Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof

Ainadamar: Chapter Twelve

In Ainadamar on August 11, 2016 at 3:39 am

Montefrío

This is the twelfth 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.

Chapter Twelve

To Santa María de Alfacar & the Sacromonte

“I have to concentrate, a lot more than before,” whispered Slim. “Maybe when there are more of us together it’s easier.”

“It feels like…interference, though,” said Stratsimir.

“Quiet you two,” barked the sergeant. He shoved them from behind and they staggered forward a step or two up the path to La Colonia. At the steps to the building they halted.

“Two to see the Captain,” the sergeant said to the two guards. They began to pass through the double doors, wedged open to allow the warm evening air to circulate.

“Hold!” said one of the guards. “Password.” The sergeant stared at the guard, who quailed at the fierce look the old, gray-haired tough handed him, but he didn’t give.

“Soledad,” the sergeant finally said, to the visible relief on the guards’ faces.

He marched his prisoners across the broad entryway and up the wide, curving marble stairs. They passed a plateresque retablo of Santiago Matamoros that represented the activities of the Church in Peru, with a heavy emphasis on swords, spears, crosses and cringing natives, and continued up another flight to a landing in front of the captain’s offices. Two more guards stood before the door, rifles at the ready.

“Sleep,” whispered Stratsimir and the words settled on the guards’ shoulders like a heavy blanket as they slipped softly down to a sitting position on the floor. The sergeant turned the handles of the double doors and pushed them inward. Captain Nestares and two lieutenants looked up from a desk where they were studying a map. Nestares looked surprised, then angry.

“Wait,” said Stratsimir. The word was like a blow they felt in their bones. They halted, stunned. Slim moved to the set of shelves built into the right-hand wall. He turned to Stratsimir and shook his head.

“I don’t know how much longer I can hold this shape,” said the sergeant, in Stanislaus’s voice. Nestares eyes moved and strain showed on his face as he tried to break free from Stratsimir’s command.

“Where’s the book, Captain?” asked Stratsimir. Nestares, sweat popping from his forehead, gritted his teeth and tried to shake his head. His eyes darted momentarily to the edge of the desk.

“In there, Slim” he said, pointing to a wooden cabinet beside the desk. Stanislaus popped back into his default shape, falling forward to rest his hands on his knees and pant.

Slim tugged on the handle, then drew his knife, slipping the blade down the lip of the first drawer and broke the lock. He slid the drawer open and with the knife point flicked a black velvet cloth aside. He strained to lift out a very heavy olivewood box, bound in iron and silver.

“You…don’t want…the trouble,” Nestares said, through a clenched jaw.

“That is certainly so, Captain,” said Nestares, “but the trouble is ours, I’m afraid.” He tucked the box under one arm and motioned to the door.

“Death!” grunted Nestares as the three passed out onto the landing.

“Yes. Quite,” said Stratsimir, disdainfully.

From the stairs they could hear a sudden rise in the noise level outside La Colonia. It wasn’t the normal sounds of a place like that, if that kind of a place could be said to have a normal anything. It had an edge of panic in it. Stratsimir leaned down to one of the guards as Slim shut the doors to the captain’s rooms.

Escucha,” he said. “No one goes in for ten minutes. Captain’s orders.” He neglected to tell them which captain. Stanislaus took a deep breath and regained the shape of the sergeant, though a bit rough around the edges. They’d have to try to stick to the shadows.

Downstairs the guards ran confusedly around. A squad of five men, all armed, ran into the entry and up the stairs. Stratsimir, Slim and Stan walked purposefully down the steps to the courtyard. Here, men ran around helter-skelter and gunfire cracked in the distance. They walked quickly, hugging the hedge, out to the road and turned around the wall into the shadows. From the pine trees up the slope came the sound of stones rumbling and tree branches cracking and splitting. Above La Colonia the lights of a truck bounced up and down wildly, the engine racing as it struck the corner of the stonework on the other side of the palace. They heard the cries of terrified men downslope in the vega.

Slim looked quickly.

“Ahead I think, Captain, then up into the pine. We can parallel the road for a while until we clear the racket.” They began to run, keeping to the upside ditch. At the curve of the road a small seasonal spring, dry now, ran at an oblique angle into the pine. They ran up until they were out of sight of the road. Stanislaus dropped the sergeant’s form and almost buckled to the ground.

