Characters: Terry Hale, Tomás Darquin
In the central building complex of the Anla’shok compound, Captain Terry Hale stood in a hallway, gazing out a window at the gardens and training field beyond. With only the briefest stop at Babylon 5 to release a number of passengers, it had been a quick trip from Earth. She had been back in Minbari space for a couple of days, but only now, she had come to answer the reports on Dunstan Kordieh with a personal conference. She looked out on the thriving tapestry glowing green in the sunlight, summoning strength.
Tomás Darquin stepped into the same corridor, his Anla’shok duster flowing behind him as he studied these familiar surroundings. He tried to move more slowly than his typical gait, with a reverence worthy of ancient stone that had once seen Valen’s footsteps centuries ago. But he kept thinking of it as the place where he spiritually grew up. His memories of it usually involved disciplinary actions and intimate conversations with his Minbari elders… and a mischievous smile on his face like the one he wore now.
Hale heard the footsteps and quickly looked toward the approaching sound. With a blink, she realized it was Darquin, and felt the knot in her chest loosen just a little. One less thing to worry about.
“Captain Hale!” He picked up his pace to meet her, ready to shake her hand. “Hi, I’m glad you made it back.”
“I was about to say something similar.”
“Well, I’m glad I made it back too.” He grinned.
Hale clasped her hands behind her back, a gesture to match her suddenly stern expression. “And the others?”
“Ah, unharmed, sir. Last time I saw them, ready for duty.”
“A good thing.” She turned, concealing a grateful sigh, and walked slowly toward the meeting room. Relief inspired a brief bubble of euphoria, carefully hidden lest it encourage. “As I’ve seen so far, there’s an incredible capacity for trouble, to the point it’s hunted out. It’s the latter I have a problem with.”
Resisting the urge to quote some Shawn Colvin at her, Darquin nodded. “Yes, sir. Something similar happened to the crew a year ago, just when I joined. Turns out it was a similar reason. The Psi-Corps lured some of our people into a trap.”
“I’m afraid so, sir. It was probably more personal than any direct attack on the Rangers, but came out the same.”
Captain Hale rubbed her brow to stave off a headache. “Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate your making sure this didn’t turn into the first fiasco of the Interstellar Alliance. But to say I’m annoyed would be an understatement.”
Darquin blushed, embarrassed and a little disappointed. He had thought that he, Kim, Morgan, and Katia had handled the Mars business rather well. How many non-telepaths could actually say they’d gone toe-to-toe with Psi-Cops and won?
“I don’t blame you, sir,” he said finally. “But I wasn’t sure what else to do. Major Ryan on the Alexander tapped me and told me they were in trouble. They needed a way out, and all he could do was get them a shuttle, then called me in because he knew me from my Earthforce days. There wasn’t a lot of time, even less info to go on, so I went in.”
“I wasn’t protesting your methods or reasons. Only the need.”
He turned away, glaring at the floor. “Ma’am, Psi-Corps invented the need. I couldn’t just let them take our people.”
“It should not have happened,” Hale said, her tone sharpening. “As it did turn out at least to be a successful escape, what I do about it is up to my discretion. What I need to know is, is there a chance this is going to happen yet again?”
Darquin sighed as he considered his answer. “The Psi-Corps might try to bait us again. They wanted us bad enough. But we now know what they’re up to. We won’t be on the defensive next time.”
“I hope so.” Hale paused outside the door, lingering to resolve one problem before facing another. “I’ll be speaking to Santiago soon about it all. Just between you and me, I’d rather not go further than a probation for this, but we’ll see what comes of a talk.”
“Um, sir? Go easy on her… if it’s possible? They dangled her kids at her.”
A faraway look glazed across Terry Hale’s eyes for a moment, and she muttered under her breath, “She’s not the only one to have ever been there.” With a sigh, she reached for the door chime before turning back to Darquin. “We’ll see. For her own good, I can’t leave the door open for it to happen again.”
Her touch on the door chime was answered immediately with a voice from within. “Enter, please.”
