Cramer was on Earth, on long-service leave from the Fleet and teaching part-time at the University of Rio. Francesca was due back in a week, when her boat would dock at the Santiago shipyards for refurbishment. Cramer had a trekking holiday planned in the Andes, followed by a fortnight in Acapulco, before they said goodbye again and her ship whisked her off to some far, unstable star.
He could recall precisely where he was, what he was doing--even trivial things like what he was wearing at the time, and what mood he was in--when he heard about the crashlanding: in a cafe on the Rio seafront, drinking coffee and reading El Globe, wearing the kaftan Francesca had brought back from the Emirate colony of Al Haq, and feeling contentment at the thought of her imminent return. The wall-screen was relaying news to the cafe's oblivious, chattering clientele. He took notice only when it was announced that a Fleet observation vessel had crashlanded on the Rim world of Tartarus Major. "The Pride of Valencia was mapping Tartarus for stress patterns and went down two days ago," said the reporter. "Casualty figures are not yet known. Other news..."
His soul released its pent up breath; relief flooded him. For perhaps five seconds Cramer existed in a glorious state of reprieve, because he knew, didn't he, that Francesca was aboard the observation vessel Dawn Light? Then, crashing through his consciousness like a great wave, came the awareness that she had left the Dawn Light months ago, had been promoted to the Pride of Valencia.
Cramer returned to his apartment, shock lending him a strange sense of calm in which he felt removed from the reality of his surroundings. He contacted the Fleet headquarters in Geneva, but was told that no details of the incident would be forthcoming until accident investigators had reported from Tartarus Major. Unable to bear the wait, the feeling of redundancy, he knew that the only course of action was to make his way independently to Tartarus. He booked passage on a sailship leaving Earth the following day, and spent the duration of the voyage under blissful sedation.
He had no idea what to expect on landing, but it was not the decrepit, medieval city of Baudelaire. It seemed to him that he had stepped back in time. Not only was the architecture and atmosphere of the place archaic, but the bureaucracy and services were likewise mired in the past. The prevailing ethos of the government departments he petitioned seemed to be that the loss of any sailship--and minor officials seemed unsure as to whether a sailship had been lost on Tartarus Major--was not the responsibility of their department, and Cramer was advised to see so-and-so at such-and-such a bureau. Added to which confusion, the entire population of the planet seemed to be packed into the capital city, eager to catch a boat off-planet before the supernova blew. Eventually, and with scant regard for his feelings, he was advised to check at the city morgue. Beside himself, he battled through the bustling streets until he came upon the relevant building. The chambers and corridors of the morgue were packed with the stiffened, shrouded figures of the dead. Here, tearful and in obvious distress, he had his first stroke of luck. He happened upon a harassed Fleet official, checking charred remains against the crew-list of the Pride of Valencia.
Cramer explained his predicament, and the official took sympathy and went through the names of the dead for that of Francesca.
She was not, apparently, in the morgue. All the bodies had been recovered from the site of the crash. According to the official, Cramer was in luck: he was advised to try the infirmary, where the twelve surviving crew members were receiving treatment.
Given hope, he was filled with fear, now, at the thought of Francesca's having survived--or rather he feared the state in which she might have survived. Would he find Francesca reduced to a brain-dead wreck, a hopelessly injured cripple? He considered only the worst-case scenario as he made his way to the infirmary. He explained his situation to a doctor who escorted him to the ward where the survivors lay. As the medic checked the records, Cramer strode down the line of beds--not rejuvenation pods, in this backward hole, but beds!--fearful lest he should come upon Francesca, yet petrified that he should not.
She was not on the ward.
The doctor joined Cramer, carrying the crew-list of the Pride of Valencia. There was one name outstanding, accounted for neither in the morgue nor in the hospital: Francesca Maria Rodriguez.
Cramer was in turmoil. "Then where the hell is she?"
The doctor placed a soothing hand on his shoulder. "Two of the injured were found in the jungle by an order of monks who took them in and treated their wounds. One male crew member died--the other, Rodriguez, is still undergoing treatment."
"Is she badly injured?"
"I'm sorry. I have no records..." He paused. "You might try the Church of the Ultimate Sacrifice, just along the street. They should be able to help you."
Cramer thanked him and, filled with a mixture of despair and hope that left him mentally exhausted, he almost ran from the infirmary. He found the church without difficulty: in a street of mean timber buildings, it was the only stone-built edifice, a towering cathedral along classical lines.
He hurried inside. A cowled figure riding an invalid carriage barred his way. Desperately Cramer explained himself. The disabled cleric told him to wait, and propelled his carriage up the aisle. While he was gone, Cramer gazed about the sumptuous interior. He noticed the strange, scorpion-like statue above the altar, flanked by a human figure bound to a cross--its arms and legs removed so that it resembled the remains of some ancient statue. He could not help but wonder what perverted cult he had stumbled upon.
The monk returned and gestured that Cramer should follow him. He led the way to a small study behind the altar. "The Abbot," he murmured as Cramer passed inside.
Behind a large desk was an imposing figure garbed in a black habit, his face concealed by a deep cowl.
Nervously, Cramer sat down. Prompted by the Abbot's silence, he babbled his story.
Halfway through, he paused and peered into the shadow of the Abbot's hood. The holy man seemed to have his eyes closed. Cramer noticed the dried, discoloured orbs tied to his right wrist, but failed to make the connection.
He continued with what the doctor had told him about Francesca. When he had finished, the Abbot remained silent for some time. He placed his finger-tips together in a miniature facsimile of the spire that surmounted the cathedral. He seemed to be contemplating.
