• THE LEGEND OF SANTAVELA

  • Chapter 1 - Welcome to Basuk

  • Darkness.
  •  
  • "Okay sweetie, keep your eyes closed, eh? No cheating -you're gonna love this!"
  •  
  • She giggled at the sound of his voice -and the the two sounds couldn't really be any more different nor in greater harmony.
  •  
  • His was a raspy old ship horn, merry at the home port.
  •  
  • "Okay daddy!"
  •  
  • Hers was a fairy's flute; full of youth and unconcealed joy.
  •  
  • She peeked though -just a little; enough to identify the "View-Master" toy being set in front of her eyes...
  •  
  • "Marysol!"
  •  
  • It was mock-anger of course, and was promptly rewarded with another delicious giggle.
  •  
  • She could hear the voices of other children too -laughter and excited screaming, games of tag and silly songs. Somewhere nearby, Ocho, the dog, was barking at his heart's content.
  •  
  • "Now just slide this here... like this. Okay... now turn this way -you gotta face the light sweetie, yes, like that. Okay. Okay, set? Set! Open!"
  •  
  • And the vision of a beautiful sunny day filled her eyes: a green park, blue sky, rolling fields. There were children playing too -frozen in time, smiles on their faces.
  •  
  • Someone somewhere started to strum a slow tune on a guitar.
  •  
  • She gasped - "Oh my Gosh! Daddy, it's beautiful!!
  •  
  • "Now pull the lever... like this..."
  •  
  • Osmar switched to the next slide in the "View-Master": a dog catching a frisbee, mid-air. In the distance, a roller-coaster and Ferris-wheel could be seen, too.
  •  
  • "Oh daddy, I love it! Thank you -this is the best birthday gift ever!!"
  •  
  • She drank every slide in the "View-Master" disc: a gleaming city with tall skyscrapers peppered with lights, flying cars and buses full of people, an open-air wet market overflowing with produce, a giant airplane-machine cruising the sky...
  •  
  • "Sol, let me see-let-me-see!!" -the children chirped- "What is it, Sol?? What are you watching?"
  •  
  • A farmer standing next to his giant farming machine, offering in his palms the healthiest grains of maize she had ever seen. A ship the size of a city, lined with lights, is sailing through the night. A soldier saluting proudly, next to a gleaming tank brimming with all sorts of cannons -big and small.
  •  
  • The guitar played on, gently.
  •  
  • "Sweetie? Marysol? Your friends want to say something to you..."
  •  
  • The guitar stopped. She lowered the View-Master -
  •  
  • "Happy Birthday Sol!!"
  •  
  • They were all here! Wearing their patch-covered rags and improvised pairs of shoes, their smiles and their knives, and their unkempt hair and the dust on their faces -the children had all come.
  •  
  • Even the room itself was decorated with pieces of colored glass -quite a luxury- hanging in threads from exposed beams and broken bars all the way up to the impossibly high ceiling. They spun gently in the wind coming through the holes in the walls, and reflected -beautifully- the light filtering past the rusted metal sheets and wooden boards that patched many window-holes and doorways far above their heads.
  •  
  • For this building -like all buildings- was hollowed out,  and where once many floors had been now only a single collapsed space remained at the bottom. The scars of long-gone staircases and moorings lined every wall above the stacks of shelves -which were themselves filled to the brim with carefully sorted bric-a-brac and other scavenged debris 
  • On the table: a sea-weed cake fashioned with 13 paper candles.
  •  
  •  Marysol beamed. She had an angelic face, "a smile like the sun" -her mother used to say. She was wearing her aviator cap; full leather complete with goggles which she wore over her forehead when not diving. The word "SOL" was written on the front, in big bright red letters.
  •  
  • "You guys are awesome! This is the best birthday ever!"
  •  
  • They were all happy to be here.
  •  
  • Osmar, her father, finally allowed his tired body to rest on the couch -which had been the backseat of a Volkswagen Beetle, once. He was a tall, lanky man with a crutch. He exhaled through his smile, and closed his eyes for a moment, nodding approvingly.
  •  
  •  If only her mother could see her now...
  •  
  • Sol sometimes looked like her. Sometimes her eyes stared away...
  •  
  • But the thought was interrupted by guitar music. Jair had picked back his guitar and had hopped up to the window sill once again, and had resumed playing. He was the oldest of the gang at 17; an athletic boy with jagged features -he too, in turn, reminded everyone of his late father.
  •  
  • Abel on the other hand was a chubby 13 year old, but under his messy hair shined an intelligence the town was usually not prepared to deal with. He was cutting the cake.
  •  
  • Itati, at 15, was the Elder's daughter and certainly the best dressed of the group -a long flowing gown made out of a fine shower curtain; water resistant. She was smiling coyly at Jair... as usual.
  •  
  • And Osvaldo was Sol's little brother, only 10. As usual too, he was oblivious to the world beyond his eyes, playing with an old car headlight (a boat!) under the table in what appeared to be a nasty storm at sea. Ocho, the dog, wrestled playfully for the giant crocodile beast -albeit temporarily in the shape of a wrench- in Osvaldo's other hand.
  •  
  • The rest of the kids were either sitting at the table, or playing tag, or re-discovering the bric-a-brac on the shelves.
  •  
  • It was a nice little party with music from Jair's guitar, with cake, with presents. Nobody minded the dust that was eternally falling from the empty husk above. This had been a skyscraper once, of course.
  •  
  • They would seem small, from the ceiling that is patched with boards of all kinds and secured with rope nails and chains.
  •  
  • The skyscraper itself would seem small, too, to a bird's eye. Just one more tombstone out of a dozen or so, all rising from the dark waters but not always at a straight angle. They were all connected to each other by way of rope bridges and planks -high enough to let the dozens of small vessels sail beneath them.
  •  
  • The sun was setting. The Christmas lights were flickering and snaking around the rope bridges and bare columns, above the archways and hanging from wire. They were the town's most reliable form of illumination.
  •  
  • This was Basuk. Population 344 souls, and the beginning of the end, for the Legend of Santavela.
  • Chapter 2 - A Birthday Party Interrupted

  • Not too far from Basuk a diver emerged from the waters holding an old computer keyboard. He handed it to the elderly man aboard the makeshift sailboat. In turn, the man bagged it together with the rest of the wet and weedy bric-a-brac.
  •  
  • The bags would be later unloaded at Hilton's Dock -what looked today like a miniature half plaza right at the water's edge but had once in fact been the penthouse balcony of some tall hotel. All the nice furniture was gone of course, but inside the grey husk several women and children busied themselves sorting the day's findings on tables and shelves; the keyboard's keys would be plucked one by one and threaded into several necklaces.
  •  
  • Key-necklaces were popular and made for fine bartering material -not too far an old woman traded her cracked cooking pot for one.
  •  
  • Sea-weed would soon boil inside the pot -as it was frequently served for dinner, tasting much better than serpent fish- and when the family pulled their office chairs and sat at the table (a large but broken meeting desk), the youngest child squealed in delight.
  •  
  • Soon, her older brother would be tucked to sleep on the cozy curve of a cafeteria booth which amazingly still had all its cushioning intact. Having gently pulled the sheets up to his chin, the child's mother smiled and recovered the carefully-folded comic book -lest the boy rolls on it in his slumber and crumples it. Her husband had just begun shoveling some hard-won coal into the furnace, and the electric generator would come back to life.
  •  
  • When the Christmas lights started blinking on around the city, a couple of teenagers finally found the romantic moment they had been waiting for. The town glittered beneath them and the moon, with a thousand points of multicolored light and perched high out of sight in a window hole several levels above the floor, they finally embraced.
  •  
  • "Horny dogs" -chuckled Pedraza, the watchman, as he spied on the young lovers with his binoculars. "Just what we need here. More babies."
  •  
  • He exhaled and shrunk inside his oversize coat. It was chilly up here, even after closing the doors of the hollowed out Volkswagen van that had been raised -at great effort- atop the tallest tower to serve as his outpost. Not that anyone heard him; his only company was named Jack Daniels. Jack, and the short wave radio.
  •  
  • He rose the binoculars to his eyes once again, and took a sip. Most houses seemed quiet and dark. No swarms of serpent-fish either. Quiet night, tonight. Well, except for the birthday party at Osmar's -he could see the lights flickering there.
  •  
  • -------------
  •  
  • "So, guess what is it??" asked Abel, eager.
  •  
  • "Uhh... something whirly and mechanic?" ventured Sol.
  •  
  • "Yes, but what? C'mon, you can guess!"
  •  
  • "Ionno... uh..."
  •  
  • "Okay here!"
  •  
  • Abel flipped opened the shoe box and his eyes immediately returned at Sol, for her reaction.
  •  
  • "It's a... metal disc with little numbers? And a sort of hand?"
  •  
  • "Well it's not really an astrolabe" -clarified Abel "more like an alidade. But, for our purposes-"
  •  
  • "An astro-what?" laughed Itati, derisively -she was standing nearby.
  •  
  • "Look, pick an object" continued Abel, undeterred "anything in the room!"
  •  
  • "Uh, Abel?"
  •  
  • "Me? Fine" -he set the alidade on the table and pointed the metal vane to himself. "Now pick something else!"
  •  
  • "Seriously girl" added Itati "pick something else"
  •  
  • "Okay, Itati!" Abel spun the larger metal gear until it pointed to Itati, read the marking and announced: "Itati and I are at exactly 28 degrees from each other, from the point of view of the table!" and his eyes snapped back at Sol, like a magician waiting for the reaction after saying 'TaDa!'.
  •  
  • Sol smiled for his sake -"Okay...?"
  •  
  • "See, we can navigate by this!" said Abel, as if forced to explain the joke "W-what if we were lost? And what if our only clue, I mean, what if Itati was a big rock or a mountain?"
  •  
  • "Excuse me?" Itati objected.
  •  
  • "... and instead of me it's a star, and the table is our boat and you need to plot, on a map-"
  •  
  • "Well, we just shoot a flare." Jair said; his voice coming from the other side of the room. "We shoot a flare, the watchman sees it, he shoots another one back, we follow it home."
  •  
  • Jair hopped off his perch by the window, and set his guitar against the wall. To the girl's eyes, even the way he walked exuded coolness and confidence.
  •  
  • "B-but.. what if we're so far away-" and Abel knew they weren't listening.
  •  
  • "Here's my birthday gift" said Jair. "Dad gave it to me when I was 13, too."
  •  
  • It was a sword. Carefully-cut blades had been attached at both sides, like the ancient Aztec weapon.
  •  
  • "Wow... thank you... is-is it sharp?"
  •  
  • "Very. But I believe you're old enough to handle it now, Sol".
  •  
  • "Well, Jair " interjected Itati "I'm two years older than Sol, you know?"
  •  
  • Abel scowled.
  •  
  • "In fact, my gift to Sol is also something I don't use anymore".
  •  
  • She opened her purse and produced a beautiful plastic tiara.
  •  
  • "Here you go, Sol. Is this the pretties thing you've ever wore or what?"
  •  
  • Sol took the tiara, hesitantly.
  •  
  • "It's... pretty..."
  •  
  • "So what are you waiting for, girl, put it on!"
  •  
  • Itati beamed Sol a smile -but it was really meant forJair to see.
  •  
  • "But... I'd have to take my cap off to wear it..."
  •  
  • "Yeah, and it's an ugly cap. So?"
  •  
  • "My mom gave it to me."
  •  
  • Osmar stepped in to break the uncomfortable silence: "Sweetheart?"
  •  
  • "Yes daddy?"
  •  
  • "I also have a gift for you."
  •  
  • "Oh wow, really?"
  •  
  • "It's... a very special gift, Marysol. It's from your mom."
  •  
  • Marysol could only blink- "What?"
  •  
  • "She told me to save this for your 13th birthday. It's from Community 32".
  •  
  • And at those words, all the children in the party lowered their voices.
  •  
  • Sol heard herself mouthing- "... are you kidding me..."
  •  
  • Osmar set the school backpack on the table. It was in a perfectly preserved state: green and orange; still with girlie stickers and metal zippers and straps...
  •  
  • Osmar felt bittersweet doing this. He loved nothing more than to see Sol smile. But nevertheless:
  •  
  • "It's about Santavela, sweetie."
  •  
  • -------------
  •  
  • "Oh no" said the watchman, far away in his watchtower. "Oh no. Oh-no-oh-no-oh-no!"
  •  
  • The Jack Daniels bottle had fallen to the floor of the Volkwagen van; it was the least of Pedraza's concerns at the moment.
  •  
  • He rubbed his eyes. He wished it was not there. He wished he had just imagined it.
  •  
  • The binoculars soon joined the bottle of Jack on the floor -as he grabbed the telescope; he had to make sure!
  •  
  • And indeed it was.
  •  
  • There, in the early fog of the setting sun a ship could be seen approaching. It is a large ship, with a giant red eye painted across the bow, and the word "Maria Serenissima" imprinted above it.
  •  
  • He rattled off a stream of curses as he nearly fumbled the short wave radio, then shouted into it: "Father Gercia!! It's the Serenissima! They're here again!!"
  •  
  • And saying so he started yanking on the bell chain frantically!
  •  
  • At the urgent sound of the bells the lovers quickly descended from their nest. The children awoke on their beds, the mothers started praying and the men grabbed their weapons.
  •  
  • And all the Christmas lights turned off in Basuk.
  •  
  • It was time for Taxes.
  • Chapter 3 - Hasty Reactions

  • Father Gercia -surrounded as he was by idols and candles- heard the bells too as did everyone in town. If anything it made him close his eyes tighter -his prayer would not be interrupted; he knew what the bells were for.
  •  
  • Bells, men shouting, children crying, doors slamming shut, hurried footsteps above him and outside his inner sanctum -and all around the church.
  •  
  • Breathing deeply he finally rose from his knees and looked around the tiny room. There they were: every saint, every effigy, every god-image of every religion, -clay, stone and porcelain- the product of years of salvaging efforts and careful trading- and for each he had lit a candle. "But what for?" he wondered. As he looked into their eyes now they merely stared back, lifeless, none the least willing to share the burden, none the least capable of lending him strength.
  •  
  • He chose a golden chalice, and tucked it under his robe.
  •  
  • "Gercia!!" -shouted his wife Damaris, by the door -"Pedraza's on the radio! Itati is still at that damn birthday party! I told you she shouldn't have-"
  •  
  • "Shh."
  •  
  • She stopped, and he nodded back. She was pale with worry.
  •  
  • Finally he took the radio from her, tiredly, and the bullhorn hanging from a peg on the wall outside the sanctuary, and a last deep, long breath. Armed thusly, there was nothing left to do but to walk out the door.
  •  
  • -------------
  •  
  • "Go to the cellar, Marysol," called Osmar; there was precious little he could see through the cracks in the boarded-shut window "now. And Jair: take all the children too -everybody to the cellar!"
  •  
  • The bell kept ringing; Ocho kept barking.
  •  
  • "Sir, my father's boat's right outside" Jair said "I could take them all to their own homes -we have at least a good 10 minu-"
  •  
  • "Brothers and sisters of Basuk" Gercia's voice suddenly interrupted; coming all the way from the plaza and sounding dull and metallic from the bullhorn  "please remain inside your homes. Do not, I repeat, do not come outside while the negotiations are taking place..."
  •  
  • "Pft. Negotiations." Abel shook his head at Itati. "Seriously, your old man really thinks these are 'negotiations'?"
  •  
  • Itati had been trying to pretend she was calm, or at least used to it.
  •  
  • "Yes, because they are" was her terse reply. "You think you could do better? Why don't you go there and try to trade your astrobabble thing with the pirates and see what negoti-"
  •  
  • "Dad, the cellar is flooded!" -Sol was on her knees holding the trapdoor open and peering down it: indeed, after a few steps down it was completely full of brackish water.
  •  
  • "Oh for fu..." Osmar barely held his tongue in front of the children  "...the pump must have broken down...".
  •  
  • The combination of bells and barking was starting to hammer into his skull -"I think we... we have to..."
  •  
  • "Sir, if I may".
  •  
  • "What, Jair?"
  •  
  • Osmar blinked as it trying to conjure an answer... and Gercia's voice, as immediate as it was blind, was certainly not it:
  •  
  • "Please prepare whatever you can..." said the distant bullhorn "it will be collected as normal..."
  •  
  • "Okay. Jair? Okay." conceded Osmar "Do as you said. Take them home. Better hurry, go now."
  •  
  • "You heard him, kids!" echoed Jair, instantly "Everyone out! Out, out, move-it-move-it-move-it!"
  •  
  • Itati dashed to the door and begun to help the kids out.
  •  
  • Abel lingered -wishing to give Sol some sort of goodbye, perhaps- but she was too busy stuffing her birthday presents back inside the old backpack. The teddy bear, the tiara, the bar of chocolate, and finally Abel's alidade, too -only then did he make for the door himself, in time for Jair to give him a helpful shove.
  •  
  • Osmar placed one hand on Osvaldo's shoulder, and the other on Sol's.
  •  
  • "Good luck Jair" said Sol, as a goodbye. "Tell everyone thanks for the party".
  •  
  • Jair gave a sad smile back... one last nod to Osmar, and closed the door.
  •  
  • -------------
  •  
  • All the kids were already aboard, huddled near the back -except for Abel who had just finished lifting the anchor. It was a small boat; built for speed rather than cargo, and in it's day it had seen its share of battles. The Gavilán was all Jair had left from his father -the boat and the binoculars, which he used now, too, to spy on the dark plaza.
  •  
  • Small mercies: it was a near-full moon and the church itself still had it's candles so Jair's vision of the Serenissima was as clear as he could have hoped for.
  •  
  • The pirate ship had just anchored, as usual, near the Plaza (the Plaza had once been the terrace for some penthouse suite or another, with the suite itself being now the town's church). There were about two dozen pirates standing around the ship's bow, and although Jair couldn't hear them, he could tell they were laughing and shouting.
  •  
  • Almost too soon the long wooden plank emerged over the rails and came heavily down on the plaza's balcony.
  •  
  • There he was: tall and dark Ibrahim "The Mad", captain of the Serenissima, followed as ever by the dual freakshow of Iago the giant and Ze'Kill the midget. Gercia stepped out to meet them, alone.
  •  
  • "I thought you said we had 10 minutes..."
  •  
  • "Go back to the kids, Abel".
  •  
  • "You can't take us to our homes anymore, Jair. They'd catch us."
  •  
  • "Shut up -I'm thinking!"
  •  
  • Ibrahim was talking calmly to Gercia. Jair couldn't hear them of course, but the priest seemed agitated, nearly belligerent... and that's when Ibrahim's sword suddenly burst into flames...
  •  
  • "Jair, you know as I do that the pirates take ten item per person per household. You have thirteen kids here, and I don't think you have a hundred and thirty good-enough items".
  •  
  • Gercia was stepping back, making appeasing gestures, palms up, talking his head off.
  •  
  • "I said I'm thinking!"
  •  
  • Out comes a golden chalice from under the robes...
  •  
  • Ibrahim considers. An imperceptible gesture -immediately followed by Ze'Kill jumping to snatch the bauble off Gercia's hands.
  •  
  • The fire-sword turns off.
  •  
  • "Jesus..." muttered Abel.
  •  
  • Gercia nodded slowly, and slowly lifted the loudspeaker back to his lips: "Brothers and sisters, I..." -even through the bullhorn, Itati could tell her father's voice was brittle- "... at this time, the Serenissima has raised the monthly fee... for it's protection services..."
  •  
  • She sobbed.
  •  
  • Jair turned his head slightly, catching a new sight with his binoculars: a side hatch on the Serenissima had opened and pirates on jetskis had begun roaring out -about a dozen, holding large empty sacks...
  •  
  • "They will now take twenty items per person... per household..." said the wounded voice "... t-there.... there's nothing I can-"
  •  
  • The dwarf jumped a second time and snatched the bullhorn right out of Gercia's hands: "Remember kiddies:" -he squawked- "we also take slaves! They're worth a hundred things; so if you have a family of five, tonight could be your tax-free night and one less mouth to feed!"
  •  
  • Ibrahim snatched the bullhorn back from Ze'Kill's hands, and gently returned it to Gercia. The pirate captain then excused himself with a small bow, and calmly begun strolling around the plaza; observing as his men on jetskis fanned out and begun their door-to-door collection.
  •  
  • Jair put the binoculars down; he had seen enough. He could feel his hands trembling with rage.
  •  
  • "Jair, you gotta think this through, man. What've you got?" -Abel looked around- "Wait, I got it, we're standing in it! The ship!"
  •  
  • "What.."
  •  
  • "The ship, you'll give them this boat so they won't take the children!"
  •  
  • "This was my father's ship."
  •  
  • "And you're your father's son -now what do you think he would choose?"
  •  
  • Abel didn't mean it like that. And the moment he saw Jair's face harden, the steel in his eyes-
  •  
  • "What do I think my father would choose?"
  •  
  • "No, wait, no, no -I didn't mean it like that-"
  •  
  • "Pirates killed my father."
  •  
  • "Yes, but you got a boat full of kids!"
  •  
  • Jair slammed his fist on the steering wheel: "All of you kids! Back inside Sol's house! Now!"
  •  
  • Itati could hardly believe -"Jair -are you craz-"
  •  
  • "I SAID NOW!"
  •  
  • ----------
  •  
  • Abel burst through the door and all the other children streamed back inside, behind him!
  •  
  • Osmar looked up in confusion:
  •  
  • "Jair is going to fight the pirates!!" shouted Abel, nearly out of breath!
  •  
  • "WHAT?!"
  •  
  • Everyone heard the roar of Jair's boat outside, the Gavilán, speeding away!
  •  
  • But no one expected what happened next: suddenly grabbing her school backpack with her birthday gifts, Sol jumped to her feet and dashed out the door -almost bumping into a sobbing Itati on her way out!
  •  
  • "MARYSOL -WHAT ARE YOU DOING!!"
  • Chapter 4 - A Promise Is Made

