TITLE: Al Bester is Alive and Well and Living in Syria Planum

AUTHOR: Sabine (sabine101@juno.com)

ARCHIVE: Anywhere

PAIRINGS: Bester/Carolyn

RATING: R-ish

SPOILERS: S3, "Ship of Tears" only. I haven't read the Psi-Corps Trilogy, and I'm playing it fast and loose with canon. Seatbelts, people.

DISCLAIMER: Rent, don't own.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS: Thanks to Andraste and Kerne for moral and ethical support. Investigative sleuthery and translation from the original German by Punk. And this would be for Selena, even if it weren't already for Selena.

NOTE: This was written for the 2004 Babylon 5 Ficathon, brought to the Internet by a charitable grant from Leyenn and Waterdaughter.

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Yesterday Bester bought the Geneva place. He'd been renting for nearly a decade. If he decided to go back to New York, well, the Corps was paying him more than enough to keep the brownstone on Gramercy Park as a pied-a-terre, and the beach house in Belize really wasn't practical year-round anyhow. He wired the Geneva tenants from the shuttle, told them to pack their things and clean up after the damn dog before they left. He doesn't want fur in his furniture and he's tired of finding kibble in the kitchen drawers. He never wants to go back to Mars again.

The day before yesterday was Wednesday, and it was the 4th of July. The North American province still celebrated the holiday with hats and cakes and days off from work, a tribute to a forgotten era, a forgotten regime and a forgotten flag. On Mars, nobody cared.

4 a.m., Wednesday, Mars time. Carolyn was still asleep, dreaming about that fishery in Punta Gorda, the adjoining cafe with its beachside tables and bicycles chained to driftwood posts. In her dream, Al was with her. In her dream, they served her head on a platter, fricasseed. And the sea was a great, wide mirror, a great wide corridor in a university, a prison, a shopping mall, and Carolyn couldn't run, but she could fly.

Carolyn had never been to the fish place, never been to Punta Gorda, never been to Belize at all. So he took her there on their first mind date when they sat on the bench in the institute's garden and drank milkshakes in the diffuse warmth of the Martian sun. In his head, they had midget red snapper and prawns and he drank bourbon. In her head, she threw him down in the sand and kissed him and kissed him and kissed him. In the hospital garden, she finished her milkshake and then it was time to go back inside.

He threw a gentle stillcast at her, nothing too deep, just enough to keep her sleeping while he put on his pants and his shoes and packed his single bag. She murmured and rolled over.

"Listen," he said, though she couldn't and he didn't want her to. "Carolyn." Bag packed, gloves on. He sat on the chair beside the bed. "It's better this way, really. They're gonna come get you in a couple hours. No funny stuff, they're not gonna hurt you, they're not gonna use force. They're just gonna – take you home."

He stood up, tugged first one glove and then the other. "I have to go now, sweetheart. But I'll come back soon. I promise." He liked to talk to her aloud when she was sleeping. He liked the fact that he could lie to her. Because when she was awake, when she looked at him, he didn't stand a snowball's chance.

He left his apartment and headed for the spaceport, and on his way he tossed his keys into the trash chute.

Tuesday morning he bought real eggs, Martian sausage, potatoes au gratin and orange juice. Maybe twenty credits worth on Earth, cost him over a hundred up here and he paid with a 250 credit chit and told the clerk to keep the change.

Carolyn rang the buzzer and he met her downstairs in the courtyard. "You know the rules?" the Psi Cop asked with a cursory scan. Must be new.

"Yeah," Bester told her, brainflashing his Corps creds casually. "Done this once or twice before, actually."

The Cop, a big-bottomed broad with spastic hair and red cheeks, ran her baton over Carolyn's wrist band and transferred the codes to Bester. Then she sent the unlock password and Carolyn exhaled with a pop. "Hi, Al."

"She's yours for the next eight hours," the Cop said, and Bester gave her a half-assed nod and she left.

"I got eggs," Bester said, inside, sliding the deadbolts shut. "Real eggs, and potatoes with some kind of crazy freeze-dried Martian cheese, not from a cow, I'll tell you that much, after which point I decided to stop inquiring. And coffee."

Carolyn took him by the shoulders and flung him against the inside of the door. Kiss me. He did. They forgot about the eggs.

"I'm getting out," she said, steering him onto the bench at the breakfast table, pinning him against the window, straddling him. "For real, Al."

