Come to Dust

Fear no more the heat o' the sun,

Nor the furious winter's rages;

Thou thy worldly task hast done,

Home art gone, and ta'en thy wages:

Golden lads and girls all must,

As chimney-sweepers, come to dust.

William Shakespeare, Cymbeline


Lyta Alexander breathed a sigh of relief as she broke off the com connection with the Minbari ambassador. She'd been unable to think of anyone else with ready access to the command staff, who wasn't part of the command staff. Derek had told her she could rely on Delenn, before he'd been taken by the Corps. She didn't like to think about what had happened to Derek, or to Lee. And she didn't dare trust anyone at this point, not after the Corps had tried to kill her...again.

Shuddering at the memory of what she had undergone after her re-assignment back home, she walked slowly through the corridors of the station, her every sense, both tactile and psychic, straining to see danger coming before it arrived. As she walked, she wondered again why she was there. She'd come back, to this place that both drew and repelled her, ostensibly to try and ferret out a PsiCorps spy. She'd been told this station was an important symbol to the resistance, an example of working out problems diplomatically, even when sides were directly opposed in their goals, much like the Free Mars movement and EarthGov. The station command staff was reportedly deeply involved in the struggle against what EarthGov had become. But to her, this little band of proto-rebels didn't seem that engaged in fighting back against Clark's fascist tendencies. Not like the resistance on Mars, where life in the underground was dangerous, and a constant struggle against the increasing tyranny of Earth. The rebels had taken her in and let her work for her keep after she'd escaped from PsiCorps' tender mercies. She looked around; life seemed pretty normal here. Still, according to her friends in the resistance, the station staff were on the side of the angels, and she'd do her best to help save them from themselves. Putting a wrench in PsiCorps' plans just made it a more attractive proposition.

She paused in front of a small cafe several doors down from the shop where she was shortly to meet Delenn. Brown Sector was just beginning to stir at this hour of the morning, but business would soon pick up. Digging in the pocket of her jacket, she found the fake identicard that the Mars rebels had set her up with. Turning it over in her hands, she wondered why station Security hadn't confiscated it. They'd probably left it on purpose, after logging the identicode. Calculating the odds that she could order something, perhaps to go, and take a moment to rest before Security spotted the activity and honed in on her, she decided to take the risk. After all, she'd know when they were coming, and could melt into the crowd, even ditch the card at that point. It wasn't that long before she was due to meet Delenn.

After placing her order, she sat at a table strategically located in a corner near the open doorway, hidden from outside view, in shadow, but close to the exit if she needed to leave quickly. Sipping at her tea, she reflected on the reasons she had come, the expectations she harbored, and the past she couldn't leave behind. While she had been a natural choice to send on this mission, it hadn't been an easy decision for her. The job required a telepath, and there were few telepaths involved in the Resistance. Of these, most were sent off planet. PsiCorps had a strong presence on Mars, with a major installation at Syria Planum, and training facilities in Burroughs, and Thoris City. And the cell leader had a point when she referenced Lyta's familiarity with the station. She hadn't been there long, but at least she had been there, unlike most of the others. She knew some people, if only slightly. Others she knew better than she'd let the rebels know.

There was the Vorlon ambassador, for instance. For a moment her concentration slipped as she recalled her first mental contact with the enigmatic alien; it had been...intense, terrifying... wonderful. All the probing PsiCorps had done to discover her knowledge of the Vorlon hadn't come close to the truth of it, of all that Kosh was, and had been, and would be. It was a big part of the reason she'd come back; the tug of the Vorlon's presence was always there, like a barbed hook in the back of her mind. She'd been trying to get into Vorlon space for almost two years now, but no one was crazy enough to take her. There was something she needed to do there; she could feel it.

When her cell leader had given her the dossiers on the command staff, she had only recognized one name, the security chief. It didn't matter; the previous commander wouldn't have been likely to believe her after she'd almost gotten him convicted of the assassination attempt on Ambassador Kosh. The doctor she'd worked with on Kosh was gone, too. But what had surprised her most was discovering the commercial telepath PsiCorps had sent to replace her. Absently, she probed the pain of that discovery like testing a bruise to see how much pain remained. It still hurt, even though she and Talia had drifted apart years before...

It had been summer, a hot glorious summer of hard work and even harder play. They were both interning at PsiCorps headquarters in Geneva in between semesters at the Academy. Talia was a year ahead of her, and a golden girl in every sense of the word. Everyone loved Talia. She was smart, and talented, and committed, but also kind. She'd been kind to Lyta, whose blunt style and clumsiness in personal interactions had led to her being somewhat isolated among her classmates. Talia was from the NorthAmerican Federation, just like Lyta, although she was from the East Coast, and Lyta from Chicago. Lyta had applied to intern with the PsiCops that summer. She wasn't a high enough level teep to be a Cop herself, but they had need of support personnel. Talia was in the commercial teep section. They'd struck up an unlikely friendship after the very first get together for the summer interns.

