This is the second chapter of my novel, “Ainadamar, or The Fountain of Tears: The First Flight of the Madrugada.” It details the adventures of a spaceship called the Madrugada, crewed by a Bulgarian space vampire, a lady barbarian, a 17th century French mountebank, a shape-shifting chef, a giant kitty, an empath, Morgan La Fey, an octopus surgeon, a cowboy, and the early 20th century Spanish Republican poet and martyr, Federico Garcia Lorca. I publish a new chapter each week. To read other chapters, click on the category Ainadamar.
Earthward of the Curtain
Captain Stratsimir lay in his coffin, arms crossed and eyes closed. He was stretched out at length on a sheet of blue silk, picked out in red-gold fleur-de-lis. The sheet kept the soil he lay upon separate from the clothing he lay in. The soil was two square yards of good, old-fashioned Bulgarian dirt, shoveled from beneath the foundations of the captain’s hereditary castle of Baba Vida on the Danube in Vidin. He was clad in an Anderson and Sheppard single-breasted suit in Navy mohair with a pink, diamond-patterned shirt and light white and navy-stripe Robert Talbot tie. His cufflinks, of polished star sapphire, matched the light pink of the shirt, and his shoes, rose and dark Navy delavée Mantellassis, had been made for him by Paola Gavagna herself.
A knock woke him. In the guttering light of the sconces his eyes flashed open and he sat up, bending from the waist with his arms still crossed. He floated up over the edge of the coffin to rest half an inch above the herringbone parquet. He closed the lid of the black oak wood coffin with an unlikely and prolonged squeal of protest from hinges that looked suspiciously free of rust. He glided to the stateroom door, opened and paused before the door from the ready room to the bridge, where he dropped soundlessly to the floor
“Come in,” he said, flashing effortlessly through the intervening space so quickly that, by the time she opened the door, he was leaning back in his chair against the wainscoting, a glass of sherry in his hand and gazing languidly out the porthole to the receding purple hook of the Sloan Great Wall.
Red Mona closed the door behind her and stepped up to the edge of the round conference table that dominated the ready room. She set down a roll of velum. Stratsimir absently passed a hand over a command panel in the wall and the hull became transparent, the bulkheads, adapting to a Lux plotting skin, filled in what could not be seen directly with a combination of stellar cartography and sensor dump from the ship’s keel and starboard arrays.
The lapis and gold inlays of the table, depicting a Renaissance map of the universe, showed through the paper-thin vellum. Mona unrolled it with both hands, then snapped the edges like a commuter with a newspaper. The vellum sank into the tabletop and the ink separated, spreading out three-dimensionally in the space over the table. Mona touched the floating map with a finger and pulled it toward her, focusing and enlarging the Point of Origin.
“It has taken us two and a half months to move from Origin…” she indicated the jewel-like yellow speck ringed in with the red band of the Aliel Curtain, “to here.” She pulled the map sideways and hooked another point forward, the Sloan Great Wall.
“When we started out we were slipping up to 60 MLY at a time and often recharging for the next slip inside of 16 hours,” she continued. “But it’s dipped down to 30 per and we’re starting to spend well over a day on repair and recharge. And the crew’s starting to show some stress.”
“I’ve noticed,” agreed Stratsimir. “We never planned for this.”
Mona pulled the map up, folded over the furthest quadrant and creased the middle until both the Sloan Great Wall and the Virgo Supercluster were visible.
“We need replacement parts or the means to fabricate them,” she said. “We need to restock our stores, the crew needs rest and we desperately need at last fourteen grams of phlogiston to refilm the CBM intakes. Otherwise, the ship’s slips will get shorter and the stops longer until we eventually find ourselves adrift, far in advance of reaching any of the Fornax worlds, much less Eridanus.”
“That’s if the crew doesn’t float apart before that,” said the captain.
Mona and the Captain looked at each other for a moment, seized at first with a sense of vertigo, which they unconsciously assigned to the fact that they were seemed to be rocketing through space on a carpet and flying table. Then, for just an instant, they felt the sensation of creating meaning, just by virtue of their proximity to one another. It felt like what was described as “telepathy,“ if telepathy weren’t a fairy tale. The image of a stellar map blazed and then faded in their minds.
“Well, that was odd,” said the captain, thoughtfully. He glanced at one of the invisible bulkheads that, when visible, held one of his bookcases.
“What are our options, Mona?”
Mona played with her ring, a silvery band of Horologite holding a blue-gray agate from a mine in the hills surrounding her tribe’s land. The agate, thousands of years old, had been cut into the totem of the ruling house, her house, the head of a bear, radiant.