“That’s not right,” he said, tossing drops of cold sweat as he shook his head. “It’s never that hard to hold a shape.” The waited for him to catch his breath and headed up hill toward an old road, clear enough of trees to see the ground by moonlight and started running again.

 

Captain Weekiebye, Mona, and Nimue had led Lorca down into the vega’s rich bottomlands. They cut diagonally across the fields, Weekiebye on point and Nimue taking up the rear. Mona stood by Lorca whom she twice had to rescue from a fall when he fainted. Poets were more trouble than they were worth, she thought, even when they can hold a sword like the singers at home, which this one most assuredly could not. Their progress was rapid, the ground no longer unknown to them, but hampered by the blubbering, still pronouncedly freaked-out poet.

In all fairness to him, they realized, he had, on the verge of death, been pulled out of time by a group of stone-cold weirdies. Their leader had all the warmth and approachability of a tombstone; another was for all the world an old-fashioned cowboy out of Cimarron; yet another a costumed Frenchman. There was an Amazon and an ethereal woman who shone like starlight and a man who carried a veiled threat of cataclysmic change. Wait ‘til he sees the space ship, they thought.

Down on the flat of the vega they found a ditch with a stone wall to one side and a hedge between them and the road. Very little motorized traffic used this country road. Certainly none of the historically poor farmers around Granada owned a automobile, though the military seemed to have no lack of them. The occasional farmer on a mule-drawn cart passed by, his hat just visible over the hedge, or a couple of herb-gatherers riding bicycles back from their gathering great cylindrical rolls of rosemary, mint, basil and garlic tied with twine over the rear fenders and bleeding the scent of summer in their wake.

They worked their way slowly southwestward, in the direction of the Sacromonte hill. At noon, they stopped for a quick meal beside a pool in a little pine grove at the bottom of a rise. After eating, Weekiebye ran up the hill to take the lay of the land. He was troubled by what he saw. Nimue could see it in his face when he came down.

“There are troops gathering on either side of this road we’re following,” he said. Carts and covered trucks were staking out plots, he said, like a small army setting up camp.

“There’s no way we’ll make it back if we stay on this road,” he said. He drew his rapier with a ring and flourished it to deadly effect against a nearby branch. “Unless we fight our way through!” Lorca quailed. Mona lowered his blade with the flat of her hand.

“None of that,” she said, to Lorca’s visible relief. They climbed up together and she looked in both directions. “This way.” She pointed toward the metalled road to La Colonia.

“That’s the road they drove us on to our deaths,” whispered Lorca. Weekiebye threw his free arm across Lorca’s shoulders in what, to the poet, was a terrifying expression of bonhomie. “Cars and trucks,” he said, pointing with his sword, “come down that road each quarter of an hour.” He pointed up the road. “You can see them coming, there. That’s just under four minutes from where we’re going to cross. Plenty of time to get out of sight.” He spun the poet around, sheathed his sword and embraced him enthusiastically. “They will never take you again.” Then he spun him out of his embraced, slapped him too hard on the back and took point.

Mona walked up to Weekiebye.

“What are you thinking?” she asked him.

He pointed above the La Colonia road to a broad stand of olives.

“You see that stand of olives? See how at the top it turns to rock and cactus? There’s got to be a gully or small rock valley behind there. It looks like it runs down quite a ways to the south. We can duck in there, walk down to where it plateaus out. Once it’s dark, we can cut back down into the vega and make our way the rest of the between these two roads until we hit the top of the Sacromonte. We’ll be nearly to the ship at that point.”

“It’ll be slow,” said Mona, nodding her head. “But it looks the best way.”

Even during a war there are people about, not just soldiers, trying to go about the dicey business of living. But soldiers there were and they were out in force, both behind them in the valley and before them on the road. They lit out eastward, but between the threat of people and the difficult way across rock walls and through waist-high grasses, often pocked with holes and studded with hillocks, the sun was halfway down the western sky by the time they reached the big road again. Then, the trucks picked up frequency. By the time one had disappeared above them another was coming into view below. There were also occasional foot patrols and work details that required they bury themselves in the grasses until they passed.

Finally, Nimue lifted up some dry soil from the side of the ditch and spelled it. She tossed it into the breeze above them. As it settled onto their damp backs they became a great deal harder to see. From the passing trucks they were invisible. They hustled across the road finally, up through the olives and over the rock and cactus of the hill’s crest.