*************************

Lyta held the glass of white wine in front of her like a shield. Her blocks were set high, to avoid any of her normal party anxiety spilling out into the crowd. There were about forty interns, it seemed, and most of them she recognized from the Academy. She was still unsure why she'd been chosen for the program. Her psi level of 5 was average, and her grades were average as well. It was an opportunity though, and one she intended to make the most of --if she could figure out how, exactly.

Drifting from group to group, always on the outside, chiming in with a laugh or comment when it seemed appropriate, she grew more and more depressed. That ease and fluency of light chatter just wasn't her style, and eventually she gave up, set her empty wine glass on a side table, and left the party.

She checked the front desk of the hotel in which the interns were staying to see if her room was available yet. It was, and the desk clerk radiated controlled dislike as he put the key in her gloved hand. Normally the interns were housed on the grounds of PsiCorps headquarters, but there had been a problem with the dormitory, and it was closed while some sort of repairs were seen to. The interns had been put up at a nice hotel nearby, and a reserved shuttle provided for transit to headquarters, but it meant going out among normals more than they were used to at the Academy. Lyta privately thought it was a good idea to get used to it; they were a minority still, and normals were, after all, the norm on the outside.

Waving the keycard in front of the reader on the door, she heard the click, and walked in. To her intense surprise, Talia Winters was lying on one of the double beds, holding a print-reader in front of her. She was intent on her reading, but heard the door, and looked up briefly, then smiled.

"Hello," she said, then at Lyta's surprised expression, she got up and came over, saying, "No one bothered to tell you we're doubling up this summer, did they? Not enough room at the inn, I gather! Room-mates were assigned randomly. I hope you don't mind; I certainly don't." She extended the mental 'flick' that served as a greeting and identifier to telepaths. It told you more than a handshake, but was far short of a scan. "I've seen you around campus; Lyta, isn't it? I'm afraid I don't remember your surname."

"Alexander," said Lyta abruptly. "And no, I don't mind." Looking around the room, she asked. "What became of our luggage?"

"Mine was in the closet when I arrived. There were some other bags; yours, I suppose. The Corps is nothing if not efficient." Talia went back to the bed. "I hope it's okay; I took the bed nearer the window. I love the view of the lake from here." She sat back down, stretching her long legs out on the wine-colored duvet. "I skipped the party. I hate those things, don't you? Meaningless chit chat and everyone trying to sneak in a probe here and there." She paused for a moment, studying Lyta. "Your blocks are set terrifically high. Are you sure you don't mind rooming together?"

Lyta had been rummaging in the closet, and was pulling clothes out to place in the empty drawers in the chest on her side of the room. "Sorry, I do keep them high, but it doesn't mean anything. I have trouble blocking at lower levels; my control isn't that good. Comes from learning how later in life than most."

Talia asked casually, "Were you a late emergent then?"

Lyta stiffened at the anticipated slight, but relaxed slightly when Talia added quickly, "It doesn't matter. I was raised in the Corps, but I've never seen that much difference in those who come into their abilities later."

Lyta replied, "I was ten years old when my powers became strong enough to be suspected, and it was another year before I was sent to the regional school, then on to the Academy once I'd finished the basic training."

"How do you like it?" Talia asked curiously.

"It's all right." Lyta's tone clearly indicated her discomfort. She knew Talia had been Corps-raised, and probably didn't know anyone who'd lived among normals as long at Lyta had.

Talia politely left it at that, and Lyta continued unpacking. It was a full three month internship, and she hadn't been sure what to bring. In between organizing her things, she answered Talia's friendly questions. Lyta felt surprisingly at her ease with the popular woman. Talia obviously loved the Academy. She didn't share much personal information, and she didn't quiz Lyta either, or try even a rudimentary scan. There were hints that Talia had left someone behind at the Academy; a man in whom she felt a romantic interest. Lyta wondered a bit at that. Everyone in the Corps understood that CAP, the Corps Alliances Program, arranged any marriages. CAP officials determined the best possible combinations of psi talent, and set up the matings in the best interest of the Corps. Casual liaisons were allowed, but not encouraged. Lyta had recorded her preference to opt out of the breeding program, and she was low enough level she might be allowed to. Perhaps Talia and this man had done the same.

