Author: Chris Cook
Babylon 5. A five-mile-long space station in neutral territory, port-of-call for diplomats, hustlers, entrepreneurs, smugglers, refugees and wanderers. Two and a half million tonnes of spinning metal, home away from home for a quarter of a million humans and aliens. None of them exactly what they appear. All of them wanting something.
Tara Maclay wanted strawberries, and she wasn't having an easy time finding them. She had three days until Willow's birthday, and her strawberries-and-ice-cream plan was on decidedly shaky ground. Babylon 5 didn't grow any strawberries, of course - all its hydroponic areas were filled with 'essential' plants, those with a high dioxide-to-oxygen yield, and better than average harvest value. Apparently someone back at Earthdome had decided that strawberries weren't 'essential' enough when they had put together Babylon 5's self-sufficiency guidelines. After weeks of fruitless searching, Tara had half a mind to find that someone and space them.
That left imports, and imports were expensive. The station's most affluent citizens could afford to have their fruit and vegetables ferried in from Earth and the Proxima colonies, which was what kept prices and demand up at the most exclusive restaurants. Tara had checked well in advance, and found that - due to the delicate shipping requirements and low demand - the cost of getting fresh strawberries on Babylon 5 was only marginally cheaper than just flying to Earth for dessert.
If only the ice cream had been more difficult, Tara lamented to herself as she made her way through the crowded Zocalo, following up another lead that, she was sure, would end with a shopkeeper insisting that strawberries were impossible to acquire. If, months ago, ice cream had turned out to be impossible to get, she probably would have forgotten the whole strawberries-and-ice-cream idea, and thought up something else for Willow's birthday. But ice cream had, since Earth's first contact with aliens, spread through the galaxy like a luciously tasty plague, and with every alien race on the station importing supplies - even the Pak'ma'ra ate it, ignoring the fact that it had never been alive, and therefore hadn't been dead five days prior to eating - that there was always enough spare to go around. With Tara's ice cream happily on its way in from the Io transfer point, she had no option but to find the strawberries. Damn it.
"I'm sorry ma'am," the shopkeeper told her when she explained her problem, "but my resources - considerable though they are," he interrupted himself, gesturing around his shop, packed as it was with bizarre odds and ends from fifty sectors, "are limited. If you'll excuse me for a moment-" He looked past her as the shop's bell tinkled, signalling a new customer. Tara folded her arms and frowned - her list of potential suppliers was running short.
"You what?" A brisk, forceful voice brought Tara back to her immediate surroundings. She turned to see the shopkeeper making every effort to placate a visibly irritated Commander Susan Ivanova, who was directing at him the kind of death-stare she was rumoured to use during negotiations with hostile governments. Ivanova... an idea sprung to Tara's mind. Ivanova had a way - Goddess only knew how - of getting coffee, real coffee, on the station, which should have been impossible on an Earthforce military salary. One of the handful of times Tara - in her official capacity as legal attaché to the docker's guild - had had a meeting with Ivanova, she had smelled the unmistakeable aroma from the Commander's cup. Perhaps she knew someone who knew someone, and so on, who could help.
"Commander," she ran after Ivanova, who was storming out of the beleaguered merchant's shop.
"Miss... Maclay, isn't it?" said Ivanova. Tara nodded, and she went on: "I feel it only fair to warn you, if the guild wants to renegotiate again, this is not the day they should have chosen."
"No, no," said Tara hastily, "it's nothing official." She quickly explained her predicament, omitting only the destination of the present she was preparing. Willow, as one of only two telepaths assigned to Babylon 5, was frequently around the command staff, and Tara didn't want her surprise accidentally spoiled.
"Good luck," advised Ivanova with a wry smile.
"I was hoping you might know someone," suggested Tara, "maybe be able to have a few packed into a shipment off Mars or something like that?" She gave Ivanova her best imitation of Willow's irresistible pleading face. Susan held out for a whole three seconds, then sighed theatrically, raising her eyebrows, and pulled Tara into an alcove, out of the way of the Zocalo's crowds.
"Okay, listen," she whispered, "if anyone asks, I never told you this, and if you tell anyone else about it I will deny all knowledge, and then reassign your quarters to Grey Sector without an oxygen breather. This is between you and me." Tara nodded - she knew Ivanova, by reputation at least, well enough to know she was being facetious. Probably.
