- Appearances and Other Insights -
Kestrel Sempai: FanFiction
Max Eilserson is my favorite character from J. Michael Straczynski's (too) short-lived TV series "Crusade" so naturally my fanfic would feature him. ;)   This story takes place after the Crusade episode entitled "Appearances and Other Deceits."

The small, rational part of his mind that realized he was dreaming was somewhat disappointed. It was, after all, the same dream, night after night, for almost a week. Surely his subconscious could come up with something better by now.

Max Eilerson's subconscious, however, was busy reliving in vivid detail his flight down the ship's corridor.

They were gaining on him. His ears still rang with the inhuman scream that had alerted the other crewmembers who had been taken over by the alien consciousness. He lost his footing rounding a corner, managing to barely regain his balance and veer off to the side as a PPG blast scarred the wall above his left shoulder. Clutching his computer to his chest, he ran for the transport tube that beckoned ahead of him.

Everything slowed down to a crawl, and his rational mind was insulted at the obvious cliche'. Still, he felt the pounding heartbeat in his ears and heard the whine of the gun close behind him as it prepared to fire again. He saw the faces that he yelled voicelessly at for help recognize him for who he was, shake their heads, and turn away.

He reached out for the door as a burning pain seared its way across his neck and up the base of his skull, and he knew he was dying. Falling forward into the transport tube, his vision gradually decreased to a narrow horizontal slit, before finally disappearing completely.

And then he woke up.

***

"Incoming call from Earth. Incoming call from Earth. Incoming call from ... "

The insistent drone of the alert fell silent as he walked over to the communications panel and thumbed the button to receive the call. Rubbing his eyes, he watched as the Earth Alliance shield was replaced by the grainy image of an elderly woman.

Her gray hair was pulled neatly back in a bun, and wherever she was, it must have been cold for her since she wore a sweater as well as having a knitted shawl draped around her shoulders. She smiled, looking as if she were about to offer him cookies and punch.

"Dr. Eilerson, thank you for accepting my call," she said, her voice clear but frail.

"And I would know you from?" he asked, leaning back against his desk as he crossed his arms in front of his chest.

"Thea Simons," she replied, not in the least offended by his tone or body language. "I sent a package recently and just wanted to make sure it hadn't gotten lost on its way to you."

He frowned, thinking back over the past few days. He'd spent most of his time in the conference room, consulting with the captain and that enigmatic Technomage about possible locations to continue their search for a cure to the plague that threatened Earth.

So far, they had found nothing outstanding in any of the Rangers reports, and even though he knew they were doing their best, he was constantly underwhelmed by their findings. IPX was growing impatient with what they viewed as his lack of progress, and he was growing impatient with their whining. He was the best they had, and they both knew it, so while the possibility that he might have misplaced something was difficult to conceive, he had to admit to not exactly measuring up to his usually high standards as of late.

Thumbing off the video feed, he searched the top of his desk. Off in the corner, under a pile of star maps, was a small box. He picked it up, hefting it easily in one hand. Yes, this had been delivered to his door the other day. He hadn't recognized the return address and forgotten about it almost as soon as it had hit the desktop. Working his way back to the communications panel, he broke the seal and opened the box to find a small blue bag inside. Picking up the bag, he tossed the box into the trash.

There weren't any distinctive markings on the bag. It was constructed of modern materials, and overall, was really quite dull. The only noticeable aspect of it was that it appeared to have been hand-stitched. The pattern of thread, while finely done, did not have a machine's precision. Pulling on the drawstrings, the small bag opened to reveal what looked like a large bracelet. Max reached into the bag and pulled out the piece.

Holding it up in the light, he recognized it instantly. It was a Balqyan torque; a necklace worn by the Gerikya, the personal bodyguards of the Samakya, the upper class of Balqyan society, a race long gone and mostly forgotten. Dozens of thinly pulled silver and blue metal threads had been woven around the jaw bone of a shayshay, a large carnivorous feline, similar to Earth's tiger, but about twice as large. The canine teeth had been plated in a gold-colored metal, then painted with the name of the house of which the owner had served. Translating the inscription, it seemed the Gerikya who wore this had served the Pofik-samakya, the historians, a very honored and respected noble sect. Both of the tips of the canine teeth had been broken off, signifying the owner had died while in service.

Other than the broken teeth, which some would consider a selling point, the piece didn't appear to be damaged in any way, and would have fetched a pretty price on the black market. The metals themselves weren't worth that much, but for any artifact that existed, especially one as aesthetically pleasing as this, there was someone somewhere who was willing to pay much more than its basic components were worth. IPX was based upon such transactions.

And suddenly he knew the reason for the call. This woman hoped to sell him the torque. While it was not an exceedingly common piece, it was most definitely not worth his time. Besides, what did she think he was, some kind of used antique dealer? Truly annoyed, he opened the video feed.

"Oh good," she said, looking up at him from where she sat. "I was afraid that perhaps it had gotten lost."

