Characters: Tomás Darquin, Mira Trassano
On the abandoned riverside manor of House Crionza, once-golden drapes were drawn, shutting out the battle-scarred world of Centauri Prime. Mira started on one side of the house, Darquin at the other. They met at the bottom of a staircase, certain they had broken some record.
“Checked every door I could find,” he said. “They all look solid. Most of the locks are working. I barricaded the rest. Any luck with the plumbing?”
“Water spigots flow, but I wouldn’t trust them. I daresay we’ve tried the patience of Ilarus enough.” Mira smiled at Darquin’s confusion. “Ilarus, god of luck.”
“Huh. Sounds like we’re better off taking buckets down to the river. We’d have to filter it and boil it for drinking water.”
Mira nodded. “There will likely be charcoal and sand in the gardening sheds. I can make a filter while you and Gaz fetch water.” She paused, remembering arguments with Darquin in the past. Mira chose her next words carefully. “I still have doubts. About staying in one place.”
“I know,” he said. “We’re vulnerable, whatever we do–”
A clang resonated farther down the hall. Sighing at once, Mira and Darquin rushed toward it, into the large kitchen built to serve the entire manor.
They found Gazpari Arscampana sitting in the dusty corner of the kitchen, arms crossed and smouldering. Her pale face stood out in the gloom. “Is it really worth blowing us up?”
Her father bellowed from behind a stove. “Nonsense, my blue carbuncle! The natural gas lines are thriving. And secure.” He crawled out and grinned, sitting up on his knees. “Indeed! You shall rue your charming derisions when we eat a wholesome, hot meal!”
Darquin moved to the opposite end of the kitchen. “Being on the Line felt safer,” he muttered.
Mira paled and stopped breathing for a moment. “We’ll keep this room well vented. It takes a large build-up of gas to create an explosion. Mostly, we’d have to worry about suffocation.”
The elder Arscampana reached for the cooktop controls.
Mira pulled Gaz behind the kitchen counter. “And flash burns!” Darquin dove behind them.
There was a small click, a steady whoosh. The first front burner held a steady blue ring of flame.
Mira peeked over the edge of the counter and blinked. “Well, I congratulate you, sir.”
“But of course,” Dib Arscampana smiled. He ran his hand over his hard right angle of jet black hair, apparently to smooth it out and back. “I found only a few tools suitable for the task. And here we are.”
She stood there for a moment, staring at the proud Centauri. “Right. I was going to make a water filter. I’ll be back shortly and with luck, we can even have clean water tonight.” Mira beamed brightly at Arscampana as she slipped past him out the kitchen door.
“I do believe the lady is taken with me,” Arscampana said.
Darquin smirked. “No, you’re still here.”
Arscampana visibly rankled. “Then with whom, pray tell? You, sir? In fact you never introduced yourselves, not properly.”
“Father, they helped me rescue you,” Gaz chimed in.
Darquin shrugged, amused. “Glad we could help. Listen.” Reaching into his leather jacket, he handed Arscampana his isil’zha pin. “My name is Darquin. Security Officer of the Interstellar Alliance cruiser Phoenix. We’re Rangers.”
Arscampana gave the pin a good look. “How do I know, sir, that you didn’t simply deprive a Ranger of this?”
“Depriving a Ranger of anything isn’t exactly simple, for starters. Look, if I was that kind of guy, why would I bothering trying to convince you? Or rescue you?”
“For the reward.”
Gaz aimed a withering glare at her father. “Nearly everybody on Centauri Prime is poor. Nobody cares about you. And you’re talking. Again.”
“Okaaay,” Darquin said, “I’m gonna look for some buckets. We need water from the river.”
“Good,” she said. “It’ll be quiet there.”
He watched her stomp out. “I guess I’m going too.”
Darquin had just left when Mira returned with a small stack of storage containers, sand and charcoal. “Where did the others go?”
“To the river. For water.” Dib Arscampana opened a cupboard, grumpy until he noticed the small stack of storage containers and cloth sacks in her arms. “What… are you doing, good lady?” Several pots and pans rattled as he pulled them out of the cupboard.
“Making a rudimentary water filter.” She dumped the whole mess on the kitchen table, sand and charcoal tumbling out of the sacks. “It’s quick work once you find the right supplies.”
The supplies got sorted and Mira pulled some bandages and a punch awl out of her pocket. She started rooting around in the kitchen drawers for a mallet, funnel and cork.
“Is it true then, dear lady, that you are part of that Minbari fraternity?”
“Indeed, sir. And lucky to be, as well,” Mira smiled and winked at him. “I am much too opinionated for marriage and not nearly devout enough for the temple. What a sad fate I would have suffered — the unwed daughter of the household.” She briefly put the back of her hand to her temple in mock drama. “Very operatic.”
Arscampana stared, wearing a polite if bemused grin. Apparently he was more open-minded than the average Centauri.
“But never you worry about me,” Mira said. “Would you help me with this? You quite handily repaired the stove. Did you apprentice with a technician before you became a journalist?”
“Yes indeed, I excelled at it, in fact …” His tone began to falter. Then he sighed. “I find I cannot bring myself to deceive you, however great the temptation. I was a journeyman technician myself. Of all sorts of … domestic engineering. But my specialty was plumbing.”
“How wonderful! I, too, couldn’t stand to be idle. My father finally sent me off to medical school. Naturally, I ran into a bit of trouble. You seem to have found an interesting bit of trouble yourself. Do you have any ideas as to who might want to harm you so badly?”
