Ghosts in the Mind: Personal Demons
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GHOSTS IN THE MIND SERIES PART 2
With yet another special thanks to Caro, for allowing me to quote "Syllable" and to Ann-Kathrin, for the use of Leana Hays-Walsh.
Disclaimer: I own not. I wish I did.
Read To the Last Syllable of Recorded Time by Caro von Totth first!
Takes place three days after and refers to Ghosts in the Mind: Phoenix
Rated R for language and adult themes.
Longshot Research Labs
Evaluation Room Epsilon 4
"You may have a valid point, Q-ball." Walsh's thick brows beetled over steely blue eyes. "But your timing - and your methods – stink."
Q-ball didn't flinch from the commander's assessment. "Your opinion is noted, sir." Lashless eyes blinked myopically behind thick amber protective lenses. "However, the fact remains that we still have to reassess Specialist Niko's new abilities."
"You were at the debriefing, Q-ball; she's as capable as always. Minus handicaps for that damned drug withdrawal."
"I agree that the abilities she reported are phenomenal. We're talking almost a quantum leap in raw power. But it's somehow functioning without the interface provided by the implant and badge charge. Does the implant need to be removed? Repaired?" BETA's chief scientist was already fiddling with his instrumentation as he spoke. "Or is the power increase a result of adrenaline and drug interaction?"
"I doubt it," Joseph supplied grimly. "The adrenaline provided by their escape had worn off long before she gave us that little demonstration in the debriefing."
"True." Q-ball jotted a few quick notes down on his datapad. "I'm still intrigued by that. According to Niko's previous power levels, it should have been impossible for her to generate enough telekinetic lift to levitate two grown men without tapping her implant. I wonder, how exactly did she manage it?"
"There are some people that believe going through hell leaves you stronger."
"With all due respect, Commander Walsh, we need quantifiable scientifically-sound answers, not religious platitudes." Q-ball tapped out a sequence on the control board. "There. Equipment parameters are optimal. Cameras functioning; the psych staff in MedoStat can't wait to get their hands on this footage. All we need now is the subject."
"Niko is a person, David. Not a subject."
Q-ball's anticipatory expression didn't change. It's almost as if he doesn't see a difference, Walsh realized. The thought left him…. uneasy. His hand tightened on the knob of his cane. If the rest of MediStat's staff weren't backing him up on this one, I'd call it off right now.
He took a long look around the ops booth, feeling more than a little sick to his stomach. He'd never cared for Longshot's high sec labs, and the setup in this one looked a little too much like the evaluation rooms at WolfDen. He wouldn't have been surprised if Q-ball had tapped Negata for help in setting up this experiment.
I thought I could count on the medicos setting Q-ball straight on the advisability of this procedure. Unfortunately, Dr. Turner's adamant about knowing as much as he can about Niko's condition, and dammit, the girl agreed to do it.
Now all I suppose I have to worry about is how to soft-pedal the results to the BWL so they don't crucify her – or worse.
A willowy figure in civilian clothes entered the room beyond the shatterproof viewing port. The harsh fluorescents gleamed on the woman's chestnut hair, very red against pale skin.
"Specialist Niko reporting."
Beating Q-ball to the punch, the commander keyed the intercom. "Niko. This exercise is strictly voluntary, and it may be dangerous." Behind him, the scientist muttered in annoyance. Walsh ignored him. "Are you certain you want to continue?"
Something that might have been determination flashed in the turquoise eyes. "Yes, sir."
"Excuse me, Commander." All politeness, Q-ball took over the comm. "Niko, if you'd be so good as to state your name and consent for the record? And please note that all proceedings are being recorded."
One day later
Base Commander's Office
Walsh looked down at the request for leave, and then back up at his Ranger. Niko was too thin; her normally flawless ivory skin was almost translucent with the fatigue she stubbornly refused to admit to. And her eyes…. Haunted eyes. He'd seen eyes like that before, in his mirror, in the months and years after Leana had been killed. "Are you sure about this?"
"I have the latest reports from Dr. Turner." Walsh tapped the rather thick stack of transparencies with a blunt finger. "He recommends leaving the implant alone for the time being. I understand that you're still undergoing drug withdrawal, and – " He peered at one of the pages. "You're refusing medication for it?"
"With all due respect, Commander, I don't need anything else destroying my perceptions."
