[identity profile] ice-tealc.livejournal.com posting in [community profile] remix_redux
Title: Frame of Mind (The Eye of the Storm Remix)
Author: [livejournal.com profile] kangeiko
Summary: After a dig at Syria Planum goes awry, IPX dispatches a team from its New Technologies division to investigate.
Fandom: Babylon 5
Characters: Mr Morden, Mary Kirkish, Anna Sheridan.
Rating: PG-13 for swearing and sexual situations.
Disclaimer: I don't own them.
Original story: Before Any Coming Storms by [livejournal.com profile] aris_writing.
A/N: This monster was betaed by a great many people, all of whom worked very hard to fix my mistakes. For this, I am very grateful indeed, and if any snaphus sneaked in there anyway, it's entirely my own fault.

***


Part 1

Part 2





VII.




He was put through to a blank-faced psi cop over at the Psi Corps HQ inside the main dome; his request to be put through to the facility near base camp met with silence. Well, fair enough, it was supposed to be secret after all. Although, given how 'secret' such secrets remained in an enclosed community such as base camp - in other words, not at all - he thought that there was little point in giving him this run-around. In any case, the psi cop was as uncooperative as the four other reps he'd been put through to previously.

"I'm afraid that we're going to have to deny your request, Mr Morden," she said. If she'd had even a flicker of a reaction in her eyes she would have been quite attractive; as it was she reminded Morden of one of those beautiful little snakes found on Earth. They were so exquisitely formed, with such astoundingly beautiful jewel-like colours - and they were also some of the most poisonous creatures Earth had ever produced.

He shifted tactics, moving from 'charming' to 'logical'. "Look, Ms Kelsey, I understand you're worried about your people being affected by the ship. But I'm not asking for long-term contact, or to have a telepath touch it. I'm simply asking for someone low-level - a P3, perhaps - who could establish a line of base-level communication. Surely looking at it couldn't do any harm."

Kelsey frowned. "Looking at something can do a great deal of harm to a telepath, Mr Morden. I am afraid that it is not Psi Corps policy to endanger our people for your convenience. We are in favour of shutting down this entire project, for health and safety reasons, and see no reason to increase its scope at our expense. Good day." And, with that, she cut the circuit.

Damn! He braced his fists against the comm. console and scowled. Goddamn it. He couldn't even bring himself to be truly angry. Sure, he'd been furious at the first refusal, and had insisted that Aspen try again - and again - and again. Eventually, even Aspen's famed patience failed him, and he'd snapped that if Morden wanted to bother the Corps so badly, he should do it himself. So that was just what Morden did: every day for the past two weeks. He'd put everything else on hold, slotting his personal life on the 'backlog' pile for catching up on when he had a moment. It was crap, and happening more often than was probably healthy, but there was little he could do about it. Dealing with Psi Corps, it quickly became evident, was hard. For the first week and a half, he had not been put through to anyone. Evidently, you had to work to be granted access to anyone of any stature within the Corps; either that, or the receptionist had finally been worn down by his persistence. Whatever works. At any rate, his efforts had not managed to accomplish much in the way of cooperation; indeed, he was a little worried that he'd managed to sic Psi Corps's entire senior division on his case. He stretched, popping joints. Well, not much he could do about it now.

He closed down the secure terminal, and took the stairs down. He'd had to trek into the main research lab inside the dome, because evidently the base camp comm. systems wouldn't let him call Psi Corps headquarters. Either that or - more likely - Psi Corps wouldn't accept calls outside of the pre-secured terminals inside the domes and Earth-side. At any rate, he was inside the dome, which was helpful in terms of his journey home, as it was already past 10 pm. Come to think of it, that was possibly partly why Ms Kelsey had seemed so thoroughly pissed off. Still, he hadn't been about to waste valuable time travelling to and from base camp and the dome, so all the admin had to be pushed until the evening. Denni had been complaining that he'd been skipping meals and heading out earlier and earlier each morning, but what was he supposed to do? Work was stalling and that was simply unacceptable.

He made it home in good time, but Denni was already in bed and out like a light, by the looks of it. There were a host of missed messages from her on his phone, but he hadn't had a chance to check them - well, everything looked fine, so it couldn't have been that important. He stripped off his clothing and crawled under the covers naked, shivering at the cool blast of air, and found himself too wired up to drift off. He contemplated taking a pill, but decided against it. He'd had a couple of the REM-less pills for two nights running, his dreams growing downright worrisome over his concern for the dig, and he doubted that another night of dreamlessness would help: he'd just be putting off the inevitable. Instead, he counted sheep.

