Characters: Tomás Darquin, Jan Jardine
With an excerpt from Terry Hale’s “Fork In The Road”
Darquin hobbled into the fighter bay, looking over the state of things through jets of steam. While far better than only a few days before, the Phoenix was still going to be a long time in dock for repairs. He wondered if they would take time to do any retrofitting … or if, perhaps, the ship would be scrapped entirely.
As he glanced over the Starfury docking cradles, he spotted one that didn’t belong there. He’d heard that someone had come aboard from the White Star, but hadn’t been notified who it was. That was a security breach — perhaps a minor one, but after what he and the ship had come through, no one could afford even the minor ones.
The craft was clearly out of place. Not one of the Phoenix’s complement of Thunderbolts, it was an older model, an SA-23E, what pilots used to call Aurora-class. He’d spent most of his military career flying them. A man was standing near it, apparently examining the brightly painted outer hull. He vaguely remembered nose art like that, from his training days. Darquin recognized the deep brown face despite its wrinkles as the other man turned around, though the uniform was a dramatically different one than the one in his memory.
The old man’s eyes narrowed slightly, then his mouth split wide in a grin. “Tomas! I’d been hoping to catch up to you before we reached Minbar.” Through the deckplates, they could feel the shudder and hear the slight groan as the ship jumped back into normal space. Jardine chuckled. “I think I only just made it.” He extended a hand. “And how has my ace student been, through the years?”
Darquin shrugged and walked slowly toward him, gently testing his ankle as he reached out to shake his hand. “Honking off everyone for 10 light-years, like always. I thought you retired!”
Jardine laughed again. It was an unfamiliar sound from the old man. In the final weeks of the Minbari War, when Darquin had been trained as a pilot, no one laughed much. “I should have been retired before that war even started,” he said. “They finally let me retire about four years after it was over. Traveled around after that…. until I found the Anla’shok.” He indicated the bright pin at his shoulder. “I can still serve, so here I am.”
Before Darquin could answer, the comm crackled, then Hale’s voice could be heard over. “Attention. This is your Captain speaking.
“We have just reached Minbar, and are about to be maneuvered into standard orbit. We also have our new marching orders, so please listen closely. A copy of this will also be found on the message system.
“The Phoenix is not fit for battle, but the need for the Rangers has not abated in the least because of it. Those of us who are able to will be reassigned to a White Star that is waiting for us in dock at Babylon 5. From there that White Star will be joining the fleet near the Earth Alliance home system.
“Those who will not be joining us you, will remain with the Phoenix and assist in accelerating its repair. The sooner the better, for while wars will end, there is still a long road ahead for us all.
“Please gather your belongings and report immediately to the docking bay for travel down to Minbar, where there are transports waiting for the trip to Babylon 5 or to the Shipyards respectively. There is no time to waste now. Good luck to you all, for whichever path is ahead for you in these coming weeks.”
“Come on, we can talk while you pack,” Jardine said.
Jardine started for the corridor, stopping when he realized that his old pupil was walking slowly behind him. “What happened to you?”
“Shrapnel, apparently.” Darquin smirked. “I got caught in a debris cloud. Sky-to-ground exchange. Some of the hot stuff cut into the canopy, dug right into my ankle. Tore right through my suit. I was lucky it was hot enough to weld it shut before I left the atmosphere.”
Jardine sighed as they walked out into the corridor. “Always taking risks.”
“We didn’t have a lot of choice.”
“I guess not.” He lowered his voice as they passed a few crewmembers. “It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a ship this badly damaged.”
After stepping into the lift, Darquin tapped a cluster of variegated crystals near the door. “Pretty nasty, all right. But as they say, you should see the other guy.”
Jardine smiled gently, wan despite the warmth in his eyes. Putting his back to a wall facing the closing door, Darquin glanced at his old flight instructor, realizing that ancient fears were dampening the old man’s usual jocularity.
“Still having that premonition?”
Jardine nodded as the lift rode onward. “I never lost it.”
“So you don’t think it was the Shadows?”
