The Ground Beneath Her Feet, Part 1

Characters: Tomás Darquin

1.

Darquin smiled widely, eyes glistening with joy, when he saw a small skull dangle from the Brakiri vendor’s wagon crawl down the street of the Abbai village. “Is that what I think it is?!”

The Brakiri vendor brought his wagon to a halt and opened a wooden door far enough to poke his head out at Darquin. “You like, eh?” Calling from the center of the road, he waved Darquin over. “Come, Anla’shok, plenty here!”

Darquin sauntered closer, taking the time to check the Brakiri’s face and hands for Chadi tattoos. The last thing he needed was Abbai 4’s answer to the Yakuza. But the vendor looked clean and, upon inspection, the little skull on a string was indeed sugar. “How much?” he said, pointing.

“For Anla’shok,” the Brakiri smiled as he bowed, “…half-price. I regret, not enough profit for vendor like me to make a proper gift.”

“Nah, for somethin’ like this, it’s a pleasure.” He pulled out his credit chit and stepped up to the vendor’s door. “I didn’t know your people made candy like this too.”

The Brakiri beamed as he reached into the wagon for a credit reader. “Old tradition. Your card, sir. And your candy.”

“Thanks.” Darquin palmed his credit chit, taking a moment to admire the skull candy. “Haven’t seen any of these since I was a kid.”

“Your Halloween?”

“Sorta. The same kinda thing, same time of year too. Except we call it Day of the Dead too.”

The Brakiri vendor grinned. “The Comet reaches far. Who do you expect to see this night?”

Darquin was reaching over his shoulder, hanging the skull candy onto his pack, when he stopped and frowned at the question. “‘Scuse me?”

“Who would you meet again?”

“Y’mean people who’ve died?” When the vendor nodded, Darquin’s answer came with a nervous chuckle. “Um…dunno. Thanks again. Safe trip and long life!”

“And you, Anla’shok! May the Comet bring you wisdom!”

As the Brakiri vendor climbed back into his wagon, Darquin turned back to the Abbai inn down the road. Now that he was properly equipped, he had his own rituals to observe.


2.

A surreal mixture of streamlined bungalows built by the Brakiri and the usual round abode sculpted by the Abbai, the village neighborhoods seemed just as quiet as the outskirts. Darquin could hear the hand gongs and lilting prayer cries in the distance. And sometimes a voice would cry out, never the same one, in different parts of town; whether they were in pain or overjoyed, he wasn’t sure. Once he heard the gasps and footfalls of someone running in the night. But from the moment he entered the village proper, even when he stepped into the Abbai inn, he saw no one.

Darquin reached the roof of the Abbai inn, looking up at the alien stars as he waited for the Day of the Dead to begin.

Many other humans didn’t get this Brakiri festival. Having it at night seemed strange perhaps, even when you knew that Brakiri were nocturnal, but the whole idea of contemplating death was often distasteful for humans.

But Darquin was raised on it. Mexican culture didn’t treat life and death as separate, diametrically opposed forces on the verge of wiping each other out, but as elements in the same continuum. So when he was a kid, Halloween wasn’t restricted to cool costumes, scary movies, and candy. Papier-mache skeletons, candy skulls, and fireworks adorned the promenades of the Flagstaff arcology, inviting spirits to come home for, just a brief visit before All Souls’ Day. Families lit homemade candles and set aside drinks and plates of food for the dearly departed, like an annual wake. Even the ones who didn’t take it literally held the holiday in deep reverence because it gave them a chance to face their memories and their loss. Instead of missing someone, you split a bottle of your beloved’s favorite booze for the night. Instead of mourning the dead, you partied with them. El Dia Del Los Muertos.

So Darquin set up camp on the roof, pulled out a meditation cushion and a shatterproof bottle of sangria from his pack, and filled up a shot glass as he sat and thought about the ones who had gone ahead of him.

He raised his metal shot glass to the darkening sky. First, a silent toast to Entil’zha Sinclair. No one seemed to know what happened to him a year ago, but wherever he was, apparently he wasn’t coming back. Darquin made another toast for his parents, more heartfelt this year, now that he knew for certain they were gone. And why. He took a sip, content to let them rest tonight. Earth was a long way from the Abbai system anyway.

A lot of people that he knew were gone. That was a soldier’s life. After all he’d seen four wars. Realizing that, he shook his head in disbelief. Whether it made him feel ancient or just empty … he couldn’t decide. He felt the loss of lives more than victories or glorious escapes. Earthforce had trained him to make use of that youthful, arrogant notion that he was going to outlive the expected 87 seconds in battle. When someone else was gone, he needed more time than others to believe it. So now a few emotional sectors deep inside him hadn’t quite absorbed the news that Marcus Cole, Tylo Narsh, Sinclair, and many other Rangers had been swallowed by the night.

The Shadow War … the Earth civil war … the Minbari civil war … the Earth-Minbari War.

Odd, he thought, the way certain deaths stayed with him. Out of the millions, only one death during the Earth-Minbari War blindsided him. He had convinced himself he was ready for all the others. He contemplated the Brakiri vendor’s question. Who did he want to see. Darquin poured sangria into his mouth, languid, encouraging himself to dream–

“What is that?”

Darquin kept himself still, resisting the urge to spin around, and peered into the bowed reflection in his shot glass. An Earthforce officer was standing behind him, apparently unarmed. But when he turned around, his eyes nearly fell out of his head. He gave his head a severe shake to make sure it wasn’t the sangria implanting that face on someone else’s body. “Earth orbit.”

“Yeah.”

“Earth civil war.”

“Yeah.”

“You’re alive?!”

The Earthforce officer seemed to think about it. then shook his head.

Darquin sent a blues number running through his head like a subway train, in case a telepath was projecting all this into his head. “Chris Dmitri Rawlings.”