*

He wasn't aware of when he drifted off, only that the sheep were an odd colour. Well, it was night time, so perhaps it was only natural that their wool should be dark, like little puffs of blackened cloud against the soft glow of the stars. I'm dreaming, he thought, startled when something touched him. He turned - where was he? A field of some kind, with the twisted corpses of trees, and birds pecking listlessly at the ground - searching, searching. It was cold - was there a wind? - and there was no one behind him; no one at all, plucking at his sleeve.

Hello, said No One, and He wore his face like a mask. His eyes were black, through irises and 'whites', more holes than human eyes of any sort.

Who are you? he asked.

No One touched his hand; his arm. No One's fingers touched his chest; the black stone hummed in satisfaction. I'm No One, he said, smiling. Aren't you? His touch dipped lower.

*

He woke, furious and terrified and trembling, fluid across his thighs. He wiped himself off with his nightclothes as best he could, and threw them into the laundry hamper. God, he thought, shaking. My good God.

He took a REM-less pill; swallowed it dry.

*

Six a.m.: back on Earth, the birds would have been singing for hours. He rolled out of bed and headed for the shower, careful not to wake the sleeping Denni. He had spent half the night in blissfully dreamless sleep; in the cold, hard light of day, even the first half looked a lot better. It's perfectly natural, he decided as he started up the sonics. Just variation on an anxiety dream. There's probably a stack of texts I could access that would be more than happy to tell me that I have a fear of abandonment and poor performance appraisals. He stepped out; took his time selecting clothes. He had a meeting with Aspen - something to do with the Councillors, he'd been told - so he should probably skip the jumpsuit. But - black slacks and a blue sweater - yes, that would do nicely.

Soft snuffling noises from the next room told him that Sarah was probably awake. He felt a brief stab of guilt - he hadn't really been around as much as he would have liked to. True, the project was all-consuming and he had always had a tendency to throw himself into his work, but he'd managed to see her a little more back when she'd been an infant and he'd been transcribing Ikaaran glyphs all night. Here, he had all the staff he could want - except that he didn't want any - and things were moving on his schedule. No reason not to make more of an effort, he thought, and tried to rid himself of the feeling that he was forgetting something important. Denni had been wired as hell lately; maybe she had a new project starting and it was rubbing off? Except that he couldn't remember her last project finishing… Well, hell. He tiptoed into the nursery and plucked the still-dozing child from her crib. "Hey, you," he murmured into the soft hair, inhaling baby-scent: talc and sweetness. "How about a kiss for Daddy?"

She snuffled a little. "Go 'way, sleeping," and she reached out for her teddy bear. OK, then. Possibly a little too early - well, he couldn't do much about it. "I'll see you later, honey. Daddy loves you."

He carefully put her back down, and got the rest of his stuff together. He had an early meeting to get to.

It wasn't until he stopped in to the kitchen for a bite to eat on his way to work that he saw the slice of cake pinning the note on the counter. A burnt-out candle was sticking out of bright pink "3!" scrawled on the icing.

*

Things progressed as expected for a few weeks, and mainly consisted of him waiting for the other shoe to drop. Denni hadn't precisely forgiven him for missing Sarah's birthday, but her overt hostility had cooled into a frosty silence. Sarah forgot a little quicker, but she'd reached a point of such high energy that he was tired just looking at her, and he guiltily found himself preferring Denni's silence. At least with that, he could get some work done. He'd stuck his neck out, possibly for the first time in his life, and he had Holtz's backing – and, as predicted, the rest of the councillors had fallen in line – and now he had explosives, and diggers – oh, and Psi Corps, breathing down his neck. Aspen had promised him that NewTech would pass up the problem, but, truth be told, he wasn't that sure about IPX's ability to handle the Corps. Mainline military, maybe, but a fringe division – as near to civilian status as jazz, basically – was unlikely to hold much sway. And, say what you like about the prissy little assholes, but Psi Corps had stacked their political deck to make any civilian opposition to them highly inadvisable.

Morden's little nudges to getting the use of a low-level teep had also not been particularly appreciated.

