This is the fifth 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.
At the College of the Exegetes on Pandema
Stratsimir pressed the intercom on his chair.
“Patches, everything ready for the carrier wave?”
“Yes, Cap. I’ve programmed it as part of the slip. It’ll cascade out of the slip before us and throw us out at the phase variance you requested,” replied the engineer.
“Dem, any notion of how the ride will be?” asked the captain.
The pilot hooked an arm around the back of his seat and turned to face the captain.
“Coming out of a normal slip, we exit at the same velocity we enter,” said Dem. “On this wave, we’ll accelerate like a bat out of hell the minute we cross the event horizon. It’ll scud a bit I’m thinking. Not too bad but it’s not what we’re used to.”
The Madrugada’s view screen showed a beautiful pinkish planet, fourth in its system. It was shot through with lines of blue and green around the major water ways and myriad small seas that dotted the globe. It was a desert planet, but livable, or used to be. Maybe it would better be described at the time as an oasis planet.
A century before, in one of the interplanetary scuffles that were endemic at that time in that region of space, one of the powers made it the base of an extensive biological weapons program. The program was successful. It turned the planet into a proving ground for the largest free-roaming library of bacteria and viruses in the universe, destroying every single man, woman and child, as well as the vast majority of other non-plant life on that world and severely depopulated every planet within five million light years in every direction before they got it quarantined.
The College of Exegetes had occupied the planet 20 years previously. They carved out a de-phased complex on the large central continent at the delta of a river system. They turned it from a library of germs to a library of religious texts.
The Exegetes welcomed Fellows from various religions who studied in the vast library complex, a collection of onion-domed buildings built out of the native striated pink and reddish stone. The whole thing was phased out of normal space just enough to escape the organisms that poisoned the planet. Pandema would probably never completely cycle all the poisons out of its ecosystem. But the Exegetes tried to speed up the process, having neutralized about a quarter of the world’s deadly strains in just over two decades. In addition to the college, there was a small number of pioneers who de-phased, intending to spread out around the world. An even smaller number of that group actually lived through the process, developing a drug-assisted immunity to the plague planet. They devoted the rest of their lives to prayer for the universe’s souls. A half-dozen or so small sub-colleges and several dozen hermitages now operated outside the phase, its occupants who survived living off the few plants and animals that had endured the poison and those it had succeeded in bringing back.
It was to this planet they were going, to find out what they could about the Enchiridion.
They flew the Madrugada in an arc through the atmosphere to touch down on a large flagstone outcropping at the edge of the settlement. Two acolytes, a Tuscanan and a ßUmi, led the crew down a broad ramp from the landing area and onto a bridge that spanned a green river. They turned right onto a walkway that ran in the shadow of a sandy wall and turned in through a gate that led across a courtyard and into the main reception hall. The captain and Mona led, with Dem and Slim followed by Weekiebye, Patches and Dr. Ll. Nimue brought up the rear. Stanislaus had remained behind on the ship. They gazed in wonder at the corridors that branched off the atrium, walled in floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, receding into dim infinitude.
In the great domed hall, at the end of a double line of priests and others, a woman sat on a plain chair on a low dais. Beside her stood a man wearing a long knife and a dark blue velvet doublet with a cross picked out in silver filigree.
Behind the dais three enormous windows in a curved dormer gave out onto a formal garden that ran down to the river. Over the river the phase shield ended, giving everything beyond it a slightly fuzzy look. Patches rubbed his eyes after trying to bring it into focus.
“Please, visitors,” said the woman, standing up and descending the dais, “approach.”
The crew walked between the double line of what they now realized were alternating lines of military and non-military residents. In the various corners of the hall small groups conferred. As the crew of the Madrugada approached, they realized the woman was quite beautiful, and very tall, taller even than Red Mona. She wore a robe so light blue it was almost white, like a crevasse in a glacier. Around her neck she wore a sigil of silver in the shape of a crescent, bisected by a ray of tiny blue gems. They felt a light prickling on their skin and hands went automatically to hilts and butts.
