Characters: Margaret Morgan, Terry Hale
Margaret Morgan paused in the front room of yet another orphanage and stalled. She sagged down into a chair and leaned her head on her hand. Her datapad dangled at her side, completing the image of exhaustion. It was a curious sight for the few children that milled about the building, and they watched her from a wary distance. Meg was feeling too low to acknowledge them, or the sound of the door opening near by until the familiar voice startled her.
The tactical officer glanced up, then straightened. “Captain!”
“Morgan,” Terry acknowledged, then corrected herself, remembering a trust given. “Margaret, at ease.” She looked her XO’s condition critically. The woman should have been a sleep for the shadows that had collected under her eyes. She was coming to learn how prone Margaret was to running to extremes.
Meg slumped back a little. She brought her datapad up into her lap, more secure, and waved Terry into the chair opposite.
“Any success?” Terry prompted, seating herself.
“Not as much as I would like. Too many relatives dead, or missing.”
“I know.” Terry sighed. “But some at least. I’d finished off with the death notices. What’s left for you now?”
“Seeing if this lot have anyone to go to, or have to stay.” Bitterly she added, “Again.”
Terry nodded. There wasn’t much one could say that wouldn’t rub the wrong way. “Then let’s get it done with. And then it’s a vacation for you, understood?”
Meg snorted. “Ie, whatever.”
Standing, the captain ignored the tone for now. “Let’s see the names.”
Meg handed over the list, admitting, “I have not even looked at it myself yet.”
Hale glanced over it, a slight grimace breaking her expression. “Five. At least two I see here have relatives, maybe three — I met them just recently.” It would be a small comfort perhaps, to those who’d lost family, to gain at least one back.
“Da, that at last. Someone to go to.”
She nodded, waved her ahead to the offices, where curious personnel were looking out at them.
Meg stood slow, started over to inside doors. She may not have looked like it, but she’d had enough rest to do this, but it was the bad dreams that made the sleep ineffective, and she didn’t relish the idea of fueling new ones.
Hours later, Meg was just more exhausted. She couldn’t feel and victory, and uncharacteristically she was considering finding a quiet bar somewhere she could vanish when they were finished, though she knew full well it wouldn’t help.
Terry watched the last of the three children taken off for return, trying not to think of the two left behind.
“Can’t take much more,” Margaret muttered to herself. Without looking, she brought up the next file.
“I’ll take care of the rest.” Terry lifted the tablet out of Meg’s hands.
Futilely, she protested, “It’s my duty.”
“My assignment, and I say it’s done for you,” Terry retorted, a touch sharp.
“Aye-aye.” She subsided a little. However, she didn’t go anywhere.
“Get up, get out. Let’s not wallow in it.” The captain was sounding like a drillmaster now, and Meg’s stubbornness rose to the challenge.
“Captain, I’ll help. We’ll go out together.”
But Terry’s patience was just about broken, though something had cracked it beforehand. “Get.”
She stared a moment. “I will be outside, then.” It was a slight concession.
Hale watched her head outside, then turned to finish up the paperwork. It seemed there was miles of it. She was just about to start at it when the murmurings beyond the door suddenly escalated and hit a peak – a cry, and one word clear, if unfamiliar: “Modryb!”
She signed off one more paper, an eye one the door. After a pause, she headed to it and looked out.
Meg was sitting on the floor in shock while a slight red-haired little girl was busy squeezing the breath out of her. Terry was confused. Meg had never said anything about relatives or even friends on Earth. But yet… the girl was so excited she couldn’t help herself and was bouncing a little on the spot. Meg finally stirred, holding on tight, as rare tears started. This was not so simple as an acquaintance.
Terry stepped back into the office. “What’s the name of the girl out there?”
“Which one?” a staff member answered dully, after some surly looks.
She pointed. “Red hair, looks to be about eight or nine.”
The clerk glanced out. “Oh, her.” He sighed, exasperated. “Records are messed up.”
“How extraordinary.” Terry muttered under her breath. To the clerk she asked, “Did you ever bother to run a new print, retina or DNA check?”
He just shrugged — it wasn’t their problem.
Terry’s eyes narrowed, then she decided she needed this person conscious to deliver more release papers. “Any others like this?”
“Only one I know of.”
She made a mental note to have an order sent in. “Well, it’s about time you looked. I suggest you see it done before it becomes an order.” Aggravated, she stepped back outside.
Meg was calm enough now to be asking questions, fast. It was more obvious now they were related, with the time to compare features.
