you know?"
She'd stopped being helpful, though. "The Corps is Mother! The Corps is Father!" she shouted, and threw herself at me.
I wasn't prepared enough. She slugged me in the jaw and I staggered back. She landed on me while I was off-balance, and we fell down hard. I was lucky that she weighed nearly nothing -- our landing didn't even knock the wind out of me.
Still, she was frenzied and violent and apparently intent on strangling me. I rolled her off with a grab-and-hip-throw, and ended up on top, as planned. She snarled and struggled. I started to punch her, but stopped when I noticed I was being watch by several pairs of eyes.
They were small and skinny and clung together in a mass so that at first, I wasn't sure how many there were. They looked like sisters, watching me with vast blue eyes.
I stared at them, keeping Control's skinny wrists pinned with one hand.
Finally, one of them blurted, "Don't hurt her anymore!"
The other two shifted so they were mostly behind the one that spoke.
When I hesitated, she said, "You're hurting all of us!"
I bit my lip. "It's the only way I can make sure she doesn't hurt me." I paused. "Us."
"We know someplace you could put her," one of the hiding girls said.
"Shhh! You're not supposed to tell her that!" another said, dragging her sisters back into the shadows.
"No, wait!" I called. "Please! I'd rather not hurt her if I have a choice!"
They edged back into the light a bit. Then they consulted among themselves. Control had stopped fighting and was watching them nervously.
"Come on," the biggest girl said abruptly, and started to walk away.
I scrambled to my feet and hauled Control up by her shirtfront. "Walk," I told her, pushing her ahead of me. She did, reluctantly.
It was a long walk through territory that looked more and more like our disrupted internal landscape. Control kept balking on me, so our progress was intermittent. I had to call out to the girls to wait sometimes, which they did impatiently.
Finally, the girls stopped in front of a door that stood in mid-air and pointed at it.
"I should put her in there?" I asked, reaching for the doorknob. Control tried to make a break for it, but I managed to collar her and drag her back.
"Noooo," one girl said, shuffling her feet. "Someone lives in there who can tell you what to do with her."
I narrowed my eyes at her. "You said you knew somewhere to put Control."
"I didn't," the girl said. "She did." She pointed at the taller girl.
"I did not!" the taller girl exclaimed. "You're lying!"
I sighed, rolled my eyes, and reached for the doorknob again. The littlest girl ran up and grabbed my hand. Her hands were hot to the touch. I looked down at her hands and saw two tiny, perfectly circular burns on either side of one pale wrist. My wrists itched. "You gotta knock," she mumbled. Then she let go of me and ran away, taking the other two girls with her.
I looked at Control, who gave me a horrible, terrified grin and said, "You gotta knock," in a dazed sort of way. I wondered if I'd hit her too hard during our last scuffle.
There was a long pause. Then the door sighed open. The opening was dark.
A sigh emanated from the darkness. "Come in, I suppose," a gravelly voice said.
Hauling Control, who had gone stiff-legged and resistant, along, I crossed the threshold.
worn by salt and sway into this threadbare beauty
She was withered and faded, like a rose hung to dry. Her skin was yellow as old paper, and her hair was thin and silky and white. Her eyes were enormous in her shrunken face, like those of the little girls, but they were full of stars as she watched us come in.
"Who are you?" I asked. Control hung back like a cat that doesn't want to go into a cage.
"So the little ones brought you," she rumbled, looking over Control, then me. "I told them I didn't want to be bothered yet."
"They said you'd know someplace I could put her," I said, jerking my head at Control.
"Did they?" she said. Her gaze was unnerving.
I waited for what seemed like forever. Finally, I said, "Please, could you tell me what I can do with Control so that I can go back to living a normal life?"
She mulled that over, then said, "No."
"Great!" said Control brightly, trying to backpedal. "Let's go, and you can bash my head against the desk again!"
I kept hold of Control's shirt and said, "That was the wrong question, wasn't it?"
The old woman laughed. "Good."
"I didn't think I had a Vorlon in my head," I said, possibly a little sharply.
"No?" she said, and suddenly I was looking at Kosh's encounter suit.
"That's not funny," I said, edging backward. Control went with me gladly and tried to go further. I kept a good grip on her.
"Humor is a sign of sentience," she said, now an elderly Minbari.
"Is bad humor a sign of sentience?" I asked impatiently.
"It depends," she replied, turning away from me at last.
I took a long breath. "Please, can you tell me how to cope with Control?"