  • Osmar tried to run after her -and so did Abel but neither really had a chance; one needed a crutch even to walk and the other simply wasn't in the best running shape -and had never been.
  •  
  • Itati found them both by the nearest rope bridge; out of breath and pale as sheets.
  •  
  • "Marysol..." -Osmar still called, helpless- "I order you to! Come back here! Come back here at once!"
  •  
  • But she could no longer hear him.
  •  
  • Up she leapt, that flight of stairs, and down the bridge she ran, and beneath her on the waters roared Jair's Gavilán boat -rushing towards the center plaza.
  •  
  • "Jair!!" -she called, but he too, wasn't in the mood to listen.
  •  
  • "Marysol!" -Osmar struggled up the far end of the bridge-
  •  
  • "I have to do this, dad! It's what mom would've done!"
  •  
  • "Marysol, no!"
  •  
  • -------------
  •  
  • Ibrahim squinted, seeing the Gavilán approaching at full speed.
  •  
  • "Remarkable..." -he observed- "once again, exactly as you said it'd happen..."
  •  
  • But Somaya had no further comments; she seldom did. Thin like a scarecrow -even her hair was long and frizzled like dry hay- she turned around and went up the plank back to the Serenissima's deck.
  •  
  • Something in Ibrahim's eyes, as they followed her, approached pity. But there was a plan to follow through.
  •  
  • BANG-BANG-BANG!! The side-mounted guns of the Gavilán started shelling the side of the Serenissima -Jair was not slowing down!
  •  
  • Sol's heart skipped a beat: up from her vantage point on the bridge she could see that Jair wasn't planning to slow down -there was no room to maneuver either...it was all or nothing; he was going to ram his boat against the pirate's!
  •  
  • Still standing by the dock, and calmly, Ibrahim gave the hand signal Iago was waiting for. The leather-clad giant stood up, tall on top of the church's roof and mounted his rocket-launcher up on his shoulder -like it weighed nothing- and started to take aim...
  •  
  • Jair's vision was blurry. He could see flashes of a storm at sea, memories of gunfire, explosions, a red moon. He jammed his fingers on the red dashboard buttons again, and the Gavilán's two side guns resumed their deadly chant: BANG went a window, BANG went a section of the Serenissima's upper deck balcony, and even the main radio antenna high up in the main mast suddenly sparked off, too, shredded by lead and falling in pieces like shrapnel fireworks.
  •  
  • Men shouted. Women screamed -but it was maybe all in his head. It was too late to turn around or dodge; this was it. For a moment, Jair wondered what it would feel like, soon, to-
  •  
  • BRROOUMMM! The missile roared through the air, and rolled, and pierced through the side of the Gavilán -one second later lighting its insides aglow in blinding yellow -the world itself seemed to fall off from beneath Jair's feet, and spun. All sounds muted into a dull drone and he swirled in the air like a ragdoll, before -all too soon- the cold cement floor of the plaza rushed back to pound his body. SLAM! ... and then the world was muted.
  •  
  • He couldn't hear Sol's piercing scream.
  •  
  • Something cracked. He felt something warm and wet dripping from his lips. His instinct yelled at him to get back up, and painfully he coaxed his body into a kneeling position -but all his senses were dull.
  •  
  • The Gavilán was a smoldering ruin behind him -it would soon sink besides the badly damaged southern wall of the church.
  •  
  • Gercia started to run towards Jair, but Ibrahim placed his hand on the priest's chest, gently, and the priest instantly stopped.
  •  
  • "You'll leave our village alone..." -mouthed Jair, as he struggled to get back on his feet. He could hear his own voice inside his head, as if underwater.
  •  
  • Ibrahim stood in place, watching.
  •  
  • "You'll leave our village alone!" -Jair now felt something in his hand. A sword? Yes. His father's. He had unsheathed it by instinct. He started taking ever firmer steps towards the pirate warlord.
  •  
  • "Please, Ibrahim!" -begged Gercia- "Have a heart! He's just a kid; pirates killed his father!"
  •  
  • "So they did mine;" -was the calm reply- "it's not that uncommon, Father".
  •  
  • "Just... take your spoils and leave us. Please -I'm begging you!"
  •  
  • "Indeed you are. Which is exactly why we return, Father -had you never wondered? Were this boy in charge, instead of you, things would maybe come to an end."
  •  
  • Jair was almost within striking distance. Hyperventilating, squeezing the pommel of his sword...
  •  
  • "A tragic end, of course " -added the pirate- "but an end nonetheless."
  •  
  • Jair screamed at the top of his lungs and brought down his sword over Ibrahim -but Ibrahim elegantly parried, sidestepped a full turn in and in the same motion returned a brutal kick to Jair's ribcage -knocking him off several feet and onto the ground!
  •  
  •  Sol screamed again, and this time she was heard! Her legs ran -it seemed to her- knee deep in molasses...
  •  
  • Jair's vision started to fade; he could see a big leather boot pushing his chest down against the ground... he could see the tip of a sword hovering above his face. Suddenly, flames!
  •  
  • "Being brave is never enough all by itself, boy. Not in this world."
  •  
  • Jair shook his head, his eyes watery from the heat. He coughed, and tried to move but the boot only pushed him down harder.
  •  
  • "And now you're a slave!" squawked the shrill voice of the dwarf, Ze'Kill, jumping over Jair's neck with a metal collar-
  •  
  • "STOP!"
  •  
  • It wasn't just that her voice was loud. Sol. Everyone did stop, and turned to her.
  •  
  • She was a tiny figure standing beneath the nearest rope bridge. She was walking towards them. Gercia muttered her name.
  •  
  • "I will barter for Jair." -said Sol.
  •  
  • "What?" -the dwarf half laughed- "You're not a pira-"
  •  
  • "According to your code, you will hear my 'put in', pirate or not. I said I will barter for Jair."
  •  
  • Ibrahim's eyes showed a glint of... amusement? Satisfaction?
  •  
  • "I'm afraid, child, there's precious little I would take as 'put in' in barter for this brave -if overzealous- warrior." -he said, his voice gentle, as if in deference to her age- "Sure, he hates me now, but overtime I would earn his loyalty. I usually do."
  •  
  • Iago shifted silently in place.
  •  
  • "I have something that you want even more than another slave. " -countered Sol- "Something big."
  •  
  • Ibrahim's face remained stone cold even as Jair choked and coughed beneath the flames of his sword.
  •  
  • "Something..." -continued Sol- "from Santavela".
  •  
  • Ibrahim's smile nearly betrayed him, but he turned around in good time. With a flick of his thumb on the sword's pommel the flames were snuffed.
  •  
  • "Big words. What exactly?"
  •  
  • Watching from the deck of the Serenissima, Somaya mouthed the words that came next from Sol's mouth.
  •  
  • "The location of Santavela's tomb... and the key to open it."
  •  
  • Somaya's eyes were sad.
  •  
  • Several townspeople had gathered around the plaza by now, and many others peered from darkened window-holes in every tower nearby.
  •  
  • "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, child. I truly hope you are not wasting my time. Don't make a monster of me tonight."
  •  
  • Gercia started shaking.
  •  
  • Osmar and Abel could barely hear Sol's words as they hurried along the bridge.
  •  
  • "My mother found Community 32 inside Tomb Valley. It really does exist".
  •  
  • "Oh God" muttered Gercia.
  •  
  • "She... she was the best diver in the world" -Sol briefly glanced at Jair, who was nearly unconscious, and resolve hardened her face- "she said an angel pointed the way to her. Pointed her to the giant 'H' door... once inside she walked on air..."
  •  
  • "What the-" Ze'Kill cackled.
  •  
  • "She found this bag..." -Sol said, removing her backpack- "it... it was my birthday gift."
  •  
  • For an moment that seemed eternal, Ibrahim contemplated.
  •  
  • "And you know your bag is related to Santavela, because...?"
  •  
  • "Because it has his name on it. Or rather, his daughter's."
  •  
  • Sol ran her finger over the engraved letters on the tag of the school's backpack and Ibrahim read them out loud:
  •  
  • "Lucia Santavela Mesa. It still doesn't help me -what does it contain, books?"
  •  
  • "As I said, a key. And a keychain."
  •  
  • Osmar finally descended the bridge's staircase, struggling with his crutch but aided by Itati -her face frozen with fear.
  •  
  • "Oh my Sol..." -he muttered, wincing at every new word that reached his ears- "what in the world are you doing?"
  •  
  • Sol opened her school bag and produced the teddy bear from within it. The stuffed animal had a necklace with several keys -including a small, pink squarish stick- and on its belly someone had written the words 'I Bear The Key'.
  •  
  • "She... she found Community 32 a few years ago..." -something trembled in her voice- "She was the only one who dared dive inside Tomb Valley -no one else! She -she was the best diver in-"
  •  
  • "I'm sorry about your loss, child." -said Ibrahim, taking the bear from her hand- "I'm sure she was quite amazing."
  •  
  • He brushed his finger across the USB stick, reading the words 'SantavelaLucMes #887484922 - Comm 32 Gen ID Acc'.
  •  
  • "I assume she never told anyone how to find Community 32, and eventually never came back, yes?"
  •  
  • Sol just nodded.
  •  
  • "Well, " -his voice raised as if making an announcement- "I say, without a little challenge we would be unworthy of inheriting Santavela's legacy now, wouldn't we, men?"
  •  
  • The question went unanswered -not that he cared.
  •  
  • "Child, I accept your 'put in'. You now have bartered for this boy's life."
  •  
  • Sol, for the first time, allowed herself a glance at Jair: he was unconscious.
  •  
  • "I'll spare the boy, and I'll also 'put in' the fee for your whole town, tonight. Tonight and for the next five years -let no one say Ibrahim 'The Mad' takes advantage of children in his barters."
  •  
  • "Captain??" -quizzed Ze'Kill, incredulous.
  •  
  • "You heard me." -confirmed Ibrahim- "Send the call and make sure they return everything."
  •  
  • Ze'Kill hesitated, but all it took was a brief glare from the pirate warlord for the dwarf to raise the radio to his lips:
  •  
  • "Men of the Serenissima," -he called- "return all the loot and get back on the ship. You heard me right -captain's made a different deal. Yes, return it. Yes, now, you mudtoads, now!"
  •  
  • Somaya turned away -Ibrahim saw her in the corner of his eye.
  •  
  • Courage, suddenly, made words burst out of Sol's mouth: "But I want the rest of my presents. They're my birthday presents -they're still in the bag. Those are not part of my 'put in'."
  •  
  • Ze'Kill raised an eyebrow -he knew Butcher Pete had slain very many for very less, and looked up to Ibrahim, eager... but Ibrahim withheld the signal. The pirate warlord, instead, set the bag down on the floor, and descended to one knee so as to look at Sol eye to eye.
  •  
  • He slowly opened the bag: first he retrieved Jair's small sword -and after a brief admiring glance- he placed it solemnly in Sol's right hand. He looked into her eyes.
  •  
  • Osmar, Abel and Itati instinctively slowed down -as if walking on thin ice; sudden moves would spell disaster...
  •  
  • Gercia tried not to tremble. The townspeople collectively held their breath.
  •  
  • Ibrahim then retrieved Itati's tiara and, ever so slowly, he pushed Sol's aviator cap slightly upwards -oh just a tad- so that he could slide the tiara underneath. Sol glared at him with a mix of anger and fear, but remained otherwise frozen.
  •  
  • "Ah, an alidade. Nice". He placed it slowly in Sol's other hand.
  •  
  • He ripped the necklace off the teddy bear, and all the keys fell ringing on the stone floor except for one: the pink square -that he tied to his own necklace, underneath his shirt.
  •  
  • He stuffed the toy back inside the bag, closed the bag, and slowly fastened it back on Sol's shoulders. She held her revulsion at his nearness.
  •  
  • All eyes on him, Ibrahim slowly stood up.
  •  
  • "Happy birthday" -he whispered.
  •  
  • Osmar finally reached Sol -falling to one knee behind her, gasping for breath- and placed his hands on her shoulders, which felt tense as steel. Her fists were balled up; tight around the aztec sword's pommel and the alidade. Osmar glared at Ibrahim above, and was summarily ignored.
  •  
  • The side hatch in the Serenissima opened once again, and many pirates in jetskis begun streaming back in -empty handed, at least.
  •  
  • Gercia finally mustered up the courage to crawl forth and drag Jair's unconscious body from underneath Ibrahim.
  •  
  • "We shall now take our leave from your kind company, Basuk," -the pirate announced- "and set for the fabled Community 32. Should you require our protection services during the time we are away... please inform your would-be aggressors that the crew of the Serenissima will soon return, and it will do so bearing the full array of Santavela's legendary weapons..."
  •  
  • Every eye in the plaza and every window in the towers around it was trained on Ibrahim.
  •  
  • Osmar, Abel and Itati stared helpless.
  •  
  • "Anyone with two wits to rub together will have heard of these weapons, and of my Word which, like lighting, doesn't go back up to the sky once it's struck down. Let this protect you."
  •  
  • Something about the way Sol glared at Ibrahim... he smiled at her.
  •  
  • "And you, child... I'm hiring your services as a guide, effective immediately!"
  •  
  • He ripped her off from Osmar's hands! She howled, and kicked -the sword and the alidade fell from her hands! Itati and Abel screamed, Osmar lunged for her but his face crashed against the pirate's boot, and crumbled back unconscious!
  •  
  • Ze'Kill cackled hideously.
  •  
  • "You flying flaming crap!!" -shouted Abel, holding Osmar's limp head in his hands.
  •  
  • "You don't understand, boy, she will be generously compensated" -retorted Ibrahim- "-assuming she still remembers mom's path through Tomb Valley, where she's obviously been. Fear not: I'll bring her back safe and sound, and this whole town will be richer for it."
  •  
  • Sol kept kicking and screaming with all her might, but Ibrahim tossed her to Iago, and the giant threw her over his massive shoulder -school bag and all- not unlike a sack of loot. All her flailing was in vain. Ibrahim turned his back and started to calmly walk back to his ship.
  •  
  • Kneeling by the unconscious body of Osmar and seething with rage, Abel swore:
  •  
  • "I promise we're going to chase you, and we're going to get Sol, and we're going to stop you from getting those weapons if it's the last thing we ever do!".
  •  
  • Ibrahim looked over his shoulder for a moment, sizing up Abel.
  •  
  • "Good; you need the exercise."
  •  
  • Then he resumed walking and made a spinning gesture with his finger, signaling the return of the last jetskis inside the pirate vessel -the hatch begun to close. "Lift anchor!" he shouted.
  •  
  • The cackling dwarf followed his master, who in turned followed the giant and Sol -still screaming- up and over the plank onto the Serenissima's deck.
  •  
  • Many townspeople gasped, some shouted, but none moved. None rebutted the laughter of the pirates, no shots were fired as the anchor lifted, and the sails swelled in the night mist.
  •  
  • Gercia fell to his knees, resting Jair's unconscious body back on the ground. Itati ran to him and he held his daughter's hand tightly and shut his eyes, in a sobbing, silent prayer.
  •  
  • Not far, Abel saw the remains of the Gavilán finally descending beneath the waters. He picked up the sword and the alidade, and stared at the dark horizon.
  •  
  • One by one, the town's Christmas lights slowly returned.
  • Chapter 5 - Floating Dreams

  • Jagged and ravaged buildings rise above the black waters like tombstones. The waves slowly ebb and flow with floating debris -scattered as far as the eye can see- under a thick, coppery fog that hangs from the air like a blood stain…
  •  
  • As if from a great distance the child’s voice echoes through: "Mommy... tell me the story again..."
  •  
  • "Sweetie, " -the second voice is warm and loving- "it's too late at night and tomorrow you have to wake up very early for the dive..."
  •  
  • "Well then I have to be well rested, and how can I be well rested if my mommy doesn't tell me my favorite story?"
  •  
  • Tiny in the horizon, a ship begins to emerge through the fog...
  •  
  • "Ah, what am I gonna' do with you, Sol? Fine. Which story?"
  •  
  • "Santavela!!"
  •  
  • "Again?" -her soft chuckle echoes over the waters; followed by the little girl's giggles- "Okay fine. Well... once upon a time..."
  •  
  • "Yes!"
  •  
  • "Once upon a time... a long, long time ago, before your grandpa Casbal and even before your great grandpa Luciano, and even before -his- grandpa -whoever that was- there existed a different world."
  •  
  • The dark ship cuts through the waves, somber.
  •  
  • And beneath the waves, under flickering beams of moonlight the dead city still waits.
  •  
  • "It was a world full of people -more people that you could possibly imagine- and they lived in giant cities. Everywhere was dry so they did not need boats..."
  •  
  • Fish zig-zag through the gaping holes in the ruins -holes like exposed ribcages of rebar and steel, and scars of coral and blood like weeds; abandoned cars and buses as scattered bones. Every now and then an actual human skeleton -lodged on crevasse here or a doorway there- gently stirs in the underwater currents... and waves.
  •  
  • "In the last days before the Great Flood, Juan Julian Santavela was the Chief Warrior protecting Community 32."
  •  
  • "Tell me about Community 32!"
  •  
  • "Oh, it was beautiful, Sol. It was a city inside a city -built deep within the earth in the middle of Tomb Valley. Of course, it wasn't called like that those days -all of the rich and powerful men of the world lived there, and when the days of the Flood begun, they build Community 32 as a shelter. A very special shelter. They had everything, Sol."
  •  
  • "Without even needing to dive..."
  •  
  • "Back then the world produced everything it needed to. But... not for everyone."
  •  
  • Broken glass, twisted steel, crumbling asphalt. Rusted, bent street signs. Faded advertisements and billboards. Lonely, strange creatures -some fearful and some fearsome- slither their way in the darkness near the bone-ridden seabed.
  •  
  • "Community 32, Sol, had plenty of food and plenty of kind-water to drink. And many more riches inside. Weapons. Santavela and his Renegades -that's how they called themselves- were it's protectors... Community 32 had everything."
  •  
  • "... except a heart..."
  •  
  • Sol is only 10 now -her hair is shorter and her cheeks are redder- and she has a cherubic pudgy little nose and big great brilliant brown eyes, always focused on her mother. She is tucked in her bed -actually a shopping cart whose insides have been carefully padded with various stitched rags into a cozy quilt-nest.
  •  
  • Soledad stands over her daughter -she cuts a thin and elegant silhouette against the glow of the ship's engine in the back. Her beautiful long, red hair reaches down to her waist -and she has an aviator cap too. Just like her daughter's, the word "Soledad" is stenciled on it, too.
  •  
  • "Well," -she replies- "all the Priests of the time had warned everyone that the Great Flood was coming. Those who could run left for the mountains -that's how Peak Three Fathers city got started. But many poor people couldn't leave. Remember there was nowhere to dive; if you didn't have any food with you- well, it was hard. And so one day all the poor gathered into a giant march and tried to get inside Community 32."
  •  
  • "Which brings us to Santavela!"
  •  
  • A smile sneaks up onto Soledad's face... Sol is such bright, innocent soul...
  •  
  • "Santavela... was given orders to kill all those people, Sol. He was a Great Warrior -remember he had defended the country in the Northern Wars. But no matter what they told him was his duty, he knew he could never hurt the innocent. Never. He and his men would rather become outlaws, real renegades-"
  •  
  • "Soledad!" -suddenly called a third voice, male, from far away- "This is as far as we're going tonight."
  •  
  • Soledad placed the tip of her finger on Sol's nose -"Wait sweetie".
  •  
  • "We're not going any deeper into the Sea of Ashes without daylight" -continued Osmar, calling from the ship's deck above- "we're already pushing our luck as it is."
  •  
  • "Osmar, can it wait a minute?"
  •  
  • "No, woman. I need you to help me find a safe spot for the night, starting now. Is Solecita sleeping?"
  •  
  • Sol smiles and nods to her mom.
  •  
  • Mom nods back and reaches to gently caress Sol's cheek. Sleepy, the little girl smiles and turns over pulling the patched sheet over her shoulder.
  •  
  • She closes her eyes...
  •  
  • -------------
  •  
  • And so Somaya's cold hand finally left the child's forehead. Sol's eyes were trembling under her eyelids and her little hand pulled in tighter the coarse shower curtain which served as her sheet.
  •  
  • She was inside an upside-down shopping cart serving as an impromptu cage -to keep her from trashing the room any further; many broken items were littering the floor already.
  •  
  • "I said: " -replied Somaya, raising her throaty voice to be heard in the deck above- "can it wait a minute?"
  •  
  • "We're sailing blind with no radio tower, Somaya" -replied Ibrahim, his voice coming muffled through the ceiling- "I need you to find me a safe spot for the night, now. Is the girl sleeping?"
  •  
  • Somaya slowly retrieved her hand back out through the gap in the shopping cart wire mesh; it still trembled from the sudden disconnection.
  •  
  • The withered woman took a moment to breathe in deep, and ran her shaky hand through her wild mane of black hair, pulling it forward to hide the right half of her face. Twisting her head to the side like a mannequin, she eventually regained her composure and headed for the staircase.
  •  
  • "Found out anything?" -asked Ibrahim.
  •  
  • "I need more time." -was the chilly answer-". She has too many dreams. They float. Too many floating dreams to sift through."
  •  
  • "Fine. But we're gonna' need the exact message soon."
  • Chapter 6 - The Renegades of Santavela

