This story takes place immediately after "The Geometry of Shadows"
Michael Garibaldi smacked the console, swearing. "Lousy piece of space junk!" The rented space skiff stoically bore his abuse, despite its wheezing stall. In moments, it became clear that Mr. Garibaldi's voyage was going to include an unplanned stopover.
(c) Copyright 1997 by Erinyes. All Rights Reserved.
He had been orbiting Nowak, fifth planet from the sun in the Centauri home system, when he had decided to take a closer look at some of the geographical anomalies. According to the charts, most of the planet was covered with enormous volcanoes that spewed fiery gasses into the atmosphere, then split the planet's crust with canyons flowing with molten stone. Not that there was any recent evidence of these fireworks: Nowak had an atmosphere tainted with enough methane, ammonia and sulfur to have discouraged anyone from venturing to the surface in hundreds of years. From the look of things, Nowak held no appeal for any life form. Even the Centauri, although fiercely territorial, had consigned Nowak to the proverbial scrap heap.
Still, the little planet had seemed interesting enough to convince Garibaldi to ignore the warnings at the rental agency. The topographical readouts were consistent with the charts, including enormous mountain ranges, volcanic activity, and rivers of blazing stone. So a little sweep over the landscape had seemed an acceptable diversion. Until now.
This was one of his first trips outside Babylon 5 in years. He couldn't bring himself to call it a vacation--just an unplanned leg of a business trip. Part of his job as Head of Security on Babylon 5 was to deal with extraditing unwanted visitors. When members of the Centauri delegation discovered a sneak thief in their midst, Garibaldi would have normally assigned one of his staff to escort the miscreant to the nearest Centauri outpost and to dump him there unceremoniously.
The Centauri ambassador, however, had raised an enormous fuss. Londo Mollari could be a trial at the best of times, but with this particular bug up his crest, he was unbearable. It was particularly galling when the new commander of Babylon 5, John Sheridan, acquiesced to the Centauri. Worse, he had insisted that Garibaldi himself transport the prisoner, and maybe even "take a few days" on Centauri Prime.
Garibaldi, fuming, had fought the assignment. He had been laid up with an injury for weeks and he needed to get back into the swing of things. Moreover, he needed to take the measure of this new Captain. The gruffly cheerful soldier was a stranger to Garibaldi, and although Sheridan had made an effort to be friendly, Garibaldi's nature was suspicious. He needed time to determine if he could work with this man. No use. That pretty boy smile--just sets my teeth on edge. Jovially, the Captain had made his suggestion an order--softened by a hearty slap on the back, and an additional directive: "Have fun."
Garibaldi wondered if Sheridan had realized that the infuriating Centauri bureaucracy would take days to process the prisoner, and would not allow him to return to Babylon 5 until every nit was picked. Exasperated at the endless delays, and suffocating in the overcrowded capital city, Garibaldi had rented a short-distance space skiff to cruise some of the more desolate planets in the Centauri solar system.
Which had brought him here. Officially listed as uninhabited--no, uninhabitable--in Centauri computers, this hunk of rock didn't even show plant life. Probes set in the planet's orbit squawked a warning in English, Centauri and Interlac, but the urge to see the spectacular fireworks overcame him. His plan had been to skim the upper atmosphere when the skiff stalled. Right now, even if he could land this thing, it was unlikely that he could fire his thrusters in the poisonous atmosphere without blowing himself to hell.
"Guess we're off to see the wizard..." Choosing the most hospitable landing zone he could find, Garibaldi coasted down gracelessly. Oddly, although the long-range scanners had indicated the landing zone to be rocky, the visual scan showed a softer setting. Unfortunately, the rough landing nestled the single camera lens into the earth, obscuring any further sightings. There were no external viewing panels, but the skiff's instruments still showed an inhospitable terrain and temperature. Garibaldi faced a visit of indefinite duration.
Setting the emergency beacons, he resigned himself to waiting for the rental company to send out an emergency vehicle. Given the Centauri mentality, he assumed it would take at least a day to fill out the paperwork before anyone actually showed up--if they even would consider approaching this planet. Once they got here, he needed to have a plan for getting off the planet without firing his thrusters.
"Wonder what kind of emergency supplies they stick on these things?" he wondered aloud. His voice echoed strangely, reminding him how long it had been since he had experienced silence. Not the artificial silence of Babylon 5--always subjected to both organic and mechanical undercurrent--but true silence. The lack of noise was so eerie that Garibaldi double-checked the ventilation system to assure himself it was still running.
The cabinets were unmarked, which was fine with Garibaldi, as he didn't read Centauri. Most were empty, but he did find several respirators and a box of what appeared to be very old food packets. He examined the contents skeptically: something that looked like water, something that looked like bread, and several things that looked like nothing he would eat. Dust lay thickly over everything.
Discouraged, he slammed the hatch, and cast about for something to take his mind off the depressing prospects for mealtime and beyond.
Built for short journeys, the skiff was not large, and not equipped with much in the way of entertainment. The vid console had a small selection of Centauri entertainment clips, but Garibaldi did not know enough of the language to follow the byzantine plots. The porn channel was mildly interesting, even educational after a fashion, but the endless rounds of crest-pulling and tentacle fondling had a limited appeal. Garibaldi made a mental note to ask Londo's aide Vir if all Centauri males fantasized about having their heads and backs shaved by hairy females.
Having exhausted the skiff's possibilities for diversion, Garibaldi cast about for other entertainment. Too restless to sleep, he decided to risk a look outside. After all, that had been the point of this excursion--sightseeing. Moreover, if the rental agency wouldn't venture onto the planet, he needed to check out the possibilities for long term survival--slim as those may be. The con panel showed a partially oxygen atmosphere, but the ammonia and methane made a light respirator necessary. Despite the grave warnings, there didn't seem to be any other irritants in the air. Ambient temperature was high, but he wasn't planning on a long walk, and gravity was within acceptable limits, so a full suit wasn't necessary.
