Big Pulp - the magazine of fantasy | mystery | adventure | horror | science fiction | romance


Science, Speculation, Space Opera

James R. Stratton is a chameleon: by day, a mild-mannered government lawyer specializing in child abuse prosecutions, living with his wife and children in Delaware. But in recent years he’s been forging a dark alter ego of genre fiction author through publication in venues like Dragons, Knights & Angels Magazine, Ennea and Nth Degree Magazine. The appearance of his first foray into poetry in The Broadkill Review is but another step in his master plan. Soon he will step into the light as his stories appear in 2010 & 2011 in Tower of Light Online Magazine, Big Pulp, and Paper Blossoms, Sharpened Steel, an upcoming anthology of Oriental fantasy. His final reveal, the novel Loki’s Gambit, is under review for possible publication in 2011, when he will finally step into the brilliant light of day, triumphant.


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When The Baron Speaks, You Listen

Marie Simone Dorvilie pressed against the metal bulkhead in the gloom of the cavernous hold, shivering. Her boss, Chief Engineer Jean Gilbert Dorce, acted as if each milliamp generated by the ship’s reactor was a minuscule drop of his own blood, so lighting was kept at a twilight gloom and air circulation at a whisper. Still, her shivering wasn’t caused by this; the hold was moist and hot from the press of bodies around her.

No, she shivered with fear and delight. Papa Vincente had called, asking that she attend his weekly town meeting. Why does Papa ask me here? He knows I hate being in front of people. She glanced over the others present, pressed in shoulder to shoulder toward the front of the hold.

Papa had raised her as his own after mother and father entered creche sleep for the interstellar voyage to the colony world, Hevre. Her mother was a xenobiologist and her father a civil engineer, skills of great value on a colony world, but of marginal use during the voyage. As a child, Papa would hold her in his arms when she cried for them.

“Darling Simone, your mama and papa were chosen from many thousands to help build a new world. What would the sense be if they arrived at Herve after twenty-five years in space too old to perform their duties? No child, they must sleep the long sleep. Then they will wake young and strong, ready to build a world for you and your children.” And then he rocked her and sang hymns in deep-voiced Creole.

But Papa Vincente also was the leader of the colony ship Star of Haiti (he disavowed fancy titles like captain), and his time spent with her was limited. But his smile was her sunshine, brightening her days and warming her heart.

Marie Simone scuffed the dirt on the floor of the hold with her ship sandal, dirt taken from the holy ground in the center of their little village outside of Port au Prince. Across the crowded hold Papa Vincente sat, surrounded by the other Houngans and the lady Mambas. Marie Simone hugged herself as she pondered Papa’s summons, then jerked at the sound of her name being called. Across the hold, Papa squinted into the gloom.

“Marie Simone! Where is my darling stepdaughter? Papa is calling.”

The people around her turned to stare. Then like the Red Sea, the crowd parted so she stood alone as Papa smiled at her from a high-back wooden chair. The chair was carved with the many signs and symbols of the Loa gods. Perched on the back was a battered top hat, Baron Samedi’s own she was told as a child.

“Ah, there you are child,” Papa called. “Come closer, these old eyes can not see plainly in this light.” Papa smiled as only he could, with his whole face, his joy shining like the sun. Marie Simone basked in the warm glow even as her gut roiled with doubts. With lowered gaze, she shuffled down lane created by the crowd.

“Darling child, let me look at you! You become more beautiful every time I see you. And wearing the uniform of a ship’s engineer. You done me proud, little Simone.”

Marie Simone rubbed her cheek as your face glowed. “Thank you, Papa. I owe it all to you. What do you need? You know anything I have is yours.”

The old man chuckled and leaned forward in the ancient chair. “You see?” he said, glancing around the hold. “I knew she was a good one when I first saw her as a little bitty thing.”

He sat back and blessed her with his smile again. “I have need of your talents, child. Our ship has run out of some computer components. I have contacted one of the other vessels in the colony fleet, Eye of Odin, and offered a trade of some foodstuffs and potables. Those Norwegians have had uncanny luck with their computer equipment, almost no breakdowns, and do love our yams and banana beer. But I need you, someone with technical training, on the trip to make sure they trade fair. Who else but my own darling stepdaughter, and an engineer to boot!”