 

The dying sun cast shadows in the woods as they walked. Behind them and toward the road, the sound subtly shifted. The world and its problems seemed to grow louder, more chaotic and, worst of all, nearer. There was the sound of breaking branches interspersed with the dry crack of gunfire, hoarse cries and, at least once, the sound of a jeep crunching into a stand of trees, the high whine of a wheel spinning free of the gravel. The woods seemed like a fraught place in themselves, more… occupied than they ought to have been. Nimue’s spell, and the deepening twilight, kept them all but invisible, but over the ridge and behind them the woods seemed to almost palpably breathe, as though a hidden hive of bees had been upset.

That’s when they saw the first one.

It lurched out of the tree line at the edge of a bare slope on their left. There was a muttering gobble and the wind shifted. They were assaulted by the stench of bacon-wrapped oysters forgotten in a tin shack at high summer. The moon broke free of the hills and lit the clearing. Figures began issuing from the trees below them and poured through the gaps above them.

Slim pointed ahead, to the top of the road. On a large rise to the side of the overgrown road, partially subsumed by the prickly pear, pine and aloe, stood a ruined hamlet of tumbledown buildings that glowed white in the moonlight. The largest one had half-pipe tiles on the roof and a squat, octagonal tower next to its crumbling steps.

“That’s a church,” said Lorca.

“We should take refuge,” said Mona. “From…whatever it is that’s happening here.”

They ran. Mona, sword out, brought up the rear, while Nimue guided Lorca and Weekiebye took point. The figures, now clearly visible, were pincering in to cut them off. They could see the nearest one clearly in the growing moonlight and they were confused by what they saw. Some looked terribly old, white hair like straw, and clad in what looked for all the world to be doublet and hose. Others looked so thin as to almost be skeletons, clad in rages that clung, barely, around their waist. Some seemed to be wearing outmoded suit coats and others, the uniforms of the soldiers at La Colonia. And the stink grew worse. Their minds made nothing firm of what they saw. Thankfully, it wasn’t just their minds doing the thinking. Their souls or instincts or whatever you might call that hidden arbiter, in spectacular revulsion, spurred their bodies onward in a surprising burst of speed.

“Hey,” Weekiebye said over his shoulder to Lorca, “isn’t that your schoolteacher friend?”

“Dióscoro!” cried Lorca, turning to intercept his late friend. The sound that came from the erstwhile schoolteacher made his skin crawl. Nimue grabbed him by the shoulders and pushed him forward. “He’s not your friend. Your friend has gone.”

She peered closer, and in a way none of the others could.

“These are the Dead!” she cried.

She sheathed her sword and snatched up a broken pine bough. She cast the symbol for light and threw it into the needles where it caught and blazed like a pitch torch without actually consuming the branch or shedding heat. She waved it in an arc and the Dead fell back momentarily. But they fought the light, struggling to stay near the power they felt in the living. The living shrank before the Dead as the Dead did before the light.

Weekiebye took several steps to the side and slashed with his rapier, taking the head off one of the Dead, a desiccated figure in a rotten turban, who had almost reached them. Several others behind him tripped over the headless body and scrabbled in the dead needles and cactus spines like beetles. He pulled his hand charge-gonne from beneath his cloak and leveled it at the others. He fired it and a blue charge lit up half a dozen corpses.

 

Mona dropped back, flipped her sword around and caught it haft-up, scything in a wide arc that left one corpse bifurcated, two without hands and another missing a leg. She stabbed out and took the head off one in the khakis of a soldier. Nimue brandished the bough in a circle overhead, until the brightness caused even their own eyes to water. For the moment, the Dead fell back en masse.

Passing the first building one of the Dead leapt out at the group, grabbing Lorca’s arm in a skeletal hand. The poet squealed, plucking a brick off the crumbling wall and crushed its head in a white cloud of pulverized bone and mortar. He straightened up after that. As they walked he twisted the stubborn Dead hand off his forearm and pitched it into an alley.

By the time they reached the small plaza in front of the church steps, the Dead had grown numerous again and Nimue’s branch had begun to dim. They mounted the steps to the church facing outward in a semi-circle until Lorca backed into its doors. The Dead hesitated, attracted by the living blood but repelled by the memory of the disused church. Weekiebye reached for the door and pushed. Although the sandy yellow stone of the church had degraded over time, the doors, if anything, had been strengthened by it, cured into an iron hardness by the century or more since it was last in any kind of regular use. The great iron hinges had frozen. He looked up. The thing was built like a fortress.