I'd get you out in a minute if I could, he sent. You know that. In his Own mind, the part behind the P-12 blocks, the part he didn't share, he thought, I'm lying.

You're lying, she sent, but she was smiling, shoving her hand up underneath his shirt. You won't be, though, when I tell you. What I haven't told you.

He kissed her, ran a finger across her jawline, a little misdirection while he tossed a casual scan, just for curiousity's sake. She caught the scan immediately and winked. Not yet, she sent.

She kneeled across his hips on the narrow bench of the breakfast nook, gripping past him for the windowsill where a bowl of gourds made precarious rattling sounds. Now, Al, she sent. It's been over a month. Fuck me.

He reached back, pushed aside the gourds and the little Narn statue Carolyn bought him, the only alien artifact he had in the Mars apartment or any of his other places. When she'd asked what he'd done with the rest of them – she'd given him several, from Minbari paintings to recordings of Pak'ma'ra love songs – he told her they were on display at the house in Geneva. "Get more visitors there," he'd said. "I want to show 'em off." Truth was he'd thrown them away. He wasn't wild about aliens. He figured she knew that. Fuck me, she sent. He did.

She was always a little wild, athletic, a hell of a lot more creative with her fumblings than Alisha ever was -- Alisha who subscribed to the wham-bam-here's-some-endorphins school of teep sex -- but Bester's noticed that lately Carolyn was even more voracious than usual. He knew the drugs they give her made her muscles slacken, made her skin pale and her flesh crepe-like and drippy, but she was still hot stuff, still beautiful to him. She made up for the increasing decrepitude with desperate choreography and he could barely keep up.

Get out of your head, Al, she sent, and then, out loud, "scoot!"

He was startled enough that it took him a minute to register the sound as words, another minute to figure out what she meant. He grinned, shimmying sideways on the bench to draw her down on top of him, used his nose to nudge her skirt up over her hip so he could bury his face between her legs. He flicked out his tongue and explored her brain for dopamine.

The drugs, she sent. I'm gonna be tough to get off. He crossed his arms behind his head and waggled a lazy tongue.

I'm a P-12, he sent back, wryly. Don't worry about it.

Touch me, she sent, and he pushed at a sense memory twanging from her pituitary. With your hands, you idiot, she sent. Touch me.

She prowled around his limbic system with the grace of an untrained P-6, ferocious, and he let down almost all his blocks so she'd be able to push and pull at will. She sent pictures, lyrics, the rush of water, she rolled across the walls of his skull, slow enough to drive you mad. She only knocked against his Own mind once, and even then it was just to tease, like always. What are you hiding from me now, Al?

Nothing, he sent. Not a thing. That's why I love you.

She was quiet, and when he tapped against her Own mind – the blocks she'd assembled were so clumsy he could have broken them with a breath, but he didn't – he remembered she was hiding something from him instead. He touched her with his hands, drowned himself between her thighs and let himself consume her while she played the climax of a symphony in the lonely shadows of his reptilian brain.

"I'm not going back," she said, later, in the hot-water shower. He got fifteen minutes of hot water a day and he soaped her with a loofah to save time. She trailed her fingers through the hair on his chest. "And you're gonna help me."

They'd been through this before, a dozen times, more. We're your family, Carolyn, he'd send. Come home.

I won't.

And he'd shake his head. "Please? It's not so bad."

I won't, she'd send, loud and clear and haughty to the fullest of her P-6 powers. I like my freedom, Al.

You have a gift, he'd send. The Corps can help you develop it, enhance it. That's more like freedom than anything you can get out there.

No, she'd send, and "No," she'd say. "It's not."

And in his Own mind, every time, he'd think, if the Corps isn't good enough for you, maybe I'm not good enough for you, Caro. But he never said that one out loud, on the off-chance it just hadn't occurred to her yet.

"And why is that?" he asked, out loud, squeezing cucumber-scented water over her round pale shoulder.

Because I love you, she sent. And you love me.

I do, he agreed. Goddamn it, but I do.

When the water shut off, she told him about the treatments.

They're getting worse. The tests are getting harder.

That's good, he sent, that means you're getting better. Getting stronger.

Do I seem stronger to you? She asked, and he didn't know if it was rhetorical but he gave her a quick scan and then he lied.

Yes!

You're lying, she sent. Every goddamned time, he thought, in his Own mind.

"Yeah," he chuckled. "I can't lie to you."

It's the drugs, she sent.

It's the fact that you're resisting them, he sent back. Cooperate, it'll be so much better. You'll see.