"I'll respect that. The nightmares haven't stopped, then?" How she's managing to function like this is beyond me. Joseph suppressed the urge to ask. He'd long ago learned how to hold his tongue.
"They won't, sir. Not here."
"Had enough of Q-ball poking at you like a lab rat to see which way you'll jump, eh? Need to get out of here and clear your head? Smart girl." Walsh slapped the request down in his desk blotter. "Your unit is being given three weeks' rest and recuperation leave on Paradise; the island, not the planet. I'll get your pass changed to offworld leave instead. Any idea on where you're going?"
Niko shrugged. "There's any number of archaeological digs going on this time of year, Commander. I stand a good chance of getting on at least one of them."
"In other words, you don't know." Joseph suppressed the urge to sigh. "Not that I'd blame you if you picked the furthest planet in the galaxy to hide on."
"Commander – "
"That wasn't an insult, Niko," Joseph growled at her. "That was sincere human understanding. Get it right." He paused, adding almost delicately, "The rest of your team doesn't know about the part the Circle – that Circle - played in this mess?"
Pain flashed across her face and was quickly suppressed. "No. I haven't told them yet. I don't know if I'm going to."
"Niko… Sit down." He waited, fiddling with his moustache, until she perched on the edge of one of the deliberately uncomfortable visitor chairs. "I wasn't there, I'm not a telepath, and I can't pretend to understand what you went through. But I do know that there's no shame in survival. The people who used that artifact to destroy the League no longer exist. You do."
"Yes. I do. And I remember too much, too often." Niko fought to keep the bitterness from her voice. It's hard enough being telepathic in this place of unshielded minds without two or three other versions of me trying to fit inside my head.
Mercifully, Walsh left the comment alone. "I have here Q-ball and Turner's conclusions on your augmented psi powers. I think you already know what it says, but read it if you like. "
"No thank you, Commander. I… have the gist of it." She'd gleaned enough from Q-ball's thoughts the day before. The scientist was caught halfway between denial and scientific intrigue at her new abilities.
"Hmph. As you will, then. Just remember one thing: it doesn't matter what this report says. You're no messiah, Niko. And I'm going to do my best to keep any damned fool from thinking you are." Or worse, that you're a threat.
She heard the thought as if he'd shouted it. "You're worried about the senator."
Neither one of them had to specify which senator. "I'm always worried about idiots with more balls than brains." Satisfied that they understood each other, Walsh leaned back in his chair. "Your pass will be ready within the hour. Get packing."
Personnel Apartment #614
The problem with packing, Niko thought grimly, forcing herself to zip the spacesac closed and leave it alone after the fourth time she checked her gear, is that you can only kill so much time stuffing a few clothes in a bag.
Lousy choice of words.
But I didn't kill it. I set it right. Didn't I? Niko sagged onto the bed and scrubbed tensed fingers through her heavy hair, feeling the too-familiar ache in her head build again. "Walsh is right; I'm not cut out to be a messiah. I'll drive myself insane with this second-guessing."
A voice, deep and mesmerizing, whispered in her mind. *You are mad, you know.*
No! I'm not mad. I can't be.
The voice only went on, calmly. *You're hallucinating. Is there a better proof that your mind is defective, in need of guidance? *
I'm not hallucinating. I'm remembering. And that damned drug of the Queen's is still running around in my system, throwing everything off.
*Is it? Face it, Niko – it's you against the world, and you foolishly assumed the world was wrong. *
"Stop lecturing me!" Clenched fists hit the bed. "I'm not that sheltered child, and you're not Zachary. You're a memory of an illusion. You're not real."
But it felt real. She could still see him, austere and icily perfect in black, the embodiment of strength. Of reason. He walked out of the lengthening shadows by her bed, as solid as she was. His big, powerful hand touched her cheek, quieting the voices and the fears. As he had before, in the ancients' maze on Xanadu, he offered the security of deceptively simple answers.
*You are a creature of impulse, Niko. You are unstable and frail and Ariel couldn't do much about that - that is why your mind snapped in the end. But now -* he stroked her hair gently, protectively. *Now I am here. I am your anchor. I am the reason you've lost. I'll protect you. And you want me, don't you?*
Wanted? No. She'd needed him, needed to touch his cold, marble perfection, to see if he could strengthen her. She'd denied it even as she'd been devouring him with her eyes, even as she remembered Eliza, and Shane. She'd felt the heat that was both shame and desire. She'd fought a silent war against it during that surreal week they'd spent traveling back to BETA, only to have that heat flame again when Eliza had been a part of her and wanted a kiss from her husband.