Nimue handed Mona the bough. She and Weekiebye stayed en garde while Lorca and Nimue tried to help Weekiebye force first the door, then the postern gate set into it. The postern screeched open a few inches across the stone but stopped. The Dead were moving closer, filling up the space in front of the church. Finally, Nimue took a breath and set her hand against the little gate, placing a command of opening on it, which showed up as a bright sun-grained glyph that sunk into the wood. With a sudden exhalation the postern flew inward, banging against the iron plate set as a bumper on a raised knob of stone.

A ripple flowed through the mass of the Dead as the sacral air of the church breathed outward into the ranks of corpses, and then back again, as something at the far side of the clearing claimed their attention. The Dead turned away from the church. Nimue recognized an expectant hunger in them. The dry complaints of ancient sockets fought with the liquefaction of still-rotting limbs as the Dead surged back toward the road.

Weekiebye had hustled Lorca into the church, followed by Mona.

“It’s the captain!” Nimue shouted. She reached out and snapped off another branch, this one from the cypress growing over the steps. She knelt quickly to spell it. The sign sunk into the branch and it grew, swelling and bending into the shape of a bow. She plucked a sucker from around the bole of the tree and wound it around the top of the branch. It tightened into a bowstring and she fastened it to the bottom. She picked up a small needle-thick pine twig and spelled it, the needles growing and separating and falling apart as fletched arrows into her hand. She leapt off the stairs and drove the arrows into the dirt where a paving stone had been pushed aside by a tree root.

 

Stratsimir and Stanislaus surrounded Slim and the Dead surrounded them all. Stratsimir, for whom the Dead seemed to have a particular fondness, slashed back and forward with his cinqueada. He’d tried firing the gamma pistol but it only made holes in the corpses. It was much easier to destroy them with the broad-bladed and only use the gun when he could be sure of a head shot.

Opposite him, Stanislaus was cycling through a handful of shapes, unable to hold them in the presence of the Dead for more than a few seconds each. But what seconds they were when you were a Torglassid bear-lemur or a rhinoceros. The Dead flew from his path. Between them Slim was kicking and rifle-butting the nearer ones and getting an occasional headshot on those further away.

All around them, the susurration of the Dead grew in volume. The Dead spoke to them, in the Castilian tongue, in Romance and Arabic, some in Gothic, or Punic. It got louder in such a way that Stratsimir realized it wasn’t sound alone. It was penetrating their minds, slowing them down, confusing and tangling them up in the fear, hate, hunger and need of the Dead. Dry tongues mouthed a thousand words for home that were all lost.

Across the plaza it was Nimue who recognized it for what it was, a spell.

“Get down!” she yelled. “Everyone living get down.” She caught Stratsimir’s eye. “Well, you too!”

Slim grabbed Stratsimir and pulled him down. Stanislaus dropped the form of a Eridanian tiger and crouched low alongside them as a Horologian fire sprite.

With the very end of her strength, Nimue fitted one of her arrows to the bow she’d evoked and let fly. Another and another followed it. The last arrow was drawn before the first one hit and by that time she had also dived for the ground. Each arrow when it hit one of the Dead flashed a scythe of light that tore the dead flesh from bones and the bones from one another. It was like a crate of phosphorous grenades had gone off in a bag full of portable nucleonic charges and it cleansed the clearing of anything standing more than a couple of feet above the ground.

Most of the Dead were bisected, or headless, or three-quarters vaporized. The plume on Weekiebye’s hat abruptly ended where before it had arched elegantly. The living got slowly to their feet. Weekiebye beat at the dust on his trousers with his hat, irritated. He looked down and saw Nimue, dropping his hat to grab her up. You never noticed how much the latent light of Faërie lit Nimue until it was spent. Although she looked the same as before, she was diminished. At first, Weekiebye thought she was dead, the change was so extreme. Slim and Stanislaus jogged forward, Stratsimir behind, still holding the box with one arm.

“She lives,” said Weekiebye. The new Dead were beginning to come down out of the woods and between the old houses into the church plaza. “We better get inside.” He turned and walked up the steps. Mona peering out. Mona walked out onto the porch of the church and let Weekiebye pass. Slim and Stanislaus followed him. Stratsimir eyed the dark doorway worriedly.

“I could fly maybe,” he said. “Maybe up to one of these bigger pine.”

“You’re exhausted, Johnny,” said Mona. “How long would you last in the crown of a tree?”

“I can’t survive that,” said the captain, pointing at the church.