“Meg,” Terry called for her attention.
Startled, Meg looked up – for a moment she’d forgotten about Terry. She struggled to stand, still holding the girl tight. “Captain?”
“Who’s this?” Terry looked at the girl, moderating her voice to hide her lingering anger. It was for the system, not the child.
“Nith’m. My niece, Elora Morgan.”
That made Terry blink. “How?”
She shook her head. “They were… careless, I think. Took the wrong redheaded girl.” Well aware she was under discussion, Elora was looking at Terry, silent now, and wary.
Terry was both relieved for the error, and sick for the one sacrificed. Meg shrugged. She agreed, but was stunned still by it.
The captain quickly collected herself. “However it happened, at least there’s that. Now let’s see about getting her released.”
“Yes, sir.” To Elora she murmured, “This is my captain.”
The introduction didn’t in the least remove the girl’s distrust. “Hello.” Her voice was more heavily accented than Meg’s.
Smiling faintly, Terry didn’t take it personally. “Hello. Is there anything you’ll like to get before going?”
Elora shook her head. “All gone,” she said, with a certainty that was too adult to be anything but saddened by. Hale nodded and stepped back to leave them their privacy. She heard their voices return, quiet, trading questions and answers.
Terry ran through the process without sympathy for workers, and no patience for delay. For their part, the staff muttered under their collective breath and behind her back at her for complicating their day. It was all they could see anymore.
Finally, last papers in hand, feeling not unlike they were being treated as property, Terry headed back outside. Meg had moved to a chair, Elora still in her arms though, now sitting on her lap. Terry approached. “Done.” Now she was starting to wonder what was next.
Meg looked up. “Diolch.”
She needed to speak to Meg, but she wasn’t going to do it before Elora like the girl were an object. “I’ve got the shuttle. We should head out.”
“Ie, that is good.” She stood again. This time she let Elora down to go out under own power, but took her hand.
Elora looked up at them both. “We are leaving?” She seemed ready to believe they wouldn’t be. The look made Terry uncomfortable, as if she’d failed somehow, somewhere in all this. Meg nodded and tried to smile for her niece, reassuring. She headed for the door, not quite steady. Terry followed a step behind, then came around outside to lead to the shuttle. Meg let her lead – her mind still felt sluggish, in shock.
Terry opened the hatch and stood aside. She intended to snare Meg for a small talk outside. Focused ahead, Meg crouched down to talk to Elora. The girl was unsure, but she stepped into the shuttle, curiosity warring with caution. Terry was pretty sure she couldn’t get into much trouble, so she put a hand on Meg’s arm.
“Do you know how to handle this?”
“No,” Meg answered honestly.
“No family at all around here?”
Meg shook her head. “Her father had some family still, but….” She left the rest unspoken – how many left now?
“You do know we can’t have her on the ship. Not just because of policy.”
“Not even to B5? We only have the one left for family who could keep her.”
Hale considered a long moment. “Possibly.”
“I would need to leave otherwise. I would not just send her there.” It was no threat – just bare fact.
Terry nodded. She understood about the importance of family, even if she hadn’t much luck with it. There was never a simple situation, especially dealing with a child. “Tentatively, yes, then. But if there’s any sign of a call, I have to refuse. You know I can’t treat the ship like a school bus.”
“I’m sorry I can’t be more flexible than that. Heaven knows more’s deserved these days.”
“Sir, I understand. This war is settled, but who is to say another is not waiting for us? And I will not risk her.”
“I figured as much.” She waved Meg into the shuttle. “Anywhere you want me to let you two off?” She lifted her voice a little to be heard by both now.
Elora was sitting in the pilot’s seat. She was inspecting the controls carefully, but not touching anything. At their approach, she glanced up.
Meg stalled. “Ah…. I do not know.”
“Perhaps back to the ship then, until you decide what you’re going to do with the spare time.”
Meg nodded. “Yes, sir.”
Almost forgotten, Terry handed over the papers she was still carrying. Elora’s. Meg glanced through them, then smiled. “Diolch.”
“Elora, care for the copilot’s seat?” Terry rested a hand lightly on the back of the pilot’s chair. Elora looked up at her. She seemed to be measuring, then hopped down and moved over to the other.
It a few minutes the shuttle lifted up off of the old landing pad, and Elora didn’t cast a single glance back out the window.
(c) Copyright 1999 Leslie McBride and Alida Saxon. All rights reserved.