First Officer Morgan was pacing at the outskirts of the Bridge and her mind was in two places, three if one included the datapad in her hand. She was checking the schematics, examining the layout of the command deck. If they were going to install tactical chambers when they docked at Minbar, they had to figure out where to put them and how to implement them––or how many, since she had begun to think in those terms already, much as it annoyed her. That begged the question of who would fill the other tac chambers in a pitch battle.
And that brought her back to the way her morning had begun, sometime before oh-dark-thirty.
Unable to sleep, Morgan had started a shipwide inspection. The chance to go over each section in relative silence, without distraction, was uncommon. She wanted to make the best of the time, or at least feel as if she was, now that she had it.
As advanced as the Phoenix was, it didn’t need much supervision once it had a flight plan from the Bridge. The crew monitored and maintained the ship’s many systems, but even in the Rangers, few people could claim a full understanding of the Vorlon elements in the part-Minbari organic technology.
Morgan had stepped into the Engineering Section, met by the eerie murmurs of the drive systems and the weak, infrequent echoes of footsteps.
Gazing and meeting not a single soul, she prowled among the console banks, crew ladders, and dormant panels. She flattened her palm in the air over a crystal slab, and a holographic circuit model promptly glimmered to meet her fingers as expected. No surprises there.
Several rows down, she heard someone using another control board. Then she turned and froze. It was English, not Minbari.
The computer answered him in kind. “Ship time oh-hundred twenty five hours.”
Morgan’s ears perked up. The ship seemed to answer each crewmember’s voice differently, adapting itself to individual speech patterns, as if it had a unique relationship with each one. And of the few who spoke English, only a fraction used EarthForce protocol. None of them had duty on this shift.
She followed the grumbling voice, curious. Maybe someone else couldn’t sleep. A human was taking an empty chair next to a fading holo-screen, his back to her, as she turned the next corner.
“Time to find some warm milk or something,” he said.
“Wrong place for that.”
She gave Darquin a wry smile as he turned the chair around, his eyes reporting his own surprise. “Hey, boss. I guess the sandman’s been stingy tonight.”
“Looks like.” Morgan leaned against the console beside him, folding her arms as she examined him. She recognized the grey EarthForce work clothes instantly, which he often wore off-duty. The haunted look on his tan face was new. She’d seen hints of it weeks ago, when he was still recovering in Medlab. Every time she saw him lately, he seemed to fade with his EF greys. “What’s up?”
“Not a lot, just trying to…empty my mind.” He chuckled, flat and at the same time listless. “Most people wouldn’t think it’d take this much work.”
“It isn’t, for most people.” She fully understood the feeling and tried to tell him so with a careworn smile. “Anything I can do?”
Darquin sighed, running his fingers through his hair as if massaging a reply out of his head. “I just don’t know what to do with it all. I mean, I know what I oughta do, but…”
“Which is what?” Morgan said, gently prodding.
“Um…let somebody go.”
After a pause, she sniffed. It didn’t have the usual edge of contempt as it usually did, more like a hard-earned cynical understanding. “That’s going around too.”
“Great.” He opened his arms in defeat and called out to no one in particular, “Somebody shuffle the deck, we’re losing our shirts here!”
She nodded. “It’s as hard as hell,” she said bluntly. “As I’m sure you know.”
“Amen.” Spreading out his fingers, he stared at his hand as if something was missing. “I’m not sure I should be thinking about all this in the first place.”
She grimaced. “Why not?”
“It’s all in the past. I mean, long past. It’s not supposed to be my problem anymore.” He let the chair turn, shuffling his feet. “Part of me wishes it was. They were good times.” He laughed, a hollow sound. “I didn’t think so at the time. But they were.”
Unlike herself, Morgan reached out and gave his shoulder a squeeze, as one wounded soldier to another.
Darquin turned, half startled. He put his hand on hers by way of thanks. The emotion was that of a drowning man clawing at a shoreline. Tears began to well in his eyes. “Oh, hell, I’m not doing this.” He snatched his hand back long enough to pinch his weeping eyes shut.
She smiled faintly. “I know where there’s an unopened bottle of single malt. And I know the barkeep.”
He took a deep breath, thinking. “Not Minbari?”
“Not a bit of it. Come on.”
Nodding, he got up to follow her. “And I was one of the first people to say we oughta get rid of that stupid bar in the rec area.”
“Do we need to petition for a new one?” Her smile turned wry.
“No thanks!” he answered quickly, raising his hand up as if to shield himself. “If I wanna bar-brawl, I’ll go back to Earthforce.”
Startled, she started laughing. “I don’t know, the best one I was in has been since becoming Anla’shok.”
“Was that before or after your training cycle was over?”
“After.” She studied him as they entered the lift. “What were you thinking of?”
“My training, I guess.” He turned to face the closing doors and, as the lift began its ascent, the glimmers of holographic Minbari script on the control panel beside it. “Me and the military caste, we didn’t get along the first time I was Minbar. I remembered the war. So did they.”
“Ah, yes. How is it said? ‘Been there, done that, have the shirt.'” Morgan flashed a grin. “And I’m rather… combative at times.”
“Nah, just a vicious rumor.”
“Don’t you have a performance evaluation coming up?” she teased.
“See? Told ya it’s just a rumor. Where do people come up with stuff like that….”
She laughed again, harder.
