This is the thirteenth 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.
The juerga was starting to pick up speed as the night descended through the trees, followed by the warm, indistinct stars of a southern Spanish summer night. As the day became night, became less light, as the night grew darker, the juerga too shifted imperceptibly from light to dark, the standard Gypsy progression. The water turned to wine, the wine to sangria and someone added whisky. Alegrias, light and celebratory, was replaced by soleá and soleá by bulerias. Fandangos, tangos and the farruca followed and in time, if the spirit stilled in the midst of great noise, siguirillas. With enough alcohol, the rhumba would come and with enough time, the rondeñas, the mode of dawning and new beginnings.
A dancing ground had been stamped out in a circle between the two largest fires. Men and women danced, separately and together, and sang. Arms and hands swept into living arches and bowers, the dancers half-dryad in the breath of shadows. Hay que tener arte, they said, and you did, and they did. The lovely voices, the pretty steps, grew harsh and insistent, replaced by voices like broken glass and bloodstains and the stamping of animals going to water or free in relief on the crests of hills to be fixed on rock needles in hidden caves by those who remembered the opening of the veins that nourished the world.
The erstwhile crew of Tu Madre and that of the Madrugada forgot their enmity in the rhythms of the songs, poorly but sincerely joined. The exception was Dded, who evinced a remarkable talent for el baile. He turned inside a circle of one guitarist, two percussionists beating compás on the boxes they sat on, and two singers, an old man who sat on a short cane chair, his elbows out, palms on thighs, and a middle-aged woman who stood, chin up, one hand on her hip, the other presented to the sky, as though holding the moon on an outstretched palm, which you did and, so, she did.
As they played, beat and sang a spiritual acrostic of great complexity, the incontrovertible proof of the triumph of imagination over fact, of the soul over the data that would dissolve it, Dded danced, freed from the acrid chemicals of mere thought. He expressed the union of the compás and the melody, stamping little dirt clouds up into the firelight, snapping like whips the eight tentacles of his body. At one point he froze, casting a shadow from each fire, like two guitars joined at the base, corazón malherido por cinco espadas, or, in this case, diez. The Gypsies’ initial disbelief at the non-human members of the Madrugada’s crew soon faded, replaced by an investment in the undeniable duende the doctor knew and bodied forth. What was, was, after all. Humanos son humanos, and so were aliens.
Elsewhere, a clutch of black-clad crones took turns brushing Patches’ fur with an enameled brush. Normally doing something like that would be the quickest way to an unnecessary appendectomy, but Patches took it lying down. One young widow made it perfectly clear that her ministrations could easily go in a more intimate direction, which, frankly, grossed Patches out. He didn’t have any philosophical objection to that sort of thing—some of his best friends were hairless pink Twinkies—but viscerally the idea of getting it on with one of these enormous bald fetuses was stomach-churning. He was unable to completely disguise his reaction and she belted him across his face like she was trying to beat the dust out of a rug, then strode to the middle of the circle and sang like she tasted blood in her mouth, which would have been more accurate had it been Patches singing. The women scowled at him but the men laughed and slapped him on the back (when the women weren’t looking).
The night headed inexorably toward that point deepest in it, before the dawn began to make its presence felt in the dark, that moment called madrugada, the deepest, most profound midnight. The music slowed, deepened, formed a well into the unseen world, reflected the distant precision and import of the stars. Gabriel played and sang his best at madrugada, the time that harmonized with his soul; one guitar, one voice; one vow, one soul, one hundred men and women listening as one, minding the night, the night itself, the reverence of listening, the depth, the held breath. Siguirillas.
Tengo un caballo blanco
Que el caballo no quiere beber…
Dem stood just outside the firelight, leaning against the rough bark of a pine, shaded by is branches, watching. He felt content, his aspect a subtle play of bronze and gold. Off to his right stood Heino, a member of Tu Madre crew, passing a bottle back and forth with a short Gypsy. Heino’s eyes sprang open as a figure lurched out of the trees.
“Cinny! It’s you! We thought you were dead!” He turned to the fire and yelled. “Captain, it’s Cinny! We’d given you up for dead in the crash, mate. Should’ve known death was no match for an old space bandito like you, right? Take a drink!”
Cinny reached out, but, instead of taking the bottle, he grabbed ahold of Heino’s shoulder and pulled him toward him. He like he was kissing his neck. Well, you hear about things on space bandito ships and who was he to judge? But instead of a smooching noise, it sounded like a stubborn drumstick being twisted off a Christmas turkey. There was screaming and blood, though far more of the latter than the former. His Gypsy companion shouted and turned to run, but Cinny grabbed him and, with a mouth that opened far wider than any humanoid mouth Dem had seen, snapped off the top of the Gypsy’s skull.
The woods around them rippled as more figures lurched into the clearing. Dem ducked behind the pine and grabbed his flat-plasm. A wave of panic had flowed over the celebrants even before they knew what was happening. Dem lit up the north side of the clearing, letting off as many bursts as he could in the half a minute he had before the press of what he now realized were the Dead, forced him back.
He cut one last walking corpse in half and fled before the onslaught of what sounded like a herd of kittens gamboling through dry leaves. Eyeless, semi-skeletal kittens that stank like a backed up toilet at a Turkish truck stop.
