Sagrada Familia,  by Michael Barretta 

SFReader 2010 Story Contest
First Place Winner

Mike Barretta is a husband, father and retired Naval Aviator. He now works for a major defense contractor as a helicopter pilot. His first sale was to Black Ink Horror and his first professional sale was to Jim Baen’s Universe. He was the 2009 winner of Jim Baen Memorial Writing contest. He has also managed to sneak his way into New Scientist magazine and a few anthologies when no one was looking. In general he believes that life is good. You just get older, richer, and fatter. He is happy to report that he is a bit behind on the richer part, a bit ahead on the fatter part, and right on schedule with the older part. When he finds the time he writes science fiction and fantasy stories and agonizes over a half completed novel.


Samdra took a deep breath of the salt air trying to chase away the fatigue from her long journey in stasis sleep. Her head was wrapped in a smothering blanket of pain and her stomach turned as if she was still in free-fall. She put on a thin tight-lipped smile that would not fool her husband for a second.

“Most people react that way,” said Dr. Santers. The sea breeze tousled his thin brown hair and he squinted against the sun’s glare.

It was obvious that he had misinterpreted her discomfort with fascination.

“Samdra, perhaps we should go. We can come back when you’re better rested,” said Andolin, her husband.

“The emanations,” said Samdra. The background static hum of rotted alien emotion and decayed memory washed over her. “I can feel them. I can almost see them. So strong.”

The vast tidal flat cemetery stretched north and south as far as she could see. To most, it was just another amazing though inscrutable artifact of a long dead civilization. To her, it was a cacophony of historical thought and memory. Perhaps her husband was right. It was too much too soon.

“Exactly, there are so many and they are so powerful that even the most normal human can feel them,” exaggerated Dr. Santers.

Samdra knew that Dr. Santers was weakly meta-psychic, barely registering on the professional scale. He tended to lay claim to more ability than he had. She tightened her fist into a ball and concentrated. The emanations faded, tickling the edge of her consciousness. More clear-headed, she opened her eyes and relaxed them by scanning the horizon. Huge white-capped rollers on a blue-green sea marched in to smash on the barrier breakwaters. The tide was going out and as the water receded the monstrous skulls, each as tall as a man, broke the ocean’s surface.

“Wait till you get among them. They are most powerful immediately after the tide has gone out and then only the most disciplined can tolerate the emanations for useful periods of time,” said Santers.

Samdra sensed Santer’s growing unease. It didn’t take meta-psychic ability to know what was bothering him. He feared exclusion. She let go of her husband’s hand and grasped the cool iron rail that wrapped the cemetery overlook. “They stood here and watched,” she said unexpectedly.

Andolin wrapped his arms around her and she leaned into his warmth. He was accustomed to her spontaneous out-of-context observations. The gentle ocean breeze carried the smell of seaweed stranded amongst the thousands of skulls and great reefs of disarticulated bone. The iron railings creaked ominously and she let go, letting her husband support her. The emanations grew more insistent with the receding tide. She turned to her husband’s calm restful thoughts and she felt weak and ashamed. “Hundreds of generations of Colossi have been waiting for thousands of years. You can rest and we can catch the morning tide in about 18 hours. Would that be sufficient?” asked Dr. Santers.

“That will be fine, Doctor,” said Samdra.

***

The jump-shuttle touched down on the pad with a slight bump. Dr. Santers opened the passenger door, flooding the cabin with cool salt-tinged air and golden morning light. The shuttle’s ducted fan engines spooled down to silence and windmilled in the breeze. Samdra, Andolin, and Dr. Santers climbed out of the shuttle and walked a short gravel path to the head of the staircase adjacent to the overlook they had stood at the previous day. Samdra could hear the indistinct sound of enthusiastic voices rising from the depths of the staircase.

“The steps were hewn out of the granite cliff side over 2,500 years ago,” said Dr. Santers. “There are forty sets of steps along the cemetery coast.”

Santers led the way down the steps. Their feet clanged rudely on the human-scale perforated metal steps superimposed on the carved native stone. The Colossi steps were twelve feet wide and had a four foot rise, giving some indication of the size of the creatures. Water from an early morning rain storm pooled and cascaded down the heavily weathered stone steps. Tiny Ephemeris shrimp clouded the pooled water, living and breeding and dying before the water evaporated in the afternoon sun. Bright darts of morning light flashed from the dazzling Mediterranean blue ocean. Halfway down the side of the cliff the grade leveled off and turned into a pathway. They rounded a jumble of broken rock splotched in purple velvet sea moss.