Hale led the two of them into the small office inside, and found themselves framed in a clutter that hardly seemed the work of Minbari hands. Islands of crystalline bric-a-brac on top of pillars of old books and dust-covered storage boxes formed a collar around the doorway. A middle-aged Minbari, bearing wrinkles at the corners of his long mouth and gently etched lines around wide and youthful grey eyes, rose up from a chair at the other end of the room. “Captain Hale, Anla’shok Darquin. It is good to see you again.”
Hale answered him with a slight bow from the waist. “Sech Nelier.”
Darquin followed suit, resting his hands upon themselves and the tips of his thumbs together in Minbari greeting, and smiled widely. “Long time no see, Sech Nelier.”
Nelier smiled back at his former pupil. “I do not suppose you had the opportunity to see any new Rebo and Zooty while back on Earth? They… quite fascinate me,” he said with amusement.
“None of their new stuff, master. I’m afraid I’ve been… very busy.” Darquin offered Captain Hale a deferential look.
Nelier followed it closely, reading Hale’s expression. “A pity. Ah well, regardless of that–we have other business. Please, be seated.”
Sech Nelier gestured to a trio of chairs near him, beside a tall bookshelf. While her security chief took a seat right away and gave his legs a languid stretch, Hale was a bit more slow. “I’ve been reading over your report, several times,” she said.
“And no doubt, you have questions,” said the Minbari. “That is why I suggested that you see me.”
“Questions and doubts,” Hale admitted.
“I would be surprised if it were not so. Please tell me.”
“He’s responsible directly or indirectly for a number of deaths,” Hale said carefully. “Even if this recovery is confirmed by a telepath, how is anyone to know it can’t happen again? Never mind how it is impossible to make up for what has happened.”
Nelier considered a reply, as he saw Darquin nodding gently in agreement with his captain. He could see that his former students needed concrete reassurances now, not a discussion about how one can never be certain of anything. It was they – not he – who had lost their shipmates and nearly their lives to Kordieh’s actions. Against that, belief, faith, and trust counted for nothing.
Finally, Nelier said, “He is not being placed in a position where it could happen again. We will continue to keep him under watch, for as long as it seems necessary.”
Darquin pursed his lips and focused on the ornate window behind Nelier’s desk. He obviously wanted to stay out the line of fire.
“Controlled conditions,” Hale said, pressing on. “You intend then, to keep it that way? Because life is hardly that. Besides, this leads to a return at some point.”
“A return to what?” Nelier asked.
“Precisely what I’m wondering. The Rangers? Something else? I can’t say I like the prospect of either, at this point.”
Nelier sighed very quietly, tapping his lips with a loose fist as if engaged in sagacious thought, trying to conceal dismay. He had expected a hard response from Hale, but not to this extent. Perhaps she did not expect it either, he thought. “I am not sure it is my place to say, Captain, however…. There is only one way, in the end, to be certain that Dunstan Kordieh will not again succumb to madness.”
“A trial by fire, as such. But it’s an experiment that isn’t going to involve just him. People’s lives, yet again.”
“That was not what I was thinking… but that is true, yes,” Nelier said. “Shall we, someday, decide to trust him again? Should we not? Can we ever forgive? Difficult questions.”
“What then… were you thinking?”
“That he could have been executed on the spot.” The stern, harsh tone that permeated his words equally startled Hale and Darquin. “Come now. No one would have questioned your doing so.”
Darquin grimaced slightly, then gave an apologetic nod to Hale, as if to say Nelier had a point there. One corner of her mouth curled upward as she said, “Indeed. I have wondered why not, sometimes.”
Sech Nelier leaned closer to them. “We here in Tuzanor — the teachers of the Anla’shok — if anyone should bear the blame, it is us. We should have seen this before it ever happened. Thus, I see no advantage in punishing Kordieh for our failure. And we cannot execute him now — even if he would wish it so, from time to time.”
He paused, tempted to push Hale further, to draw her out and compel her to challenge her own feelings. But he couldn’t shame her in front of a fellow Ranger, especially one she commanded. Instead he nodded to himself as he watched his words sink in.