  • "The exact message?" -barked Osmar- "I made it up!"
  •  
  • It was as if as wave of frozen air had washed over the church hall.
  •  
  • "Yes, all of it" -he continued- " it's... it's a fairytale. I just wanted her birthday to feel special! And Santavela was her favorite bedtime story..."
  •  
  • Up by the rafters hid Abel, Itati and Osvaldo, spying on the adult discussions taking place below.
  •  
  • The heads-of-household of all the major families of Basuk were there; though unseen inside the many old subway cars that lined the inside of the church hall in several concentric rings, like a coliseum.
  •  
  • It was the ultimate anonymous forum: the people inside the subway cars could peer through the opaque windows and see the center stage below, but couldn't be seen back. Anyone could shout any message with relative impunity -and many did:
  •  
  • "That's it! We're all screwed"
  •  
  • "We'll never see her again -nice going, Osmar!"
  •  
  • "When Ibrahim finds out we're done for!"
  •  
  • "You sold us out, Osmar!"
  •  
  • "Everyone pipe the hell down!"
  •  
  • That last was Gercia. Far from anonymous, he opened his arms emphatically from behind the "pulpit" in the center stage -really an upside down vending cart- and banged his gavel.
  •  
  • Standing frail before him in a small raised bench, Osmar kept running his hand down his face...
  •  
  • "Please... " -he pleaded- "they have my daughter. What if it was your daughter? What if it was your son?"
  •  
  • "We all loved Sol, Osmar." -replied Gercia, tiredly- "But I'm afraid there are greater dangers threatening our community now. You must tell us what your daughter was really talking about when she spoke of those weapons -exactly what and where, made up or not..."
  •  
  • "The... the backpack was real..." -admitted Osmar- "... her mother did find that, the very last time she dove in Tomb Valley, and she did tell me to save it for Sol's thirteenth birthday. This was two years ago. How could she have known Ibrahim-"
  •  
  • "What about Santavela's name in it?"
  •  
  • "Oh, it was a common last name in the days before the Flood..."
  •  
  • Osmar's tone, as if pleading for reason, found nothing but icy silence across the room.
  •  
  • "Her mother ran upon a huge pile of school bags, probably" -added the feeble man, as if more facts would make it better- "T-there is no Community 32, of course. It's a legend! She just saw this bag, with this name, and thought Sol would like it, and-"
  •  
  • "So you lied to her!"
  •  
  • Instantly shifting his stance Osmar snarled back at the anonymous accuser:
  •  
  • "I gave her hope on her birthday!"
  •  
  • Gercia lowered his head, deflated.
  •  
  • "What, " -Osmar continued, inflamed- "you don't lie to your own kids, eh? Really, you do say to them that the whole world went to hell and we're all here just surviving like rats without any trace of culture or civilization anymore? You do tell them what you have to do sometimes to put food on the table, who do you step on, what price do-"
  •  
  • "Osmar..."
  •  
  • "What price have you paid? Even you Gercia, everyone! Everyone. Do you lie? Every Single Day you lie. You tell your children that they have a fair shot. That they can grow up to be anything they want. You tell them... you tell them that you'll always be there for them, isn't it? You tell them... we'll protect them..."
  •  
  • Abel could see Osmar's eyes get watery, even from a great distance up by the ceiling.
  •  
  • "Let's get out of here, Itati. Osvaldito doesn't need to watch this stuff anymore."
  •  
  • "Yeah." -she nodded- "C'mon Ossy".
  •  
  • If Osvaldo did in fact hear anything he gave no outward sign. He took Itati's hand and the three children begun making their exit, silently, crouching about the beams and scaffolding beneath the domed ceiling.
  •  
  • "Osmar... " -they could hear Gercia's voice, getting distant- "We know how you're feeling-"
  •  
  • "You don't know how I'm feeling!" -boomed back Osmar's voice. He spelled out every word as if it needed translation, as if it was only comprehension what stood as a barrier for concepts so vastly obvious that everyone would surely bow to their urgency if they could only understand them- "My daughter is out there with pirates... and I'm in here with... with my crutch and my bandages on my head and... with you!"
  •  
  • The kids reached a certain hole in the ceiling, pushed off the metal sheet and snuck out to the roof-
  •  
  • "... surrounded by all these people who refuse to go out and help me find her and are all secretly glad it was my kid and not theirs! You KNOW it's true! Why won't you help me? We need to organize an expedition, we need to go after them; it's my daughter! Don't you see -little Osvaldo doesn't even talk anymore since his mother passed away and now Sol too? Can't you -can't you understand, can't you feel-"
  •  
  • -------------
  •  
  • Jair saw the three kids coming down the ladder by the alleyway behind the church. He made a last check to make sure no one was watching, then whistled the signal.
  •  
  • Soon, all three Abel, Itati and Osvaldo were down at ground level and busily folding the ladder back closed.
  •  
  • "So, what's the story?" -asked Jair- "Are they launching a rescue?"
  •  
  • "Nope, not anymore" -replied Abel somewhat dryly- "They would, for Santavela's weapons, but not for Sol. And Osmar just 'fessed up that the whole Santavela thing was a lie."
  •  
  • "What?! All of it?"
  •  
  • "Yeah -just a regular backpack with a regular teddy bear and stuff. He just wanted Sol to feel special in her birthday it looks like."
  •  
  • "Oh man..." Jair ran a hand over his face.
  •  
  • "It was her mom's idea in the first place, if it makes any difference"
  •  
  • "My dad said, before the Gathering" -interjected Itati- "that unless Osmar knew where the weapons were... he couldn't afford to send people after Sol and leave the town defenseless..."
  •  
  • "Riiight. " -Jair knew this all too well- "Well, it's plan B, then, gentlemen. And lady."
  •  
  • Abel nodded slowly, considering.
  •  
  • "What about Ossy?" -asked Itati- "He's too young..."
  •  
  • "Yeah, Ossy's staying." -confirmed Abel- "He'll cover for us for a while, won't you Ossy?"
  •  
  • Osvaldo kept looking at the sea, absent minded.
  •  
  • "Right, so, tonight's the night, then." -said Jair, matter-of-factly- "Spit on your hands".
  •  
  • "Ewww, what??"
  •  
  • "You heard me, Itati. And you too, Osvaldo. You're a big boy now."
  •  
  • He wasn't, but did it anyway. So did Abel, Jair and, reluctantly, Itati. Even she understood this was a pact now. This was real.
  •  
  • "There's no turning back now." -announced Jair- "We're renegades now."
  •  
  • "Renegades" -echoed Abel.
  •  
  • "We're renegades" -confirmed Itati.
  •  
  • "The Renegades of Santavela."
  • Chapter 7 - The First Flight Of The Monarca

  • "We need to make an oath" Jair had said.
  •  
  • Osmar was hunched over the table. He had an empty bottle in one hand and the old ham radio microphone in the other. He was sobbing softly.
  •  
  • His lips trembled again. He tried to clear his throat before pushing the button for the nineteenth time:
  •  
  • "Anybody listening... " -his voice was raspy from the pain and the alcohol- "my daughter has been kidnapped. By a pirate..."
  •  
  • Quietly Osvaldo got out of bed. He climbed the ladder down from the little alcove in the wall where he usually slept.
  •  
  • Jair had spoken the day before. Jair had said "We are renegades because there are some things we put first, before even the law."
  •  
  • Osvaldo opened a small chest and got his overalls --he started putting them on over his pajamas.
  •  
  • Ocho, the dog, woke up and was about to greet Osvaldo with an inquisitive bark, but the boy looked at him. The dog stopped and sat down, wagging its tail eagerly.
  •  
  • -------------
  •  
  • It had been a long Town Council. Papers littered the hallways. Gercia had fallen asleep almost immediately, and so did his wife. Neither one heard their bedroom door creaking open.
  •  
  • Itati peeked in on her sleeping parents. She was wearing a long plastic rain coat. The enveloped shifted uneasy in her hand.
  •  
  • "Justice" -had said Jair- "Love, loyalty, honor."
  •  
  • She hesitated... but a look of determination slowly came over her face. Gently, she placed the envelope on the night table.
  •  
  • "Doing what's right even if it's bad for us; because it's still right!"
  •  
  • "... because it's still right" she echoed softly.
  •  
  • With a last sniff, she turned her back and closed the door before the first tear rolled down her cheek.
  •  
  • -------------
  •  
  • Abel pushed down on one last tight turn of the wrench -it had to seal right then and there because once out there in the open seas it would be too late.
  •  
  • With a loud thunk he let the wrench fall finally, and sat down to catch his breath for a moment and contemplate the day's work.
  •  
  • His was a large and very dark shipyard -truly it was his father's. There were tools and boxes all around -once it had been one of Basuk's first major docking areas and warehouse. Now his family had fallen out of fortune.
  •  
  • But there it was, floating gently in the darkness. Abel smiled.
  •  
  • He hardly even heard the noise upstairs: his parents arguing about money again, his younger brothers fighting each other again, the babies crying.
  •  
  • There it was, the ship.
  •  
  • "Because doing what's wrong just to live another day... well... if it's wrong what's the point of living another day, then? To be part of the wrong? There's too much of that!"
  •  
  • The logic felt undeniable to Abel's young bright mind. Jair wasn't always very smart Abel knew... but when he was right, holy smokes he was right.
  •  
  • "So do you all swear?"
  •  
  • Abel looked up at the sails, wrapped closed at the moment. The bright orange pattern almost glowing in the darkness -the pattern of a so called "monarch butterfly", which Sol had found in her View-Master only a week ago.
  •  
  • Abel nodded slowly and whispered to himself: "I swear".
  •  
  • "Hey gordito, " -called Itati, all of a sudden- "over here!"
  •  
  • Abel turned to see her coming in, carrying a large sack over her shoulders.
  •  
  • He went to help her load it aboard the ship-
  •  
  • "This is the last one. " -she said- "We should have enough food for weeks, buddy."
  •  
  • "Did my parents see you come in?"
  •  
  • "I don't think they would see a serpent fish drop in the middle of the living room right now. Man, why do they fight like that?"
  •  
  • "No everyone is rich, Itati..."
  •  
  • "Anyway, is the ship ready? Where's Jair?"
  •  
  • "I'm here".
  •  
  • He emerged from below deck, tall and strong, cleaning some engine grease off his hands with a rag. Her eyes lit up. He nodded at them to come aboard.
  •  
  • "I'd say we're ready. What do you say Abel? You think we're ready?"
  •  
  • Abel turned to look at Jair... and a slow, impish grin crept over his face...
  •  
  • -------------
  •  
  • CREEEAAAK!!
  •  
  • The huge metal door of the shipyard noisily slid open. There it was. From the darkness of the cave the ship slowly begun to emerge...
  •  
  • "Open sails!" -called Jair, standing tall at the wheel.
  •  
  • Abel and Itati pulled on some ropes together... and three sets of beautiful sails -painted just like the wings of a Monarch Butterfly spread out, proud to catch the night breeze.
  •  
  • This was real. The breeze was cold on their cheeks, the waves gently rose and bowed beneath their feet, and they were all really, truly going out on a life or death mission. This ship was no longer the Gavilán. It was something else -something new. Out of the ashes by the hands of children. Oh, it sailedbeautifully. It's name was The Monarca.
  •  
  • "I gotta hand it to you, Abel" -commented Jair, trying not to let on just how excited he was- "you really did a great job fixing this boat in just three days."
  •  
  • "Five days, Jair. You were out-cold for three days."
  •  
  • "Eh, it all feels like yesterday to me."
  •  
  • "Wasn't just me. Osvaldo helped, and Itati did a fine job stocking us with food and fuel too, I must admit."
  •  
  • "Good job Itati."
  •  
  • She blushed. "Hey, dad has a huge warehouse... I mean, it belongs to the town technically, but-"
  •  
  • "And you know where we're going, right Abel?"
  •  
  • "The Sea of Ashes, first. Then Tomb Valley."
  •  
  • "Maybe even Community 32?" -ventured Itati- "If it really exists?"
  •  
  • "Maybe." -Jair was calm and collected, as if it was every day that he confronted historical-level decisions- "Maybe Santavela's weapons do really exist, too. But I know this: we're not coming home without Sol. That's for sure."
  •  
  • Itati's look was a mix of adoration and concern.
  •  
  • Abel looked behind, at the Christmas lights in the fog...
  •  
  • "Good. 'Cause if the pirates don't kill us, our parents are gonna..."
  •  
  • "We just need to get past the watchman. Just sails for now, no engine. I know where they look." Jair seemed confident.
  •  
  • -------------
  •  
  • Up in his Volkswagen husk, the tired watchmen sipped on his coffee and lifted up the binoculars once again: just darkness. Just the blackness of the sea in the distance, the faint skyline of distant broken buildings, the twin volcanoes in the horizon. Fog, clouds, emptiness.
  •  
  • He put the binoculars down, half exhausted half relieved.
  •  
  • The sudden buzz of the short wave radio startled him:
  •  
  • "Brother Julian" -it said-" What's the story for 3:00 AM?"
  •  
  • Julian groggily unclipped the radio from his belt: "All clear, Brother Pedraza. No serpent fish. No pirates. Quiet night."
  •  
  • "Good. I'm sending Toño over, you sound like you need some sleep..."
  •  
  • "What we need is to stop watering down the coffee so much, Brother. This is practically tea already and-"
  •  
  • BARK BARK BARK
  •  
  • "What the-"
  •  
  • Puzzled, Julian took his binoculars and peered straight down beneath his tower -where the dog's barking came from.
  •  
  • "What the-" muttered Jair.
  •  
  • "Was that a dog?" -whispered Itati- "Oh no... don't tell me it's-"
  •  
  • "Osvaldo?!" Abel hissed.
  •  
  • The little boy looked up at Abel from the bottom of the barrel as soon as Abel took off the lid. Ocho wagged his tail.
  •  
  • "How the hell did you-"
  •  
  • The dog jumped out, barking again, and started to lick Abel's face when suddenly all were blinded by a spotlight from above! Jair grimaced and shielded his eyes with his forearm
  •  
  • "Who goes?!" -called Julian, the watchman, from above- "Down there, in the boat? It's past curfew!"
  •  
  • Jair cursed mutedly, then rushed a whisper to Itati:
  •  
  • "Hide over there, now-now!" -then calling loudly back- "Yes, hi! This is Jair. Ahm, Abel repaired my boar and I'm taking it back out. I didn't know about any curfew, I just woke up today from... you know. Sorry about that-"
  •  
  • Itati struggled in the meanwhile to crouch behind some crates in the shadows. Abel was hurriedly trying to get rid of Ocho and give it back to Osvaldo when the spotlight shifted and caught him in the act:
  •  
  • "Isn't that Osmar's kid? The mute? What's he doin' there?"
  •  
  • Osvaldo shook his head no at the light, innocently.
  •  
  • "Ah, he sneaked in, actually! We just found him. I'm dropping him back at Osmar's if you don't mind..."
  •  
  • A few tense seconds transpired... and finally the spotlight turned off.
  •  
  • "Very well, don't forget the curfew next time. " -called the watchman- "There are pirates around, as you should know better than anyone."
  •  
  • "Yes sir, no problem sir."
  •  
  • Just then Abel finally pushed the dog off, only for the little beast to happily strut to Itati in her hiding spot, tackle her down and start enthusiastically licking her face!
  •  
  • "EEWW!! NOT MY FACE!!"
  •  
  • The spotlight instantly turned back on and fell directly on Itati!
  •  
  • "HEY! That's Father's Gercia's daughter!"
  •  
  • "Y-yes... " -called Jair back, the facade crumbling- "s-she... we, we were together actually. We were on a date. You won't tell her old man, will you? C'mon!"
  •  
  • "The hell I will not -it's my job on the line! You're in trouble young man! I hope you miss the sick hall, cuz' I'm radioing Gercia!"
  •  
  • Ocho ran back to Osvaldo, leaving Itati wiping her face with her shirt sleeves and spitting-
  •  
  • "Okay, Itati:" -Abel tried to think fast- " just tell your father you were on a date with Jair, okay? We'll drop Osvaldo home and try again tomorrow..."
  •  
  • "Err... there's a problem, boys..."
  •  
  • "What?"
  •  
  • "I... kinda left my father a note."
  •  
  • "What?!"
  •  
  • "I thought we'd be far away by the time he woke up tomorrow!" -she whimpered- "A letter would be a nice thing- I-I didn't want him to worry so much and make a scandal like Osmar and-"
  •  
  • The bell started to ring, madly!!
  •  
  • "ITATI!!" -it was Gercia's voice in a bullhorn, distant! -"EVERYONE STOP THAT BOAT!! All patrols close on that boat; my daughter's in there!!"
  •  
  • Jair looked around as more spotlights started to turn on from various post towers and falling on the boat-
  •  
  • "Oh just beautiful..." he muttered.
  •  
  • "Jair, gun it." -Abel was firm- "Listen to me. We have the engine".
  •  
  • "This is insane."
  •  
  • "I'm telling you, we can do it! Gun it."
  •  
  • "They're gonna close all the exits; at least 10 boats-"
  •  
  • "JAIR!" -called Gercia, now nearer- "My daughter is in your boat! Stop Immediately!"
  •  
  • "Jair." Abel looked at him in the eyes.
  •  
  • "But we can't take Osvaldo!"
  •  
  • "Jair."
  •  
  • "This is insane!"
  •  
  • "Jair?"
  •  
  • "What?!"
  •  
  • "We're renegades."
  •  
  • Jair stared back at Abel for a long moment. He then turned to look at Osvaldo and found him staring back. Standing straight, the young mute boy nodded.
  •  
  • "Gun the engine, Abel."
  •  
  • "Sir yes sir!"
  •  
  • "Let's go get Sol".
  •  
  • "Aye-frigging-aye captain!"
  •  
  • -------------
  •  
  • Gercia clutched at the radio in his right hand; Itati's crumpled letter in the other.
  •  
  • "Yes, at least 10 boats!" -he barked- "Close all the exits! No, I don't care about fuel! We'll find more fuel; but there's just one of my daughter!"
  •  
  • ROARR!!! All heads turned at the roaring of a boat engine- the Monarca! It was nearly leaping over the waters, chased fruitlessly by several much slower boats-
  •  
  • Itati waved bye to her father.
  •  
  • Gercia's radio fell down in the water.
  •  
  • -------------
  •  
  • Julian saw the last of it, from his perch atop the tower, with his binoculars. The Monarca was speeding away, hoping like a river stone over still water -ripping right through the mist and into the darkness, slipping through under the gates before they came down in a splash.
  •  
  • A sad smile cracked the old watchman's leathery face beneath the binoculars. He brought up his radio:
  •  
  • "Brother Pedraza, I guess we're amending my 3 AM report? I want it to read as follows, over:"
  •  
  • "Go ahead Brother Julian, over."
  •  
  • "At 3 AM several children... ahm.."
  •  
  • The Monarca was gone now, into the mists. Out of reach even to the spotlights that coursed the black waters. Many windows lit up in all the broken skyscrapers, many doors opened with people stepping out with candles to see what the commotion was all about.
  •  
  • Jair was standing tall at the wheel; alert, primed.
  •  
  • "At 3 AM several children escaped Basuk to rescue their friend while... while the town slept."
  •  
  • Itati stared at the fading Christmas lights one last time, thoughtful.
  •  
  • "Hard town to wake up, this" -continued the watchman.
  •  
  • She steeled herself, removing the rose from her hair and tossing it on the water. A last goodbye.
  •  
  • "It had to be the children."
  •  
  • The watchman wiped at something in his eye -"Renegades every one. Over."
  • Chapter 8 - Talk Of Pirates