"The Drazi Ambassador," Ivanova explained, "has connections who can arrange for small quantities of fresh produce to be shipped in - sort of an unofficial kind of diplomacy, most of the other Ambassadors let him get away with creative interpretations of treaties so long as he gets their favourite snacks shipped in. He's a hard bargainer, but I can arrange for him to hand over some strawberries - but I need a favour in return." Tara nodded her assent. "You've probably been looking all over the station already, am I right?" Tara nodded again, and Ivanova went on: "Then you'll have a good idea of who has what. I've got an... occasion coming up, and I need a package brought on board. It's a box of chocolates, and the damned thing is late. At the moment it's sitting in a storage bay three sectors away, and my usual courier has gone and changed his schedule, again. If you can find someone who can have that package put on an incoming ship and offloaded here, I'll talk to the Drazi and call in a favour. Agreed?"
"Agreed," said Tara quickly. Ivanova produced a data crystal from her jacket.
"That's all the information you'll need. When you've found someone who can do it, refer them to me and I'll take care of everything. I just don't have the time to run around the whole commercial section myself, not with the Gaim and the Brakiri about to start a shooting war over trade tariffs."
"I'll take care of it," promised Tara. Ivanova thanked her and vanished back into the crowd. Tara headed in the opposite direction, feeling much better. Everything was working out after all.
"They're what?" exclaimed Tara. Five different people had already told her the same thing - sector twenty by nine was experiencing prolonged delays - but this was the first time she'd heard why.
"Military operations," repeated the Narn trader she was talking to, "the Minbari are hunting down a group of raiders who seem to have made their base somewhere in the sector. All commercial traffic is subject to escort, and the Minbari only have enough escort cruisers for a handful of ships at a time. Now, if you could prevail upon the Minbari to provide an escort for one of my vessels, I'm sure we could pick up your cargo and be here in no time, but as it stands..."
Tara huffed in frustration and thought fast. The Narn was her best bet of getting Susan's package delivered on time. Sure, she would just go ask the Minbari Ambassador, whom she didn't even know, if she would mind having a word to her people's military caste about the disposition of their merchant escort fleet... then again, Captain Sinclair was close to the Minbari Ambassador, and he did owe Tara a favour after her assistance in straightening out the latest round of negotiations between him and the ever-fractious docker's guild, so perhaps...
"I'll see what I can do," she promised the bemused Narn. She set off, planning how best to arrange to bump into Captain Sinclair. She considered contacting Ivanova again, but dismissed the idea - she had promised to take care of the matter for her, so she would. Asking Willow to have a word with Sinclair would be out of the question - once she got her curiosity going, Tara would need a changeling net to keep her surprise a secret for three days.
The solution presented itself in the form of the slim blonde quietly observing the station's bustling markets from one of the balcony cafés. Talia Winters and Willow had worked together frequently during the first few weeks of Willow's posting to Babylon 5, before Willow had got up to speed on the station's many and varied inhabitants and factions, and could operate without a guide. Tara had gotten to know her, and they had remained friends since.
"I need to talk with Captain Sinclair," Tara explained after exchanging greetings and small talk.
"That might be difficult," the telepath purred - she always purred. "What's this about?"
"It's a... private matter," answered Tara, "I need a meeting with the Minbari Ambassador, and I thought he might be able to help."
"Probably," admitted Talia, "but he's due to go out on a patrol in an hour, and he won't be back until tomorrow." Tara's dismay must have showed.
"Tell you what," Talia suggested, "I could probably have a word with him before he leaves, if I hurry. But I need you to do something for me. I was about to head down to level 15. I had an order placed for a... well, it's our being-a-couple anniversary tonight, Susan and I, and I decided to get her a present. Only the shop closes in half an hour. If you could pick it up for me, I'll talk to the Captain before he goes out."
Which was how Tara found herself standing in a plain, spartan shop on the border between the normal commercial levels and 'down-below'. The area wasn't actually disreputable - a few levels lower down and Tara would have hesitated to go - but she was nonetheless surprised to find such a professional-looking establishment among the disorderly maze of stalls and vendors who made up most of the level's commercial population. By the look of the place, though, it existed purely to deliver goods ordered by remote, so Tara guessed that having an impressive shop-front wasn't high on their list of priorities. Tara showed the clerk the order crystal Talia had given her, and waited while she disappeared into the back room to search through her stock. At least, Tara thought she was a 'she' - she wasn't sure what species the insectoid clerk was, but the translator hanging around her neck, interpreting her whistles and clicks, had a feminine voice.