A stone army of Colossi statues planted in a field of emerald green grass, stood in ranks, weapons ready.

“The statues are cast from a very durable ceramic around the bones of Colossi. Fortunately, the Cemetery coast is geologically stable so they have suffered very little damage over the centuries,” said Dr. Santers.

They slowed to a respectful pace as they walked in the shadow of the giants. Samdra had the impression of a herd of fantastic bipedal prehistoric beasts or conclave of ancient horned gods. The Colossi were at least 25 feet tall. Some had massive sweeping antlers that spanned 10 feet across, some had thick spiraled horns like frozen Medusan snakes; others appeared to have ludicrous swooping crests like prehistoric herbivores. Birds darted between nests in their outstretched hands and head gear. The heavily ridged bodies were armored with plates of scaled skin and studded with horns. The Colossi had eyes the size of dinner platters and wickedly fanged mouths. “I am assuming that this one is male?” asked Samdra, noting the monstrous serrated penis.

“It is,” said Dr Santers. “They don’t exaggerate,” he added.

“Amazing,” said Andolin.

Samdra touched the smooth golden-brown ceramic of the nearest statue. Like most objects, it was meta-psychically dead, not even a, “Yes, I lived” emanation came from the incarcerated bone.

“If you will note, all the male statues carry staffs or spears and the females carry swords,” said Dr. Santers.

Samdra turned to face the flats. “Can you feel them Andolin?” asked Samdra. “Nothing is ever lost.”

“I can,” he replied cautiously. “Let’s get to the flats before we begin our orientation.”

They walked a rambling path in the shadow of the Colossi statues and then descended down more creaking metal steps to reach the gear shack just above the high tide mark. Gull-like birds squawked and swooped, occasionally settling in too close to people for either’s good. Their metallic silver-wings flashed and gleamed as they were shooed away. Other meta-psychics, in the uniforms of their corporate sponsors, or the drab gray of institute staff prepared for their excursions on the flats. Most acknowledged her with smiles and head nods. It was hard not to know her; she was the most powerful of their kind.

They stepped up to a service counter and the equipment technician handed them brand new gear he kept in reserve for the director’s VIPs. “These are your mud shoes,” he explained. “They’ll distribute your weight and make it safer to get around. They’re not always necessary but there are some soft spots out there and you don’t want to get stuck in the mud. He handed them holstered wands and a vest festooned with pockets. “These are tingler wands for any of the smaller critters you might encounter, and your standard gear vest with radio, first aid kit, and signal devices. You’ve had the brief?”

“Yes,” said Andolin. They had run through the immersive brief on all the equipment prior to leaving the institute’s dormitory complex.

***

They walked into the Colossi cemetery. The mud flats were a bizarre fairy garden of disarticulated bone encrusted with tidal sea life. Brilliant feathered worms fanned the air gathering oxygen to endure the next tide. Soft corals of azure, scarlet, and gold sprouted from drifts of gray Colossi bone. Purple multi-legged crabs and spiral shelled mollusks squirmed and scuttled. A soft insistent grunting noise came from a burrow.

“It’s harmless,” said Dr Santers.

A snaking path had been crudely plowed through the bones to allow humans easy access to the heavy skulls. The gray bone was flecked with silver and white crystal that belied the bizarre quirk of nature that crystallized Colossi bone and brain almost to the hardness of diamond.

Samdra slowed and stopped in front of a remarkably well preserved skull taller than a man. Dull magenta seaweed bearded the jawless head. A thick metal pole with a catalog number etched on it was driven into the ground indicating that this skull had revealed its secrets. It had been mined out, drained of whatever knowledge, experience, and memory it may have held. The skull showed evidence of bone deep cuts and hacks; whether from an edged weapon in life or random collision with many millennia of floating debris after death was anyone’s guess. All the bones in the tidal cemetery exhibited some level of damage and not a lot of effort was spent in determining if the damage was pre or post-mortem. A massive ceramic chain was bolted through the frill of a skull-fused neck vertebra. Samdra followed the chain with her eyes to a sea worn stone block protruding from the grayish-brown silt. Samdra touched the skull and dropped her guard. She heard murmurs of ancient memory. As the sea water drained from the minute channels in the fossilized brain tissue they energized and amplified the meta-psychic remains. It was difficult to segregate this single mind from more powerful emanations deeper in the flats. She picked up visions of violence. The mind was female. She felt herself being dragged by two huge male Colossi. She fought hard but…..

“Samdra are you okay?” asked Andolin.

She broke her shallow contact. “Yes, I’m fine. I just didn’t expect so much from someone so long gone,” said Samdra. Her brief encounter had far more texture than she was accustomed to. “I was just testing.” She smiled at him.