“In my career, I’ve uncovered many things that were best left hidden,” he said. “The Xon survivors, hidden for generations … the Emperor who was controlled by the shade of his great-grandfather … the aliens skulking amongst us even now.” Again, he sighed. “But now I am destitute. It’s more than likely my ex-wife has decided, after taking every last ducat out of me, to simply take my head.”
With both of them working on it, the water filter came together quickly. Gauze covered the holes in the bottom to help prevent charcoal dust in the water. Multiple layers of charcoal and sand would filter the water and another storage container sieve placed on top prevented the dumping of water buckets from disturbing the layers. Both of those sat on top of a third container that had been modified with a jury-rigged spigot. Mira put the whole contraption on a chair in the corner of the kitchen. “Well, that shall have to do.”
Arscampana forced a smile as he brushed charcoal dust from his hands. “It should do excellently,” he said, “for as long as we need it to.”
“Thank you for the assistance.” Mira wiped her hands off with some spare gauze. “I’ve seen many of your reports, but I don’t remember the one about aliens among us now. What are they?”
“I have reports they are a fell species allied to the Shadows. None dare speak their name — Drakh.”
“Really? What do you think they are doing here?”
“We … I … no one knows, not yet.” His shoulders drooped and he struggled to keep his earnest tone. “But it can be nothing good, else why ….” His voice trailed off completely, ending in a sigh. “Never mind.”
Mira reached across the table and put her hand on Arscampana’s arm and spoke so softly as to be barely audible. “I believe you.” She squeezed his arm hard. “But you will have to work harder at keeping this quiet. We cannot afford to allow the enemy to know what we know. We are going to get you and your daughter off-planet and in exchange for that, we ask for your discretion. There will come a day when our war is fought in the open. Until then….” Mira put her finger to her lips in a shushing motion.
Arscampana’s eyes went wide. Even as Mira moved to leave the kitchen, he gaped after her — not with intent or suspicion, but revelation. She was telling him the truth. “I … I will do my best,” he said at last.
Outside, on the grounds of the abandoned manor, Darquin led Arscampana’s grim little girl to the river with buckets in hand.
She didn’t let him at first. Then he pointed out that he’d make a better body shield in front of her. After that, she gave no quarter. Gaz Arscampana made him earn every pinch of credibility. They were leaving footprints in the ash, she said. But he had planned on covering them up on their way back inside. She insisted that was sloppy, making more work for themselves. But not if they walked in single file.
They stopped at the boathouse, scooping out their first few buckets out of the river. Darquin heaved the full buckets up to Gaz. Then she lifted them onto the boathouse deck.
“Gods, they get heavy.”
“You’re telling me.” Darquin slipped off his leather jacket and tossed it up onto the wooden deck. “Aye, que la ching— um, never mind.”
Gaz threw him a look. “All right, who are you? Every time you say something, it’s in some new language. I don’t know who or what I’m dealing with half the time.”
“Could’ve fooled me, kid.”
“I mean it,” said Gaz. “I’ve been rather patient so far.”
Darquin blinked. “Really?”
She stared daggers right back at him. “Yes! Really! I know you’re a human or something, but you’re just like all the grown-ups I know. Taking too long to explain anything. To really explain.”
Darquin looked around at their circumstances — hiding in the debris of Centauri Prime, hounded by a mysterious enemy, dead-lifting buckets onto the boathouse deck. “We’ve been busy?”
“Not now,” Gaz shot back. “So tell me!”
“Okay, okay. What do you want to know then?”
“You’re a human, right? But the Rangers, that’s Minbari.”
“Remember what I showed your father earlier?” He pointed at his leather jacket piled beside her. “Inside pocket. Take a good look.”
She drew something out of his leather jacket — a stone or gem, shaped like an egg, framed in scalloped brass or bronze. A splinter of sunlight through the cracked ceiling woke flickering green and blue shapes in the stone. In the light, she could make out the figures on opposite sides of the stone. One of them was definitely Minbari.
“A few years ago,” Darquin said, “the Minbari met with humans in secret. Looking for the right people. They told us that a great war was coming, that everyone had to be ready for it.” He nodded at the stone in her hands. “That’s what it means. Humans and Minbari. Coming together for a common cause. Isil’zha. The future.”
Gaz shrugged, then slipped the stone back into his jacket. “How does Doctor Trassano know about you?”
“We’re… old friends.” Darquin frowned. “More or less.”
“That usually means less. So why are you here? If you get caught, every other Centauri on the planet would kill you.”
He looked across the river, his bravado slipping. “I don’t give up on my friends.” His expression turned to steel. “I might lose. But I don’t give up.”
She followed his gaze. Not seeing whatever he saw, she glanced over at their footsteps in the ashes. “Lots of people gave up on me.”
“What about your father?”
She snorted. “Just about everybody gave up on him a long time ago. Most of the stuff he goes on about is pretty dumb. But once in a while, he gets it right.”
“I mean,” Darquin said carefully, “did he ever give up on you?”
Gaz blinked. “He doesn’t seem to care that I’m a weird kid.”
He shook his head. “You’re not weird. People just want you to be something you’re not.”
Gaz smiled. It flashed across her face.
Darquin reached for his jacket, pretending not to notice her. “Let’s haul the water back. We have to do this a few more times.”
“So what was this ‘great war’ anyway?”
“It’ll take a few more buckets to tell you what I know.”
“Then hurry up.”
“Tuck your sleeves around the handles. Otherwise it’ll start digging into your hand. Like that. Good.” Grunting with his first step back in the hill, Darquin took up his buckets. “Okay. Now you remember the last war between your people and the Narn? It turns out that was only part of a bigger war. Now some folks call it the Great War. For the rest of us, it was the Shadow War.”
“Shadow War? What does that mean?”
“Well, that’s where it starts getting weird….”