“It’s old. It’s disused. The power may have lessened sufficiently. And plus, Johnny, it’s a defensible building. Try it. Just…stick a hand in or something. If it’s too much, we’ll figure something out.”

Stratsimir followed her to the postern. He used to love churches. Before. He’d even had one built and endowed in Vidin. But that was before. Mona took his free hand and walked him slowly into the church. They stood still, breathing slowly and lit by a handful of chemical torches Slim tossed out onto the floor of the church.

“No sparks. No smoke,” she said. They stood a few more moments. Stratsimir nodded.

The church was old, and basic. They stood in the nave, illuminated more or less steadily by the chemtorches. Around the capitals of the four squat columns that described the nave ran kufic script. A porch led out to the left, before the tower. To the right another porch. Behind the low altar, reached by three steps from floor level, stood the choir. Three high narrow windows, very much like archers’ slits in a castle, were cut into the walls on each side and two more in the choir. Around the tops of the walls ran a pattern of interlocking flowers and vines in azulejos tiles.

This was no cathedral. This was a village church that doubled as a fortress.

“What kind of weapons do we have?” asked the captain.

“Two Peacemakers and my Winchester,” replied Slim.

“Rapier, hand charge-gonne,” added Weekiebye. He smiled. “And my little friend,” he said, pulling out the Browning from his sash.

“Broadsword,” said Mona, who was busy wedging bits of broken wood into the postern frame. “And a plasma. Nimue’s got an englyphed gladius. And, well, spells apparently.”

“Spells, chief,” said Slim, shaking his head. “That’s something new. Or, something very old.” They looked down at Nimue, who had been wrapped in a  blanket by Weekiebye and was sleeping.

“Her light is starting to return,” he said.

“Also, Stanislaus is a weapon in his own right,” said Slim, slapping him on the back. Stan grinned, embarrassed to be the center of attention.

“Can’t hold form for long, though,” he mumbled.

“And, we’ve got you, Johnny,” said Mona.

“And I’ve got a gamma pistol and there’s a flat-plasm in the sack,” said Stratsimir, reaching into his boot, withdrawing the squat, guttered dagger and rubbing off the blood on one of his monogrammed Ashear handkerchief. “And a cinqueada.” He thought a moment. “OK, Slim. Reconnoiter. The rest of you, gather up all the wood, iron, pieces of stone, whatever you can lay hands on that looks like it would hurt and pile it up there by the altar. Er. Well, over here will do, actually.”

Weekiebye approached the captain and eyeballed him but good. He walked halfway around him, looking at him askance.

“Captain! You are inside a church. And not on fire.”

“Thanks for noticing, Mr. Weekiebye. Let’s hope it stays that way.”

The captain set the box down carefully by his foot and stood up. He staggered as sparks shot off his silhouette, a corona of white light. His clothes started to catch and smoke began to roll off him. He staggered and went down on one knee, which jarred the box. As suddenly as it had begun, the sparks died. Smoke curled out of his collar.

“Johnny!” Mona yelled, running up on him with a blanket to douse the now-dormant flames. He held up his right hand to stop here and gazed down to where his knee touched the edge of the box. He pulled it away. Immediately he felt the prickling on his skin and the sparks popped. He touched it with his hand and it went out like flipping a light switch.

“Well, I’ll be go to hell, captain,” said Slim. “I’d keep ahold of that box if I was you.”

The captain rose on his distressed Bruno Maglis, smoldering like a snuffed out torch. “Yes, Slim, thanks for that.”

 

It took Slim about five minutes to throw together a rig out of webbing pirated from the other packs. It held the box tight to Stratsimir’s back by an H across his chest. He’d tried a cross first, with predictable results.

Nimue had awoken and Lorca had helped her to a sitting position. She looked better but was a far cry from the top of her game. “Magic” existed outside of Faërie only at the cost of a great expenditure of will, something Nimue had, despite a rather delicate outward appearance, in spades. Still, it would take some time before she could pull enough light from that realm into herself to attempt another such attack.

She loosened Caledfwlch in its scabbard and pulled it out a few inches. Not surprisingly, its ensorcelment held. Glyphs married to objects endured without active maintenance, though she wondered about the effect so many Dead would have on it. No, tonight would be mostly about keeping the doors and smashing heads. Magic would have to wait.

Once Slim got the captain rigged up, he walked the perimeter.