“Please be calm,” she said, her voice almost a whisper. Her voice contained a power, though nothing overt. “I’m reading your covers. That is all.” The prickling ceased and they relaxed. She stepped forward and clasped Stratsimir’s hands.
“I am Ardanafravartish. I am President of the College of Exegetes on Pandema.”
“I am Prince Ivan Stratsimir of Krăn, Captain of the Madrugada,” said the captain. He bowed, touching his breast with his fingertips, and the crew bowed an instant later.
“To what do we owe the honor?” asked Ardanafravartish.
“We need information, Madame President,” said Stratsimir, touching his breast with the tips of his fingers. “About a book called the Enchiridion.”
The military man behind her stiffened. His subordinates in the greeting line sharpened. The president regarded the captain for a long moment. She made a sweeping gesture of introduction to the man behind her.
“Mihrdatkirt is the Chiliarch of the Exegetes. Let us, you and your first officer, the Chiliarch and I, retire to the solarium and talk together there. Your crew may have the run of the libraries and gardens.”
A figure flitted from column to column along the colonnade that ran along the top of the garden. It turned and ducked between the row of fruit trees that ran along the high sidewall. It kept pace with Captain Weekiebye as he sauntered from the colonnade toward the gate that led out of the paradeisos proper to the slope above the river. Weekiebye breathed in the scents of citrus blossoms and roses, idling, reaching out to stroke the bole of a tree or caress the flower of a bush. He walked through the paradeisos’s far gate and out onto the open slope. He faced upstream, toward a breeze that ruffled his cape and struck a pose, hands on hips, crafty smile playing across his lips.
“You are a swordsman, I think,” said a voice.
Weekiebye did not flinch, did not search around, gaping, for the source of the words. That would have lacked style.
“I am the finest fencer in France and England,” he said, resting his gloved right palm on his rapier’s hilt. “Seldom challenged, never bested.” He drew his rapier with a light ring and smiled for the camera. With his left hand he twisted his moustache as he turned the tip of the rapier in small circles.
In the solarium, the captain and Mona sat on chairs upholstered in coral brocade, facing Ardanafravartish. Her Chiliarch stood behind her, hands clasped behind his back. The room was sunny and full of plants reengineered from the ruins of Pandema. The president indicated a chest-high, leopard-spotted plant with thousands of tiny, tulip-shaped blossoms.
“This is one we cleansed from infection. A compound made from its roots cures a certain type of cancer.”
“You’re librarians of more than books,” said Mona, admiringly.
“We are the guardians and scholars of texts, texts of all kinds,” said Aradanafravartish. “Religious, but what ‘text’ written by the Divine is not?” She smiled and it felt like the sun had come out from behind a cloud. She sighed.
“The Enchiridion,” she said. “What do you know of it?”
Stratsimir told her what he’d learned from Karl the Weasel. As he spoke, an acolyte brought in a round brass table with an enameled top, a pot of saffron tea and three small cups. The Chiliarch did not drink. The president poured the tea.
“In the wrong hands, the Enchiridion is dangerous. Not just in malicious hands, but in the hands of anyone who cannot read it properly.”
“Why?” asked Stratsimir.
“Read improperly,” she said, “it can, or so it is said, collapse parts of the universe, quite unpredictably.” She leaned back in her chair and blew gently on the tea. “Fortunately, the first volume of the book was destroyed, 500 years ago.”
Mona and the captain were surprised, and it showed. The president laughed, like a breeze through lilac. “Yes, thank the Divinity. A Collaborate fleet had found it and passed by an x-ray burster…Are you familiar with this phenomenon?”
Stratsimir though of Dded and laughed. It was not like a breeze and lilacs were not in it. He nodded.
“The lead ship strayed too far toward it and was torn apart. A piece of the debris from that ship struck the flag ship, the one that was carrying the volume, and opened it up. The gravity from the burster sucked it inside out, pulling everything inside into the star. That volume of the Enchiridion, at least, has regained the singularity and unity of which the Centripetal Order is so desirous.”