  • Sol’s reflection trembled over the dark waters.
  •  
  • She stood near the bow of the ship... with that thousand-yard stare in her eyes.
  •  
  • It was a grey day on the empty wastes; all fog and calm waters. The Serenissima lumbered on, quietly.
  •  
  • "I don’t think you’re too young… " -said Ibrahim suddenly, somewhere behind her- "to understand you’re being a hero throughout all of this."
  •  
  • She kept her silence, only holding her teddy bear tightly.
  •  
  • "Think about it." -continued the pirate- "Can you imagine father Gercia ever launching an expedition to the Community 32, to recover Santavela’s legacy? No? No, me neither. They don’t really believe in Santavela there, do they? Not like you-they don’t. It’s a fairytale."
  •  
  • He stood behind her like an over-sized shadow; somehow a mixture of calmness, charm and menace. He too set his eyes for the horizon.
  •  
  • "Can you imagine anyone from Basuk, or anywhere really… ever venturing this far into the Sea of Ashes, much less Tomb Valley?" -and before she could reply, he reverently added: "Anyone other than your mother, that is."
  •  
  • "D-don’t talk about my mother-"
  •  
  • "-she was the best diver in the world."
  •  
  • Sol’s defenses wavered for just an instant, just as Ibrahim expected -without missing a beat he followed:
  •  
  • "Because diving is about daring."
  •  
  • Sol looked down to the waters, reminding herself that whatever came out of the mouth of a pirate ought to be always wrong, but...
  •  
  • "When you’re down there," -continued he- "with shadows all around you, and there’s only so much air in your lungs… and you’ve found some cheap junk and you should really just go back up to the boat but suddenly… you see a glint, a little… shine deep in the bottom… gone after you turn your head… "
  •  
  • Sol didn't want to imagine any of that; it wasn't up to her though.
  •  
  • "Do you go for it?" -asked the pirate- "There could be redvines there, to tangle your feet. There could be serpent fish burrowed in the sand. Or it could be deeper than you thought and you could run out of air… -or it may have been a water ghost even, -people see those sometimes, especially if they’ve been under for too long…" -he made a pause... switching to a new tone; calm and defiant- "But you’re the best diver the town has. They need you."
  •  
  • Sol's lower lip pursed. She knew whom he was talking about.
  •  
  • "So you go for it."
  •  
  • "I don’t want you talking about my mom."
  •  
  • Ibrahim’s eyes moved almost imperceptibly… carefully studying Sol’s face, for her reaction.
  •  
  • He then turned back to stare at the sea while discretely pressing a button in his belt’s radio. *Click*
  •  
  • "I understand." -his voice turned grave- "It must feel… somehow strange to you I suppose… to realize the only other person in the world who truly believes in Santavela just as much as you do is… well, is a dirty pirate, like me."
  •  
  • "You… you just want his weapons…"
  •  
  • Ibrahim smiled softly.
  •  
  • "Santavela means much more than that to me, Sol."
  •  
  • And that was honest; but he quickly recovered:
  •  
  • "Which brings us to my original question: can you imagine a town diver doing this? Never. Only pirates care. But what kind of pirates? The kind that protects towns? Sure, I charge a fee to do so -I have a ship to run. But at least I’m not the kind that burns towns, and believe me: that’s the more popular kind in these parts. Who would you rather see armed to the teeth with Santavela’s power? The Worm Club?"
  •  
  • "What… do you want…"
  •  
  • Ibrahim’s radio suddenly buzzed to life: "Captain, you need to see this!" -it was Ze'Kill's grating voice. Ibrahim ignored it:
  •  
  • "What do I want from Santavela? I want his soul. He wasn’t afraid of breaking the rules if it was the right thing to do. He gave people hope. He would want to rebuild this sad, grey world; re-organize it, bring some order, make life livable again instead of merely survivable."
  •  
  • "Ibrahim, this is an emergency!" -insisted the radio.
  •  
  • "It would be… somehow poetic -don’t you think-" -mused Ibrahim- "if it was Santavela’s weapons after all these years… just what enables us to restart the world… and it would be all thanks to you. "
  •  
  • He casually touched her hair...
  •  
  • "Which is why I said you’re being a hero."
  •  
  • Sol struggled to keep her sight straight on the horizon… while Ibrahim discreetly studied her.
  •  
  • "I mean a real emergency, Captain?" -said Ze'Kill- "Get it now? Really real? Not kidding? Bad timing, not playing pretend with little gir-"
  •  
  • Ibrahim snatched the radio out of his belt, annoyed:
  •  
  • "Ze’Kill, I thought I had made myself clear, you fraction-of-a-man-"
  •  
  • "It’s the ANVIL, Captain! Starboard!"
  •  
  • Ibrahim swiveled in place -instantly bringing up the binoculars to his eyes:
  •  
  • Oh yes. It was a large ship indeed, emerging through the fog -more like a floating platform made out of six school buses crudely fused together, and bearing a massive train engine for propulsion- theAnvil got its name from the characteristic shape of the center structure –a dump truck flipped upside down. It was a feared and famous sight, the juggernaut of the sea; both strong and fast, and loaded with over three dozen drug-addled, excessively-armed and tattoo-covered pirates.
  •  
  • Without even a nod to Sol Ibrahim walked away across the deck:
  •  
  • "Goddamnit Ze’Kill"-he barked to the radio– "you said the radio had been fixed!"
  •  
  • "Shortwave only!" -came the response- "And they didn’t announce themselves -all of a sudden here, I’m telling ya this’s an ambush!"
  •  
  • Ibrahim cursed under his breath and picked up the binoculars again: there he was. Emerging on the deck of the Anvil just now, old Luzcarreon Dostumbas. He was a giant of a man; bald but covered in tattoos, and with a large bushy black beard, black feathered shoulder pads, the works…
  •  
  • Ibrahim reached for his bullhorn:
  •  
  • "This is Ibrahim. What business do you have with us, Dostumbas?"
  •  
  • Through the binoculars Ibrahim could see Dostumbas give back a toothy grin, before bringing up his own bullhorn:
  •  
  • "We ‘ear you got a lead for them Golden Cities, Ibrahim. Community 32? You were gonna’ tell the Junta, aye?"
  •  
  • "Where did you hear this?"
  •  
  • The Anvil kept approaching, faster and faster.
  •  
  • "What, you have no radios? That girl you got thar, your guide? Her old man in Basuk be whining’ on them radios… all day’n’night he does. He’s done made you famous Ibrahim, aye -just like you always wanted, ha…"
  •  
  • Ibrahim cursed for a ninth time, raging inside.
  •  
  • Out from below deck finally came Ze'Kill looking concerned –followed by Somaya and Iago, and other pirates too, but Ze’Kill harshly waved them away, back below deck.
  •  
  • "We should have killed the cripple I told you!" -the dwarf grated.
  •  
  • "I ‘ear the Muerteblanca is aboot’ a day’s travel from ‘ere, right on our asses." -the voice of Dostumbas cheerfully continued, over the bullhorn- "The Santa Carlota is a’comin’ too, and the good ol’ boys from The Worm Club, you know them ol’ boys –’ey figure ey, even if the kid doesn’t know where the loot be, at least we still get a kid, aye? Nothin’s in vain, son."
  •  
  • Ibrahim's face became statue-like motionless.
  •  
  • "So what’s it gonna be, son?"
  •  
  • Ze'Kill tugged on Ibrahim's jacket: "We gun the engine, cap'n? We make a run for it?"
  •  
  • "Kill the engine."
  •  
  • "What?! They’re gonna butcher us!"
  •  
  • Ibrahim was serious like the plague:
  •  
  • "Second-guess me one more time Ze’Kill" -there was an icy calmness to his voice that made the dwarf shudder- "and I swear I'll carve your heart out with Iago’s toenail. Now kill the engine."
  •  
  • Pale, Ze’Kill took to the C.B. radio:
  •  
  • "Benito… kill the engine… and… tell the men not to panic…"
  •  
  • Sol started to approach slowly, hesitant… when the bullhorn -ever closer- called for attention again:
  •  
  • "You knows the Anvil's here be faster than your Serenissima, aye. You ‘member this last time… no?"
  •  
  • Ibrahim turned his back to the Anvil as the massive ship got closer and closer. He looked into Somaya’s eyes.
  •  
  • "The old god in your dreams, Somaya, the Guardian." -he said- "Give me the coordinates."
  •  
  • "19`41 north, 98`50 west." -came the answer in her uniquely eerie emotionless voice.
  •  
  • Ibrahim nodded, then turned to face Sol -on one knee:
  •  
  • "Sol, I want you to listen to me very carefully: your father has sealed your town’s fate. All these pirates are coming to take you away from me, and force you to lead them to the Community 32. They won't be as nice as me, and they don't care about Santavela; they just want the weapons. If you want us to return to Basuk in time to mount a defense, you’re going to have to play along, understand?"
  •  
  • Sol stared at Ibrahim’s eyes.
  • Chapter 9 - The Gathering Storm

  • Osmar was a wreck. He had't slept in days -long days of staring at the radio dial, clutching his earphones, scanning the airwaves…
  •  
  • It was a grey afternoon when finally the radio buzzed back:
  •  
  • "-fzzt- The Junta be meeting tonight, aye, at coordinates 19'41 north, 98'50 west- on them Seas o' Ashes."
  •  
  • Osmar recognized the voice -a distant echo of days best forgotten. Adalberto Luzcarreón Dostumbas; no other man spoke quite this way -and no other man had survived quite as long in his cruel line of business. Osmar's shoulders tensed like wire as he continued listening:
  •  
  • "Ibrahim claims -fzzt- has already found them Golden Cities, or Community 32, and will lead us through them Tomb Valleys. Also, that he has agreed to share all fortunes as per be the proper accord of the Brethren o' the Seas-"
  •  
  • Osmar covered his mouth. He had anticipated something like this could happen, although...
  •  
  • "Also, Ibrahim apologizes for not inviting us sooner, aye," -the voice continued- "but explains this was because he had no radios, and also to make sure first –fzzt-… girl guide was real, and not just fer her meat'n'bones, heh-heh…"
  •  
  • And after a brief pause, Osmar heard the single most terrifying sentence he had ever heard in his entire life:
  •  
  • "Meat'n'bones available after the treasure too, of course, heh-heh-aye…"
  •  
  • The chair fell back. Osmar leapt -crutch and all- and dashed out the door with his soul in his fists!
  •  
  • -------------
  •  
  • Jair's face turned white as a sheet too, as he stared at the tiny radio in the deck of the Monarca.
  •  
  • "You're working on the coordinates, right Abel?"
  •  
  • "Since the moment I heard them" -came the terse reply. Abel did not notice his own hand trembling slightly as he drew over the map with the aide of his alidade.
  •  
  • The radio drone continued:
  •  
  • "And one last time: the Juntas be composed –only- of the –fzzt- vessels: The Anvil, The Serenissima, The Muerteblanca, -fzzzt- Santa Carlota, and them Worm Clubs. All others will get their shares too aye, at the next Junta as per be the proper accord…"
  •  
  • Abel just shook his head "So much filth put together in one place I bet even the bedbugs have lice."
  •  
  • "What are we going to do, Jair?" asked Itati, her voice weakened.
  •  
  • "Abel, how far?"
  •  
  • "Well, if we throw everything we've got at the engine… and I mean everything…" he quickly completed some math operations on a scrap of paper "… we could maybe arrive just in time tonight… but keep in mind we won't have any fuel left for the trip back…"
  •  
  • "So we'll use sails only on the trip back, then. But Abel, do those coordinates feel right to you… as to where the Community 32 would really be? I  mean, if it really existed-"
  •  
  • "Not really, no. It's not even within Tomb Valley proper, but… -but listen Jair- without these coordinates, and without them waiting for us in one place… well, the Sea of Ashes can be a very big place, you know what I mean?"
  •  
  • "It's our one chance, is what you mean."
  •  
  • Abel nodded, solemnly. "We're not gonna get another."
  •  
  • Itati's eyes darted from Abel to Jair, and back again:
  •  
  • "Our one chance to what?! To show up in the middle of a huge gathering of pirates and… and what? Ask'em really politely to let us have Sol back?"
  •  
  • "We'll think of something, Itati…"
  •  
  • Abel nodded back, and spun to open the steam-engine hatch. He poured in an entire sack of coal… and the flames rose, hungry…
  •  
  • The Monarca begun to gather speed… and Jair looked to the horizon…
  •  
  • "We'll think of something…"
  •  
  • -------------
  •  
  • Sol woke up in her little nest-cage -the upside-down shopping cart- to the noise of an argument taking place in the mess hall several doors down:
  •  
  • "So what –IS- there, Captain?" -groaned Ze'Kill's grating voice, distant- "What's in those coordinates -and I don't want to hear about Somaya's dreams again…"
  •  
  • Sol gently removed her birthday-gift tiara, and begun examining its teeth one by one…
  •  
  • "… and please understand I'm asking on behalf of the men down there, who are getting pre-tty fri-ckin' nervous you know…"
  •  
  • Sol couldn't hear the reply. Maybe there wasn't one.
  •  
  • "Oh, I see." -continued the dwarf- "So it's one of those times when 'we already know all we need to know', is that it?"
  •  
  • Sol choose one tooth and broke it off… then begun applying it to the padlock. She knew how to pick a lock; all good divers did…
  •  
  • "B-but but it's suicide!" -the voice shrieked- "You've promised the captains of four -count'em- four crews that these coordinates are for Community 32, and how… how-what are you going to do once they realize we lied to them? Wait, what we-YOU lied to them!"
  •  
  • The padlock clicked and the cage door swung open; hardly a challenge when not underwater. After hesitating for just a second, Sol crawled out on all fours…
  •  
  • "Or maybe this is why you say we already know all we need to know, huh? Cuz' if things turn bad, me –all of these maggots too- we're just blaming it all on you now, and hey, maybe they'll spare us, ah?! Is that it?!"
  •  
  • Sol reached the door, and spied through the keyhole: Ibrahim had his boots up the table and was calmly nursing a beer while Ze'Kill was pacing in circles around him, huffing like a miniature bull. Most of the men had stopped eating altogether and were merely watching the altercation and each other.
  •  
  • Somaya -standing behind Ibrahim- turned to address Ze'Kill: "The captain has brought us all to the Cradle of the Ancient God. I saw It in my dreams. We are all to be tested."
  •  
  • "Gah!!" -exploded the dwarf- "I'm sick of your weird dreams, woman!"
  •  
  • Something about her voice... Sol backed away, and in the corner of her eye it seemed Somaya had seen her? Sol turned her head and saw Ibrahim's desk, in the corner of the cabin. She started quietly making her way there…
  •  
  • "… before we are worthy of Santavela's legacy, the Ancient God must deem us worthy…"
  •  
  • "Yeah, and we should have left your bones to rot in your old man's grave, by Satan's armpits, Somaya!!"
  •  
  • Sol faced Ibrahim's desk: the right drawer was labeled "Santavela Findings"…
  •  
  • "-and you know what? I'm sick of hearing about Santavela too, Ibrahim! Ever since you took over Butcher Pete, I swear this is all we get anymore -Santavela for breakfast, Santavela for lunch, Santavela for dinner! Just… weird trinkets and promises and fairytales! We could have kept the loot of that entire town, and now we got a Junta comin' and nothing to show for it but a skinny girl!"
  •  
  • Sol opened the drawer; it was filled with folders, yellowed papers and old-looking trinkets… except...
  •  
  • Sol blinked. It could not be..?
  •  
  • "And I'm not gonna put my neck on the line for your little-boy fantasies anymore, you hear me?!"
  •  
  • But it was. Slowly she picked up the aviator cap… and her eyes trembled. It was not her own cap, but rather a very similar one: one she had not seen in two years. While hers had the word "SOL" stenciled on top, with bright red letters, this one instead read... “SOLEDAD”…
  •  
  • "Mother…?"
  •  
  • "Are you suggesting mutiny then, Mr. Ze'Kill?" Ibrahim's voice sounded vaguely amused, down the hallway.
  •  
  • Sol stood up slowly; the cap held tightly in her hands.
  •  
  • There was a long silence.
  •  
  • "No... no... sorry-I..."
  •  
  • Suddenly Sol was startled by the cringe-inducing thump of a body breaking through wood! Ze'Kill screamed! Over and over in a high pitch wail!
  •  
  • "Mr. Ze'Kill, I get the impression you have feedback on my leadership style, but I wish we hadn't lost this perfectly fine table to it. "
  •  
  • The wails turned into moans of pain, more broken wood hit the floor. There was the sound of a chair gently sliding, followed by calm footsteps approaching…
  •  
  • "… and I'd love to hear more of it with an open mind, of course; my door is always open to all of you. But it will have to wait until after the Junta; it's bad manners for the host to be late…"
  •  
  • Sol swallowed. She waited, frozen as the footsteps came closer and closer.
  •  
  • The door opened: it was him.
  •  
  • He looked into her eyes for a long moment… and she dropped the aviator cap back inside the drawer…
  •  
  • Understanding, he beckoned her over with a nod. It was time.
  •  
  • Meekly, she went.
  • Chapter 10 - At The Cradle Of The Ancient God