“Open the hatch!” he yelled at Patches. Patches leapt up, fur on end. “Open up the hatch! We’re being attacked.” Patches sniffed the air, slips curling back as he unconsciously employed his Jacobson analyzer. The camp had gone mad. Most of the Gypsies and the crew had gotten out of the way of the wall of Dead but the few who hadn’t were landed in the supernatural equivalent of a prison barbeque.
In a flash of gray, Patches rocketed halfway up a tree and howled like the entire population of a popular preschool being fed into a wood chipper. There weren’t many people in the clearing who weren’t looking at him, and that included, to his discomfort, most of the Dead.
“Everyone into the ship! Line up at the hatch!”
Dem had sprinted toward the Madrugada, twisting his transceiver as he ran and phasing out of normal space. Patches did the same, converging invisibly on the ship.
Ormaetxea was a fighter. So was Dr. Ddededd Ll, though an unwilling and panicky one. With the help of Tu Madre’s remaining crew they formed a barrier between the Gypsies and the Dead. Nothing matched the sight of Dded whirligigging through a knot of walking corpses, rocks in six of his eight tentacles, spinning like a runaway firework during Antialian New Year Celebration on Sextans A; unless it was José Maria Ormaetxea-Ametxazurra, Captain of the late, great, space bandito ship Tu Madre and undisputed Thief-Lord of the Sculptor Void, with his head thrown back, roaring with laughter and fizzing the heads off of one animated corpse after another with his gamma pistols.
Behind him he felt more than heard the hatch lower and the people behind him back their frightened way into the Madrugada’s hold. He, his remaining crew and Dded fell back. Right before the hatch one of the Dead, a near-skeleton in rotted silks struck like a snake, grabbing his booted ankle and tearing open a furrow in boot with its fleshless fingers. Patches stepped forward and took the thing’s head off with six three-inch claws and pulled Ormaetxea back into the hatch. Dded punched the emergency close and the door guillotined the head, left shoulder and arm off the corpse of a recently-dead shopkeeper trying to climb over the threshold. A moan of wordless frustration issued from the Dead without.
“Oh, and Ormaetxea…” Dem began, looking down at the space bandito’s guns.
“Don’t insult me by saying it,” he said, as Dded shook a tentacle at him. Dem didn’t. Dded squatted down and pried a flap of his boot aside.
“No breakage,“ he said. Ormaetxea exhaled in relief.
The bells of Santa María rung, for the first time in centuries, breaking up the madrugada. Ghost bells rang out discordantly, through the very stone of the old church, jumbling the dark in blocks and tumbling them down the slope of the night, freezing the blood of the Santa María’s defenders. Then, an iron bar bounced out of the bell tower stairwell and skidded to a stop by Stratsimir’s boot.
“Sorry!” cried Stanislaus, his voice following the path of the bar down the stairway. “Didn’t see it ‘til I kicked it!”
Then the first wave of Dead struck the walls of the church. They splashed like a wave of burning kerosene, granulated by impalpable winds that blew from that place they had occupied before they were loosed on this world.
The impact stunned them, the flash jarred them like fillings biting tinfoil. Pools of mercury blossomed in their vision, then receded.
It looked like the back side of a black hole. Out of a simple arch streamed a constant progression of people, swords, lintels, waterfalls, cattle, sunlight, carts, sheet metal, clouds, beetles with iridescent wings, streets, song lyrics, looms, marble, kittens and things of that nature. They were stretched as they emerged from the dirty tufa blocks as though from a singularity, silently boinging back into shape as they cleared the arch and flowed out into the world to settle into place.
As Nimue watched from a hilltop several miles away, another hill floated into place, a building block for a ring of hills surrounding a shallow valley. She kneeled, raising Caledfwlch out of the way, and scooped up a handful of gravelly, gray soil. She turned toward the sun, squinted, and let it pour slowly and dustily out of her hand.
“Well,” she said, standing again and slapping the dust off her palm. “Well, shit.”
“What are they doing?” said Weekiebye, squinting into the darkness. He, the captain and Mona stood with Stanislaus on the bell tower.
“There are fewer of them than there were before,’ said Stan.
“Well, a lot of them got flash-fried on the church,” Slim suggested.
“No,” said Stanislaus. “Afterwards, after they began to form up again across the plaza, opposite the door. The majority of them are back in the alleys.”
“I wonder why they’re doing that,” said the captain. “Trying to get more room for a charge? They saw what happened last time.”
“I was thinking about that, sir,” said Stanislaus. Stratsimir nodded for him to go on. “The door is the church’s weakest point, of course. Not just structurally. Portals have a quality that other places don’t. I heard Nimue talking about that. They can open to places that are hard to get to and, physically or metaphysically, they’re always a little bit open.”
Stan hesitated, but Stratsimir nodded for him to continue.
“If they’re going to assault the place, then, they’ll do it through the door, like a battering ram made of their bodies. Maybe they’re hoping that if they get enough of them at the door quick enough, their own field will overcome the barrier that surrounds the church and burst the bonds, spiritual as well as physical, that are currently keeping us safe.”
“Well,” said Stratsimir. “Well, shit.”
On the rise opposite, Nimue saw a small building, like a Greek temple. The light was subtle that lit it, but pure, the purest light she could see in this Constructed space. Hijacked True-light, like the light of Fäerie. But alloyed with made-light in a way that allowed it to Construct space. That was “”Coldfire. That’s where he’ll be, she thought.
