Our King and His Court

A futuristic story about a high-ranking soldier in a criminal gang who has conflicting loyalties to his monstrous boss and that boss’s innocent young son.

 

 

Waiting outside El Tirano’s obsidian doors, Scipio looks down at the boy clinging to his blood-crusted hand. “¿Todo bien?” he asks.

Mateo nods, face slack and vacant. Everything is not all right, of course. His small shoulders are hunched, his chin tucked to chest, his eyes glassed over with shock, fear, exhaustion. Scipio’s knitted sweater all but swallows the boy’s skinny frame, but underneath it there are scars, rawpink and shiny, from what they did to him in the lab. Dry blood is flecked across his forehead from what Scipio did to them in return.

In the black mirror of the doors, Scipio sees his own reflection has fared little better. He looks like a monster, like the chupacabra of his mother’s stories. His sunken eyes are dark hollows and his black body glove is still spattered in gore.

“You’re home now,” he says. “Don’t be afraid.” He squeezes Mateo’s hand, but not tightly. The boy’s bones feel fragile as a bird’s.

The obsidian doors scrape open and El Tirano’s men spill out. Young bloods pumped full of testosterone and combat chemicals, bristling with blades and bioguns, faces painted to look like skulls. Scipio was one of them, once, but never exactly like them. Their eyes widen as they usher him and Mateo inside.

Me cago en Dios,” one says. “We thought you weren’t coming back, comandante. There was no contact, we thought that…”

The doors clunk shut behind them, and El Tirano’s lieutenant, a man called Sol, finally holsters his gun. “Where are the others?” he demands. “You took seven of my men. Where are they now?”

“Dead,” Scipio says. “But Mateo is alive.”

Sol’s face twists with pain for a moment. He looks down at Mateo. “Gracias a Dios,” he says numbly. He crosses himself and the gesture carries, contagious. One man presses his lips to the Santa Muerte tattoo on his arm.

Scipio knows that later Sol will go to the tattoo room himself, sit under the needle-armed plastic squid and ask it for seven markings up his left side, no analgesics. Sol is a good lieutenant in many ways.

El Tirano’s newly appointed head physician arrives, case swinging from his hand, a stretcher scuttling after him. Mateo flinches at the sight and Scipio seizes on it.

“Later,” he says. “His father will want to see him.”

The physician hesitates, running a nervous tongue along chapped lips. “Is he injured at all? Are you?”

Todo bien,” Scipio says. “¿Verdad?

,” Mateo says, his voice flaked away to a whisper.

The physician looks unconvinced. Scipio chases purple blots in the corner of his vision. Realizes he is swaying on his feet. For too long he’s been fueled by nothing but amphetamines and adrenaline. Now his nerves are rubbed raw and his legs feel like they have been dipped in lead.

But he’s come this far already. He swore that he would deliver El Tirano’s son back to him. He will finish this job, as he finished all the others.

Scipio scoops Mateo into his arms, turning away from the physician. Few others would dare to touch El Tirano’s son in such a way, but Scipio has served Mateo’s father for decades, and when Mateo loops his skinny arms around his neck it’s the same way he did as a toddler. Scipio can feel the boy’s staccato heartbeat as he carries him through the corridors.

He knows his way to the bone room by rote, but the walk seems unreal this time, something from a dream. He moves slower and slower. Partly the fault of the body: lactic acid seething in his muscles, bone-deep aches in his limbs. Partly the fault of the mind, of the familiar shadows reminding him that Mateo was the only bright thing ever born in this place.

For another fleeting moment he imagines carrying the boy away. Taking him somewhere where he will be safe from his father’s enemies and also safe from his father. But Scipio knows no such place exists.

Sol and his men escort them through the vaulted entryway of the bone room. Time seems to slow, crawling now on hands and knees. The hall’s high ceiling was chewed away by an army of buildbots and replaced with plastiglass meant to let in the sunlight, but there is so little of it these days. Scipio sees only dark sky swirling overhead.

Below it, El Tirano’s throne spans most of the room. It is a skeleton, transported from the bombed-out husk of some building in Coahuila and reassembled here piece by piece. Its

enormous skull rests on the floor, festooned with flowers and paint, grinning with serrated teeth the size of machetes. Its spiny tail juts into the air, propped up by carbon struts. Pale corpses dangle from the length, some mutilated, others whole, all of them coated in a bacterial film to hold back their stench.