"I'm not sure how much you hoped to get for this piece," Max said, leaning back against the desk once more, "but you will be disappointed."

She looked confused.

"In any case," Max continued, "IPX does not make a habit of buying artifacts from unknown individuals."

Surprise flickered across her face, and then she laughed. Max pursed his lips and was about to speak when she cut him off, raising his annoyance to the edge of anger.

"I'm sorry, Dr. Eilerson, but you're mistaken. I have no intention of selling you the torque, I was merely returning it."

"But I didn't give you this," he said, gesturing with the torque.

She smiled at him, a look he was quickly becoming tired of. "Not you directly, no, but it was IPX that offered it as a raffle prize at my grandson's high school career day." She suddenly looked sad, and said "A'tt'ara ne'geritchus."

In spite of himself, Max laughed. While technically correct, the pronunciation was completely wrong. "That was hideous. Where did you learn to mangle Balqyan like that?" he asked.

Nodding, she answered, "I thought as much. We could only find translated writings, never any audio recordings in the IPX public libraries." Her eyes took on a far away look. "We would spend hours pouring over the reports you brought back from your expeditions. He was quite taken with the Gerikya, and with you as well. To be able to serve was very important to him. That was why he joined Earth Force." She focused on the camera again. "So how do you say the Gerikyan memorial, Dr. Eilerson?" she asked.

Never one to pass by an opportunity to enlighten others, Max's anger slipped away. "While you were correct to consult my documentation, the more recent findings had probably not been released to the general populace yet." Warming up to his subject, Max dragged the chair from behind his desk and sat down on it backwards, resting his arms on the back of the chair in front of him.

"A body was recovered and the autopsy revealed an interesting biological aspect of their skeletal structure. It seems the Balqyan had several very fine bones in their windpipe which would have given their speech an almost musical quality, and make intonation much more important in their verbal communication."

Thea nodded. "So all of those accent marks we saw in the translations ..."

"Were indications of pitch," Max said, completing her sentence, pleased at her competence. "Therefore, you would start low at the beginning of the verb, rise and hold through the noun, and then lower your pitch to below the start of the verb since the noun no longer exists." He pronounced the words correctly, and she repeated it back to him. Shaking his head, he spoke again, exaggerating the difference in the pitch of his voice. When she said it again, while not even close to fluent, he could at least listen to it without cringing.

"Thank you, Dr. Eilerson." Reaching out of camera view, she held up a piece of paper and said, "If you could spare a few more moments, I would like to read you something."

While there were half a dozen other things he should be doing, this grandmother had surprised him by, putting it in the most generous of terms, speaking Balqyan, and he found himself slightly curious about her and her grandson. He waved his hand for her to continue.

Putting on a pair of reading glasses, she carefully unfolded the paper. "Dear Gramma, " she began. Looking up briefly, she gestured with the paper. "It's from my grandson, about 2 months ago. We always preferred the touch of pen to paper." She gave a little sigh and continued reading the letter.

"We're setting out again from Babylon 5, so I don't know how long it will be until my next letter. I saw him again in the Zocalo today. I was off duty, so I was wearing the torque. I though it would be a good conversation starter, but I couldn't do it. You know how Dr. Eilerson is, and I'm sure he would laugh at me as soon as I tried to say anything to him in Balqyan, especially with my stutter. He was talking with Dr. Chambers and then another woman walked up, (are you sitting down, Gramma?) and she kissed Dr. Eilerson. I think Dr. Chambers was as shocked as I was; to think that any woman would care so much for that man. I know a lot of people who have strong feelings for Dr. Eilerson, but they would involve hitting, not kissing.

"Anyway, it really wasn't a good time or place. I did find one of his recent papers, though, through the Bab5 computers, and I've sent you a copy. He really is brilliant, Gramma, which is why everyone puts up with him. You can see how much it wears on them sometimes, but someday I'll get to talk to him, one on one. He likes to work in the cafeteria on the ship. I brought him a cup of coffee once, but he didn't notice."

Pulling off her glasses, she said, "There is more, but I just wanted you to know how much he admired you." She smiled, remembering. "He was so excited when he found out you were going to be on the Excalibur."

She folded her glasses and held them lightly in her lap. At first he thought it was just artifacts from the low-grade camera at her end of the signal, but focusing on her hands, Max noticed that they were covered in dark, angry-looking splotches.

"The torque should go to Captain Gideon as his commanding officer," Thea continued. "And while he would appreciate the gesture, I know you would understand it. And Stuart would have wanted it that way."

Max froze.

"Your grandson's name was Stuart?" he asked, almost afraid of the answer.

She smiled and this time it sent a chill down his back. "Yes, Stuart Greenberg."

Images from his re-occurring dream flew in front of his eyes. But they were false memories, because he hadn't died that day in the transport tube. Someone else had died in his place. Someone named Stuart Greenberg.