Popping the floor hatch, Garibaldi dropped into the air lock, then fastened the hatch above him. Okay, it's showtime... He opened the exterior hatch slowly, expecting a blast of hot air. When none was forthcoming, he pulled the hatch fully open and was greeted with a flash of green. Taking a deep breath, he swung from the skiff.
Gingerly setting foot on the ground, Garibaldi scanned the area. A gentle breeze, unexpectedly temperate, welcomed him. So where's the sirocco? He had landed on a broad plain, hemmed by improbable forests. The sky, instead of the furious red he had expected, was a soft, swirling green. In the distance, he could make out a low range of mountains, although the promised volcanic activity was nowhere in evidence.
What the hell...? Where are the fireballs? The volcanoes and quakes? The molten stone? Gravity was a lighter than that imposed in the living quarters on Babylon 5, and the earth had a spongy feel. Amazingly, there was considerable vegetation.
He hiked easily around the surrounding area, taking in the lush landscape. It occurred to him that he had never spent so much time alone--at least voluntarily. For several hours, he strolled though the plain, making note of flowers, streams, light and shadows. Nowhere was there a sign of the seething Hades he had expected. Finally, he found himself back at his skiff.
"Okay," he said aloud, "That's enough communing with Nature. If I can reach the rental agency, I can tell them it's not so bad down here. Wonder if I can get cartoons on the vid com." Reaching for the hatch, he pulled himself into the ship.
Sitting at the console was a woman--or what resembled a woman.
Garibaldi reached to rub his eyes, hitting the visor of the breathing unit. Yanking it off, he sputtered, "Just who the hell are you?"
Calmly, the woman turned. Garibaldi got a good look at her: even seated he could tell that she was tall, well over two meters, with humanoid features. Her skin was a light olive hue, although covered with a semitransparent downy fur, and her eyes dark. Thick brown curls cascaded down her back. In all, she looked remarkably Italian, only taller--except for the translucent membranes on her nose, which hung over her mouth, like a veil.
Around her neck was a silvery chain with a large oval pendant made of polished stone. Strapped to her waist was a weapon of some sort, but her hands did not stray toward it. No need: on the console before her was Garibaldi's weapon.
"Gad mrnak," she offered pleasantly, in a soft voice. "'M na'ah Melissandra." Smiling, she rose (an impressive sight), and held her hands out, palms upward, in what appeared to be the Centauri sign of welcome.
Considering that the woman had the upper hand (metaphorically speaking), Garibaldi decided to play nice. Tossing the respirator aside, he extended his hands, palms down, and placed them over hers.
"Hello. Uh, sorry, I don't speak much Centauri..."
She laughed quizzically. "So me. 'M no Centauri. 'M umin. 'Oo Ert'd?"
He shook his head without comprehension. "I am Michael Garibaldi, of the Earth Alliance Station, Babylon 5."
"Ert'd! Bennay! 'M prent d'Ert!"
Somehow, she seemed very pleased with his statement, repeating "Garibaldi" and "Bennay" several times, while gripping his arms. Suddenly, it occurred to him: "Bennay....bene...good! Lei parle Italiano?"
She dropped his hands, and grabbed his shoulders with delight. "Italiano! Molto bennay!" She leaned into him, shaking her head, "Soltant po. Me translitor home."
That word was too close to be a mistake. "Home. Home like 'where the heart is'?"
Mystified, she shrugged. "Home."
Gradually, a few things became clear. Her name was Melissandra, and he thought she referred to herself as human, but he couldn't be sure. What would a human be doing on this rock, breathing tainted air?
And she had been breathing the air. She carried no protection from it, but the membrane on her face: which, after a while, Garibaldi had to admit, was quite fetching.
She settled comfortably at the console, sweeping her long skirts up and over the arm of the chair. He sat in the co-pilot's seat, feeling a little foolish. She seemed expectant, although he had no idea of what. Giggling a little, she pronounced his name several times with great relish: "Mi--cal Garry Baldy", and encouraged him to repeat hers.
This is weird, Garibaldi thought. We just sit here, saying each other's names? What do we do next?
Finally, the woman sighed. "Dink?" she asked tentatively.
"Dink?" Of course! "Drink! You want a drink!" Eagerly he headed for the cabinet. The contents remained as disappointing as they had been. Grabbing the water container, he blew the dust off it. There were no glasses.
Turning, he held out the container. She smiled graciously, and accepted with a certain ceremony. Opening the container, she took a tiny sip, and smiled again, although he thought he saw a tiny grimace as well.
Placing the container on the console, she stood, and reached into her loose-fitting cloak. She extracted a container made of a green shiny substance, and with a small bow, handed it to him.
Uncertain, he stared at the object. It was a bottle of some sort, with a crude stopper. Pulling on the stopper, he braced himself. Okay, this is one of those diplomacy things. Gotta at least put this to my lips, no matter what. Hoping he wasn't about to be poisoned, he held the bottle to his lips. The dark liquid smelled familiar.
"Wine!" The drop on his tongue was indistinguishable from the Earth beverage--except that it was light years better than anything he had ever tasted. A sudden craving hit him: an urge to down the contents.
The women seemed to sense a problem. Gently, she reached for the bottle. Forcing his fingers to relinquish their hold, Garibaldi fleetingly regretted not chugging the contents.
A recovering alcoholic, Garibaldi had lost many nights to fog--and too many days. The craving had never completely died: it simply slept. Here, however, was a "diplomacy thing": he wrenched himself into the present.
He noticed the woman's concern. Reflexively, he bowed slightly. Judging by her relief, it was the proper response. Well, stroke me!
The woman replaced the bottle in her voluminous cloak. Having completed this ritual, she was now ready to leave. Without further ado, she headed for the hatch.