“Yeah! Jeez, I didn’t know I needed dog tags even now–”

“Allrightallrightallright!” Darquin stuffed his sangria and shot glass into his pack. “Okay, if you’re Chris Rawlings, what the hell are you doing here?”

“What I’m supposed to do, I guess. Day of the Dead.”

Darquin leaned back, rolling his eyes at the stars.

“What’s your problem!”

“Oh, hell, just my luck, y’know? Out of all the people there ever were, instead of my parents or John Lennon or M– Aye yai yai, what am I sayin’….”

Chris Rawlings nodded, sneering. “You really know how to make a guy feel all warm and fuzzy inside.”

“You were fraggin’ roasted last time I saw you!”

“Yeah,” he said plainly. “Yeah, that’s true, I was.”

Darquin froze. “You remember that?”

“Kind of.” Rawlings sat down on the rooftop to face him. “It’s a little vague. It comes to me in pieces. The command deck on the Cadmus, some kind of blast. It felt like it chopped me in half, but I seemed … you know, intact. Either I blacked out or….” He shook his head as he dismissed that line of thought. “My memory just isn’t back yet.”

“And you know me?”

“Right. You used to be one of the ‘Fury pilots at Babylon 5.” Rawlings smirked. “Knightwatch scared off you the station, didn’t they.”

Darquin glared. “Go stroke off. Like you wouldn’t make your own jumppoint the minute those goosesteppin’ geeks started gunnin’ for you.”

“I’m just saying what Bev told me!”

“Shut up, you briquet.”

Chris stopped smiling. “That’s a low blow.”

“Keep it up, Casper, and I’ll show ya a low blow.”

Darquin looked away from the dreadful silence between them. When he finally looked back, he found Rawlings smiling again. “This is what you do in Purgatory when the vid’s offline? Cheap shots across the port bow?”

“Well, frankly, I was hoping for a date.”

“Right, like you need one.”

Chris grinned widely. “Are we bitter?”

“Actually there were a few girls who thought I was kinda sweet.”

“You’re quick.”

“And you’re the dead. Y’wanna go for another round?”

“Uncle, uncle,” Rawlings cried, raising his hands. “I’ll rephrase. Are you still mad about me seeing Bev?”

“‘Kind of.'” Darquin’s voice had an edge.

“Well…” He shrugged. “Don’t blame me just because I got there first.”

“Don’t bl–?” He barrelrolled to his feet, forcing Rawlings to scramble to his feet and evade when Darquin marched into him. “Got there first? Y’make it sound like the Stellarcom 500!”

“I thought the conversation was getting racy as it is.”

He scowled at Rawlings’ smug expression. “Oh grow up.”

“This is as far as I got,” he shot back.

“This isn’t about me! You were seeing someone behind her back. Bev was practically crushed!”

“What do you care?” Rawlings was shrill with disbelief. “She’s an adult, she can take care of herself!”

“Don’t gimme that! She was vulnerable, a lot more than either of us thought. And I heard what you said when you died! The way you said it, you weren’t afraid for yourself. All of a sudden you didn’t have time to make things right!”

Chris Rawlings frowned, turning away. “Yeah.” He shrugged and went back to Darquin, throwing an arm around his shoulders. “Come on, she told me the stories. You’ve been around as much as I have. Probably more.”

“Wait a minute.” Darquin broke away, took a moment to prepare himself. “Is that what Bev thought about me?”

“No, I just meant….” Rawlings put on a mischievous smile and thumbed at the two of them on the roof. “You know, guys. You get a moment of weakness, then pick yourself up and move on to the next friendly face. That’s what we do.”

Darquin jabbed a finger into the soldier’s chest. “I don’t treat people like toys. I dated a lot of women, yeah, but they were my friends. I liked them.”

“I liked my women too.”

“Your…?” The chill in his voice started to spread to the rest of his body. “Y’sound like you’re keepin’ em in a room somewhere.”

“I’ve been called a Casanova,” Rawlings said with a wide grin, “but Bluebeard?”

Darquin rubbed his face as if nursing a migraine. “Dios, salvame. Look, uh, Chris. If I call this off and say you can go home–wherever that is–”

“I, uh, don’t think it works that way.”

“Christ! What did I do to deserve getting stuck with this guy….”

Rawlings’ sarcastic nod and sneer came back. “Oh thanks.”

“No, really. I know I shouldn’t talk ill of the dead–”

“Never stopped you before.”

“–but you’re an A-1 dyed-in-the-wool, numbered and certified for authenticity, stone-cold heartless jerk. I mean, why am I getting saddled with you? Am I getting punished for something? Did I do something to one of my girlfriends?”

“I wouldn’t know unless they came up to me and said so. And even then, they’d probably have to be history just like me. And if they were … maybe that means they’re available–”

“You leave her alone.”

“One … really is dead?”

Darquin knocked him down with a piston-like shove. Darquin’s PPG powered up with a shrill whine as he drew and aimed right at Rawlings’ chest. “I’ll burn you to the ground–I swear to God I will–if you so much as look at her. Leave her the hell….”

That was when he realized that he’d just pulled a gun on a dead man. Darquin lowered his gun, recognizing the warped reflection of the horrified stare in the chrome finish. His own eyes.

Rawlings grimaced angrily, crawling back onto his feet, and dusted off his Earthforce blues.

Darquin holstered the PPG and moved away, trying to make sense out of the living nightmare. He was living out his military career all over again. Barroom brawls, mess hall shouting matches, and locker room punch-outs. For fourteen years, he had literally fought in every waking moment to make himself and everyone around him live up to the memory of those who had died in his place at the Battle of the Line. Or maybe just one.


Copyright (c) 2000 Joe Medina. All rights reserved.