“Please tell me before you test, Samdra so I can be prepared,” said Andolin. “I’m serious.”

“I will,” said Samdra

“Most believe that the flats are a place of honor where the Colossi preserved the best minds of their dead. There are too many and they are too powerful for it to be anything but deliberate intent to preserve them,” said Dr. Santers.

“I’m not so sure,” said Samdra.

Dr. Santers winced. Her word in meta-psychic studies carried a lot of weight.

They continued their tour of the flats and both Samdra and Andolin opened their minds to select skulls chosen by Dr. Santers. They stopped at three entangled skeletons that lay half submerged in the mud. The exposed bone was draped in gold and magenta colored sea weed and pitted with the homes of small invertebrates. Two adult skeletons, one male, the other female, cradled the bones of an infant.

“We call them the Sagrada Familia,” said Dr. Santers. “It means holy family in Spanish. Their discoverer was Dr. Miguel Esteban from Barcelona. “They are unique because of the child. What a story they could tell.”

“No one has read them?” asked Andolin.

The emanations from the Sagrada Familia pounded Samdra’s brain like surf on a rocky coast.

“The emanations are too strong, too confused, too dangerous,” said Dr. Santers. “You can tell the male by the heavier crest structure on the head and the larger cheek tusk sockets. The female has a slightly narrower skull and the boulder looking object below the ribcage is actually a uterus, an armored womb. Just imagine the society they must have had to require that.”

It certainly explained the serrated penises on the male statues, thought Samdra. She turned to Andolin and caught his smile at her thought. She opened her mind like a peep through the key hole and was nearly overwhelmed by three tangled strands of bright thought. She shut it down.

“Not now, Samdra,” said Andolin. He staggered from the meta-psychic backwash.

“I think we should go now. I’m still a bit tired,” said Samdra.

***

Back at the landing field, they boarded the jump-shuttle. The craft rose and climbed away from the landing pad and banked to the west towards the archaeological colonies main complex situated between the cemetery coast and the ruins of an unnamed Colossi city.

“Has there ever been any discovery of Colossi space efforts?” asked Andolin.

“No, there hasn’t and that is one of the questions we are interested in. Their civilization lasted long enough to develop interstellar travel, yet we have found no evidence they ever did,” said Dr. Santers.

“Losers,” said the jump-shuttle pilot. He swiveled his seat around leaving the ship in the custody of its auto-pilot.

“Andolin, this is our chief pilot, Marican Jahons.”

“The simplest explanation is usually the most correct. There is no extra-planetary infrastructure because these fat asses never got off the ground,” said Marican.

“I find it hard to believe, especially with the hyper-geometry theorems and computational dynamics paradigms we’ve pulled from the cemetery,” said Dr. Santers. “Both of those lessons had direct application to faster star travel.”

“Even Luddites understood the wheel; they just didn’t like using it,” said Marican. He grinned at his own joke, saw that it fell flat, and offered a more sophisticated argument.

“On Earth, we still have reactionary ethnic and religious groups. They smother themselves in their own cradles. The Shakers left behind beautiful crafted artifacts yet they survive only in museums and there is no such thing as an Al Qaedist world is there? Fortune favors the bold.”

Samdra watched Dr. Santers sniff disdainfully. He no doubt believed that Marican was so far out of his depth that he wasn’t qualified to have an opinion.

“Most of what we know about the Colossi is incidental to the profitable,” said Samdra. “Isn’t that true Doctor Santers?”

“True,” admitted Dr. Santers.

“Apathy destroyed the Colossi,” said Marican. “This planet is the end result of a hundred thousand years of traditional civilization unimpeded by progress. They didn’t have any answers because they drowned the ones that asked the questions.”

“Marican is in the minority of course,” said Dr. Santers.

“Most people have thoroughly romanticized the Colossi. They were huge and powerful and bizarre. We hold them with in the same fascination as Earthly dinosaurs but the fact remains that they never made it off their own world and they died,” said Marican. “It’s as simple as that.”

“Well, thank you Marican for entertaining us but it doesn’t explain all that we learned from them. We’ve salvaged works of art, engineering marvels, and beautiful literature,” said Dr. Santers.

“All things are created twice, first in the mind and then with your hands. So without a doubt the Colossi had exquisite minds, but in the decade, we’ve been here Doctor we’ve never seen those works of art, engineering marvels, or books of any kind, just crappy stone cities.” He turned back to his instrument panel. “It was all in their heads,” said Marican to his instrument panel. “They just never made it real.”