“Main door,” he said to the captain, pointing toward the door they’d come in by, “with the postern. Another onto the east porch. Same wood, iron bound. Had a bar on it. The six windows down here, three to each side, one each side past the altar. And the tower. Plaza in front, hill at the back. Ruins of the town east, an overgrown garden to the west. There are trees on the hill that lean out. Someone ambitious might be able to throw themselves out far enough to land on top of it. Mind you, they’d probably miss and even if they didn’t, they’d wind up with broken bones. However, considering our opponents, it’s a worry.”

The captain looked around. “Mona, wedge the other door shut like you did with these. Stan, take the tower. Mr. Weekiebye, take the east windows. Put together a platform from whatever you can find to let you get up there. Slim, same on the west.” He considered, tapping his foot and gazing into the middle distance. “Alright. Mr. Lorca?”

Lorca looked up from where he crouched next to Nimue.

“I want you to keep an eye on Nimue. Get her anything she needs and keep her safe.”

The matter-of-fact placement of trust and responsibility on the poet stiffened his resolve.

“Yes, sir,” he said.

“Good man. Mona, you’re free range but I want you to keep an eye on those back windows also. Slim, you’re on the porch door. I’m going to keep a watch on the plaza.” He walked back to the double doors and ran his hand around the wood until he found what he was looking for. It was an iron plate the size of an envelope, set on a rusted hinge. It complained fiercely as he pried it back. It was a spy hole that looked out into the plaza.

Stratsimir stopped.

“I can hear someone,” he said.

“I can hear it…” Slim stopped and looked at Weekiebye. Lorca was baffled as each of them, except Stanislaus, who was out of sight already up the tower, fell silent.

“What’s…going on?” asked Lorca, the old nervousness returning.

Stratsimir walked over to the poet and laid his hand on his shoulder. “Nothing to worry about, Mr. Lorca. It seems the ability we gained to hear one another without speaking aloud  has returned now that more of us are in proximity to one another. We will, however, not neglect to keep you informed of the information we are exchanging.”

“I’ll translate for you,” said Nimue, weakly. Lorca was still confused but nodded his head gamely anyway.

Soundlessly, they divided the weapons so that everyone had something besides their native powers with which to defend themselves. Lorca awkwardly accepted Weekiebye’s prized Browning. Nimue had Caledfwlch. Mona took the flat-plasm in addition to her sword and the captain carried the gamma and his cinqueada. Weekiebye carried his rapier and the hand charge-gonne.

“I’m going to run your 30-30 up to Stanislaus, Slim. If you don’t mind,” said the captain. “It’ll also give me a chance to take a look at the lay of the land of the living dead.”

 

“What the hell are they doing out there?” asked Patches, scrabbling for a purchase on the sill of the small window. Most space ships didn’t have picture windows, what with the desire of most wayfarers not to explode out of their skin, scales or fur.

Dem and Dded were peering out into the early evening clearing. The doctor was tapping morosely with a tentacle and clacking his beak nervously and Dem had turned that lovely but worrying shade of gold-flecked rust that indicated sustained tension, the same he’d learned to recognize in humans by a white face and sweating brow.

“What are they doing?” repeated Patches.

“I believe it’s the fandango,” said Dem.

“No,” said the doctor. “It’s the farruca. See the way they stick out their leg, chest forward? Angular, masculine. Definitely the farruca.”

“What’s that woman doing then?” asked Dem. Dded peered.

“Staggering, I’d say. ‘Never put whisky in the sangria when there are women present.’”

“What?”

“What?”

How’d he know that?

The three of them watched, unconsciously stamping in time to the guitar and caja. Foot (tentacle, paw) out, back, stamp, stamp, stamp, spin, draw up, arm (tentacle, leg) across the body, turn, arm (tentacle, leg) up and hand (tentacle, paw) back sharply. Again.

A Gypsy spotted them and pointed, others looked, throwing an olé or an alá in their direction. The doctor cleared his throat.

“Compelling stuff.”

“I wish we were down there,” said Patches, pacing. “Stuck in the damned ship.”

Dem’s hands paled as he clenched them, watching the last of the day disappear over the melon-rind hills to the west, the ruins of a palace tower just visible in the night where the stars didn’t shine. Out the other window the bonfire and scattered cooking fires brightened.

“Half the barrio’s down there now,” said Dem. “This is a disaster. Like to be out in it though.”

“Well, Gypsies…allow what happens to happen, I am made to understand,” said Dded.

