The darkness of space was littered with random objects, both natural and crafted. The most recent additions to the debris were the remains of a Starfury squadron that had been exploring where it did not belong. The entity that had once been known as Talia Winters looked out with the sensors of the ship that was now her body. There was one object that was not as it should be. One pilot's suit remained intact. She could perceive his mind through his clear faceplate. Though terrified, he retained enough coherence to set off the automatic homing beacon that could lead a rescue party to him if the nearest human settlement chose to send one. That would not do. With the narrowest beam in her arsenal, she traced a fine line down the suit, opening it to hard vacuum and silencing both pilot and beacon. Now her job was done.
A part of her felt regret for the loss of human life, but that was a small part, and growing smaller by the day. It was the same part that remembered their common history, hers and the humans, most of which, in retrospect, she would have preferred to forget. How had being human ever benefited her?
A signal touched her awareness. Her Shadow commander wanted to send out a salvage party. She could see why. Among the chunks of metal, themselves fair prizes for the ease with which they could be reworked into new and useful ship components, drifted at least one mostly-intact instrument panel. The electronics it contained were, thanks to her masters' alliance with certain of the more compliant humans, entirely compatible with those that controlled some of the smaller ships, those that lacked an organic central processor like herself. With confidence bordering on cockiness, she flicked out a thought to work the airlocks and allow tiny figures in spacesuits to exit. It was a dangerous job, determining which of the debris was worth retrieving and attaching an identifier beacon that would allow her to draw in into her hold, but even if it cost a life here and there, the reward was well worth the price.
As a young telepath brought up in and by the Psi Corps, the girl called Talia had been taught that the Corps was both mother and father to her, and all she had wanted was to please those harsh parents. She had learned early on that the headblind majority, the mundanes, hated and despised her kind, so her goal had become to make the Earth Alliance worlds safe for her own people. In her heart of hearts, she shared the more controversial vision of telepaths in a position of superiority over their less-gifted kin, and she began to put out feelers for ways to bring that dream to life.
Light escaping from the salvage crew's helmets made tiny glows against the darkness, punctuated by the brief flashes of suit thrusters propelling them toward their destinations. She observed for what felt like a reasonable time, though her time sense was different from theirs because of the enhancements provided by her computer components. Then, with the casual deftness of a seasoned nurse taking pulses, she reached out with her monitors to check the vital-signs readouts on the pitiful small organic beings. Most heart and respiration rates were slightly elevated, though less than they would have been in unaltered humans. These people had been properly conditioned so that they would not feel the usual fear brought on by darting around open space without tether lines. Instead, their only thoughts and emotions were directed toward the duty they owed the Shadows who were their commanding officers. Another quick check, telepathic rather than mechanical this time, confirmed that the conditioning was remaining intact under stress.
The Talia component was intimately familiar with conditioning. At the most obvious level, there were simple verbal encouragements of loyalty posted all over Psi Corps headquarters and worked into many of the lessons taught to youngsters during their student years. But in the interest of assisting with the Corps's goal of advancing itself in human society, she had allowed her superiors to go a giant step further with her. She had given herself, body and soul and even identity, to a program intended to allow her to infiltrate the command staff of Babylon 5, the space station whose function as a gateway to the other, alien civilizations in the known universe made it one of the keys to everyone's future.
The salvage crew that she had let out had been joined by more workers from her sister ships. That was good. Shortening their time outside and reducing the number of items that each of them had to tag would limit the exposure and possibility of loss to her complement. That in turn would increase the time that the flotilla of six ships could go without acquiring more humans to serve the Shadows. Now that Earthforce was aware of them, and of their raids for manpower, dropping out of hyperspace in Earth Alliance territory was becoming increasingly dangerous. Unnecessary risk was an unwise use of the investment that her masters had made in converting her to her present form of existence, though it would not be the first time that an investment in making her more suitable for her job had not achieved the intended results.
What was the outcome of her so-important mission? She had failed, thanks to a telepath who had gone rogue and betrayed her own kind. She could have dealt with the failure, though unhappily. What she could not understand was why she herself had been treated like a traitor, when she had devoted every fiber of her being to the mission, and to the advancement of the Corps. Still, she had recovered and moved on to other service. The memories that still raised an internal smile were the ones associated with her work with Esther Johnson, the first and only real friend she had ever had. A ripple of disturbance to her serenity came with her wondering what had become of Esther, and if anyone had followed up on her own disappearance. A quick adjustment to her thought process, like the computerized equivalent of a mantra, smoothed the ripple almost as quickly as it had risen.
A signal like a mental cold finger running up her spine indicated that the salvaged materials were ready to be brought on board. She activated the beam that started the pieces of debris moving toward her loading dock. The smarter among the work crew latched onto an item near them so that they too were drawn back to the ship, and did not have to worry about poorly-aimed suit thrusters sending them into a collision with her side or, worse yet, past her side and off into open space where it would be more trouble than it was worth to retrieve them. Back in her childhood in the Psi Corps dormitory, one of her crèche-mothers had read the kids a story about ants carrying grains of wheat to help the heroine complete the near-impossible task of filling a huge basket in a day. The workers out there, returning with their prizes, were a lot like those ants. As a group they performed valuable labor, but no one individual was different from any other, or irreplaceable.
At last the loading-in was done. Using her interior monitors, she had performed and logged the inventory of the salvage as it was brought on board. The Shadow whose identifier translated roughly to Stands-at-Arm's-Length was pleased, which pleased her in turn. That was her purpose, her reason for continued life. She reached out with mind and private-band transmission, and sang her joy to her five sisters. They added their voices to hers, and as they activated their main thrusters and flew away from the remains of the ruins, their chorus serenaded the stars.