He said at last, his voice a rasp, "Are you a believer, Mr Cramer?"
"In your religion?" Cramer shifted uncomfortably.
"I... I have my own beliefs."
"That sounds to me like another way of admitting you're an atheist."
"Does it matter?" he asked. He contained his anger. The Abbot was, after all, his only link with Francesca.
The holy man seemed to take an age before he next spoke. "I can help you, Mr Cramer. Francesca is in the jungle."
"How badly..." he began, the words catching in his throat.
"Do not worry yourself unduly. She will live."
Cramer sat back in his seat, relief washing over him. He imagined Francesca recuperating in some remote jungle hospital.
"When can I see her?"
"Tomorrow I return to the jungle to resume my pilgrimage. If you wish, you may accompany me."
Cramer thanked him, relieved that at last his search was almost over.
"I leave at first light," said the Abbot. "You will meet me here." And he gestured--parting his spired hands--to indicate that the audience was over.
That night Cramer found expensive lodging in a crowded boarding house. In the morning the sun rose huge and brooding over the parched city, though the sky had been lit all night long with the primary's technicolour fulminations. He had slept badly, apprehensive as to the state in which he might find Francesca. At dawn he returned to the cathedral and met the Abbot, and they hurried through narrow alleyways to a jetty and a barge painted in the sable and scarlet colours of the Church.
The crew of two natives cast off the moorings and the barge slipped sideways into mid-stream before the engines caught. Cramer sat on the foredeck, in the shade of a canvas awning, and shared a thick red wine with the Abbot. The holy man threw back his cowl, and Cramer could not help but stare. The Abbot's ears and nose had been removed, leaving only dark holes and scabrous scar tissue. His eye-lids, stitched shut over hollow sockets, were curiously flattened, like miniature drum-heads. He kept his eye-balls, dried and shrunken, on a thong of optic nerves around his wrist.
The barge proceeded up-river, against a tide of smaller craft streaming in the opposite direction. The Abbot cocked his head towards their puttering engines. "Some believed the things which were spoken," he quoted, "and some did not. Once, sir, all Tartarus believed. Now the faith is defended by a devout minority."
Cramer murmured something non-committal in reply. He was not interested in the Abbot's belief system and its macabre extremes. For fifteen years he had taught students the rudiments of the various major faiths. Now religion, every religion, sickened him. In his opinion, superstitious belief systems were just one more political tool that man used to subjugate, terrorise and enslave his fellow man.
He sat and drank and watched the passing landscape. At one point they idled by an ancient temple complex. Many of the buildings were in ruins; others, miraculously, considering their age, stood tall and proud. Towers and minarets of some effulgent stone like rose-coloured marble, they were sufficiently alien in design to inspire wonder. As the barge sailed slowly by, Cramer made out six statues--another example of the long, scorpion-like insects, tails hooked in readiness.
He finished his wine, excused himself and retreated to his cabin. He drew the shutters against the light and, despite the heat, enjoyed the sleep he had been denied the night before.
He awoke hours later, much refreshed, hardly able to believe after the trials of the past two days that Francesca would soon be in his arms. He climbed to the deck. The sun was directly overhead--he must have slept for five or six hours. The barge was pulling into a jetty. A tumble-down collection of timber buildings lined the riverbank. The Abbot appeared at Cramer's side. "Chardon's Landing," he said. "From here we walk. It is thirty kilometres to the plateau."
With scarcely a delay they set off into the jungle, Cramer marvelling at the blind man's sure tread as he navigated his way through the jungle. At first the trek was not arduous. The way had been cleared, and they followed a well-defined path through the undergrowth. Only later, as they put twenty kilometres behind them, and the path began to climb, did Cramer begin to feel the strain. They slowed, and halted often to swallow water from leather canteens.
They continued through the long, sultry hours of afternoon; at last, when Cramer thought he could continue no more, they came to a clearing. Before them, the plateau fell away in a sheer drop, affording an open panorama of tree-tops stretching all the way to the northern horizon beneath a violent, actinic sky.
Only then did Cramer notice the tent, to one side of the clearing.
He turned to the Abbot. "Where are we?"
The holy man gestured. "Francesca's tent," was his only reply.
"But this can't be the mission..." Cramer began.
He heard a sound from across the clearing, and turned quickly. He stared in dread as Francesca drew aside the tent flap and stepped out. His heart began a laboured pounding. She stood, tiny and trim in her radiation silvers. He searched her for any sign of injury--but she seemed whole and perfect, as he had dreamed of her all along. She stared at him, appearing uncertain at his presence. A smile came hesitantly to her lips.
He crossed the clearing and hugged her to his chest.
She pulled away, shaking her head. "I meant to contact you. It's just..." Cramer had expected tears; instead, she was almost matter-of-fact.
"Francesca... What's happening? The Abbot-" He nodded towards the holy man, who was busying himself with a second tent across the clearing. "He said that you were injured, in hospital-"
She looked pained. "Come. We have a lot to talk about." She took his hand and drew him into the tent.
They sat facing each other. He scanned her for injuries, but saw no bandages, compresses, or scabs of synthetic flesh.
She read his gaze, and smiled. "Cuts and bruises, nothing serious."
Cramer felt a constriction in his throat. "You were lucky."
She lowered her head, looked at him through her lashes. "You don't know how lucky," she murmured.
A silence developed, and he wished at that moment that silence was all that separated them; but they seemed divided by more than just the inability to communicate meaningfully.
Then he saw the book beside her inflatable pillow. Embossed in scarlet upon its black cover was the symbol of a scorpion beside a dismembered human figure.