What else was I supposed to do? He thought irritably. There was no way on God's green Earth – or His red Mars, come to that – that he was just going to sit there and quietly go insane. Aspen had dangled that script in front of him, and he wasn't going to let it slip through his fingers. Besides, he thought, the bastard owed him. He'd worked himself into the ground for the Ikaaran analysis, and it had been snatched away and classified the moment he thought he was getting somewhere. This was even more fascinating, and his obsessive tendencies were coming front and centre in response. If I was a pacing man, I'd have worn a groove into the hotel floor. He grimaced. None of the usual tricks of calming himself down and diluting his focus had worked. It didn't help that he was cooped up inside - even when outside the hotel, because one dome-space was much like another - and the only place where he felt like he was under a bare sky was in an EVA suit back at the dig.

In any case, Psi Corps had been rather restrained thus far, only sending a rep to have a looking at base camp's seismic wave projections and tut in an appropriately worried manner. Still. All this restraint meant was that the team was left high and dry, with Morden waiting for the inevitable call to let him know that the place had been stormed by the bloodhounds.

That call – or one near enough - finally came in the middle of the night, and consisted of Kirkish spitting nails. Staggering out of bed, he blearily scrubbed a hand across his face and turned on two-way visual. Judging by the background, she was at base camp, and she was not happy.

"Mary, calm down. What's happening?"

"Fragging Psi Corps, is what!" She shrieked, hysterical. "They sent a squad over here an hour ago, said the digging was setting off seismic disturbances, the domes were being compromised – they started shutting everything down – all the drivers and planners are packing up and disappearing – they're stopping everything and Aspen won't answer his fragging phone!" Which explained why she'd called him, in any case. Kirkish was higher up in NewTech, with more resources and influence, and she was stuck just standing there, while base camp was disintegrating.

"What can I do?" He asked helplessly.

She hissed sharply and bit her lower lip. When she spoke again, she was back under control. "Nothing. There's nothing you can do – I know that, I wasn't asking – I just needed to scream at someone."

Someone who wasn't a psi cop, at any rate. Morden understood that well enough. "Well, give me an hour – I'll get out of here and track Aspen down. He might be able to do something."

She nodded tightly. "I'll stay here. Call in when you find him, all right?"

"Will do." He signed off. And sat there, thinking. Well, this is it. Nice while it lasted. Aspen, first, and then the inevitable helplessness, and everything being taken away – by the military, by Psi Corps, it didn't matter – and then – then –then I'll never see the ship again.

His stomach rebelled; he barely made it to the bathroom in time.

*

Aspen looked as harried as Morden felt. His bushy hair had thinned a little, or otherwise it was greasy; at any rate, it was now flat against his head, ill advised combing keeping it in place. The beard was as luxurious as ever, but beginning to go grey. Prematurely so: Aspen was not immune to the pressures of the project, it appeared. Although it was possible that it was Mars itself that was aging them both so early: the gravity playing havoc with the body's understanding of time. Morden knew that it was a ludicrous thought, that a few months planet-side could not have such extreme effects and not be documented anywhere. Still, the symptoms persisted, in all those on the team: himself, Kirkish, her techs, Aspen - even the guards looked tired! The only person around him who didn't look like she'd acquired a few spare years down the back of the sofa was Denni, and she had one of those faces that only reluctantly aged. She'd probably still look fantastic at sixty, all chiselled cheekbones and glowing chocolate skin. Even dark circles didn't show under her eyes; Morden felt like he was walking around with two black eyes by comparison.

"Morden. I'd help if I could, but as I've already told Kirkish, there simply isn't anything I can do. I've already called Holtz, and he's stalling them for as long as possible. Beyond that -" he spread his hands.

Perfect, Morden thought, disgusted. I promise Holtz that I'll deal with psi corps, then dump them back in his lap. That's going to make me really popular… Well, nothing he could do about it now. Fed up with the whole thing, he thanked Aspen perfunctorily and left.

Outside, he took a deep breath. He'd stopped by the dig on his way over - a little out of his way, admittedly - but he'd needed to calm down. No point in losing his temper. He bought a snack from a street vendor and sat on the brick steps, eating slowly. He thought about phoning Denni; rejected the idea. He didn't feel like the extra hassle right now, and she'd probably be busy at work anyway. And, anyway, he'd already waste enough precious time with all of this bureaucracy. Holtz could stop Psi Corps, or not, and there wasn't a great deal he could do to influence the outcome. He might as well head back to the dig and get back down to the ship. Who knew how much time he'd be allowed with it?