“After prison, death and the Virgin Mary, what is fishing anyway, but a space suit made randomly of satchels?” nodded Patches

Whoa, thought the doctor, swept with a sense of déjà vu. He laid a tentacle across the engineer’s forehead and another across his carotid artery. Dem, meanwhile, was cycling through every color in his repertoire with increasing velocity.

“We’ve all got febris,” he told his crewmates. Febris was a type of space-borne cabin fever, caused by the mutation of a common bacterium during prolonged exposure to certain types of interstellar radiation. “We can’t stay on board. We have to get out in the open air, if only for a little while, or it’s going to get worse. We’ll be like one of those ships they find floating between the Knoblock Rings full of dead crews who’ve eaten all the wiring or taken turns sticking forks into each others’ eyes or showered in liquid nitrogen.”

“They’ll eat us alive,” said Dem. “I’m mean the Madres. They’ll take the ship.”

“I have an idea for that,” said Patches.

“I don’t know,” said Dem, imagining Patches fixing intake manifolds onto their heads with a rivet gun and filling them with smelt as a preventative.

“I would normally share your trepidation,” said the doctor. “But this is one of the very few maladies that is communicable across every known species. If we get out into the air it will break down and dissipate.”

Febris was known to inspire extra-ordinary creativity in the infected, usually in the minutes before they crawl inside the oven to chat with muffins.

“I’ve got portable transceivers,” said the engineer. In his workshop, Patches outfitted them all with transceivers the size of wrist chronographs.

“You have to tap it every quarter hour,” said Patches. Otherwise it will default and phase you out. We run into a problem, just twist the ring around the face. That will phase you immediately. Remember, the phase will only last about twenty seconds and there are probably only about three phases in each of these.” If we’re lucky, he thought.

“They won’t hurt us,” said the doctor. “Unless we insult their honor.”

“I’m not worried about the Gypsies,” said Dem, holstering a flat-plasm.

They each twisted their transceivers and walked through the wall of the ship into the clearing.

 

Stratsimir and Mona stood with Stanislaus on the platform at the top of the tower. Once, muezzins called the village faithful to prayer from here. Later, the Christians built a frame from which to hang their church bell. The bell was long gone, melted down for harness rivets and ploughshares and buttons. A few of the timbers, presumably too split or rotted for reuse, lay in a pile on the half rotted deck.

They looked out over the village by the light of a cold, outsized moon that shone out once the cloud that covered it scudded away before a rising wind. The Dead clustered in the little alleys between the ruins of the houses to the northeast of the church. The swayed like seaweed at the bottom of a rock pool. Out across the plaza more had massed at the edge of the possibly-still-somewhat holy ground. Behind them, under the trees on the hill, the ground moved like a black dog with fleas. The field to the west of the church, once probably held in common by the village, was filling with the Dead. But they too stood off from the building proper.

“I can’t see over toward to the other side,” said Stratsimir, indicating the squat dome. “I’m going to have to go up.”

“Be careful, Johnny,” said Mona, squeezing his arm. “I don’t trust the…field these things generate.” He nodded, then rose up silently into the air, turning and floating to land lightly on the very top of the little dome. He stood quietly for several minutes.

“Do you see that?” asked Stan, touching her shoulder and pointing at the Dead by the plaza. The Dead watched. They had turned to follow the captain’s progress to the dome. As he returned, they turned again, like some dark flowers, tracking their dark sun.

As Stratsimir neared the lip of the tower, he hesitated, lurching and restarting. While he was still above Mona’s head, he fell, as though he’d been dropped.

“Damn,” he cursed lowly and blackly. “Tonight will be the death of these shoes.” He bent over to retie them and they both looked at the book strapped to his back, then looked at each other.

“The Dead, Johnny. They want the box. The book.” They explained.

“I think it’s time we see if Nimue has sufficiently recovered to go on a little fact-finding mission.”

 

The sudden materialization of a man-sized octopus, a giant kitty and a rainbow-colored space alien through the solid metal hull of a spaceship into the midst of a juerga was not greeted with the twisterberry freak-out they had expected, though it did effect a momentary stutter in the festivities and the metallic tattoo of a hundred bone-handled knives clicking open and the safeties flicking off on the half-dozen meat-vaporizing space pistols of various makes the Madre’s crew had found in the Madrugada’s storage lockers.

Dem turned up his hands (sapphire blue on the end of tangerine arms that glowed in the shadow of the ship).

“We come in peace. Er. Paz,” he said. Knives lowered. Spilf looked at his captain.

“We suggest a temporary cessation of hostilities,” said Dded. “We are here strictly to get down.”

