This is the third 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.
Into the Sculptor Void
Captain Stratsimir seemed to float up through the lid of his coffin, up to the ceiling of his personal quarters, through the decks of the Madrugada and into open space. He rose through stars, though events, cosmic and otherwise, some of which he recognized, like the Solar Fountains of the Bútscutin Confab and what momentarily appeared to be the bar at the San Francisco Press Club; others were unknown to him, a triple quasar that ran to the blue, a line of red giants, the engine room of a paddle-wheel streamer.
He came to rest in an enormous cloud of diamond-white stars, a galaxy he could see in part through what seemed to be his own semi-transparent body. He floated among the stellar music, a spare, chromatic and crystalline progression that put him in mind of Varese’s “Déserts.”
He hung in sweet suspension, like a sprig of seaweed in a tidal pool, mouth half-open in wonder. So many years alive, so many worlds visited and this gift, of wonder, an unceasing, if infrequent, balance to the daily drudgery of immortality.
Suddenly he felt himself being spun around and summoned, telescoping through infinite reaches of space. He came to an abrupt, disorienting halt, facing a large yellow sun, circled by nine small planets, amid a rushing river of stars. He found he couldn’t look directly at the ninth. It slipped from his vision like a slick bar of soap slips from a grasping hand. The light of the sun reflecting from the planets looked like a beam of sunshine cut through a prism.
He felt a presence, an intelligence, facing him from the direction of the star.
Prince Ivan Stratsimir of Krăn, Captain of the light cruiser Madrugada, Despot of Vidin, human but vampire.
Stratsimir’s reputation was one of transcendent coolness, unflappable under any circumstance. He admitted to himself at that moment, however, that he had most decidedly been flapped. Ass-flapped, even. Suns rarely speak, even to vampires.
“I am he,” he finally said.
You hold the verses of power.
The captain was puzzled.
“A book has recently come into my possession,” he said after a lengthy pause. “Do you refer to that?”
The presence seemed somehow to soundlessly laugh. Or perhaps it was silently tenting its fingers. Hard to tell sometimes.
A book. Yes. Perhaps it would appear as a book. A message, a knowledge, from outside the world, but of it. Separated into halves and hidden. It may be that it is a book, one of two of Nine.
Stratsimir gawped, though he would certainly deny any such characterization.
The crier at the fountain of tears is the key.
“I’m sorry, what now?”
“Who are you?”
You know me.
“I am reasonably certain I do not.”
You live in the house I built for you.
The captain fell, as though the universe had caved in beneath him. He fell for what seemed like days, gathering momentum as he fell, never altering course, straight down into the well of space.
When he finally landed, in his own coffin back aboard the Madrugada, he hit with enough force to explosively compress the dirt beneath him into a rock-hard sheet no more than a quarter of an inch thick, roughly in the shape of his body. The impact blew the dirt onto his honey-colored Gunaco Kiton with the light sea foam green background cross-hatching. The lid of his resting place flew open, striking the bulkhead wall with a bang, and forced a scream out of him that broke wine glasses in four dimensions. The door to his ready room and then his quarters burst open in quick succession as Mona and Slim barged into the room with a look of alarm on their faces.
The captain’s chest rose and fell like a hummingbird’s and he worked his mouth, searching for an uncharacteristically elusive speaking voice. He made due without it.
If you wouldn’t mind, I could use a hand getting out.
On the bridge, he sat in his chair, slumped rather, gulping down a Calvados from a cup as large as a soup bowl. His hand trailed over the arm of the chair and the cup fell onto the carpet, rolling to a stop on its handle.
“Well,” he said, voice found and restored, “something a bit out of the ordinary has happened.”
He recounted his experience calmly to the bridge crew, and to Patches and Dded, who had joined them.
“What book?” asked Dded.
“That can wait,” said the captain, looking back over his shoulder.
He didn’t like this. He didn’t like anything that couldn’t be explained, which could be a drawback for a vampire. And he didn’t like anything that didn’t bring in money. This stank of “quest.” Stratsimir didn’t do quests. They were non-profit and the Madrugada was strictly a for-profit venture.
However, like all vampires, spill a box of pins and he was compelled to stop and pick them all up and put them back into their box before he went on. Metaphorically, of course. Vampires who stopped to pick up actual pins usually were, shortly thereafter, actually dead. Plus, this felt like the kind of thing you might ignore, but would be unlikely to return the favor.