“But Papa! Me!” The butterflies in her gut became glass shards. “I can’t pilot the shuttle, and I wouldn’t know how to value what’s being offered.” Marie Simone froze as the look on Papa’s face shifted from a warm smile to a grimace.

She took a breath and lowered her gaze. “Yes Papa, if you wish.” The smile was back when she glanced up.

“Then it is settled.” Papa gestured to the young man standing next to him. “Roosevelt here will arrange the trip. You need not worry about piloting, the shuttle flies itself. I will set the terms of the trade. I just need you to be sure they do not send junk.” He nodded to Marie Simone, and she understood she was dismissed.

Only after Papa Vincente had steered her through school to become the assistant power systems engineer under Jean Gilbert did she see his darker side. Papa Vincente also was the colony’s Houngan, high priest of Church of Vondoun. Papa always asked people to do what he wanted with kind words and a gentle smile, and Marie Simone just assumed they complied because they knew they should. This was Papa, after all. And Papa never argued with anyone who refused.

But as she grew, she heard whispers about the bad luck that hounded those who thwarted Papa. The cursed ones would suffer minor setbacks like poor work assignments, or serious tragedies like injury accidents. Worse, some simply ceased to be, there one day and gone the next. Frantic searches of the vessel from stem to stern proved fruitless. The disappearances were especially frightening because everybody on board had a micro transmitter implanted under their skin so their biometric data could be monitored, yet the chips stopped sending at the same time the people disappeared. Her co-workers whispered of black magic.

Her boss made a face and scratched his head when she told him. “Why would Vincente send an assistant engineer on such a trip? I would think he would send Roosevelt or Pierre Henry.” Jean Gilbert shrugged. “Well, he is the captain, so he gets to choose.”

Jean Gilbert turned back to his control board as he called over his shoulder, “Oh, have you had any luck tracking down the little sneaks who are using our wireless system without authorization? They stole another 270 milliamps of power yesterday.”

Marie Simone shook her head. “I’m having trouble tracking it. It’s probably children text messaging. One of them must have figured out a way around our filters.”

“Well, catch them!” Jean Gilbert said. “That kind of frivolous power consumption will ruin us.”

She nodded as she sat at her own computer consol. “I will when I get back from my trip.” She began shutting down her station. “I just need to write a subroutine to compare all activity on the network against the authorization logs.”

“Good!” Jean Gilbert said. “The sooner, the better.” He stood and walked to the entrance hatch. “I assume you will be going to temple tonight, to ask for good luck on your voyage?”

Marie Simone smiled at the suggestion. Jean Gilbert was a man of science, possessing deep knowledge of every aspect of Star of Haiti’s systems. Yet he fervently believed in the divine intervention of the spirit guardians of Vodoun, especially Papa Legba and Baron Samedi. She shrugged.

“You need to offer prayers to the Loa for a safe journey, especially Papa Legba and the Baron. Those two will guard you if you ask.”

“I suppose it can’t hurt,” she said. “But I hate dressing like an ignorant peasant for service.” She finished shutting down her computer and stood. “Why should the spirits of the ancestors care how I dress?”

“Child, you cannot approach the Loa with anything but the most humble respect. They hold our lives in their cupped hands always. With no effort, they could squash us like bugs.” He clapped his hands together for emphasis. “Now hurry, you just have time to change.”

Thoom, thoom, thoom, came the ceaseless monotone of the drum: the spirits call (said the drum), coming to us, come to us! Marie Simone pressed against the bulkhead as she felt the thundering beat of the drum as much as she heard it, felt it in her chest as a pounding heartbeat, in her arms and legs as a pulsing desire to dance. But she pressed against the bulkhead instead as others danced, wearing a simple print dress and bright head scarf; she had no shoes, no jewelry, none of the electronic gear she normally carried. Thoom, thoom, thoom, went the drum; come to us, child (it said), we will love you, we will feed you, we will teach you. The hold was crowded with crew, each dressed like their slave ancestors and dancing barefoot to the driving beat of the drum. Emmanuel from the power section offered her a bottle of rum; dark and thick like the rum brewed on sugarcane plantations centuries before. The slaves had always drank rum during the service, to relax their bodies and open their minds for the Loa. Papa taught her if you opened yourself to the Loa, the spirits would come, answer your questions and show you the safe way on the road ahead.