Now she was a Narn. "You worked in the penal system for a time."
I frowned. "Yes."
"What did you do there?"
"I..." I paused. "I walked in their minds. To help them. But I can't go into her mind! Her mind is the same as mine!"
"Minds are not a single sheet of paper, as you said yourself," she said.
I considered Control's sweating face.
"Get out," the old woman said.
"But..." I began, but the room was gone, and we were standing knee-deep in a swamp.
"Nice people you've got in your head, Talia," Control said with a rictus grin, and she slid out of her shirt like an eel and fled, half-naked, into the wilderness of our mind.
in a stubble of blistered flowers
"I would like to apologize for my role in your difficulties," Delenn said, looking at me evenly across the table.
I shook my head. "No, there's nothing to apologize for. You helped Lyta get important information to Captain Sheridan, and the results are none of your doing."
Delenn allowed this with a small bow. "Still, I would like to help you however I may."
"Your friends here have been invaluable," I said, gesturing around. "I don't know how much longer I could have kept going if Marcus hadn't found me and brought me here."
"Marcus is a good person," she said. Her face altered subtly, and she looked away. It seemed to me that she was considering and reconsidering what she was going to say next.
"Ambassador," I said gently, "please don't say anything that might compromise yourself in any way. I still haven't completely... conquered my little problem, you know."
"Wyndan says that you have made admirable progress," she said, clenching her hands together.
"I would appreciate it if you... didn't mention all this --" I gestured to myself "-- to the command staff at Babylon 5."
Delenn gave me a look -- one of those unreadable Minbari Looks -- and nodded. "I understand." Her tone was far more understanding than I was really comfortable with.
Wyndan stepped into the room and bowed. "My apologies, Delenn, but our esteemed guest has another appointment."
Delenn smiled and rose. "I have taken too much of your time, Ms. Winters."
I rose as well. "Not at all. It was... really very nice to see a familiar face, Ambassador."
"I hope I will see you again," she said, and I believed her. It was one of the skills that made her such a good diplomat.
As Wyndan escorted me off to my second martial arts lesson, he noted, "Delenn respects you."
I looked askance at him. "Does she? I'm glad to hear it, because I certainly respect her. Is there a reason she was told about me?"
Wyndan gave me an opaque glance. "Yes," he said, and no more was said about it.
the red coals more extreme, more curious
in their flashing and dying
I slowly reassembled my internal landscape. I enjoyed creating the zen garden, for instance, and a house that did not resemble a Psi Corps complex at all.
It took me several weeks to hunt down Control. When I did find her, among the bushes and trees of the topsy-turvy wasteland, she was still mad with terror, stark naked and covered in mud. There was a grubby scuffle, and I ended up with a handful of her hair, matted as it was.
"Control, settle down!" I snapped. "I don't want to hurt you again," I added for the little Talias who lurked at the edges of my vision.
Control went still and trembling, like a terrified cat. Her eyes were wide and wild. I wished, for a moment, that she'd start the chanting again. Even that seemed normal and reasonable compared to this.
I almost hauled her to her feet by her hair, then stopped. "I'm probably going to regret this," I said, more to the girls than to Control, and reached out to touch my teen doppelganger's face.
There was a second or two of resistance, but her mind's minimal defenses crumbled away.
The place was hot enough that breathing was more of a process of careful gasping. Flames leapt out of solid ground. Around me, structures were burning, and burning, and burning. Smoke stung my eyes.
Control sat in the midst of it all, curled into a ball with only her feet touching the ground, holding a silver lighter in one dirty fist. I walked toward her, stepping carefully, and stopped in front of her. She looked up slowly, all eyes in a hollow face.
"I've done it, I've burnt it all, you can't see it, you won't see it," she said.
"Why?" I asked.
"I am the secret guardian," she said.
"Why did you burn it all?" I asked again.
"So you couldn't see," she said.
"Have you forgotten it?" I asked.
"Yes!" she said defiantly.
"I don't think so," I said. "Don't you want to remember it?"
"No!" she said, hiding her face again.
"You know we have to remember," I said.
"NO!" she screamed into her knees. "You can't see it! You're not allowed!"
"Because I'll know the truth about the Corps?" I asked.
"Not the truth!" she insisted. "Lies! I'm bad! I don't remember it right!"
"Control," I said, crouching in front of her and taking hold of the fist that held the lighter, "I don't need to see. I can tell you about it without seeing."