To her shame, Niko had known that Eliza wasn't alone in her desire.
"I have to get out of here. I have to stop remembering." Niko was in the corridor, walking rapidly toward the recreation area nearest her apartment, before she'd finished forming the sentence. How had that old mantra gone? Movement proves control over the body. Control of the body is the path to control of the mind. Control of the mind brings serenity.
"'Movement proves control over the body'." Her lips thinned with determination. "I'll start there."
There were only a few people in the gym when she stalked in. Niko ignored them, stripping off her civvies and grabbing a rust-colored top and black leggings from her locker.
Movement proves control over the body.
A fractured, too-clear memory of cold, brilliant blue eyes mocked her as she hastily tied back her hair on her way to the punching bags. *You're mad, Niko.*
"I'm not mad." Her first, full-out swing rocked the cumbersome bag back on its support. "I'm not." Her knuckles split on the second blow, and Niko welcomed the pain. It was real. It was not seductive or pretty or simple. It was real, and she used it to banish the blue-eyed spectre from her mind.
Her newly enhanced senses picked up the growing ripples of unease among the other rangers working out. She could have soothed them with a thought - or whipped them to a frenzy of fear. Instead, Niko felt them leave, absorbed the touches of their fear, and refused to let them make her feel alone.
And in a not-quite-locked corner of her mind, a golden-haired wolf with emotionless emerald eyes mocked her with her own weakness. *You're not only mad, you're selfish.*
"Selfish." She hit the bag again, harder. "Selfish. No, I don't believe that." Shifting fluidly from boxing stance, Niko snapped out a roundhouse kick that landed hard; the impact sang up her leg. "Movement proves control over the body," she gritted out, and nailed the bag with a series of impossibly high whipkicks. The memory of her mind on fire, melting, shredding under the Circle's assault burned as if fresh. Pain, momentarily forgotten in the rush of physical exertion, bloomed behind her eyes again. She squinted, trying to keep her focus on the gyrating punching bag. "I was trying to do the right thing. How could that be selfish?"
In her mind, fangs flashed in a seductive, remorseless smile. *You like being a hero, and you like having me here. You like suffering for the sake of a worthy cause... You dream of me, you want me, you need me. *
"Don't need you." She panted the words, jabbed again. Blood splattered the punching bag's tough vinyl surface.
But the memory didn't stop. She could feel his hot breath on her face, cruel lips savoring her tears. Felt the deliberate press of a huge, hard body against her own, showing her how weak she was where he was concerned. *You are willing to destroy your world, your friends, everything you are, just to get me.*
"The artifact would have destroyed all time. I had to - "
*Face it, Niko; you are living in dreams - even now. *
"No. I'm. NOT!"
The punching bag exploded under her telekinetic lash; synthetic sand geysered out of the shattered vinyl shell. Fighting for breath, trembling, Niko sank to her knees in the debris. "This isn't a dream. It's not. It can't be. It's real." Slender, bloody fingers dug into a pile of musty-smelling sand and gripped hard. "Something has to be."
"Shit." Doc froze in the doorway of the gym. "Holy shit. Niko, what did you do to yourself?" She looks like she'd gone five rounds with the Black Hole Gang. Like she'll break if I breathe hard on her.
"Doc." She turned her head, met his gaze, and all thoughts of her frailty rushed out of his head. There were pain and rage in her eyes, and a terrifying power just underneath.
This was the woman who'd reordered the universe.
Niko's full, unpainted mouth quirked sadly. The merest novice could have caught that thought, and the respect and terror that flashed behind it. "Did the others tell on me?"
"You bet your ass they did. You're just lucky Rowley found you first and not Goose or the Commander."
Niko shivered. Pain? Those damned tests Q-ball had convinced the medical staff were necessary? Struggling for objectivity, he studied her battered hands. "Those are gonna need medical attention, Niko. Come on, I'll walk with you to MediStat."
She flinched. "I don't want to go."