By the end of the evening, Lyta was sitting on the other bed, laughing at Talia's uncanny impressions of some of the more stiff and formal instructors they had shared. They'd gotten into the mini-bar, and were distinctly giggly. Talia had opened up the curtains, and the lights of the city were bright and their blurred reflections shone in the dark lake below them. They talked late into the night, but finally had to turn out the lights and try to sleep. Their orientation started early in the morning, and they had to catch a shuttle to the main building, and then get breakfast after that. As Lyta lay in the unfamiliar bed, her eyes slowly adjusting to the dark, she glanced over at her new friend. Talia's hair gleamed in the dim room, like molten moonlight spilling over the pillow. Her soft breathing and quiet mind indicated she was already asleep. Lyta smiled to herself. Suddenly it seemed like it wouldn't be such a bad summer after all.

*****************************

Lyta was shocked out of her vivid remembrance by the realization that another telepath was approaching the cafe. There was a mental signature that was distinctly recognizable, a combination of the slight buzz one felt from a block, and the dialed-down scan that served as a friendly 'heads-up' to other teeps in the vicinity. It was like a tune being hummed so softly you couldn't quite catch the melody, but you were aware of it all the same. The rebels on Mars had been worried that the sleeper's contact might be on the station already, since they were aware that the information had leaked out about the program. The contact might be there to activate the sleeper, to protect them, or to whisk them away if Lyta managed to unmask them. That way they could salvage what information they could even if the activation was premature. She had to be careful; she needed to know who was coming.

She put out a cautious, low level scan, hoping to remain undetected amid the buzz of an ever increasing number of patrons at the restaurant. There was no one she could see as she turned slowly around, extending her line of sight. Then she saw her. It was Talia, coming into the restaurant with two men. Lyta shrank back and watched as Talia sat down with the two of them, and settled to business. It was obviously business. Lyta could feel the low hum that indicated a scan, and rapidly put her blocks back up, and high. Talia would be sure to sense her if she left even a chink of her mind open. She watched in fascination as the two men took turns conversing, then looking to Talia for confirmation or denial. She would merely nod, or shake her head. It didn't take long, and the two men shook hands with her, and rose from the table, leaving to go their separate ways.

Talia sat quietly, obviously recovering from the effort of the scans, and Lyta wondered what she should do. She longed to go over and say hello, but revealing herself, even to an old acquaintance, could jeopardize her mission. Hell, she thought. She couldn't be honest with herself, even at this late date. Talia had been a lot more than an acquaintance. At least for a little while, she'd been everything.

******************************

The first week had flown by, and the organized activities of the weekend were upon them. After a quick glance at the schedule, which included hoverbus tours of the city and educational trips to museums and the like, Talia had touched Lyta lightly on the arm, and pulled her out of the waiting line for the 'bus. "Let's go off by ourselves. There's no rule against it. I want to get away from the crowds, maybe go to a park, look at the lake."

"Aren't we scheduled for that in two weeks?" asked Lyta anxiously. She'd never been to the European Federation before, and wasn't sure what to expect from the normal population. She'd planned to stick close to the other interns.

"Sure, but I'm tired of these people. There's a restricted access nature area, just north of Corps headquarters, reserved for teeps. We can take a cab; I've got some credits." Talia smiled, and Lyta's heart lifted a little. She didn't want to admit it, but the fact that Talia had picked her to go off with, alone, left her a little breathless. She nodded rather than speaking, and Talia grinned back. They melted away from the crowd, found a cab stand, and were soon on their way.

********************

Lyta could still remember that afternoon in excruciating detail. The park was long and narrow; mostly it consisted of a rock-strewn path along the water, but it was private and beautiful. The water was a deep blue where the sun hit it, but black in the shadows near the shore. They ran into a few other teeps on the paths, but other than the expected 'flick' of mental greeting, they didn't interact with anyone besides each other. At some point, Talia had slipped her bare hand into Lyta's as they walked along, first admiring the view, then talking softly. Finally, without planning to, Lyta let her mental boundaries drop, and felt the first gentle touch of Talia's mind on her own. She started at the contact, briefly panicked that Talia was now undoubtedly aware of her intense physical and emotional reactions. Then, as Talia lowered her own barriers, Lyta felt her friend's arousal in turn, and a connection was forged that rapidly opened and widened. Blushing wildly as Talia projected images of what she would like to be doing, Lyta almost dropped the other woman's hand, almost broke the link between them. Almost.

************************************

And now here they were, within twenty feet of one another, after all these years. Lyta watched as Talia walked towards her, then stopped at a public comstation just a few feet away. Knowing she would feel it if Talia caught sight or sense of her, Lyta remained still, her blocks up, but unable to stop herself watching, and listening.