El Tirano sits in the center of the beast, where two ribs have been replaced by a black chair bolted to the spinal column and draped with bright red spidersilk. El Tirano is not a giant, as they say in the stories. He is a head shorter than Scipio, small-boned, wiry. An ancient neural implant clings to the back of his shaved skull like a spider—only his physicians understand how it works, how it converts El Tirano’s thoughts into electricity and stores them. His body is veined with cobalt tattoos and his modified eyes gleam like a cat’s when he sees his son.

Once El Tirano controlled the drug trade. Now that the government is gone, now that half the country has been laid to waste by natural disaster and orbital bombardment, he controls everything.

He makes a sound in his throat, and the bone room falls into perfect silence. His court is frozen in tableau.

There are the drug-dazed girls El Tirano calls his courtesans: handpicked from ruined cities and scattered pueblos for beauty now masked under muertos paint, faces powdered white, eyes swallowed in black circles, lips crisscrossed to evoke a mouth sewn shut. Here it is always the day of the dead. Scipio’s eyes go to one girl in particular.

There is the stumbling padre, robes stretched across a swollen belly, his skin doughy red and webbed with smashed capillaries. He railed once too often against El Tirano’s sins of indulgence, so El Tirano had him implanted with saccharomyces that make his stomach produce ethanol all on its own like a brewery. Scipio knows his liver will fail soon, and El Tirano has no plans to replace it.

There is El Tirano’s accountant, standing by the skeleton’s haunch, thin and somber and dressed all in black. The brim of his top-hat hides his eyes and he holds an antique screen and stylus in his pale hands. People say he was born on Cuba, one of those islands that sank beneath the sea so many years ago. Scipio never did ask.

Mi hijo,” El Tirano says. “You’ve come back to me.” He swings down from his throne with languid grace and spreads his arms wide, beaming. “Vente, vente, Mateo.”

Scipio’s arms tremble as he sets the boy down. His fingers trail against Mateo’s bony shoulder, not quite willing to let go. Mateo looks up at him and murmurs a thanks. Then he’s gone, moving up the red pathway to his father, staggering, half-running. El Tirano sinks to his knees to welcome him, tears tracking down his dark face.

Scipio looks over their heads, back to the painted girls arrayed around the beast’s clawed feet. Most are watching the reunion, some still dancing on automatic, tracing sine curves in the air. One is watching Scipio, eyes narrowed as if she knows.

In a way, Nazaret is the reason for everything that has happened and is about to happen now.

 

Scipio and the Courtesan

Scipio has brought El Tirano a traitor’s head on ice in a battered orange cooler, so El Tirano has given him a courtesan in exchange. She is slouched by the door, picking at her artery-red nails, when he returns to his rooms.

“I think I was supposed to be waiting on the bed,” she says. “But nobody has an override for this lock. I suppose his little screen didn’t tell him that.”

Scipio looks at her. She might be a new girl; it’s difficult to tell. Their faces are all painted alike and they all dress in reds and blacks but mostly bare skin. This one has her dark hair piled up off her neck and secured with a glinting metal pin. Her paint-stitched lips have a contemptuous twist to them. Scipio wonders why El Tirano thought he would want her when he has never wanted any of the others. El Tirano knows he has no appetite for it.

“I like privacy,” Scipio says.

Claro,” the courtesan says. “Or you wouldn’t stay all the way down here. I nearly got lost.”

Scipio puts his hand inside the genelock; it rasps like a cat’s tongue against his skin and chimes confirmation. Next he knuckles a short code into the keypad. The lock comes undone, click-clunk, and he pushes the door open.

He’s tired. His target was nearly to the ruins of the old border wall before he caught up to him, and Scipio dragged the fat man’s body through muddy marsh for two hours, through a cloud of carrion beetles drawn to the flesh smell, before he gave up, sat down, and sawed off just the head.

He wants nothing more than to send the girl away so he can rest. El Tirano must know this, too. Maybe this is one of his little jokes, like the one he played on the padre, or maybe there is some other reason for her to be here.

“Come in, but don’t speak,” Scipio says. “Please.”

The courtesan purses her mouth and mimes a sewing needle in the air. Her shoes click against the floor, making echoes as she follows him inside. Scipio shuts the door, points her toward a chair, and goes to wash.