  • Darkness and rain ruled quietly over the waters only dimly pierced by distant points of light: the pirate ships facing each other at five points of a wide imaginary pentagon.
  •  
  • There was the massive Anvil: a floating platform crawling with restless men waving torches, bottles and rifles.
  • They waved to their captain, Dostumbas, who held a bottle of whisky in one hand and steady the wheel in the other, standing tall on the smaller motor boat approaching the meeting point. He sailed alone.
  •  
  • The Muerteblanca: an all-white former luxury yacht decorated with red skull eyes and teeth near the front and famous for its all-female crew. It had also dispatched a smaller boat: captain Red Veronica -dressed all in white but for her long fiery red hair. She came accompanied -as always- by her trusted right-hand woman, Maria La Quieta.
  •  
  • The Santa Carlota had been a whaling vessel in its past incarnation and it still conserved its massive starboard harpoon -now infamously nicknamed Aguijón; well known as a one-hit ship-sinker. Dressed as a priest and holding a rosary, Father Alacrán came in a smaller boat, flanked by two teenage choir-boys, one of whom held an umbrella.
  •  
  • The Worm Club was not a single entity but a rag-tag collection of smaller fishing vessels, medium-sized cargo ships and leisure boats which traveled together as a roving pack of wolves would on land in times bygone. Its men were the scariest of all -not so much for their tattoos and human-bone charms, but by their animalistic grins and howls; their visible lack of humanity. Carlitos -a massive black man without a single hair in his whole body and covered in self-inflicted ritualistic scars and burn marks- approached alone in a jet-ski.
  •  
  • Ibrahim nodded to Iago on the deck of the Serenissima. Iago nodded back and walked out of sight.
  •  
  • Ibrahim then turned and started the engine of the small motor boat that would take him too to the meeting at the center of the imaginary pentagon. Somaya was with him, impassive.
  •  
  • All five small boats met in the middle arriving almost at the same time, wary, and tense. The rain hardened.
  •  
  • "He be the Ibrahim!" ringed Dostumbas in his throathy patois "And here I thinks' the last I see of you be on them burning bridges at the Battle o’ Valley o’ Bells, aye!"
  •  
  • Ibrahim kept his eyes out of sight.
  •  
  • "Truly sorry to disappoint you, old vulture."
  •  
  • "Not too late for that, aye…"
  •  
  • "We sailed a long way, Ibrahim" said Veronica, who was never one for pleasantries "so let’s not waste any more time. Where is the child guide?"
  •  
  • "Has she been to the Community 32, truly?" asked Father Alacrán in his meliflous voice "Is she pretty?"
  •  
  • Ibrahim reigned-in his initial wave of revulsion, and gave a measured reply:
  •  
  • "Her mother has –best Tomb Valley diver ever. Only now she’s dead. But Sol, the child, her daughter, remembers enough of their travels together, and the spirit of Santavela is with her."
  •  
  • "Ah, no'ody here cares for them spirits, lad, not even the blessed Father Alacrán -may peace be with you and your crew, aye. We came just for them weapons."
  •  
  • Ibrahim betrayed a slight smile; Veronica was not surprised:
  •  
  • "So how are we going to do this?" she asked?
  •  
  • "The Junta’s Accord" -advanced Alacrán, politely- "has always been to share all findings in equal parts, yes…?"
  •  
  • Carlitos opened his mouth for the first time, only to let out a creepy half-laugh. Veronica scoffed. Ibrahim put words to the thoughts in everybody's minds:
  •  
  • "We all know whoever gets the weapons first will turn them on the rest of us. We all know I would have, if Dostumbas hadn’t kept me stuck here. We all know Dostumbas would have, had I not called the rest of you here. But as it turns out, there -is- a fair way to separate the deserving from the undeserving…"
  •  
  • "Dangerous waters you be treading, boy, aye…"
  •  
  • "Well spit it out, then."
  •  
  • Ibrahim looked over his shoulder to Somaya; and she took a step forward and she rose her voice to be heard through the rumble of the waves and the wind:
  •  
  • "We are on the Cradle of the Ancient God. He returned when the Old World ended, to be a guardian to the Community 32, and a successor to Santavela…"
  •  
  • Alacrán looked above as she spoke, and could have sworn the wind and the rain had just reacted. But Carlitos merely exhaled through a mocking grin, and Dostumbas shook his head, thinking it a trick. Veronica narrowed her eyes trying to see through Somaya’s game -if any- but Somaya suddenly turned to point away with her bony finger:
  •  
  • "There she is. The child. And with the child the secret."
  •  
  • Far away Iago on a jet-ski rudely dropped a wooden cage on the water, and inside the cage screamed Sol! Ignoring her cries, Iago turned around and lifted his massive shoulder-harpoon -aiming it at her!
  •  
  • Somaya's voice rang strong with the storm:
  •  
  • "The Ancient God will only permit one of us to reach the child, and in doing so we will have earned the Right of Inquiry!"
  •  
  • Iago fired the harpoon!!
  •  
  • But the shot splashed under the cage and deep into the water...
  •  
  • Having done his job, Iago turned around and abandoned Sol to her screams inside her floating cage…
  •  
  • "By the short hairs of Satan, Ibrahim, what this game be?!"
  •  
  • With a loud clunk the harpoon stuck itself on the rock wall of an underwater structure. Watery echoes stirred far and wide… there were carvings on the rock wall: ancient-looking carvings of snakes, and geometric patterns and primitive figures barely illuminated by the flickering beams of light that filtered from the surface above, and through the slow waving of the moss and the coral…
  •  
  • Ibrahim's voice could faintly be heard from the surface above:
  •  
  • "I suggest we return to our boats."
  •  
  • The dark underwater structure looked… like a pyramid…
  •  
  • Alacrán had always believed in omens. He seemed greatly distressed:
  •  
  • "What is this? What the hell is she babbling about?!?!"
  •  
  • Distant thunder. Something stirred beneath. Something big. Tremors could be felt… Father Alacran’s eyes went wide…
  •  
  • The realization dawned cold on Veronica:
  •  
  • "The Ancient God is-"
  •  
  • She turned around and set her small boat full speed back to the Muerteblanca -she pulled out her CB Radio:
  •  
  • "Retreat!! Women, turn around and get the hell out of here! NOW!!"
  •  
  • The underwater pyramid was suddenly shadowed by the passing shape of some great beast… some long, four-legged massive beast swimming swiftly for the surface above…
  •  
  • Calmly, Ibrahim too turned his boat around just as another tremor rumbled ominously through the heavy rain…
  •  
  • "Now wait a minute, you, wait!" bellowed Dostumbas behind him "I could have taken her girl from you yesterdays -I could've, but I thought you had honor?!"
  •  
  • A long, deep rumble beneath the waves shook all boats!
  •  
  • "Honor means letting Santavela himself choose who is worthy." called back Ibrahim, looking back over his shoulder andraising his voice to be heard through the storm. Turning away he added: "It’s all in higher hands than mine now, Luzy".
  •  
  • Dostumbas drew a long pistol from within his coat, and aimed it at Ibrahim’s back…
  •  
  • "No yet it be not…"
  •  
  • CRAAASHHH!! ROAAARRR!! The screams of two dozen women!!
  •  
  • Everyone turned to see the Muerteblanca being violently thrown on its side, with a giant splash!! And an impossibly large, dark figure was on top of it -holding it down!
  •  
  • Lightning illuminated the nightmare for a second: like a vulture standing on a fallen corpse, the 50-feet long quetzalodon feathered-serpent-alligator beast glistened in the rain, tearing through the hull of the Muerteblanca with its car-sized claws, only stopping to lift its head to the stormy sky and roar, roar like hell itself would roar if erupting through the maw of a dragon, drowning out all screams!!
  •  
  • Terror in its purest distilled form gripped the hearts of everyone.
  •  
  • Or nearly everyone -as Ibrahim didn't even turn his head. He kept his eyes on the prize -on Sol, who screamed inside her floating cage not too far from the Serenissima
  •  
  • Somaya did stare at the beast, rapt in its fearsome glory…
  •  
  • "WE’RE COMING, SOL!!" shouted Jair!
  •  
  • Ibrahim turned, shocked to see the Monarca hopping over the stormy waves like a river stone, heading in Sol’s direction!
  •  
  • "Iago! Starboard!" barked Ibrahim to his CB radio, his face twisted in anger "Shoot them!!"
  •  
  • BOOM!! Ibrahim’s speedboat was blown up into splinters by the cannons of the Anvil!!
  •  
  • "YEEESSSSSSS!!!!" roared Dostumbas "AAAAHAHAHAHA!!"
  •  
  • The old seadog signaled back to the Anvil, and bared his teeth like as he rushed in his speedboat to the site of Ibrahim's demise! He still held the whisky bottle in one hand, and both the wheel and his pistol in the other!
  •  
  • "BOARD THEM, MY MEN!!" he bellowed, needing no bullhorn even in the storm "TAKE THE SERENISSIMA-AYE!! AAAAYE-TAKE THEM ALL! AHAHAHA!!"
  •  
  • Spinning underwater in a swarm of bubbles, Ibrahim cursed and tried to re-orient himself: far away to his right the Muerteblanca was sinking in flaming pieces, and he could see a swarm of smaller boats surrounding it: the Worm Club; old debts. To his left Somaya was softly descending into the depths over the quetzalodon’s pyramid, her hands crossed over her chest and her eyes closed… behind him he recognized Dostumbas’s speedboat approaching… and in front of him the Monarca rushed towards the Serenissima -specifically towards Sol’s floating cage...
  •  
  • Choices. Icy determination in his eyes, Ibrahim unsheathed his sword.
  •  
  • "JAIR, LOOK OUT!!" yelled Itati, pointing to Iago who was aiming his harpoon at them from the deck of the Serenissima-
  •  
  • But Jair had already prepared for this:
  •  
  • "Not this time!"
  •  
  • He pulled a hard left on the wheel, and the Monarca nearly toppled over on the waves, but-
  •  
  • BOOM!! The harpoon missed by a hair!!
  •  
  • "FLYING FLAMING CRAP!!" Abel was pale as a ghost, but quickly pulled the levers to compensate with the engine and regain balance-
  •  
  • Iago grumbled slightly bothered, and begun loading a second harpoon into his cannon-
  •  
  • "I GIVE YOU THE SHIP!!" rang Ze'Kill's grating voice, from behind "THE SHIP IS YOURS!! TAKE IT! TAKE IT!!"
  •  
  • Iago turned to see Ze’Kill throwing a rope ladder to the men of the Anvil –just as it bumped on the side of the Serenissima! The boarding begun!
  •  
  • Exhaling like a bull through the nostrils, Iago dropped the cannon and begun stomping his way towards Ze’Kill, clenching his fists closed, when–
  •  
  • ROARR!!! THE QUETZALODON MONSTER BROKE THROUGH THE DECK OF THE ANVIL EMERGING LIKE A DEMON FROM THE DEPTHS, GRABBING SAILORS AND MERELY TOSSING THEM INTO ITS MAW!!
  •  
  • Dostumbas thought this must be a nightmare.
  •  
  • "… by the short hairs of Satan…" he whispered at the sight of his massive ship being torn from within.
  •  
  • But his terror quickly turned into shock when a blade suddenly pierced through clean through his chest, from behind, impaling him.
  •  
  • He had time enough to spit some blood and choke… before the blade suddenly burst into flames...
  •  
  • Dripping wet, with one hand Ibrahim deposited the unconscious body of Somaya on the speedboat; with the other he yanked back his flaming sword out of Dostumbas's back.
  •  
  • The whisky bottle first, and then the pistol fell off from Dostumbas’s hands… and at long last the tall old pirate collapsed too, like a sack of bones.
  •  
  • "Aye." commented Ibrahim, then he turned his eyes towards the Serenissima:
  •  
  • With a blood-curling roar, Iago launched himself at Ze'Kill -but the dwarf dashed out of the way!
  •  
  • Iago found himself flying through the air, falling off the Serenissima and into the broken deck of theAnvil -which was crawling with terrorized men trying to escape a beast that couldn't devour enough!
  •  
  • "YEAH! GO SEE HOW IT FEELS TO BE THE SMALL GUY!!" taunted Ze-Kill, hanging from a handrail.
  •  
  • But Ze'Kill's triumph was short lived: seeing as the Anvil started to sink in pieces under the claws of the monster, the dwarf's face shifted quickly from victory to urgency:
  •  
  • "RETREAT!" -he called- "BRAVE MEN OF THE SERENISSIMA, RETREAT!"
  •  
  • Not too far away, Sol coughed and choked as the water slapped her face -but she was determined to pick open the padlock with another of her tiara’s plastic teeth!
  •  
  • The cage swayed and spun like a toy in a bathtub as giant waves brought her up and down, and yet she held on to the bars -hugging them at times- and using every spare second to keep working on that lock!
  •  
  • "SOL!!"
  •  
  • She looked up! Was that Jair?
  •  
  • The Monarca was coming!
  •  
  • The ship was riding on the giant waves like a massive rollercoaster –and she saw Abel operating some sort of hook-
  •  
  • The Quetzalodon roared nearby, and it almost seemed as if lightning and thunder replied back! The ocean was furious!
  •  
  • Sol's eyes suddenly widened with fear:
  •  
  • "JAIR-WATCH OUT!!"
  •  
  • Like a ghost out of nowhere appeared Ibrahim in the speedboat formerly of Dostumbas, defying the storm, hoisting his flame sword up in the air! With a feral scream Ibrahim bumped the side of theMonarca in his speedboat, and pierced the hull with his flaming sword -driving alongside and cutting a long burning gash all throughout the right side of the vessel!
  •  
  • "FLYING FLAMING CRAP!!" screamed Abel!
  •  
  • "ENOUGH!!"
  •  
  • Jair unsheathed his own sword and dove over the deck of the Monarca -Ibrahim reacted too late! Jair descended like an arrow over him, tackling him to the floor of the speedboat!
  •  
  • "ITATI, TAKE THE WHEEL!!" shouted Abel, as he ran over to the other side of the deck-
  •  
  • Itati blinked, nodded, blinked again and ran to take the wheel for the first time in her her life, leaving little Osvaldo behind with Ocho, barking like mad.
  •  
  • Jair and Ibrahim rolled over the speedboat in a desperate contest-
  •  
  • "WHAT DO I DO??" shrieked Itati!
  •  
  • "Just keep it steady!!"
  •  
  • Pulling levers and winding poles, Abel operated the grappling arm-hook on the side of the Monarca -normally used to load and unload cargo-
  •  
  • Jair was no match for a man twice his weight. Ibrahim lifted his flaming sword for a finishing blow-
  •  
  • -and was knocked five feet back by a swing of the Monarca's hook-arm! Barely still inside the boat!
  •  
  • Jair knew it was his turn now. He got back on his feet as fast as he could -as fast as he dared on the wildly-bouncing speedboat, but before he could lift his sword against Ibrahim:
  •  
  • "JAIR!! BEHIND YOU!!"
  •  
  • Sol's second warning came right on time: Jair turned to look up and his eyes widened in shock for a moment -then he jumped off Ibrahim’s speedboat just as the Quetzalodon collapsed on top of it, turning it to splinters!
  •  
  • Sol's cage too broke into a thousand pieces!
  •  
  • Even the Monarca was thrown in the air, crashing on a wave!
  •  
  • Because the Quetzalodon had a massive harpoon stuck right on its chest -not an ordinary harpoon but one known as Aguijón, and a heavy chain connected it to the Santa Carlota!
  •  
  • Father Alacrán pumped his fist in the air at starboard, manning the cannon!!
  •  
  • "E NOMINE PATER, FILI, ET SPIRITI SAAAANTIIII!!" he yelled!
  •  
  • But the beast was far from defeated: with a deafening roar it suddenly swirled down into the depths, and Father Alacran’s eyes trembled in sudden panic as the harpoon's chain suddenly sprung tense and begun yanking down the entire ship!
  •  
  • "NOOO!!!!" he called "Señor, no lo permitas!!"
  •  
  • Underwater luck had it that Sol’s unconscious body fell nearly straight into Ibrahim’s hands… and Somaya’s in Jair’s.
  •  
  • The two men stared wordlessly at each other for a long moment in a swarm of bubbles –realizing fate’s cruel twist while separated by the harpoon's chain that the beast was dragging down… they turned for the surface at the same time…
  •  
  • "HOLD ON, BOSS!!" called Ze'Kill from aboard the Serenissima. "Faster, Benito, faster! We gotta save the boss!"
  •  
  • Indeed, the Serenissima turned towards Ibrahim, and Ibrahim swam to it carrying Sol…
  •  
  • Jair, struggling to keep Somaya's unconcious head above the water, turned around to see the deck of the Santa Carlota was slanting now nearly at water level -and the beast kept on pulling the chain. Suddenly a figured emerged from the water... the silohuette of a large man: it was Iago! The giant man climbed up a few links on the chain, baring his teeth in feral determination!
  •  
  • The giant choose a steel link and grabbed on to it with both hands... trying to pry it open -the veins in his neck were popping with effort, straining every muscle in his body, and finally opening his mouth to scream, to scream without a tongue!!
  •  
  • And his scream was heard over the waters when the chain link finally snapped in his hands! He was launched through the air as the Santa Carlota finally bounced back with a giant splash -but did not topple!
  •  
  • Aboard the Serenissima, Ze’Kill was covering his mouth, speechless…
  •  
  • "Torpedo the Santa Carlota!" roared a voice behind him.
  •  
  • Ze’Kill turned back to see his captain emerging on deck, wet as a dog and unceremoniously dropping Sol’s unconscious body on the floor.
  •  
  • "W-what?"
  •  
  • "Dwarf-are you deaf!? I said torpedo the Santa Carlota!"
  •  
  • Stuttering, Ze’Kill took the C.B. Radio to his lips:
  •  
  • "B-Benito! Fire all torpedoes at the Carlota right now -everything we got! You heard me!! Yes! Says Ibrahim!"
  •  
  • Ibrahim rose his binoculars and scanned the horizon… there: Jair was bringing Somaya aboard theMonarca now; and Abel was helping him with the ship’s arm-hook.
  •  
  • Ibrahim cursed, then turned the binoculars around: the women of the Muerteblanca were engaged in hand-to-hand combat with the men of the Worm Club, and aboard the Worm Club's own vessels at that. Brave. Red Veronica herself had engaged the mighty Carlitos…
  •  
  • BOOM-BOOM-BOOM!! Ibrahim turned to see over his shoulders as three torpedo explosions shook theSanta Carlota to its core!! The ship begun to list again, and the glow of fire was hinted at from within.
  •  
  • "Good. Now get us out of here. Full speed ahead."
  •  
  • "B-but… what of Somaya, Iago?!" asked Ze'Kill.
  •  
  • "Must you second-guess me Every Single Time, dwarf?! Have I not kept you alive long enough?!"
  •  
  • "Y-yes sir, Captain sir…" to his CB radio: "Benito, full speed ahead; get us out of here!"
  •  
  • Ibrahim stood at full height, motionless for a few seconds. Finally he sheated back his sword.
  •  
  • "This was just the first test, Ze’Kill; not everyone passes. Many will fall along the way and you must get used to it."
  •  
  • The men of the Santa Carlota were struggling with the flames… the women of the Muerteblanca were fighting on a dozen vessels against the men of the Worm Club… and the Monarca itself was limping away like a wounded deer…
  •  
  • And somewhere, somewhere deep beneath the waves a giant alligator swam through its own blood and sought the immemorial shelter of ancient rock and darkness…
  •  
  • The Serenissima slowly left all this behind -and the storm…
  •  
  • "Stand straight and be worthy" said Ibrahim "–it’s all we men can do in the winds of history. In the end Santavela himself will choose."
  • Chapter 11 - But Nobody Cares

  • Early morning sun beams pierced around the crevices of the metal sheets covering the window-holes high above Osmar's head. He was home, except it wasn't home anymore.
  •  
  • He had passed out on the table with his head in his hands, surrounded by nothing but half a dozen empty bottles and the radio static. Groggily he peeked up again with one eye: Osvaldo's little alcove bed in the wall was still empty. And so was Sol's.
  •  
  • He lingered on, unable to break down again -just staring... until the sudden burst of the radio shook him awake:
  •  
  • "-medicines, food, water," said the female voice "-fzzt-anything valuable-"
  •  
  • Osmar scrambled to plug in his earphones; he had recognized Red Veronica's voice!
  •  
  • "-fzzzt- are rebuilding our fleet; any and all able women are welcome to apply. But men be warned: even without our ship the women of the Muerteblanca are not to be taken lightly -fzzzt- lesson learned -fzzt- pigs of the Worm Club. We are at Peak Three Fathers; we have a security arrangement with the city -so don't think cute."
  •  
  • Osmar hurriedly scribbled something on a piece of paper-
  •  
  • "And Ibrahim, if you are listening: you piece of crap -we will get you, you scum-feeding -fzzt- rat bastard son of -fzzzt- traitor!"
  •  
  • Osmar snatched the paper and his crutch, jumped to his feet knocking back his chair as he did, again, and dashed out the door, sprinting for the nearest bridge!
  •  
  • People looked at him as he went, and some shook their heads sadly. Some turned away.
  •  
  • "Poor Osmar;" an old woman commented "both his children in a single week!"
  •  
  • But Osmar heard nothing, cared for nothing. He ran along the bridges towards the Church. It was no mean feat for a man with a crutch, but neither it was his first time.
  •  
  • "Father Gercia!!" he called still from afar, nearly out of breath and clutching the paper in his hand.
  •  
  • He noticed many people seemed to be leaving the church that same minute, and he slowed down. They seemed angry for some reason, fed-up, and many were shaking their heads as they returned to the many bridges and boats that lead out of the church tower...
  •  
  • Small in the middle of the crowd, Father Gercia had been nodding and waving good-bye here and there, but was getting nothing back but hostile looks and dismissals.
  •  
  • "Father Gercia!"
  •  
  • Osmar begun descending the stairs from the bridge as fast as he could, but he was intercepted by a fat man -one he recognized as one of the voting elders, Hermilo:
  •  
  • "Oh, not you again, Osmar."
  •  
  • "I just heard something important on the radio!"
  •  
  • "Again? Not another pirate Junta, I hope?"
  •  
  • "No! Something big must have happened there, because the Muerteblanca-"
  •  
  • "Ah, stuff it. This town has had enough of the whole Santavela business; its time to move on. Let it go."
  •  
  • "W-what?"
  •  
  • "I said let it go. We all lose children from time to time. They're gone. But the town lives on and that's what matters."
  •  
  • Osmar slowly felt the heat rising from the pit of his stomach. His fists balled up all on their own, but suddenly Gercia spoke:
  •  
  • "Leave him alone Hermilo." the priest's voice sounded tired -just beaten "You got what you wanted. Leave Osmar alone."
  •  
  • Osmar turned to Gercia, and rushed down the rest of the staircase to him while the fat man just waved them both off, dismissively.
  •  
  • "Father, we may have warriors now. We may have now the muscle it takes to go after Ibrahim: the women of the Muerte-"
  •  
  • "Slow down, Osmar."
  •  
  • Osmar took a deep -if fast- breath:
  •  
  • "The women of the Muerteblanca have declared war on Ibrahim. They need supplies though. We have supplies. We could go there and barter and-"
  •  
  • "No."
  •  
  • "What?"
  •  
  • "I'm not the leader of this town anymore."
  •  
  • Gercia rubbed his eyes, and had never in Osmar's memory seemed more exhausted than he did now.
  •  
  • "I've been demoted. And all my possessions were confiscated too-they... well they belonged to the town after all- I... guess I shouldn't have suggested hiring mercenaries 'with my own money'..." he quoted  himself; defeated sarcasm.
  •  
  • "W-why..."
  •  
  • "Abuse of power, they said. I insisted too much... in forming an expedition to rescue my daughter Itati... and the other kids. They all voted me down. So Basuk will elect a new Priest next Sunday... probably Hermilo."
  •  
  • "B-but our children-"
  •  
  • "Nobody cares, Osmar." For the first time, Gercia's voice seemed about to break: "Nobody cares, nobody will help. They're everybody's 'someone else's kids'."
  •  
  • Osmar just stood there, shocked...
  •  
  • Gercia took a deep breath and, as much as his back ached, tried to regain his composture for a moment and stand up straight. He then patted Osmar's shoulders, sadly, nodded, and turned around.
  •  
  • "Go home, Osmar." he said, over his shoulder "Get some rest. Pray, if you can, that they'll come back. I'll visit you later -if you'll have me, and my wife... for dinner...?"
  •  
  • Osmar just looked at Father Gercia, teary eyed, as the old man slowly dragged himself back inside his former home.
  • Chapter 12 - Tomb Valley