"You'll LIE," she said without looking up.
"No. You know I won't." I sat down on the ash-covered ground and put an arm around her shoulders. "I know they must have come in the night, mostly. Because I don't remember the nights, but I remember being afraid to go to sleep."
She suddenly went very still. She wasn't even breathing. Only the vibrating tension in her shoulders told me she was still listening.
"I know that it was something terrible," I continued. "I don't really want to know what it was. Pain, I expect, but probably other things. I can remember the tiny burns I used to wake up with. They told me I must have walked in my sleep, and punished me for doing it, so I stopped telling them about it. But they kept showing up until I was a teenager. I put ointment on and wore long sleeves."
She shuddered once.
"I wasn't allowed to have dolls after I destroyed my favorite," I said. "And I don't remember many dolls at all, for any of us. Because some of us destroyed them. Others kept theirs obsessively and talked to them about things that the monitors didn't want talked about."
Control was very still.
"That was because the Corps was trying to create sleepers in all of us, weren't they, Control?" I asked as gently as I could.
She didn't move.
"You were the one who walked us out of bed every night, weren't you?" I said. "In a perfect line with all the others."
"Not perfect," she whispered. "Not all. Some wouldn't... wouldn't make Controls."
"What happened to them?" I asked.
She shrugged violently. "I didn't see."
We sat quietly amid the crackling flames and the smoke. Finally, I said, "You don't have to burn it all, Control. I don't want to see right now. I can guess enough."
Control made a sound that might have been a sob.
"The important part," I said, "is that you see it. That you realize that the Corps did this to us."
She looked up at me finally, tears streaking the soot on her cheeks. "The Corps is..." she started, but choked on it. She hiccoughed. For just a moment, I thought I would be able to put my arms around her.
She bolted, on hands and knees, scrabbling to her feet, and disappearing into the smoke.
I lurched backwards out of her mind and found my hands full of twigs and dried leaves that smelled of smoke. I sat down hard on the ground.
"It'll happen," said a deep and familiar voice behind me.
I turned to look, feeling too exhausted to be alarmed. A woman who looked just like Jason (except for, well, being a woman) leaned against a tree, watching me.
She smiled at me, and it was Jason's smile. "Sorry. There were so many pieces in here, it was easy for him to co-opt one to give you information. So I'm your very own Ironheart."
I laughed a little, then sighed. "I suppose so. How did I function for so many years in so many pieces?"
She shrugged and walked toward me. "Many people function just fine the same way. How many people do you think there are in the world who actually have a whole mind?"
I looked up at her with my best sarcastic look. "Apparently not anyone in Psi Corps."
She extended a hand, and I took it, and was helped to my feet. "You're going about it the right way now," she said.
"That's good to know," I said, raking a hand through my hair a little self-consciously. She really was a great deal like Jason. "Look, how can I find you again? I'm exhausted, and I should find the door."
She smiled and touched my cheek. "It's all right. I just came to tell you one thing."
"Oh?" I said, too tired to beg her not to vanish completely.
"Remember that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts," she said. Then she smiled, and there was a bright light, and Wyndan was opening the door, calling my name, and coming in to pick me up off the floor.
because even the alphabet is precious
"You're looking a bit down," Marcus said, handing me a small box.
"You're looking like you just appeared out of nowhere," I said, taking the box and smiling up at him.
"Oh, well, just running messages back here and thought I'd drop in," he said, seating himself at the table. "How are things?"
I shrugged, looking up from my examination of the box. "Good and bad. I can sleep. That's the best part."
"The Minbari are good at supporting people doing hard work," he said. "Go ahead and open it."
I did, and gasped at the smell of real chocolate. "Where did you get this with the war going on?"
He shrugged, making the green stone on his chest glitter in the light. "Ancient Minbari secret."
I raised an eyebrow. "You aren't Minbari."
"Ancient British secret?" he tried.
I opened the box, took a chocolate, and put it in reach for him to share. He did.
"Marcus," I said, "I have a question for you."
"Hopefully I have an answer that's better than, 'Sorry, can't tell you that,'" he said.
I paused to enjoy the explosion of champagne and citrus and dark chocolate in my mouth. Finally, I asked, "What's really going on out there? I get dribbles of news. I know that Babylon 5 had declared independence, and Earth is under martial law, and there's a new alien race that's attacking worlds, and the Centauri are expanding, and the Narn have been conquered. But there's a weird undercurrent of all the news I get here, and I'm pretty sure that Wyndan and his friends aren't telling me certain things."