“All in their heads,” said Samdra.

***

Samdra rested in the arms of her husband in a portable apartment at the Cemetery coast far from the archaeological colony. The meta-psychic chatter at the colony was annoying and at times painful. She preferred to be in the sole company of her husband who made her gift bearable. His thoughts were cool, calm, and uncomplicated.

“I want to go to the Sagrada Familia,” she said.

“They’re too strong,” said Andolin. “We’ve done enough work.”

“I’m going,” she stated flatly.

He looked at the tide clock on the wall. “The next daylight tide,” he said.

“No, we are going now.” She rose from the foam pallet bed and began to get dressed. “You know I’ll go without you.”

Andolin relented.

***

The Sagrada Familia bones glowed silver in the moonlight

“Are you ready?” asked Samdra. She placed the memcorder crown on her head and pressed the contacts to her temples. The device would record whatever she saw and heard and felt. She reached over and brushed her husband’s hair back. She placed the memcorder crown on his head and pressed the contacts to his temples and gave him a quick kiss on the lips. “For luck,” she added.

“For luck,” he repeated.

“Who are you?” she said to the bones. She walked slowly around the skeletons, circling them, trying to find the best aspect. “Who are you?” she said again as she opened her mind ahead of Andolin.

“Samdra, wait…,” said Andolin out loud.

A howling torrent of memory filled her head to bursting and she found herself inside a maelstrom. She searched for Andolin amidst the white noise and couldn’t find him. She began to frantically organize chaos into streams of sight and sound and feeling. Each of the three emanations was as complex and powerful as a living mind. She separated the three streams and finally felt her husband’s presence, bolstering her efforts. The Sagrada Familia emanations resolved into something altogether primal and familiar. She felt Andolin’s hands on her, pulling her down into the mud. They were both drawn far deeper than she thought possible.

***

Samdra was him.

Asteus.

He was immense and alive and he stalked the breeding forest looking for his love. Centuries of tradition forbid his desire, but he didn’t care. He heard her call and began to run naked through the forest. Dagger bush and spiky tree branches dragged along his thick skin drawing blood and raising his passion. His clawed feet tore up huge gouts of turf and forest floor. Animals scattered in panic. When Colossi danced the smaller animals got out of the way. He saw her beneath the light of the five moons in the clearing. She was perfect and beautiful with scales buffed to a high sheen and boney plates swollen and engorged. He ran to her, the ground shaking with each of his three ton steps.

***

Andolin was her.

Marta.

She was fertile, powerfully aroused, and in love. Her breath came in quick pants that moved the air like gales. Her body was as hot as an oven. Phosphorescent stripes on her flanks telegraphed her desire. She shrieked like a siren and the night air resonating through her skull chambers like a thousand fog horns. Every male for miles would know what she wanted, but she only wanted it from her chosen. Saplings fell to the ground as Asteus burst into the moonlit clearing. She turned to meet his charge and braced. Her bellowed roar split the air. As much as she loved him, he would have to prove himself worthy. He crashed into her with enough force to nearly break bones and she deftly sidestepped using his momentum against him. Her intent was to throw him, but he had locked his inferior breeding arms around her hips and they rolled together, crushing the vegetation. He pinned her superior arms with his hydraulically boosted muscle. His fanged jaws extended and bit down at the base of her neck just above the shoulder. She screamed in ecstasy. His saliva was a mild paralytic and a powerful intoxicant. Her body relaxed under him, muscled nervous tension flooded away in a heated rush to be fully supplanted with white hot lust. Her movements became slow and languorous. She surrendered completely and bit down gently on his neck injecting her own euphoric toxins into his blood stream. Her legs parted seemingly of their own volition and she felt his serrated penis sawing through the bone plated uterus. The final penetration was almost gentle compared to the fierce seduction. They roared together signaling their defiance of tradition and law.

***

The fetuses assimilated his fluids. Fully viable, they fought viciously, cannibalizing each other with the same ferocity that their parents had made love. The battle subsided when only one remained, swaddled in the bloody debris of its inferior siblings. Her uterine lining thickened and began to absorb the losing contenders and heal the injuries of the survivor. Asteus withdrew spent and exhausted. Marta’s uterus self-sealed to protect the fetal Colossi for the short time it needed till it could stand for itself in its violent world.