"Hey!" Garibaldi called.
"You can't just leave--you haven't even explained what you are doing here."
She seemed to consider his comment. Briskly, she grabbed his respirator from the floor, and tossed it to him. He had to scramble to get it on and follow her out the hatch.
The walk was pleasant enough. She strode toward the forest, following some unseen path. Although she paused several times to assure he could keep up with her long strides, she did not speak to him. Once, he thought he heard her say something, but he could not be sure over the rattle of the respirator.
Garibaldi was not short, and despite his recent injuries, he was in generally robust shape. The woman's stride and speed, however, tried him sorely. Several times he lost sight of her, although she managed to keep him on the right track. It took all his concentration not to loose her.
It was a surprise, then, when they loped into an enormous clearing. In the center of the clearing, lay a cluster of buildings--a small town's worth. The buildings seemed to be made of stone, with polymer roofs. They had an ungainly quality about them, as if they had been altered and expanded without regard to symmetry or style. Despite the vastness of the clearing, the buildings seemed to huddle closely together, as if for moral support.
Melissandra did not pause, but headed straight for the settlement. Glancing over her shoulder to assure he was still following, she entered one of the larger buildings, on the fringe of the cluster.
Hesitating for only a moment, Garibaldi followed inside. Curiouser and curiouser.
The room was enormous, its ceiling vaulted. A curving staircase swept along the back wall, bathed in light with no discernable source. The walls and floor seemed to be polished stone, with a light pink hue. The door he had entered, and two others on the far wall were about three meters high, with polymer doors on metallic hinges. The room held no furniture, although a small vid com panel glowed just inside the door.
Melissandra swept into the room, and spun to face him. Waiting for him to catch up, she held out her hands, palms down. When he was within reach, she grasped his shoulders lightly, bending to reach them.
"Well came, Garry Baldi," she intoned formally.
"Um, thanks, Melissandra." Is this place some kind of church?
The woman released him, and turned to the vid com. She opened a second panel, and adjusted a few dials. A hissing sound ensued. Motioning him to wait, she rolled a small knob.
"That should do it," she said clearly.
Startled, Garibaldi sputtered, "A translator? It's so fast--almost synched with your lips!"
"Nice, isn't it? I've set it to work in the whole house, so you shouldn't have a problem. Of course, if you'd prefer Italian...."
"No, no, this is fine."
"In a second, you should be able to take off the respirator. I've set the atmosphere for Earth standard. If you'd like to check the settings first, please feel free."
Garibaldi approached the panel as she had indicated. Despite his conscientious attempt to comprehend the readings, he was bewildered. Reluctantly, he lifted the visor and sniffed. The air smelled fine, and left no aftertaste, but he decided to hang on to his breathing unit anyway. Lifting it cautiously, he monitored his reaction. So far, so good.
"So, what is this place? Some kind of meeting hall?"
"No, Mi Cal Garry Baldy, this is my home."
"Oh. Nice place." His mind was spinning. This is a home? Not even the Centauri emperor has this much empty space! Nobody has this much empty space!
Melissandra laughed melodically. "Well, we can't stand around in the foyer--come on into the house."
"Foyer?" I can't wait to see the rest of this place. Cautiously, he followed her across the great hall, and through one of the far doors.
The house was vast. He struggled to keep up with Melissandra through a number of rooms that could easily have served a governing body. Most of the rooms were furnished lavishly, but several were devoted to the display of sculpture and paintings. As they whisked past the art, Garibaldi had tried to absorb some clue to the culture. The statuary seemed to be white stone, with a distinct late-Earth-Renaissance appearance. Many of the figures were naked, or nearly so, and all were human. Few exhibited the furry skin or facial membrane that Melissandra wore.
Now, having clattered down a long flight of stairs, he trailed Melissandra into a smaller space. Unlike the rest of the house, this place was dimly lit. A prickle ran across Garibaldi's neck: could this be a trap? He shook off the feeling. Had she meant him harm, she could have shot him in the skiff, or poisoned him with the drink, or simply lost him in the great maze of the house. Hell, she could just clobber me!
Melissandra removed her outer cloak, and hung it on a peg. She fussed for a minute near the wall, and the room grew brighter.
It was a kitchen. The space was large by Earth or B-5 standards,yet it had a cozy feel. The appliances were old-fashioned, and large. There was a bumpy, homely appearance to the room, nothing sleek or elegant. The workspace could accommodate multiple cooks comfortably, and half of the room was given over to a sitting area. Four large chairs and a massive sofa were grouped around a fire pit. Books, tables, utensils, culinary supplies were cast about the room artlessly. Along one wall, bottles lay on their sides in precise rows behind a clear panel.
He ran his fingers along the nearest counter. The slate blue surface was stone, or a good imitation. In one corner of the room stood a massive, round table, with four chairs. Glancing up, he noticed the ceiling was considerably lower than in the rest of the house (but still quite high to accommodate his hostess), and was hung with pots, pans and drying vegetation. Involuntarily, he reached for a swag of something green.
Melissandra, following his glance, plucked the swag from its hook, and handed it to him.
"It's an herb we're rather fond of--take a sniff."
Hesitantly, Garibaldi held the plant to his nose. "Basil!"
She nodded noncommittally. "We make a sauce with the fresh herb, very simple--oil, other flavorings. It's good over grain substances."
"Grain substances? You mean, pasta? You guys...." He stopped. It occurred to him that he had seen no one else, and, except for this room, no signs that anyone else lived here. "Melissandra, are you alone?"
She solemnly intoned, "We are all alone--on the journey through the light."
She slapped him cheerfully on the back. "What a question! Of course I'm not alone!" She flung her hand vaguely, taking in the large appliances, the chairs and the table, and, by extension, the settlement. "Why bother with all this for one person? You'll meet others later."