"Francesca..." he pleaded. "What's happening?"
She did not meet his gaze. "What do you mean?"
He indicated the holy book.
It was some time before she could bring herself to respond. At last she looked up, her eyes wide, staring, as if still in shock from the trauma of the crashlanding.
"After the accident," she began, "I regained consciousness. I lay in the wreckage, surrounded by the others... my friends and colleagues. They were dead..." She paused, gathered herself. "I couldn't move. I saw a figure, the Abbot, and then other robed monks, moving among the crew, giving blessings, first-aid where they could. Eventually the Abbot found me. They loaded me onto a stretcher, knocked me out. The next thing I remember, I was in the mission hospital at Chardon's Landing,"
"And the Abbot did all this without eyes-?"
"He was sighted then," Francesca said. "Only later did he return to Baudelaire to petition for penance physicale." She paused, continued, "Before that, while I recuperated, he told me about his faith, his quest."
Cramer echoed that last word, sickened by something in her tone.
"The Abbot is searching for the lost temple of the Slarque," Francesca went on, "the race which lived on Tartarus before humankind. This temple is of special significance to his religion."
Something turned in his stomach. He gestured towards the book. "Do you believe that?" he said.
She stared at him with her green and vital eyes. "I'm intrigued by the extinct aliens," she replied. "I was always interested in xeno-archaeology. I want to help the Abbot find the temple."
He felt betrayed. "You act as his eyes?"
She nodded, then reached out and took his hand. "I love you, Hans. I always have and always will. This... this is something I must experience. Please, don't obstruct me."
The Abbot called that a meal was prepared.
The sun was dipping below the horizon, presaging the nightly show of tattered flames and flares like shredded banners. They sat in the shade of the jungle--Cramer relieved when Francesca chose to sit next to him--and ate from a platter of meat, cheese and bread. He recalled her words, her avowal of love, but they did nothing to banish his jealousy.
The Abbot poured wine and spoke of his religion, his belief that only through physical mortification would his God be appeased and the sun cease its swelling. Cramer listened with mounting incredulity. From time to time he glanced at Francesca. The girl he knew of old would have piped up with some pithy remark along the lines that the holy man's fellow believers had been sawing bits off themselves for centuries, and still the sun was unstable. But she said nothing. She seemed hypnotised by the Abbot's words.
Cramer was drunk with the wine, or he would have held his tongue. "A lot your mortification has achieved so far," he slurred, indicating the burning heavens.
"Once we locate the temple of the Slarque," said the Abbot, "our efforts will be rewarded. Be glad and rejoice, for the Lord will do great things." According to his holy book, he said, strange feats and miracles were to be expected in the alien ruins--but by this time Cramer had heard enough, and concentrated on his drinking.
He shared Francesca's tent that night. He sat cross-legged, a bottle of wine half-full in his lap. Francesca lay on her back, staring up at the sloping fabric.
He processed his thoughts and carefully ordered his words. "How... how can you be sure that you'll find the temple before the sun-?"
"The Abbot and his minions have searched most of the jungle--there is only this sector to go. We will find the shrine."
"You sound in little doubt."
She turned her head and stared at him. "I am in no doubt," she said.
He determined, then, that he would not let her go. He would restrain her somehow, drag her back to Baudelaire and then to Earth.
"When do you set out on this... this expedition?" he asked.
"Tomorrow, maybe the day after." There was defiance in her tone.
"Then you'll return...?" He could not bring himself to say, "to me?" Instead he said, "You'll rejoin the Fleet?"
She glanced at him, seemed to be searching for the words with which to explain herself. "Hans... I joined the Fleet believing that through science we might do something to stabilise these novae. Over the years, I've come to realise that nothing can be done." She frowned. "I can't go back, rejoin the Fleet." She hesitated, seemed to want to go on, but instead just shook her head in frustration.
She turned her back on him and slept.
Her words echoing in his head, Cramer drank himself unconscious.
He was awoken by a sound, perhaps hours later. He oriented himself and reached out for Francesca, but she was gone. He gathered his wits, peered from the tent. Across the clearing he made out Francesca's short figure next to the tall form of the Abbot. They were shouldering their packs, their movements careful so as not to wake him. Cramer felt the smouldering pain of betrayal in his gut. From his pack he drew his laser and slipped from the tent. As he moved around the clearing, keeping to the shadows, he was formulating a plan. He would stun both Francesca and the Abbot, then flee with her back to the port and take the first ship home. The girl was not in her right mind, could not be held responsible for her actions.
Francesca saw him coming. She stared at him, wide-eyed.
Dry of throat, Cramer said, "You were leaving me!"
"Do not try to stop us," the Abbot warned.
Francesca cried, "I must go! If you love me, if you trust me, then you'll let me go!"
"What have you done to her!" he yelled at the Abbot.
"You cannot stop us," the holy fool said. "The way of the pious will not be impeded by those of scant faith!"
Cramer raised his laser, clicked off the safety catch.
Francesca was shaking her head. "No..."
His vision swam. A combination of the heat, the drink, the emotional consequences of what was happening conspired to addle his wits.
Francesca made to turn and go.
He reached out, caught her arm. The sudden feel of her, the hot flesh above her elbow, reminded Cramer of what he was losing. He pulled her to him. "Francesca..."
Her eyes communicated an anger close to hatred. She struggled. She was small, but the determination with which she fought was testament to her desire to be free. He was incensed. He roared like a maniac and dragged her across the clearing towards the tent. She screamed and broke free.
Then Cramer raised his laser and fired, hitting her in the chest and knocking her off her feet, the large-eyed expression of disbelief at what he'd done still on her face as she hit the ground.