*

He likes to think of himself as being good at his job, but knows the limitations of even the most proficient portfolio of experience in this arena. It's not a question of intelligence but of time: the human lifespan is ultimately inadequate to the task of studying something like this. There exist only a finite amount of words for the mind, despite its infinite complexity. Morden has studied languages for his entire life, and only knows of less than five hundred in all the dead and living languages still known. He views it as a manifestation of himself, because it is the only thing he knows to do; the physical expression of an internal need. He is that which is him - who and undivided - a multitude of selves surging forwards. He-who-is can feel the shape of that-which-might-have-been, all smooth skin and tightly reined power and - something else, bottled up in tiny shards and fragments underfoot.

He started spending more time underground a few weeks previously; partly as a result of the impending Corps intervention, and partly because - well, he wasn't sure why. It didn't matter anyway, because everyone was doing the same: techs and researchers everywhere, the entire place crawling with activity. Morden, however, was decidedly not active. He'd been at the underground chamber every day now, sitting. He isn't sure what he should be writing down, if anything - he has already recorded all that he has seen and heard, and all that he can extrapolate from this scant knowledge. All that is left is to sit by the ship, and will it to answer.

(Going crazy? There is quite a bit of evidence to suggest that he's already lost.)

Talk to me, he tried to project, his mind clumsy in its desperation and inexperience. He wished, now, that he had thought to ask one of the psi cops to stay; to maybe help. But what if they'd said no?

(What if they'd taken over?)

I know you. I dream about you. Talk to me… He could feel the cold seep in through the scarce covering of the EVA suit, but thought, rather, that it came from the ship itself; the coldest thing there. How much time did he have left? How long would he be allowed to sit here and will a response from something thousands of years dead and forgotten; something so alien that his mind could not accept it as alive, but screamed at him, run! He has sealed his terror of it as tightly as he could, putting it behind a closed door with no lock, nor key, nor seams to be prised open. It is sealed with whispered prayers and fury and hidden secrets and he thinks that not even the steel traps of a psi cop's mind could wrench it open.

Talk to me. The ship - silent, sleeping - did not answer. He raised a hand, a scant distance away from its skin, watching the colours change and pulse; mottled, mainly black.

*

"Did you look at the new sitters' resumes?"

"What?" He wasn't certain, but maybe non-human telepaths were the answer. Psi Corps weren't cooperating, but couldn't IPX hire a Centauri? Wouldn't that work? Or would the security considerations -

"I said, did you look at the child-minders' resumes?"

Denni stuck her hand in front of his face; startled, he jerked back and blinked. "I forgot."

"You forgot," she repeated flatly.

"Look, things have been busy, all right?" He picked up the excavation schedules, chewing over the extra cost and the security implications of bringing in an off-worlder.

"No, don't strain yourself on our account," Denni muttered. "I'll do it; I lead a life of leisure, after all."

"It's not that important, is it?" He asked vaguely, not really listening for an answer. Well, firstly, he'd have to speak to Aspen… "IPX can vet them all." He got up, wandering out of the kitchenette and back to the office area, still thinking. Kirkish, for all her enthusiasm, might have a problem with it, but the issue would be security. IPX would have a fit.

Someone set a sandwich in front of him with a loud clatter; he ate it without looking up. Eventually, the person talking above him - to him? - went away.

*



VIII.



The way Aspen had set up the dig was so that the uncovered portion of the ship was right at the base, almost beneath it, as they'd blasted away the rock all the way down, and then tunnelled across. It had let the prelim team run scans all the way through – or try to run them, at least, even though nothing showed up other than the overwhelming impression of thereness, as though the ship was somehow more present than the rest of the universe. It was a good position, sheltered and with easy to control access to the site; it was also structurally sound, being as it was bounded through the rockface.

Eight months into the dig, it was also quite possibly the reason that the first blast from above didn't incinerate Morden where he stood.

He'd spent several weeks belowground - enough to make Aspen hint that not filling in his paperwork because of 'research' was not acceptable - watching, slowly, as the ship was freed piece by piece. Talk to me, he'd 'say', and think himself mad, and do it anyway. He set up a cot at base camp so he could squeeze out every last second of contact with the ship and cut down on travel, and then ignored it, choosing to sleep on the catwalk. Talk to me, he 'said', every day, and closed his eyes against the silence.