“For a while, I did. I found out about them during Ranger training, and from what I heard, they definitely sounded like what I’ve been looking for. But it didn’t feel the same. And of course the Shadows are gone, and we’re still here.”
“Y’suppose the aliens we fought are the ones?”
Jardine shrugged, a neutral expression on his face. “What were they like?”
“Intelligent jellyfish.” Darquin spread his cupped hands out to describe their shape. “They floated in the air instead of water. Sort of like a hot-air balloon. They were allies of the Vorlons, and they weren’t too happy about their masters disappearing either.”
The lift stopped and opened onto their floor, and they stepped into the corridor in silence, dodging the in-rush of worker caste and religious caste Minbari carrying tool kits and coils of pale cable. Slipping through the alternating parallel flows of foot traffic, Darquin glanced over his shoulder to see his old instructor staying with him despite the distant look in his eyes.
“I don’t think it’s them somehow,” Jardine finally said.
Darquin waved him over. “This way. Um, Commander, if you don’t mind my saying so — ”
“I’m sure I can take it.” Jardine smiled back at his former student’s quiet dismay, then shrugged. “I know you, remember? So tell me.”
“Well,” Darquin began, leading them to his door, “I know you had this feeling for the longest time. But it’s kind of turning into a conspiracy theory. No matter what, it can drag out until you and I are both history.”
Jardine said nothing, thinking as the door to Darquin’s quarters was in sight. “That’s true. It is a sure bet: There will always be a species that is more powerful than another. And sooner or later, we will find one that is hostile as well as superior. The Law of Averages.”
“Or Murphy’s,” Darquin said with a smirk. The door slid open when he tapped the crystalline control cluster beside it. “Come in.”
“Thank you.” Jardine followed him in. “All I can say is I have this suspicion. It’s why I enjoyed Earthforce in the first place. I suppose my family would say I inherited our great-grandmother’s second sight.”
“The Minbari would say you’re a True Seeker.” Darquin pulled out from behind his reclined bed a plain black cloth backpack. “Could you go into the bathroom and get the water pitcher out here?”
“Sure.” Going into the next room, Jardine called out, “Actually they do.”
“No. Long before I joined the Rangers.”
“When they finally let you retire? You went out looking for clues to the alien threat, didn’t you?”
“Yes, that’s how the Rangers knew about me.” Jardine came out and put the glass pitcher on a small table beside the bed, next to a sleek black crucifix and a cracked picture frame. He picked the picture frame up, looking closely at the picture of a blue-eyed girl in Earthforce uniform behind the spiderweb cracks. “Anyone I know?”
Darquin froze, then turned away, throwing a towel into his pack. “Just a friend,” he said meekly. “Pass those over, will you?”
They returned to the docking bay about an hour later, Jardine helping to get Darquin’s belongings aboard the transport. At least now Darquin wouldn’t have to worry about packing while he tied up his ship duties.
As he turned away to return to his Starfury, the old man paused. “Wait a second.” He laughed again. “I’ve been carrying this thing so long, I almost forgot who I’d been carrying it for.”
Jardine fished around in his pocket. “I found this not long after you were reassigned and I lost track of you. Kept it, hoping I’d find you again.” He pressed a small object into Darquin’s hand. “For your collection,” he said. “Take good care of it. Sort of became a good luck charm for me, over the years. And watch your six — x, y, and zed, eh?” He headed off toward the docking cradles, leaving Darquin to look at the small object in his palm. A data crystal.
As he left the docking area for the rest of the ship, Darquin put the crystal into his pocket computer and headphones into his ears, and set it to play. Startled at first at the accordion sound, he grinned for a moment and moved into the alternating currents of crowds surging through the corridors. It was completely appropriate somehow.
It was a slow day And the sun was beating On the soldiers by the side of the road There was a bright light A shattering of shop windows The bomb in the baby carriage Was wired to the radio ... – "The Boy In The Bubble," lyrics by Paul Simon
Copyright (C) 1998 Joe R. Medina and Jamie Lawson. All rights reserved.