"Here we are," she said brightly, returning with a package wrapped in tissue paper, "if you'll just sign here?" Tara pressed her thumb to the offered data tablet, as the clerk produced a slim storage box and unwrapped the package from its paper. Tara put the tablet back on the desk and straightened to see the clerk holding up a very silky, very sexy red and black teddy.
"Body covering," said the clerk in a nonchalant fashion, "I don't know what you people see in them. I suppose it makes up for not having a nice carapace, eh?" she joked.
"Uh-huh," said Tara, hoping like hell no-one else came into the shop before the clerk closed the box. She fretted until the teddy was respectably concealed within its storage box - at least she would be able to go outside without combusting from excess blushing. 'Talia must be planning one hell of an anniversary,' she thought to herself. 'Come to think of it...'
"C-can I order another one of these?" she blurted out. The clerk nodded and gestured with one of her claws to the data tablet Tara had used.
"Several still in stock. I'll send a catalogue to your system," she promised. Tara nodded and dashed out of the shop before her blush made a counter-attack. Well, the strawberries were still a problem, but that was the post-birthday celebrations taken care of.
Tara rested a few moments on a bench, between a Centauri fortune teller's stall and a Vree pizza vendor, to take the load off her feet, and collect her thoughts. She was mentally rehearsing what she would say to the Minbari Ambassador when someone sat beside her.
"You're Tara Maclay, aren't you? Willow's partner?" Tara turned to see an intense-looking woman studying her.
"Commander Lochley," she answered, "yes, hello." Lochley's eyes flickered to the corner of the box Tara held in her lap. Tara looked as well, and realised she had read the shipping code. And now she had a sly grin tugging at the edges of her lips. 'Oh Goddess,' Tara thought, feeling her cheeks redden, 'she knows.'
"You picking that up for Talia?" she asked. Tara nodded, frowning.
"How did you know?" she asked.
"I'm head of security," said Lochley, "it's my job to know everything and everyone on the station. Omniscience is part of the job requirements. Do you want a burger?" Lochley motioned towards the burger stall she had been at before she sat down.
"Is that actual beef?" asked Tara, more out of curiosity than anything else. She had been vegetarian even before she moved to the station, where meat dishes were the exception rather than the rule. She wondered how a down-below vendor could get hamburger meat without driving his costs up.
"It's... actual meat," said Lochley. "Best not to enquire further." She shrugged and took another bite of her own burger.
"Uh-huh," said Tara, contemplating the possibilities. Of course, down-below did have a bit of a rat problem...
"It's probably not for everyone," said Lochley, after gulping down her bite, "but, you know, I just prefer good, honest, don't-ask-where-it-came-from junk food now and then. Doctor Franklin says it's not harmful. Though he did complain about my diet when I asked. Doctors, huh? Spend all day in the operating room, but get squeamish over one little unidentifiable food product."
"Do they do vegetarian?" asked Tara.
Some time later, Tara was sitting in the guest room of Ambassador Delenn's quarters, gazing around at the mystical furnishings. Despite the Ambassador's widely-reported metamorphosis from a full Minbari to her current half-human form, her quarters were still decorated very much in the alien style, full of crystals and refractive prisms, light and shade arranged carefully to achieve the proper effect. Tara was acutely conscious of not knowing what any of it meant, and throughout her brief meeting had been mainly hoping she wouldn't inadvertently cause offence somehow. Delenn had seemed to sense this, and had done her best to put Tara at ease.
"What you ask is not impossible," said Delenn, in her melodic voice. "The assignment of escorts to trading vessels is essentially random, as none are on relief missions, or other assignments that would cause us to give them priority. And of course," she smiled, "your cause is worthy. I will communicate with our fleet captain, and see what arrangements can be made for the Narn transport, in return for a small service on your part."
Tara agreed, and Delenn disappeared for a moment into her private rooms, returning with a small box, packaged as a gift.
"A ceremonial song-crystal," she explained, lifting the lid. The teardrop-shaped crystal inside emitted a soft, soothing chord when she held it near the light. "The Drazi Ambassador's third cycle of honour begins tomorrow. Unfortunately these five days on Minbar are in honour of Valen, in whose memory we wear these robes," she touched a hand to the shoulder of her outermost robe, which was a soft purple. "Purple is not a good colour for Drazi at the moment," she said with a shrug. "I would have been forced to give the Ambassador his gift two days late - which would not be a mortal offence by any means," she hastened to add, "but I would like this done properly. If you could give him this, and convey my congratulations, I would be most grateful."