“The Space Banditos.”
“Space Banditos.” The captain repeated nodding in mock consideration. “You cannot possibly be serious.”
Mona played with her hair.
“Captain, there is a band whose territory is in the Sculptor Superclusters. We can send a message now and meet José Maria Ormaetxea-Ametxazurra’s ship in the Sculptor Void.”
“Mona, your courage is admirable but your judgment is not,” said Stratsimir.
Mona gazed wistfully out over the clouds of stars.
“The last time you saw Mr. Ormaetxea-Ametxazurra, I must remind you, he did try his utmost to kick your head free from the prison of your neck.”
“Yes,” said Mona, allowing a sigh to escape her slightly-parted lips. “I was trying to eviscerate him.”
“True. You surprise me, Mona.”
“I doubt that.” She shrugged. “What do you want? He’s a dreamboat.”
“He’s a grotesque.“
They gazed out through the transparent hull in silence.
“How long before we can slip again?” asked the captain.
“About six hours,” Mona replied. He thought and it was not fruitful so he sighed.
“Alright, Mona. Make the arrangements.”
Red Mona jumped up and jabbed the edges of the table to detach the map. The ink settled back down onto the vellum and she rolled it up.
As she walked to the door, her ass bounced like a squirrel-skin sack full of shaved kittens. She pulled to door to behind her.
“I am a naughty vampire,” thought the captain. “A naughty, naughty, naughty little vampire.” He passed his hand over the actuator on the wall behind him. The cabin resumed its normal appearance, the wainscoting on the wall and bulkhead visible again. Stratsimir knelt down below the bookcases on the bulkhead to the left of the door and snapped his fingers, pronouncing a word under his breath. A drawer slid open revealing a package wrapped in red silk.
He frowned in puzzlement, trying to remember. Sweat sprung from his forehead and he grew even paler than usual. He tried to focus his mind but it refused to be governed.
“Damnation,” he muttered.
Dem Pilato Dem sat at one of the curved gold benches at a table in the galley, chewing thoughtfully. He had turned slightly silver. Slim set his tray down, carefully moved the holstered Colt on his left thigh so it wouldn’t bang against the table and sat. Dem smiled.
“Dem,” said the cowboy, setting his hat next to him on the bench.
“Good pilotin’,” said Slim. That was a rough spot, that gravity well back there around the quasar.”
“Couldn’t have done it without you, partner,” said Dem.
Slim chewed in silence as Dem sipped Space Vouvray from his glass.
He peered at the pilot out of the corner of his eye. They’d worked together for some six months now and got on quite well together, had developed a friendship. Like Slim, Dem was easygoing and took a lot of pride in his work. The two of them had, together with Patches, created a number of systemic improvements that made the Madrugada one of the faster independent ships in known space. Well, unknown space as well now.
There was a small rumble and a static hissing that indicated the ship’s shields had dealt with a particularly piquant dose of cosmic radiation. Slim’s finger sparked with the static as he touched a concho on his belt.
Dem, Slim thought, had an unerring sense of movement, almost as good at the controls of that ship as Slim’s daddy had been in the saddle of his headstrong paint.
Space, at least those parts of it the Madrugada tended to frequent (namely, outer space), was like the Old West, or, as Slim thought of it, the West. No questions were asked, no explanations were needed and a person’s past was nobody’s business. You judged someone by their actions, not their pedigree, and a person’s actions expressed their character, sure enough. But some questions, well, they were persistent.
Slim cleared his throat.
“Do you mind if I ask you a question? It’s none of my business and of course you don’t need to answer it if you don’t want.”
“Not at all, Slim,” said Pilato. “My life is an open book. Fire away.” He lit a slim silver cigar and presented an expectant face, wreathed in rose-tinted smoke.
“OK.” Slim pushed his hair out of his eyes. He hadn’t gotten a good haircut and shave since he couldn’t remember when. And he just couldn’t get used to Dded, with all the tentacles and whatnot, even though, by all accounts, he was an excellent barber. Patches had told him nobody back on Echlled would dream of calling themselves a doctor if they lacked tonsorial skills. That was pretty reasonable, thought Slim, but still. The tentacle thing.
“You know, when we talk about you, that is, when you’re not in the room and we have occasion to mention you, whenever we don’t use your name, we say ‘he.’” Slim paused and the pilot nodded.
“Well, it’s just, I learned a sight more than I ever thought I would since that night out in the Pinnacles by Sand Creek. That is, uh, are you a…male of the species, Dem?”
