Anaren was not much in the habit of speaking to his passengers, however much they talked to him. He wore the black cloak and turquoise lozenge of the Anla’shok, but he was still getting used to the idea that humans might be accepted as Rangers, which was perhaps why he was flying this shuttle. Those he flew to Minbar in his shuttle did little to reconcile him to the idea; they were too brash, too noisy, too talkative to ever meet the standards of discipline required of a Ranger.
This one was different. They had been on the shuttle for almost nine days – hers was a very remote world – and she had yet to speak a word. She just ate, slept, and when she was not doing either of those, sat in the back of the cabin with her hood pulled down over her face. Maybe that was why she fascinated Anaren so much.
“What is your name?” he asked at last.
The hood turned slightly towards him. “Wood,” she said at last. “What is yours?”
“Anaren.” There was a long pause. “Most humans have more than one name.”
“I did have; I don’t use them anymore.” After another pause, she drew the hood back from her face, or rather from what was left of it. “Do you think I’m hideous?”
“I think all humans are hideous.”
The scarred remnants of Wood’s face contorted weirdly; the effect was quite disturbing until Anaren realised that she was smiling.
“I chose my name to match my fate,” she explained.
“I do not understand.”
“It’s an old Earth story, about a man named Henry Wood.” She drew a small book from inside her cloak. “Mine isn’t quite the same, but…”
“How did it happen?” Anaren asked.
Wood’s face twisted into a smile again. “It was about love,” she explained. And then for the first time, she really began to talk.
‘I was a deckhand on board a yacht when the war – the Earth-Minbari War, that is – began; nothing special about me, but when I signed up I was quickly made a leading crewwoman; they didn’t have many experienced crew to work with.
‘I was assigned to act as aide to a second lieutenant named… No; names don’t matter. He was the exec aboard a Hyperion cruiser, so we spent all the hours God sent us getting hammered here and there by Minbari gun crews. After a month of duty, we all realised that either we were the lucky bastards in Earth Force or some Minbari wag had painted a mark on our bows telling their gunners to play around with us.
‘Truth was, of course, it was neither of those. In fact, there were three things that kept us alive. The captain – Commander Gresham – was good; he was real good. Maybe we couldn’t hit one of your cruisers if she was sitting still, but he danced us round your fire like the old Mnemosyne was one of those new White Stars. Then there was Scotty – Chief Engineer McNair. He kept us flying with spot-welds and hope sometimes, but he did keep us flying.
‘And then there was me.
‘Oh yes, I was that good, and cute as a button with it. For a while, I was the darling of the ship. My officer looked almost as good in the uniform as I did, but it was I who kept the crews together in the thick of battle and I who made sure discipline prevailed when the airlocks were falling off. I was a good crewwoman, but I discovered a flair for command in that war.
‘After a few weeks they made me up to petty officer and then they gave me a short-term field promotion to second lieutenant. My boss was made up to first lieutenant to stay exec, because his mother was an admiral, but by then everyone knew that the captain was treating me like the first officer.
‘This might have been bad enough for him to bear, but then the idiot he decided he was in love with me. He suggested we ask the captain to marry us, I told him it was traditional to propose first, and perhaps even date a few times. He was used to silly girls who fell for his money and he took rejection badly.
‘A few days later, we were trapped in an asteroid field. We knew that there was a Minbari cruiser out there, so we couldn’t signal for help. For once the exec did good and came up with a plan; carry a signal buoy out to the edge of the field on a fighter to lure the Minbari away long enough to break out of the field and make the jump to hyperspace. The crew were exhausted, shell-shocked and most of them were injured, so I volunteered to fly the Starfury.
‘The exec rigged up the beacon with a timer so it would start transmitting half-an-hour after I released it, or that’s what he said. In fact, I was still flying to the drop-off point on manoeuvring thrusters when it started transmitting.
‘I suppose I was lucky only to catch the edge of the beam which punched through the asteroids and vaporised the beacon, but it still cooked all of my systems and took out my life support. I spun out of control, the air venting from my smashed faceplate. I would have died, but…
‘There was another Minbari ship in the area; a Ranger scout vessel. It swooped in and picked me up. My face had been cut to ribbons by broken glass and scorched by the proximity of the beam. My right arm had been burned off so fast I hadn’t noticed; this one is artificial. I expected to be questioned and allowed to die of my injuries, if I was not executed.
‘Instead, the Rangers did what they could to stabilise me and then let me off near Aldrin Station to drift into pick-up range in a captured Starfury. Before they let me go, their captain told me that the Mnemosyne had escaped and that he had never known that humans could show such courage.
‘I told my story at Aldrin and recuperated there until the Minbari advance came close. The Mnem was one of the ships that came to evac us and I went aboard. They were surprised to see me.
‘I told the captain and the exec what had happened, without making any accusations. While we were in hyperspace, the exec let himself out of the airlock.’
“I can not believe that a man would do that out of love,” Anaren said. “On Minbar, that is not what love is.”
“Maybe not,” Wood allowed, “but like I say, for us it’s an old, old story.” She held out the book to Anaren. “You can read it if you like; give it back when you’re done.”
Anaren took the book. It was a slim, hardback volume with gossamer-thin pages. The title was etched in gold lettering on the spine: The Complete Sherlock Holmes, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
“But you don’t know…” Anaren began, but she stopped him with a look.
“The Rangers are my family now,” she said. “I knew that when they rescued me. I don’t need to know you because I know that you’re like me.”
“Yes,” he agreed, surprised to find that it was true.