The Abbot was on his knees beside her, his fingers fumbling for her pulse. He stared blindly in Cramer's direction. "You've killed her! My God, you've killed her!"
"No..." He collapsed and held the loose bundle of Francesca in his arms. There was no movement, no heartbeat. Her head lolled. He cried into her hair that he had not meant to...
The Abbot began a doleful prayer for Cramer's soul. Cramer wanted to hate him then, revile the holy man for infecting Francesca with his insane belief, but in his grief and guilt he could only weep and beg forgiveness.
At the Abbot's suggestion Cramer buried Francesca in the rank jungle soil, while the night sky pulsed and flared with all the colours of Hell.
When it was done, and they stood above the fresh mound of earth, Cramer asked, "And you?"
"I will continue on my quest."
"We walk by faith, not by sight," the Abbot said. "If God wishes me to find the shrine, that is his will."
Cramer remained kneeling by the grave for hours, not quite sane. As the sun rose he set off on the long trek south, the Abbot's dolorous chant following him into the jungle. He caught one of the many ferries bound for Baudelaire, and the following day bought passage aboard a slowboat to Earth.
He lost himself in Venezuela's vast interior, relived his time with Francesca, wallowed in grief and guilt and cursed himself for her death.
Then, just short of four months later, the Abbot came to Earth with news from Tartarus Major.
Cramer was sitting on the porch of his jungle retreat, the abandoned timber villa of some long-dead oil prospector. It was not yet noon and already his senses were numbed by alcohol. The encroaching jungle, the variation of greens and the odd splash of colour from bird or flower, reminded him of Tartarus--though the sky, what little of it could be seen through the tree-tops, was innocent of the baleful eye of the supernova.
The rattle of loose boards sounded through the humid air. His first visitor in four months approached along the walkway from the riverbank.
He sat up, fearful of trouble. He checked the pistol beneath the cushion at his side.
The walkway rose from the river in an erratic series of zig-zags, and only when the caller negotiated the final turn could Cramer make him out. With his long sable habit and peaked hood he looked the very image of Death itself.
The boards were loose and treacherous. The Abbot had to tread with care, but not once did he reach for the side-rails--and only when he arrived at the verandah did Cramer realise why. The Abbot had had his arms removed since their last encounter.
To each his own mortification, Cramer thought. He hoisted his bottle in greeting.
"What the hell brings you here?" he asked. "You've finally abandoned your damn-fool quest?"
The holy man sat cross-legged before Cramer, a feat of some achievement considering the absence of his arms. He tipped his head back, and his cowl slipped from his bald pate to reveal his face ravaged by the depredations of his piety.
Cramer noted that his dried eyeballs were now fastened about his left ankle, bolas-like.
"In two days I return to Tartarus," he said in his high, rasping voice. His stitched-shut eye-sockets faced Cramer's approximate direction. "My quest is almost over."
Cramer raised his drink. "You don't know how pleased I am," he sneered. "But I thought no-one knew the whereabouts of your precious shrine?"
"Once, that was true," the Abbot said, unperturbed by Cramer's rancour. "Explorers claimed they'd stumbled upon the alien temple, and then just as conveniently stumbled away again, unable to recall its precise location. But then two weeks ago a miracle occurred."
Cramer took a long pull from the bottle and offered his guest a shot. The Abbot refused.
"There is a pouch on a cord around my waist," he said. "Take it. Retrieve the items within."
Cramer made out the small leather pouch, its neck puckered by a drawstring. He could not reach the Abbot from his seat. He was forced to kneel, coming into contact with the holy man's peculiar body odour--part the stench of septic flesh, part the chemical reek of the analgesics that seeped from his every pore.
He opened the pouch and reached inside.
Three spherical objects met his finger-tips, and he knew immediately what they were. One by one he withdrew the image apples. He did not immediately look into their depths. It was as if some precognition granted him the knowledge of what he was about to see. Only after long seconds did he raise the first apple to his eyes.
He gave an involuntary sob.
Image apples were not a fruit at all, but the exudations of an amber-like substance, clear as dew, from tropical palms native to Tartarus. Through a bizarre and unique process, the apples imprinted within themselves, at a certain stage in their growth, the image of their surroundings.
Bracing himself, Cramer looked into the first apple again, then the second and the third. Each crystal-clear orb contained a perfect representation of Francesca as she strode through the jungle, past the trees where the apples had grown.
The first apple had captured her full-length, a short, slim, childlike figure striding out, arms swinging--all radiation silvers and massed midnight hair. In the second apple she was closer; just her head and shoulders showed. Cramer stared at her elfin face, her high cheekbones and jade green eyes. Then the third apple: she was striding away from the tree, only her narrow back and fall of hair visible. Tears coursed down his cheeks.
He held the apples in cupped hands and shook his head. He was hardly able to find the words to thank the Abbot. Just the other day he had been bewailing the fact that he had but half a dozen pix of Francesca. That the holy man had come all the way to Earth to give him these...
"I... Thank you. I don't know what to say."
Then Cramer stopped. Perhaps the whisky had clouded his senses. He stared at the Abbot.
"How did you find these?" he asked.
"When you left," said the Abbot. "I continued north. At the time, if you recall, I was following directions given to me by a boatman on the river St Augustine. They proved fallacious, as ever, and rather than continue further north and risk losing my way, I retraced my steps, returned to the plateau where we had camped." He was silent for a time. Cramer was back on Tartarus Major, so graphically did the Abbot's words conjure up the scene, so painful were his memories of the events upon the plateau.