For a no-nonsense customer, Slim was sensitive enough and he winced a little in the wake of the question, wishing he had just kept his curiosity in check. But Dem just nodded, not in affirmation but with the kind of half-smile that indicated he’d heard the question before. In fact, out in space, such questions were not as unusual or personal as Slim feared.
“My species has three genders,” said the pilot. “None of them corresponds exactly to either of yours. I am third-gender.”
“Ah, OK, I see,” said Slim. “Do you have a young lady back home, then? Or, well, whatever the equivalent might be?”
“Well that’s the issue right there,” said Dem. “That’s why I’m here with you and not working in the family shipping business. Slim looked up from rolling a cigarette.
“I’m šašlik,” explained Dem. “I prefer the romantic attentions of my own gender.”
Slim licked the gummed paper thoughtfully, then lit his cigarette.
It had been the contention of Slim’s mom, gone 600 years now, rest her soul, that the answer to any question that you needed the answer to was contained within the shining verses of the one and only true Holy Bible. Of course Slim was the first of his family, that he knew of anyway, to go gallivanting around outer space with alien people and ladies out of story books. So Slim married his mom’s faith with his dad’s common sense and figured if the Lord wanted you to know that a color-changing alien of third-gender should refrain from loving another color-changing alien of third-gender, he probably would have writ it down somewhere and he was damned if he could think of anything in the Bible that even remotely touched on the issue.
He thought instead of one of his favorite verses, from the book of Matthew, “Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them.” That sounded about right to Slim.
“Well, darned if you don’t learn somethin’ new every day on this ship,” he said and lit his roll up.
There was a shuff of displaced air and Patches walked into the galley. Hard on his heels came Captain Weekiebye. On board the Madrugada, he tended to dispense with the title for reasons of clarity. It was, at any rate, an honorific. He gained it during his brief stint commanding a squad of Royal Harquebusiers, which had carried over into his time as a mountebank, a cut-purse, a highwayman, a scoundrel, rake, wit, hanger-on, confidence man, society columnist, trickster and now, the Protocol Officer of the Madrugada. Rank was a fact of life on any ship and the Madrugada was no exception, though the captain (that is, the real captain, Stratsimir) did not stand on ceremony.
Patches wore only a wide leather belt, from which an array of engineering tools hung, along with a short sword and an energy pistol. He was, after all, a four-and-a-half foot tall cat and he really didn’t need much else. Weekiebye, on the other hand, wore his wide-brimmed hat, mask, frilly white blouse, short, close-fitting blue velvet jacket with gold embroidery in a fleur de lis pattern, a cloak fastened at the shoulders over gold knot-shaped buttons, breeches and high boots cuffed beneath the knee. He carried a rapier on a baldric slung across his shoulder, a Browning 9 mm Hi-Power in his sash and a poniard in his boot.
“What’s good today, Stanislaus?” asked Patches.
Stanislaus stood up behind the chow line, in the form of a tall Cossack, with a black fur cap and red tunic. Slim had rescued Stanislaus from a circus on a port world in the Eridanus Cluster. He was an orphan and had been kidnapped in a raid on his Fornax Cluster home, NGC1427A (NGC1427Aian is a difficult language for outsiders to master), by the Orgïl, who scouted worlds with low defenses and “entertaining” species, captured them and sold them to the Amusement Syndicates. He was so gratified and thankful for his release, and had so little awaiting him back on NGC1427A that he had signed on with the Madrugada.
“I made something Slim told me about,” said the chef. “Sloppy Joes.” Neither Patches nor Weekiebye had the faintest idea what a Sloppy Joe could possibly be, but gustatory adventurism was a fact of life on the Madrugada and they gamely loaded up their plates. Patches added a bowl of milk and Weekiebye a mug of cidre.
Red Mona entered, looking for Patches. Though taller than most Maincú, Patches was still well short of the six-foot tall red-haired barbarian. He set his tray down and wrapped himself halfway around Mona. He indicated the fur of her chainmail-reinforced bikini, which was a similar color and pattern as his own. Fur, that is. Not bikini.
“Anyone I know?” he purred.
“When the day comes I let a Maincú this close to my body,” she said, fingering the haft of her sword, “I promise it will be you.” He laughed a short hissing laugh.
“Hey, who’s on the bridge?”
“The captain,” said Red Mona, “and the doctor.”
“Sacre Bleu!” exclaimed Weekiebye. “We are all going to…How you say?…Ah, yes…Die!”