Well, of course it was he. Why hadn’t she spotted it before? Well, she was powerful, but he had been at it for far longer than she. He could hardly have taught her otherwise. But he had taught her. And she had learned.
She tightened her sword-belt. Then she got mad.
A faery with her rage on is a site to see, more devil than angel. Nimue’s face advertised the change, shifting, getting bleaker, ears and teeth lengthening and mouth tightening into something that could be called a “smile” in roughly the same way that Big Daddy Don Garlits’s Swamp Rat could be called a “horseless carriage.”
“Wait’ll he gets a load of me.”
Slim and Weekiebye perched on the roof above the porch, peering over. Beside them were ranks and piles of roof tiles, rocks, broken stone, chemlights, bottles with wicks of rag soaked in the disinfectant from the medkit, Weekiebye’s charge-gonne and both of Slim’s Peacemakers.
Energy weapons seemed to be less reliable in this strange field the Dead generated than the projectile ones. The charge-gonne, firing small photic charges, seemed to work better than most. That was because charge-gonnes, in a nice expression of quantum mechanics, temporarily answered the age-old question, “Is light a wave or a particle?“ A particle, thanks for asking. Or rather, a wad of them, that really smarted when they hit. (Let “smarted” stand for “blew a limb off.”)
If the Dead hoped to bridge the church’s barrier with a critical mass, to short out its protection by a concentration of their own field, then Slim and Weekie would make sure that mass never reached critical.
Ormaetxea stomped a great booted foot on the deck, which vibrated through the walls of the hold like the dinner bell on an ocean liner.
“Compadre mio,” he said to Dem, his nerves visibly fraying, “you must let us out of the hold. We cannot help you here.”
“You can guard the hold,” he replied. A squishy scrabbling came from the direction of the hold’s outer hatch.
“That takes four crew at most! Meanwhile, as your cat person tells you, these Dead are mounting to the bridge window.”
“The shield on that is eight inches thick,” said Dem. “They’ll never make it through.” In truth, they had already formed a lattice of bodies to the window and had succeeded in wrenching one corner of the shield off its runners.
“The array is also a weak spot,” said the erstwhile captain. “So is the shuttle craft docking ring.”
“Yes, we remember,” said Dded sullenly. He had poked his head upside down into the hold from above, clinging to the ladder. He had not forgiven the crew of Tu Madre for escaping on his watch.
“I have given you my word,” said Ormaetxea. “I will not break it. I will now also give you my oath, a blood oath.” He accepted Gabriel’s knife, flicked it open and cut the ball of his hand. He squeezed and the blood dripped out onto the deck. From outside, the howl of the Dead rose in violence like a storm. One of the Gypsy girls fainted as Dem turned sable in waves.
“There is something, I hesitate to say it. Intelligent about these corpses,” said Ormaetxea. He had covered Dem’s two biggest concerns. The Dead were acting, for lack of a better term, intelligently, moving less like a herd of animals and more like a computer program. And the ship, designed to withstand gamma pulses of >2×10-14, was not impervious to the apparently inexhaustible stream of Dead willing to sacrifice hands, elbow and heels to tear it apart. The Madrugada was a mountain, but the Dead were wind and rain.
Dem thought, sinking to a resigned deep blue.
“You’re under my command.”
“Of course,” said the captain with an extra degree of unctuousness and a nauseating puff of extra machismo to balance it out.
“You blink funny, any of you, and we kill you without a second thought.”
Dem made his dispositions. The bridge and shuttle port were the most vulnerable. Half a dozen of Tu Madre crew mixed with Gypsies, who had insisted, including the women, on being part of the defenses, were left to guard the hold. They moved the old women, nursing mothers and young children up into Patches’ heavily reinforced work room.
Dem, Dded, Patches, Ormaetxea, Snooshbangtrough and Ratón held a war council in the ready room off the bridge. Three-quarters of an hour and dozens of ideas later, they had a plan. The most obvious idea, moving the ship, was also the first disregarded. Not only were there far too many soldiers about, according to Ratón they had increased fourfold in the previous days, but so many dead were massed around the port intake that Patches feared they’d form a great plug the instant the intakes were opened, choking off the engines and carbonizing the filters.
In the end, they decided to polarize, depolarize and repolarize the hull for several hundred cycles. It would have the effect of a mortar and pestle for any of the Dead within a dozen feet of the hull and it could be kept up for half an hour without significantly draining energy or attracting attention.
They stood up as one and Dem passed his hand over the actuator that allowed the light to pass through the wall. The war council stood glancing down at the Dead. The lower running lights had been switched on to allow them to keep an eye on the movement around the ship. Twenty feet out from the hold they saw a dozen of the animate corpses on their hands and knees—those that had them—peering at something.
“What do you suppose is going on there?” asked Dem.
Ormaetxea shrugged. “Probably found a hapless rodent.”
“I don’t think so. There’s something glinting there. Patches, you’ve got the best eyes. What do you see?” The engineer peered down at the shuffling, muttering circle of Dead. His fur stood up.