  •  Somaya opened her eyes, slowly. Instead of open space and vast sky, she could only see the hulking ruins of many skyscrapers crouched around her, hunched and broken beneath the grey clouds. A few black birds took off. She reached with her hand...
  •  
  • "Hey everyone!" Abel's voice echoed, muted "She's waking up!"
  •  
  • She could see the chubby boy's face blurrily above her; he waved his fingers in front of her eyes as if testing her vision. Then she saw Jair's face, and Itati's. Then Osvaldo's... and suddenly a dark figure begun slurping all over -SLURP! SLURP!
  •  
  • "OCHO!!" yelled Itati "Osvaldo, your dog is doing it again! What's it with him and people's faces?! Seriously!"
  •  
  • Osvaldo pulled the dog off Somaya's face -it kept wagging its tail enthusiastically, and barking. Someone helped her sit up -Jair maybe?
  •  
  • "W-where... whe-"
  •  
  • Her speech was slurry; more out-of-reach than usual, to her mind.
  •  
  • "We're pretty deep inside Tomb Valley." spoke Jair's voice, behind her "You almost drowned... but we gave you some diver salts already... we're not going to hurt you... we don't want to... but don't you try to hurt us... okay?"
  •  
  • Somaya weakly tried to stand and see past Jair at this quiet grey world that slowly un-blurred in her eyes: unlike the vast barren expanses that were the Sea of Ashes; here in Tomb Valley the ruined buildings crowded all around her -like vultures circling on a corpse, very much... drifting between the leaden skies above and the ancient layer of flotsam and debris that bobbed on the oily waters beneath.
  •  
  • She knew millions of bones were floating and bleaching across the tightly packed ruins that gave Tomb Valley its name --and even more laid were beneath the waves-- but actually being there and feeling it was always one of the few things that could still reach in and disturb her as a person: this was the great haunted necropolis of the bygone era, Hallowed Ground which had remained mostly undisturbed by hands living or dead since the Flood.
  •  
  • "Shadows. N-night... night will come." Somaya heard herself saying, as the memories slowly begun to reclaim her mind "We must... find shelter or get out of Tomb Valley before the shadows-"
  •  
  • "You let us worry about shadows." interjected Jair "For now we have some questions for you... so why don't you sit again."
  •  
  • Slowly Somaya sat back down, staring blankly about...
  •  
  • "First of all, what the hell was the deal last night with the Quetzalodon?"
  •  
  • "Is that what the monster is called?" added Itati.
  •  
  • "And why was Sol in that cage?" said Abel, once again minding his priorities.
  •  
  • "The Ancient God tested us..." Somaya heard her voice slowly coming back to the usual confortable monotone "... tested the resolve of... those who would inherit the Legacy-"
  •  
  • "Santavela's weapons?" ventured Itati?
  •  
  • "Santavela's soul." came the answer. And with every beat Somaya was more detached. Safe. "The Ancient God ate one third of it, long ago, and thus became the Guardian of the other two parts-"
  •  
  • "What the?" Jair shook his head.
  •  
  • "Why was Sol in a cage?" repeated Abel, slightly louder.
  •  
  • This one, Somaya thought, she could try answer by herself:
  •  
  • "Ships cannot board cages, but ships can board ships... the child would have surely perished along with every soul in the Serenissima... and the Guardian would have found us all wanting..." nodding, she then looked at Jair, and answered the rest of the question in the more confortable detached monotone: "Santavela's Soul broke in three when he fell at the Garden Castle, but it will birth a New World if the spirits of the old one ever rest and-"
  •  
  • "But how do you know these things?" asked Itati, not without a hint of exasperation.
  •  
  • But Somaya merely closed her eyes:
  •  
  • "I dream them."
  •  
  • It was the same answer she had given all her life. The kids looked at each other in silence for a long moment --except for Abel who was never one to enjoy riddles. He faced Jair and whispered so that Somaya couldn't hear:
  •  
  • "Listen, Jair: we could always trade her for Sol; as a barter-no-violence kinda deal."
  •  
  • "Ibrahim wouldn't go for that;" said Jair, also pragmatic "... he has it in his head that Sol is the key to Community 32-"
  •  
  • "Fine, so we let him find his city" interjected Itati "and -then- we trade for Sol!"
  •  
  • "Thing is, Itati, you heard what Osmar said... the city probably doesn't even exist."
  •  
  • "So how long until Ibrahim decides it's Sol's fault her can't find the place? Whatever it is, we need to find Ibrahim first before-"
  •  
  • "There he is. Ibrahim." said Somaya suddenly, startling everyone.
  •  
  • She was pointing with her finger towards the fog.
  •  
  • Jair grabbed tight on his sword's pommel and brought up his binoculars -searching frantically:
  •  
  • "Where, Somaya? Where --I don't see him!"
  •  
  • "You don't see him because the tombs block your view." she paused for a second... "about 10 miles of tombs".
  •  
  • "Wait, wait..." Abel rose a finger "you said you see him? How can you see through 10 miles of tombs?"
  •  
  • Fair question. Gently, Somaya pushed aside the strands of hair that were always covering half her face. Her right eye was closed... but slowly she started to open it while closing the left eye...
  •  
  • "Oh. My. God." Itati started to back away...
  •  
  • "Flying... flaming... crap..." muttered Abel.
  •  
  • Her right eye had no pupil, and was glowing with a faint red light... and this -a red glowing eye- everyone recognized exactly as the logo on the sails of-
  •  
  • -------------
  •  
  • The Serenissima silently pierced the debris in it's path through Tomb Valley. The below-deck hatch door opened -with its painted logo- and Ibrahim emerged rubbing his forehead, as if suffering a headache. With his other hand he carried a small satchel.
  •  
  • "Headache, boss?" asked Ze'Kill, at the wheel, but Ibrahim waved him off.
  •  
  • "I'm fine. How are the men?"
  •  
  • "Ours? Fine, I guess. Scared silly about the big lizard yesterday, and Tomb Valley is not where they'd rather be, either. Now, the Avil guys we fished out... those, those are mostly quiet; because they know we could toss'em any fine night..."
  •  
  • "Good. Continue giving them every hint. In fact, do find out whoever is the leader amongst them and actually execute that man -make a show of it too. They'll be grateful later on when we give'em a chance to join us instead."
  •  
  • Ze'Kill shuffled his feet, unconfortable...
  • "Cap'n... you know me, right? You know I like wasting people. I'd jump at the chance, I swear, but..."
  •  
  • "Spit it out"
  •  
  • "It's just a bad omen cap'n. You know. To kill a man here. Tomb Valley...? You know? The ghosts...?"
  •  
  • Ibrahim gave the dwarf a condescending smile for a long moment. Then he looked ahead at the horizon.
  •  
  • "You should be ashamed of yourself, Ze'Kill. You're no model for the men. Sol here is 13 years old and she's not afraid of ghosts. Are you Sol?"
  •  
  • Sol remained silent. She was standing near the tip of the ship, staring straight into the horizon with her teddy bear hanging from her hand.
  •  
  • Ibrahim approached casually; undaunted by her steely coldness.
  •  
  • "Sol and her mother crossed these waters many times-you know. They know what the ghosts really are..."
  •  
  • "How did you meet my mother?"
  •  
  • Ibrahim barely contained the briefest of smiles:
  •  
  • "She met me. I put an ad in Peak Three Fathers looking for divers not afraid of Tomb Valley. She was the only taker." he stepped forward, besides Sol and looked at the horizon too "This was many years ago you see... before your dad entered the picture..."
  •  
  • "Why do you have her diver cap?"
  •  
  • "Hah. Because Osmar sent it to me, when she died. A good-bye gift."
  •  
  • In the corner of his eye, Ibrahim could almost see Sol's mind racing; the girl tried hard not to show emotion.
  •  
  • "She gave up her dream of Santavela in exchange for your father, Sol -in exchange for you. You think she was meant to be just a diver in some piss-poor town like Basuk? Soledad The Razor? Not the one I knew." his voice was carefully reverent, measured "Sorry I didn't tell you before, but we had to pass the test of the Guardian. You didn't know her like I knew her. She was... legendary."
  •  
  • "You lie..."
  •  
  • "I would -were I merciful. Like your father. But I can't."
  •  
  • "You lie."
  •  
  • "The truth is she and I were destined to find Santavela together -we got so close, Sol... but Osmar got in the way. And then you."
  •  
  • Sol's eyes trembled, despite herself.
  •  
  • "She made me a promise, though. She asked me to stay away from it all just until you were 13 years old... just that -just so that she could raise you to fend by yourself... so that you could have a childhood, and training, so that she could be a proper mother to you and then... then she would resume the search... with me."
  •  
  • "You lie!!"
  •  
  • "I'm not saying she didn't love your father, Sol --don't get me wrong! After all: she did give up her old life for Osmar once, didn't she? And again: for you. She gave up Santavela! What greater sacrifice could she..." and here Ibrahim carefully paused for a moment, as it belongs to a proper deep realization statement: "but... turns out Fate works in mysterious ways doesn't it..."
  •  
  • He could see her balling up her fists, shaking...
  •  
  • "It turns out sometimes not even death... nor time... can stand in the way of real destiny. It turns out... you."
  •  
  • And with this he turned to face her, and suddenly a flock of black birds noisily took off atop some gutted building behind him. All around the ship hundreds of skeletons seemed to shift in their wind-swept perches and gaze...
  •  
  • "13 years. Now you know the real meaning of your birthday gift -now you know why she was saving it. Now you know why I arrived exactly the night I arrived -the fight with Jair was all a charade; a necessary procedure like the steps of a dance so that Osmar wouldn't end up dead, because, well... because I owed her that much."
  •  
  • Sol sought into the skies above and found nothing but bone-filled skyscrapers creeping in...
  •  
  • "Do you see it now, Sol? Do you realize? Look at me."
  •  
  • Sol stared. Ibrahim opened before her eyes the small satchel he was carrying... and produced the diver cap that had once belonged to Sol's mother; indeed the word "SOLEDAD" was written on it.
  •  
  • Never breaking eye contact, Ibrahim ceremoniously removed Sol's own cap, and let loose her beautiful long red hair.
  •  
  • She stood still but for her shivering... and he placed her mother's cap on her. It was a snug fit.
  •  
  • "Look down, on the water."
  •  
  • Peering over the rail with her hair hanging loose in the wind -with her mother's cap on her head, Sol saw herself reflected on the dark waters. Hardly a silhouette, but...
  •  
  • "What do you see, child?"
  •  
  • Sol's eyes welled up... how many times had she dreamed... of her mother emerging from the waters so, the finest diver seven-fold vindicated?
  •  
  • "It's a petty world this," he said, his voice running deep "that steals from us at whim that which is most precious. Death laughs in the wings, playing dice with our hopes and with our dreams; mocking us for our silly plans as we toil under the sun like ants..."
  •  
  • The teddy-bear fell on the floor...
  •  
  • "But not your mother, Sol... for she still has you. And her lifework... interrupted, can still be made complete... through you... through you she can laugh back at Death itself."
  •  
  • Sol bravely wiped the tears in her eyes. She swallowed. She looked up. The ruins surrounded her. The flock of birds found rest again.
  •  
  • She breathed in deep... and said:
  •  
  • "Make a left before that temple. You will find a very wide road lined by very tall buildings. Stay on this road, go west."
  •  
  • A smile slowly begun to creep on Ibrahim's face...
  •  
  • "Mr. Ze'Kill..."
  •  
  • "Captain, sir?"
  •  
  • "You heard our guide."
  •  
  • "Y-yes sir, immediately sir!"
  •  
  • The dwarf ran off to the steering wheel... while Ibrahim gently placed his hand on Sol's shoulder, and warmly patted it.
  •  
  • The Serenissima reached the "Temple" and made a left. The Temple was a dome supported by four columns emerging from the water in the middle of a large plaza; in days long forgotten it had been known as "Monumento a la Revolucion".
  •  
  • Somewhere, a haunting sad guitar played. Perhaps in her mind -a fading memory of her birthday.
  •  
  • The ship, tiny among the wide streets of Tomb Valley "Distrito Federal" solemnly made its way onto the "wide road lined by tall buildings" or "Paseo de la Reforma."
  •  
  • The corpse of Mexico City covered the entire horizon; its jagged spires reaching from the waters like broken fingers.
  • Chapter 13 - The Angel Pointed At The "H"

  • Tendrils of fog had begun to rise, slowly, from the eerie stillness of the dark waters- as if summoned by the guitar.
  •  
  • It was cramped, it was hard for the ship to navigate, the buildings crowded around too close together and all kinds of ruins often blocked the way forward -forcing the Monarca to squeeze through tight corners and to get uncomfortably close to that impermeable darkness that lurked within so many gaping windows... within so many broken walls with their twisted iron bars like gored ribcages and bones. The human skeletons floated the gentlest.
  •  
  • Near the rear of the ship, Jair was strumming his guitar softly, contemplating the passing landscape.
  •  
  • Itati winced to make out the words on the old sign post which she knew meant the road's name. It was "Rio Danubio".
  •  
  • Near the tip of the ship, Somaya was sitting on a crate and pointing straight forward with her entire right arm. She had been doing that for a while.
  •  
  • "Er... you can put your arm down if you like..." said Itati.
  •  
  • Somaya didn't respond. She kept her arm up. Pointing. Itati slowly stepped back...
  •  
  • "Dinner’s ready!" called Abel, and Itati thought there was a hint of irony in his voice, perhaps.
  •  
  • Ocho barked appreciative and proceeded to wake up sleeping Osvaldo through his stardard operating procedure of licking faces. The boy woke up with a lazy smile and hugged his dog.
  •  
  • Abel was crouching around a small pot on a portable gas stove -beans, it looked like- from a can. He begun serving rations on the plates with a big iron spoon-
  •  
  • "Beans again??" bemoaned Itati.
  •  
  • "Well, good news and bad news, about that."
  •  
  • "Good news first."
  •  
  • "Okay" Abel smiled "tomorrow night is the last time we eat beans!"
  •  
  • "YAY! Fantastic! And the bad news?"
  •  
  • "There is no more food after tomorrow night."
  •  
  • "What?" Jair set the guitar down.
  •  
  • "Like it sounds. I just checked. A whole lot of boxes fell out before I could patch that hole Ibrahim tore us last night..."
  •  
  • Oblivious, Osvaldo had happily begun eating, and shared a spoonful with Ocho. Itati grew pale though, and Jair just rubbed his eyes with his hand, slowly. Tired.
  •  
  • "How about fuel?"
  •  
  • "Well, no surprises there; we burned through most of it just to get to the Junta on time... remember I warned you about this."
  •  
  • "It was worth it." nodded Jair.
  •  
  • "If we turn around right now," asked Itati, perhaps out of impulse "how far could we go?"
  •  
  • "Hmm... Peak Three Fathers is probably the nearest safe place... a big maybe though. But we always have sails."
  •  
  • "We’re not turning back." declared Jair "We’re just gonna’ have to dive for food in a couple days, ‘is all." and then, as if sensing Itati's eyes on him, he added "Sol should be with us by then, so that won’t be a problem. She’s a good diver and obviously knows the area."
  •  
  • Abel and Jair quietly glanced at each other. Abel nodded to his fortune... and begun eating his beans.
  •  
  • "The 'area'." repeated Itati, with air quotes. "The 'area'. This is Tomb Valley. Nobody knows this 'area'."
  •  
  • And nobody replied to her, either. She looked at Jair and Abel in turn, blinked, and started going through a somewhat histrionic slow-motion shock.
  •  
  • "You gonna’ eat that?" asked Abel.
  •  
  • "I’m not hungry."
  •  
  • "Can I have it, then?"
  •  
  • "No! I may be hungry later..."
  •  
  • With a glare, Itati turned her back to the boys and walked away talking to herself.
  •  
  • She almost bumped into Osvaldo, who was carrying a plate with a big dollop of beans for Somaya. The seer finally lowered her hand -slowly, and took the plate. And no one else except Osvaldo saw her smile.
  •  
  • "You can see them too, don’t you?" she whispered.
  •  
  • Osvaldo nodded. A gust of wind suddenly howled by.
  •  
  • "Smart of you to keep quiet."
  •  
  • "Hey Somaya!" called Jair, suddenly, his voice loud from the far end of the ship "How far are we now?"
  •  
  • Abel stood up and passed a plate to Jair, by the wheel-post.
  •  
  • "Less than a mile." replied Somaya.
  •  
  • Jair nodded, took the plate and considered. He looked to the setting sun on one side... and the darkness growing on the other. He noticed Abel putting on a jacket; it was starting to get chilly. He noticed Itati sitting in a corner hugging her knees -thinking hard apparently. She finally reached for her plate of beans and begun eating somewhat nervously.
  •  
  • And suddenly she stopped and dropped the spoon:
  •  
  • "Did you hear that?"
  •  
  • Jair and Abel turned to look at her, puzzled.
  •  
  • "Abel, shut off the engine." Slowly, Jair put his own plate down.
  •  
  • Abel went to the other side of the ship and flipped a switch.
  •  
  • Silence.
  •  
  • Everyone waited, expectantly.
  •  
  • Silence.
  •  
  • Then tap-tap-tap-tap!! It sounded like... like bare feet running over the asphalt...
  •  
  • "I heard that!" whispered Itati, as if certifying her own fear.
  •  
  • Ocho barked twice, then when whinning behind Osvaldo.
  •  
  • "No. No. Guys, it’s just a legend." said Abel "Look, I'll just switch the engine on again and we’ll just-"
  •  
  • Tap-tap-tap-tap-tap-tap!
  •  
  • "Okay. Jair, Itati? I'll get the rifles. Be right back."
  •  
  • Jair nodded and grabbed the pommel of his own sword, by his waist.
  •  
  • "Daddy said it was not true!" begun Itati, in a stream-of-words "He said half of everything he preaches is just tales to keep the people out of this area because it’s too dangerous with buildings falling down all the time -he said there’s no really such thing as ghosts-is just-"
  •  
  • "HISSS!!"
  •  
  • Itati shrieked and turned to watch behind her back! Then the front... then the sides... all darkness! All shapes, all shadows, all ruins.
  •  
  • TAP-TAP-TAP-TAP!!
  •  
  • Everyone frantically looked left and right, and Abel finally emerged from below deck carrying three rifles -but Somaya suddenly stood up and pointed:
  •  
  • "We’ve arrived."
  •  
  • The Monarca turned a corner, emerging into a wide open road lined with tall buildings. To their right, was a plaza, and far away the Serenissima was anchored; all its tiny windows were flickering faintly against the dark. Distant sounds of music and laughter wafted gently from it -they were having a drunken party, apparently.
  •  
  • Only intermitently illuminated by the flashes aboard the Serenissima, the kids finally saw there was a giant pedestal in the middle of the plaza; crooked now. Slowly following it up with their eyes they saw the statue of an angel holding a crown of olives in one hand and broken chains in the other. Because of the angle of the pedestal, the angel seemed to be leaning over, and gave the impression of pointing towards...
  •  
  • ...the roof of a once-very tall building, which eons ago had toppled over in one piece instead of crumbling,  and had been lying on its belly, as it were, ever since. The letters "HSBC" could still be read -at an angle- near the top.
  •  
  • The sun has died behind it, the Serenissima was right below it, and quietly -beneath the cover of a hundred shadows- the Monarca slowly approached...
  •  
  • "Good I turned off the engine..." commented Abel.
  •  
  • "They wouldn’t have heard us anyway..." said Jair, his eyes still glued to the scene.
  •  
  • Itati was still looking over her shoulder, nervous.
  •  
  • "Who could be so stupid to get drunk in a place like this...".
  •  
  • "They’re..." Abel shook his head.  "celebrating...?"
  •  
  • "You mean... they found the Community 32? Seriously, this, Abel?"
  •  
  • Jair’s closed his eyes as memories raced through his mind.
  •  
  • But Itati continued: "Well-look, let’s just fly the white flag and do the barter thing ok? Sol-for-the-witch and... and just get this over with and let’s get out of here-"
  •  
  • "Somaya" called Jair "where is Ibrahim?"
  •  
  • Once again Somaya pointed -but not to the Serenissima exactly; instead to the toppled building next to it: straight towards a giant white letter "H" that was painted inside a circle on what had once been the roof of the building (but was now a wall). And curiously, the angel statue did really seem to be pointing at it...
  •  
  • Jair brought up his binoculars.
  •  
  • "Wow." commented Abel "Anyone remembers -Sol said her mom spoke about an angel pointed to a giant "H"...?"
  •  
  • "Yeah... " nodded Jair "and something about walking on air, I think..."
  •  
  • Through his binoculars, Jair could see a rope ladder still hanging from an open hatch on the building -right above the "H"...
  •  
  • "W-we’ll just wait until they come out again, then?" ventured Itati.
  •  
  • The rope ladder seemed to reach down and directly onto the deck of the Serenissima, below. Jair nodded and put the binoculars down.
  •  
  • He nodded to both Abel and Itati, although they already knew what he was going to say. The distant noise of the drunken party aboard the Serenissima made for an odd frame to their important decision...
  •  
  • And there was also the tap-tap-tap...
  •  
  • "Okay. Abel and I are going in. Itati, you stay with Osvaldo and keep an eye on Somaya."
  •  
  • ... Itati felt the pit of her stomach sink in.
  •  
  • Aboard the Serenissima, Ze’Kill had simply had too much to drink; much more than would be prudent for a man of his limited body mass. He was dancing on the table to some awful thumping music -with his pants around his ankles, one beer in each hand and laughing like a mad man:
  •  
  • "IT WAS A GOOD LIFE, MMMATEYS!" he yelled, to no one in particular "WE LIVED LIKE WE’RE GONNA DIE, BUT... but... yeah... before we... befffore we go... down-I... I have... I HAVE A CONNNNFESSION TO MAKE, BROTHERS! Gotta... ggget it out of my chest!"
  •  
  • The other pirates were having a good time, too; laughing and wrestling, damaging all the furniture -and to a man ignoring Ze’Kill':
  •  
  • "I HHHATE THE LLLLOT OF YOU." continued the dwarf "Every last one!! And I wwwwill KILL YOU! ALL! Just you wait! You wait and sssseee!!"
  •  
  • But outside -through the beer-stained window- no one saw the hook-line that suddenly shots upwards and latched on the ship’s deck railing above... the rope wobbled... then became tense...
  •  
  • "You think... you think getting all those mmmagic weapons will make us safer-HUH!?? HAH!! Huh? You didn’t ttthink of that! You didn’t think they... they’re just gonna let us HAVE’EM?!"
  •  
  • As quietly and as quickly as he could, Jair -with a rifle on his back- climbed up the rope... lifting himself with both hands and both feet at regular intervals.
  •  
  • "I’m TTTTELLING YOU WE’RE DEAD MEN! EITHER THE GGGGHOSTS HERE... or the Santa Carlissa... or..."
  •  
  • It only took Jair a few seconds to pass through and be out of sight...
  •  
  • "... or the lesbians-or-the GIANT FREEEEEAKING LIZZZRD MONSTER!!!! They all want’em! It’s a hhhhot ppotato..."
  •  
  • The rope begun to swing again, still tense -but it was now being pulled up by turns...
  •  
  • Ze’Kill laid an arm across another pirate's shoulder to keep himself from falling, then he approached the man’s ear as if to whisper a secret:
  •  
  • "SSHhhhyou know what I would do, Benito?" the dwarfed hissed in a very loud voice "If I were Santavel-I mean, Ibrahim? IF I WERE IBRAHIM... I would hide all the weapons, kill the brat... then return to the ssship and say the weapons wwwweren’t there?" he shrugged his shoulders theathrically, before morphing into a mask of anger "THEN I WOULD KILL EVERYONE IN THEIR SLEEP! Now only me knows where the weapons are! HAHA! NO ONE... would DARE... touch mmmee... I'm IMPRESSINDISISIBLE.... I could sssselll them one-by-one -no need to get too greedy now..."
  •  
  • Benito winced at the dwarf’s breath and shoved him off! Ze’Kill fell under the table!
  •  
  • "I’LL KILL YOU ALL!"
  •  
  • Abel saw this through the window. He was scared -he held on to the rope with both arms like a child on a swing as he was hauled up, tumbling and spinning. He too had a rifle on his back.
  •  
  • "I WILL KILL ALL OF YOU IN YOUR SLEEP! Yyou’re ddead-I tell you!"
  •  
  • No one saw Abel, and he exhaled in relief as he was finally lifted out of sight from the dreaded window.
  •  
  • Jair gave the rope one last strong yank; Abel reached with his hand to the deck’s rail and helped himself up, too.
  •  
  • With his hands on his knees Jair took a moment to catch his breath while Abel stepped out of the rope’s knot and begun bundling the lenght of it into a roll.
  •  
  • "Remind me to never touch alcohol for as long as I live." whispered Abel.
  •  
  • "How about cake instead..."
  •  
  • "Don’t you dare remind me-"
  •  
  • "The pirates aren’t having a regular party, by the way." pointed Jair, very seriously now "It’s what they call a Living Wake."
  •  
  • "Wake? Like in a funeral?"
  •  
  • "Yeah, their own. They think they’re all gonna die soon. Pirates do that... dad told me once." something about the way Jair paused after mentioning his dad in that context... "Anyway. Rope ladder."
  •  
  • Abel nodded at the rope ladder behind him that lead up to the small hatch on the roof (wall?) of the HSBC building.
  •  
  • "Yeah, rope ladder I can deal with. Okay."
  •  
  • "Okay. Let’s go."
  •  
  • It was a windy night. It was a night to stay home by the fireplace and wrap oneself in a blanket; thought Itati. Instead, with the binoculars she could see Jair and Abel slowly ascending the rope ladder, and she could feel the wind gusts that made it sway.
  •  
  • Abel and Jair too, if they had turned, would have seen the Monarca from upon a dizzying height; hidden in the shadows, facing the opposite way as the Serenissima -just in case.
  •  
  • It was a slow climb. Much too high. Much too windy. Much too dark -except for the terrifying landscape of jagged ruins beneath. They climbed.
  • Chapter 14 - Walk On Air

