Tour of Duty

Characters: Dr. Robert Stadler, Dr. Kim Matsumoto

Dr. Robert Stadler looked over his quarters. They were about what he had expected–stark, barren, utilitarian–exactly what he needed. Nothing to distract him from the grim focus of the quest which drove him.

He began to unpack. He had not yet met any of the crew and was not looking forward to it. He was to report to a Dr. Kim Matsumoto after he got settled. She would be briefing him on the mission that lay ahead.

Atrocities on Proxima, the entire Ranger fleet mobilizing– and the Phoenix was going off into Vorlon space. At least that was the rumor. Stadler suspected it was true. He cursed silently. He would not find what he was looking for in Vorlon space. Not yet anyway. Death would come later. First he had a mission to accomplish… a man to find. And he would not find him in Vorlon space.

Once again, as so many times in the past six months, Stadler pulled a photograph from his pocket and looked at it. It showed three people: Stadler himself on the left, a woman in the middle, and another man on the right. The three were smiling and had their arms loosely around each other. Stadler stared at the man on the right until the physical heat of his hatred almost overwhelmed him. He then looked back at the woman… and quickly put the picture away.

He did not know who would return from Vorlon space and who would leave their souls in that forsaken end of the galaxy, but he knew that he would be among the survivors, that he would be among those to return.

Because hatred can keep you alive when even love is not strong enough.

Stadler put on his Rangers uniform and left his quarters.

Kim Matsumoto sensed the man’s presence long before he walked up to the open door of her office and knocked on the jam. He positively seethed with emotion and Kim found herself standing defensively before she realized she was not the focus of his barely suppressed rage. It was even more disturbing to see a face so devoid of emotion by comparison. She couldn’t help the worried frown that changed her face.

“Can I help you?” she asked.

“I’m Robert Stadler,” he said. “Are you Dr. Matsumoto?”

“Yes,” Kim replied, at a loss after sensing what she had about him. She looked down briefly at her desktop at an open file. “So Doctor Stadler, you are to be my new assistant.”

Stadler nodded. “Yes, I was told to report to you. I’ve just been getting settled into my room.”

“Welcome aboard. Have you had a look about? I imagine it would prove quite interesting to as scientist such as yourself–“

He cut her off. “I haven’t seen anything yet.”

Kim composed herself and herself on the tasks at hand. Stadler was not the first to arrive with problems… and she was no psychiatrist. “Would you care for a brief tour of the labs?”

Stadler lowered his head politely. “Certainly.”

Stadler watched as Dr. Matsumoto stepped around her desk and picked up something on the way. Moments later she handed him the dull metallic wafer of a commlink. “First things first, this is your link to the computer and the rest of the crew. Because of the nature of our lives here, you must have it, or be near a comm at all times. We are always on call.”

Stadler adhered the link to the back of his hand. When Matsumoto paced out of the office, he trailed a step behind as she gestured around the labs.

“This will be your work area, take any desk you wish for your personal use. Have you had any experience with white star ships before?”

“Never,” Stadler admitted. “I worked at the Science Institute on Mars. I’ve never even seen a lab on a ship before.”

Matsumoto nodded. “What is you specialty?”

“Genetics. Though I’m experienced in all areas of biology and chemistry, as well as biopsychology.”

Matsumoto’s eyebrows rose and she smiled. “Well, I am sure you will find this ship alone very interesting. It had a fair deal of organic technology in its construction.”

Organic technology, he thought. There was a time when he would have liked nothing better than to examine a Vorlon ship and study its composition. “It sounds fascinating.”

“The design of this vessel is a hybrid of Minbari and Vorlon technology,” Matsumoto went on to say, walking slowly between the tables and ongoing research. “I could spend days in the construction logs from Minbar but… duty forbids too much of that.” Her eyes crinkled with self- directed amusement.