Quickly, she emptied her many pockets, removing the wine bottle, a sack of what looked like mushrooms, an enormous folding knife and an old-fashioned writing tablet. She removed yet another layer of clothes, revealing that she was willow thin under the bulky garments. As each garment came off, she adjusted the pendant around her neck. Her inner garments were simple: A long tunic, of coarse fabric, and leggings of a smoother cloth. Her boots were soft, and seemed to be of the same material as the tunic.
Pulling open a drawer, she found a scarf to tie back her thick hair. Unlike her drab clothes, this was riotously colorful. Lastly, she took out a metal clip, some form of jewelry. Taking hold of the membrane over her mouth, she rolled it up like a tiny carpet, and fastened it onto her nose with the clip. Garibaldi tried not to wince. No worse than a pierced ear...right?
She turned to face him. "What can I get you to drink?" She paused. "I gather the wine was a bad idea. Sorry about that--we have lots of other things--water, juice, coffee, tea...."
"Tea?" Garibaldi smiled. His third favorite thing in the world was tea.
"Sure. We have a number of different kinds: maybe one of them would be familiar to you."
She reached into a cupboard, and removed a caddy that held an odd assortment of earthenware crocks. At least, they looked like earthenware. When he reached for the cover of one of the crocks, he realized that it had a sophisticated air lock mechanism. Gripping the top, he removed it and examined the contents.
It was tea--at least if the look, smell and texture were anything to go by. Garibaldi realized how long it had been since he had seen real tea, as opposed to the reconstituted tea flakes on Babylon 5.
"It's what we call 'D'jal'. I don't know its traditional name, although I can look it up, if you want." Her offer seemed sincere, but Garibaldi shook his head.
"No, I'll risk it. Join me?"
"I'm not much of a tea drinker...." She stopped, noticing his suspicious look. "...on the other hand, it's very refreshing."
Melissandra found a large, old-fashioned tea pot, incongruously bright blue. A cabinet turned into a water source with only the slightest hiss, providing a warm water bath for the pot. After she had rinsed the pot, she let it stand, full of hot water, as she found two huge mugs, and a fine silvery metal mesh net. She threw the hot water onto the floor, where it was instantly absorbed, then added cold water to the pot. Placing the pot on the counter, she centered it over a star-shaped mark. In a few seconds, the water was boiling. Adding a handful of tea to the pot, she picked it up and swirled the mixture. Setting it down, she asked brightly, "Milk, sugar, lemon?"
"Anyway you take it is fine."
A flicker of annoyance passed over her face. "I have an idea. Why don't you tell me how you like it, and I'll drink it the same way?"
He complied. She provided honey and something that resembled a fresh lemon. The honey jarheld a small scoop, and Garibaldi added precisely the same amount to each mug. He cut two wedges from the lemon, pausing for a moment to savor the bright astringent aroma, then squeezed a few drops into the mugs.
Then Melissandra placed the mesh net over each mug, and poured the tea through it. The smell of the tea was irresistible, and Garibaldi immediately brought the mug to his lips.
"Yeow, that's hot!"
Melissandra laughed. "Of course it's hot."
Abashed, Garibaldi realized that the synthetic tea on Babylon 5 was temperature controlled. Blowing uselessly on the liquid, he ventured another sip. Hot as it was, the tea slid invigoratingly down his throat.
Melissandra took a sip of her tea. "Not bad. I don't think I ever had it this way before. Generally, I'm a coffee drinker."
"Sure. I must have ten different brewing mechanisms. Always searching for the perfect cup." She gestured toward the sitting area. "Why don't we sit down?"
He glanced at the chairs and couch. "Any particular place?"
Quizzically, she shook her head. "You're the guest. Take your choice."
Carrying his tea, Garibaldi chose one of the chairs. It was deeply upholstered, with a soft cloth thrown over it. A small bench was placed in front of it.
Melissandra took another chair to his right, and snuggled in luxuriously. She propped her feet on the small bench in front of her chair, and indicated that he could do likewise.
Settling into the chair, and putting up his feet, Garibaldi felt immensely comfortable. The chair did not seem to be organic, yet it provided a cuddly feeling. Slowly, he began to relax.
For a while, they sipped their tea in silence. Garibaldi got the distinct impression that she was waiting for him. He had a million questions, but was reluctant to break the peaceful mood. Finally, his curiosity won.
"So, Melissandra, what is this place?"
"You mean, this house, this settlement, this planet?"
"Let's start with the settlement. For one thing, it's not supposed to be here."
She nodded, but didn't elaborate.
"But it is..." he pressed gently.
She nodded again.
That's a non-starter. Trying a different tack, he asked, "You're Centauri?"
Pursing her lips in annoyance, she corrected, "We are not Centauri, although somewhere up the tree there may be common ancestors. We are human--just like you, Garry Baldi."
"Call me 'Michael'. Anyway, not 'just like' me. You're, you're...." He stopped. 'Different' seemed somehow impolite.
"You mean this?" She touched the rolled membrane on her nose.
"Well, yeah, and the, uh, fur and the height. You may not know this, but I'm not short--I mean, for a human."
"You are ignorant of basic evolutionary theory, though." Her tone was gently reproachful. "Our height is a result of the lighter gravity on this planet. This membrane and skin covering were artificially induced to filter harmful elements out of the atmosphere. Eventually, we would have developed them naturally, or died trying. We don't process toxic gas any better than other humans."
"Yeah, that's another thing--according to the charts, and the probes, this is a flaming fire pit. No plants, no animals, no people..." He let the sentence hang in the air for a moment. "But you're here--and I'm here, and, unless I'm dreaming, I'm not toasted."
She studied him carefully over her mug. "Do you believe what your instruments told you, or what you see?"
"At this moment, I don't believe either. All this could be a hallucination, and I could be burning to a crisp in the outer atmosphere."
"Fair enough." She paused, then asked, very softly, "Have you ever heard of techno-mages?"