“Does everyone have their transceivers?” He swore, pawing at his belt breathlessly and coming up with his. Dem patted his wrist and nodded. They looked at Dded, who was wriggling about patting the pockets of his medical smock and raising each of his eight tentacles in turn. He began to squeak and clap his beak.
Below, the circle of Dead followed one of their number, a near-skeleton in a mouldering wrap that might have once been a toga, as he rose and lurched in the direction of the hold door.
“Surely they could not figure out how to use it!” objected Ormaetxea. “This ‘intelligence’ they have could not be that specific.” They stood still in a moment of thoughtful silence, like the wave of a tsunami sucking backward from the beach. They burst from the ready room, Ormaetxea and Snooshbangtrough pounding through the bridge in the direction of the hold, Ratón following, intent on the men who held the port. Dded propelled himself down the hatch behind the bridge to warn those who guarded the children and elderly and Patches ran in great sinuous leaps for the engine room and intake access. Dem stood station on the bridge, which was manned by Sofia and Spilf of Tu Madre’s crew.
Lorca had found a stick of wood and used it as a cane as he paced slowly up and back in the side aisle beneath the east windows. He walked past the dry baptismal font to the end of the nave, turned on his heel and walked back toward the choir, his footfall momentarily hollow as it trod the sealed well head just beyond the transept. Outside, the wind-blown branches scrabbled against the rough stones of the church. No other sounds penetrated the thick walls. The Dead still stood where they had massed, across the plaza, swaying but making no sound.
The Dead charged.
The thunder of their approach was punctuated by the moaning and crying of a hundred malfunctioning tongues and a hundred perforated lungs. The instant the first phalanx hit the doors, it exploded in blue motes as the corpses burned apart in a flash on the sanctified field of the building. Another came, and another after that, moving at surprising speed. With each successive wave, body parts, those sections of the corpses not atomized completely, built up on the lintel and steps.
A ramp built up of the formerly Dead and the remaining Dead strengthened the field that countervailed the church’s. Mona, looking out the wicket saw the progress and tried to retard it with the occasional blast from her flat-plasm, which actually fired only half the time she pulled the trigger, at best. On the bell tower, Stanislaus took potshots at the van with Slim’s Winchester. Slim and Weekiebye traded shots, Slim with his remaining Peacemaker and Weekiebye with his hand charge-gonne, on which he’d turned the gain up to a dangerous level, allowing the shots to flare wickedly and take out up to a half-dozen at a time. They dumped the occasional load of scrap stone and tiles straight down onto the porch. It slowed things, but it didn’t stop them.
A single figure stepped out of the alleyway and walked into the plaza. The dust of the Dead gave the stones the dim cast of a decomposing swamp. The black figure was distinguishable only by the glint of a silver chain around his neck. He stopped dead center of the plaza.
“Stratsimir,” it said. “I wish to talk.”
Out of nowhere the captain appeared next to Weekiebye and Slim.
“I am here,” he said.
“I have no quarrel with you, Captain,” said the figure in a voice that sounded like it came from long distances and was whispered in his ear at the same time. A familiar voice, but not a normal one. It seemed to be coming from close by and at a great remove simultaneously. “Surrender the book and we will leave you in peace.”
Stratsimir peered closely at the figure. His sight was infinitely superior to that of normal men, especially at night. But something kept him from easily focusing on the speaker. His eyes hurt when he forced them to do so, silver spots swam on their surface, but he succeeded.
It’s hard to surprise a 500-year-old vampire, even more so one who was technically significantly older before he had been forced backward in time. Evidently, however, it was not impossible to do so.
“Crown Prince. Well. I’m distressed to see you so far from the safety of the ship. In such unsavory company. I doubt your father would approve.”
The Crown Prince laughed a brief bitter laugh that echoed like a snatch of throat singer’s phased harmony.
“Don’t worry on my account, Captain,” said the Crown Prince. “I am quite safe. You’re not. Throw down the book.”
“I’ll not assist you in your insane efforts to help the Order.”
“The Order?” The Crown Prince barked another hard laugh. “The Order are fools and I was, briefly, a bigger one for thinking them powerful. The Order are enemies of life. I realize that now. I have found…knowledge that I lacked before. Now my goal is the same as yours, to fix the form of being, for the first time in millennia. I can’t see how you could object to that.”
“Then why not leave us to go about doing that unimpeded? Come back with us.” How was this boob controlling the Dead? thought Stratsimir. It tested the limits of belief, even in this unprecedented situation.
“I have knowledge that you do not, thanks to my new confederate. In my hands, the book cannot go astray. I know the form you seek to fix as you cannot,” he said, audibly capitalizing. “There was a single form that the world was always supposed to be fixed to, did you know that?”
The Dead rustled in their rotting clothes.
”That form has a name.
A wave crested, rolled through the listeners, living and Dead alike. It struck Stratsimir like the initial rush of cold hits the walker on a frozen lake when the ice gives way and he falls. And the Dead came on.
“You’re going to have to raise the ship!” roared Ormaetxea. “The Dead have taken half the lower deck. Snooshbangtrough, Pilós and Antonio’s men are holding them at the engine room. But delay and they’ll have us.”
“The field these dead things make is already interfering with the charge in the magnetoplasmic engines,” said Patches. “If we’re going to act on his suggestion, we have to go now.”
“Damnation!” Dem cried under his breath. He was black as sable. “Light it up! Light it up! We’ll go up to the ionosphere and blow the hatches.”