She saw their glances sharpen.
“You are familiar with the true shape of the Order, I think.”
“Several of our crew tangled with them on Eridanus,” said the captain.
“Sorry about what?” asked the captain.
“Well…” Ardanafravartish hesitated. “They died, no?”
“No!” said Mona. “Our crew is not an aggressive one. But we’re diligent and unhesitating in self-defense. And we’ve all seen action. The four Order members that attacked our crew won’t try it again soon. Our guys didn’t stick around to do triage but if these Order soldiers aren’t dead, they certainly won’t be playing pok-a-tok anytime soon.”
“I do not mean any offense,” said the Chiliarch, “but are you sure it was an Order cadre?”
Stratsimir pulled the ring Dem had taken from one of their opponents from his vest pocket and handed it to the president. She glanced at it and passed it to Mihrdatkirt. He examined it closely and handed it back to her with a nod. As she handed it to the captain, the Chiliarch said, “Captain, the Order severely underestimated your crew.”
Stratsimir smiled. “People do that a lot. But they rarely do it twice.”
Ardanafravartish drank her tea silently for a moment.
“Captain, I appreciate your coming here. I appreciate you sharing your experiences, trusting us. I hope you will also trust us to take care of this remaining volume of the Enchiridion that you possess.”
The captain sat silently.
“Our college is impregnable,” said the president. “No one could get the book here. But the dangers, though you have proven to be more than a match for them so far, will get worse out there.”
“We got in,” said Mona.
“We wished for you to,” said Mihrdatkirt. “We can adjust the phase variance at will. A tiny change in one direction, you pass through; in the other, it’s like flying into the side of a mountain.”
“Are you this Resistance we’ve heard about?” asked Mona. The president nodded at her Chiliarch.
“We train them,” he said. “We route intelligence their way, provide them a safe haven, give them tactical advice, sometimes weapons. But it is a lay movement and very decentralized.”
“Not a very religious undertaking, is it?“ muttered Red Mona.
“Strictly speaking, mine is not a religious office,“ replied the President, “but rather, an administrative one.”
Captain Stratsimir frowned and gazed down at his Berluti brogues. He held the small teacup in both his hands, resting in his lap. After a lengthy consideration, he looked up.
“Thank you for your offer, Madame President,” he said. “There is nothing I’d rather do than leave this burden in your hands. I am not built for it. It is inconvenient and stays us from our true mission,“ he grinned, “making money and moving on. However, I believe that, for reasons I am not able to share at this moment, I cannot accept your generous proposal. I would, however, gladly accept any intelligence you could provide us.”
The president’s face dropped and the chiliarch stared wide-eyed.
“That is arrogant, Captain. You have no real idea what you possess. And you cannot possibly guard it. It’s irresponsible.”
“Nonetheless, we’ll take the risk.”
“The risk you take is not to your lives alone,” said Ardanafravartish. “It is quite possibly to the lives of all creation!”
“We are mindful of the responsibility,” said the captain, rising.
“Do you believe you’ll succeed in selling it, captain?” asked Ardanafravartish.
“If we’d wanted to do that, we could have done it already,” he responded. “No, in this case, a sale would not be profitable. We have been, I am sincerely sorry to say, charged with a mission. Believe me, no one is more irritated about it than I am, unless it is perhaps my crew. But it was put in our hands and the decision on what to do with it is mine, I am afraid. And our part of this story does not end here.”
“No,” she said. “I am sorry. But it does. You will not be allowed to take the book from Pandema.”
Now it was Mona’s and the captain’s turn to be shocked.
Ardanafravartish stood to her full height, which was estimable. She seemed to darken as she rose and held out her hand. “The book.”
Dr. Ll was scrambling up and down the shelves and tunnels of the Medical Library, attended by two physician-librarians, who clearly had their hands full.
“Astounding!” cried the doctor, holding up a copy of the Dunhuang medical manuscript. “Unbelievable!” he said, pulling an original volume of Crito’s works from a shelf. Ll leaned over and used two of his free tentacles to manipulate one of the library’s haptic-interfaced 3-D consoles.