He covered his surprise with a sip of tea. Garibaldi had heard of techno-mages, a mysterious sect who used science to achieve the effects of magic, although he had only seen them once, just before he had left the station. Led by a human called Elric, the sect had been gathering on Babylon 5 to head off beyond the Rim. He decided to be cautious. "Techno-mage? Like in the fairy tales?"
She laughed softly. "The magic of technology, like the magic of the heart, must be cloaked in a veil of myth. The techno-mages were part of our civilization for many cycles. While they lived apart, and practiced their craft, they were always available to help. Originally, we believe they came from Centauri Prime, although they took disciples from among our people."
"As far as mere humans can determine, our ancestors were indigenous, although we have our share of legends about our earliest forms. We place our origins at about the fourth Apnid--just a few hundred thousand cycles before human life originated on Earth. The Centauris developed a little later than we did."
"At some point, we developed space travel. We visited Centauri Prime, and found that life evolving there was not--to our liking. Even at an early stage, the Xon and Centauri were avaricious, petty and untrustworthy. We traded with them for several hundred cycles, but eventually they ran out of things that we wanted."
"We also visited Earth." She allowed this to sink in. "A lot of vegetation and food animals were very appealing to us. At the time, our climate was conducive to Earth-style farming. Most of the time, we avoided contact with Earth humans. On a few occasions, Earthers forced the issue, and we took them with us." She lowered her eyes. "I'm not proud of that part of our history. We were, and still are, very protective of our privacy, and very afraid of what would happen if off-worlders discovered our existence. Later, we offered to return the Earthers and their children. Some of them wanted repatriation; others had found a home here. After we returned the ones who wanted to leave, we maintained a relationship with them, and their descendants. We chose to keep that relationship a secret."
"Eventually, we had to make a decision. Earthers were evolving too violently, too cruelly. They had developed space travel, and were about to head beyond their solar system. We saw them, as a whole, like the Centauri--too anxious to spread their influence over others. We decided to close our world to outsiders. It is small, with only a few habitable land masses, but as out worlds became crowded, ours would look more inviting."
"As out-worlders progressed in technological expertise, we knew that it had became time to render ourselves invisible. We turned to the techno-mages for assistance. They showed us how to cap the mid-atmosphere, to create the effect of volcanoes, fireballs and rivers of lava, and how to jam scanners to cause false readings. We relocated to a few settlements, hid our farms underground, and wove interlocking nets of secrecy over our world. But the illusion needed to be complete: In order to perpetuate it, we had to give up space travel."
"Because our people had formed strong attachments to Earth, or more precisely, to Earthers, we made one last trip, to a place on Earth which had come to be very important to us."
"There, if you give any credit to folklore, there was a meeting with the Earthers. It took place in a kitchen, fueled by mountains of food and barrels of coffee. The debate raged for hours, culminating in a decision: we, and those Earthers who chose, returned here. We abandoned our space vehicles, and developed the life we now know."
She downed the last of her tea, grinning at his open-jawed surprise. "Not everyone wants to roam the stars. Not everyone wants adventure. Some of us want to stay home," she raised her mug, "and drink tea with our guests."
"As an extra measure of security, we added various poisons to the lower atmosphere to further discourage off-worlders. We chose a mixture that would sicken any known race."
"Lastly, we installed the probes as a warning to drive off visitors, and made the Centauri believe they had provided them. The probes are also programmed to take care of anyone who was foolish enough to land here."
"Like me." A faint curl of panic unwound in his stomach.
"Like you. But don't worry--they won't hurt you..." Despite her dire description, her grin was infectious. "We altered our physiognomy to provide for the membrane filters. We could have altered our DNA to accept the atmosphere, but we weren't sure we could do the same for the Earthers who had remained among us. After a few generations, the filters became as natural to us as ten fingers, or full lips." She patted the rolled membrane gently.
"So, you're not really human, I mean, completely."
Impatiently, she retorted, "What is it that makes someone human? Physiologically, we are the same species. If we look different from you, are there not humans with skin pigmentation that is adjusted for better protection from the sun? Eyes more adapted to low light? More lung capacity for specialized tasks? We are as much human as you are, or the colonists you sent to Proxima, Orion or Mars. Most of us are also Earthers, partly. My grandfather was an Earther."
"Okay, so you're half-human..."
"Half Earther. All human." Her jaw was set. Garibaldi decided not to push the issue.
"Could I have a little more tea?"
She jumped to her feet, anxious to serve her guest. While she was organizing the tea, he studied the room. From his chair, he could reach out to shelves that flew to the ceiling. On his right, the shelf contained some of the coffee-making implements that Melissandra had mentioned: a brass samovar, glass plunger pot, piston-powered espresso maker. Everything was clean, though well-used.
To his left were books. Books were a rarity on Babylon 5; in his entire adult life, Garibaldi could remember handling only a few. Even as a child, he had seldom seen books. From the spines, the books were in a number of languages, many of which he vaguely recognized.
"Go ahead," she called, "help yourself."
He pulled out a thick book with a tooled binding. Flipping it open, he realized that it was tremendously old, and very fragile. The frontispiece was inscribed with beautiful drawings. Each page had strange lettering, with the first letter in each section decorated with tiny colored drawings. For a moment, he was reminded of the Narn holy books--fragile and strong at the same time. Many Narn, too, had "progressed" to data crystals and readers. Only a few, like G'Kar, still handled ancient texts. He sat up straight to better support the volume.
Melissandra set the tea next to him. "You picked a good one. May I?" She reached for the book.
Perching on the arm of his chair, she angled the book so that they could both see. "This is an atlas, a geography book, hundreds of cycles old. This," she pointed at one of the brilliantly decorated sentences, "dedicates the book to God, and prays for assistance in making it accurate. Look at the illuminations."