Patches lit the board at the engineering station a swipe of his paw. The magnetics passed through the ship like a warm wave. The ship juddered slightly, slipping sideways by microns and then engine disengaged.
“Dded!” said Patches into his can. “Are you in my workshop?”
Dded had stayed in the workroom, guarding the new mothers, the elderly and children.
“I’m here. I felt the engine. What do you want me to do?”
Patches smiled, quite a sight to see in a five foot-tall cat. His old friend was always braver than he thought he was. He just hoped he wouldn’t have cause to become an out-and-out hero. There’d be no living with him.
“I need you to purge the initiator so we can do a passive recharge. It’s the blue box on top of the magnetoplasmic chambers. If you take off the vent face you can get there without opening the doors”
The doctor pried off the plate that covered the vent in the workroom and clambered through the passage, dropping out into the cylinder chamber. He skittered down the cylinders to the far end where the translucent blue box perched in its wire housing. He’d seen Patches bleed the charge before. The silver and glass shaft was jointed into the floor below. He lifted it by the rubber grip and slotted it into place. The chamber filled with a net of tinsel from the draining charge, which fluttered then died away. The initiator was colorless. The charge had bled off.
Dded lowered the grounding shaft and made for the vent, the initiator already bluing by the time he scrambled out.
On the bridge Patches cleared the buffers for another start. The ship hummed to life and Dem allowed himself a grim smile of relief.
“Take us up, please, Sofia.”
With the Madrugada airborne they could hardly cycle through a hull repolarization. But Patches’ restart automatically resealed the hold door and they sprayed the clearing below with the pieces of the Dead who hadn’t cleared the entrance.
The Madrugada cleared the treetops and rose slowly at first, shedding the few Dead who clung somehow to the hull as it gained speed on its way through the mesosphere. There’d be a few nasty surprises below for late-night travelers.
Patches repressurized the cabin as they rose. This had the crew working jaws and jaw-like bits to equalize their sinuses, or sinus-like cavities. (It was a multicultural group.) A few of the recent Dead that Ratón’s crew were holding at bay by the computer core actually exploded from the neck up as the sudden increase in pressure traumatized them.
They could see the glassy black curve of space as they passed through the exobase. Dem was going to run all the way out to 10,000 KM at maximum speed on the magplasms, pull back hard, blast the doors, and reseal and repressurize again before they crossed back into the ionosphere. Everyone would black out but him—his species had an extreme tolerance, one of the reasons they made such exceptional pilots—but he’d have them conscious seconds afterward if nothing went wrong. Well, the alternative was unacceptable. He looked at Patches. Patches passed his paw over the com actuator.
“Everyone is going to need to hang on. Tight.”
The Dead continued to assault the front doors of the church and the defenders continued to break each phalanx apart as violently as they could, deflecting its force and burning up as many of the fallen corpses as they could. Lorca completed another circuit, feeling completely useless. He waved his makeshift cane back and forth like a child with a make-believe sword chopping off the heads of blowing weeds in a field. He walked back toward the front of the church again, slowly, evenly, gripping the pistol tightly in his hand. Passing, he stepped on the well again, making a dull clunk in passing. He stopped short.
The Dead boiled out of the sealed well like popcorn bursting from a foil pouch. The cured wooden wellhead split around the rivets that held it in place and the pulped corpses of the Dead at the head of the line were expelled violently from the shaft below, followed by the more-intact of their fellows.
What came to the fore at that point was every mean-spirited little brutality of the spirit the poet had ever endured, every crass insult about his “inversion,” every schoolyard push-down, every feeling of sterility and irrelevance amplified by the abuse of former friends, not to mention the latest expression of the world’s contempt, his attempted murder by men he would have made himself invite into his parlor out of a sense of duty and openness, despite the fact they made his skin crawl, and his absolute panic at the fact that, well, dead people were launching themselves out of a hole in the ground. Every repressed rage at every one of the many slights and abuses that had been targeted against him during his life came to a head.
It’s safe to say that no single man, much-less a slightly-built “sissy” looking into the bright lights of a fast approaching middle age had ever separated so many zombie heads from so many zombie bodies in such a short period of time before or since. He fired the Browning until it jammed. Then he used it as a club, then he discarded it and used his hands. Well. It was a sight to see.
Wordlessly, Stratsimir all but flew from the front of the church to the altar, where he seized its broken stone deck and walked it to the well head. He dropped it onto the opening, and the figures trying to wriggle out of it, with a fatal and squishy boom that echoed through the nave. He and Mona piled on bits of stone and broken pews until it stopped moving and the scrabbling beneath it stilled.
Lorca stood clutching the splintered wood, heaving with labored breaths. He looked like a woodsman who’d stood out on a mountain during a snowstorm, but instead of being covered with pure white flakes, he was mounded with a nauseating shower of gray flesh and a paprika of crystallized blood. He promptly vomited into the corner.
The front door of the church shuddered with the boom of dead fists. The bridge of the Dead was a ramp of corpses and the protection of the place was compromised. Few of the Dead from the well had even sparked when they entered the place.
“We’re going to have to figure a way out of here, Johnny.”