“So what do we do with him?” Nelier asked at last.
Hale sat back in silence before speaking again. “You said you had him working on something, a program. How long do you feel that will take?”
“One Minbari cycle, or so we told him. But I believe it may take even longer. Would you like to see it?”
“Um, master, before we do…?” Hale looked over at her security chief, surprised that he had now spoken up.
“Of course. And you needn’t call me that,” Nelier said, smiling a little.
Darquin returned the smile, amused and self-conscious. “Force of habit, I guess.” Then the smile faded as he continued. “But I spoke up because I kind of take exception to one thing in the report.”
“What is it?” Nelier asked.
“The report basically says that he didn’t know what he was doing was wrong. I don’t agree. He hid what he was doing until he had no choice. To me, that says he knew the difference between right and wrong.”
Hale nodded, agreeing. “You don’t hide what you feel is right.”
Nelier allowed himself another long pause. “Understood, and your points are well taken,” he said finally. “I should note that while we believed that he was not responsible, Kordieh himself has decided that he is.”
Darquin shrugged, the frown deepening a little. “Fine.”
“And yet this does not please you,” Nelier said.
“Well, I’m concerned about this happening again, but not the way Captain Hale had in mind. Not this Kordieh, but the next one. We still haven’t established how he got through–at least, not in the report. I mean, there’s supposed to be a screening process. I went through it when I was first here.”
“Yes, well, that leads us to one of many things your people and mine have in common. We make mistakes.”
“There’s another,” Darquin said, hesitating. “I can’t think of a better way to put this–”
“Do you remember what I’ve said about that in class?”
Darquin smirked at the memory. “‘Perhaps there isn’t one.’ Okay, I’ll try. What I meant was ignorance. Some Minbari tend to think of us humans as irrational to begin with.”
“Or simply animals.” Nelier watched Hale and Darquin, as they looked as if he had just slapped them. Then he smiled mischievously. “There are a few of us who have yet to learn, yes. But the elder members such as myself in the Anla’shok have sought to dispel as much ignorance–including that one. That is why I said that my peers and I have chosen to deal with Kordieh in this manner. We do not feel responsible, young Darquin. We simply are.”
A moment passed in silence before Darquin answered. “I understand now, Master–I mean, Nelier.” He smiled. “My doubts go no further.”
Nelier sat back in his chair, looking at Hale for a moment and then back to Darquin, pondering how some people can change not at all over time — and how some could change very profoundly and yet keep their essence the same. Darquin had been one of his best students, despite — or perhaps because of — his instinctive defiance. Nelier would never have expected him to take so fully to heart the task of maintaining order. Yet he still seemed to possess the prerequisite respect, compassion and delight of the Anla’shok.
Nelier raised a hand to get their attention, a gesture they recognized from their days as his students. “From Kordieh’s perspective, as demonstrated by the telepathic scans,” he said finally, “I believe it could be argued that he did not know what he was doing was wrong — despite the fact that he hid his plans from everyone. However, I also think given his acceptance of responsibility, it is a moot point. We will not give him any undue advantage. He will work to prove his sincerity, and then we shall see. That is our plan at present.”
There wasn’t much point in debating, Hale thought, so instead, she said, “Well then, shall we see what you have in mind?”
Nelier rose from his seat, with Darquin quickly moving to follow. “Come with me, then. He will be there, but we can see what he is doing without his having to see us. Unless, of course, you would like to speak to him as well.”
“Let’s just see what he’s doing,” Hale said.
It was a short walk out of the administration building and to a garden behind one of the complex’s three temples. From the shelter of a grove of trees, they saw a small, three-sided building with a set of stairs spiraling around it. Kordieh was standing on one of the steps, cleaning scorch marks from one side, with a large, handheld scrubbing brush.
Hale watched in silence, her mind turning to some of the punishments she’d heard of being handed down in military boot camp, a disciplinary style that went back centuries. Kordieh was fully dressed in deference to the sun, but sweat had soaked his shirt, sticking it down and accentuating his gaunt frame. He paused long enough to descend to the next step, change the brush from his right hand to his left, then continued scrubbing.