“Astonishing!” he cried again. “You have the complete corpus of the Codex Medicamentus of Centaurus in holographic storage!” The photic displays were unfolding colorful three-dimensional screens of cadavers in the air. A xenoanatomist’s dream. “And the complete Medilex List…” He clacked his beak, overwhelmed and delighted.
Skittering down from the shelf he said, “I could spend a year here and just dent the surface.”
“We’d be honored to have you here,” said the elder of his attendants, a short, round man in a saffron jacket. “I’m sure we could secure you a fellowship.” His younger companion nodded, adding, “We’ve never had an Echelld fellow in the Medical Library before.”
“Ah, well, see,” said the doctor.
“Have you seen our surgical bay?” asked the younger librarian.
“Very tempting,” said Ll. “However, ah, yes, very kind. But, ah, my ship, ah, I do take that responsibility…seriously, you understand. Place with the, ah, ship and all that.”
“Does your crew need your services often?” asked the senior librarian, with a disapproving tone.
“Ah, well,” said the doctor. “Yes, rather. For a small crew they, ah, do have their share of, ah, scrapes and, ah…” he clacked his beak again, “hhölq. Sorry, an Echlled word. It means, ah, roughly, bad luck that is, ah, not entirely unlooked for.”
The two librarians looked at one another.
“Dr. Ll,” said the younger, “considering the grave situation that your crew is constantly finding itself, do you think it might be best to leave the book you are carrying in our charge?”
“What book?” asked the doctor, eyes darting.
“The Enchiridion,” said the older. “It’s alright. We don’t have secrets from one another here. We have no need. You’ve seen our defenses.”
“Well, if there is a book, and I am not saying there is, the captain can take care of it,” said Dded.
“Not this one, I’m afraid. Not with the enemies who seek to possess it.”
“Eeee,” squeaked the doctor, “I said we can take care of it. We are a GDI ship by design. We carry no letter of marque.”
“With respect, to you as a fellow doctor, as a man of science and logic, you must know this is not the case,” said the younger librarian. “We must insist that you leave it with us. The president and her chiliarch will take care of it.”
The librarians, covering their ears with their palms, closed on the doctor. Several military men walked calmly from the shadows toward them.
“Eeeeeeee!” squealed the doctor. He dropped the books he was holding and withdrew his tentacles from the terminal. The holographic cadaver hovering above the display fell in on itself and went dark. The doctor, panicky, scrambled to the top of the tallest shelf, squeezing himself between the top rank of books and the bronzed ceiling.
“Never!” cried the doctor defiantly. “Never, never, never, never, never, never, never! Eeeeeeee!”
The Senior Medical Librarian noticed, with some discomfiture, that the doctor wielded obsidian ocular scalpels in two of his tentacles.
“By the Holy Name, doctor, it was just a suggestion,” pleaded the librarian. “You could remain here to look after it if you wished.”
“Eeeeeee!” repeated the doctor. He skittered away, over several bookshelves, out onto the arm of a statue of the great Surgeon-King Ecnagl-nata, then up onto the statue’s head. He wrapped the majority of his tentacles around it and continued to brandish the scalpels.
“My mission is with the Madrugada. Don’t make me violate my Hippocratic Oath and go all unnecessary elective surgery on your asses!”
The figure stepped out from behind nothing, like a piece of paper being turned widthwise. He, or it, she maybe, was rail thin with skin as blue-back as a ripe plum. She tossed her long, silver hair to the side and tested the balance of her ebony-hafted espada ropera.
“Captain Weekiebye,” said the figure, pulling out a glove from her belt. “Here is my gage,” wherewith she slapped him across the face, dropped it at his feet and stepped back several paces.
“Sir, er, madam, or…what have you, I cannot in good conscience decline your challenge,” said Weekiebye, with an audible smile.
“Here are my terms,” said the silver-haired swordsman. “If I best you, you must leave the book you have brought with me, here.”