“Nimue, this ‘crier at the fountain of tears,’ can you employ the ship’s database and library, as well as any other tools at your disposal, and possibly propose a solution to this riddle?”
Nimue’s eyes clouded over as she ran her hand over the command actuator at her station. Her panel lit up and her eyes fogged over.
“There are a few avenues I might explore, Captain. It will not be quick, however.”
“Very well. Do what you can as quickly as you can. Let me know when you feel confident you have an idea who this ‘crier’ might be.”
The Madrugada continued her series of decreasing slips through space. Two and a half days after the captain’s unexpected journey, and subsequent instructions, Nimue knocked on the door of the ready room.
There were aspects of Nimue always in Faërie. Sometimes the light of that other world flashed and sparkled, along the hem of a gown or the curve of a cheek. It did so now as she stood before the captain with a hint of a smile on her lips.
The captain put several lead sheets, each a hand-and-a-half across and over two long, back into a wooden box that lay before him on the inlaid table and set a sheet of vellum on top of them. Nimue looked from Stratsimir’s face to the box and back meaningfully but said nothing.
“You have something for me?”
“I have seen the crier at the fountain of tears. Having seen him, it was only a matter of patience to find him.” The captain gestured and she sat, her lambency cutting sharply through the gloom of the room. It hurt Stratsimir’s eyes to look on it, but he found he could never look away, the longing was too great, even if it meant dark glasses and eye drops the next day. Nimue drew out the cord at her waist, silvery silk bound in silver threads, which she played with absently as she spoke.
“He is a poet. I should say rather, he was a poet. He was murdered, nearly 200 years ago, on Earth.”
“Murdered. For what reason?”
“There are those in any revolution whose primary objective is to take into their hands a power that neither their souls nor their talents could ever merit. Clothed in the Divinity or the markings of country or tribe, they take advantage of chaos to reduce a person, a family, a group who were as well regarded as they were not. That is the first and bitterest fruit of upheaval.”
“And this poet was the victim of such a one?”
“Have you been able to determine the time and the place of his death?” asked the captain.
“And the ‘key‘ the voice spoke of?”
“I lack that knowledge.”
Dismissed, Nimue left the captain to his thoughts. They were mostly questions.
Finally, the Madrugada made it, almost at drift, to the mouth of the Sculptor Void. Red Mona retracted the covers from the window and an almost palpable blackness, rimmed in a rime of stars, penetrated the bridge.
“Straight ahead, captain?” asked Dem.
“José said he would meet us 10 million light years out, opposite the Froward Declination,” said Red Mona.
“I’ll bet,” said Stratsimir. “No, Dem. I don’t think ‘straight ahead’ will work with our bandito friend.” He thought for a moment, drumming his lower lip lightly with the long, pale fingers of his right hand. “No I think what we’ll do is pop over to the other side of the South Wall, drift down to the Froward, then pop out again into the Void.”
“He’s not going to attack us, Captain,” said Mona, sighing. “He’ll make more money just trading with us.”
“He’s a Space Bandito, Mona. I have no intention of trusting him.” He depressed the com in his armrest. “Patches?”
“I’m sending Slim and Mr. Pilato down to you in a moment. I want you to work your magic on the materiel we have down there. I want a lot of surprises for the Space Banditos and none for us.”
Once the Madrugada had slipped through the wall of galaxies and was speeding along under magplas, Dem and Slim joined Patches in the engine room. The great 45-foot long cylindrical slip generators, like two banded cigars, were connected to the y-shaped CBM manifold. The cylinders rested atop the temporal synch, a long bench-shaped device that equalized the time dilation aboard ship as it approached the event horizon on a slip or used the magplas. On the sub-deck below, accessed by a ladder and then, as Patches never got tired of hearing, a catwalk that ran the length of the engines, the engineer had transformed a large storage room into a design and fabrication workshop. Here the three had previously upgraded the Madrugada’s engines, added reach to the charge cannons and improvised a surprisingly accurate targeting system, which helped improve the ship’s slip-mapping capabilities in addition to weapons.
“Alright, first things first,” said Patches.
“Inventory,” said Slim.