'Right,' thought Tara as she rode in the transport tube, 'deliver silky lingerie to Talia, have Narn transport get Ivanova's package, give crystal to Drazi, get strawberries. No problem.' She didn't really pay attention when the tube car halted to pick up another passenger.
"It's Miss Maclay, isn't it?" Tara jumped slightly, having been wrapped in her own thoughts. The man standing next to her, maintaining a polite distance, was tall, immaculately dressed and presented, and was smiling at her warmly. She nodded.
"Do I know you?" she asked. The man shook his head.
"My associates and I do business on the station now and then, I may have seen you around from time to time. I understand you've had meetings with several of the senior staff today, including Ambassador Delenn. And you're scheduled to meet the Drazi Ambassador tomorrow morning?"
"Yes," said Tara hesitantly. The man took a step back, smiling, and spread his open palms, as non-threatening as could be.
"Forgive me," he said, "it's my business to know these things, nothing more. May I ask you a question, though?"
"Alright," said Tara warily.
"What do you want?"
Tara thought for a moment.
"Strawberries," she said firmly.
"Strawberries..." the man repeated.
"Strawberries," confirmed Tara. The man looked puzzled. There was a quiet clicking noise - probably the tube car slowing down, concluded Tara, as the doors slid open.
"I'm not sure my associates have any strawberries," said the man.
"Their loss," said Tara, stepping outside. The man was still looking confused as the doors closed.
Tara arrived outside the meeting room quietly confident. The message Ivanova had left on her system last night had been positive, Willow didn't even suspect anything was going on, the transport from Io, loaded with ice cream among other cargoes, was due in within the hour. And Tara had made a quick trip to down-below before taking the core shuttle to the Diplomatic Sector, and her bag now contained something silky and emerald-green, safely hidden away. But the main thing... well, that would probably be the main thing, but the thing that Tara was concentrating on most, was that Willow would get her strawberries and ice cream.
Thirty minutes later, it was clear that Willow would not get her strawberries and ice cream. The Drazi Ambassador had been very apologetic - Delenn's gift had put him in a good mood, and he'd seemed positively crestfallen to be unable to deliver on the request Ivanova had made on Tara's behalf. But, he had explained, there was nothing he could do. The last time a minor shooting match had started outside Babylon 5 - something to do with a pair of Centauri quarrelling over something their great-grandfathers had insulted each other over last century - a stray shot had clipped the station's zero-g cargo transfer bays, and the Drazi's entire supply of strawberries, Narn dewflowers, Minbari nectar berries, and five-day-old swamp-hawk carcasses (for the Pak'ma'ra) had been vaporised.
Tara's attention was focused entirely inwards as she boarded the transport tube out of the Diplomatic Sector, on a mixture of frustration and despair. She had been so certain that the strawberries would be the perfect birthday surprise - well, and the lingerie, but that was a different kind of surprise. A table for two in the Fresh Air Restaurant, looking out over the vast Garden Sector, romantic dinner, and the expression on Willow's face when the waiter brought out Tara's special surprise (the dessert, not the other one) - Tara had been imagining it for weeks, all through her efforts to find the Goddess-damned things, and now they'd been blown up by some pampered stuck-up Centauri who couldn't just meet someone from a rival house without trying to shoot the wings off his shuttle!
Through her uncharacteristic cloud of uncharitable thoughts - 'please let that Centauri have legal trouble with the docker's guild,' she was thinking, 'I'll have him and his blasted shuttle impounded for months' - she slowly became aware that she wasn't alone. She turned slightly, and jumped when she saw, beside her in the tube car, the hulking, alien form of Ambassador Kosh. Or his encounter suit, at any rate - no-one knew what a Vorlon looked like, but the suit, with its layers of dense, metallic fabric, organic-looking collar and robotic scanner-head, was quite bizarre enough. Tara had never even seen Kosh before. And now here he was, right beside her, the head of his suit turned to stare at her with its single unblinking photoreceptor, cocked at an angle that - for all its blank expressionless visage - made it seem somehow quizzical.
"Frustration," Kosh observed, "disappointment." The deep, old voice - merely a translator built into his suit - overlaid the incomprehensible series of tones and chords that was Kosh's true voice.