"The drawings around the leading letters in the section. If you look closely, you can see sea serpents and other monsters. An enormous amount of work for a single letter, but someone found it worthwhile." She turned the page: a fading map of an island, its name undecipherable.
"What language is that?"
"Latin. Root of Italian, Spanish, French, Romanian, and many other Earth languages. This book comes from an Irish Monastery. My grandfather had it on Earth. It was his prized possession, one of the only thing he took when he came here." She closed the book gently. "He insisted that Latin was the most important language. Through Latin, we could learn the roots not only of language, but of civilization." A dreamy smile crossed her lips, as she re-shelved the book.
"Here." She pulled another book and handed it to him. "You'll enjoy this."
He examined the book. "A Biography of Giuseppe Garibaldi, Italian Patriot and Romantic."
"Distant relative?" she inquired.
"Who knows? Names are pretty voluntary after a while. Could be a relative; could just be some ancestor of mine liked the name 'Garibaldi'."
"But you could be a 'real' Garibaldi?"
"My dad always thought so. Brought us up to be proud of our name, our heritage. Told us he could trace the family lineage right back to the tenth century. After he died, I started thinking that the whole heritage thing was silly, unless it linked you to someone you want to be tied to.... Not just a famous person, but someone you want to imitate. Other than that, why be proud of your ancestors? It's not like you had any choice, or that the fact you are now alive makes any difference to them." He shook his head. "I'm babbling. Thanks for showing me the book."
"I, I can't do that. This must be worth a fortune."
"That 'fortune' is worthless to me. The only value it has, is as a gift."
He hefted the book thoughtfully. "Thanks."
"So, getting hungry?"
"Starving. What's for dinner?"
Laughing, she set out a tray of marinated vegetables and fresh cheese. After this snack was set out, she began the preparations for the meal, assigning him a number of tasks. As they worked, she explained how part of the planet was devoted to agricultural pursuits. The citizens there had prepared the plants and animal life for the transition to the methane atmosphere. The native vegetation had eventually mutated, but numerous Earth plants and animals had to be genetically treated to survive, even in the underground gardens.
Alternating between sips of tea and breathless questions, he finished chopping the onions, and added them to the pot in which the garlic was browning. Melissandra had prepared vegetables, crushed basil, and produced an astonishing array of herbs and spices. She performed her tasks with precision and certainty, whistling something hauntingly familiar. An ample meal was taking form in the kitchen.
"Um, you must be pretty hungry," Garibaldi opined. "This is enough for an army."
"If an army can be four people, then we're feeding an army."
"I told you that you'd meet some of the others. My grandfather and a neighbor are coming over for dinner." She looked at him sympathetically. "Don't worry: they don't bite. I would have asked more people, but it's short notice."
As if on cue, a hearty voice sounded from the upper regions of the house.
"Mel! You left the front door open again! You won't be happy until the whole yard blows into the foyer!"
"Thank you, Granddad!" she shouted good-naturedly. Laughing, she said to Garibaldi, "If I live a thousand cycles, I'll still be a child to him! And he still won't use the intercom."
A gray-haired human barreled through the kitchen door. Of average height (for Earthers, anyway), he appeared to be in his mid-seventies, and in exhilaratingly good health. Unlike Melissandra, he carried a respirator, and did not sport the distinctive membrane filter or furred skin. His cheeks were ruddy from recent exertion, and a large cloth bag was slung over his shoulder.
"I tell you, Mel, you leave the door open, you're pouring that ventilation system right down the drain. And this lousy translator--can't you adjust my voice on it? I hate the way it sounds. Some kinda weird accent..." She leaned over and gave him an affectionate hug, then a peck on the cheek.
"I know, I know, now come in and meet our guest."
Melissandra made the introductions graciously, as Garibaldi tried to remember the greeting ritual she had performed at the door. The effort was unnecessary: the older man grabbed his hand and heartily pumped it.
"Nice to meet you, Mr. Garibaldi..."
"Okay, Mike. So, Mel tells me you're from Earth."
Confused, Garibaldi sputtered, "She told you? Excuse, me, sir..."
"Jack. When did she tell you?" He looked from Melissandra to Jack.
Mel smiled. "Sorry, Michael, I thought you noticed. I transmitted a message to Granddad as we were walking." She patted the pendant around her neck. "I invited him and Tellant to dinner."
"I guess you were a little ahead of me."
Jack scolded his granddaughter, who took it in stride. "Mel, you can't just lope along like a giraffe. Not everyone has those seven-league legs of yours. Anyway, I brought the roast, like you asked, and those antidotes Tellant recommended."
Garibaldi gasped. "Antidotes?"
Jack laughed heartily. "Sure, we always serve antidotes for Mel's cooking--self-defense! No, seriously, we weren't sure if the meat contained any trace elements that could hurt you. Just in case, we brought an antidote. My friend Tellant whipped it up when the last batch of Earthers got here." He rummaged through his bag, removing a cloth-wrapped bundle. "Hope you like pork with apples and sage."
Melissandra placed a large glass of red wine in front of her grandfather, and relieved him of the roast. Soon, the kitchen was awash in wonderful smells: Pasta, sauce, meat and spices all blending in an intoxicating array.
Jack had a dozen questions for Garibaldi. At first, he seemed disappointed that Michael had not seen Earth in many years. Then, he peppered the security chief with demand for descriptions of Babylon 5, Earth politics, colonial expansion and baseball. He seemed saddened but not surprised when Michael told him that Earth President Santiago had been assassinated.
Jack slapped the counter with his palm. "Fools! When will they learn that politics and power are not worth one single human life? They've taken nothing from the philosophers, poets and saints. Still fighting over lines in the sand, or in space." He downed the last of his wine. "Makes me all the more glad that we came here."