Weekiebye bridled. “I am afraid a previously standing matter of honor precludes me from agreeing to such terms. Besides, I cannot promise something that only the captain of the Madrugada may decide”
“Very well, then. How about this instead then? I kill you and take it from you.”
“A thief,” said Weekiebye, shaking his head sadly. “Nothing but a common thief.” He flourished his blade.
A rather large group of priests, librarians, prefects, acolytes, junior librarians and guardsmen had assembled around the foot of the statue of Ecnalg-nata. It’s head had been wholly replaced by a flailing, shrieking Echelld doctor with two glinting obsidian ocular scalpels. The chief librarian had finally abandoned the unctuous tone he had been using to try to get Dded down and resorted to threats.
“Come down off that vaunted statue, you nutty octopus!” This added a pinch more rage to the panicky squealing. “I can’t stand it!” screamed the librarian, covering his ears. “Get him down!”
Two squads of guards raised two sturdy white ladders, one on each side of the surgeon-king’s tusks. Each siege squad featured two guards holding the ladder and three making their way up. The first man on each ladder held a noose on a long handle and the two below carried ion crops.
“We need him down alive,” said the librarian, with poorly concealed regret. “President’s orders.”
As the first two guards approached the tops of their ladders and reached a heavily gloved hand out to grasp one of the doctor’s flailing tentacles, the doctor scrawled simultaneous arabesques into their forearms with his scalpels, eliciting a burst of curses and moans. One dropped his noose with a clatter to the floor below. Dded scrambled over his back while his assailant grasped his bleeding arm, punched the next man in the face, knocking him down, fled off the ladder and out into the hallway, picking up speed as he banged a door open at random and skittered beak-over-tentacles into the paradeisos, the Madrugada’s gangway in his mind’s eye.
Captain Stratsimir and Red Mona jumped to their feet and stood shoulder-to-shoulder, facing Aradanafravartish and Mihrdatkirt. The captain saw the chiliarch’s lips part, drawing in breath to shout for his guards when Mona hurled one of the small pottery cups at him. She struck him just above the temple and he went down like a cartoon coyote who‘d had a safe dropped on him.
Stratsimir slipped into the president’s shadow, then reached out to clamp his hand over her mouth. He twisted, attempting to drag her to the ground as Mona drew her sword.
Ardanafravartish pulled a sigil on a silver chain out from her breast and pushed it against the skin of the captain’s hand. He yelled in pain and dropped her, rolling and clutching his hand. She raised herself up on one elbow and gestured toward him, speaking a Hidden Word. It hit him with great force and threw him into the wall where he lay, smoke drifting out of his mouth and off his hands.
Mona struck her with the pommel of her sword, savagely on the back of her head. She collapsed like the same cartoon character mentioned above, trying to catch an anvil this time.
Mona ran to the captain and, grunting, raised his slim, inert body onto her left shoulder. She rocked unsteadily as she approached the middle window. She kicked at the latch, breaking it off, and kneed the window open on its hinges. She tightened her grip on Stratsimir and jumped out the window into the mulch of the flowerbed below, where she collapsed in a heap, the still-unconscious body of the captain atop her. Over the hedge she saw the landing pad at the end of the Processional Way, flanked by temples and churches. She double-timed it.
Weekiebye’s opponent held her sword high, point down, a drawn poniard in her free hand. She circled.
“Ah, La Destreza,” said Weekiebye. “The Spanish School. You will find my French style more economical, I think.”
He slipped off his cloak, wrapping it quickly around his left arm twice, leaving a length to hang, like a toreador. As she circled, Weekiebye kept pace until he spotted a tiny gap widen into a small one. He lunged, but she locked off his rapier with a crossing combination. She slashed down over his guard, presenting a perfect perfíl, but he snapped the free end of his cloak around her blade and jerked it downward. He caught her in the shoulder, but just barely, as she had leaned back dramatically. She heaved upward, slashing through his cloak.
They closed again and, in a rush of thrust, slash and parry, the meadow filled with a telegraphic clacking and ringing as rapier, espada and knife met. The give and take took them up the slope, each attempting to gain the advantage of high ground.