Stadler sensed her discomfort. Dammit, he thought it’s not her fault. She was making a genuine effort to put him at his ease, and he was giving nothing back. Don’t ever forget who the enemy is, he thought. He determined to make an effort to be less forbidding.

Matsumoto stepped up to a wall and touched the top of an odd, slim pedestal. The whole wall became a view screen. “We have smaller, conventional screens on our desk units, but I enjoy this for any particular complicated studies where higher magnifications are required. Right now I am scouring the databases for anything that might help us on this upcoming mission.”

At the last reminder Stadler scowled. Matsumoto didn’t miss it. “Have you heard yet?” she asked after an uncomfortable pause.

“Is it true we’re going into Vorlon space?”

“Yes.” Matsumoto sighed and looked back to the screen, arms folded. Before her sight the eerie beauty of a Vorlon ship soared by.

“All I know is rumor. I assume you have fact,” Stadler said, and his voice lowered. “And, Doctor… Anything you can’t tell me, just don’t tell me. You don’t ever have to bother giving me ‘official’ versions of anything. I don’t mind being kept in the dark. I hate being lied to.”

Matsumoto smiled faintly. “We all do. And that’s not how we operate around here.” She took a breath before continuing. “We have not been told what is to be done there. Beyond that we are needed. The rest of what I know is simply by guessing.”

Stadler made the effort to smile. “Okay. I’ll take your guess.”

“We all know that the Vorlons were sufficient to guarding their borders,” Matsumoto said after a brief pause to collect her thoughts. “I would have to assume someone or something has breeched those ‘uncrossable boundaries’ since their leaving.”

Stadler’s smile became grim. “‘We walk in dark places no others will enter…'”

“‘We stand on the bridge and no one may pass.’ And there contained is essentially what will come of this. We will either be holding the line… or going in to stop something,” Matsumoto said, and added, “As I see it anyway.”

Stadler nodded. “Do you have a casualty estimate? Are any of us expected to return? Or is this considered a last stand?”

Matsumoto blinked, plainly startled by his bald discussion of death. “I don’t know, Doctor. I have made no such estimations. I do not think it is anything anyone wants to approach.”

Stadler stared at a point somewhere inside himself. “Sometimes … death is not the most objectionable alternative,” he said quietly. “Sometimes surviving is… harder.”

Stadler hadn’t realized he’d said it aloud until he noticed Matsumoto shiver and look away. “Yes… it is sometimes,” she said. Stadler suddenly felt for her. He had not expected her to understand.

You’re not the only one carrying demons, he told himself. He realized there must be many tales of pain among the Rangers.

“What have they told you to tell us about the mission?” he asked.

Matsumoto straightened and turned off the wall monitor before looking at him. “All that I know. No such restraints are put upon us.”

“Okay. I believe you,” Stadler said, his voice gentling. “So when do we find out? When we reach Vorlon space?”

“Likely so. We sail with the Hellfire to meet two White Stars… A fair force.”

If they both thought it was really little more than a drop in the bucket as far as defence went, they both kept it politely to themselves.

“I know very little about the Vorlons. My interests have always been… narrow,” Stadler said. He tried to fight the images which rose in his brain.

“I am an archeologist by training… Cultures, languages with some understanding of biology and biotechnology.” Matsumoto managed a smile. “I believe together we will cover a fair bit of the field.”

“How long will it take us to reach Vorlon space?” Stadler asked.

“A little over three days. Plenty of time to review what files we have,” Matsumoto assured. “Well… would you like a chance to look about before I chain you to a desk?” she said with some humor.

Stadler lowered his head politely. “Of course.”

“Good. If I am not here when you get back, do not hesitate to ask anyone else or the computer to help you get acquainted.”

Stadler nodded and Matsumoto bowed slightly, closing the discussion. “Again, welcome aboard.”

“Thank you, Doctor.”

Dr. Matsumoto stepped back and turned toward her office. Stadler watched for a moment, then turned from the labs to make his own way through the ship.

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