No, she sent. "I won't." See. Cooperate. Either one.

Her bracelet tagged her as a blip and if she went beyond a fifteen mile radius of the rehabilitation center, she'd get a neural shock that would shut her down for the Cops to come recover. Bester's first apartment on Mars had been on the other side of the Syria Planum dome, eight tube stops and twenty miles away. He got this place a year ago, right down the road from the institute. He got tired of visiting her at the hospital; it was oppressive, depressing, full of blips who pissed their pants and spouted incoherent babble into his brain. The Cops who worked there were bored, and the doctors overwhelmed and understaffed. Some days, he thought, it seemed like nobody cared anymore. Like they'd already written off the blips, good as dead, beyond hope.

They're our family, he thought, to anyone who would listen. We can't give up on them. Not now. Not ever. He didn't let himself remember that there was a time, before he met Carolyn, when he thought blips were a lost cause too.

They went for a walk in the oxygen farms.

The farms occupied a separate, hermetically sealed dome within the larger dome of Syria Planum – "Can't go giving oxygen away free," the mayor once said in a televised speech. "Pretty soon everyone'll want some" – but Bester's creds got him in and out as he pleased. He liked the quiet hiss of the ventilation system, the damp, mossy air, the enormous deciduous trees and low-slung prehistoric ferns toiling in their photosynthetic obscurity. In a red, dead world, the oxygen farms were a glorious living green.

You're like this place, he sent to Carolyn, waving an arm to take in a spread of dogwoods. Something alive in my dead, decrepit existence.

Don't quit your day job, she laughed. You're a lousy poet. They walked in silence a little, and he took her hand in his mind before he took her hand in his hand.

"You gonna tell me now?" he asked, sitting on the ground under a wide, drooping willow, her head in his lap. His arthritic knees protested but he willed them to shut up. Didn't like anything that reminded Carolyn of his age, of the wide gap between them, of the fact that she could do so much better than a washed up old teep like him. So he grinned and bore it and talked out loud. "Your secret?"

Nope, she sent. And at the very least, send yourself some endorphins, man, I can hear your knees cracking from here.

Can't keep a thing from you, can I, he sent, and let her glide across his neurons, skimming the surface off the pain like an analgesic. In his Own mind, he thought, I wonder why the hell I even try, anymore. From the day we met I could never lie to you.

They met just over a year ago, in early 2259, when he was living most of the year in Geneva and Alisha and her bastard of a boyfriend were playing house on Mars. He went to Syria Planum for a week, on business. Even then, he hated Mars. It was meant to be a quick stopover at the ass end of too many weeks off-world, chasing down the damn underground railroad on godforsaken Babylon 5, a showing of the colors on Proxima 3, a ribbon-cutting on Ganymede. Mars was as dead and red as ever, and Bester didn't even unpack his bags and didn't call Alisha. He went to give his lecture at the reeducation facility wearing what he wore on the shuttle, and when he saw Carolyn he thought "man, I wish I'd showered" loud enough for her to hear it and laugh.

At first, he thought she was a doctor, or a Cop even. She was imprinted as a P-11 – though later, once the medical staff figured out that what they thought was enhanced abilities was really latent telekenisis and a whole lot of unbridled rage, they downgraded her to a P-6 – and she carried herself with an air of combined authority and exhaustion, not uncommon to Psi Corps members stuck at that most unattractive of assignments. He didn't even notice that she wasn't wearing the gloves.

Good speech, she sent, sitting in the common room, after. From the next table, a pair of P-3 crazies were trying to out-block one another by singing songs backwards, neither realizing that the other wasn't trying to scan them anymore. I didn't buy a word of it.

No, he sent, eyebrows up, settling in for a fight. I suppose you've got a better theory on rehabilitation? Prison, maybe?

This place is a prison, she sent. There's a rat living next to my toothbrush and every morning I wake up to the sounds of the guy in the cell next to me screaming at his electroshock treatments.

Bester got her moved to better quarters that same day. He put a stipulation in her file, no shock therapy, nothing invasive, psychoanalysis, midrange scans and drugs only. He got her a quilt handmade by a local artist. Bought her flowers.

I hate you and everything you stand for, she sent. Kiss me?

He rented a room in the Cops' wing and stayed at the institute the whole week. They took walks in the garden. He tried to lie to her.

I'm getting out of here, she sent. Some day, they're not gonna be looking, they're gonna slip up, and I'm hitting the road, Jack.