He'd never lost his temper with her before, but he lost it now. "Dammit, you think you're paying some bizarre debt to the universe like this?" Doc stepped back because he didn't trust himself to be in arm's length of her at the moment. His hands clenched into fists. "You're not the only one who suffered, Niko. You might be the one who got hit the worst, but we were all there. All of us. I bled and cursed and screamed right along with you, remember? Don't you dare act like you're the only martyr!"
He was almost out the door before Niko recovered from the unexpected lash of his anger. "Doc! Wait!" She ran after him and caught his arm, careless of her battered hands. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to…" She shook her head; it felt as if shards of glass were piercing her skull. "I know what you went through. I didn't mean to act like it didn't matter. It did. I'm … sorry."
He stopped, sucked in a deep breath, fought to bring his anger under control. "I'm sorry, too, Niko." When he faced her again, it was with some semblance of his usual cheerful poise, but shadows still darkened his eyes. "Boy, we're both pretty on edge. I guess those three weeks on Paradise will be good for us, huh? A little relaxation, some sun…"
"I'm not going."
"I'm taking a separate leave. I… need it, Doc. I need to be away for a while."
"Okay." He stabbed a hand through his hair. "Okay. When are you leaving?"
"In the morning. I know the team leader running the excavation on Gray's World. He says he needs a seasoned archaeologist."
He stared at her. "When you decide to do something, you really move fast, don't you? Were you even going to say goodbye?"
Niko winced. "I deserved that. For what it's worth, yes." She went up on tiptoe to press a kiss to his cheek. "Bye, Doc."
"Bye, kid. Hey, take care of those hands before you pay your respects to Zach and Eliza, or the captain will have your hide."
The trace of a smile ghosted across her mouth. He wasn't going to let her off the hook. She was suddenly, fiercely glad. "I will."
"Sure you don't want company on the way to MediStat? If you don't want me, I can always call Goose…"
"Don't, Doc. I… can't see him right now."
"You know, I do believe this is a first." Doc's voice was deceptively mild, but his black eyes were diamond-sharp. "Our charming Miss Niko is afraid of the Goose-man. Funny, I used to think you were the one person on the base who wasn't afraid of him."
"I'm not afraid of him."
The moment she spoke, she remembered again. Rain, and the smell of smoke and charring flesh. Not-so distant explosions, raw sewage underfoot. A lifetime lived in the short minute and a half that it took to plunge a combat knife into her chest.
The terrifying lack of pain as she died.
"Niko?" Alarmed, he grabbed her arms, steadied her before she could fall. Damn it, his hands were shaking. Doc swore under his breath. "What the hell did they do to you?"
"It wasn't the tests." Shimmering star, her head hurt.
He swore, and not quietly. "Then what?"
"I was just remembering… Again. Do you ever wonder what it's like to die, Doc?" She asked it almost dreamily, turquoise eyes hazed with pain and focused on a reality he couldn't see. "Did you know that it hurts worse when it doesn't hurt? That doesn't seem fair, somehow."
"Niko, you're scaring the hell out of me here."
"Didn't mean to. Sorry." With a ghost of her old grace, she pulled away. "I'm saying that a lot, aren't I?
"Maybe you should talk to somebody," he suggested uneasily. "Not the doctors. Just… somebody. Goose…."
"No. Stop trying, Doc. Just… stop trying."
"Not on your life." But he didn't follow her. Not this time. "You going to be all right?"
"Maybe." She didn't turn around, tangled red hair shielding her expression from him as she paused. "And Doc? If you see Goose, tell him… I'm sorry."
Niko made it into the corridor before the trembling started. Another voice slipped up from the depths of her mind, this one crystal-clear and bitter with shattered illusions. *You were a coward, Ariel. No more, no less. And you raised me in your image.*
In that other life, I condemned Ariel for being a coward because she wanted to live. Disgust tightened her delicate features. Look at me. Running from this place, from myself. From the consequences of my own actions..
I've got three weeks to get my head back on straight. To sort out all these new memories. I can't keep letting them affect me. But to do that, I need time away from here, from everything that reminds me of torture and nightmares. Is that cowardice?
I feel like it is. I can forgive that other Ariel. Why can't I forgive myself? Her hands tightened into fists, and fresh blood trickled down her fingers.
And why can't I forget?
to be concluded in Ghosts in the Mind: Redemption