When the doors of the Madrugada blew, everyone—well, everyone living—had been strapped, wedged or scissored into or onto something that would keep them from rushing out into the icy cold of outer space. The atmosphere vented from the hold bay and two ventral exhaust shafts. Bits of unfastened equipment, paper and even a shoe flew down the corridor, chasing the Dead and parts of the Dead.
Ratón discovered one of the most unpleasant, and uncommon, sensations a human being can feel, that of being wedged, feet first, into a writhing mass of animate corpses. They had piled up in the 90-degree turn of a corridor, building up like lint from a dryer vent. Hands, fleshed and skeletal, clawed at him. He grabbed a door handle and pulled himself free, stamping back savagely with his wooden-heeled, maroon leather flamenco boots, splitting faces and snapping off dry arms. He succeeded in wedging his upper arm deep into the space between the handle and door before he passed out.
Dem had the doors sealed and the atmosphere repressurized in a matter of seconds. Gypsies and crewmen picked themselves off of decks and unstrapped themselves from seats and doors. There were no casualties except for a few broken limbs, including Ratón’s arm, though bloody noses were general over the whole of the ship. A quick survey allowed Dded to determine no one had suffered worse.
Dded was chatting with a small group of women and children milling about outside the computer core when Dded first noticed the first stragglers. “To the bridge!“ he hissed to them. A handful of crushed but still ambulatory Dead had gotten tangled in the webbing in the cargo hold. Once the doors were sealed they immediately set off again, drawn by the smell of blood and compelled by whatever intelligence directed their efforts. This one was pulling himself down the hallway toward the computer. Others crawled around the corner behind him.
Dded slapped the intruder siren with one tentacle and began pulling corpses off the ground by the neck and throwing them back down the corridor. With others he grabbed and dashed the moving bodies head-first into bulkheads until they stopped moving.
Manolín passed by the adjacent corridor. He was herding another group of refugees quickly toward the bow, shoving them bodily up the ladder into the corridor that ran between crew cabins to the bridge. He hesitated for a moment but the doctor waved him on.
Dded brought up the rear
Left to themselves, the Dead lurch. But born forward by something they propelled themselves unnaturally, and quickly, in a liquefaction of limbs pushed beyond mere mechanical function. And so the Dead on the Madrugada moved. Dded stood between them and the bridge, where the civilians had been brought. He tossed and pounded, but there were more than he had thought and he leapt backward, clearing the heavy security door when Sofia pounded the emergency lock-off and the door shot into its slot in the floor.
Dded had barely time to pick himself off the floor when the first booms filled the bridge.
It wasn’t longer before the door began denting inward opposite where unfeeling hands and other appendages struck with a force beyond what they were capable of in nature. The constant booming had the unnerving quality of jungle drums heard from inside the fort (or martial snares rattling inside, depending on your point of view). The nerveless pounding began to tell on the door. It bent inward, then creased, buckling enough that one of the Dead were able to force a shoulder and arm in. You notice odd things, small things sometimes, during moments of extreme stress. Dem noticed the hand was wearing a wide gold ring with inset diamonds in a monogrammed T.
The mixed crew compliment on the bridge formed wordlessly into a half-circle, penning in the civilians behind them and facing the oncoming Dead. Patches, Manolín, Spilf, Dded, Sofia and Dem stood, shoulder to shoulder to wiggly bit, teeth and beak gritted, hard-eyed. The breach in the door increased, centimeter by centimeter until more arms, and remnants of arms, were forced in and the pressure of Dead on Dead built. Much the same thing was happening in the storeroom outside the hold, where Ratón and his men were holding off the last of the Dead to extract themselves from the netting.
The pressure increased of a sudden, as the Dead could smell the blood on the bridge. A sickening fountain of liquid from the more recent and putrid fountained into the room. Then, with an awful squeal, the door flew from its hinges, shooting the crushed Dead forward into the bridge and setting the more intact scrambling over their remains.
The defenders blasted away at them, but only one weapon in two, then one in three, then none, fired. The field the massed Dead brought with them had shorted out the weapons. They shifted to blades instead and flipped guns to grab them by the barrel and wield them as clubs. The nearest, a near-skeleton in the rotting remains of a saffron turban, lunged, grabbing one of Dded’s tentacles in his clawlike hand.
With a great suddenness, more abrupt and permanent than any mortal death, the Dead fell. They were instantly dead. In the blink of an eye, they were things again. No hanged man ever dropped so fast. It was like the strings on an entire puppet show were severed at once.
The crew were speechless.
Stanislaus was the first off the roof of the church and into the midst of the Dead. The dampening effect of the Dead on his ability to change shape meant he had to close his eyes and picture a long string of images in his mind before leaping. When he did, he gave the most complete and deadly pantomime of ferocious predators anyone this side of the Lovinger String had ever seen. He opened up a space around him, goring, slashing, clubbing and hurling the Dead. They tried to bite him. They succeeded. He was in the form of a Hysh, a great horned bear, and he felt the change, the lightness, the unconcern, the desire for the warm, bright net of life inside the church. But the field didn’t hold for that form either and as he changed, the effect fell away.
On either side of him, Slim and Weekiebye unloaded the rest of their sharp slates, clay half-pipe tiles and stones, taking care to keep far enough away that Stan’s changes wouldn’t move him under the stream of deadly missiles. Finally the store of ammunition was gone. The guns didn’t function. They looked at one another. Slim drew his Bowie knife, Weekiebye his poniard and rapier. They smiled. They jumped.