When the rumbling response finally came, as he had expected it to, as he had patiently waited for it, the sudden physical shock threw him forwards, almost catapulting him over the scaffolding barrier. He caught himself against the skin of the ship, hissing at the contact – sharp as acid – even though his protective gear. He had not touched the ship, yet. He had kept that small amount of sanity.

// ? //

It split Morden's shields wide open, stem to stern, pushing something slick and cold into his lifeblood. Oh God, he thought, fighting against the nausea that suddenly assailed him. Oh sweet Jesus. I didn't think that. His mouth flooded with bile and panic struck him, both within and without. His vision blurred and his knees buckled; he pitched forward, grabbing the railing and praying that he wouldn't throw up in his helmet, that air would come soon. His throat was opening and closing painfully, but his lungs somehow couldn't be convinced to work. He pawed at his throat, at his chest; the chain around his neck was red hot, fire against the thin fabric of his clothing. His mouth hung open, eyes glassy. I'm gonna die, he thought, and it was the only clear thing in his head. He forced himself to focus, to figure out where he was; where the pain was coming from. I'm gonna die, and his hand was still braced against the skin of the ship.

Pain spiralled out from the black fragments resting against him, at his hand and at his chest, sharp as any knife. // ? // the ship said, and pushed against him, licking at the edge of his mind.

His eyes rolled up in his head.

*

"Morden! Oh my God, Morden, wake up!"

Someone was shaking him, smacking his side. Shouting, too. "Whuh-," he grimaced, coughed, and tried again. "What's going on?" His throat felt like sandpaper. He tried opening his eyes, and found that he couldn't quite focus. Mary Kirkish's pale face swam into view, framed by the bright halo of her lit spacesuit helmet. "What happened?"

"Are you hurt?" She grabbed his arm without waiting for an answer and pulled him to his feet. He was still disoriented enough to be surprised by this, until it registered that he was on Mars, and all the physical laws were slightly askew. "Is your helmet damaged?"

"What's going on?" He patted himself down, checking the gauges on the side of his suit. Everything looked okay but, then, there still appeared to be three of her. "I'm fine. What happened?"

"I've no idea." She wouldn't look at him. "I found you face-down on the scaffolding. I thought you'd been hurt in the blasts."

Blasts? "Is someone attacking us?" The Minbari, his harried brain thought instantly. Visions of the smelted plastics of the Proxima domes swam in front of his eyes. He coughed and tried to take a deep breath. "What – who's attacking?"

"No one – not deliberately, anyway." She was still pulling him along the walkway, towards the exit.

Not deliberately. But the place was still being shaken to smithereens, with the metal scaffolding swaying with each tremor, like a wounded animal. Oh God - he thought, and stopped in his tracks. It's trying to free itself. "Wait – Mary – I think I know what –"

She wasn't listening, but was simply dragging him along.

"Mary! I think it's the ship. I think – that's what causing the tremors."

She stopped at that, finally, and looked at him, blank-faced. They stood there, the metal catwalk shuddering and groaning around them. When she spoke, Mary's voice was too low for fury. "What. Did. You. Do?"

Nothing, he wanted to say, but his tongue was suddenly thick in his mouth. He couldn't speak; worse, the very concept of speech was suddenly foreign to him. Who communicated like that anymore? Certainly he couldn't talk to her about the ship; there were no words for what it had felt like to lean into it, to hear it in his mind. He stared at her, mouth moving over aborted speech. Words that were not words filled his vision, black-on-black bleeding into him, cold as ice in his veins. I'm not afraid, he wanted to say, you don't frighten me, I want this, but the thoughts faded before they had even formed, and there was nothing in their place but the yawning maw of empty space. He may have made a sound, or maybe not; his limbs might have jerked, spasming and twisting as the first sliver of pain hit, but he did not notice. Someone was holding on to him, keeping him from falling, and it didn't matter because where else was there to fall? They were already here; there was no place deeper.

// I know you, // came from within, in his own 'voice', skinned and worn across something older and more alive than anything he could comprehend. His legs folded, toppling him unceremoniously to the ground.

He might have been screaming.

*

He came to outside, his arm stretched across Kirkish's lap as she checked the gauges on his suit for life-signs. She felt him stir and wrapped an arm around him, helping him sit up.

"What the hell's going on?" He asked, somewhat plaintively, coughing through the grittiness in his throat. His filter had taken a battering, worse even than the customary Martian sandstorms.

She said nothing. The hard look had faded from her eyes – or had he imagined it in the first place? – and she just looked tired, now. Her blonde hair had slipped out from under the skinny cap, and it crowded her helmet like seawater.