There’s a fresh gas tank screwed into place and the water heats up quickly. He peels off his clothes and steps under the jet, letting it carve the congealed mud off his body. Dirty water rushes across the tiles to the drain. One of his toenails is coming off again, battered purple-blue, and he finds bruises blooming on his shin and his chest.

When he comes out, the courtesan is naked from the waist-up and kneeling on the bed. “¿Te apetece?” she asks in her throat.

No mucho,” Scipio says. He goes to his cabinet and undoes another genelock. “Do you want anything?” he asks, pulling out a syringe and a small sealed jar.

“Whatever you want me to have,” she says. “Careful if you use a tranquilizer, though. I might shit.” She says it with a bland smile on her face, but Scipio’s stomach revolts at the image of her lying boneless on the bed, unable to move.

“I don’t keep tranquilizer.” He pauses. Something in her way of speaking prickles at his memory. “What’s your name?”

“Nazaret,” she says. “And you are El Cuervo, who can kill anybody.”

“You should be more scared of me, then,” Scipio says. He fills the syringe, slaps his arm to bring out the vein. The needle goes in like a whisper and warmth floods his body. All his aches dissolve.

“I should be,” she agrees. “I have a condition. I can’t be very scared or very angry or very anxious about anything. The physician says there’s a faulty loop in my brain. I can act scared, if you want.”

“Why would I want that?” Scipio asks.

“People want all sorts of things,” the courtesan says. “You, I don’t know. You don’t want girls, you don’t want boys. Someone said your huevos were ripped off by a dog when you were a child, but I can see that’s not true.” She smirks at him. “Maybe you only want corpses.”

Scipio has heard that rumor before. It circulates through the court every so often. The truth is that he hates corpses: in his sleep he sees hundreds of them, and they bury him alive.

“And you want to shit on my bed,” Scipio says.

¡Qué asco!” she says scowling, and Scipio has heard enough.

“You hide your accent,” he says. “You’re from one of the northern villages.” He hesitates, hardly daring to believe it. “Parera, I think.”

Her eyes widen slightly in their coal-black pools. She nods.

Scipio has been with El Tirano so long that he nearly forgot his village was real. Now it all comes to him in a rush: the steep wedged paths up the mountain, the peeling yellow bridge, the cementerio with its many plague crosses, the tiny houses roofed with tin and the packed-dirt streets roamed by scrawny black dogs. He sinks to the bed. The drug and the memories mingle, swimming his veins, loosening his tongue.

“Do you know Calle Gongora?” he asks. “When I was a child, I lived on Calle Gongora. In the piso over the welding shop.”

Hombre, claro,” she says, her painted lips sliding back off her teeth. “I lived on Bombona. We would have been almost neighbors.”

Now Scipio remembers the dusty square, fighting for a ball of bundled plastic in the games of barefooted football where he was always the quickest and the strongest. He remembers the crumbling stone stable, overgrown by creeping vines, where they could play if they were wary of snakes. He remembers the procession of plastic statues during Semana Santa, the chanting and wailing and guitars.

He even remembers the mother who carried him on her hip when he was small, who told him stories at night until a final outbreak of plague made her too sick to talk. When the plague took her away from him, his uncle took him away from Parera.

“Do the vines still bloom?” Scipio asks. “There is so little rain these days.”

The courtesan’s face shifts behind her mask of makeup. “Nothing blooms,” she says. “Parera is gone, or I wouldn’t be here.”

Scipio’s throat constricts. “The plague,” he says, thinking of all the crosses.

She shakes her head. “The tax,” she says. “Parera would not pay El Tirano’s tax, so his soldiers came in the early morning with machetes. They cut up the men. I saw one right outside my door when I woke up, slit like a pig, his tripas still steaming.” She stares at him. “After, they doused the houses in gasoline. Parera burned.”

Scipio says nothing. He shuts his eyes and sees the creeping vines around the old stone stable twisting and blackening. He sees the piso on Calle Gongora collapsing in on itself, swallowed in flames. Does El Tirano think this is a gift, giving him a memento of a village now burned to the ground? Or is it pure chance? Scipio never told him that his crow first flew from Parera.

He goes back to the cabinet and retrieves a tequila bottle, rubbing the dust from the cap with his thumb. He pours two glasses.

“To Parera,” he says. “Drink with me.” He gives a precise twist of his wrist and a single drop falls from the bottle onto the floor. Then he hands the courtesan her glass.