“Right. The six charge guns. Plasm generators running off the magplas engine. They’ve all been checked, they’re all in perfect shape and charged. We’ll get 400 pulses per minute from each gun and we won’t lose charge for 22 minutes. Once we do lose the charge on a gun, we have but two minutes to recharge,” said Patches.
“We have the two gamma cannons with a stock of 19 projectiles port and 20 starboard.”
“REF net’s up?” asked Dem.
“Yep, just tested it yesterday,” said Patches. “As long as we’re within 50K we’ll knock out the better part of their command systems.”
“Depending on shields,” nodded Slim.
“OK, what can we do to give ourselves an edge?” Dem asked.
After some minutes of thinking, Slim grinned and tugged down on the brim of his hat. The other two knew he had an idea worth listening to. He always did when he tugged down on the brim like that.
“Alright, cowboy,” said Patches, arms akimbo. “Out with it.”
The Madrugada came out of the slip like a rainbow ramming into a brick wall, the light catching up some seconds after the ship had stopped.
“Silent running,” the captain said, crossing his Barker Blacks. “Are my sensors juiced?”
“Aye, Captain,” said Patches over the com. The ship, dark, with energy signatures to minimum slid out into the ink of the starless expanse.
“I would appreciate knowing where our friends are the instant it is possible.”
“Aye, Johnny,” said Mona, face up to a 3-D monitor.
An hour went by, then two. The stars had receded to a point where they were a faint crescent at the edge of sight, then they were gone.
“120K,” said Slim.
“Tell me we have not embarrassed ourselves by showing up late.”
“No, Captain,” said Nimue. “We are in time.”
“There!” shouted Mona, stabbing at the screen. The sensor view on her monitor transferred to the transparent plotting screen before the windows.
“I want an Icenoggler out of you, Mr. Pilato,” said the Captain. “Would you be so kind?”
“I…are we…” Dem sighed. “Yes, Captain.”
Slim plotted the short pop, named after the famous Plonesian tactician Colonel Reginald Icenoggle of the Bromley Contingent, who innovated the surprise move during the Prandial-Shastaine Altercation and wound up securing the Slightly Corridor due to what he later characterized as an exceedingly tired pilot and an errant can of Nzgort™.
“Mona, Slim, ready my weapons.”
Dem held the CBM intake charge switch down, over-charging the intakes until they began to squeal through the deck plates. He looked back to the captain, who gestured, eloquently with one finger. “Mapped to the slip,” Slim said out of the corner of his mouth.
“Pop and drop,“ ordered the captain.
The pilot jammed the drive actuator and reefed the handle on the inertia sink to null. With the inertia balance compromised the pop-out was brutal, everyone hanging on and banging into instrument panels and walls as the ship came to a near-instant halt nose-to-nose with the GDI space bandito ship, Tu Madre.
Nimue flicked her hand and the near-transparent film gathered colored static that quickly coalesced into a picture of the Madre’s bridge. Most of it was taken up by its captain, José Maria Ormaetxea-Ametxazurra. An enormous man, sporting a hairy, outsized and well-muscled chest, bare but for two crossed bandoliers studded with gamma cartridges. He sat indolently in the wide chair, one leather-clad leg and booted foot tossed over an arm rest. He wore an enormous sombrero and a gigantic mustachio of sinister dimension that drooped down over a mouth that contained more than a couple of gold teeth. He sat up and smiled in what Stratsimir thought of as the most insincere smile he had ever set eyes on and one which he returned with equal lack of sincerity.
Along with almost visible stink lines, Ormaetxea exuded a charisma equal to Stratsimir‘s, but much more raw. It rivaled even that of Weekiebye. (His imagined charisma, not the actual, which was more often seen as irritating unctuousness.)
“Captain,” said Stratsimir, “so good to see you again. I trust you’re well?”
“Stratsimir, you fnork! Well, the sweet with the sour I say.”
“We are here to trade, not to talk.”
Captain Ormaetxea leaned in toward the monitor. “Why don’t instead, I come over and saw off your head and shoot you,” he patted his pistols, “and make love to your women?” He made kissy-kissy sounds which made Stratsimir’s eyes water, and caused Slim and Weekiebye cover their mouths to avoid voiding their stomachs. But Nimue and Mona were flushed and absent.
“What just happened? Did someone void dark oil up there?” asked Patches’s voice in Slim’s com.