"I-I just s-saw the Drazi Ambassador," stammered Tara, "he c-couldn't get a shipment I needed." Tara felt slightly odd telling the station's most enigmatic resident about her strawberry-hunt, but her shock at being face to face with a Vorlon was such that she was in no condition to argue.
"Explain," intoned Kosh, not unkindly, at least so far as the translator rendered his words. And Tara, for no good reason she could think of, began to tell the whole story, from first conceiving of the idea, through all the hoops she'd jumped through, right up to her meeting with the Drazi. The transport tube arrived at its next stop - still in the Diplomatic Sector, presumably where Kosh had been headed - but he made no move to leave, and Tara kept talking.
"I suppose it hasn't been a complete waste of time," she concluded ruefully, "at least Ivanova and Talia, and Delenn, and the Narn will all be a bit happier. And Commander Lochley did seem to like that vegetarian burger, and I suppose Doctor Franklin will be pleased she's given up the rat meat." She'd omitted nothing, except the small matter of the lingerie hidden in her bag - there were some things even a Vorlon couldn't get Tara Maclay to talk about in public. She shrugged helplessly. Kosh made a few musical sounds, which didn't translate. The eyepiece irised open wide, and the golden light inside seemed to intensify. Tara had the odd feeling that her mind was being turned over and examined, then it was over, and Kosh's tall, strange shape was swaying away, out of the tube car. He turned back before the doors closed.
"Be well," he said.
"Um, thanks," said Tara, flashing him a smile. The robotic head tilted sideways again, then he turned, and the doors closed behind him. Tara, surprisingly, felt better. It was true, it hadn't been a complete waste of time. She still had the ice cream, for one thing, and even if it wasn't particularly rare, it was still damned good ice cream, fresh all the way from Earth. So perhaps the Fresh Air Restaurant plan needn't go to waste. Tara decided to make the arrangements later, before Willow got home. The more she thought about it, the better it seemed - romantic dinner, ice cream, lingerie... and Willow, of course. Even strawberries weren't better than Willow, not by a long shot, and - incomprehensible wonder though it was - Willow felt the same way about Tara. She would make sure it was a memorable birthday.
The night was wonderful. Fresh Air was just full enough to be a proper night out, and not so much as to be crowded. The station's Garden, in night-mode at present, glittered in the artificial starlight, arching up and over the heads of the diners. The proprietors of Fresh Air seemed to be in a romantic mood, as the restaurant was lit only by twin candles on each table, and a handful of soft Minbari glow-crystals lighting the way to the exit. The velvety half-darkness had given Willow and Tara the perfect cover for discreet footsies beneath the table, while staring at each other in the candlelight. When a waiter appeared to collect their empty plates, Willow had started to study the dessert menu, but Tara had told her she had a surprise in store. The waiter nodded and departed towards the kitchen, where Tara had dropped off her stash of ice cream earlier in the day.
"What is it?" asked Willow, eyes glinting in the soft light. "Come on, tell me tell me tell me." Tara mimed zipping her lips. "Don't make me use unconventional interrogation techniques," warned Willow, running her toes up the back of Tara's leg. Tara stifled her laugh - once Willow got the scent of a secret, she would not be denied.
"Ice cream!" Willow squeaked when Tara told her. She slid out of her seat and kissed Tara, then sat back down and almost managed not to bounce too excitedly as the waiter returned, his tray laden with two ice cream cups, covered with silver lids.
"You are the greatest girlfriend in the whole galaxy," murmured Willow as she lifted the lid from her dessert. Tara waited, just watching Willow's face as she lifted her spoon and looked down. She could spend hours watching Willow - it was like when she used to lie on the beach, back on Earth, and watch the waves. Always the same, always new, always fascinating, and beautiful, and-
"No," said Willow flatly. Tara snapped out of her reverie. "No way. There is no way I am seeing this."
"What?" asked Tara quickly. Willow's expression was unreadable - delight, shock? Tara looked down at Willow's dessert, and had to fight to contain a squeak of shock herself. Amid the delectable-looking swirls of vanilla and chocolate lay glistening, juicy-looking strawberries.
"I take it back," said Willow, slightly muffled by a mouthful of strawberries and ice cream, "make that 'greatest girlfriend in the universe'." And at that point, there really wasn't anything Tara could do but smile.
She even stopped feeling nervous about what she was wearing underneath her dress.