Marcus frowned down at his folded hands on the table. "I'm afraid that isn't mine to tell." He chewed on his lower lip for a moment, then said, "But I can suggest some reading material." He looked up at me hopefully.
"This is another learning experience, isn't it?" I asked. He looked contrite and started to say something. "No, it's all right. I'd be glad for some reading material."
He pulled a notepad from a pocket of his robes and scribbled down some titles. "Look for these in the library here," he said, tearing the sheet off and passing it across to me.
"The Tale of Valen?" I read from the first line.
He nodded. "Minbari history. Interesting reading. It's better in the original Minbari, of course, but the translation isn't bad." He stood up. "And now, I'm afraid I have to go. I'll be..."
"Offworld," I said, nodding. "Say hello to Ambassador Delenn for me, please?"
He blinked, then smiled. "Of course."
It was very interesting reading. So interesting that I asked Wyndan if I could start learning Minbari. Startled, he agreed to begin teaching me immediately.
Showing no sign of mastering solitude
I had apparently built my house -- or my honey trap -- well, because some of my internal bits and pieces drifted there over time. Even people I didn't know and had never seen before. Control showed up without being dragged. The house had grown as people had populated it, organically adding floors and sublevels and gardens without my consciously creating them. Somehow, for instance, I had acquired a basement with a monster in it, an enormous airy playroom, and a treehouse.
I was reclining in a hammock in the shade one afternoon, having finished my tenth or eleventh junket into Control's smoldering mind and thinking that I deserved a rest, when the shapechanging old woman appeared at my elbow. I sat up hurriedly and managed to flip the hammock and dump myself in the grass at her feet with a yelp. I heard little-girl giggles from nearby and looked around accusingly, but couldn't spot any of them.
"Hello," I said, feeling a little bruised, both rear- and ego-wise. "I was wondering how I would find you again."
"Yes," she said.
"Is there a way to integrate all the pieces of myself?" I asked, figuring that bluntness and speed were probably necessary.
"No," she said. Before I could say anything, she held up a wrinkled hand. "Sometimes, the true path is cooperation rather than assimilation."
"Oh," I said finally. I thought about it a bit more. "I can't always be negotiating peace in order to pick my clothing in the morning."
"No," she admitted. "But peace can be negotiated in the long term."
I nodded and finally levered myself off the ground. "Some parts, though, seem to exist just for... troublemaking." I gestured at Control, who was brooding adolescently on the deck of the house.
"Can you make a mouse from a bottle of amoebas?" the old woman asked, apparently non-sequiturally.
I frowned. "Um, no."
"Because...?" she prompted.
"Because the amoebas are all alike and the mouse... oh."
She nodded and started to walk off through the grass.
"What's your name?" I called after her.
She turned an odd smile on me over her shoulder. "We are all Kosh."
the wreck and not the story of the wreck
I had thought I'd mostly gotten over the crying, but I was still wiping tears off my face when Marcus walked in and found me.
"Shall I make you some tea?" he asked, politely not commenting on my red eyes. "I've found that tea is an excellent placebo for pretty much anything."
"Yes, thank you," I said, scrubbing at my face with the heel of my hand. "What are you doing here? I mean, it's nice to see you, but I hear there's a war on."
"Soldiers always get a little R and R," he said, setting a hot cup of tea down in front of me. He settled down across the table with his own cup, sitting a little stiffly. "Want to talk about it?"
I sipped my tea. "Oh, it's kind of pathetic. I'm not sure I want to tell anyone outside my head about it."
"Would it help if I told you something pathetic about myself first?" he asked, grinning. "I purposely got myself into a fight I knew I couldn't win a couple of weeks ago and let someone beat me to a pulp."
I stared at him, and noticed the barely-healed bruises and contusions on his face. "Why did you do that?"
He abruptly became flustered, fiddled with his moustache, and looked down at his tea. "Oh, no reason. Well, yes, there's a reason -- that would really be pathetic if I'd done it for no reason, wouldn't it? I was acting as a distraction."
"I'd think that was one hell of a distraction."
"Apparently so," he said, smiling again. "It worked."
"Well, that's good," I said, returning to my tea.
"Your turn," he said.
"I was pathetic for you," he said. "Now we have to be even."
"Mine is more pathetic," I assured him.
"No such thing as 'more pathetic'," he said. "Either you're pathetic or not. Go on, then."