"Mary? What's going on?"

She was silent for another long moment, calculating. Then, "you touched it, didn't you?"

It retrospect, it was disturbing how easily the lie came to him, sweet as milk and butter on his tongue. He didn't have to call it, or to try; it simply flowed through him, tumbling out of his lips. "Touched what?" He asked. His eyes were very wide; the picture of wounded innocence.

She looked away. "It doesn't matter." She nodded to the scene behind them. "It's all over now, anyway."

What was? Moving gingerly, he twisted in place, careful not to snag the EVA suit on any sharp rocks.

Behind them, the sky was on fire.

Fright flashes of light filled the sky, as far as the eye could see, illuminating the raised pockets of ignited dust to form brilliant clouds. Martian weather, he thought hysterically. All fire and brimstone - and, above it all, the war god looking down … He knew what he would see when he looked up; did it anyway. Above them, a black ship blotted out the sun, casting long shadows across the plumes of destruction in razor-sharp relief.

"It came a little while ago," Mary said quietly. She sounded as though she had been crying. "To free the other ship." Her breath hitched. "It sang to it."

I know, Morden thought, I felt it wake. I felt it sing. He said nothing.

They sat there, watching.

*



IX.


A flier came for them a few hours later; Aspen had sent teams out to comb for any survivors. Eventually, Kirkish muttered vengefully. Aspen had eventually sent teams out. Morden wasn't much concerned with the precise timing of the rescue, given that there still appeared to be three of everything. One of the rescuers had basic med training, and demanded that he be taken to the nearest hospital; Morden wouldn't hear of it. "I've got to get back to base camp, to see what's happening."

"And bleed all over the furniture, most likely," Kirkish snapped.

He glared balefully. "I'm not just going to sit here while god knows what is happening at back there!"

"Oh, right, but bleeding in your brain is both proactive and enthusiastic, I see." She shoved him back in his seat when he attempted to stand. "Don't be a fool, Morden. Get to a hospital. You can go mourn over base camp later."

He was trying to struggle free, or to catch the pilot's attention. The pilot ignored him, too busy navigating the complex dome barriers at top speed, presumably bound for the Syria Planum hospital. "And while I'm trussed up like a turkey, where the hell are you going to be?"

She smiled thinly. "I'm going to be at the main lab, of course. If I'm lucky, maybe I can get there before Psi Corps clears the place out."

*

The doctors pronounced him fine, if a little concussed. He was told to avoid falling on his head for the foreseeable future, and they sprayed something at him that ostensibly helped with these directives. One of the doctors - an older man with a receding hairline - waved a light at his eyes for a little bit and tutted, and told him to lay off the sleep meds for a bit. "A young man like you shouldn't need chemical enhancements," he pronounced with the air of a man who has lived a long and boring life through good food and no fun whatsoever. "Do some exercise; that'll tire you out plenty."

Not for the first time in his life, Morden wished a pox upon doctors who felt that exercise was the cure to all his problems, including sleeplessness and a flagging sex drive. "Thank you, I'll bear that in mind," he said through a wide smile, and waited, face frozen in that expression, while the doctor tutted some more and discharged him. Outside the hospital he found that he'd have to flag down a cab home, because the rescue team hadn't waited for him after dropping him off. Well, that made sense - they might still be needed out there. After debating a little, he opted to hire a flier for the rest of the day. He wasn't paranoid, he told himself. He just wanted to check on base camp.

Although… he chewed on his bottom lip and decided that he should probably swing by the hotel briefly to check on Denni and Sarah. It was unlikely that anything had happened, of course, but it was always good to be sure.

He opened the door to a woman's voice. "What do you mean, you can't contact him? This is an emergency!"

"What's an emergency?" he asked, bewildered.

Denni turned around so fast she almost toppled off her chair. "Morden!" Then, to the comm. link, "never mind!"

And, for the second time that day, he found himself on the ground with a woman atop him. He almost shoved her away reflexively, startled; there had been a fraction of a second where he hadn't recognised her. "This isn't allowed to happen again," he told the top of Denni's head gravely. "The doctors said so." He pushed her away gently. Had she changed her shampoo, her soap? She smelled different: unfamiliar, somehow.

"Doctors? Are you all right?" She let go of him and scooted back along his torso, ending up straddling his knees. "We saw the explosions - they were covered on the MarsNet - but no one would tell us what was happening, and I couldn't get through to you! Are you all right?"