Fixing Michael with a baleful glance, he continued. "We've been here for sixty years--near as I can figure. I raised three children, and buried my wife, Mel's grandmother, here. The people of this planet have been more than family to me, and yet I can't help feeling that we left Earth in its hour of need. Don't get me wrong: this is a good life, an easy life. But if we had stayed, would one of us been the person who set Earth on the right track?"
Melissandra had been watching quietly. "Enough," she chastised softly, rubbing his back. "If you had stayed, you never would have married Nana, and I never would have been born."
Jack's dark mood broke instantly. "Fair enough trade, isn't it, Mike? Dump a lousy, polluted planet for a good woman, and a fine family? Not a bad deal, at all." He wrapped an arm around Melissandra's waist and waggled a finger at Garibaldi. "You know, you could do a lot worse yourself...."
"Don't you start on that line, Granddad, or I'll poison your pasta." The three laughed heartily, as a chime sounded in the distance.
"That would be Tellant." Melissandra rose and headed up the stairs.
Turning to Garibaldi, Jack said seriously. "They won't have the bad manners to bring it up, but the folks around here are pretty nervous about you."
"Afraid that you'll tell the Centauri that we're here. The Centauri, or worse. They've gone to a lot of trouble to assure privacy."
A cold sweat broke out on Garibaldi's back. "Is this a warning, Jack?"
Jack looked surprised. "A warning? Of what?" Realization dawned, as he chuckled. "No, they won't hurt you. They won't even prevent you from leaving--which is what I would have suggested." He waved away Michael's surprise. "They're gentle people, but determined: rather than fight the Centauri, they developed this elaborate deception. Then, they altered their own genes, put toxins in their atmosphere, and took a terrible chance that it wouldn't work. Now, you pose a threat to everything they've worked for, but they won't lift a finger to harm you.
"Mel shouldn't have gone near your ship, but we saw it come in on a stall, and she was afraid you might have been hurt. Once you had seen her, she knew she had to do something: she couldn't just disappear mysteriously. Who knows what that would have stirred up?"
He poured another glass of wine. "She caught some flack for that, but a little dissension never slowed her down." He sniffed the wine happily.
Garibaldi traced his finger along the rim of his mug. "So, what are they planning to do about me?"
"Do? Probably nothing. The planet, though, will protect itself."
"Just what does that mean? I'll be blown out of the sky..." Garibaldi's voice was tense.
"Hell, no, Mike! I told you, these people won't stand for hurting you. I have heard that the techno-mages installed scanners in the middle atmosphere: anyone who leaves finds it...hard to remember this place."
Garibaldi's throat constricted. "Like a mind wipe?"
Jack looked concerned: "No, no. Nothing like that. Just a little...adjustment. I'm told that if you go through the scan, all memories of this place take on a distant, dreamlike quality. You can remember--but faintly." He drained his wine.
"It's all a trade, Mike. They let you land, but you can't take the secret with you. Even a telepath won't be able to see this place clearly--it'll look like a pleasant fantasy."
"Any way to avoid this little alteration?"
"You can stay."
Michael shook his head ruefully. "Not an option." He considered Jack's words: Unarmed, with an inoperative ship, he was stranded. As benevolent as the process sounded, he hated the idea of someone tampering with his mind, yet he was completely dependent on these folks to get home.
Jack shrugged again. "I understand your concern. All I can say is that some of the Earthers here have undergone the same process--voluntarily--to soften memories of loss, pain, home. They don't seem the worse for wear. No mental deficiencies, no seizures, just relief. I thought about it when my wife died. For a while, I would have done anything to ease the grief. In the end, I didn't want to risk blurring the good memories to remove the bad." He tapped his chest gently. "So I kept it all in my heart."
Jack reached for the wine bottle, then thought better of it. "Any more questions?"
A tiny smile worked its way across Garibaldi's mouth. "So why don't you have the fur and the, uh, the little...." He wiggled his fingers in front of his face.
Jack snorted in disgust. "That fool thing. I tried a prosthetic device for a while, but every time I lit a cigar, damn thing caught on fire. Given the choice of wearing a respirator or giving up cigars, I chose the former. That's why Mel and most of the others have the ventilation systems in their houses--to make us more comfortable."
At that moment, Melissandra returned. In a more formal manner than she had used with her grandfather, she made introductions: "Michael Garibaldi, of Earth Force, please meet Tellant Ni Dolan, Prefect of the Reach, and guest in my house." She held out one hand, palm up, before Tellant, and the other hand in front of Michael.
Tellant held his hand over hers, motionless. Jack poked Michael sharply, indicating he should do the same. When both men's hands were extended, Melissandra grasped them and brought them together. "Welcome to my home, gentlemen."
Tellant was slightly taller than Melissandra, and paler. His clothes were black, sleek, and touched with flashes of silver. The downy covering was very pale, almost invisible, except on his pate. His serious features were finely chiseled, and his eyes a murky green color. His membrane hung loosely over his nose and mouth.
"Thank you, Melissandra. I offer you drink." He placed a beautiful opaque bottle on the counter.
"As I offer you," she responded, pouring him a glass of wine. So that's what the deal on the skiff was! Michael reflected.
After the ritual, Tellant relaxed, and the group fell into an easy banter. Tellant allowed that his title of "Prefect" was largely honorary, although Jack described him as the "smartest damn person on the planet". Modestly, Tellant described himself as an "elder", who tried to sort out disputes, lend a hand solving problems and keep the old ways.
Tempted to stir up some excitement, Garibaldi asked innocently, "Like the techno-mages?"
Silence fell over the room. Fixing a look of gentle reproof on Melissandra, Tellant finally spoke. "We owe much to techno-mages. I was their apprentice--loyal, but I had not reached my calling. For many cycles, they guided our ways. Then, a short time ago, they disappeared, drawn inexorably beyond the Rim. Our master spoke with regret about leaving us, but he feared even with our precautions, others would be able to sense the presence of wizards. Rather than attract harmful attention to this place, they left. Without them, and with our disguise in place, we would appear unattractive to those who passed by."