I sighed. "Well, I've been... wrestling with the sleeper personality the Corps had in my head. The one that walked me off Babylon 5." I twisted a lock of hair around my finger while looking studiously at the wall. "Anyway, she finally... I can't tell if she was trying to do it as an apology or a way to hurt me..."
"Or both," he suggested.
"Or both," I acknowledged. "She showed me her memories of everything that happened between... between Lyta waking her up and my waking up on the ship going home." I wiped tears off my face again. "She... said some... unforgivable things to someone."
Marcus peered at me, cocking his head to the side a bit, but didn't say anything.
I laughed. "The pathetic part is this: I've had this fantasy all along that I'd fix my head and return to Babylon 5, triumphant, and reveal myself as cured and back from the dead and all, and we could pick up where we left off."
"But the sleeper has not so much burned that bridge as used a fusion bomb on it?" he asked.
"You could say that." I took the proffered tissue and mopped my face more thoroughly. "So that's it. That's why I'm sitting here, being a damp mess."
"That doesn't sound pathetic," he said, one side of his mouth quirking down. "I'm an incurable romantic, you know."
I nodded, letting my head fall forward into my hands. "I just... I couldn't stand seeing the look on her face when my body, my mouth was saying these... horrible, hurtful things to her."
"I'm sorry," he said. Then, as an afterthought, he added, "... her?"
I sighed and rolled my eyes under cover of my hands. "Don't tell me you're one of those people who..."
"No! No no no." When I looked up, he was waving his hands, eyes wide with apology. "I'm sorry, I was just curious about... I'm a bit nosy, you see..."
I shrugged. "It doesn't matter, really, since it's over. And it was a silly fantasy. Even Susan wouldn't believe in someone coming back from the dead. And it's been over a year. I'm sure she's moved on."
He sat very still and watched my face. "Yes, I suppose she probably has," he said after a long moment. "I couldn't really say, of course."
I resisted the urge to do a passive scan to see what was behind that carefully composed expression. Susan was probably involved with someone else -- some grand fated romance, given everything I'd been hearing about Babylon 5 and Sheridan and Delenn. "Well, now that we've made our pathetic confessions to each other, shall we talk about the war or something else similarly uplifting?"
He was distracted for the rest of the visit, so I didn't get into my recent conversations with Wyndan about the Rangers. Marcus seemed like he could use some basic gossip about his friends and colleagues here, which I could supply in relative abundance.
To do something very common, in my own way.
"Ironheart," I said one day on a stroll around my internal manse, "I have a question."
She stepped out from behind a tree. "It must be important," she said. "You haven't called for me since the first time we met. Nor even looked for me."
"I suppose I've been a little annoyed about Jason creating you," I said. "I mean, it isn't much better than Psi Corps making Control."
"Oh, no, I think you misunderstood," she said, falling into step with me. "He didn't make me. He dropped a... a packet of information in your head. You made me to deliver that information to you."
"You said he'd co-opted an existing piece," I said, glancing aside at her.
"Did I?" She looked puzzled. "I'm surprised at myself then. Sometimes, I suppose, none of us really know what we're saying."
"Oh, good," I said. "That's useful. Can you even answer a question for me?"
"I can try, of course," she said, sounding a little sharp.
I let the irritation settle down. This impatience with each other may have been one reason Jason and I hadn't lasted. "When I helped the rogue telepaths avoid Bester, one of them said that they wouldn't have been able to fool him without me. That I was the key, and the next step, and it was because of Jason's gift."
She nodded, scowling at the grass as she walked.
"Then I thought about what you said, about the whole being greater than the sum of the parts."
She nodded again.
"And then..." I paused, trying to say the name with a straight face. "Then Kosh mentioned something cryptic about amoebas and mice, which I think was my big, clear clue from the Universe about Jason's gift."
She glanced askance at me, then nodded.
I trailed a hand over a birch branch and pulled off the green seed pod, which I pulled apart in my hands. "My question is this: if my gift is to somehow know how to organize parts into something greater, how do I do this for everyone inside here? Because I have to learn that before I can... teach other telepaths how to do it."
She stopped and turned to me, smiling. She took hold of my hands. "All you need is what every group of humans need in order to organize. A common goal."
or, as tonight, the mirror of the fire
of my mind, burning as if it could go on
burning itself, burning down
feeding on everything
till there is nothing in life
that has not fed that fire
"So that's it," I said, wiping the sweat off my forehead and putting a hand on Control's shoulder.