“Parera,” she echoes, but her eyes seem accusing. They drink and it burns all the way down Scipio’s throat. His own eyes smart with tears. He pours again, quickly, and slops some over the side. They drink again, and once more. It settles dense and hot in his stomach but his chest feels scooped out, empty.

“How long ago?” he asks.

“Two years,” she says.

“I didn’t know,” Scipio says. “I would have…” He trails off.

“You would have done nothing,” she says. “No te preocupes. Parera would have burned anyway. A puppeteer does not take the advice of his puppets. Not even his favorite puppet.” She makes her hand dance along the bed like a marionette. “And eventually, everything burns.”

They lie down on the bed. She squeezes his cock in her hand, moves her thumb in a questioning circle around the head. He shuts his eyes, and when he opens them she’s scooted backward, taking him in her mouth, cheeks hollow and eyes glazed. She looks like a skeleton devouring him. He shakes his head.

“Nothing?” she says, picking a hair off her tongue.

“Tell me what you remember about Calle Bombona,” he says.

She tells him about the neighbor who had an orange tree she used to steal from, about the afternoon stink when someone wasn’t watching their feet and stepped in a dog’s shit.

He tells her what he remembers about the stone stable and the vines, as if by telling her he can forget it, and she says it’s strange to think he was a child, once, that he didn’t descend from some dark cloud.

When the drink and the drug and memories have made him feel bloated, tender, he asks her what she looks like without the muertos makeup. She disappears, reappears dripping; he touches rippled scar tissue on her neck and her chin from where a burning splinter of wood flew and struck her. Her eyes are brighter without the black paint swallowing them. Her lips are unbound.

She snakes an arm around his chest and holds him like that. She murmurs into his ear until he falls asleep. In the morning she is gone, and he is El Cuervo again.

 

Scipio drags his eyes away from Nazaret’s painted face.

Mateo is only steps from his father’s embrace. Were Scipio to lunge now, he could stop him. He could take him back into his arms and run the other way. But he has no strength left in his legs, and El Tirano’s swarming soldiers would bring him down in an instant.

Instead he looks at the padre, who wraps his arms around the leg of the throne for balance, his bleary eyes trained on the unfolding scene. Scipio knows that the padre has the same neat surgical sutures under his heavy black vestment that Mateo has under his shirt.

In that way, the two are connected. In that way, what happens next will be because of the padre.

 

Scipio and the Padre

When Scipio leaves the armory, winding fresh geckowrap around the handle of his knife, he finds the padre lying in the corridor. Beached, like one of the whales that swam up from the toxic sea to die on Yucatan’s phosphate-soaked sand so many years ago. The ethanol stench hangs over him like a cloud.

¿Está perdido, padre?” Scipio asks.

The man gives a gurgling laugh. “We are all lost,” he says. “We are all lost souls here.” He heaves himself upright, clutching at his swollen belly. When he recognizes Scipio, he barely flinches. Once he would have gone pale with fright. But the brewery in his gut has reddened his skin and dulled his nerves. “Is this where the crow sharpens his beak?” he slurs, pointing to the knife.

It was blunted by sawing through vertebrae, but now, as the padre observes, the blade is bright and keen again. Scipio stows it in his sleeve sheath. He has never liked priests much.

“I’ll send for the physician,” he says. “You look ill.”

The padre chokes on another laugh. “Qué malito eres. No, no. Keep that devil away from me. He’s done enough damage.” He holds his gut again, running fingers along where the surgeons implanted him. “I forgive him, of course. He did only the bidding of his master. Same as you and I. A loyal servant of El Tirano.”

Vaya con Dios, padre.” Scipio steps over the man’s splayed legs and heads down the corridor, toward the bone room and his station in the beast’s shadow.

“I know why you are loyal, Scipio!”

The last word freezes him in place. Scipio turns back to see the padre clambering to his feet, palms flat to the wall for balance. Nobody but El Tirano knows the name Scipio, the name his mother in Parera gave him. He has been El Cuervo for years and years.

“Our master told me why you are loyal. He confessed to me.” The padre takes a wheezing breath. “He thinks I can’t remember things, because of the yeasts. But that story, I remember.”

Scipio looks up and down the stone hallway. Empty. “So tell me,” he says.

The padre slips back down the wall with a thump. He grimaces, closes his eyes. “It was in Juarez,” he says. “There was a little boy. Staying with an addict who couldn’t pay his debts. Addicts, they can be so creative when desperation takes hold.”