*** 

Asteus closed his eyes for a moment relaxing into the pleasure of consummated love. He heard a sibilous hiss from the edge of the forest and weak-kneed, he moved to stand. Her two brothers crashed into him like freight trains intent on murder. Each had staffs half again as long as they were tall. They swept his feet and he rolled, slashing viciously with his own razored talons. He struck once, twice, raking claw across dark flesh, scenting the air with bloody mist. A staff cracked across his face and his left crystal eye shattered. He fell and her brothers beat him savagely into semi-consciousness with swift bone-breaking strikes of their staffs. He lay on the ground unable to move and watched with his one remaining eye as her father, Teleus, stepped up to his love with a judge’s spear. Her brothers abandoned him and seized her, pinning her arms. Her father drew back the spear and stabbed into her armored womb intent on killing the illegal half-caste spawn. She screamed in pain and fury and one of her brothers knocked her unconscious.

*** 

Asteus woke, cold and wet with a throbbing head; he knew exactly where he was. The bitter taste of blood filled his mouth. He touched his neck and felt the weight of the chain. He reached behind his skull and felt the bolt drilled through his lower frill. To pull against the chain with any force would snap his spinal cord. He looked through his one good eye and found Marta. She lay in the mud draped with a similar chain. The water had already covered her mouth. She was dead. Perhaps her brothers had granted her that small mercy. Something squirmed in her arms and at first he thought it was one of the worms that fed on the decaying. He focused his good eye and saw that it was his son wrapped in his mother’s arms. He roared in pain and tried to reach him. The chain snapped his head back viciously. He turned back and grabbed the chain with all four of his arms and pulled. The stone block, reversed its slow descent into the mud and moved. He locked his legs and willed his hearts to pump harder to fill his legs with viscous muscle fluid. His leg bones bent under the terrific stress. His lower shoulders, the weaker ones, popped out of their sockets, but he refused to submit. The block moved over the mud closer to Marta. He collapsed from exhaustion on top of her cold body, so different from the furnace heat in the forest. He cradled her head and sea water ran from her slack mouth. He kissed her cheek and stretched for his son.

The infant hissed and bit him. He was as defiant as his father. Needle sharp teeth drew blood and tasted. The infant recognized his father by blood taste and relaxed into the warmth of his father’s arms.

Asteus levered himself up to stand tall in the company of the dead. All around for miles lay the bones of heretics and blasphemers and dreamers and artists and poets. The greatest minds this planet had ever produced were drowned in these flats and displayed for all those who would dare challenge the one righteous way. He wobbled unsteadily. Muscle fluid leaked from between the broken skin-plates in his legs. He wouldn’t have to maintain the hydraulic pressure for long. He held his son high in the air and his bio-luminescence flared.

***

Witnesses, lining the edge of the cliff, gasped at the impropriety of the display.

Asteus glowed with released energy. “Teleus,” he roared to Marta’s father. “Behold, my son. He is mightier than you can believe. You could not kill him. You can never kill him, Teleus!”

The tide rose to his waist. He bashed away a few inquisitive worms looking to feed on Marta and cradled his son for the first and last time.

“I will call you Marteus,” using the masculine form of his lover’s name. “And you are too good for this world. You will find another.” His son stared fearlessly back at him as he spoke blasphemy of other worlds and other ways. He pinched his son’s head between his clawed thumb and forefinger and twisted, snapping the neck. He looked up. Bright stars dotted the sky. He roared his miserable fury till it echoed off the cliffs and he held his dead son aloft for as long as he could. The waters rose and his roar dissolved into sobbing, but not for himself, for his son and for the world.

“They will know, Teleus. The universe will know what you did!” The tide washed over his head and the weight of the chain pulled him to the mud. He wrapped himself around mother and child holding them tightly together. Water filled his lungs with pain, and he drowned in good company.

***

Teleus watched the water cover his daughter and her illegal suitor and thought no more of either of them. Soon enough he would take his place among the ranks of guardians standing watch against blasphemy for eternity, but for now, the family’s honor had been preserved and there was far too much of real importance to worry about. He walked slowly, eavesdropping on the conversations of witnesses, eager to hear an impure thought. Hardly a tide rolled in that did not purify the people.

***

Samdra woke first, cold and naked. There was no struggle to the present. She was Asteus one moment and then herself the next. She felt the comfortable warmth of her husband next to her. She opened her eyes, lifted her head, and saw a small carrion crab waving a multitude of feelers in her face. She shooed the thing away and rolled Andolin onto his back. She knew he was alive because she could feel his steady heartbeat and regular breaths. She just didn’t know if he was himself. She called him with her mind in the meta fashion and was overjoyed when he answered. He opened his eyes and she kissed him. She felt a bright flash of potential in her womb as if an entire universe unfolded like an infinitely complex origami.

“What do you think of the name ‘Marteus?'” she asked.

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