“More or less,” whispered Slim. “Stand by.”
Several faces leered into the screen, Ormaetxea’s officers. His crew was a scroungy conglomerate of banditos, pirates, soldiers-of-fortune, office managers, deserters, Department of Motor Vehicle Employees and brigands, in short, the scum of the universe and the undisputed thief-lords of the systems bordering the Sculptor Void.
“Well, that sounds super,” said Stratsimir. “But we’re going to have to pass. We have other more pressing matters to attend to.”
“Ah yes, ah yes,” said Ormaetxea. “I hear. Captain José Maria Ormaetxea-Ametxazurra, he hears many things. He hears that you have become a voracious reader of fine literature, for instance!” He laughed and winked knowingly.
“How can he hear anything above his own voice?” Dem asked Slim under his breath.
Ormaetxea stopped. “Ah, yes. The songbird from the Hook.”
Dem turned purple. He was enraged at the insult, though no one needed a color wheel to figure that out.
“Would you like me to rob you of one of your arms so you and your brother can go as a matching pair?” asked Dem, rising and withdrawing a long-knife from a back sheath. Ormaetxea blanched.
“Sit down this instant, Mr. Pilato, before I phlebotomize you,” said the captain, standing up soundlessly and walking up to the screen. “Mr. Ormaetxea…”
“Captain!” he bellowed.
“Pardon me. Of course, ‘Captain,’” he said, the quotation marks audible. “Your personal problems are none of this ship’s. We do our trade and we go. You and Mr. Pilato may wish to meet elsewhere and at that time may chop off one another’s arms and saw off one another’s heads and whatever else you may wish to do. But for now, it’s ship’s business. ‘Captain.’”
There was a loud clang from aft and the ship rocked. Stratsimir stumbled briefly and recovered, by standing in the air a few inches off the deck plates.
“Report, Patches!” yelled Slim.
“No idea,” the engineer replied. “Whatever it was, it hit above me. I’m going.”
The Tu Madre’s captain had also stood up, though he could hardly be said to be floating. He was, however, smiling. Nimue and Mona watched him, chin in hand.
Suddenly a squeal or series of squeals echoed up the ship from the surgery. It sounded like an entire bowling league heel-turning on newly waxed lanes. The squeals resumed, more energetically and louder. The bridge crew could feel them in their bones, like someone tuning a monumental sonic color organ with a hatchet. It was joined with the unlikely sound of a handful of silverware being fed into a garbage disposal, followed by the incoherent babbling and beak-clacking of the ship’s surgeon and punctuated by an enormous, surprised meow, presumably from Patches.
Patches’ voice came out of the com. “Tell our visiting bandito that his three friends are now in a considerable variety of very small pieces thanks to the Doc’s heretofore hidden talents with what looks like seven simultaneous scalpels and a pepper mill. Also, there’s a hole where a boarding skiff penetrating the surgery.”
The captain turned his head lazily to look at his navigator. “Slim, I believe you have a surprise for our guests?”
Slim nodded to Mona, who broke from her reverie long enough to arm the stern cannons. Slim fired. Two projectiles arced out from the ship’s waist and hit Tu Madre with a silvery flash. All hell broke loose on the Madre’s bridge and the screen went dead. The ship was quickly enveloped in an expanding white foam, which covered up the cannon ports. The Madre rocked as its starboard cannon detonated its load. The foam did not allow the barrel to clear.
“Slim, Dem, Patches…” he hesitated, “Mona—boarding party.”
They raced through to the armory, grabbing plasma rifles and blades, then rattled down the ladder to the surgery.
“Send Mr. Ll to me if he’s sufficiently recovered,” the captain said to Patches via the com.
The Tu Madre’s interior was dark and acrid. Lights were intermittent. Patches had used the Madre’s own boarding skiff to cut into it amidships. They had come out into a storage room, full of booty collected off half a dozen systems.
He edged out the door into the corridor, sniffing and working his ears. Tu Madre was a no-nonsense ship, devoted to the capture and transport of ill-gotten gains, and the occasional gotten one. The corridor decking was grit-textured matte graphite, the walls battleship grey. The crackling lights from the bridge flashed intermittently down the hall.