Scipio feels the handle of the knife in his sleeve. The geckowrap ripples at his touch, ready to leap into his grip. He reminds himself that he can make the padre stop speaking whenever he wants. He tries to keep his heartbeat slow.

“But eventually even that wasn’t enough,” the padre says. “So the debt collectors came and they tore off his fingers with pliers and then shot him in the head. El Tirano was not El Tirano then. He was just a foot soldier. Practically a boy himself.

“It was Semana Santa, and none of them wanted a child’s blood on their hands on a holy day. But their boss had said to kill every living thing they found in the apartment. So El Tirano, he volunteered. He said, leave me the gun. I’ll do it.”

The memory lances through Scipio’s mind: the filthy apartment, the dark congealing puddle under his uncle’s body, the buzzing flies. His bony shoulders pushed back against the wall like he can disappear into it. El Tirano standing there watching him, holding a gun too big for his tattooed hands, his head tilted to one side.

“But here you are,” the padre says, opening his eyes. “Here you are alive. Do you wonder why?”

“Mercy,” Scipio says.

“So he told you, so he told you,” the padre coughs. “But he pulled the trigger. Pulled it twice. The gun was jammed. He confessed that to me. The gun was jammed, and the apartment smelled awful, and he needed someone small to run a brick under wire-fence. So you are alive.”

Scipio springs the knife from his sleeve; the geckowrap suctions warm and pebbly to his callused fingers. He walks to the padre in two swift strides and yanks his head backward, baring his chubby throat.

“I know he pulled the trigger,” Scipio says flatly. “I remember the clicking sound. But God works in mysterious ways, padre.”

The padre shuts his eyes again, his breath wet and labored. His hair is greasy in Scipio’s fingers. The blade hovers at his throat. El Tirano will be displeased to lose his priest and clown, but Scipio does not want anyone else to hear this particular story. It opens him like a wound.

Footsteps in the corridor behind them. Scipio stows the shaking knife. He decides he will do it tonight, in the padre’s chambers, and make it look as though the man has choked to death on his own vomit.

¡Comandante!

Scipio turns to see one of Sol’s men, one whose face is a swirl of shifting tattoos. The whites of his eyes are bright within the blue pigment.

“Mateo’s convoy was attacked outside the city,” he blurts. “He’s gone, and they took the medico, too. It was the Maras, it fucking has to be, those dog-fuckers, they took Mateo.”

From where he’s sprawled on the floor, the padre crosses himself. “Lost souls,” he murmurs. “All lost souls.”

Scipio gives him a vicious kick that makes him jackknife, groaning, then follows Sol’s man to the bone room.

 

El Tirano hoists Mateo up into his arms, clinging so fiercely to him Scipio almost believes his love is real. He gives a wild laugh that echoes to the corners of the bone room and up into the dark sky. With Mateo cradled against him, he turns back to his throne. The neural implant bobs at the back of his head.

Mi hijo, mi hijo,” he says. “I am saved.” He presses his lips to his son’s blood-flecked forehead. For an instant Scipio sees a shiver go through Mateo’s entire body. The accountant must have seen it, too, because he flinches backward. With his head bent, only his mouth is visible beneath the brim of his black hat. Scipio sees he is chewing his lips raw.

The accountant knows what will happen next. More than Nazaret, more than the padre. He was the one who selected the meteor.

 

Scipio and the Accountant

There are three of them left in the bone room. El Tirano, who has not slept since Mateo was taken, is pacing. The accountant stands to one side, his glowing tablet hooked to a generator by tangled wires, awaiting news from El Tirano’s many ears and eyes. Scipio sits at the foot of the skeleton, where there is a pocket of faint perfume in the air that smells like Nazaret.

He watches El Tirano go back and forth, back and forth beneath the beast’s spiky tail. A bottle of rum dangles from his hand, cocaine clings white to his nose hairs, and his eyes are all glowing pupil as he inspects the hanging corpses of his enemies.

“Was it you, cabrón?” he demands, stopping at one of the upside-down bodies. He seizes it by the chin and peers into its mutilated face, where the bacterial film is taut across gouged-out eye sockets. “Your sniveling nephews, out to avenge you? So they take my son? Is that it, Quini?”

He gives the corpse a contemptuous slap that sets it spinning like a children’s top. He goes to the next.