Darquin also watched in silence, intrigued. It looked like about a quarter of the pyramid’s side had already been cleaned.
“What is that, exactly?” Hale asked.
“This is a mah’uzeed. A meditation tool,” Nelier answered, keeping his voice low. “It was badly damaged in the civil war. In addition to restoring the mah’uzeed, he is required to walk its path every morning before working. A spiritual exercise. I believe there is something similar on your world. A labyrinth.”
Hale said nothing more, as she pondered. Two parts of her mind were warring over a decision.
Nelier waited for a minute or two, then asked them both, “Is there anything else I can tell you?”
“Yes, on something else,” Darquin said, his voice suddenly somber. “I wasn’t sure if anyone here heard… about Marcus Cole.”
“Yes.” Nelier’s own grief could clearly be heard, despite the formality of his words. “He was one of the best of us, truly the embodiment of all that a Ranger should be. It is a great loss.”
After a moment’s silence for respect, Hale said, “Do what you plan to do here. I can’t decide now, and perhaps I shouldn’t.”
“You’re right, you shouldn’t,” Nelier said. As both Hale and Darquin turned to stare, he smiled for a moment, adding quickly, “You had the opportunity to deal with Kordieh as you saw fit. You chose to turn him over to us. Since then, the decisions have been ours.”
Hale suppressed her surge of annoyance at Nelier’s comment, and simply nodded.
Once they were away from the mah’uzeed, Nelier said to Darquin, “If you have a little time, perhaps you would be willing to tell me some stories you remember of Marcus. We should remember him with delight, not sorrow, if we can.”
Darquin nodded, trying to summon up a smile. “I’ll try.”
Hale added, “I knew of him, of course, but I’m sorry to say I never got to know him.”
“We talked a couple times, when I was still in training here,” Darquin said, nodding at the temple around them. “Called each other out a few times on the flight sims for laughs.”
Nelier said to Hale, “If you had met him, I believe the outcome would have been one of two things.” He waited a moment for a prompt, then decided to go ahead anyway. “He would have either had you laughing or wanting to hit him for being so annoying.”
Hale sniffed, giving Nelier a sidelong glance and a reluctant smile. “Not unfamiliar.”
“I shall take my leave of you both here,” Nelier said. “If there is anything you want to talk about, please come see me.” He pressed his fingers together and bowed.
Darquin had done a double-take at Hale’s answer, but pretended to hear nothing. “Until next time, Sech Nelier,” he said, bowing. “Good to see you again.”
“One last thing,” Hale said suddenly, her formality allowing her to cover the emotions just beneath the surface. “To Kordieh, if you would say that his paper is delivered… he will understand.”
“You would not want to tell him yourself? Then yes, I will tell him.”
Hale was glad he’d spared her from having to make any further comment. “Thank you.” She folded her hands in echo of Darquin’s gesture and gave a slight bow. “Until later.”
“Farewell,” said Nelier, walking away. A few steps later, he looked back at Darquin. “If I find any Rebo and Zooty, I will send it on.”
When he was out of sight, Hale shook her head and said, “I’ll see you back at the Phoenix. We’ll see what new surprises are in store, hm?”
“Yes, sir. Hopefully they’ll let me stay on board for a while.”
Hale’s eyebrows rose. “How do you mean?”
Darquin gave her an evil grin. “Well, it feels weird, going AWOL and still on duty at the same time.”
It was enough to coax a short laugh out of her. “With this group, it’s hardly the strangest thing I’ve seen. It’s going to be an interesting time of it.” While she was still surprised to have officially been given command of the Phoenix, she was already quite sure it was not a simple gift.
“Yes, sir. Still, it’ll be nice to see everyone….”
It was just the start of getting to know them, Hale thought with a faint smile. “Then go on ahead. I won’t be too far behind.” She slowed on the walkway, considering which of the other paths was best. There was something she had to find.
Darquin nodded. “See ya upstairs.”
(c) 1999 Jamie Lawson, Joe R. Medina and Alida Saxon. All rights reserved.