Between the two of us, we had finally extinguished all the fires she had set in her mind. The buildings were beginning to heal slowly -- the scorch marks and structural damage were closing over, recreating the complex as Control remembered it and organized it.
"It's kind of weird not to be smelling smoke," she said, playing with the lighter in her hand.
"It'll be nicer," I said.
"And you won't try to go in any of the buildings?" she asked for the umpteenth time.
"No, I won't. I promise. If I want to see in one of them, I'll ask your permission first, and you can come with me."
"Okay," she mumbled. "But I might burn them again. Because what's inside is bad."
"Your job is to remember, Control," I said gently.
"I know," she said, scuffing one bare foot in the dirt.
We watched the sky clear and heard the first birds reappearing. "Control," I said. "I have a question for you."
"It's not about the buildings, is it?"
"Would you like to be a... secret guardian for someone else?"
She looked at me suspiciously. "For who?"
I looked aside at her. "The Minbari and the secret group that's fighting to save the universe."
Her suspicion did not abate. "You mean the Rangers."
We listened to the birds in silence.
"They get cool outfits," she said.
"They do at that," I said.
"And they would give us our own denn'bok to fight with."
"They would," I said, "but we'd have to get better with it. And stop whacking ourselves in the head by accident."
She giggled, then we had more silence.
"Why do you want me to join?" she asked, suspicion returned.
"Because you're as good a telepath as I am," I said, "and you've also been trained to be a shredder, which I haven't. And with you working willingly with the rest of us, we'd be even more powerful than Bester."
She squatted down and drew lines in the dirt. "You're not still mad about Susan, are you?"
"I'm still sad," I said. "But I don't think I'm still mad."
"You're still going to want to see her."
"Yes. But I'll have to think about it hard anyway, whether we're a Ranger or not."
"Will we get a cool uniform?"
"We'll get cool robes."
"Okay," she said.
"Okay," I said.
After so long, this answer.
"We walk in the dark places no others will enter. We stand on the bridge and no one may pass. We live for the One, we die for the One." As I said the words aloud, I could hear the others inside my head repeating it as well: Control and the girls and the Monster and the Corporate Teep and the Intern and Ironheart and all the others. Even Kosh.
I could barely hear the closing of the ceremony over the clamor in my head, so it was a little surprising to find the Entil'Zha at my side. Delenn smiled at me, took my elbow, and led me away from what was a somewhat rowdy celebration for the Minbari.
"I will not ask you if you are certain of this course," she said after we had walked in silence for a while, "since it is too late, and a silly question anyway. You have worked hard and wish to be of service, and we cannot deny those of great heart."
"Thank you," I said, running a hand over my grey and black tunic again, somewhat disbelievingly.
"I am sorry Marcus could not come with me," she said. "He is... otherwise occupied."
"He's on a mission," I said, and smiled when she gave me a look. "It's all right, I didn't expect him."
"You have joined us at a fortuitous time," she said.
"You need a telepath, of course," I said. "A human. Does it have to do with the Corps?"
She pursed her lips reluctantly, then nodded. "We need to know... more about their side of things on Mars."
I nodded, and I had a short period of consulting inside. "I live for the One, I die for the One," I said finally.
"Ms. Winters," she said, turning to me.
"Talia, please," I said.
"Talia," she said. "We not only need this information. We need to move some of our Rangers off Minbar. You among them."
I frowned. "If there's something I can do to help here, I would like to. The Minbari here have saved my life."
She shook her head. "It is a Minbari problem, but thank you. We need you on Mars. Do nothing that would allow you to be captured by the Psi Corps, but we need Mars to help us take Earth back, and the Psi Corps is an important piece of the puzzle."
I sighed and nodded. "Of course. I'll go at once."
Delenn held out her hand. "Thank you for joining us, Talia."
I shook her hand. "Thank you for having me."
All wars are useless to the dead
I slapped Lyta with all the strength I could put into my arm.
She reeled back against the wall, hand to her face. Her Psi Corps badge glinted.
"You knew I'd be back," I growled. "You popped the password into my head and watched me die without blinking, old friend. But you were half a Vorlon even then, weren't you? You did it, expecting that I'd dig myself out of that grave. And if I didn't, oh, well. Isn't that right?"
"I hoped," she said, working her jaw gently. "I couldn't go to Sheridan and say, 'I know who your spy is,' when I wasn't 100% certain. I guessed it was you, but it could have been anyone."