"When I reached the clearing, it occurred to me to pray for Francesca. I fell to my knees and felt for the totem I had planted to mark her resting place, only to find that it was not there. Moreover, I discovered that the piled earth of the grave had been disturbed, that the grave was indeed empty."
Cramer tried to cry out loud, but no sound came.
"In consternation I stumbled back to my tent. She was waiting for me."
"Yes. Francesca. She spoke to me, 'Abbot, do not fear. Something wondrous has happened.'"
Cramer was shaking his head. "No, she was dead. Dead. I buried her with my own hands."
"Francesca lives," the Abbot insisted. "She told me that she knew the whereabouts of the holy temple. She would show me, if I did as she bid."
He smiled, and the approximation of such a cheerful expression upon a face so devastated was ghastly to behold. "She wanted me to come to Earth and fetch you back to Tartarus. She gave me the image apples as proof."
Cramer could only shake his head like something clockwork. "I don't... I can't believe it."
"Look upon the images," he ordered.
Cramer held the baubles high. "But surely these are images of Francesca before I arrived on Tartarus, before her death?"
"Look closely, man! See, she carries your laser, the one you left in your flight from the clearing."
He stared again, disbelieving. He had overlooked it in the apples before, so slight a side-arm it was. But sure enough--strapped to Francesca's thigh was the silver length of his personal pulse laser.
"She wants you," the Abbot said in a whisper.
Cramer wept and raged. He hurled his empty whisky bottle through the air and into the jungle, which accepted it with hardly a pause in the cacophonous medley of insects, toads and birds.
"But the sun might blow at any time," he cried.
"Some experts say a month or two." The Abbot paused. "But vain and rapacious men still pilot illegal boats to Tartarus, to raid the treasures that remain. I leave the day after tomorrow. You will accompany me, I take it?"
Sobbing, unable to control himself, wracked with guilt and a fear he had no hope of understanding, Cramer said that he would indeed accompany the Abbot. How could he refuse?
And so began his return to Tartarus Major. He cursed the twisted machinations of fate. A little under four months ago he had set out on his first voyage to the planet, in a bid to find a Francesca he feared was surely dead--and, now, he left with the Abbot aboard a ramshackle sailship, its crew a gallery of rogues, to be reunited with a Francesca he knew for sure to be dead, but somehow miraculously risen...
He chose to spend the voyage under sedation.
The first he knew of the landing was when the Abbot coaxed him awake with his croaking, cracking voice. Cramer emerged reluctantly from his slumber, recalling vague, nightmare visions of Francesca's death--only to be confronted by another nightmare vision: the Abbot's mutilated visage, staring down at him.
"To your feet. Tartarus awaits."
He gathered his scant belongings--six flasks of whisky, the image apples--and stumbled from the ship.
As he emerged into the terrible daylight, the assault of Tartarus upon his every sense seemed to sober him. He stared about like a man awakening from a dream, taking in the panorama of ancient wooden buildings around the port, their facades and steep, tiled roofs seeming warped by the intense heat.
Theirs was the only ship in sight, its silver superstructure an arrogant splash of colour against a sun-leached dun and ochre city. A searing wind soughed across the port, blowing hot grit into Cramer's face. He gazed at the magnesium-bright sun that filled half the sky. The very atmosphere of the planet seemed to be on fire. The air was heavy with the stench of brimstone, and every breath was a labour.
The leader of the thieves stood beneath the nose-cone of the ship. "We set sail for Earth in two days," he said. "If you want passage back, be here at dawn. We'll not be waiting."
Cramer calculated how long it might take to reach the jungle plateau, and return--certainly longer than any two days. He trusted there would be other pirate boats to take him back to civilisation.
Already the Abbot was hurrying across the port, his armless gait made fastidious with concentration. His dried eyeballs scuffed around his ankles as he went, striking random patterns in the dust. Cramer shouldered his bag and followed.
Unerringly, the holy man led the way down narrow alleys between the tall timber buildings of the city's ancient quarter. Just four months ago these by-ways had been thronged with citizens streaming to the port, eager to flee the impending catastrophe. Now they were deserted. The only sound was that of their footsteps, and the dry rasp of the Abbot's eyeballs on the cobbles. Between the over-reaching eaves, the sky dazzled like superheated platinum. All was still, lifeless.
They descended to the banks of the St Augustine, its broad green girth flowing sluggishly between the rotten lumber of dilapidated wharves and jetties. The river, usually choked with trading vessels from all along the coast, was empty now; not one boat plied its length.
An urchin fell into step beside the Abbot and tugged at his robes. They came to a boathouse, and the Abbot shouldered open the door and stepped carefully aboard a long-boat. Cramer climbed in after him and seated himself on cushions beneath the black and scarlet awning. The Abbot sat forward, at the very prow of the launch, while the boy busied himself with the engine. Seconds later it spluttered into life, a blasphemy upon the former silence, and the boat surged from the open-ended boathouse and headed up-river, into the interior.
Cramer pulled a flask of whisky from his bag and chugged down three mouthfuls, the quantity he judged would keep him afloat until the serious drinking began at sunset. The Abbot had thought to provision the launch with a container of food: biltongs, rounds of ripe cheese, cobs of black bread and yellow, wizened fruit like pears. A goblet suggested that they should take from the river for their refreshment: Cramer decided to stick to his whisky. He ate his fill, lay back and closed his eyes as the boat bounced upstream. He must have dozed; when he next opened his eyes he saw that they had left the city far behind. Flat fields spread out on either hand; tall crops, perhaps green once, were scorched now the colour of straw beneath the merciless midday sun.