Briefly, he told her - about the ship, about its rescue, and about the loss of the dig. Denni's mouth was open in a round 'O' of horror. "Was anyone hurt?"

He shrugged. He hadn't thought to ask. He pushed her off him gently, and stood. "Anyway. I just wanted to make sure that you and Sarah were okay before heading back to base camp. I want to make sure that the infrastructure laid down hasn't been damaged - we should still be able to recover most of the -"

The slap, when it came, was completely unexpected and left his ears ringing. He shook his head, bewildered. "Ow," he said, more shocked than hurt. "You slapped me. You're not supposed to slap me. I'm concussed."

"Oh," Denni said, and her face was thunderous. "I'm going to do more than slap you. I'm thinking of killing you, stuffing your corpse with your notes, and then setting fire to you atop the dome; do you have any idea how worried I've been? How petrified that I'd look on MarsNet and see your charred corpse amidst the ruins - or that Aspen would call with his condolences? This wasn't a minor quake, Morden, it was a big fragging explosion -"

"Vaporisation," he corrected automatically.

Denni's mouth closed with an audible snap. She folded her arms; unfolded them; walked to the other side of the room; walked back. Her body was wound tight, anger and frustration screaming from every pore. Slowly, it ebbed away until she was standing spent; her shoulders slumped. There wasn't any of the fire that characterised their fights from years ago, nor the ice that signalled he'd forgotten something important. She just sounded tired. Defeated. "Right. Of course. Go, then. Go check on your precious data. I'm going to go to work - you know, because I spent most of today trying to locate your mortal remains. The next time, I'll know not to bother."

"Denni -"

"Just go, Morden." Her voice was very quiet. "I can't deal with this right now."

*

By the time he was halfway to base camp in his flier, the brief uncertainty over Denni had faded. She had her stuff to sort out, and he had his own crap to deal with; the ship, the ship was gone, and he didn't need to think about all the rest of this right now. Denni wouldn't do anything rash; she was a sensible woman. She could wait a little while longer. But the ship -

God. He'd go to base camp, get his notes and lock everything away, maybe use one of those high-security vaults that the local banks were always bragging about. He believed that Kirkish was genuinely frightened of Psi Corps, but his own fear was not directed at that quarter but, rather, backwards: back on Earth, where EarthGov might pull their funding at any point. No ship meant no project; no project meant no need to let the team members have access to the research. And he'd be damned if he'd let them send a mission out here to clean them out. He drove the flier faster than the speed limit permitted, even outside the domes, reaching base camp in record speed.

Except...

The plateau was the same. There were the twin hills, vying for their part of the skyline; the blasted remains of the dig; even the metal struts sticking out of the ground - the only remainders of the reinforced catwalk stretching hundreds of feet below.

And there, also, was an empty space where base camp used to be.

*

He drove back at ridiculous speeds, lighting up several speed cameras on his way over, careless of the various fines and warnings he would receive. When he arrived at the main lab, he found Kirkish sitting on the front steps. Her customary blue jumpsuit was stained and dusty, as if she had been in a fight, and her make-up was streaky. She looked up at him as he approached.

"Mary, I just got back from base camp - my God, it's all gone! What the hell happened?"

She laughed slowly, high-pitched and brittle. "Psi Corps happened, of course. Just like I knew they would." She spread her hands, still laughing, as if it was the funniest thing in the world. "They came and took it all. Base camp, the archive upstairs, even the admin stuff - it's all gone."

All the blood drained from his face. Not Psi Corps - he didn't believe that - but EarthGov couldn't have sent anyone here in time - oh God. He swayed. "But the hardcopy work – it's all here, it's –"

She shook her head.

*

He ran up seven flights of stairs, past the administrative offices to where the storage compartments were. He'd taken each and every piece of data he'd gathered and stored it here with all of his findings, hardcopy and in crystal format, and backed up twice for safety. Everything – everything! – was in this storage area, with armed guards at the door and retina scans and passwords and God-fragging-damn it!


*

By the time Denni got home that day, tired and sweaty from what had been an emotionally exhausting few hours, the entirety of her clothing – and Morden's – was strewn across their bed. "What're you doing?"

"Sarah's asleep," he said, and went back to packing.

"I'm being quiet. What are you doing?" She grabbed his shirt - not his arm, he noted; his shirt - stilling him. "Jesus. You've been acting insane for I don't know how long, and now this - talk to me!"