Patches crept down it on little cat feet, followed by Dem, a flat-plasm pistol in each hand. Slim had reached out to find Dem’s right shoulder with his left hand. His right curled around the stock of a Winchester 30-30 repeating rifle, which hung on his belt by means of a square swivel-fitting he’d fashioned for that purpose. Weekiebye withdrew his rapier with a whisper and hefted the recoilless charge-gonne in the crook of his left arm. Red Mona brought up the rear, balancing her broadsword flat across her shoulder.
Patches made the sign to halt. A polydactyl, he held one finger down to indicate five crew moving on the bridge. He took point and the others arranged themselves in pairs along either side of the corridor. The engineer slowly crouched down until he was inches from the floor, then launched himself. He cleared the doorway, turning in midair and slashing down with one paw. He opened the jaw of the bandito standing at the nav station clear to the bone. The other four ran a criss-cross pattern onto the bridge.
As the navigator stood back up, blood pouring from his wounded face, he raised his gamma pistol. Weekiebye slashed him across the face with his rapier twice and he went down in a faint. Dem threw himself sideways in front of the weapons portal, firing three sets of double-shots into the instrument panel, half-melting it and evoking a sulfurous yellow flash that burned the gunner’s hands.
Captain Ormaetxea leapt up, straddling his chair, a booted foot on each armrest. Bare-chested and laughing from the very crotch of his unwashed soul, he fired his gammas with both hands, indiscriminately, pumping an extra heaping helping of musky man-scent into the already muy macho funk of the bridge. It drove Slim down on one knee with nausea, but he rolled behind the nav and popped up, getting a shot off that deprived the bandito chief of the use of his right hand.
Dem punched the first mate, an olive-skinned Amazon with two blue-black braids as thick as ship’s hawsers, right in the side of the head with the butt of his pistol. She fell but lashed out with a magnetic cudgel that took his legs out from under him. Before she had a chance to dispatch him, Mona kneed her in the ribs and bounced her off the deck plate with a hilt blow to the head.
A slit-eyed, scar-faced behemoth rose from behind the captain’s chair, holding a (barely) portable Gatling cannon and let loose with a thousand rounds a second of its purplish incendiary charges. The bridge lit up like a firework. Everyone, Ormaetxea included, dove for the floor. Patches leapt clear, catching a burning graze on the shoulder that elicited a yowl heard even over the weapons fire. He pivoted on his left foreclaws, which he had set firmly in the giant’s forehead, to come down on his back, bury his fangs in the shooter’s neck and twist. The gun, still firing its few remaining rounds, fell to the deck with a clang as Patches put the bandito down like a cheetah taking down a roebuck (or a bel’shnay taking down a crõnqil, if you prefer). He held on with his 12 two-and-a-half-inch foreclaws, biting down like a Civil War amputee and kicked with his back feet like an industrial sewing machine on an Indian burial ground.
Weekiebye stood heroically, his hair fluttering in the wind from the atmosphere vent, one boot up on the first mate’s shoulder. With the whistle of a car antenna he flourished his rapier, setting it onto her windpipe and depressing the skin just enough to dimple it.
“They shall sing balades about this battle,” announced Weekiebye, looking toward an imagined horizon. “My name will be famous throughout France, England and the two Sicilies! More famous, I mean. I mean, it is already quite well known. But, you know, every little bit helps.” He smiled audibly.
The first mate was breathing and the navigator, though bloody and moaning, was alive as well. The gunner, holding out his burnt hands, was immobile and staring up at Dem over both barrels. The behemoth, with the quietude of the dead, lay still and Captain Ormaetxea stood on his on his toes in front of his chair with the tip of Mona’s blade under his chin, imparting to his stance a sense of great poise.
“Ah, baby,” said the captain, “why you gotta be like that? You know I love you!” His eyes got noticeably larger and darker and more mournful. He really was sad that she would treat him so poorly. His left hand, however, was white-knuckling the grip of his gamma pistol. “I told you I’d come back for you, baby. Here I am. I’m back. You’re so hot, baby.” Mona’s blade slid imperceptibly down from his chin. “Yeah, baby. You know.”
Patches picked up the behemoth’s cannon and set the barrel on the arm of the captain’s chair, pointed at his crotchoidial area.
“Hey, how does this thing work?” he mused, fiddling with some buttons.
“OK, OK,” said Ormaetxea, dropping his pistol. Mona’s blade shot back up, knocking his teeth together with an enameled clack.