He thought of Francesca, considered the possibility of her resurrection, and somehow withheld his tears. To busy himself, to take his mind off what might lie ahead, he dipped the goblet into the river and carried it to where the Abbot was seated cross-legged at the prow like some proud and macabre figurehead.
He raised the brimming goblet to the holy man's lips. Graciously, the Abbot inclined his head and drank thirstily. When the cup was dry, he murmured his thanks.
Cramer remained seated beside him. Already he was soaked with sweat and uncomfortable, and he wore the lightest of jungle wear. The Abbot was surely marinating within the thick hessian of his habit.
Cramer nodded to where his sleeves were tucked inside their shoulder holes. "Yet more penance since we last met," he observed, his tone sarcastic.
He wondered when the Abbot would have his tongue pulled out, his legs amputated, his testicles removed--if they had not been removed already.
"After finding Francesca," the Abbot said, "I made my way back to Baudelaire. I informed the Church Council of the miracle in the jungle, and petitioned them for permission to undergo penance physicale. The following day the Surgeon Master removed my arms."
Cramer let the silence stretch. He felt dizzy with the heat. The glare of the sun seemed to drive needles into his eyes. The boat changed course slightly and passed a sandbank. Dead birds and other bloated animals floated by.
"And Francesca?" Cramer whispered.
The Abbot turned his cowl to Cramer, suggesting inquiry.
Cramer cleared his throat. "Why does she want me with her?"
"She did not say." The Abbot paused. "Perhaps she loves you, still."
"But what exactly did she tell you?"
"She said that I was to bring you back to Tartarus. In return, she would guide me to the temple."
Cramer shook his head. "How does she know its whereabouts? Months ago, like you, she had no idea."
"She was bequeathed its location in her sleep."
He cried aloud. "In her sleep? Sleep? She was dead. I buried her myself." He was sobbing now. "How can she possibly be alive?"
The Abbot would say no more, no matter how much Cramer pleaded. He lowered his head, and his lips moved in soothing prayer.
Cramer took sanctuary beneath the awning. He sucked down half a flask of whisky as night failed, as ever, to fall. The bloated sun dipped below the flat horizon, but such was the power of its radiation that the night sky was transformed into a flickering canopy of indigo, scarlet and argent streamers. The light-show illuminated the entirety of the eastern sky, and against it the Abbot was a stark and frightening silhouette.
Cramer drank himself to sleep.
He was awoken by a crack of thunder such as he had never heard before. He shot upright, convinced that the sun had blown and that Tartarus had split asunder. Sheet lightning flooded the river and the surrounding flatlands in blinding silver explosions, a cooling breeze blew and a warm rain lashed the boat. He slept.
It was dawn when he next awoke. The sun was a massive, rising semi-circle on the horizon, throwing harsh white light across the land. They were slowly approaching a dense tangle of vegetation with leaves as broad as spinnakers, waxy and wilting in the increased temperature. The river narrowed, became a chocolate-coloured canal between the overgrown banks. While the sun was hidden partially by the tree-tops, and they were spared its direct heat, yet in the confines of the jungle the humidity increased so that every laboured inhalation was more a draught of fluid than a drawn breath.
Cramer breakfasted on stale bread and putrescent cheese, thirst driving him to forego his earlier circumspection as to the potability of the water, and draw a goblet from the river. He gave the Abbot a mouthful of the brackish liquid and arranged bread and biltongs beside him so that the holy fool might not starve. The Abbot ate, using his toes to grip the food and lift it to his mouth in a fashion so dextrous as to suggest much practice before the amputation of his arms.
They proceeded on a winding course along the river, ever farther into the dense and otherwise impenetrable jungle.
Hours later they came to Chardon's Landing. Cramer made the launch fast to the jetty and assisted the Abbot ashore. They paused briefly to take a meal, and then began the arduous slog to the plateau where Cramer had buried Francesca.
The air was heavy, the light aqueous, filled with the muffled, distant calls of doomed animals and birds. The trek to the plateau was tougher than he recalled from his first time this way. After months of drunkenness Cramer was in far from peak condition, and without his arms the Abbot often stumbled.
As the hours passed and they slogged through the cloying, hostile heat, Cramer considered what the holy man had said about Francesca's resurrection. Clearly, he had not killed her in the clearing all those months ago, but merely stunned her--and she had discovered the whereabouts of the temple from the survey photographs made by the Pride of Valencia... Then again, there was always the possibility that the Abbot was lying, that Francesca had not risen at all, that he had lured Cramer here for his own sinister purposes. And the image apples, which seemed to show Francesca in possession of the laser which had killed her? Might she not have been carrying a laser similar to his own after the crashlanding and before he arrived, at which time the apples had recorded her image?
They came at last to the clearing. The two tents were as he recalled them, situated thirty metres apart. Francesca's grave, in the jungle, was out of sight.
Cramer hurried across to Francesca's tent and pulled back the flap. She was not inside. He checked the second tent, also empty, and then walked towards the edge of the escarpment. He looked out across the spread of the jungle far below, gathering his thoughts.
He knew that he would find Francesca's grave untouched.
"If you claim she is risen," he called to the Abbot, "then where is she?"
"If you do not believe me," the Abbot said, "then look upon the grave."
Cramer hesitated. He did not know what he feared most, that he should find the grave empty... or the soil still piled above Francesca's cold remains.
He crossed the clearing to the margin of jungle in which he had excavated her resting place. The Abbot's cowl turned, following his progress like some gothic tracking device. Cramer reached out and drew aside a spray of ferns. The light fell from behind him, illuminating a raw furrow of earth. He gave a pained cry. The mound he had so carefully constructed was scattered, and only a shallow depression remained where he had laid out her body.