"He knew," Max said quietly. It was a conversation he had had with Chambers while standing over the body that was only breathing because a machine told it when to expand and contract its muscles. Whether or not the exchange would have been considered worthwhile if he had known who he was saving. Max had finally resolved the issue within himself by calling it duty and training. The young man lying before him had stepping into the line of fire because it was his job, as Chambers had said. The alternative was more uncomfortable; the thought that had he known Max, he might not have taken that step.

In his dream, no one saved him because they knew him, and made the choice that their life was worth more than his, a fact he could accept and even understand. In reality, the exact opposite had happened. Give him a completely alien language and he will decipher and translate it within days, if not hours. Give him his life, and he was suddenly lost.

He knew Max Eilerson intimately, and had absolutely no illusions about who he was or what his priorities were. He was the best, and then there was the rest. There was the here and now, and when you died, you died; no hallelujah chorus, no hellfire, no endless gray mist. Would he have stepped into the line of fire for a Max Eilerson? It was an question he couldn't answer, and yet, Stuart Greenberg had said yes, unequivocally yes.

"He knew," Max said again, still trying to wrap his mind around the concept.

Thea nodded. "The captain told me how he died, which is another reason I wanted you to have the torque. We read that it was the custom for it to be given to the person the Gerikya had served the most with his life." Max looked down at the artifact in his hand, the broken teeth suddenly much more than a selling point on the black market.

She coughed, and to Max she seemed to have aged years in a few moments.

"Excuse me. Each day gets a bit more difficult you know," she said, smiling weakly. A woman in her early thirties dressed in a white uniform entered the view of the camera and spoke quietly to Thea. The old woman waved her back.

Addressing Max, she said, "My grandson believed in the spirit of the Gerikya. To serve wherever and whenever he was needed. Being on the Excalibur let him help millions of people every day by giving them hope of a cure. Being in that hallway at that moment let him help you make it into that transport tube. And you, in turn, helped give the captain the information that would save the ship."

She reached up to the screen, as if to touch the torque in his hand, and Max could clearly see the damage to the skin and muscles of her arm.

"To me, that is a beautiful piece of jewelry from an alien world." She dropped her hand back into her lap.

"To Stuart, it was a promise. Having fulfilled that promise, I believe he would have wanted you to have it. You are, after all, a Gerikya yourself, Dr. Eilerson."

She smiled briefly at him before she was consumed by a fit of coughing. The nurse behind her gestured off screen, and a young man, also dressed in white, walked up behind Thea's chair and bent down to adjust something below the camera's view. He rose, and began to push Thea off screen, as Max realized she had been sitting in a wheelchair.

She raised her hand slightly in a small wave good-bye. Max raised his hand in farewell, and said, "A'tt'ara ne'geritchus". Remember the Served.

As the nurse reached out to cut the communication, Max asked, "What is wrong with her?"

The woman paused, staring at the camera, an expression of disbelief on her face, as if he had just asked the most idiotic question she had ever heard.

"The plague," she finally answered, in a tone of voice that made it obvious she shouldn't have to be explaining this. "Most of the people in this area are already showing symptoms, and the elderly are even more susceptible."

Max nodded. "How serious is it?" he asked, expecting a medical report as an answer. What he got was an expression that he himself had worn countless times when dealing with people of inferior intellect, but had never seen on another looking at him.

"What kind of doctor are you?" she said, putting her hands on her hips. "It's terminal. She has maybe 3 months to live, if that." She reached out again to cut the transmission.

Max raised his hands in frustration. "Maybe your patients wouldn't mind living longer if you had a more pleasant bedside manner," he said.

She stopped and looked up directly into the camera. A change came over her face as she placed her hands on either side of the video pick-up, as if she were reaching across space to grab him by the lapels.

"Well maybe I would have a better bedside manner if I wasn't scared that each night when I got off work, I'd find someone has broken into my home and stolen everything I own because, well, the law just isn't much of a deterrent any more since everyone has a life sentence now don't they?"

She moved closer.

"And maybe I'd have a better bedside manner if I knew what to tell my daughter when she asks why she should do her homework when she's not going to live long enough to go to her prom."

Again, she moved in and involuntarily, Max leaned back a fraction of an inch before he caught himself and held his position.

"And maybe I'd have a better bed-side manner if I believed you and that ship full of healthy people were actually doing something to find a cure." At this point, Max could only see her eyes. Eyes that pleaded and condemned him with passions he could only imagine.

"I'm sorry," he said, unable to find any other words.

"Don't tell me you're sorry, Doctor," she said, pushing herself away from the screen, discarding him.

"Everyone's sorry." And with that, she cut the link.

He sat motionless in front of the screen, aware that the Earth Alliance shield had replaced the blackness, but seeing instead the afterimage of her eyes staring out at him.

Looking down at the torque in his hand, he said quietly, "Not everyone."

He turned away from the communications panel and gently laid the torque so that it encircled the photograph of a black and white cat that sat on the corner of his desk.

***

That night, Max Eilerson slept without dreaming.


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