“And/or funky,” added Patches. “Doctor’s orders.”

Captain José Maria Ormaetxea-Ametxazurra threw back his sombreroed head and roared with delight, waving the weapons down. The party’s sounds slowly mounted again, voices, palmas and guitars filling the air of the clearing. The erstwhile captain of the Tu Madre threw one of his enormous arms over Dem’s shoulder.

“Good to see you’ve all come to your senses,” said Ormaetxea. “Though I presume you’ve done so with more precaution than those peashooters.” Dem’s eyes flicked unconsciously to his wrist.

“Don’t worry,” he said, with a smile. “A white flag I do not recognize. White rum, on the other hand, I do.” He turned the bottle ass-to-stars, then shoved it into Dem’s chest.

 

The martial figure of polished green jade ceased its movement through the heavens.

Something troubles you, said the herald of gold light.

Your plan, said jade figure, the one for afterwards.

Around them gamma ray bursts from a trillion stars formed a black hole so large one of the universes they were standing near was pulled in and birthed again in the form of a silver bird whose feathers were galactic seas.

Yes, said the herald, with the patience of an atom.

I was thinking maybe we could start an Institute.

Toward what end?

I would like to prove that God exists.

Have you been admitted to (for lack of a better word) His Presence?

What? Sure. We play dice with the fate of worlds. Tuesdays, usually.

No proof is needed.

It’s just, well, it’s one thing to know a thing. It’s quite another to prove it.

The herald considered the words of the jade figure as they silently watched a sun set over a heliotropic sea at the dawn of time and at its end (where the freeways meet in Alphaomegaville). Worlds were born and died in the change pocket of His cosmic pants, where I think people used to keep their pocket watches there, back when they had pocket watches. Or maybe that was in the future. Six of one, half a dozen of the other.

 

Lorca mounted the stairs to the altar with one of the chemtorches. He took off his jacket, laid it over his shoulders and buttoned the top button, to mimic a priest’s chasuble. As a child in Fuente Vaqueros, he would say Mass on top of a wall in the back garden, behind their house on the estate of Daimuz. It was there he also first practiced dying.

Slim, the sole relatively contemporaneous, more-or-less co-religionist, took a seat on an upturned bucket to watch. It had been some time since he had been to services.

As for Lorca, he had calmed down considerably. After all, half of him counted, after an initial period of being dead, on bathing in the light of an infinitely merciful and loving G-d for all eternity. The other half, considering his “proclivities,” which is what he considered them when he considered them in the way he’d been taught to by the “worst bourgeoisie in Spain,” expected a never-ending slow roast in an abysmal void, a void that nevertheless had some kind of a roasting apparatus in it. So, conducting Mass for a cowboy in a church besieged by zombies was not by far the worst thing that he had anticipated doing. Or the weirdest.

Lorca progressed through the steps of the Mass, as well as he could remember them,  a hymn, the Sign of the Cross, the Penitential Rite, the Kyrie, a prayer and the Collect, anything he could do without being a priest, and Slim responded when he knew the response. You couldn’t be theologically precious on the Llano Estacado and he’d worshipped with Mexicans and Pueblo Indians in Catholic churches as often as he’d polished the pew of a Protestant one.

As Lorca’s voice filled the ancient building with words unheard possibly in centuries there, the atmosphere lightened and buoyed the others at their tasks and posts. Stratsimir not as much, of course. He felt like his skeleton was trying to back out of his body.

Nimue stood upright in the nave, light flowing by invisible channels into her. The rays that lit her looked like they shone from another world, which they were. It was a morning light, the light of an early Spring dawn that flowed into her to the chant of the poet’s voice. Her eyes moved around beneath their half-closed lids, searching, searching…

 

She looked around. Doors were everywhere. A leaf, a stone. But they all dragged against her when she tried to push them open, like furniture had been piled up behind them. The Dead. The field they generated might not do much to the physical laws surrounding them, aside from the no-moving-around-when-you’re-dead one, but it played havoc with the metaphysical laws. Finally, after what felt like hours of fruitless and exhausting testing, but was, to the majority of the residents of the allegedly real world, only about a quarter of an hour, she found entry. The door positively flew open to her touch.

“Uh-oh,” she said, then disappeared.

In the church, Nimue gleamed, brighter and more golden as the Mass came to its end. “Ite,” said Lorca, “missa est.” Nimue flared and the light around her froze.

***

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

 

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