By now, it had become David Martel's Tuesday-morning ritual while his haunted tin can of a ship was docked at Tuzanor: dawdle over coffee, read the morning dispatches, check up with the duty officer, and then head off to the training rooms to beat the living hell out of Sarah Cantrell, his weapons officer and longtime friend.
This particular Tuesday was no different.
During their fourth fight, he disabled Sarah with a left feint and subsequent quick stave-thrust to a vulnerable point on her right leg; she miscalculated his intentions, balancing on the wrong foot and catching the stave-end at the wrong angle. A moment later, she was airborne; a moment after that, she hit the mat with a muffled thump, a groan, and a nasty look shot in his general direction.
"Oh, that's just embarrassing," the weapons officer muttered, pushing herself up off the ground, one hand grasping the fallen stave.
"No," David responded, feeling rather pleased with himself. He worked to catch his breath. "You're just a little out of practice."
"Me, out of practice?" she said in an incredulous tone of voice, grinning at him wryly as she walked over to the side of the mat to pick up swig of a bottle of water. "You should watch it -- it didn't take you that long to beat me earlier. You're the one losing your touch," she finished, waving the bottle in his direction accusingly.
He snorted. "Yeah, well," he said, and paused for a moment, rubbing a smarting shoulder where she'd smacked him during their second fight with a stave-end. "That's what happens when I spend too much time in drydock, trading insults with bureaucrats."
Another swig; she capped the bottle, set it down, and smiled wryly at him. "You're the captain; it's your job. Want another go?"
His head twisted to take a hopeful look at the clock on the wall; he pursed his lips with annoyance, shook his head, and heaved a mock-tortured sigh. "No. I have a call to take from Mural -- speaking of insults -- right before the mission briefing; I'm gonna shower and head back to the ship."
Sarah winced in sympathy. "I'll be pulling for ya, sir. Try to resist the desire for homicide," she said.
"It'll be hard," he shot back, pulling on his shoes and heading towards the entrance; Sarah watched him for a while before heading out to the locker room, determined to bribe a trainee into sparring so she could be victorious in at least one fight that morning. I shouldn't worry so much, she thought. So, I lost again. But then -- what else did I expect? Everyone loses to David Martel.
David made it back to the Liandra just in time to take the call -- he'd been wedged into a group of Minbari schoolchildren on a tour of the Ranger training facility on a particularly slow elevator and had misjudged the amount of time it would take to cross the tarmac on foot -- and was greeted with a nod from Kitaro, a serious-faced Dulann, and the spit-shined boots attached to the feet of an engineering technician whose torso and head were dissappearing into a mainline access tube.
"Captain, Mural's on the line," Kitaro said, as if David had been there for hours. He'd barely sat down when the viewer sprang to life in the guise of the ever-sour Mural, executive aide to Councilor Sindell and, in the estimation of David, Dulann, and most of the Liandra's senior staff, a gaping, bleeding sore in the side of the Ranger establishment. A religious-caste Minbari, Mural resembled the pinched, batty, spying old woman who'd lived in the rat-infested apartment above him on Kalat.
"Good afternoon, Captain," Mural said, his voice wedged into the constant unpleasant timbre Dulann had grown so accustomed to. "I know you're scheduled to depart within the week. However, we need you to make some time for a larger matter. The summit has demanded an additional deposition from the crewmembers who were present and directly involved with the destruction of the Valen and of the colony on Beta Durani 7."
Martel leaned forward, regarding the councilor tiredly, his hands clasped before him on his keyboard. "My crew has already been debriefed -- we've said all there is to be said. Twice. Three times, in my case."
Mural's eyes narrowed. "I think I have to impress upon you the importance of this matter," he said. "If the summit believes there is missing testimony, I can't assure that the Rangers will be able to protect you."
"Yes, sir," said Martel. He scratched the back of his neck, his eyes narrowing at the Minbari in the viewer.
"Please have your command crew report to the Executive Building this evening at seven, Captain. I am sending the rest of the details of your upcoming mission now. Please submit a confirmation after your first ship briefing. Thank you."
Mural disappeared; he’d cut the line at his end.
Martel cast a glance at Dulann and reached for the shipwide comm, not waiting for Kitaro.
"Oh, might as well do it all at once," he muttered. His finger hit the button with a little more force than necessary. "Senior staff to the bridge," he said.
It was part of Malcolm's job description to continually be conscious of himself and the world around him. He noticed every detail, every scuffmark on the floor, every furtive glance, every single inflection of every voice. It was his task to keep situations in control. Control was required. Control was victory -- was life for the Anla'shok. Without it, chaos. Without it, defeat.
But it was only at moments like this, when he was paused at the door of the meditation room, staring down at the small figure kneeling in front of the Triary, that he felt what it was to be at the center of an uncontrollable fire -- out of control, out of his mind.
It felt like a cancer, a fluid festering in his arteries that spread from the dark place in his heart to reach the tips of his fingers and the capillaries in his eyes. He felt short of breath. Every sound, magnified, crashed in his ears like a breaking wave or the rising roar of the Liandra's engines at full speed. I could never meditate like that, he thought, bringing up a hand to wipe a faint sheen of sweat from his chin. Such grace, such beauty.
That, there -- that was his sin, his one sin, and his one big lie.
"Firell," he said, hoarsely and softly, almost hoping he wouldn't break the healer's concentration.
With the unearthly grace that only Minbari had, she turned to face him, her fingers still templed together, barely touching. "Yes, Malcolm?"
"Mission briefing. Thought I'd find you here and -- and walk up to the bridge with you."
"Sit with me, Malcolm," the impassive Minbari responded, indicating an empty space next to her. She turned back to the Triary. "Sit with me for a moment."
"We should probably go." He edged away from the door, resting his hand on the wall to steady himself. He felt dizzy, for some reason, watching her. Frantic.
Firell hardly moved, save to bring her eyes back to the Triary on the wall. It glowed silver and white in the candlelight, tracing lines on his retinas, pushing forward to the dark places, the places where he stored his pre-Ranger memories. He’d first seen the symbol on Beta Colony, among the flames, the sulfur in his nose, the smoke coiling in his lungs. It was hanging around the neck of a medic, who had been speaking fast, quick Adronato to his comrades over his pain, the screams, and the unholy battle cries of the Shadows in his ears.
There had been Rangers at that theater on Beta Colony. That was how he had survived, during the attack: they had come to see the play. He had been Othello -- Othello, bleeding out quickly on the floor, with Iago dead -- truly dead -- at his feet.
Utterly uncomfortable in the face of the calm, straight-backed Firell, Malcolm pushed himself up against the doorway, crossed his arms, and attempted to crawl back into his own skin.
She has to be rattled by something, he thought. Something out there has to bother her. Something has to get underneath that porcelain skin of hers.
"You should come here for prayer with me, Malcolm," Firell said, standing and sliding on her jacket. "Before the next mission. It might do well for you."
He grinned ruefully. "I'm terrible at meditating the Triary."
Firell only smiled.
He sometimes hated how the Minbari smiled. They seemed to smile only with the sides of their mouths, lips pressed thinly to give the impression that they were constantly smirking -- that they were never going to tell you that about that grape juice spot on your dress uniform or the fact that you just sat in wet paint. Firell was exceptionally good at it.
"Which is a reason why you should come more often," she continued softly. "You shouldn't be frightened of the silence."
Malcolm started down the hallway, feeling his face begin to flush. "We're probably late."
"Most likely," she answered, and said nothing else, her face turned down. Malcolm stole a glance; she was not hiding her dissappointment.