Inside the church the assault on the doors was redoubled. The old oak slabs splintered. One sheared loose from the top hinge and hung in. Another great crash and the door flew in, more Dead joining the ingress as much to get away from the mad shape changer and his two bloody-minded accomplices as to obey their hidden dictate.
The Dead broke on the floor of the nave like a wave. Mona, Lorca and Stratsimir flew toward them, Mona whirling her broadsword over her head in a berserker rage, Stratsimir drawing his cinqueada from his boot and Lorca, hair hanging down in his face, with a stick of blood-soaked wood the equal of any executioner’s axe.
The Dead fell still, dead utterly, in a soft patter and click of collapsing bodies. Stanislaus pitched headlong, swiping at an enemy that an instant before had been trying to tear out his throat and was now glassy-eyed and nothing. None had been as dead as these.
Nimue stood before him in her true form, a sheet of white flame, blown by a secret wind. So were the Created worlds were brought into being, by such a bellows-born fire that softened and alloyed. But such was her true form also that it partook of the dust that anchored the Created worlds but which was absent totally in this place.
For Constructed space was not Created space. It was a simulacrum. A sterile perfection of form and idea, unchanging, outside of the main story of being. Not an obscenity, but a fault, a weakness along which the universe was bound to slip, break apart, collapse in on itself. made elements were designed to thread throughout the Created worlds, reinforcing them. It was up to the independent actions of the Created beings of the worlds to do this kind of making, to give the universe its final form, one reflecting their needs and wants, their song in solid rock, to reflect that which even the creator could not have thought of. But this was an intrusion, too much pure made space acted not as a binding agent, but as a wedge.
The story has not been told, thought Nimue. And this was foundational thought. As full of wonder, as admirable in a way that this made place might be, it was made to be resolved. It was destined since before that which was not time nor the absence of time appeared, to be a subplot, an X in the sub-equation, and, as it had taken on such import, taken a role greater than could be resolved in the normal course of affairs, it would fall to her to do it.
The Glyphomancer, she now knew, was the most powerful descendant of the original fixers. He is to be honored and so, she did deep obeisance. But he was not be go forward. Not now. If he was not a perversion, exactly, neither was he proportionate, neither could he be allowed to ruin all Created worlds in pursuit of his own vision of resonating forms. One hundred billion billions of stars ending before they were born. No, it could not be allowed, though it saddened her to know she would end it. And him. She knew him now. She had not always done right by him. That realization would be hers to bear.
It touched him that she remembered him and honored him and he honored her in return, seeing in her the reflected light of old , the light that was to end with him. She bowed. He bowed. They fell to.
Seen by mortal eyes from the Created worlds, their struggle would seem like new stars birthing and dying, great cosmic blossoms unfolding one from another at dizzying speed. From the ridge overlooking the city the Glyphomancer had made, it would seem to be the clash of principalities and powers, wrapped in a mantle of cloud and fire. From the edge of the universe, to two beings of unlimited mind, astride a rushing torrent of stars, it would sound like a song of crushing but beautiful loneliness and feel like mathematics. The hands of the jade warrior and the golden herald reached out and found each other and clasped each other tenderly, with compassion for the beings they watched.
Within the cloud, it looked like nothing so grand. Nimue and the Glyphomancer sat in large, blocky chairs, facing each other on the same side of a long wooden table. The room they were in was like the banqueting hall of a medieval castle, but instead of blocks of dim rock, it seemed to be made from a semi-transparent stone cut in blocks large enough for a pyramid, glowing with the milky white semi-translucence of moonstone.
A large window had been cut out of the east wall and looked out over the valley, the city spilling down it to the south. It was a very beautiful aspect.
“Would you care for tea?” asked the Glyphomancer.
“Certainly, thank you,” said Nimue.
“I have Earl Grey ‘Blue’ and rooibos or ‘bush tea.’”
“Does the rooibos have caffeine?” she asked.
“I don’t think so.”
“The Earl Grey, then, thank you.”
The Glyphomancer was a tall, powerful man of middle age and dressed neatly, rather like a stylish clerk or a 19th century stage illusionist, in dark trousers, lace-up shoes, and a damasked vest over an open-throated and collarless white shirt. A sense of competent power, power at ease, at rest, potential in every move, pervaded him.
He walked to the door and took a flared tube out of the forked brass fitting where it rested and whistled into it. Moments later a young man, dressed similarly to the Glyphomancer but wearing a liveried singlet, complete with the Coldfire glyph, rolled in a tea cart. The cups and teapot were figured in gold with the same glyph. He served the tea and retired. Nimue smiled as she noticed that one of the cart’s tiny tires wobbled very slightly. Nice touch, she thought.
They drank in an easy silence for several minutes, watching the infrequent clouds drift by in the sky outside.
No birds. There are no birds here, thought Nimue, at least not yet.
Nimue was refreshed by the tea, glad of the gentle stimulant. It was good tea and the extra bergamot was subtly aromatic. She set her cup back in its saucer and pushed it back.
“Look,” she said. “We have to talk.” She sighed and he froze, his tea cup halfway to his mouth. “Look…you’re a great guy and everything, but…”
“What? I thought…I thought, despite your actions in the other of my made spaces, I thought we were great. I mean, I thought we believed the same things, had the same goals.” He set his cup down abruptly.
