Characters: Dr. Robert Stadler, Terry Hale
Dr. Robert Stadler lay in his bed and could not get to sleep. Always the past invaded, shaking him out of his rest and peace of mind. Giving up he finally rose and got dressed. The observation dome should be empty at this time of night. He left his quarters and took the lift to the dome.
He looked around the room. It was more like the bubble of a giant eye than a dome; the gaze of the Phoenix looking out into the void. Dark at the moment. He had been right. There was no one here. He sat on the floor, leaned his head back, and gazed into the endless expanse of the universe. He tried to empty his mind of the demons which haunted him.
Captain Terry Hale was weary of waiting on the bridge for some kind of sign from Morgan or the fighter pilots. Sometimes she thought the tedium of waiting worse that any battle, though she should have been glad that their first day had gone so quietly. She’d come to regret the complaint before long.
She stood and left the bridge to the tactical officer. The bridge view ports weren’t solitary enough, so she headed for the observation dome.
The doors whispered open silently and Hale entered, thinking herself alone. The only sound was the light tap of her shoes as she walked. She paced in the dark, struggling with her thoughts.
Stadler had actually relaxed into the serene quiet of his solitude. He had never learned meditation techniques, but he was able to lose himself in the vast anonymity of the stars. Until the steady, fretting tap of shoes drummed into his awareness.
“Dammit,” said Stadler. “Who’s there?”
Hale stopped; she could barely make out the form of someone by the windows. Irritable with her worries and distractions, patient tolerance went out the window. “I don’t recall there being a reservation on this space,” she said, her tone dripping sarcasm.
“People normally come here to meditate, not walk exercise laps,” said Stadler with equal sarcasm.
Hale’s eyes peered into the darkness. She could finally make out the features of the man by the windows; he was not familiar at all. Not surprising, on a ship where she knew only a bare handful of people in the lot.
“I hadn’t realized I was in company,” she said cooly, as close to an apology as she was ever going to bother.
“Now that you know it,” said Stadler, “could you please find some place to light?”
Hale’s eyes narrowed, her shoulders tightened defensively. Another time, she would have been able to brush it off without a thought, but her nerves were frazzled. It took considerable effort, but she closed her mouth on a daggered retort and turned away. She walked to another length of the window wall and stood staring out, perfectly still.
Stadler rolled his head around, trying to release the tension, trying to regain the sense of solitude he had had before the woman had entered. He stared out at the eternal night of the universe–but was painfully aware of her presence there in the room with him.
Hale was equally aggravated, but refused to give ground, stubborn to the point of ridiculousness.
Stadler looked over at her, silhouetted against the window. The relief shift of fighters left their bays, streaking across the void, brightening the room a little with the glow of their engines. Hale stood rigidly, hands clasped behind her back, unmoved by the display. For a moment Stadler was caught up in the beauty of the sleek fighters cutting through the night — and suddenly felt very alone. The one person he would have shared this with was gone. Stadler stared with fresh rage at the malevolent universe, suddenly wanting to escape, to tear himself out of his own skin.
Hale was only thinking of how many lives were hurtling away into danger, acutely aware of her responsibility. How many had she already lost to this mission? The near-crippled reck of her White Star was the proof of what might come, even for the massive Phoenix.
Suddenly she felt the gaze cutting past her, though she did not know she was no longer the focus. She looked back; her scowl became a puzzled frown. Stadler noticed her looking at him and turned abruptly away. He was suddenly very self-conscious — and angry. He wondered how much she had seen in his face in the dim light.
“We are going to get through this,” said Hale, filling the silence that had suddenly become unbearable, grasping at what little she could. All she could see was yet another member of her burden looking to her for answers.
Stadler laughed bitterly. “What, the Vorlons? Vorlon space? That’s all I’ve heard from the moment I got on board.” He rose and looked at her.
“And what would you rather have heard? Some pretty lies?” Hale snapped, her hostility back. She had been almost sympathetic for a confused moment.
“So you came here to quiet your fears of Vorlon space?” said Stadler; he spoke in a strangled tone, almost quietly. “Did it ever occur to you that there might be those who would welcome death?”
Suddenly ashamed of what he had revealed, he turned his back on her. He tried to control his breathing.
Hale was silenced a moment.
“Of course there are,” she said, her voice still edged. “Who wouldn’t welcome the easy path?”
Stadler nodded slowly and turned back to her. “You’re right. It would be the easy path.” His words were quiet, almost solemn. “I’m not judging you for your fears. Heaven knows I wouldn’t have you judge me for mine.”
“Who said I feared for myself?”
Stadler lowered his head. “I’m sorry. Perhaps I should leave.”
“Perhaps–” Hale stopped suddenly as her link chirped. She sighed exasperation, turned abruptly, and walked away. She tapped her link as she went. Stadler faintly heard her words. “…here. Go ahead…”
Stadler watched her go. He wondered vaguely who she was, but decided that if she was not in science, their paths would probably not cross again. Two angry ships that passed in the night. He turned back to the window and stared out at the void.