They're Psi Cops, Carolyn, he sent back. They don't make mistakes.

You did, she sent, sending a twang across his parietal lobe. You fell in love with me. And I'm nothing but a blip.

Seems to me, he sent back, that's your mistake, not mine.

She kissed him, and the next day he transferred ten thousand credits into her bank account at the institute. "For treats," he said. "Food, entertainment, whatever."

He went back to Geneva at the end of the week, rented out the one good side of the duplex and got the new place on Mars half a mile away from the reeducation facility.

Tell me, he said, tugging on a glove. They were back in his apartment with less than two hours before her time was up and the Cop would show up to take her back. You're so sure I'm gonna want to help you, tell me.

I'd put money on it, she sent, hands curled around a cup of coffee at Bester's kitchen table.

All your money is my money anyway, he sent back. She nudged his Own mind with a playful kick.

"Ready?"

He looked at her face, her beautiful face, her beautiful P-6 blip face so full of innocence and frustration, and he thought, out loud and not for the first time, that as soon as she came back to the Corps and got the family's blessing he'd get this girl to marry him.

"I'm pregnant, Al," she said. Her words were careful and round and he didn't hear them at all. I'm pregnant, she sent. Preg-nant.

He kept a practiced cool, practiced enough and cool enough that just this once even she couldn't penetrate it. Is it mine? He sent, but he was only stalling for time, and trying to provoke her enough that her senses wouldn't be sharpened. His Own mind gave a quick thanks for the drugs.

Of course it's yours, numbskull, she sent back, utterly unrattled.

NO, his Own mind railed. No goddamned way. No kid of mine's gonna be a blip, no kid of mine's gonna grow up scared, and running, and alone, no goddamned fucking way.

That's...incredible, he sent. "Wow," he said. I'm...thrilled, he sent. In his Own mind, he thought, I'm lying. And maybe it was the blind-sight of excitement, but this time, for the first time, she didn't see.

It's the best thing in the world, she sent. So you see why we gotta get out of here --

Yeah --

Somewhere, you know. Away. She reached across the table and took both his hands in hers. Somewhere we can all be together. Without the Corps breathing down our necks.

"Yeah," he said. "You're right."

Her eyes widened, and he felt just the barest touch of suspicion. "Really?" He steadied his heartbeat, sent a flush to his cheeks and filled his mind with so much joy it spread across his face. She relaxed.

Yeah, really, he sent. I love you, you know.

I do know, she sent. I knew.

You were right, he sent. He stood up.

"Listen," he said. "I'm gonna call. Pull some strings. You should stay here tonight. We should...celebrate."

This time she grinned, a huge and innocent smile that threatened to break his heart. "Really? It's a good idea, buy us some time, we can get out of here in the morning, go to Earth, or somewhere else, even. I've never been outside the system."

Really, he sent. We'll stay here tonight, and tomorrow – anywhere in the universe. You and me.

And the kid, she grinned.

You and me and the kid. His Own mind added, all alone, and shuddered at the thought. Just lemme make some calls.

He made some calls, told the P-12 at the institute that he was keeping Carolyn overnight, no questions asked, and if they wanted to argue they could stick it where the sun didn't shine. They didn't want to argue. Carolyn listened, and wrapped her arms around his waist, and kissed his ear, and they ate dinner and watched the Martian sunset over the silty dome of Syria Planum.

After she went to sleep, after they made love twice in the dark, after he sent a quick stillcast, he called the Cops again.

Come by, early as you can, he sent. She's gone renegade again. She needs serious rehab. Yeah, shock treatments, but only as a last resort. I don't know if surgery's indicated. Do what ever you have to do. She needs to be repaired. She needs to be restored to us. She's too far gone.

He lay beside her for a long time, but he didn't sleep, and he didn't cry. And at just before 4 am, he woke up, and packed his single bag, and left Mars for the last time.

It was morning on Earth, the morning after the 4th of July. The news on the shuttle broadcast talked about rioting in the streets of Houston and Miami, something about revisionists and the old song of American independence. In Geneva, bleary-eyed businesspeople left their houses and headed for work. Another day.

Bester went straight to his accountant and put a down payment on the duplex, told his realtor to put the Mars flat up for sale. Then he went home, unlocked the door, took a long shower, and slept for two days. When he woke up he went to work like nothing'd happened and nothing'd changed.

Only his Geneva secretary seemed surprised, when he told her to transfer all his files from Mars down here. He never wants to go back to Syria Planum again.