“Captain, sit down,” said Patches. Mona lowered her sword and stepped over to slap the actuator near the door to the corridor. It sealed. “Slim, vent the fumes.”
A voice from the captain’s com filled the bridge with static.
“Jefe, what gives? Everything alright up there?”
Patches cocked his head and mewed slightly, showing just the tips of his fangs over his black lips. He nodded.
“Yuh-huh, everything’s fine, Marcello,” he said. “Keep working on getting us out of this…foam, or whatever it is.”
“Aye, captain,” said Marcello. Ormaetxea took his hand off the com.
“What’s your compliment?” asked Patches.
“Uh…you have pretty fur?” suggested the captain.
“Your crew compliment, you half-wit,” he said, protracting the claws on his free hand even further.
“Well, including the five here…” The captain thought a minute, trying to figure out if lying would produce any gains in this situation. He decided that it would not. “There are 16.”
“Where?” said Dem.
Slim stood flat against the aft bulkhead of the bridge with the Winchester held out at full length toward the doorway. Weekiebye crouched behind the nav, the barrel of the charge-gonne balanced on the edge of the console. Behind him lay the gunner and the first mate, tied up like calves courtesy of Slim. The weapons officer, some analgesic dermoplast rubbed on his burnt palms and a rag stuffed in his mouth writhed behind the weapons station with Red Mona crouching above him, sword in her left hand and his gamma pistol in her right. They’d left the behemoth lying where he fell and Patches had secured himself upside-down to the ceiling.
The captain, who sat stiffly in his chair, had been good enough, at Dem’s suggestion, to summon the entire crew to the bridge. “No questions! Get up here on the double.”
As the crew came in Ormaetxea yelled, “Form up! Two ranks, down front.”
The crew marched out and turned to form to lines when one of the engine monkeys spotted a fur boot underneath the weapons station.
“Cuida’o!” he cried, fumbling at his holster. But Weekiebye poked his head up above the nav and behind the enormous gonne. From the ceiling Patches yelled, “Don’t move!”
“Don’t move, boys and girls,” fumed the captain. “We’re got good.”
Dem stepped out into the hallway and herded the rest of the crew forward. Patches dropped to the deck as Mona and Slim stepped forward with weapons lowered.
“Sit where you stand,” said Mona, “and set out your weapons in front of you. You miss a weapon, the cat kicks your stomach out from between your ribs. You make a movement, however slight, that I don’t like, and I swing this thing like I’m trying to drive posts.”
Dem stepped in and secured the doors. As Weekiebye tied the crew up and together, threading a long, thin line of cording through arms, legs and chairs, Patches looked up and started sniffing.
“What’s the need, friend?” asked Dem. Patches sniffed the pilot.
“There’s two of you here.”
“There’s two of you. You’re not the only one of your species on this ship,” he said. Dem turned almost white, then blushed violet.
Mona counted. 15. “There’s one missing.” She turned in a wide-arc, red hair thrown in a circle, to sink her sword into the back of the captain’s chair. A few errant sideburn hairs floated to the ground in the wake of the slash and a single bead of blood welled on the captain’s face.
“In the surgery, the surgery,” said the captain, failing to get a smile to stick on his perspiring face. “I think. He burned his arm earlier on a plasma leak from your…foam attack. Shal Sinto Shin is an excellent hand with propulsion.”
At the mention of the name, Dem turned a rainbow of colors before settling on a sable. He marched out without a word to anyone, both flat-plasms hard to his sides.
The pilot stood in the corridor. Power failure was general over the whole of the Madre and the internal lights flickered in the off-beat with the emergency diodes. He lowered his inner eyelids, which helped to balance out the light levels somewhat. He slipped off his boots and coat and walked soundlessly down the corridor to the ladder. Shoving both the flat-plasms into his pants pockets, he balanced on the ladder’s rails and slid to the second deck. Stopping briefly and cocking his head he did the same again to reach the mouth of the primary hold.
Dem repositioned his guns, one stuck through the belt in the small of his back, the other under the band of his pants on to the front of his left hip. He then crept over the lip of the hold and onto the ceiling itself, wedging himself between two cross-beams. He was light, agile and had very strong fingers ending, like most of his race, in padded ovals at his finger tips. He hung upside down, his exposed skin matching the brown-red of the hold, veined with the same black-humoured sable in which he had begun his search. His pants and shirt were black, adding shadow where there were none, but might have been.