“Javier, have your Southern dogs grown bold again?” El Tirano murmurs. “Tell me, Javier. You weakling. You puto.” He runs his tongue along the body’s ruined cheekbone, then spits on the floor. “Oye, he tastes like shit.”

“He’s dead,” Scipio says flatly. He has no patience left for El Tirano’s theatrics. He is waiting, like a taut wire, for news of Mateo. Mateo, who once rode on his shoulders through the sunny garden. Mateo, who never flinches at the sight of him.

El Tirano takes a deep swig from his bottle and wipes his mouth. “Don’t you say that fucking word to me.”

“I said nothing. It was the skeleton.”

El Tirano hurls the bottle away; it smashes somewhere in the dark as he darts to the other side of his throne, past the startled accountant.

“You’re right,” he says. “Look. Look at how this fucking thing laughs at me.” He squats down, rapping his knuckles against the beast’s grinning teeth. “You know why he laughs? He was the king once. He was a great meat-eating bird, no wings, but savage as a shrike. Big as a tree. He was the king until a meteor deposed him.”

Scipio looks at the skull, wondering what could have bested its owner. “What is a meteor?”

“A rock,” El Tirano says. “A big rock with an unlucky trajectory.” He puts his hand on top of the skull, gripping the ridge of bone over the eye socket. Then he fingers the neural implant at the back of his skull. “Now he laughs, because he thinks my meteor is coming. I need my son back. I need him to live.”

There is an electronic chime from the accountant’s tablet, a noise that has repeated every few minutes for the past several hours, but this time the accountant’s eyes snap upward.

“They’re in Barrio Alto,” he says. His voice is faint and cracked and carries the accent Scipio is still unsure of. “An old plague house. Calle Guerra.”

El Tirano seizes the tablet to see for himself. His hands clench tight around it, then he looks up with his eyes gleaming silver. They were peeled for night vision by a back-alley surgeon when he was young, when he was a drug runner in Juarez, back before the government collapsed. Before he was El Tirano and before Scipio was anyone at all.

“Take the men you need,” he says. “I don’t care how many. You are going to bring Mateo back to me.” He sticks the tablet back into his accountant’s hands and grips Scipio by the shoulders, leans in close to whisper. “Swear that to me, Scipio. Swear it on your dead.”

Scipio has too many dead to remember them all. He thinks of his village, razed to the ground, butchered bodies steaming in the morning air. But Mateo is not responsible for that. Not for any of it. Mateo is the one bright thing that was ever born in El Tirano’s shadow.

“I swear,” Scipio says.

El Tirano squeezes his shoulders, releases him. “Go, go.” He turns toward the accountant. “Make the arrangements for him to be in the barrio by dawn. No one can know.”

The accountant nods, eyes invisible beneath the black brim of his hat. Scipio feels a premonition tapping cold fingers up his spine. He says nothing as they leave the bone room, as El Tirano clambers back up into the beast, muttering to himself, but the instant they are through the arched entryway and its inbuilt scanners he wraps his hands around the accountant’s pale throat. His hat, knocked loose, flutters to the floor like a wounded bat.

“I want to talk about numbers,” Scipio says. He pushes his thumbs into the accountant’s yielding skin. He can feel the pounding pulse. “El Tirano has thirty-three courtesans. Only one of them comes from Parera. But El Tirano, he thinks I was born in Juarez. Was it chance that Nazaret was sent to me? One in thirty-three? Or was it you?”

The accountant blinks his black eyes. “Me,” he whispers.

“Was it chance the padre came to me in the armory?” Scipio asks.

The accountant shakes his head.

Scipio tightens his grip around the man’s throat. “Is it chance Mateo disappears, and now reappears where we were most sure to find him?”

“There’s no trap,” the accountant hisses. “Mateo is alive. You leave now, you’ll find him alive. And when you find him, you’ll understand.”

Scipio lets him go; he reels against the wall, gasping. Scipio has more questions, many more, but if he learns the answers to them he knows he will have to kill the accountant, and things will continue as they are. Instead he asks only one.

“How many villages like Parera?”

The accountant’s eyes flash up and left. “This year? Seven.”

“Sol will be watching you,” Scipio says. “Don’t try to leave. When I come back with Mateo, we’ll speak again.”

The accountant snatches his hat from the floor and dusts it off against his leg, not looking Scipio in the eyes. He nods.