He let his breath out in one big gulp, like he couldn't hold it in his body any longer. "You win, Denni. All of it - my so-called 'obsession' - it's over. All of it. We're going back."

Her face went slack as her grip tightened, as if all the rage was being transferred down her arm and into him. "What are you talking about? First that performance this morning, now this - and after weeks of I don't know what, forgetting things and zoning out - are you still concussed?"

He smiled at this.

She let go as if she'd been burnt, and he finally looked at her. Whatever she saw in his face made her pale. "Christ, Morden," she said quietly. "What the hell happened to you?"

What could have happened? It was almost funny. He spread his hands wide; the jazz-hands of a car salesman. Ta da! And here's nothin' for ya! "There was nothing left."

This was somehow impossible to grasp. She frowned tremulously. He didn't blame her; he didn't really believe it himself. Any minute now, he'd be fielding a call from Aspen or Kirkish, laughing at the jape and waving holos of his face when he saw the empty room. You should have seen your expression! Man, are you gullible or what?

"I went in to base camp, and it was like it never existed. And - back at the main lab, and someone had been there too. They'd cleaned the place out, Den. They took everything - everything! All the back-ups, all the hardcopy, all the crystals, all the fragging computers. There wasn't anything left." Just dust, he remembered that – Martian dust, always getting into everything, and coating the computers and cabinets and people with a faint film. Probably from the ship itself, from that first mushroom cloud of Martian sand and dust rising hundreds of feet up in the air, so bright and so terrifying that the populace had threatened to riot.

"So you came back here and started packing."

"So I came back here and started packing," he agreed, and laughed.

Denni's hands fluttered a little, like startled birds, trying to find a way to soothe him without actually touching him. She'd been doing that for a while now, he thought, still holding the bundle of clothing in his hands, twisting it into rope. Their shifts hadn't aligned for a while, so they'd only been nominally sharing a bed, and what did they do in it other than the odd grope when Sarah was asleep? And when was the last time they'd done that, anyway? He couldn't remember. Before he lost the ship, certainly. Maybe even earlier; he'd spent that month at base camp, and before then it had been Psi Corps, and before then… When? How far back had they stopped sharing a space and simply passed each other like ships in the night? When had she stopped touching him? He didn't remember; he hadn't noticed when she'd stopped. Wouldn't a normal guy notice?

No, of course not. Not if he was busy. And he'd been busy. It wasn't make-work, it wasn't some stupid administrative task that could wait until the next day. Not if you couldn't sleep, anyway.

It's funny. He half-thought that maybe the dreams would stop when the ship went away. And maybe they would. Maybe it just hadn't been long enough yet; the wound still open and bleeding.

"I'm tired, Denni," he finally said. "I just want to get away from here."

The set of her jaw, the folded arms - everything - and she was glaring, too. He didn't need to look at her to know; he could feel the heat of it on his skin. Warmer than her actual touch would have been, maybe. He couldn't remember anymore. "I'm not going anywhere."

A quiet pitter-patter behind them, and he turned to catch a faint flicker of light from the other side of the room.

"Are we leaving?" Sarah stood in the doorway, letting the light from her room shine through and clutching at her jumpsuit in distress. Her voice held the shrillness of lost dollies and ailing pets.

"Go back to bed, sweetheart," Denni said quietly. She stood, casting one last furious glance in his direction, and took Sarah's hand in hers. "We'll talk about this in the morning, okay?"

"No!" Sarah's favourite word, perfected. "Talk now!"

Denni made soothing, shushing noises, and picked the child up, tucking her against one hip easily. Neither one of them looked back at Morden.

He set the clothes to one side. Dropped them, maybe; it didn't matter. Suddenly tired to his very core, he lay back down on the bed. In the next room, he heard Denni murmuring softly, and Sarah's insistent demands for information. Eventually, both voices petered off. He closed his eyes.

The quiet, dark hum of the voices rose again. I'm making it up, he thought drowsily. I don't have a clue how it would sound. Lies. He knew he wouldn't need to 'hear' it. He'd feel it, as he felt it now - deep in his bones, through flesh and muscle and snapping gristle, so deep the marrow ran thick with it, flooding his body until he couldn't breathe. No. He didn't know how it would sound. Oh God, let it fade, please - Just that sound didn't matter.

If Denni came back to their bed, he didn't wake to notice.


*

end part 3 of 4

*

Part 4

*

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