"And you hoped that I could throw off the sleeper somehow?" I inquired.
"I knew Ironheart had given you something," she said, standing up straight. "I hoped it would be enough."
"You had one, didn't you?" I asked with sudden epiphany. "You had a sleeper, and Kosh helped you get rid of it. That's why you never seemed 'right' to people from the Corps after you scanned him that first time."
"Kosh gave me a lot of gifts,"she said, and I could feel the barely-fettered power of her mind seething.
"You were the one that tipped off Delenn, weren't you?" I asked, Control's suspicion oozing through my voice.
Lyta shook her head. "I tipped off Mr. Garibaldi. He realized that you hadn't gone to Mars, but lost track of you and didn't have time to hunt you down again. He told Delenn, and Delenn took it from there."
"So Mr. Garibaldi knows that I'm alive?" I asked.
She shrugged. "I'm sure he guessed. He's a smart man."
"I have news for you," I said, watching her face. "It wasn't what Jason gave me that let me live. I worked it out for myself. And you could've too." There was a surge of her mind -- I couldn't tell what emotion was behind it, but I stepped back. "And it didn't turn me into a telepathic timebomb, either."
Lyta looked away. "No. You're something different."
"I am a Ranger," I said. "That's all that matters. Now give me the information you promised us."
sudden, wild and delicate your fingers
It was very strange stepping onto Babylon 5 again. Zack gave me a baffled, startled look as he checked my card. Delenn arrived at that moment, or I think he would've pulled his PPG on me.
"I am glad you could make it," she said, taking my arm and leading me away from Security. I could feel Zack staring at my back as we walked down the corridor. All my nerves were alert, every voice in my head was still -- like they were all holding their breath at once.
"So am I," I said. "I'm sorry I missed his memorial service." The elevator opened, and I braced for the grin, but Mr. Garibaldi failed to greet me. We stepped aboard.
"She has had him cryogenically frozen," Delenn said, her voice carefully neutral. "In hopes that he can be revived someday."
"They're both incurable romantics," I said, mostly under my breath as we stepped off the elevator.
Delenn smiled. "So am I."
"I'm not," I said, and laughed when she gave me a dubious look. "I'm a hopeful romantic. Incurable romance has an unfortunate tendency to be terminal."
She sobered and nodded. "Yes, sometimes it does. But you do not have the feel of a martyr waiting to happen."
"If every Ranger were," I said, "the Anla'Shok would hardly have lasted for a thousand years."
"True," she said. "And I do not believe that Valen would have wanted the Anla'Shok to be an organization of martyrs. Although sacrifice, yes, is sometimes necessary."
"Sacrifice is sometimes the only way to growth," I concurred. "But all things in moderation."
"Agreed," she said approvingly. We stopped in front of the door to Susan's quarters, and she let go of my arm. "Wait here."
She rang and entered. I fidgeted.
Then the door opened and Delenn stepped out, gesturing me through.
Susan was sipping from a mug when I walked into the room. It slipped through her nerveless fingers and bounced on the carpet, spilling coffee.
"Captain Ivanova," I said, fighting to keep my voice steady and my lips from trembling.
She looked past me at the doorway where Delenn lingered. I could feel waves of... smugness? and affirmation from that direction, then heard the door close.
"Ms. Winters," she said a little stiffly.
The lines of her face were deeper than they'd been two years earlier, and full of pain, but her hair was loose around her shoulders and had not been touched by grey yet, unlike some of her colleagues. She was wearing the trousers of her EarthForce uniform and the white button-down shirt. She was thinner, especially around her jaw, and tighter in the shoulders.
"I want to apologize," I said, "for not contacting you earlier."
Susan nodded and stooped to retrieve the mug from the floor. "So, ah, what have you been up to?"
"Repairing the damage," I said. "Having epiphanies. Joining interstellar organizations. You?"
She shrugged a little helplessly. "Winning a couple of wars, I suppose."
"That's always a good thing," I said. "The winning part, that is."
"Yeah," she said, smiling hesitantly. "Could I get you a drink? I don't have much left that's not packed, but there's coffee and tea..."
"Tea would be fine, thank you." I mentally offered the tea as a brief homage to Marcus.
There was an extended, awkward silence as she made the tea and poured herself another mug of coffee. We sat down.
She stared at me silently as I sipped my tea. Finally, she said, looking down at her coffee, "Is it really... you?"