  • Itati was huddled in a corner, hugging her knees. Her eyes followed Osvaldo as the small boy turned his attention left and right -and for a moment she could swear he was seeing things.
  • Ocho the dog was huddled next to her -it was scared too. She scratched its ear.
  • "The coward fears for herself." said Somaya, in her usual monotone "You are not a coward. I know who you fear for."
  • At some other time Itati would have tried to understand, but for now a confused stare was all she could manage.
  • "I was once like you." Somaya continued "But now I fear nothing... and so... I’ve lost all my bravery."
  • "G-get away from me, woman. You j-just... be quiet."
  • Somaya calmly turned around and looked up: far away and much too high, Jair and Abel were hanging from the rope ladder...
  • TAP-TAP-TAP-TAP!!!
  • "Ay nonononono..." Itati whispered to herself, then softly "Osvaldo... Osvaldito?"
  • Osvaldo turned, absent minded.
  • "Come here, little buddy." she patted the floor next to her "It’s cold. Just sit down here for a little bit, eh?"
  • Osvaldo smiled, then turned his back and continued exploring whatever ether in the fog only he could see... and that made her pout. She kept on looking left and right... and hugged the dog closer.
  • -------------
  • Jair and Abel finally made it through the "hatch" -just a standard roof-access staircase leading to what was once a helipad. Or so Abel surmised, from what he could remember in old books. He turned on his flashlight; Jair was wielding his rifle...
  • Silence.
  • Carefully walking on the "wall" beside the staircase, the two boys made their way through to the other side of the room. Jair pushed the door slowly, and was greeted with nothing but darkness... but then, as Abel pointed his flashlight: bones. Hundreds of them.
  • "Oh man..."
  • The entire length of the second hallway was littered with human bones, as well as dusty, torn pieces of clothing, old shoes, empty water bottles, bags, etc. It was revolting and horrifying and heartbreaking all the the same time.
  • Without saying another word, they moved through it all as gently as they could, trying not to disturb the remains.
  • There was a door at the other end, but too high to reach -they would need to climb up the wall since what was once the floor was now 90 degrees on its side. So they got started.
  • Abel couldn't help but notice, as he slowly climbed, that the wall was covered with framed advertisements for "Communidad Treinta Y Dos" -cartoonish depictions of happy families living safely underground while "robbers" and "terrorists" fought against police, soldiers and tanks aboveground. The slogan: "Closer to the life you know". Many of these posters were covered in graffiti -crude flames and a fork-wielding devil had been added to one for example-complete with a new slogan scrawled over: "Closer to Satanas".
  • -------------
  • Itati stared at the hole in the wall through which Jair and Abel had just disappeared. She lifted up the binoculars: somewhere deep inside the building the two boys were probably waving their flashlights around, because she could see the beams sometimes... although becoming fainter. They were probably getting in deeper.
  • She pouted.
  • And scanning below, she saw Benito on the deck of the Serenissima: the grizzled pirate was looking up at the rope ladder... scratching his beard, then looking around and below the ship... something was up, he knew and it she knew that he knew it. When he walked to operate the spotlight near starboard Itati put down her binoculars and bit her lower lip...
  • -------------
  • "Guys," rang Itati's voice out of Jair's radio, suddenly "you don’t have much time..."
  • The hook-line latched on, and a few moments afterwards Jair surfaced and peeked through; his eyes went wide in amazement: before him -and lit by hazy moonlight beams along 36 floors worth of windows- awaited the famed glass-elevators of the HSBC tower.
  • Out of habit but absent-mindedly he took the radio to his lips:
  • "Right... just stay put Itati, we’ll be back soon."
  • Abel finally pulled himself up over the doorway, too, and his jaw fell open at the landscape -"Flying... flaming... crap..."
  • The tower had once been a marvel of architecture and luxury; built as a series of stacked rings around a central empty space through which six elevators provided service along a single clear-glass tube.
  • Now -as the entire building lied flat on its belly- the glass tube column had literally become a glass tube bridge: the only way through to the other side of the building.
  • It hovered 30 feet above the jagged ruins beneath and lead to the foundations -which were now the only entrance to the "Community 32" -which felt ever less fictional by the minute- supposedly underground.
  • "So this is what the mother of Sol meant when she said 'walking on the air'... not really air but just very-very old glass 30 feet above sure death... still..."
  • "IBRAHIM, NOOO!!!"
  • That was Sol's voice!!
  • BOOM!!!
  • The shock-waves roared through the whole building like a miniature earthquake! It came from the other side! Plaster and debris started to rain from the "ceiling"...
  • After a few seconds of shock, a mutual glance confirmed between Jair and Abel that they had indeed heard Sol's voice right before the explosion. This was real.
  • No more needed to be said: Jair jumped onto the round glass tube -holding the spool of rope in one hand and his rifle in the other- and Abel followed almost without hesitation, holding the flashlight and the other rifle... they both had to spread their arms far out for balance while walking on the round surface of the glass tube; Jair almost felt like running but it was just too dangerous!
  • "Jair," ringed Itati's voice again, through the radio "are you there??"
  • She sounded fearful. Jair carefully slid the spool of rope onto his shoulder to free up his hand and pick up the radio:
  • "This is really a bad time, Itati..."
  • "Ah... I think the pirates saw me..."
  • Abel cursed under his breath-
  • "How do you know?" asked Jair.
  • "I think they’re coming here... their ship is moving... Jair..."
  • BOOOM!! Another explosion underground! Jair barely managed to stay on his feet, but Abel slipped and fell! No, he held on! He managed to hold on from a metal strip ring around the glass tube -hanging by his left arm!
  • Jair cursed and dashed back to Abel and dropped to lie flat on the glass tube, then reaches with his hand:
  • "ABEL!"
  • "JAIR!" squaked the radio "They have their lights on me! They saw us! They’re coming!"
  • Jair was grabbing on to Abel’s hand and trying  to pull him up while keeping himself in balance -not easy on a round surface! Abel was feeling, perhaps for the first time, that he could actually, really, in fact, die. He felt his reality shift to a third person: where was he? Why? What would he do if he got out?
  • His flashlight fell off his other hand -it came down spinning and in doing so it briefly illuminates what lied beneath: a layer of bones -perhaos hundreds of thousands of them- enough bones to bury a boat, and all along the tower!
  • "JAIR!!"
  • Through the C.B. radio the two boys could hear what sounded like gunfire!!
  • Jair pulled with all his strength!! With tears in his eyes Abel finally made it back on the glass tube, on his knees, gasping with fear-
  • "Itati," Jair barked, having snatched the radio "you gotta run out of there! The Monarca is faster than anything; you can run circles around them!"
  • "But I don’t know how to drive this thiiiing!!!" and although she was shouting, they could hardle make out her words amongst the noise of the bullets-
  • "Itati listen to me, listen to me! You can do it. YOU CAN DO IT. Get the ship out of there switch the engine-"
  • BOOM!! SOMEWHERE NOT TOO FAR SOL SCREAMED AGAIN!!
  • Abel got on his feet and took the radio out of Jair’s hands, then motions for him to go. Yes, go, go GO!
  • Jair nodded back and beguns running along the rest of the glass bridge, leaving Abel behind-
  • "Okay Itati, go to the engine panel." said Abel, slightly out of breath "Pull the yellow lever first; that primes the engine."
  • "Where’s Jair?! AAAHH-"
  • "Pull the yellow lever!!" repeated Abel, now shouting back "Now yank on the chain as hard as you can -are you listening!"
  • "Y-yellow lever... c-chain -Abel they’re getting close-"
  • "Engine is on now." he could hardly hear her "Now push the yellow lever back..."
  • "It’s not moving!!"
  • "Push the yellow lever back; now pull on the green lever, all the way down -you hear- all the way!"
  • "AAAAHHH!! Oh shi-"
  • "Good! Now steer! Go take the wheel and steer! Run! Run Itati!"
  • And as the radio died into white noise, Abel caught a glimpse of Jair disappearing into the shadows at the other end of the bridge.
  • Chapter 15 - Treasure

  •  
  • Jair climbed, jumped and ducked through the unstable debris left by the explosion.
  •  
  • It was pitch-black except for the few lingering flames that had survived the blast -and it was only thanks to those that Jair could see anything at all. What he saw was a hole in the wall: a door had stood there once -perhaps for centuries even- but moments ago Ibrahim had blown it off its hinges.
  •  
  • Without wasting any more time Jair hopped through the maw and into a room the likes of which he had never seen. It was giant, to begin with, and it was lined with columns. It had marble floors and a wooden inlay covering the walls, and like the rest of the fallen tower, the "floor" was 90 degrees flat to the boy's right.
  •  
  • Turning on his flashlight Jair immediatly recognized the logo for Community 32 covering a huge portion of the marble floor-wall. It was the same he and Abel had seen in posters on the walls earlier; this was no longer up to debate: "Community 32 exists... and I'm in it..." he whispered to himself. "But so is Ibrahim" his next thought went "... and Sol". Ibrahim felt a void in the pit of his stomach.
  •  
  • High above his head there was a large round wooden structure with many white boxes installed on its surface. Furrowing his eyebrows Jair remembered some of the images Abel had shown him -these things were called "computers", and somehow held many books inside. The wooden thing was like a long table -was "counter" the right word? "Desk"? Some of the white boxes were on fire; Jair sidestepped as some ashes glittered down to his feet.
  •  
  • "Very well, then".
  •  
  • With a running start Jair hopped and clung to the side wall grabbing to the ledge of the wood panneling with the tips of his fingers. There were portraits on this wall; faded paintings of grim men long dead. Jair used them as stepping aides in his climb.
  •  
  • Suddenly the flashlight revealed a rope hanging from one bank of desk counters above; Jair squinted his eyes -it had to be Ibrahim's.
  •  
  • It would not be an easy jump. For a second, Jair remembered playing games of chicken with other children when he was much younger. This jump; he was either going to either make it or not; but there would be no half-victories at this height. "Best not to overthink it" he thought to himself. He took a few deep breaths.
  •  
  • "HA!"
  •  
  • A moment later he felt himself swinging and spinning wildly as his fingertips nearly dug into the rope's fibers and he hung for dear life like a pendulum. It was too dark to the see the floor, and Jair didn't want to waste one arm on the flashlight. It took him a minute to catch his breath and his wits, to stop spinning, and clenching his teeth, he finally begun pulling himself up just like he had done earlier when infiltrating the Serenissima. He knew that logically he shouldn't be as afraid now as he could have been then: now he was alone; then he had been surrounded by pirates. "Stop overthinking!" he said through clenched teeth as he finally emerged at the spot where the rope was anchored.
  •  
  • He found himself standing on a bank of desks, which for some reason had been attached to the floor at the time of their installation and somehow still held their spot in the building's new bent layout. Carefully, Jair made his way across from one bank to the next, then a third, a fourth. Leaping for the fifth-
  •  
  • CRRAAASH!
  •  
  • Somehow he did not fall, although seconds later he did hear the pieces of broken wood crashing 30 feet beneath him. Blinking, he felt his fingers holding on to the very old mahogany wood of the counter; he was hanging from both hands. He felt a pearl of swear rolling down his cheek. The thought hit him: Abel would never make it through here. It was just him now. All or nothing; just Jair.
  •  
  • Defiant he blew through his nostrils like a bull, and clenching his teeth he pulled himself up once again; "you want it the hard way, then. Fine". Jair balled up his fists and saw a giant vault-like hatch above him. Hop.
  •  
  • And the building was no longer fallen. The portraits, the posters, the doors -everything was right side up. Indeed, while the tower above had collapsed on its side, Community 32 itself had always been underground; and he had finally reached it.
  •  
  • The hallway was was wide and -unlike anything else he had ever seen- spotless clean. This, more than anything, confirmed to him that this was indeed Community 32.
  •  
  • His father would tell him stories sometimes; everyone had heard these as children. Community 32 had survived the Great Flood, they said,  all the rich priest-like people from the old world had sheltered here through their final days, and had hoarded all the best dive and magic and technology from all the other eras behind them, throughout all of their cataclysms and floods. It was the pinnacle of mankind, before the decline. And for a moment, the possibility that Ibrahim would actually come into possession of Santavela's actual weapons seemed very, very real.
  •  
  • "Security", read Jair, trying not to marvel at the way the sign was lit from within. Was this electric power? From where? And there were other signs, glowing dimly in small alcoves along regular intervals in the wall: "Medical Bay", "Metro - University", "Metro - Residential".
  •  
  • Suddenly he heard someone sobbing... it was Marisol!!
  •  
  • Jair begun running; in a single motion he readied the rifle that had been bouncing off a strap on his back all this time, and cocked it-
  •  
  • "SOL! I'M COMING! I'M COMING SOL-IBRAHIM YOU PIG IF YOU LAY A FINGER ON HER I SWEAR-"
  •  
  • -------------
  •  
  • Ibrahim's eyes gleamed with quiet fire.
  •  
  • He stood before a door marked "Metro - Administration".
  •  
  • -------------
  •  
  • Jair burst into the room ready to fire his rifle-
  •  
  • Sol was kneeling in a corner, crying! Ibrahim?! Jair looked! Sol was crying, looking at the teddy bear on her lap; her birthday gift-
  •  
  • "SOL!"
  •  
  • -------------
  •  
  • Ibrahim reached for and pulled out the necklace from his pocket -Sol's birthday gift. From the necklace hung cute little plastic figurines and a small pink USB key-drive decorated with girly stickers. Ibrahim looked at it for a long moment.
  •  
  • -------------
  •  
  • Jair dropped his rifle and ran to hug Sol; she launched herself into his arms and hugged him back with all the strenght she could muster!
  •  
  • "It's okay! It's okay, Sol... it's all over... it's fine... it's fine; we're going home..."
  •  
  • But she couldn't stop crying...
  •  
  • -------------
  •  
  • Ibrahim blew the dust off the jack near the door, and plugged the USB in.
  •  
  • Nothing happened.
  •  
  • -then suddenly an array of green lights clicked and came to life, and a computerized feminine voice slowly wound up:
  •  
  • "Welcome, Lucia Santavela Mesa, 001013." said the talking machine, in a bell-like monotone "You have exceeded your school tardiness allotment by two million, seven hundred forty four thousand eight hundred and eighty two hours. Please report to the principal's office."
  •  
  • The door slid open and revealed a round room with walls made of glass -Ibrahim knew this was an "elevator". His eyes remained fixed.
  •  
  • -------------
  •  
  • Jair helds Sol tightly, and looked around:
  •  
  • The entire wall was covered with TV screens, and many of them were on and displaying security video -grainy black and white.
  •  
  • But Sol wouldn't stop crying! Why?
  •  
  • Jair looks at one of the TV screens.
  •  
  • And his jaw fell.
  •  
  • -------------
  •  
  • The vast majestic ruins of the underground Community 32 reflected on the glass as Ibrahim's elevator smoothly descended. They reflected on his eyes.
  •  
  • A million lights, and sights no man had dreamed of in centuries, vast and dead, reflected on his own eyes.
  •  
  • -------------
  •  
  • There, displayed in one of the T.V. screens... was a beautiful woman in her 40s, with long red hair. She smiled at Jair; while Sol squeezed him and shook her head, sobbing even harder.
  •  
  • "N-nice... nice to meet you... ma'am" stammered Jair at the screen "I mean, Sol's mom... Mrs. Soledad..."
  •  
  •  
  • "It's good to see you too, Jair." replied Sol's mom through a speaker in the console "It's good to see you too..."
  •  
  • -------------
  •  
  • Osmar's radio sat lonely, whispering static.
  •  
  • He had fallen asleep on the table once again -once again with one hand on a bottle and the other on the radio knob.
  •  
  • And once again it suddenly it burst to life:
  •  
  • "Daddy... Daddy..." called the radio voice.
  •  
  • Osmar was dreaming, surely.
  •  
  • "Daddy, can you hear me? It's Sol..."
  •  
  • Slowly Osmar's eyes opened.
  •  
  • "Daddy! I hope you can hear me; I'm with Jair in the Community 32! Daddy, I'm sorry. I'm so sorry... when Ibrahim... Ibrahim said you had given him Mom's diving cap... he was lying... but I believed it, I'm so sorry..."
  •  
  • Osmar's eyes trembled. He couldn't move.
  •  
  • "Actually mom said Ibrahim took the cap from her, when he betrayed her... two years ago..."
  •  
  • Blink.
  •  
  • "She's alive daddy. Daddy... she's alive... mommy is alive..."
  •  
  • ...
  •  
  • "She is in a castle in an island in the middle of Tomb Valley -very near from here... she had no way to get out for the last two years, but she can radio from the castle to Community 32... and I can radio from Community 32 to... well, to anywhere! It's amazing, daddy! Everything was real! But Ibrahim is on his way there -we have to save her daddy. We have to. We're going there now. I love you. I hope you heard all this. I really love you very much, daddy. We have to go now."
  •  
  • Unable to hold it in any longer, Osmar exhaled all the air in his lungs in a single burst.
  •  
  • A bell begun to toll.
  •  
  • Osmar's eyes... they changed. They changed. Gone was the alcohol, and the tears. Steel.
  •  
  • The bell tolled.
  •  
  • Fire.
  •  
  • One by one lights turned on in windows and doorways -and people came out. THE BELLS TOLLED.
  •  
  • The Watchman had tears in his eyes as he yanked from the bell chain with all his might, over and over again!
  •  
  • On the floor, his radio still squawked:
  •  
  • "I repeat: Soledad lives. Our children live. Community 32 exists. I have the coordinates."
  •  
  • -------------
  •  
  • Ibrahim walked alone along the long, flooded dark hallway.
  •  
  • Fluorescent lamps flickered and there were skeletons all around. He walked right over them.
  •  
  • "Santavela's treasure exists." continued Osmar's voice on Basuk's loudspeakers "Soledad has it. The children found her. They need help. Our children need our help -by God, our children."
  •  
  • There were signs everywhere that told a horrible story: broken windows, walls stained with centuries-old blood...
  •  
  • Ibrahim walked.
  •  
  • -------------
  •  
  • Father Alacran sat at the table, listening rapt to the radio as the Santa Carlota swayed softly. All his most trusted men were standing behind him in silence.
  •  
  • "Ibrahim will stop at nothing to become the supreme ruler over all of Aztlan..."
  •  
  • Alacran exchanged glances with his men... and behind him stood Iago, like a massive bronze statue.
  •  
  • "He betrayed Soledad the Razor and left her for dead; he betrayed everyone at the Junta!"
  •  
  • Something hardened in Iago's eyes, something only the devil could see.
  •  
  • -------------
  •  
  • Ibrahim threw a grenade down the hallway and took cover behind a wall...
  •  
  • BOOOM!!!
  •  
  • "Ibrahim must be defeated! If you let him get those weapons it will be too late!"
  •  
  • Out of the broken remains of the door, through the smoke emerged Ibrahim, his eyes driven and feverish. He stepped tense.
  •  
  • -------------
  •  
  • On a hanging scaffold Maria La Quieta paused through her work to listen to the radio. Many people had gathered, and they surrounded the machine with grim faces and determined eyes.
  •  
  • "This is not just about my children. This is not just about my wife."
  •  
  • The women on the deck of the brand new Muerteblanca -an impressive all-white tanker- were lining the railway; their faces serious as death itself.
  •  
  • Osmar's voice boomed through the loudspeakers across all of Peak Three Fathers city:
  •  
  • "This is about this sick world we were given... that is so unjust... and about whether we choose to just take it... just take it and live with it and let tyrants like Ibrahim lord us over while we keep on waiting for some messiah that never comes -for an Santavela that's been dead for over 300 years... or instead... we choose to stand up... no messiahs! Just us. Just us -we stand up now and we do something. Now. Now. We DO something!"
  • Red Veronica, on the pier, looked up to Maria La Quieta. The Muerteblanca logo had two additions on it: one was a worm coming out of the left eye... and the other was the right eye, painted red. Veronica then turned to look at Father Barraza. Barraza nodded back.
  •  
  • -------------
  •  
  • Ibrahim faced a large vault-like door. The legend above it read "WEAPONS STORAGE". His fingers trembled, slightly.
  •  
  • "My wife believed... in doing something. And she already did..."
  •  
  • Ibrahim took a deep breath.
  •  
  • Carefully, he placed a grenade near one corner of the door. Then another. Then another. Then... click... the door opened by itself?
  •  
  • "What?"
  •  
  • Ibrahim blinked. He thought. His brain on fire -his mind raced in a hundred directions while he held on to the door's pommel.
  •  
  • He nudged it, slightly.
  •  
  • The door did swivel. No.
  •  
  • It really was open.
  •  
  • Suddenly realization dawned.
  •  
  • His eyes flared with anger and hatred!
  •  
  • HE THREW THE VAULT DOOR OPEN, AND IT SLAMMED HARD ON THE WALL!!
  •  
  • For the Security Vault was empty. Clean as a bone. White. Metal. Walls.
  •  
  • Santavela's weapons were gone.
  •  
  • IBRAHIM'S GROWL TURNED INTO A SCREAM OF RAGE, AND THE SINGLE WORD THAT ECHOED THROUGH THE DEAD HALLWAYS WAS:
  •  
  • "SOLEDAAAAAD!!!!!"
  •  
  • Chapter 16 - Change of Plans