She parried on a turn and kicked down in a stomping motion that inspired him to quickly withdraw his lead foot and step back, allowing her to step up into the break of the hedge. She smiled. She had height on him and was protected on two sides.
They closed again, Weekiebye compromised in his thrusts, which always came underneath now, but not as much as she had hoped. His French style was economical, after all. They closed, then broke again. To her surprise he had marked her upper arm. They paused, both panting.
A sound like rubber skidding across wet glass started to intrude into their consciousness. Dr. Ll exploded through the opening in the hedge, a tangle of flailing tentacles and clacking beak.
The silver-haired swordsman was dashed to the ground, the wind knocked out of her. Weekiebye slipped and rolled partway down the slope. The doctor didn’t break what might charitably be described as his stride as he hit the river bank and churned up a great wake of dirt and grass.
Moments later, as the furious and slightly disoriented swordsman tried to find her feet again, the captain and Mona charged through the hedge-break after him, knocking her ass over teakettle down the slope.
“Come on, Weekiebye! We don’t have all day. Quit screwing around and get to the ship!” yelled Mona. Weekiebye struggled to disentangle himself from his cloak. He regarded the slashed garment with disgust and tossed it away. He doffed his hat and with a grand gesture, saluted his groaning opponent.
“Another time, perhaps…madam…?”
At the top of the ramp to the Madrugada, Dded and the newly-conscious but still slightly wobbly captain stood with Mona, looking anxiously down the Processional Way.
“Get on the com,” said the captain. “We need Messers. Melk, Pilato and Slim on board tout de suite.”
Dded blinked as an idea took him. Standing just inside the hatch, he wrapped a tentacle around Stratsimir’s arm and turned him so he could look him in the eye. The captain’s widened as he felt their minds connect and together they reached out for Mona, who in turn regarded Weekiebye as he ran up the gangway, slowing in wonder. As one mind they searched out across the grounds of the College, searching for their three missing crewmates.
Dem, Patches and Slim stood easy, listening to a mechanically-inclined Brother explain the theory and practice of phase-shielding in the College’s physical plant. He patted a crystal-topped cylinder with a pressure display, explaining the niceties of the new controller he’d designed to input emergency frequency changes.
“Before it would take 45 seconds to a minute to shift,” he said. “With this I can do it in under ten seconds.”
Suddenly, like the distant sound of stampeding cattle getting closer, the three crewmates felt the presence of the others’ minds joining theirs. Abruptly, they knew everything their crewmates knew.
Without taking a breath, Slim grabbed his Bowie knife out of his boot, flipped it around and dashed it hilt-first onto the frequency controller’s half a dozen times until it broke and began to spark wildly. The Mechanical Brother stood paralyzed in horrified surprise.
They ran, flat out, into an alleyway between buildings and through a postern that led out to the Processional Way. They took off for the landing pads at the top of the road. Over their shoulders they saw three ranks of guards pouting onto the Way from the main gate. They were spied and a shout went up. The guards increased speed in anticipation of running their quarry to ground before they had a chance to reach their ship. The guards separated and a rank of riflemen went to knee and brought up weapons.
Slim, Patches and Dem pounded up the dusty Way and onto the bridge, lungs heaving. They sped up the gritty ramp and hit the gangway, boot heels ringing on the articulated metal plate. The captain and Mona laid down covering fire.
Blue tracers from the guards’ plasma rifles spangled the metal around the hatch with black stars. As one, they imagined a buckle in the stone of the road and the road folded, right at the point where it arched slightly over an old irrigation canal, sprawling the first rank of guards in the dust. The ranks behind stumbled on outstretched legs and arms and guns, a few sliding or tumbling over the edge of the bridge to smack the empty canal with a disconcerting crunch.
Dded reached out with this tentacles, grabbed the hatch and slammed it home. It clanged shut with a hiss and, before the guards could get to their feet again, Dem had cold-fired the ship and the Madrugada and its crew were gone.
Photo via the University of Manitoba Engineering Society