Talia punched in a nine-digit code, then followed it with four more numbers. A private extension, Lyta thought. When the call was answered, Lyta caught a sideways glimpse of the screen, and was surprised to see that it was Commander Ivanova, the second in command under Captain Sheridan, and one of the likelier suspects to be the sleeper agent. She strained to overhear the conversation; thinking perhaps the Commander was going to ask Talia about her. The conversation was casual, but the underlying smoky, sultry tone in Talia's voice made her interest in the Commander clear. Lyta found herself blushing as memories flooded her mind, and her embarrassment contributed to her building resentment. Teeps and normals didn't mix, not romantically. But Talia had never played by the rules; no one had really expected her to. She was special, and allowances were always made for special people.

The conversation was brief, but Lyta was left with no doubt in her mind that Talia and Ivanova were more than friends, and likely lovers. Talia's happy and satisfied smile and her promise to catch up with 'Susan' later were evidence enough for her. Lyta told herself it was just as well she hadn't contacted Talia; it would have been awkward for them both. Then she shook her head; no, it wouldn't. It would have been awkward for Lyta, but not for Talia. She couldn't understand Talia's involvement with a normal. Casual encounters aside, it was still rare for a telepath to get romantically involved with a non-telepath. The depth of contact, the mental intimacy, just wasn't possible. Then again, maybe there weren't a lot of telepaths on the station. In any case, it was no longer any of her business...if it ever really had been.

Talia left the cafe and Lyta stared after her a moment, then caught a glimpse of the time on the chronometer above the cafe counter. She left her cup and stood to go, hesitating a moment to make sure Talia had gone far enough ahead to be both out of sight, and out of mind. Moving swiftly through the crowds, she made it to the shop where she was to meet Delenn. The Minbari ambassador arrived right on time, and Lyta gestured her over behind a display where they could talk. It only took a few minutes to tell her what was needed. She arranged to contact Delenn at regular intervals until a meeting was arranged. Then Lyta left, trying to keep moving, to keep going on, even though it seemed she had nowhere left to go.

*************************

A short while later Lyta found herself back in the Captain's office. He had agreed to the tests, and she began the grueling task of unearthing the spy in their midst. She found herself observing Commander Ivanova when she could, wondering why the woman seemed so tense, wishing she could afford a subtle probe to see what was going on in her head. If she was involved with Talia, how could she be so hostile to telepaths?

When they finally got to the end of the likely, the not-so-likely, and the increasingly unlikely ranks of officers and enlisted personnel, she found herself staring at Ivanova even more intently. There was something going on she didn't understand. When the Commander finally agreed to receive the mental password, she flicked it at her mind, only to encounter a firm and unbelievably strong block. Rocked for a moment, she concentrated and broke through, causing the woman some unavoidable pain, and as a side effect, getting the flashback of psi energy that let her know she was in a latent teep's mind. It was just a flicker, but it was unmistakable. "I'm sorry," she said with sincerity, both for the pain and the revelation, wishing she could assure the Commander that her secret was safe. She had no loyalty left for the Corps, and even if she had, she would never betray a friend of Talia's.

Then the unthinkable happened; the worst thing in the world, the very last thing she'd expected. Talia walked into the room, seemingly oblivious to the tension. Lyta turned without thinking, and flicked the password at her old lover. She felt the key turn in the lock; and watched, appalled, as Talia's mind snapped into another configuration. She was still hearing faint mental echoes from Ivanova, and so she was painfully aware of the Commander's shock and anguish. Futilely trying to hang onto Talia's consciousness, she felt that bright spirit slip away, to disappear under the acid blackness of the programmed personality. Hope died, and guilt flooded through her, washing away one of the few dreams she had left.

The next few minutes were a blur of activity as Captain Sheridan and Mr. Garibaldi subdued what had been Talia. Lyta reached out to Susan mentally, but her blocks were up again, hard and unyielding; there was no help or sympathy there. She watched as Talia spit out her threats, knowing that they were sincere, and that she would have to run again, never return to Mars, leave the station, and go...elsewhere. Maybe she'd make one last try to get to the Vorlons. At least that was something that was still hers; her memory of Kosh, and what he was. She clung to that knowledge, that special bond between them. Her grief was threatening to overwhelm her, and she cut it off, trapping it inside her mind for examination later. Later, she would think about what she had done, what the Corps had forced her to do, to one of the few people she'd ever truly loved. As Talia was removed from the room, still snarling in rage, she swallowed her tears, and sent a final message to the mind that was gone forever, the mind that she would never touch again outside of memory: 'I'm so sorry, Talia. Good-bye. Good-bye, my golden girl.'