The captain had made it his mission to get Dded comfortable and competent on elemental bridge duties, a goal clearly yet to be achieved, as the good doctor had come close at various times to piloting the ship straight into a yellow dwarf, a red giant and a Cepheid variable. Nevertheless, Stratsimir insisted he spend at least one regular and one dog watch per week on the bridge. Receiving the relentless attention of the captain made Dr. Ll even more panicked than he normally was and whoever had the chair he’d spent his shift in normally had to scrub the ink off.
“You could just hear him smacking his lips at the thought of sinking his fangs into my mantle cavity and draining my sweet, sweet ichor,” he had told Dem.
“Your ichor is distinctly second rate,” Dem said. “Besides, the captain never eats the crew.” And then added, because he found the doctor trying, “I presume.”
“Something to eat, Mona?” asked Patches. “There is a ‘Slop Joe.’”
Declining the proffered slurry in favor of a tankard of mead, Mona sat down with Patches and the doctor, throwing her booted feet up onto the neighboring table. Weekiebye stood and depressed the shield control, opening up the galley’s window. Off in the distance shone a luminous binary. The neutron star was siphoning the canary yellow and lime green Roche lobe off its companion and had built up an enormous accretion disk. Patches could feel the Madrugada jerking slightly by the stutter in the deck plates. Then they all felt a slight skidding to port and the Madrugada’s velocity and orientation changed. They were going faster and the binary was more to the center of the window.
“Hey, Weekie,” said Patches, “aren’t you going to eat?”
Weekiebye stayed standing, leaning against the window frame, and shook his head, his mug of cider almost forgotten and threatening to spill.
“Perhaps never again,” he muttered. “I don’t like this,” he said. He nodded. “We will die.”
“As I live and breath, Weeks,” said Patches, snatching another mouthful of “Slop Joe” off his plate, “you are the biggest worry wart I ever met.”
The Madrugada accelerated again. The galley could feel it and Patches leaned back to bang the com on the wall.
“Cap?” said Patches into the can, as they called the com mic that stuck out a bit from the panel. “Everything alright up there?”
“Alright? We’re flying straight into the heart of a double-sun!” exclaimed the captain in a tiny voice from the intercom. “Ah ha ha ha ha ha!” he laughed in an intoxicating echo that spiraled up to a glassy and supernatural alto. The captain had moments of less than perfect concern for the ship’s published safety specifications. A tiny reedy squeak accompanied the laughter.
“The squid has panicked,” said Patches.
“Hell,” said Slim. Dem clutched at the wire beneath the window and pulled out the paper-thin keyboard, snapping it rigid and began to make queries.
“Great Alggxu’s Mirror!” he cursed. “It’s a burster!”
“Cycle?” asked Mona, jumping to her feet.
“It’s on us in four,” said Dem, flushing red.
“Please say you mean hours.”
“I do not,” said Dem.
“Captain?” said Mona into the com. “Let’s to starboard, at least nine degrees.”
“I am not suicidal, madam,” said the captain’s voice. “The rudder’s frozen. The degenerate gas from the neutron’s interfering with the pathway.”
“We won’t be able to get down to engineering and de-ionize it in time,” said Dem.
The faces of the crew were lit from the light of the window. At full load the shields might stave off the worst of the radiation from the siphon. But nothing could protect them from a spike in x-ray luminosity of the magnitude something that close and that big would produce.
The Madrugada shook with increased violence, a shuddering that audibly stressed the seams of the ship. The plates and glasses jumped off the tables as the crew sought to steady themselves. They stared together at the approaching stars.
The crew of the Madrugada sat facing each other in a circle, atop bollards made of a blue-green volcanic glass.
“Hey, wait a damned minute,” said Patches.
They began to compose, soundlessly weaving words into verses and verses into cantos at the edge of mathematics and music.
In the blink of an eye, the ship yawed crazily to starboard, flashing into a slip. The crew were back on the ship, working their fingers, grown unaccountably stiff. The slip wasn’t long, two or three million miles, just enough to deposit them far outside the reach of the x-ray burster.
Dem struggled to retain a sensation, like a deep sleep’s dream evaporating on rising. Mona’s boots were already ringing on the alleyway, heading to the bridge. Patches ran the opposite direction and leapt down the stairs in the direction of the engines. Weekiebye and Slim double-timed it after Mona.
“Come on, Dem,” said Slim, turning back impatiently to the galley door. Dem shook his head clear, empurpling himself as he followed. “We better drive from now on.”
Image by Cronus Caelestis via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 3.0)