He stumbled back into the clearing.
"Well?" the Abbot inquired.
Before Cramer could grasp him, beat from him the truth, he saw something spread in the centre of the clearing. It was a detailed map of the area, based on aerial photographs, opened out and held flat by four stones.
The Abbot sensed something. "What is wrong?"
Cramer crossed the clearing and knelt before the map. Marked in red was the camp-site, and from it a dotted trail leading down the precipitous fall of the escarpment. It wound through the jungle below, to a point Cramer judged to be ten kilometres distant. This area was marked with a circle, and beside it the words, 'The Slarque Temple,' in Francesca's meticulous, childish print.
"My God," Cramer whispered to himself.
"What is it!"
Cramer told the Abbot, and he raised his ravaged face to the heavens. "Thanks be!" he cried. "The Age of Miracles is forever here!"
Cramer snatched up the map, folded it to a manageable size, and strode to the edge of the escarpment. He turned to the Abbot. "Are you up to another hard slog?"
"God gives strength to the pilgrim," the holy man almost shouted. "Lead the way, Mr Cramer!"
For the next two hours they made a slow descent of the incline. So steep was the drop in places that the Abbot was unable to negotiate the descent through the undergrowth, and Cramer was forced to carry him on his back.
He murmured holy mantras into Cramer's ear.
He found it impossible to assess his emotions at that time, still less his thoughts--disbelief, perhaps, maybe even fear of the unknown. He entertained the vague hope that Francesca, having completed her quest and found the temple, might return with him to Earth.
They came to the foot of the incline and pressed ahead through dense vegetation. From time to time they came across what Cramer hoped was the track through the undergrowth that Francesca might have made, only to lose it again just as quickly. Their progress was slow, with frequent halts so that Cramer could consult the map and the position of the bloated sun. He wondered if it was a psychosomatic reaction to the events of the past few hours, or a meteorological change, that made the air almost impossible to breathe. It seemed sulphurous, infused with the miasma of Hell itself. Certainly, the Abbot was taking laboured breaths through his ruined nose-holes.
At last they emerged from the jungle and found themselves on the edge of a second great escarpment, where the land stepped down to yet another sweep of sultry jungle. Cramer studied the map. According to Francesca, the temple was positioned somewhere along this ledge. They turned right and pushed through fragrant leaves and hanging fronds. Cramer could see nothing that might resemble an alien construction.
Then, amid a tangle of undergrowth ten metres ahead, he made out a regular, right-angled shape he knew was not the work of nature. It was small, perhaps four metres high and two wide--a rectangular block of masonry overgrown with lichen and creepers. He detected signs that someone had passed this way, and recently: the undergrowth leading to the stone block was broken, trampled down.
"What is it?" the Abbot whispered.
Cramer described what he could see.
"The shrine," the holy man said. "It has to be..."
They approached the Slarque temple. Cramer was overcome with a strange disappointment that it should turn out to be so small, so insignificant. Then, as they passed into its shadow, he realised that this was but a tiny part of a much greater, subterranean complex. He peered, and saw a series of steps disappearing into the gloom. Tendrils, like trip-wires, had been broken on the upper steps.
Cramer took the Abbot's shoulder and assisted him down the steps. Just as he began to fear that their way would be in complete darkness, he made out a glimmer of light below. The steps came to an end. A corridor ran off to the right, along the face of the escarpment. Let into the stone of the cliff-face itself, at regular intervals, were tall apertures like windows. Great shafts of sunlight poured in and illuminated the way.
He walked the Abbot along the wide corridor, its ceiling carved with a bas-relief fresco of cavorting animals. In the lichen carpet that had spread across the floor over the millennia, he made out more than one set of footprints: the lichen was scuffed and darkened, as if with the passage of many individuals.
At last, after perhaps a kilometre, they approached the tall, arched entrance of a great chamber. At first he thought it a trick of his ears, or the play of the warm wind within the chamber, but as they drew near he heard the dolorous monotone of a sustained religious chant. The sound, in precincts so ancient, sent a shiver down his spine.
They paused on the threshold. From a wide opening at the cliff-face end of the chamber, evening sunlight slanted in, its brightness blinding. When his eyes adapted Cramer saw, through a haze of tumbling dust motes, row upon row of grey-robed, kneeling figures, cowled heads bowed, chanting. The chamber was the size of a cathedral and the congregation filled the long stone pews on either side of a central aisle. The heat and the noise combined to make Cramer dizzy.
He felt a hand grip his elbow, and thought at first that it was the Abbot. He turned--a monk stood to his left, holding his upper arm; the Abbot was on Cramer's right, his broken face suffused with devotional rapture.
He felt pressure on his elbow. Like an automaton, he stepped into the chamber. The monk escorted Cramer up the aisle. The continuous chanting, now that they were amidst it, was deafening. The sunlight was hot on his back. The front of the chamber was lost in shadow. He could just make out the hazy outline of a scorpion-analogue statue, and beside it the representation of a torso upon a cross.
Halfway down the aisle, they paused.
The monk's grip tightened on his arm. The Abbot whispered to Cramer. His expression was beatific, his tone rapturous. "In the year of the supernova it is written that the Ultimate Sacrifice will rise from the dead, and so be marked out to appease the sun. Too, it is written that the sacrifice will be accompanied by a non-believer, and also the Abbot of the true Church."
Cramer could hardly comprehend his words.
The monk pushed him forward. The chanting soared.
He stared. What he had assumed to be the statue of a body on a cross was not a statue at all. His mind refused to accept the image that his vision was relaying. He almost passed out. The monk held him upright.