“It’s not you,” she said, lamely. “It’s me. My allegiance is elsewhere. I admire what you‘re doing but this make-believe world is unbalancing the Created ones. And the Dead! This can‘t go on.”
“Why be so cruel?” he asked. “Why be so precipitate? Let me just show you what I’m doing. If you still want to…If you still…Well, just see it first, OK? See the new fire of before you condemn what I’ve made.”
He had the horrifyingly matter-of-fact barbarity of a damaged idiot child pulling wings off flies. The most sympathetic thing she could do would be to chop his head off his body, but she was kind-hearted to a fault. She was stuck. Well, also, she shared some blame.
“Sure,” she said. She would go see the hijacked mysteries of the old magician, she would see his forge.
He rose and held out a hand. She followed him down a series of corridors. The moonstone gave way, as they descended, to sapphire. As they went down the temperature dropped. They passed groups of men and individuals, all in the livery of the tea man, all resembling him. They went down a great set of steps, across a court with an apparent skylight where bright daylight planets traced great arcs in a complex dance across the convex surface of the glass.
Finally the last broad corridor ended at an ebony door. In the middle of each leaf, in figured silver, hung the Coldfire glyph. Two more servants moved the apparently massive door soundlessly inward until the great leaves met the inside walls with a boom. The room, dark as obsidian, was lit occasionally by lights cleverly hidden within the stone of the floor. They described a path straight through the monumental space to an oval arch. As they walked toward it, Nimue made out the shape of a stone altar glowing dimly blue, like lit gasses. The arch beyond let out on a view of a nighttime sky, bright with powdered stars and overlooking a blasted moonscape, clearly not the made world they walked in.
“Here is the engine of the unchanging world,” he said, indicating the altar. “The forge for making worlds. I would never have discovered how to use it, were it not for you.”
She followed him up the steps. Set within the altar’s surface like a well was the forge. It was open to a great depth and the depth was lit with the deepest blue she’d ever seen. It was not one blue, but all blues. It was the edge of space seen from the top of a mountain, the deep lake, the gemstone, the heart of a star, of all stars. But strangest of all was what it contained, a man, of middle age, with overgrown hair and beard streaked with grey, a man clad in a toga and cloak, like a sacrifice in a sacred pool, frozen forever in the shifting blue facets of crystal.
To look into it was to fall, gladly, into the depth of a constantly reforming crystal. Surely the chaos of the Created worlds was an abomination, one the new made worlds would efface. The Created worlds were vulgar.
The part of her never in Faërie, the human, mortal, skeptical part that needed to touch a thing to call it real, laughed at the foolishness of the thought, the gullibility. The laughter broke the spell. The Glyphomancer glanced at her sharply, and grabbed her by the throat.
“I’m sorry we couldn’t work things out,“ he said.
“Myrddin,“ she gasped as her windpipe closed. “My love,“ she thought, “I am sorry.“
As smoothly as parting water, Nimue, her face purpling, drew Caledfwlch and thrust it upward into the Glyphomancers body. He gasped and lost his grip on her neck. Sigils, symbols and glyphs swirled around the blade.
“Of course!” she exclaimed. “You are made as well. Well. I will unmake you.”
He gripped the blade and began to force it sideways, through his made flesh, which reformed behind it.
“My body is safe,” he said, “gesturing to the figure within the forge, “awaiting the end of the work. It will enter into made space at a ceremony I am sorry to say you will not be attending. Slowly, I will remake even it, as I would have remade yours, until all is made, all is unchanging, all is super-awesome. You were to be the queen to my king in a perfect kingdom. But, I‘m all like whatever.”
She shuddered and gripped the hilt of her sword. She closed her eyes for an instant to steel herself, then flung herself backward over the lip of the forge. The blade rested, teetering on the edge, she hanging down inside it, over the cold star that powered it, and he struggling to free it from his chest, his feet slightly off the floor.
She planted her feet below the forge’s lip and straightened her legs with all the force she could muster, twisting her body as she did so. She said a wordless prayer when she realized she could not lever him over while securing a grip for herself. She twisted again and bore down on the blade, raising the Glyphomancer on the fulcrum of the altar’s edge. He wriggled comically in an attempt to free the blade from the last half-foot of his breast before they both pitched down into the shifting blues of the cosmic engine. He flailed, clawing at the walls. She crossed her hands over her chest and closed her eyes. As they met the heart of the Coldfire, their bodies flashed turquoise and crystal and were no more.
She woke with a gasp. She jumped to her feet and immediately collapsed, lashing out blindly at the arms that sought to bind her.
“Calm down, Nimue,” said a voice. “It’s me. It’s alright. It’s us.” She lay in Lorca’s arms on the floor of the church. Mona and Stratsimir leaned down, looking into her face. All around them, the Dead lay dead. She drew Caledfwlch several inches from its scabbard. An oily bluishness played across the blade, but it was whole. She leaned back into her new friend’s arms.
“You alright, Nimue?” asked Mona. Nimue nodded.
“Pack up!” yelled Stratsimir. “Time to go home.”
Public domain photo of Juan Brava and Paco Lucena via Wikimedia Commons