Out of the lift, she steered him towards her quarters and let them inside. As Darquin stepped inside, she crossed the room, heading straight to her desk.
Darquin looked around, curious despite himself. “Y’know, I didn’t think I’d ever see your quarters.”
That surprised her. “Oh?” She pulled a bottle from the back of the bottom drawer.
“Well, the only time I ever see a CO’s quarters is when I got busted. So I thought I was doing pretty good. For a while.” Twisting his arm, he rubbed at an itch on his back, self-conscious as his fingers touched his knife wound, now healed.
She sniffed with her usual derisive tone. “I remember the feeling. I started as a grunt, you know.” She waved him to a seat, handing him a glass as he sat down.
“Thanks. I can believe it. EF doesn’t seem like a great place for people who aren’t crooks or total jerks.”
“Thank you,” she answered dryly. “I went to OCS on Earth, but I ended up… leaving not long after.”
“Yeah, same here. Salud.” He raised his glass to her and took a quick taste of the gold in his glass, contemplating it as his thoughts wandered again. “That’s how all this started.”
Morgan topped his glass off before sitting across from him. “Not sure I heard your story. Though I guessed it read about the same as mine.”
“Right after the war?”
“I joined right at the end of the war. Lasted until Santiago was assassinated.” She took a good sip herself at that – it was a bad time.
“Real shame, about President Santiago. Was that the last straw for you?”
“No.” She fell quiet a minute. “Actually, it was decided for me. I was a… possible liability.”
“Jeez, sounds like the way I got drummed out. Was it Nightwatch? I can’t remember if they were around at the time.”
“I think so.” Morgan didn’t meet his eyes. “But PsiCorps was the actual drummer, so to speak.”
Darquin grunted. “I’m not too happy with them either.”
“I wouldn’t have stayed in as long as I did, if I knew then what I do now. But I was blissfully ignorant at the time. Just a bad choice in… Well.”
“Me too, I guess. The only reason I stayed in was….” He shrugged. “Where else does a Starfury pilot go?”
“There isn’t much. I wish I’d gone that track in EarthForce myself, sometimes.” Her faint smile didn’t reach her eyes.
“I liked it,” he offered. “Helped get me where I wanted to go…except a few things.”
After a longer pull from his drink, he took a sharp breath. “Her name was Makoto. I was this close to marrying her.”
“Ah.” She had guessed the gist of things, but had no idea what to say. Sometimes vague, sympathetic sounds had to do.
“I’m not sure it would’ve worked out anyway. Her, planetside. Me, God knows where. And what would’ve happened to her when I had to go AWOL….”
“It’s not easy, I know. I was married myself, briefly.” It seemed safe enough to say, without going into details, an old story among soldiers.
Darquin nodded. “Hard life. Not that anybody said differently.”
“No. And we have chosen the hardest road, it seems.”
“Seems like the other way around a lot of the time. But yeah.”
Morgan drained and refilled her glass. She raised the bottle to offer Darquin another round.
“Sure, just one more. I can’t show up for duty plastered.”
“Ah, but who would I report you to? Myself?”
“It’s who I report to.” An ironic grin on his face, he raised his glass to her. “Salud.”
As he started working on his last drink, she capped the bottle and set it aside. “We’re almost to Minbar. If you need to finish this off, let me know.” She hesitated. “Can I ask what reminded you of her?”
He grimaced, drudging up a thought. “I was helping Yoshino with her swords. Tea, talk of home. And I remembered when they set–” He sighed, rolling his glass between his flattened hands. “I’ve been trying not to think about it all year.”
“You can’t not, even if it hurts.” She shrugged. “I know that too.”
“Yeah.” He drained his glass and inhaled slowly, as if savoring smoke. “I had to stay above it. Or just away.”
“I’m afraid nothing works but gutting through.” She paused, then added grudgingly, “That’s the only way to leave it behind.”
He nodded, contemplating. “I didn’t want to be angry about it.”
“Sometimes, it’s hard to avoid.” Then her mouth quirked upward, amused. “I’m a wealth of good news, I know.”
Morgan shrugged. “I got roaring drunk myself not long ago, over this very thing. Passing the favor on.”
He got up and stopped as if testing himself. “I don’t think I’m drunk. Lightly roasted, yeah.”
“Go sleep it off. You’ll feel better in the morning.” She grinned and took his glass. “Hopefully.”
“I’d better. Once we’re docked–” He closed his eyes. “Oh, damn. Kordieh.”
“What?” Automatically, she frowned at mention of that name.
“My turn to be the fount of good news. A ‘dear Dunstan’ letter. I can tell you more once we’re secure in drydock.”
“Oh, all right. You know, I’m always available, especially to my second.”
“Thanks, I’ll need it.”
Putting her glass aside, Morgan stood to see him out. Darquin stopped at the door like a diver on a platform. “Next up…water, a quick oxy-pill, and a hard landing in my bunk.”
“Make that two.” She patted his shoulder again — human contact sometimes made the difference.
He turned and put his hand over hers again without the earlier death-grip of desperation, but still heartfelt. “Thanks, Morgan.”
“Margaret. No formality for this.”
He nodded. “Nice name.” His smile began to show his fatigue. “See ya.”
“Nos da, Tom.” Leaning on the doorframe, she watched him go, his footsteps slower than his usual self-assured gait, but still as resolute.
And that was how he looked when he reported for duty that morning.