Francesca hung before him, lashed to the vertical timber of the cross, the ultimate sacrifice in what must have been the most God-forsaken Calvary ever devised by man. Her head was raised at a proud angle, the expression on her full lips that of a grateful martyr. Her eyelids were closed, flattened like the Abbot's, and stitched shut in a semi-circle beneath each eye. The threads obtruded from her perfect skin, thick and clotted like obscene, cartoon lashes.
Her evicted eyes, as green as Cramer remembered them, were tied about her neck.
Her arms and legs had been removed, amputated at shoulder and hip; silver discs capped the stumps. They had even excised her small, high breasts, leaving perfect white, sickle-shaped scars across her olive skin.
Cramer murmured his beloved's name.
She moved her head, and that tiny gesture, lending animation to something that by all rights should have been spared life, twisted a blade of anguish deep into his heart.
"Hans!" she said, her voice sweet and pure. "Hans, I told you that I loved you, would love you for ever." She smiled, a smile of such beauty amid such devastation. "What greater love could I show you than to allow you to share in the salvation of the world? Through our sacrifice, Hans, we will be granted eternal life."
He wanted, then, to scream at her--to ask how she could allow herself to believe in such perversion? But the time for such questioning was long gone.
And, besides, he knew... She had always sought something more than mere existence, and here, at last, she had found it.
"Hans," she whispered now. "Hans, please tell me that you understand. Please hold me."
Cramer stepped forward.
He felt the dart slam into the meat of his lower back. The plainsong crescendoed, becoming something beautiful and at the same time terrible, and he pitched forward and slipped into oblivion.
He surfaced slowly through an ocean of analgesics and sedatives. He found himself in darkness, something wet tied around his neck. With realisation came pain, and he cried aloud. Then, perhaps hours later, they laid him out again and put him under, and though he wanted to rage and scream at the injustice, the futility of what they were doing to him, all he could manage was a feeble moan of protest.
He came to his senses to find himself tied upright--to a cross?--four points of numbness where his arms and legs had been. Beside him he could hear the Abbot, moaning in masochistic ecstasy. He considered what a gruesome trinity they must present upon the altar.
"Francesca," he whispered. "Oh, Francesca, the pain..."
"The pain, Hans," she replied, "the pain is part of the sacrifice."
He laughed, and then wept, and then fell silent.
Francesca continued, her voice a whisper. She lovingly detailed what further sacrifices they would be called upon to make. Next, she said, would come the expert excision of their genitalia; after that they would be skinned alive. And then the Master Surgeon would remove their internal organs one by one: kidneys, liver, lungs, and finally their hearts, while all the time they were conscious of what was taking place, the better to appreciate their sacrifice.
"Hans," she whispered. "Can you feel it? Can you? The wonder, the joy?"
He could feel nothing but pain, and lapsed into unconsciousness. He awoke from time to time, unable to tell how long he had spent in blessed oblivion, or what further surgical mutilations they had carried out upon his body.
What followed was a nightmare without respite. During the day, when the heat was at its most intense, they were lifted from the altar and set side by side in the opening of the cliff-face, while the congregation chanted their medieval, monotone chant in hope of miracles. The pain was constant, at its worst in the heat of the day, dulling to a tolerable agony during the night.
Towards the end, Cramer dreamed of rescue: he hallucinated the arrival of a pirate ship come to set them free. Then he came to his senses and realised that for him there would be no release, no return to physical well-being. He was a prisoner of Tartarus, a jail more secure than any of ancient myth.
On the very last day they were carried outside and positioned before the scalding light of the sun. Cramer sensed heightened activity among the monks, hurried movement and hushed conversation suggesting panic and disbelief. He felt the heat of the sun searing his flesh, and laughed aloud at the knowledge of his victory.
Francesca maintained her faith until the very end. In mounting fear she intoned: "And it is written that the Ultimate Sacrifice shall rise from the dead, and will guide the faithful to the lost temple of the Slarque, and through the sacrifice of the holy trinity the sun will cease its swelling..."
Cramer was torn between exacting revenge upon the person responsible for his torture and keeping the one he loved in ignorance. A part of him wanted to impose upon Francesca his rationalisation of what had happened, explain that there had been no miracles at all.
He said nothing. If he were to make her comprehend the tragedy and evil of their predicament, the insane fanaticism of the accursed Church, he would only inflict upon her a greater torture than that she had suffered already.
The end came within the hour, and swiftly. He felt his flesh shrivel in the intense heat, and was aware of Francesca and the Abbot to his left and right. Francesca was murmuring a constant prayer, and the Abbot from time to time laughed in manic ecstasy.
All around them sounded the monks' frantic chanting, the entreaties of the faithful to their oblivious God.
In rapture, Cramer heard the detonation of multiple thunder, and the roar of the approaching firestorm as the sun exploded and unleashed its terrible freight of radiation.
He turned his head. "Abbot!" he whispered with his very last breath. "So much for your superstition! You bastards didn't get my heart!"
The holy man could only laugh. "For our sacrifice," he began, "we will be granted life ever-"
Cramer should have known that the righteous would forever have the last word.
"Hans!" He heard the small voice to his left. She was crying, now. "Hans, please say you love me..."
But before he could speak, before he could accede to Francesca's final wish, the blastfront reached the surface of Tartarus Major with a scream like that of a million souls denied, and Cramer gave thanks that his suffering was at a blessed end.
"Dark Calvary" was first published in Science Fiction
Age (January 1999) and is republished in The Fall of Tartarus
(Gollancz, April 2005; ISBN 0575076186).
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