Marie Simone drank rum that tasted warm and sweet, burning its way down her throat. She grimaced, stepped away from the bulkhead and joined the dancers as they circled the hold. Thoom, thoom, thoom, went the drum, dance for us (it said), call to us and we will come. On the walls of the hold hung the Veve of the Loa, tapestries embroidered with the symbols of the individual spirits; the coffin, skull and top hat of Baron Samedi, the elaborate crucifix of Papa Legba, the climbing serpent of the creator spirit, Damballah, and many others. But in the center of the hold stood the pillar of the Loa, carried from the sacred grove back in Haiti. It was studded with hundreds of wanga, objects both ordinary and exotic. Bottle caps, bits of cloth, coins and sacred medallions; each item had been touched by one of the Loa over the centuries and now held a bit of the spirit’s presence. Marie Simone and the others shuffled and danced around the pillar, passing close but never touching the magic wanga covering the sacred pillar. Sweat dripped down Marie Simone’s arms and legs as the air grew thick with the hot bodies and moist breathe of the worshipers.

Across the hold, Hongoun Daniel began to chant as he pounded the drum. “Papa Legba, come to us! Papa Legba, show us the way to the other world! Papa Legba, bring the spirits to us so we may be blessed and taught!” Thoom, thoom, thoom, went the drum, come, come, come! Mamba Alexa joined in with a high-pitched shriek as the pulse of the drum beat increased. The rum, the heat and the pulsing drumbeat seized Marie Simone, driving her to jump and spin wildly. The others dancers shouted and stared as she flailed her arms and legs wildly.

Suddenly, Marie Simone was watching herself dance and spin around the pillar from above; a dark presence stood behind her. Below she heard herself shriek above the noise, “Baron!” All around her stopped and backed away, leaving her standing alone by the pillar. Her hands fell to her side and her head lolled back. “Baron!” The dark presence grasped her shoulders with an iron grip as it hissed into her ear. She struggled to follow the words, she knew it was vital, but the voice was like broken glass rattling down a tin roof as the words flitted away from her like butterflies in the wind.

Below, the others in the hold were moaning as Marie Simone swayed and shouted, “Baron!” Many bolted out the hatch. “Baron!” The dark presence chuckled, laughter that cut her like knives. Then it released its grip and Marie Simone was standing on the dirt floor of the hold as the ground rushed up. “Baron!” She stared at the pillar as her vision faded.

Marie Simone awoke in the infirmary to find Jean Gilbert sitting at her bedside. He smiled as she rubbed her forehead.

“Good!” he said. “You’re back. Dr. Roget says you may leave as soon as you feel ready. You know your visit with Baron Samedi caused quite a stir. The Lord of the Dead rarely comes to anyone who is not at the edge of his realm.” Jean Gilbert leaned close. “What did he say?”

Marie Simone sat up as the voice of the dark presence rang through her mind again. The words echoed as if spoken in a cave so only bits were clear.

“He told me now was not my time. I must go on my journey, but first I must seek out magic wanga for protection. Others of the Loa still need me.” Chills ran through her. Is death so close?

The chief engineer sat back and folded his arms across his chest. “The journey is clear enough, you will be shuttling to the Eye of Odin. But magic wanga? There are charms for protection. Did he say what kind you needed?”

She shook her head and hugged herself. “No, but he was clear I must have them or die.”

Jean Gilbert sat back and pulled at his lower lip, then nodded. “If the Baron says you must have charms, they will come.” He grinned suddenly and pulled a medal on a chain from under his shirt. “I bet this is one, my Saint Christopher medal. The Baron knew we would talk. Saint Christopher is the patron saint of travelers.” He looped it around her neck.

“I thought the Pope had taken away Christopher’s sainthood.” Marie Simone examined the medal.

“Perhaps the Pope does not like Saint Christopher anymore, but Papa Legba and the Loa think he is a fine fellow. St. Christopher is the best protector for a traveler like yourself. But the Baron talked of charms, not just one charm, yes? Others must be coming to you.”

Jean Gilbert stood. “Oh, Vincente asked that I tell you he put off your trip to the Norwegians one day, but you will be leaving after that. Rest up tomorrow, I will handle your duties.”

(continued on page 2)




When The Baron Speaks, You Listen by James R. Statton 1 2
originally published August 11, 2010

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