This is the seventh 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.
Eridanus, The Dust Moon, Pandema & the Madrugada
Karl the Weasel stood before an enormous scrim, fifteen feet long by ten tall. He rode on a personal grav-sled, moving about to check various parts of the display that filled the scrim. On closer examination the picture turned out to actually be 18 separate monitors ranged around a circular navigation field. As Karl touched different screens, entering and re-entering information, the pattern of lines connecting them changed.
His Stattis mercenaries looked on, ill at ease. They exchanged nervous glances. Karl’s tension was intense enough to change the tenor of the room. As guards, the Stattisi were top notch. And they knew a good employer when they found one. Once they had found Karl their wandering days were over. He paid extremely well. But more than that. He treated them like people, even giving them books on their birthdays. Stattis birthdays were very private affairs, but even so, Karl always seemed to know when they were and would simply pass off the gifts as accidents of timing. Each got a book, an old-fashioned book mind you, bound vellum, not electronic files. And the book was always perfect.
The sergeant was slowly making his way through the latest, a collection of Fornax War Valedictions, put together 500 years earlier by a poet and scholar, Shem Blanding, who had himself been a sergeant in the early Confederacy Wars. It was a collection not of odes to war and heroism, the kind of rubbish real soldiers usually found painfully fraudulent, but rather poems by ex-soldiers, each attempting to come to terms with that they had seen and done. Perfect for the sergeant, who had seen his share of action and wished for nothing more than a quiet life of protecting his patron.
In other words, they were loyal. And when they felt Karl getting uncharacteristically nervy, they reestablished their grip on their weapons and increased their vigilance.
Karl lowered himself to the floor with a bump.
“Sir?” asked the sergeant.
“Nothing for you to worry about, Mr. Fland,” he replied. “Not yet anyway.”
Karl stuck a coded actuator card into a slot in his desk and waited impatiently the few seconds it took for a monitor wired to a 12-screen, triple-firewalled system to rise.
“Leave, please,” Karl said to the mercenaries. The guards exited, taking up station outside the double-doors and closing them softly on their boss. Karl began to record a message onto the system in front of him. When he finished, he walked to the scrim again, found what he was looking for and dumped it to the card. He returned to the desk terminal and hit send. He sighed and slumped back in his chair. The message would reach the Madrugada. It had to. If he had done it right, and he probably had, he usually did, it would hit the ship before the entire inter-cluster network experienced a disastrous cascade failure. That would happen inside of two hours. At that point a great blanket of communications silence would descend over the known worlds. Each cluster would be lucky to be able to send messages within its own galaxies.
He leaned forward again and sent another message, to each of his server farms. Then he locked his own system off. He might be able to reestablish it if he could keep it out of the reach of the cascade. He withdrew the code card and watched the terminal retract into the desk. As he leaned back again, expelling another huge breath, the double-doors to the corridor exploded inward with a great flash of white fire and displaced air. His windows bowed in before twanging outward like a bowstring, shattering into a million shards and falling soundlessly toward the street. One of the doors, twisted from its hinges, tumbled in slow motion through the air, directly toward him. Everything went black.
The Crown Prince walked into the round chamber. It was dimly lit but he could make out the lavender marble floor surrounded by a circle of porphyry columns. Before each of the columns stood a tall ebony stool figured in gold and on each stool sat a figure, its face obscured by a deep hood.
“Crown Prince,” said the First Voice, from the far side of the circle. “Good of you to come.”
“What do you want from me? And why did we need to meet on this God-forsaken moon?”
“This moon is sacred,” said the Second Voice.
“It is the fulcrum against which we shall place the lever that lifts the universe,” said a third.
“I could give a rat’s ass about your ridiculous mumbo-jumbo,” said the Crown Prince.
“You will not have to tolerate it for long,” said the First Voice. “It will end when we capture your friend, the blood drinker.”
“Stratsimir,“ he spat. “I should have known he’d be involved in this crap somehow. I hope you’re happy together. He’s distastefully dramatic too. But he loves money even more than you love your occult foolishness.”
“Yes. Quite. We need your help in intercepting the Madrugada,” said one of the voices. He’d lost track of which was which. He had no idea if they even had names. He doubted they did. He had no idea what gender they were either and had only seen one of their faces once. It was an experience he hoped not to repeat.
“How in the universe could I possibly help you?” asked the Crown Prince. “Stratsimir must have left Eridanus weeks ago. The Mad’s fast. I don’t have a ship that could catch her. Not even our corvettes could overtake her.”
“We have a way.”
“Do you think Stratsimir’s stupid enough to stop for an Order ship? Or to get himself trapped or cut off by one? Or by a dozen, for that matter? Don’t underestimate that raggedy crew of his.”
“The figures regarded him, motionless and silent in the shadows. The First Voice coughed.
“We have a way.” He stared at the Crown Prince, meaningfully.
“Me? Are you kidding? I couldn’t go if I wanted to. I would be missed. And I don‘t want to.”
“Everything we need from you could be done on this moon, Crown Prince” said one of them. “Or should I say dauphin?”
“No, you shouldn’t say dauphin. My uncle is the heir to the archonate.”
“But that was our agreement, was it not? You provide the Order with assistance and the Order helps you to establish your claim to the archonate of Eridanus.”
“My uncle is the heir. My father has been clear on that. I cannot do anything about that. Nor can you. Our agreement was to help me increase my powerbase so that I could preserve my independence.”
“Nothing preserves independence like power,” said a figure.
“Zbiss Tel Eridane, when you return home, you will discover that things have changed,” said another. “Help us catch the heretics and the archonate is yours.”
In the river of stars, a being stood, the rush of the river surging around its ankles. made of motes of golden light, a herald with sightless eyes, he stared out across the universe.