The hold was full of take. Barrels of refilming suspension, chests of refined metals, tubes of liquigem, racks of weapons and a host of various items both common—food, fuel, clothing—and decidedly uncommon, or extraordinarily specific, such as chalky cubes of bone meal for Lupercalia on Sistru:m, replacement eyes for lurching dongs and cartouches of tempered ice fennel for Astrakhâine razor wards.
The hold was fully 100 feet across and over 200 deep, sensible for a ship that, whether by honest means or less so, was in essence a trading ship. Only one pale blue diode shed any light. But as Dem hung, eyes half closed, peering into the dim, he could hear a swish, like the impatient movement of Patches’s tail back and forth on the deck. He turned toward it and, with the fine hairs on his temples and the back of his hands he could sense movement. Just for an instant, it seemed to Dem he could see a head disappear into the surface of a barrel, like it had changed color to match it.
Dem dropped down behind a bale of Mowli rhabdomancing switches. Opposite him the chamber’s wall curved inward on a bulkhead. There the foam charges they had used to immobilize Tu Madre had intruded on a molecular level at the seams and, on contact with oxygen, had begun to break down into a powder. The blue light from the diode above the postern door in the short wall made it look like that side of the hold had gotten a light dusting of snow.
He crouched motionless, looking directly at the barrel where last he’d seen the figure. There was a ripple of movement again.
“I see you, Shal Sinto Shin,” said Dem. “I do not want to have to regret it later when I shoot you. So either attack me, or stay perfectly still. And brighten up. It‘s not the end of the world.”
Red Mona turned to watch Dem walk onto the bridge. No, not Dem. It was a person of the same species, who looked eerily similar to the pilot. But it was Dem seen through a glass, darker and warped. He was jet black, shot with red threads. Dem came in behind him, pointing one of the flat-plasms at his back. The pilot was pure violet.
“If I may,” said Dem, “I would like to introduce Shal Sinto Shin, my ex-matx. Shal has evidently accepted a position on Tu Madre.” Dem pointed him in the direction of the rest of the Mad’s crew, who stood, sat or crouched along the bridge’s starboard bulkhead.
Ormaetxea began, unfortunately, to smile. Weekiebye slapped the haft of his vizcaína into the waiting palm of Dem Pilato Dem, pilot of the independent ship Madrugada, who, without breaking eye contact with the captain, took two long, fast steps, flourished the blade and, with an audible report, slapped it flat across his broad, sweaty neck.
“I’m not going to say anything,” said Dem, turning a cool blue. “I’m just going to start slashing throats, starting with yours.” Dem was expressionless and utterly quiet. The captain’s breathing was a loud rasp. “Good. That’s good.”
When the pilot withdrew the blade he left behind two hair-thin lines with tiny beads of blood strung on them across the captain’s neck.
“Get them into lower storage!” shouted Mona. “Short the doors. I want them fused in. Weekie, you and Patches. Patches, after you get them in, do what you can about the lights.” They started to move the prisoners out.
When Stratsimir made one of his infrequent transmaterializations, the air around his point of appearance was displaced inward for a moment, like a bomb sucking in fuel before exploding. There was just such a thump on the bridge of Tu Madre. An oily swirl of tattered black whipped around like flag on a pole, condensing into the figure of the captain. Even Mona, who had known him the longest, was unsure if it were a trick or magic. It certainly didn’t feel like technology and every time he did it, she froze down to her marrow. He didn’t do it often, as it took a tremendous amount out of the man. This time, however, he felt a sufficiently unnatural entrance was a necessary corrective to the cockiness of the Tu Madre’s crew.
As he finished materializing, he drew his black cape close, covering himself from neck to boots. The family crest, embroidered on his left breast in silver thread, gleamed in the weak light of the crippled ship.
“Where are they?”
“In the lower storeroom, Johnny,” answered Red Mona, resting her hand on her hilt. “Patches braised the door to its jamb.”
“Leaving them to die?” he asked, dispassionately.
“Patches fit a selenium charge to the lintel,” said Dem. “It’ll decay in about a week. Won’t be a pleasant week, but they’ll survive.”
