Characters: Terry Hale, Jan Jardine
Lomhlaba Unzima, Lohmhlaba. [This world is a harsh place, this world.]
– Zulu Proverb
For the first time in its years of service, the Phoenix prepared to be towed into a Jumpgate of another’s making. Magnetic and more tangible tow lines were secured and engineering efforts synchronized. The battered warship at least had most of its own thrusters and some use of its engines, but no risks were being taken with the jump. Like the storm tides of a sea, the Hyperspace drift had taken many a damaged ship to uncharted reaches, never to be retrieved again.
Terry Hale always thought it was the making of a new set of “sea” tales, in the spirit of The Flying Dutchman. She simply had no enthusiasm for becoming a member of the character cast.
“Tow lines have been made fast and Engineering reports they are ready and standing by, Captain,” Darion reported from Ops.
“Very good, signal the White Star 46. It’s a go.”
Terry gripped her chair as a shudder passed through the ship.
Slowly, the starscape began to move again, and then the opening point of a jumpgate blotted it out with its whirlpool haze of color.
Terry didn’t begin to relax until hyperspace had wrapped about them and Darion announced, “Hyperspace jump complete. Proceeding to Minbar, best speed.”
“Very good.” An honest smile crossed her face for the first time in what felt far too long. With a little stretch she stood and came about her command seat. “I’ll be in my office.” Most of all, she was going to finally make some use of the cot she’d gotten set up in there. Her own quarters weren’t fit for habitation.
She wasn’t even three paces from her seat when Darion called out a final query.
“Sir? Captain Jardine is requesting permission to visit the Phoenix.”
And inspect? Terry wondered as well, heart sinking. She’d already begun dreading what Command would think of the mess she made of the mission … and the Phoenix. She didn’t let it show, though, and changed her course for the lift.
“By all means, Darion, and welcome him aboard.”
What little Terry knew of Captain Jardine was not reassuring, she reflected as she watched his ship — an older SA-23E Starfury — settle into the Phoenix’s spare docking cradle. A vivid African tribal design was painted on the hull over the pilot’s head. Jan Jardine was a longtime Earthforce veteran, and had been one of the first Humans to join the Anla’shok. Probably far better qualified for command than she was, come to that.
“Captain Hale?” She was startled by the voice, and blinked to see that Jardine had already disembarked from his Starfury and approached her. He held out a weathered hand.
“Thank you for being willing to see me.”
She took it, a little nonplussed. “Welcome aboard the Phoenix, Captain Jardine,” she said, “such as she is.”
He smiled, dark eyes sparkling in his light coffee-colored face. “Oh, please. Anla’shok Jardine if you must, but I much prefer Jan.”
“Would you care to come to my office, or inspect the ship first?”
“Your office is fine. I didn’t come for an inspection tour, be honest with you.”
She couldn’t help the sigh of relief that emerged. Jardine merely smiled again, and as they left the docking bay, said, “I know you haven’t had time to compose anything like a complete report on what happened to you out there. But I would like to get a brief run down, if you could.”
Terry gave it to him as they made their way back to her office. Even in its short form, without numbers or names, it was a grim list of events. The lives, ships, and the Phoenix’s own first command all lost to aliens they had no name for. And what had they done in return? Demolished a planet and however many more lives with it.
Jan listened quietly, saying nothing until they entered her office and she offered him a seat. As she dropped into the chair at her desk, she looked him over, realizing with some surprise that he was old enough to be her father — maybe even her grandfather.
What surprised her further were the first words out of his mouth.
“And you think you’ve made a royal mess of it, don’t you?”
Terry let out a short, humorless laugh and looked away into the rippling view of hyperspace. “I guess that about sums it up.”
Jan ruffled his hair before speaking. “God knows I’ve been in that place often enough. Might well be a few more times before I’m done. But I’ll tell you the truth. It sounds to me like you did the only thing you could have done. And did it damn well.”
“Yeah, maybe after I got us boxed good and tight into a corner. There’s too many What-if’s and Could-haves … right back when we entered this space.”
“Those were always there. Nothing anyone could have done to change that. The way I see it, you had two choices after you found the 24. Turn tail and run, and let those beings run roughshod over the galaxy with their machine, or … go on. Complete the mission.”
“Maybe so,” Terry quietly replied, rubbing the back of her neck. “I just get to wondering if I should be here, in this seat. After all, I got here by default. In the war… there was no one else, and then suddenly people seem to think I’m the one for the job.” She snorted, almost angrily. “For heaven’s sake, before this I was a Park Ranger. Not even really police trained, much less military.”
“Me — I did more than my share of time in Earthforce. But when I got here, you know how much it counted for?”
Hale turned to him finally, to be met with a look that caught her straight in the eye. “Diddly squat,” he said succinctly and sat back a little. “Come on, Terry. You know as well as I do. In the Anla’shok it’s your heart that counts.”
It took a few moments, but eventually she nodded slowly. She believed the words, even if she wasn’t feeling them just now. “I guess I’m just tired. I feel like I’ve lost a year of my life in this.”
Jan nodded slowly. “I know. I felt that way for a long time, after the Line …”
“You got used to it then?”
“No. I don’t think you ever do get used to it. You shouldn’t. But you make your peace with it. You find the lessons. Grieve the losses. And then you go on.”
“Yeah,” she sighed. “Anyway, I never got around to properly thanking you. We’d have been months getting back without your ship hunting for us.”
Jan shrugged. “We look after our own.”
“Even so.” Terry leaned forward to rest her arms on the desk. “Anything else you’d like to see around here?”
Jan stood, smiling. “Only one thing, maybe. I gather your head of Security is one Tomas Darquin?”
Terry looked up at him curiously. “He is.”
“Oh good. I wonder if he’ll remember me. Been a while.” He headed toward the door, then paused. “I know you need to get some sleep. I only came now because I figured you’d maybe sleep better once we’d talked.”
After a stall that saw a reluctant smile emerge, Terry answered, “I think maybe you were right.”
“Good. Rest well then, Terry. We’ll talk again before we get to Minbar, I’m sure.” And with that he left.
Terry stared off in his wake for a few long moments before pushing herself up. “Computer, close the door.” She sighed with relief as it hissed shut and she turned to the cot stretched out under the wide bubble of her office viewport. Dropping down just as she was, the last thing she saw was the hypnotic warp of hyperspace pulling her into sleep.
Copyright (C) 1998 Alida Saxon and Jamie Lawson. All rights reserved.