 

El Tirano climbs carefully back up into the beast, setting Mateo on his lap. One of Sol’s men gives a ragged cheer and it catches, carries around the bone room. The skull-painted soldiers holler and stamp their feet. The accountant tucks his tablet under one arm and quietly applauds, while the padre slams his meaty hands together beside him.

“God smiles,” he bellows. “God smiles on you, El Tirano!”

El Tirano holds up his fist for silence and the noise chokes off. He looks at Scipio now, and Scipio looks back. “You swore to bring Mateo back to me,” he says. “And hijoputa, you have. You flew through the night and you struck down my enemies and you brought him back. Tell me, my loyal crow. Tell me what you want, and you’ll have it.”

Scipio feels the eyes of the court on him now, like razors slicing and peeling him. He wants so many things. He wants the mother who held him on her hip. He wants to undo a thousand deeds, even ones he has not done yet. He wants for El Tirano’s gun not to have jammed. He wants to go back to Parera.

“I want to be the meteor,” Scipio says.

El Tirano frowns. “What?”

 

Scipio and the Crow

Dawn is streaking the sky with filaments of red when they arrive at the plague house. Scipio and seven of Sol’s men, all gloved in combat black, armed to the teeth, running clean and cold on amphetamine injections. Scipio leads them in single file along the side of the crumbling building, moving low and quick over broken glass and caked dust. The stench of death is gone now but the wall is still scrawled with typical plague graffiti: Dios mío, Dios mío, ¿por qué me has desamparado?

They breach the dented metal door with a shotgun, and Scipio deads the first two guards before they can raise arms, two bullets left cooling in shattered craniums. His revolver is silenced but it’s still enough noise to bring a third man running. Scipio ducks low, springs the knife from his sleeve, and as the guard turns the corner he slashes upward and opens the femoral artery. Blood hoses across the wall and floor in a wild arc; the guard wails, slips. One of Sol’s men finishes him with a round in the chest.

Scipio wipes his knife clean on the dead man’s pants, avoiding the spreading blot of shit from shock-emptied bowels. His heart is thrumming. The plague house has three floors and a basement; the door to the stairwell is jammed open.

“Clear the floor,” he says. “Then work upward. Watch your triggers until Mateo is safe.” He picks a soldier at random. “You, with me. To the basement.”

The other men salute and disperse. As Scipio heads to the stairwell he feels like he is being drawn by a magnet. The accountant’s words loop through his head. He lopes down the concrete stairs, listening for the shuffle of feet, the chitinous click of weapons being readied. Sol’s man is breathing too loudly behind him.

The basement level is cold. The chilled air carries the scent of antiseptic and something that is not quite gasoline. Scipio hears a humming generator and the whine of fluorescent tubes. He shuts one eye before he opens the door.

Harsh white lights stark the scene. An operating table. Trays of glinting metal implements. IV bags hung from the ceiling. Small heaps of bloody gauze. A rippling curtain.

Scipio hears a scratching noise and swings to face it, but it’s only a black-and-yellow beetle skittering around inside a glass dish. Above it on the wall screen, its insectoid anatomy is laid out like blueprints, covered in notes.

The chemical stench is strong. Scipio moves slowly into the room and finally hears a panicked breath. He motions Sol’s man toward the metal lockers at the back of the room, where the toe of a shoe is just barely poking out from behind. Scipio himself goes to the curtain and peers through the gap.

Mateo is lying there on a cot, naked, not moving. For the first time in a long time, Scipio feels something black and bubbling in his gut. Fear.

For an instant, it is Scipio there on the cot, prone and shivering.

But the accountant told the truth: Mateo is still breathing. Scipio sees his skinny chest rising and falling. He pulls the curtain aside and walks closer, studying the shiny pink scar tissue on Mateo’s belly, a neat line of surgical sutures. He frowns.

“It’s the medico,” calls Sol’s man. “He’s alive.”

Scipio turns back. El Tirano’s personal physician, the one who oversaw the padre’s surgery, who so closely monitors his master’s health and Mateo’s as well. He is a tall man but now he stoops; his eyes are bagged and his shock of gray hair is matted with sweat. Scipio looks at the physician’s clever hands, liver-spotted old but still strong and steady.

“What did you do to him?” Scipio asks.

The physician’s face crumples. “They made me,” he says. “El Cuervo, I swear. They put a gun to my head.”

“You put something inside him,” Scipio says, as the fear in his gut transmutes into rage. “You cut him open and implanted him with something. Now take it out.”