Stratsimir sniffed the air, turned and walked to the first mate’s station and looked over at the still figure of the behemoth.
Belowdecks, the captain joined Weekiebye and Patches, who had been busy grav-sledding equipment and supplies from the main hold into the boarding skiff.
The captain wasn’t big on looting. The Madrugada was not a pirate ship, after all. But the Madre had broken the terms of the agreement, and the Mad needed repairs. So he nodded.
“Patches, when you programmed that charge, what did you use?”
The engineer pulled a device the size of a pack of playing cards out of his belt and handed it to the captain. It was a standard programming tablet, but, like most things Patches used, it had been significantly customized.
“I’d like to borrow this for a moment, Mr. Melk.” Patches nodded and the captain disappeared with a small chuff of wind and the fleeting odor of ozone. Almost instantly they heard a yell from the storeroom. A minute later, they heard another, louder and more strident chorus of cries. The captain reappeared and handed Patches back his tablet.
“Captain?” asked Weekiebye.
“My sudden appearance frightened them,” said the captain. “They are also under the impression that we possess an instrument capable of blowing their ship apart at the seams from as far away as 80 million light years.”
“A ridiculous idea, of course,” said Weekiebye, arching an eyebrow.
“So Mr. Pilato’s friend tried to tell them,” said the captain. “Alas, they were inconsolable.” He smiled.
Back on the bridge the captain stood next to Dr. Ll, and looked down at the behemoth, not dead, as expected, but definitely dying.
“Is there anything at all you can do for him, doctor?” asked the captain, unconsciously adjusting the collar of his Turnbull and Asser shirt.
Dded sighed, which, given his beak, came out more as a whistle, but the mournfulness was distinct anyway. He extended all eight of his tentacles and rose to look at the captain, eye to heavily-hooded eye.
“No, sir,” he said. “He’ll be dead within the quarter hour. He thumped the first mate station with a balled-up tentacle, clearly upset. The captain saw a hairline crack in the super-hardened ceramic of the panel. A good thing for most that the doctor was a ministering type. Usually.
“You’ve done what you could do,” said the captain. “You honor your profession and you honor the Madrugada, even its enemies. Help the rest with the supplies.”
Dded headed for the gangway, with that rolling Echlled gate, some tentacles on the floor, others on door jambs and seat backs. He stopped a moment and looked back to the captain.
“You’re sure no one in the storeroom needs help?” he asked the captain.
“Just soft tissue damage and a broken arm,” said Stratsimir. “They’ll do and they have a medic anyway.”
The doctor rolled a tentacle in that way the captain had come to know as the equivalent of a nod. The doctor left and the captain ate the dying crewman.
After his much-needed and long-awaited meal, Stratsimir headed for Ormaetxea’s quarters. There were plenty of sources for blood and the captain took advantage of all the least distressing of them. But now and again he simply needed to drive his teeth into a live artery. He felt twice as strong as he did before eating. The problem, and it was the central issue of the captain’s existence, was that the more he fed on the living, the colder and more abstracted his mind became and the more comfortable he became with the cold places in it. He enjoyed life and he was willing to accept a lesser share of the power normally accorded a vampire in order to preserve that humanity. Without it, the gifts of his station would rapidly become torture, a torture he’d seen destroy most other vampires he’d met and which explained why there were always so few to be found and those few crazy as dope-smoking Vikings.
The whole point of being a vampire was to enjoy those things you loved forever and without limit. And the captain loved cash, the company of beautiful women and speed. It was exceedingly difficult to enjoy any of those things if two-thirds of each day were devoted to diabolical cackling.
Captain Ormaetxea’s quarters looked like a seafood restaurant had been making out with an adult video store when it crashed into a church. Stratsimir pushed several horrifying and, in one case, incomprehensible, objects of a personal nature off the desk with a stuffed guanaco and sat down. With half-closed eyes he held his hands out, palms down, a half inch off the surface of the desk. For several minutes he sat motionless. Then, his eyes blinked wide and he jerked open the bottom right-hand drawer. He withdrew the black tube of a broadcast vellum, about the size and shape of a cigar tube. Drawing the spindle out, he opened up a foot and a half of film, which he slotted it upright into the desktop bracket and waited as the images that had been captured coalesced and a voice began to speak.
Image in public domain via Wikimedia Commons