"And you?" The security chief's tone was curious.
Shaking his head, Tellant smiled. "This is my home. Though the pull of the brotherhood was strong, I could not leave. What poor skills I have, belong to my people."
The uncomfortable silence fell once more, until Jack rasped jovially, "Hey, what do I have to do to get some food around here?"
Tension released, the room bustled with activity again.
The four sat around the table in the sitting area. Melissandra had thrown on a colorful cloth, while Tellant and Jack set out utensils and dishes. An endless flow of pasta, meat, vegetables and bread threatened to engulf the table. Garibaldi, the honored guest, was served huge portions, and tried to do them justice. His companions argued lightly over everything--the order of service, how well the meat was cooked, whether Garibaldi should take the antidote, "just in case", but their mutual affection was evident.
Garibaldi ate everything, without ill effect, and washed it down with excellent tea and fruit juices. Feeling mellow, he took a short break from eating to take part in the spirited discussions of art and music. He noticed with appreciation that his hostess steered the conversation into areas in which he could participate.
A sudden realization dawned on him. The food, the talk: Sunday dinner at my grandmother's! He smiled at the distant memory.
After clearing the table, everyone (including Garibaldi) offered opinions on how to make the coffee. Melissandra was cheerfully adamant that the ancient hand-piston espresso maker was the method of choice. Jack, grumbling, wanted to use the press, and Tallent, a hot water drip. Garibaldi, more to tweak Jack than from any strong preference, threw his vote in with Melissandra, accepting the barrage of friendly skepticism.
With the coffee, Melissandra produced cake and fruit. When the avalanche of food paused, Jack reached into his tunic pocket, and pulled out a small rectangular box.
"We got four," he said meaningfully.
"Indeed," agreed Tellant, his eyes gleaming.
Groaning, Melissandra shook her head.
"Come on, Mel--just for a while," her father pleaded.
"Okay, but you can not be my partner! I remember last time..."
Melissandra's protests were lost in Jack's happy whoops and Tellant's agreeable murmurs. The table cloth disappeared, and a small computation pad materialized.
Feeling lost, Garibaldi ventured, "Should I know what's happening?"
Jack chortled. "I thought you said you were from Earth, Mike! We're gonna play a friendly game of cards." He flipped open the small box, and pulled out a deck of cards. "We call it Panacle." At the sound of his voice on the translator, Jack growled under his breath.
"'Panacle'? I don't think I'm familiar with that game...."
"Nothing to worry about, Mel here will be your partner." With a flourish, he shuffled the cards. "Care to deal?"
"Wait a minute, my friend," Tellant broke in. "Last time we played, there was a misunderstanding about the scoring. Now, a Red queen and a black jack is a...."
"...Is a nothing! It's a Queen of Spades, and the Jack of Diamonds."
"No, Granddad, you can have the Queen of Diamonds and the Jack of Spades if everyone agrees..."
"Well, I don't agree! That's some crazy space game that Tony learned on Mars--like melding everything at once!"
Garibaldi racked his brains. Melding? Queen of Spades, Jack of Diamonds? Panacle? Panacle, panacle--Pinochle! "Pinochle!" he cried aloud. "Jack's right, there's no such thing as a red Pinochle--those are Jersey rules!"
"What about melding?" Tellant inquired. "How do you play regarding melding?"
"Uh, all at once--right at the beginning."
"No, no, NO!" Jack shouted. "You meld as you go--one meld at a time."
"I don't think so..."
"Of course! You have to win a trick to show meld! Where'd you say you were from, Mike?"
"Look!" Melissandra's exasperated tone silenced them. "Why don't we play one game Michael's way: he is the guest, after all."
So the night went on--fuelled with cards, good food and talk.
Despite Melissandra's disapproval, Jack dug out two cigars, offering one to Garibaldi. He whispered that his supply from Earth was so limited, he was thinking about growing tobacco in the hydroponic gardens. The ventilation system labored mightily to whisk the smoke away, but a pleasant haze fell over the room nevertheless.
The rental repair company's tow vehicle had just arrived when Garibaldi fell into orbit beside it the next day. As the Centauri mechanic set the tractor beam, he was so anxious to leave this blighted place, he did not question how the "disabled" skiff had achieved orbit, or survived the explosive atmosphere.
Tellant had arranged for the repair of his vehicle, and Melissandra had provided a bulging sack of food. As his parting gift, Jack had handed him a cigar.
The skiff had risen easily. As it sliced the middle atmosphere, Garibaldi felt a flicker of fear. Now would be the time.
The sky turned from pale green to midnight blue and a sudden sleepiness washed over him. Blinking, he fought the feeling, which passed as suddenly as it had begun. In a moment, he was alert again, though a touch disoriented. He knew he was heading for an orbital rendezvous with another rental company vehicle, and he had a dim recollection of being on the planet.
Checking his instruments, he noted that the planet below was a cauldron of seismographic activity. The viewer showed an orange ball of flame, just far enough away to be harmlessly beautiful.
Looking at his lap, he congratulated himself on being clever enough to bring real food, although he couldn't quite remember where he had purchased it. On his knees was balanced an ancient book, with a cigar laid across it.
Dimly, he recalled a dream from the night before: he had been at a table, eating, playing cards, and talking with three humanoids. He couldn't make out in the dream whether they were humans of not, although somehow that was an important part of the dream. He ran the cigar under his nose.
Smiling, Garibaldi reflected about how pleasant the dream conversation had been. He had been curious about where these creatures had originated. In the dream, Michael had guessed Florence or Rome, or even Sicily--to the vast amusement of his hosts. One of them had cleared up the mystery shortly.
"Whaddya kidding? We're from Brooklyn!"
As Nowak grew smaller, Mr. Garibaldi laughed uproariously at nothing in particular.