David Martel -- the award-winning Cowardly Captain of the Year and front-runner for the title of Most Underused And Ignored Commander In The Entire Fleet -- switched off the link with a flourish, tore off the headset, resisted the temptation to hurl it sidelong into the railing, and stared down his exec with the anger of ages burning behind his eyes.
Martel, about to answer his exec, was interrupted by Kitaro, who had been ignoring them both in favor of the ship's commlines. "Na’feel on the com,” he said.
Martel nodded, and raised his hand in the gesture Kitaro knew to mean he should hold the call for a moment. The captain leaned forward and regarded Dulann, who - as usual - had folded his own headset calmly and placed it underneath the console. "They're trying to spite me," he said.
Dulann shook his head. "The Council spites no one - especially their own."
"People change," Martel said.
The first officer admitted this statement with a tilt of his head. "They are, perhaps, being cautious, and understandably so."
Kitaro cleared his throat. "Na'feel on hold," he said again, his hands hovering over the comlink controls.
Martel sighed. "Put her through, Kit - Maybe something'll go right today. Yes, Na'feel?"
His last hope for a good day was dashed as the Narn engineer - her angry face an embodiment of Martel's own furious interior - appeared before him, bleeding profusely from her left temple.
Kitaro's grandfather died the day he was born, taking his last breath in the same room of the same hospital that Kitaro drew his first. He left the family almost nothing - except his modest pension, his collection of antique collector plates, and a number of precious recordings taken at years and years of family Christmas dinners, Easter parades, Alliance Days, and birthday parties. Although the pension was spent almost immediately as the checks came in and the plates were sold at silent auction, the datacrystals were stored in a shrine-like kitchen cabinet. They so became an integral part of young Kitaro's life as his family relived his grandfather's. At certain times, the Walter Sasaki of those recordings - a robust, older mechanic with a potbelly and a wheeze - would wander into his head and spew a sound bite like "A Narn with a gun is bad enough, but imagine if you gave a Narn a screwdriver," or "Never mistake casual nonchalance for complete indifference," the latter mostly accompanied with a nagging finger and twinkling eye.
For the first three months of the mission, he had tried his best to not associate the first proverb with the mercurial Na'feel, but had failed miserably. He had also found a face to attach to the second proverb - Captain Martel's.
For all his casual deportment, Martel ran the tightest ship Kitaro had ever seen. Though the captain tossed out jokes as fast as he did orders and made faces at field rations, there was nothing that escaped his gaze. He noticed if a minor tech was five minutes late to duty. He noticed if the power readings from the engines were even less than a percent off. He noticed if Sarah had used a different hair tie.
He would definitely notice if Na’feel was bleeding profusely.
The Narn engineer appeared on the ship's main com (holding a screwdriver and looking like the Angel of Death, the navigator noted idly) with a dry report on the status of the new injection system and weapons upgrades. Kitaro shook cobwebs from his head and attempted to pay attention.
"Well, this is the best news I've had all day, Na'feel," Martel was saying -- obviously, he'd missed something -- to the engineer. "Get that cut looked to and report to the ship as soon as you can for mission briefing."
The Narn blinked, and dabbed at the cut with a blue mechanic's cloth. It was dirty. "I am perfectly fine."
Martel nodded. "How'd that happen?"
"I was simply defending myself," said the Narn with a self-satisfied air.
Martel deflated. "Like the last time."
The engineer bristled. "No, sir. Not like the last time. I'm just outside, so I'll be there in a minute."
"No," said Martel. "Na'feel, I'd like to see you privately after the briefing, thanks. Martel out."
Kitaro ducked his head and checked the commlines. The 'last time' had been a full-blown disciplinary hearing after Na'feel had neglected to watch her temper with an anti-Narn protestor -- Na'feel'd escaped with a broken finger, but the protestor -- well, the next time he met a Narn he'd be more respectful, Kitaro was sure of that.
A few minutes later, the bridge doors opened, spewing forth the remainder of the core crew. Firell, calm as a clear Minbari summer day; Malcolm, palms shoved in pockets; Tirk, the lumbering innocent. And, three minutes later, Na'feel, nearly breathless and still bleeding.
Pleasantries as usual, were exchanged, with Tirk hanging back silently, taking a position behind Malcolm. A stiff, expectant moment passed through the crew as Martel stood and surveyed them with the hurt, set face of a deposed king, crossing his arms in front of him.
"We will depart Minbar at 0400 three days from now. We are to reach the Drazi Freehold at a reasonable speed and restock. Our cargo is two Drazi envoys. Our mission is to deliver them to an undisclosed location, whereupon we will return to Minbar for reassignment." He paused, turned on his heel, and paced, slowly, one hand consistently dropping to rest on the back of his chair, as he let the bad news sink in; he continued, for the moment stemming the inevitable tide of outraged questions from his crew. "Just because we are once again running the taxi service for the luminaries of the Interstellar Alliance does not mean we can afford to sacrifice the vigilance for which we are so reputed."
Dulann made a mental note to inform David of the fact that his vocabulary increased when he was angry, sarcastic, or both.
"Remember to stay awake out there," Martel continued, moving from one point to the next without a beat. "We'll run this like the last three so we can concentrate on making sure the Liandra can handle the circuitry we'll be installing tomorrow morning. Malcolm, you'll be point contact; that should make adequate use of your talents. The rest of you, take normal duties. Na'feel, keep our new systems running at optimum, because, as we all know, the old girl really enjoys handling engines built for ships three times as young."
Kitaro cast a glance, as he usually did in such situations, at Sarah - she was sitting, her white-knuckled hands gripping the worktable, obviously about to explode, waiting for the moment when she would be allowed to speak, as Martel chatted idly in a conversational tone for quite a few more minutes about the various aspects, assignations, and tasks to be accomplished on the mission -- of which precious few were anything more than Ranger busy-work.
"And that's it," he finished. "Any questions?"
"What are we, a taxi service?" Sarah said quickly, the disappointment in her voice quite palpable as the undercurrent of anger running under Na'feel's voice.
Martel smiled, jauntily, and took his seat. "You're obviously not one to look on the bright side of things, are you, Sarah?"
Sarah tilted her head, the wry expression on her face all the answer anyone needed.
"There's more," Martel continued. "Tonight, myself, Sarah, Malcolm, and Dulann are to report to Council offices for a supporting deposition regarding the Enfalli matter. It's my understanding that the IA Enforcement Oversight Committee has requested it, so remember the facts and don't wander. Kitaro, you'll have the bridge while we're gone. Na'feel, Tirk, make sure our new equipment arrives undamaged and in working order. When you get back, Sarah, help them." He paused to collect his thoughts. "And that's it. If you don't have anything to add, you're dismissed."
No one said a word except for Sarah, who muttered something that vaguely sounded like a Fik curse, leaned back in her chair, and waited, and Kitaro, who hovered over his tasks once more with bent shoulders, resignedly accepting the double shift duty.
And Martel himself, who found himself pondering the difference between death and uselessness - and which one was truly better.