  • Footsteps. Running footsteps echoing through hallways and halls for the first time in many, many years. Two figures running: a boy and girl, holding hands.
  • Abel's voice rang omnipresent through the loudspeakers (installed seemingly at every other corner in the complex), and his cherub face could be seen in most of the security monitors too:
  • "You don't have much time;" he said, and despite the metallic distortion Sol could still sense the urgency in his voice "it won't take him long to figure out where Sol's mom is... and when he finds her he'll force her to give up the weapons..."
  • "We'll get there first." was Jair's terse response, not that Abel could hear him as the public announcement system was one-way only. Jair's mind had been spinning the moves ahead for a long time, now.
  • "He's not going to get my mom again," said Sol to Jair, uninvited "he's just not!"
  • Abel's informational voice continued:
  • "Okay guys, I see a passageway leading straight out to the island where you wanna' go; a private subway line -at least that's what I think this is..."
  • Jair spoke into his C.B. radio:
  • "Abel, I thought all subways got locked down the night before the Flood-"
  • "Well this one says "Los Pinos Presidential Palace"..." replied the omnipresent echo "so go right. Yes, that's it. Those stairs in front of you, do you see them? Across the pool-thing? Go up those stairs; they lead to the luxury suites, the subway is very near-"
  • SUDDENLY BOOM!! The floor shook with the vibrations... and far away, but perfectly distinct, Jair and Sol could hear Ibrahim's voice -mad with rage:
  • "SOLEDDAAAAADDDDD!!!! SOLLL!!!"
  • "He's near -keep going!" whispered Abel, needlessly, through the speakers "Go, guys, go go go!"
  • -------------
  • A burst of hail and debris showered the Monarca as the canon shot barely missed it and hit the building behind!
  • "They say" intoned Somaya "that you should turn starboard, now"
  • Itati spun the wheel as hard as she could, yelling back "WHO THE HELL IS 'THEY'?!"
  • "Now they say you should stop."
  • Itati grimaced and threw the engine in reverse!
  • BLAAAMMM!!
  • THE SHOT FLEW OVER THEIR HEADS AND EXPLODED JUST IN FRONT! BROOUMM!!
  • 'They'... were always right.
  • Gritting her teeth, Itati pulled down on the green lever and the Monarca's engines roared again!
  • Osvaldo was keeping Ocho calm, in a corner of the ship-
  • "Now turn port." said the sea-witch "Two more shots will be fired; but you need to miss only one."
  • "WHAT??!"
  • The impossing figure of the Serenissima turned the corner, in pursuit. It was a wider ship, and it scratched and knocked down many ruins as it passed -but like a tidal wave it just couldn't be stopped; its front cannons smoking...
  • "Turn port."
  • Itati pulled on the wheel -BOOM!
  • -------------
  • "Goddamnit Benito," barked Ze'Kill at his radio "are your firing with your feet?!!"
  • "But Somaya is in there!" came the disembodied answer-
  • "That's right; Somaya's in the Monarca, and Iago was in the Anvil, and Ibrahim was inside that building we just levelled -you startin' to see a pattern here, numbnuts??"
  • "You... you don't mean-"
  • "Dwarf." said a new voice on the radio, and Ze'Kill froze as he recognized it. "Drop whatever you're doing and come pick me up by the angel statue."
  • Ze'Kill's eyes went round like plates- "S-sir! You're alive! Y-you weren't answering the radio, I-"
  • "Community 32 is magnetically sealed, you quarter-ass."
  • "B-but the brat was able to radio out! How, a-and her father in Basuk, he's squeaking again; he's calling everyone and their uncle south of Tarahumara to come down on our asses!"
  • "Good, that's exactly why I left her alone with her mother." Even through the radio distortion Ze'Kill could tell there was something else in Ibrahim's voice. Something fierce; a certain fever.
  • "I WANT this." he continued "I want the whole goddamn world to come crashing down my feet. I FEEL like it. All part of the plan. Now come pick me up by the angel statue."
  • "So... is it true the brat's mother is alive? I-I thought you-"
  • "Goddamnit dwarf -must I always repeat myself thrice to you?!"
  • "Sir yes sir! I mean no sir! O-on our way sir!"
  • -------------
  • Itati looked back over her shoulder, wide-eyed... the Serenissima was no longer in pursuit. They were turning...
  • "They're leaving? They're leaving! Somayita, they're leaving! You were wrong!"
  • Somaya responded nothing, and merely sat back down.
  • Osvaldo ran to hug Itati, and Itati hugged him back; she was feeling pretty proud of herself. She beamed a conquering grin and flicked her hair out of her face, confidently.
  • "Alright! On we go, then."
  • Ocho barked.
  • "Itati, do you hear me?" it was Jair's voice, on the radio "Itati!"
  • "I hear you Jair. Guess who just completed a daring escape from the dastardly pirates, all by herself?"
  • "Itati, we got Sol! You need to pick us up near the Giant Wheel, can you see it? Look West."
  • Itati felt somewhat deflated at Jair failing to praise her, but brought up her binoculars and looked around:
  • "A giant wheel... wait, let me just drive out into... oh..."
  • The Monarca emerged into what seemed to be a giant lake. No more was it crowded by the ruins -this was a very wide and very clear expanse once again. The sun was barely breaking above the horizon...
  • Though the binoculars, scanning the horizon line -jagged black buildings against the dawning sky... and finally there: a giant Ferris Wheel, and what seemed to be the decaying grid structure of a rollercoaster -what used to be the Chapultepec Park Fairgrounds...
  • "Ok, giant wheel... I see it. It's very far though! How will you get there so fast?
  • "Trust us, Abel found us a way..."
  • -------------
  • The subway car slowly came to a stop and opened its doors; not without a few bumps. The sign read "LOS PINOS, PALACIO PRESIDENCIAL". As soon as the doors fully opened two well dressed skeletons spilled out.
  • Sol and Jair stood before the car; behind them was a very luxurious lobby. Jair brought up the radio:
  • "A very good way."
  • -------------
  • Abel was laying on his tummy on top of one of the wooden desks of the 90-degree-shifted lobby, 20 feet above the floor (once a wall). He had climbed it, after all; and although it had not been easy, seeing these computers actually working had been worth any amount of effort. There were pearls of sweat on his forehead, but deep down this was the most proud he had ever been of himself. Just everything. Seeing the security video of Jair and Sol climbing aboard the subway car, a car -he- had summoned after maybe centuries of waiting just for this day. It was a triumph in every way.
  • And there they were now -in grainy black and white- sitting inside of the Presidential subway car with a blur of motion on the windows.
  • They were getting away. They were making it. Ibrahim had lost. Abel smiled.
  • A side glance on a nearby screen showed a brief map of all the subway routes in Tomb Valley; Sol and Jair's car was the only one moving --and eerily all other the lines blinked with status code "delayed"...
  • "It's all true, Abel." he spoke softly, to himself "Every little thing you read. Man... this is awesome..."
  • "Agreed, quite impressive."
  • Abel was so startled that he almost fell off the desk! He turned his head up by instinct and... there: standing above him like a hammer by the hatch, Ibrahim.
  • Ibrahim leapt onto the wooden desk, and his boots landed heavily next to Abel -THE WOOD BROKE INTO SPLITERS! AND EVERYTHING -SCREENS, CHAIR, ABEL, IBRAHIM, DESK DRAWERS- EVERYTHING FELL DOWN FOR AN ETERNITY OF 20 FEET!
  • CRRRAAASH!!
  • THE WOOD AND SCREENS SHATTERED INTO A THOUSAND SPLINTERS UPON IMPACT, AND ABEL BOUNCED OFF HORRIBLY, WOUNDED AND UNCONSCIOUS.
  • But he did not hit the floor a second time after his one bounce, because Ibrahim, standing perfectly balanced, caught him by the back of his shirt.
  • The pirate warlord calmly turned around and begun walking back towards the wood-paneled side wall, dragging Abel behind like a sack of loot.
  • "Congratulations" he commented "I'm hiring your services as a guide, effective immediately. You may have heard this line before."
  • Ibrahim loaded Abel, quite unconscious, over his shoulder, and then whipped out his radio:
  • "Dwarf: change of plans. You'll pick me up at a different spot; I know it's far so don't make me repeat myself. Just be there for once, and feel lucky. Ready?"
  • "Sir?" came the voice of Ze'Kill over the airwaves "Y-yes sir... where?"
  • Abel was apparently not so heavy after all, because Ibrahim easily begun scaling up the wood-paneled wall with him over the shoulder. Stopping for a moment, the man allowed himself a single smile before taking the radio to his lips:
  • "Look for a big wheel."
  • -------------
  • Sol watched as Jair finished throwing the last of the skeletons at the far end of the subway car -away from her.
  • He returned and sat by her side, quietly. The car was moving; it made a rumbling sound on rails that by some miracle had not yet been rendered useless by centuries decay. It was a bumpy ride, and occassionally spots of lights would flash by the windows; hazy and yellow.
  • Suddenly her hand held his.
  • He smiled softly, and patted it; and looked at her. Sol seemed sickly. Her hair had started to knot, and had lost some of its shine; her cheeks weren't quite as red anymore. Her eyes seemed deeper, and she had so much to say. So much, that it bottled up in her throat and nothing could come out. She was tired.
  • "Everything is going to be fine, Sol. We’re gonna get to your mom, she’ll give us Santavela’s weapons, we’re gonna kick Ibrahim’s ass with them. And if he runs away, your dad is gathering... an army-really, and they’ll be here in three days at most. We’re all going home. It’s gonna’ be a better place."
  • Sol looked up at Jair with an expression of maturity only struggle can provide, and drying tears.
  • "And mom is coming with us, too. I thought... I was an orphan..."
  • Jair remained silent for a long moment. Sol knew who Jair was.
  • "Yeah..." he smiled softly, understanding "it's nice to have someone to fight for...". And Sol smiled back.
  • The subway car rumbled along the ancient tracks. Occasionally a lamp or two flew by, through the windows outside; a miracle to be still lit after all these years.
  • It was a broken world after all, derelict. But there they sat Sol and Jair, in it. And he patted her hand, and the rest of the ride went in silence.
  • Chapter 17 - Darkest Before Dawn

  • Itati was feeling confident and proud; she was a captain now, and her vessel, the Monarca, rode the waves with the grace of a stallion.
  •  
  • The sky was dark pink; the sun would rise very soon. She felt the air in her lungs and in her hair; and the gentle rocking of the waves beneath her feet.
  •  
  • She brought up the binoculars: the Chapultepec Fairgrounds was a haunted husk of what it used to be; hardly recognizable but for the giant Ferris wheel and the iconic rollercoaster. She had read about them.
  •  
  • She brought the radio to her mouth: "So, where exactly?" she brushed off a strand of hair off her forehead "I see the giant wheel; that must have been one hell of a bicycle..."
  •  
  • "We're coming..." said Jair's voice, distorted through the radio "we're out of the subway now..."
  •  
  • "Right, so did you see this supposed Presidential Palace Abel was talking about?"
  •  
  • "Nope, it's a hole in the ground. Seriously: it's just one big hole, filled in with water. No palace left. We had to swim and came out through a sewer..."
  •  
  • "Wow. Well, that's disappointing."
  •  
  • "Where's Abel? He's not answering since a while ago; he should be there by now."
  •  
  • "I dunno, picking up souvenirs I guess. Can't blame him; I still can't believe all that time geeking out about old world machines and books actually paid off for him..."
  •  
  • She chuckled and looked over her shoulder: Osvaldito was still sleeping -curled up on the floor with Ocho.
  •  
  • Standing before Osvaldo however, was Somaya. And Somaya was staring straight into Itati's eyes, emotionless.
  •  
  • "Weird witch..." Itati muttered under her breath.
  •  
  • "Say again?"
  •  
  • "Nothing, I'm coming up near the spot now. Sol's still okay?"
  •  
  • "Yeah. Okay, keep your eyes on the west coast; you'll see us anytime."
  •  
  • "Yeah, if only the sun came out..."
  •  
  • "Yet it does." said Somaya "A new sun rises. Keep your eyes on the east."
  •  
  • "Jair said west." replied Itati, bothered. "Just... sit down and be quiet? Ok? You're weirding me out, seriously."
  •  
  • -------------
  •  
  • All the rusted and ruined rollercoaster cars were piled up in a large mound blocking the sewer exit. Jair and Sol finally reached the top, wet and tired, but hopeful. The dead fairgrounds were around them; empty and ruined carnivals stands, fences, broken clown statues.
  •  
  • And the sun was rising.
  •  
  • Jair brought up his binoculars: the sky was deep pink; and the clouds reminded him of bloody rags. Slowly scanning the jagged horizon line, Jair stayed on a certain dark mass; a darker shape that oddly lacked the angular and broken edges seen elsewhere in the skyline. It was an island. The island; the one were Sol's mom had been trapped all these years. And suddenly, the Monarca!
  •  
  • Jair beamed for the first time in a long time, and took the radio to his mouth:
  •  
  • "Itati, I see you! I see you!"
  •  
  • "Oh where?! Wave your hand, jump up and down!!"
  •  
  • "Right here!! We're coming! Itati, you're awesome!"
  •  
  • "Captain Awesome to you, mister. Actually I'm not sure I want to give you the ship back, you know? What are the laws of the sea regarding-"
  •  
  • Suddenly Jair heard Somaya's voice in the background, even through the static of the C.B. radio:
  •  
  • "The new sun rises." the witch said "A last shot; they say, one that must not be missed."
  •  
  • Jair's heart fell down to his stomach, and through the binoculars he saw...
  •  
  • BOOM!! THE BACK OF THE MONARCA EXPLODED IN A FIREBALL!
  •  
  • "NOOOO!!!!"
  •  
  • Sol saw it too; as if in slow motion, as if waking up from a wonderful dream only to find it was never meant to be.
  •  
  • The Monarca was quickly engulfed by the flames, far away between their shore and the promised island.
  •  
  • And the Serenissima emerged behind it, like a vulture from the shadows.
  •  
  • "YEAH!!" shouted Ze'Kill, pumping his fist in the air "Haha, right in the ass!!"
  •  
  • Jair did not notice himself falling to his knees, dropping the binoculars and holding his head in his hands. Sol's cries were muffled and distant.
  •  
  • Helpess, he saw the Monarca slowly sink.
  •  
  • "ITATIIIIIII!!!!" cried Sol!
  •  
  • -------------
  •  
  • Darkness.
  •  
  • Water.
  • Cold.
  •  
  • Bubbles.
  •  
  • Beams of light waving in the surface above.
  •  
  • Below: Osvaldo sinks, unconscious.
  •  
  • Somaya sinks: her hands crossed over her chest, her legs straight, her eyes closed. Peaceful.
  •  
  • Itati shook her her head no. NO. She flailed her arms, helpless. Bubbles.
  •  
  • The Monarca was sinking besides her. Red burns glowing inside. It passed her, rushing down to the bottom, illuminating a dozen car husks piling on some submarine highway, like an iron graveyard. A fast vessel till the end.
  •  
  • NO.
  •  
  • She dived down. She dived. She caught Osvaldo. Bubbles escaped her mouth and nostrils. She flailed. Her beautiful long hair wrapped around her face.
  •  
  • Terror.
  •  
  • Determination.
  •  
  • She swam up. Osvaldo under her arm. Up. Lights fading.
  •  
  • Surface nearing; beams of light waving. A distant sun above the waters. It darkens.
  •  
  • Her eyes closed... for a moment. She forced them open! She swam!
  •  
  • The light of the Monarca below finally flickered and died.
  •  
  • NOW.
  •  
  • HER HEAD BROKE ABOVE THE WAVES! GASP! AIR! AIR! Breathe...
  •  
  • She rose Osvaldo up. Water itching her eyes. She struggled to keep his head above the waters!
  •  
  • Consciousness fading. Vision blurring. Numbness. Cold. Must keep Osvaldo's head above the water. Is he breathing? She could't tell. Hard to stay afloat. Tired. Keep Osvaldo's head...
  •  
  • Heaven. Trees.
  •  
  • Her father had always said... there were green trees in heaven. A whole forest of them: packed, vibrant and full of life. Distant, blurry, surrounded by the mists. And the sun was rising behind this forest. The green of the trees reflected in her eyes, like a vision... and then many shadowy hands got in the way turning it into black.
  •  
  • -------------
  •  
  • Jair crushed the dirt in his fists, and slowly got up from his knees.
  •  
  • "We need a boat." he growled "We can save them. We need a boat."
  •  
  • Sol looked at him, as if hurting from his stubborn refusal to accept defeat. Her own fists were closed tightly too -she was about to break in tears...
  •  
  • "Lose one friend, gain another." said Ibrahim.
  •  
  • Jair and Sol turned around in time to see the pirate warlord dropping Abel, unconscious; the boy rolled down a few feet on the slope of debris.
  •  
  • "Isn't that how it works, Sol?"
  •  
  • Jair's breathing turned shallow. His eyes were filled with slow-burning, deep-brewing rage...
  •  
  • "Think." said the pirate to Jair "I beg you, stop and think. It's not too late."
  •  
  • "I'll kill you." growled a voice from within Jair.
  •  
  • "The world is not fair, young man. Haven't you had that lesson hammered into your head by now?"
  •  
  • "I swear I will kill you or I will die trying."
  •  
  • "Good lord, drop the hero act already and THINK. Just think:" Ibrahim climbed another step, stared directly into Jair's eyes, and said "Just because you are right it doesn't mean you can beat me. Just because you're angry it doesn't mean I'll suddenly forget 20 years of fighting experience I have on top of you, just because you've been loyal, good, and brave so far it doesn't make the powder in your rifle any less wet, it doesn't make the edge of my sword any less sharp. Think."
  •  
  • "Thinking like that killed my father. Men like you killed my father."
  •  
  • "Men like me killed mine. The question is: did you learn from it?"
  •  
  • "I am not you. Doing what is right... even if it kills me... is still right. Else there's no point in living."
  •  
  • "Very well, then." Ibrahim sighed. He could see the determination in Jair's eyes... and nodded slowly "It is, after all, your last entitlement... your right to choose death to justify life." and saying so, Ibrahim's sword came out of its sheath in a wide, slow arc. A second later it burst into flames. BROUSSHH. "I'll stop you no longer."
  •  
  • "Please... no..." cried Sol "please..."
  •  
  • Jair stood tall, and picked up his rifle. He flicked a small lock and out came a long bayonet-like blade from within it; the last gift from his own father.
  •  
  • "Jair, I beg you: don't do this!" cried Sol.
  •  
  • "You saved me once, already." replied Jair, calmly looking into her eyes "And you mean so much to me. But please don't ever stand in my way again."
  •  
  • Devastated, Sol stepped back; great big tears welling up in her eyes.
  •  
  • And Jair ran to Ibrahim.
  •  
  • Let it be said that Ibrahim fought Jair with honor. Blow for blow, he parried, he blocked, he conceded a step, he recovered territory. Never mocking, never condescending. It was gentleman's protocol, respectful last rites. His face was impassive. He knew the outcome.
  •  
  • Two men clashed irons in the middle of a haunted vast fairground. Sol on her knees, could do nothing but stare.
  •  
  • Parry. Sidestep. Riposte, lunge. Swipe, block. It was a dance. Ibrahim followed the ritual, if only to make sure he was paying the proper respect to Jair's determination; the boy deserved that much.
  •  
  • He would have made a great warrior someday.
  •  
  • And when Ibrahim finally decided he had rendered tribute long enough, he stepped forward and dealt the ending blow.
  •  
  • Two men on a haunted fairground. One fell down, slowly, to his knees first, then on his face. He didn't get up anymore. One girl cried her heart out.
  •  
  • The flaming sword had been sated of its thirst for blood, once more, and for now. Ibrahim sheathed it back in.
  •  
  • Then calmly he picked up the body of Abel over his shoulders again, and nodded to Sol to follow him.
  •  
  • The Serenissima waited quietly in the distance; a looming shadow just now lowering its long boarding plank.
  •  
  • Sol hung her head low...
  •  
  • The sun was rising.
  •  
  • Ibrahim stopped in the middle of the plank to look over his shoulder, at her. He nodded again.
  •  
  • After kissing Jair's cheek one last time, she wiped her tears and started to follow.
  • Chapter 18 - A Past Foretold