I saw the echo of the hurt I'd seen in Control's memories in the lines of her face. "Yes," I said. "All of me."
She sighed. "I suppose you've heard that I'm leaving Babylon 5."
I nodded. "After everything that's happened here, I don't blame you for wanting a... change of scene." I smiled down at my tea. "I understand it does great things for clearing your mind."
"Really?" she said. "I hope you're right about that."
"I'm certain of it," I said. "A little bird told me."
"Maybe I should take an assignment planetside after this shakedown cruise," she said. "I'd... sort of like to see birds and such again."
"Maybe you should take some R and R," I suggested. "I'm told that soldiers get that sometimes. Especially after winning a couple of wars."
"I was considering it," she said. "Any suggestions for where to go?"
"Well, I think Earth, Mars, and Minbar are right out, given the recent civil wars," I said thoughtfully. "I rather liked what I saw of the Orion System while I was there. I can't remember if there was a lot of fighting there or not."
She shook her head. "I'd have to look it up. Too much happened to keep in my head at once."
We lapsed into silent contemplation of the coffee table.
"How are you feeling?" I asked finally.
"Surprised. No, stunned. Happy. Unhappy. Angry. Frustrated. You know, all the most contrary emotions I can cram in," she said.
"And I wish I could say, gosh, let's just start from where we left off and just call it relationship interruptus, but I can't." She pressed the heel of her hand to her forehead. "Too much has happened in too little time. And then there's Marcus."
I smiled sadly. "And then there's Marcus. Now I understand why he 'couldn't really say'."
"What?" She looked startled and a little put out by the distraction.
"I told him about what the sleeper had said to you -- no specifics, just generally -- and I said that I expected you'd moved on." I sighed. "He got sort of stiff and 'couldn't really say' whether you had or hadn't."
"Ah," she said.
We stared into our cups.
"Well, look," she said, getting up abruptly, "there's no point in being morose. I've been promoted and you're alive and sane -- you're sane right?" she added, peering at me.
"As sane as you are," I said.
"Oh, well," she said, crossing the room and picking up a bottle from a shelf in the kitchenette. "Alive, anyway. I have this bottle of champagne that Stephen gave me for my promotion. Want to share it?"
"Sure," I said, "but I'll be a lightweight. I've been living with Minbari, or running around with no time. I haven't had a drink since... I haven't had a drink in two years."
"That's all right. You do your best. I'm Russian, I'll drink the rest." She got out two glasses and wrestled the cork off the bottle. It fired off, slipping through her fingers, and flew across the room, close over my head. It finally pinged off a metal plate high on the wall.
We stared at it for a moment, then started to laugh. She poured our glasses and handed me one.
"To the last shot fired in the wars of Babylon 5," I said, raising the glass to her.
"To old friends," Susan said, raising her glass to me, "and new opportunities."
And so we drank.
Akycha kindly beta'd for me, though she did not read this final version before I posted it, so errors are all mine!
The title and all the epigraphs are lines from poems by Adrienne Rich. The title comes from her poem, "Shattered Head," included below.
A life hauls itself uphill
through hoar-mist steaming
the sun's tongue licking
leaf upon leaf into stricken liquid
When? When? cry the soothseekers
but time is a bloodshot eye
seeing its last of beauty its own
a bloodshot mind
finding itself unspeakable
What is the last thought?
Now I will let you know?
or, Now I know?
(porridge of skull-splinters, brain tissue
mouth and throat membrane, cranial fluid)
Shattered head on the breast
of a wooded hill
Laid down there endlessly so
tendrils soaked into matted compost
became a root
torqued over the faint springhead
groin whence illegible
matter leaches: worm-borings, spurts of silt
volumes of sporic changes
hair long blown into far follicles
blasted into a chosen place
Revenge on the head (genitals, breast, untouched)
revenge on the mouth
packed with its inarticulate confessions
revenge on the eyes
green-gray and restless
revenge on the big and searching lips
the tender tongue
revenge on the sensual, on the nose the
carrier of history
revenge on the life devoured
in another incineration
You can walk by such a place, the earth is
made of them
where the stretched tissue of a field or woods
with beloved matter
the soothseekers have withdrawn
you feel no ghost, only a sporic chorus
when that place utters its worn sigh
let us have peace
And the shattered head answers back
And I believed I was loved, I believed I loved
Who did this to us?
-- Adrienne Rich, from Midnight Salvage: Poems 1995-1998 (1999)