A being approached, a martial figure of shining green jade.
You! he said.
I, said the jade being.
You wish to strive against me again? asked the golden being.
The jade being slowly shook his head. As the eons flowed around them, beyond the cold of space, the jade being explained.
There was silence afterward.
Finally, after a billion suns had flared into being and burnt out, the golden being slowly nodded. The two figures looked out together from the silver sands of a shore which touched the waves of a thousand stellar seas. Finally the being of gold spoke.
Hey, whatever happened to that guy?
Which guy? Lots of guys.
Short guy, used to carry around a little Styrofoam surfboard? Remember him? Whatever happened to that guy?
Ah, him! Sure, well, that’s a story…
They walked away, laughing and clapping each other on the shoulder, crushing worlds beneath their feet.
“The damage these fools could do with just the one volume is…inestimable,” said the Chiliarch, pacing. He shook his head. “We should have killed them the moment they arrived.”
“We are not murderers, Mihrdatkirt,” said Ardanafravartish. The President of the College of Exegetes, uncharacteristically pale, laid back on a couch in her apartments.
“No,” said the chiliarch. “But consider the consequences. Would it have been more of a sin than allowing them to go on their way and destroy uncountable billions of lives?”
“That is a question for the Divinity,” she said, sipping from a cup of pomegranate juice chilled with snow. “And that is not my main concern anyway. I fear what would happen—what will happen—when the Order captures that volume of the Enchiridion that they carry. The Madrugada has no chance against the concerted forces of the Order. They will find them, and they will seize them. And when the Order uses the book, there will be no accident about it. They will destroy everything they can.”
The chiliarch sat down on a carpet-covered hassock.
“We have to find them. Somehow,” said Ardanafravartish.
“And if we can’t convince them to surrender the book?”
“We must convince them,” she said. “By the time we find them, if they are still alive, they will no doubt realize the foolishness of holding on to it and will give it to us with profound gratitude.”
The chiliarch was not sure.
“And if they don’t?”
She sighed. “Then you will have to accompany them on their journey.”
“To find the other volume? The one that no longer exists? Running around the galaxy until the Order finds us? No, we can’t…”
“Obey my orders, Chiliarch! Mihrdatkirt. Please. Trust me.”
“Very well, Madame President. I will put together a team. Three ships?”
She nodded and he strode from the room. She rose, opened the windows and stared out into Pandema’s night, the starlight cut at the border of the atmospheric shield. She looked out into space, searching.
Less than an hour later the chiliarch rapped on the president’s door.
“Madame,” he said, flustered. “I assembled the team and gave orders for the ships to be made ready. Then, thinking I would send out an encoded message to our network, I discovered…”
Ardanafravartish waited. It was unnerving to see the chiliarch unnerved.
“All communications are down.”
“Yes? Well, fix them.”
“No, Madame President. That’s not what I mean. Our equipment, our local feeds, are fine. It is the rest of the universe that is wrong. There has been what looks like a system-wide cascade failure. Every local network connection has been overloaded. The universe is silent.”
Ardanafravartish was shocked.
“This is the Order?”
“I cannot think how, madam. Not them. Nor the Resistance. No, I think this is something different.”
Nimue sat in her shift at a table in the galley cradling a cup of tea.
“It was manifested language,” she said, sipping the hot Oolong, “built in a colonized section of pre-Created ‘space.’”
“Magic?” asked the captain.
She shook her head. “Not Faërie.”
“Was it…evil?” asked Slim, tapping the handle of his Peacemaker.
Nimue thought, shook her head. “It was Constructed.”
The captain started.
“That‘s not possible,” he said.
“An Order creation…or construction?”
“No. Glyphomancer magic is poorly known. Records are scarce. What little there is, an echo. Mythic. Even the oldest among us are too young to have direct memory of it, but one. It was ‘Coldfire.’ That glyph was central to its making.”
“Our systems are clean,” said Patches. “Whatever you did in that ‘space’ had a direct effect here. But we’ve got a new problem.”
Stratsimir looked at him expectantly.
“There’s been a wave-generated overload failure across all inter-galactic communications systems. Communications are down. From what I can see, the nodes that latch galaxy com networks one to another have been burnt out, by a cascade.”
“What could have caused it?” asked the captain.
“It wasn’t accidental, if that’s what you’re asking. It would never happen naturally even in an A.I.-heavy system. Someone did this,” said Patches, “and we’re on our own.”
“Hardly the first time,” said Mona.
Captain Stratsimir gave Patches instructions to relay any information of note on the failure as it became available.
“There may be a few messages, some chatter, that I can rescue, stuff that was pushed ahead of the wave. If I get anything interesting, I’ll let you know,” he said.
Stratsimir dismissed everyone. He gestured to Mona to remain behind. He gazed out the porthole for a time, idly tapping the ring on his left hand with a page finder, a blade-shaped wooden reading pointer. He turned to face Mona, setting the blade on the table and leaning back against the wall. He looked up at the ceiling.
“I had another…vision,” he told her.
“Johnny, why didn’t you tell everyone?”
“I don’t know what everything means,” he said. “I don’t know what I should keep to myself.”
“Well, what was it?”
“The voice told me about the book,” said Stratsimir. “About what it can do. And he told me the Order does not need the book to do what they plan. What would normally, even in this compromised universe, take eons, they can make happen in a millennium. That’s relatively quickly and on an individual level I get the impression they’re all about the long-term planning. Just part of the book would make it easier, significantly reduce their time. Both volumes would make it instant.”
“So why us? What are we, or you, supposed to do?”
The captain turned back to the porthole.
“We are supposed to fix the universe.”
“Oh, that,” said Mona. “I’ll put on some coffee then.”
Public domain photo of Lan Caihe via Wikimedia Commons