“I can’t,” the physician says dully. “It’s a miracle he survived the first operation. If I try to take it out, I’ll kill him.”

“What is it?”

The physician grimaces. “A weapon. Genelocked. You know genelocks, yes? It will only go off when it encounters a perfect match. So, only for one man. Biological components only. The scanners won’t find it.”

Scipio looks over at the skittering bombardier beetle, the dissection blown up on the wall. He inhales the smell that is not quite gasoline.

“It will at least be quick,” the physician says. “Better than what El Tirano has planned for him.”

“Mateo will not be like El Tirano,” Scipio says. “He has no cruelty in him.”

The physician croaks a laugh. “Mateo will be exactly like El Tirano. He will be El Tirano. That’s the secret.” He puts his hand at the back of his head and mimes the shape of El Tirano’s neural implant. “In five, six years, when El Tirano’s heart finally gives out, the implant will go onto Mateo’s skull instead. Like the wealthy men before the plague, El Tirano will be immortal. He will use Mateo’s young body as his own, like a puppeteer uses a puppet, and Mateo will be a prisoner in his own flesh.”

“You’re lying.”

But Scipio remembers the bone room, El Tirano’s agitated fingers touching the shining implant. I need my son back, Scipio, he said. I need him to live.

And so Mateo is only a vessel to him. A tool. The way Scipio was a tool to his uncle in filthy Juarez and has been a tool to El Tirano for all the years since. Rage is boiling under Scipio’s skin, making his hands shake. Rage at the physician, for telling him this, for condemning Mateo to death. Rage at the accountant for planning it, and at El Tirano for planning something even worse.

What Scipio thought was El Tirano’s love for Mateo was only love for himself.

“If I take him away?” Scipio asks. “Take him far from his father?”

The physician shakes his head. “When the components dissolve, it will poison him. In a week, in a month. It will kill him.”

“When will he wake up?” Scipio asks, his finger drifting to the trigger of his gun.

“The sedative should wear off within an hour,” the physician says. “What happens after that will be your—”

Scipio’s bullet punches through the bridge of his nose and leaves a greasy red-and-gray splatter on the locker behind him. Sol’s man blinks, steps back. Scipio shoots him, too.

He goes to the cot and covers Mateo’s scrawny body with a blanket. Maybe he should have forced the physician to try, at gunpoint, to take the weapon out. Maybe he should have tortured him.

Maybe he should smother Mateo in his sleep now. Would that be more merciful?

Scipio loads a fresh clip into his handgun and checks the blade of his knife. An hour is long enough for him to kill the others and hide their bodies where Mateo won’t see them on the way out. Mateo will feel safe when he dies. Maybe he will even feel happy. And Scipio will answer to one less puppeteer.

He kisses his fingers and touches them to the boy’s clammy forehead, leaving tiny smears of blood behind.

 

The fireball unfurls from Mateo’s body and consumes him and his father in an instant; a clap of superheated air washes across the whole room.

Screaming. The courtesans are scrambling away, dragging each other to safety. The padre’s robes have caught fire and he rolls but the ethanol in his sweat has made him into living tinder. Scipio looks for the accountant, but the small, black-clad man has vanished. Scipio looks for Nazaret, who told him everything burns eventually, but in the chaos he can’t extract her painted face from the others.

The fireball expands, swallowing the throne, making the spidersilk blacken and shrivel. People are running all around him, some of Sol’s soldiers fleeing, others hurling buckets of water at the blaze. Scipio stands there and lets the heat ripple across his face, watching the beast’s great ribs crack and collapse how the rafters of his childhood home must have cracked and collapsed.

Flames lick up and down the length of the skeleton, turning the flowers to gray ash in an instant, charring the bone and making the metal bolts groan and sway. The corpses dangling from its tail alight one by one, their bacterial coats swelling and popping like maggots. At last the joints collapse and the skeleton crashes to the floor, its bones sliding, snapping.

Scipio stands, watching it crumble and blacken until only the skull is left intact, empty-eyed, grinning into the void. Then he makes his way out of the bone room, sliding through the panicked crowd like a shade.

He will travel to Parera and clean his hands in its ashes, and then he will return to see what sort of throne the accountant has built for himself. And if it is not to his liking, he will destroy that one, too.

He was El Cuervo, who could kill anybody, and now he is the meteor.

 

Copyright © 2018 by Rich Larson
Art copyright © 2018 by Jeffrey Alan Love

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